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Archive for the ‘Cross-Cultural’ Category

Mosquito nets: less romantic than you think.


I’ve been to southern India five times in eight years (my husband is from there), twice with a small child. I learn a few new things each time; here’s the baker’s dozen list for this trip.

1. If you bring white linen pants to India, you will look fabulous for approximately five minutes. Then you will look like a wrinkly, dusty mess. But if you’re willing to put in the necessary time hand-washing them, then by all means, bring your silly white linen pants to India. 

2. Bring the extra bottle of insect repellent. Indian insect repellent products are stinky and/or less effective than what we brought (and ran out of). 

3. I no longer get culture shock here, though I’m still curious about cultural differences — and I still get homesick. 

4. Divali in India is very fun, and very loud. Bring good earplugs and a large bottle of Benadryl, or be prepared to stay up all night watching/listening to fireworks go off way closer than seems safe. 

5. Oatmeal, peanut butter, almond milk, wheat bread, Dove soap galore, and Sensodyne toothpaste are available for purchase in southern India. Graham crackers, Cheerios and NutriGrain bars are not available, so pack what you need if you bring a picky eater (ours tried new foods there, but didn’t fall in love with anything substantial).

6. Indian bananas are divine. So many different kinds, and they all taste different. It’s almost a fair price to pay for three weeks without a crunchy vegetable. 

7. Watching the light in an Indian person’s eyes as they greet a child is a transformative experience.

8. The closeness to the natural world can be gross to Western eyes (so many bugs in the house!) but it’s also one of the loveliest things about the country (my mother-in-law feeds a chipmunk and a crow every day, and they yell at her if she’s late).

9. Bottles of makeup must be “burped” before opening mid-flight. Unless you want foundation on the only pair of pants you brought on board. It’s up to you. 

10. Leaving the house/hotel? Bring hand wipes, tissues/toilet paper, snacks, and water. Every time. 

11. Explaining that you can’t have milk/yogurt/paneer because of lactose intolerance will get you some very funny looks. Also responses like, “But we boil our milk!” and “But it’s yogurt!”

12. Taking a preschooler to India is both delightful and nervewracking, especially if the child isn’t good at looking where s/he’s going. 

13. I will probably never be able to decode the various looks I get here. I’m not okay with that, but I’m trying to accept it. 

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You went to India for three weeks in October-November 2016.

You did very well with international travel once again, though your increasing independence made it tougher to keep you close by as we waited in security lines, boarding lines, and immigration lines. 

You asked Mama to read you the safety card in every airplane we were in. We were in 10 airplanes. On one of them, we bought you a reusable shopping bag printed with the plane’s safety information.

You watched far fewer cartoons on the planes than you did during the same trip two years ago, and slept less.

You ran straight to your Avva (Indian grandma) at the airport, and gave her a big hug. (Two years ago, you burst into tears when she said hello to you.)

You were again fascinated by the light and fan switches in every house we visited, and figured out that you could only reach them if you stood on a chair. Thus, you started asking for a step stool in every house we visited. 

You asked Mama why you had to use your right hand to give someone a gift. She told you it was the tradition in India. 

You were told the story behind the leopard your great-grandfather shot (it was a maneater and he was the chief conservator of forests for the state of Madras). The animal’s skin lives in a storeroom in your Avva’s house, and you had a lot of questions about it. 

You loved all the Divali fireworks you got to see and help light. Somehow, you managed to fall asleep with thunderous booms happening all night. Mama brought this up when you said you couldn’t fall asleep on a plane because of a crying baby. 

You woke up sick the day after Divali, first saying “my tummy is tickling me” then going back to sleep only to wake up vomiting. True to form, you puked for a few hours, slept for a few hours and were fine by that afternoon. A doctor who lives across the street came to check on you three times, which made us all feel better. 

You met Daddy’s cousin and her family in Chennai, and enjoyed playing with the daughter in the family. You had a great time asking questions about the switches, “helping” make dosas, and playing with a neighbor boy your age. 

You came down with a cold when we came back from Chennai, but it didn’t slow you down. 

You spent a lot of time at your great aunt’s house (next door to Avva’s house), doing exciting things like sweeping, washing pots, and going over the details of how her well pump works. You pretty much bounced between the two houses all day, running in and out through perpetually open doors. 

You discovered a cartoon called Chhota Bheem, which you watched devotedly even though you didn’t understand the Tamil dialogue. You also liked Tom and Jerry, which was also in Tamil.

You had a great time at the beach in Chennai, where you ate ice cream, played in the waves, rode a horse (with Mama), collected shells, rode a hand-cranked merry-go-round, and shot balloons (with help from your cousin).

You said you missed your Grammie (American grandma) two weeks into the trip.

You had a lot of questions for the guy who came to service the battery for the back-up power system. You also got to see the system in action during a six-hour scheduled maintenance outage. 

You developed a taste for oatmeal (plain, or with a little salt) and appalams about two and a half weeks into the trip. You were willing to try Indian sweets exactly once; other than that you stuck to your old pals, Milk Bikis and vanilla ice cream. 

You claim that this stove lighter was your favorite thing about India:

But we’re pretty sure pushing switches was your favorite thing, just like at home. 

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“Do you like India?”

The speaker was a fresh-faced young woman I had just met. She had taken a shine to my toddler son, and he to her, perhaps because she was one of the few people we met who understood how to play with little kids.

All of that made answering her even more of a sticky wicket. Even though I know it’s an attempt at connecting with me, that question is so reductive that it’s hard for me to refrain from rolling my eyes. Meanwhile, I feel I can’t answer it honestly without offending the asker — while there’s plenty I like about India, there’s more I don’t like. Put another way, the negatives outweigh the positives for me.

I love how children are cherished there. I hate how many children suffer there. I love that opportunities are opening for women. I hate that so many women are still treated as property, or worse. I love the mish-mash of architectural styles on my mother-in-law’s street. I’m not crazy about the trash and smells on those streets. I love to see the street vendors pass with their enormous handcarts, yelling about their bananas, or onions, or noodles. I hate to hear the street dogs yelping in the middle of the night.

But none of that is anyone’s fault — and certainly not the fault of the person asking my least favorite question. So usually I lie and say yes, I like India. This time I laughed and said that I had only seen the insides of a few houses, and I liked them fine. Not a lie, but also not the whole truth.

It seemed like the kindest way to preserve the connection the woman was trying to establish.

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The other day in Target I was standing agape in the sippy cup aisle once again (Why so many? Why?) when I saw something that made me smile. A bunch of somethings, actually. A bouquet of babies:

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See, when you’re the white mom of a mixed-race baby, you start to notice these things. I’ll never forget how bummed out I was when I realized that all the babies represented on one of Baboo’s toys were lily-white. It took everything I had to resist grabbing a brown crayon to amend that situation. I mean, which America are you living in, toy company that shall remain nameless? Even here in the Midwest, any outing makes it clear that this country’s beautiful melting pot is all around us.

So thanks, Munchkin, for your cute and diverse bib-hanger babies. You made this mom’s day.

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7:30, a perfect June morning. The baby happy in his chariot with a hunk of apple, me happy with a piece of gum and my thoughts.

Across the street, a Russian granny, the one who used to wear the Pujols ball cap. She is not wearing it today. She moves slowly. They all do.

We cross to greet her.

“So big!”

“Yes, and walking!” I trot my fingers in the air to make sure she understands.

She spreads her arms to hug me, I think. I smell urine. I lean in anyway. She kisses me on the cheek and takes my hand in hers. I look down and see my great-grandmother’s hands, plump as sausages, soft as the baby’s.

“Boy?”

“Yes.”

“Nice boy.”

“Yes.”

She takes his hand, squeezes it. Ruffles his hair, makes doting Russian Granny noises. Smiles at him, her gold teeth shiny in the morning light. He is a little unsure but smiles back. She shuffles off with a “thank you.”

I continue my walk with tears in my eyes, not really sure why I’m crying, not really caring.

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Baby Baboo’s mop in utero.

Whenever I see a bald baby, I start to twitch with envy. Invariably, the parent of the bald baby has the same reaction to my baby’s Bieberesque ‘do and we end up saying how jealous we are of each other’s infant hair situation.

I’ll admit Baboo’s hair makes him look like a teensy rock star. (You’ll have to take my word on this since I don’t post photos of him here.) It’s long, but not quite long enough to stay tucked behind his ears. So I put a bobby pin in one side (he wears a deep side part). Then I spend the day putting the pin back in whenever it slips or he pulls it out. Which is at least a dozen times a day. I’d count, but that would be inviting madness.

And let me tell you: He does not like having that thing put in. I swear I’m very careful not to poke him, but if he sees it coming, he starts kvetching up a storm. So I often swoop down on him from behind and sneak the pin back in just after I set a few Cheerios on his high chair tray.

Then there’s the combing, which happens at least twice a day. Baby hair, if you are unfamiliar, is very fine and therefore prone to tangling, especially during naps and overnight. Because babies do a lot of physical work to go to sleep, or at least mine does. He tosses himself about getting comfortable and then he rolls around and smooshes his little face into the mattress until it’s time to get up. And if he has a cold, guess what’s in his hair when he wakes up? BOOGERS! That are also stuck to his face! And his hair!

I can hear you all thinking: Give that baby a haircut, you silly woman! I’ve been dying to, for months. But we are adhering to a Hindu tradition of not cutting the baby’s hair until he’s 11 months old. Happily, that milestone is less than two weeks away, and you can bet your boots I’ll be writing about the blessed event in this space.

Until then, though, I’m on hair wrangling duty. And doing my best to convince the baby that his name is not, “Look at that hair!”

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Baby’s First Divali

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My husband is from Tamil Nadu and was raised in the Hindu tradition, so we observe a variety of holidays from that faith. This morning we celebrated Divali, a major festival that centers on banishing darkness and vanquishing evil. In India, it’s celebrated by pretty much the entire country, across many faiths, and the markets often get a boost from it. This is an excellent summary.

Our observance is relatively simple: We prepare the altar with offerings of fruit, raisins, almonds, sweetened milk with cardamom in it, new clothes, and images of gods and goddesses. We light an oil lamp (most families light a huge number of clay lamps), pray, and go outside to light sparklers. Then we shower, put on the new clothes, light a tablet of camphor and a stick of incense, pray again, drink the milk and eat the raisins and almonds, and go outside again to light more sparklers. At some point we anoint our heads with oil — I think just before the first round of sparklers — but I can’t recall precisely.

The baby will be nine months old this week, so accomplishing all of this around his morning schedule was tricky, and by the end of it he was overtired. It didn’t help that I didn’t realize the top of his Divali outfit (pictured above; a gift from his Indian grandma) didn’t open until I went to put it on him. A few cries of protest were uttered as I worked it over his head and maneuvered his arms through the holes (the fabric, though gorgeous, has no give to it).

But I’m confident he’ll remember the flames and the sparklers more than the wardrobe wrestling match. He’s always been attentive during rituals, and is of course entranced by fire — add sparks, and you have a very happy baby. I know I’ll always remember the rapt look on his face when I think of this day.

And next year, I’ll check the outfit before the big day arrives.

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