September 15, 2010

Well hello again, finally! At last, I’m posting about India…

During my time in the world’s second largest country, I ate, played and shopped. I also learned to cook south Indian specialties and made friends. For an unexpected bonus, the vacation helped me re-think my parents’ immigrant experience — with unexpected tenderness.

This once-in-a-lifetime journey jelled when my daughter and I crashed the summer vacation that our neighbors were planning for themselves. They live  in a pretty house down the block. Dad, who is originally from India, and Mom, who is a self-described white girl from Long Island, are parents to two gorgeous bi-racial kids – a 15-year-old girl and 13-year-old boy — on a trip back “home” to visit Indian Dad’s parents and siblings. My 15-year-old multiracial daughter and Chinese me were thrilled when they said we could tag along.

We were mostly with Indian Dad’s people in the conservative south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. How traditional? Well, his relatives are vegetarian Hindus who have prayer alters in their homes. The women only wear saris (or sometimes tunic-and-pants selwar sets) and cook three meals a day from scratch. Then their men folk sit down to eat first while these college-educated wives serve them. American Mom, the girls and I did our best to adapt. But trust me, we did it through gritted teeth.

Of course, we didn’t fit in on any level. Everywhere we went, people stared at us with friendly curiosity. When they asked, Indian Dad would explain in his native Tamil who each of us was, which foreign-looking woman was his wife, how I was a neighbor. Half-way through the trip, American Mom had enough of the jabbering and told her husband: “You should just tell everyone that you’re traveling with your two wives and three children. It would be much simpler.” And probably much more believable!

Our itinerary began with a stay at the Chennai apartment of Indian Dad’s sister and brother-in-law. From this dusty industrial hub that is the IT capitol of the world, we drove deep into the mountains to hang with Indian Dad’s parents and grandma in the village. We tooled around some regional sights before heading back to his sister’s place for a last visit. I adored being with this family because they were so welcoming. Once the aunties realized that I’m into food and didn’t mind the 90-plus-degree heat of their kitchens, they took pains to coordinate their meals so that I was constantly sampling new dishes.

While everyone spoke at least a bit of English, real conversation was difficult. But our hearts were open. So the women bonded by cooking. We noted our cultural differences and similarities in the way we chopped veggies and used spices. Once we got our groove on, it was like we were dancing in the kitchen.

Despite their rigid routines, they were eager to sample my improvised Chinese cuisine. (Thumbs up for me, phew!). The auntie and uncle we stayed with were even intrigued by the boxes of quinoa I’d brought for back-up. Yes, everyone there ate my quinoa salads! They were very interested because their food is too carb-heavy and diabetes has become a national problem.

Since my daughter and I are such a tiny just-the-two-of-us unit, we thoroughly enjoyed our close-up view of sprawling, transcontinental Indian family drama. The usual tensions over birth order, money, etc. were especially entertaining since we weren’t personally involved.

Something that American Mom said to me still echoes in my head: just because your family is constantly around and in your business doesn’t mean you have real intimacy with them. How possible is it, actually, to truly connect with your family?

Even though my father is long dead and our relationship was difficult, being around Indian Dad and his stern, patriarchal papa was healing for me. Sure, they’re Indian and I’m not.

But some immigrant experiences are universal. Like that moment when our brood of American-born kids grew irritable after one-too-many visit to yet another family friends’ house. Watching these teens fidget while the adults blabbed away in Tamil — a language our young’uns couldn’t speak or understand  — reminded me of my own mind-numbing childhood summer vacations to Hong Kong, Taiwan and China.

My personal breakthrough in India came on a steamy morning when Indian Dad was excited about taking the kids to see (yet another) Hindu temple. To their credit, they endured it. He was trying so hard to make them happy! Suddenly, I thought of my father hauling my sister and I on those  boring tours of Buddhist temples and jade knickknack factories. Maybe he wasn’t trying to torture us after all. Maybe he wasn’t intent on force-feeding us Chinese culture. Maybe he actually thought we’d have fun.

Luckily, Indian Dad was insightful enough to realize that kids will smile if given a chance to shop and buy whatever they want. Most of the jewelry the girls bought cost 50 cents or at most, a buck or two. We all snapped up tops, pants, shawls and shoes for a few dollars apiece. A few splurge items cost $15 to 20. And don’t get me started on Indian fabrics — stunning stuff. There was a $150 hand-embroidered shawl I couldn’t resist.

Before we left south India, Indian Dad’s silent, scary father personally gifted my daughter and I with thick woven cotton blankets. The presents were handed to us while he flashed us a rare, charming smile that changed my opinion of him completely. I guess, on some level, I’d misunderstood him. Maybe he didn’t talk because, like me, he felt socially awkward too.

So in the last minutes before we departed for the airport, I impulsively gushed my thanks in English and kissed him on the cheek. Even though he recoiled from my inappropriate physical contact, he said one word to me: “Happy!” Imagine — what if there wasn’t a language barrier between us? What kind of conversations would we have had? What if  my own dad and I simply misunderstood each other?

Leaving south India, there was one last adventure. American Mom and Indian Dad were booked for a separate flight back home, leaving me in charge of the kids. I insisted on carting them north to Mumbai — formerly known as Bombay — where we spent 36 dazzling hours.

Once again, we were embraced by friends because one of my former students hooked me up through her family connections. A driver met us at the airport and a local businessman was on hand to offer sight-seeing advice and restaurant recommendations. We stayed one night at the super-glam Taj Mahal Palace, which has just been fully renovated following the 2008 terrorist attack. Being in Mumbai was so eye-opening that I want to write a separate post about it.

As for what this three-week adventure cost: roughly $5,500 total, for both my daughter and I:

  • $2,460 for various airfares
  • $500 for ground transportation both in the U.S. and in India
  • $700 for various hotel costs (this includes 2 rooms for one night at the Taj Mahal @ $250 per room)
  • $1,840 for meals, shopping (includes nearly $400 to eat two meals at the Taj)

Ouch. That’s a substantial chunk of change for me. But our friends saved us a small fortune by taking care of us. Besides, there’s no way to put a price on life experience. Now that my daughter and I know how to eat with our hands, we move a little differently in our own kitchen. With all our sparkly new baubles, we returned bangled, spangled and wrapped in lovely Indian fabrics. We’ve seen how some Indians succeed and others struggle to survive. We returned from India completely passionate about traveling more.

Here are some of the sights and scenes from our trip: