Sunday, April 23, 2017

Culture Diaries: Exploring the Growth of my Identities in Changing Cultural Settings

I have been grasping at the idea of identities, discovering and acknowledging them as mine in the past few years, and it is developing in this ever-growing, amorphous and radiant form with every cleared thought, good conversation and life event. It is going to be almost two years since I moved from Madras to Columbus. It's been one hell of a ride and I am learning every single day what I have going for me and what I don't. This piece though, is simply a personal way-finding of my identities in these two very different cultural settings. It's long and I hope you can bear with me in its length.

A recent introspection ever since I moved here, into what 'home' and 'community' means to me has been unraveling in many ways in modes of inquiry, delivery and affect. I have been asking people what it means to them, what they think it could be, I was a part in conducting an exploratory workshop with two artistic peers on one such hunt on 'home', I am looking at it through my art, I brought it into my own design research thesis work (as I want to work with local communities and on socio-cultural issues in the long run) and spent numerous hours just writing in my journals. It's amazing to see how people have adopted these terms into their lives and what it means to them. For some, it was a place and for some, it was a person or a community that they are a part of. These people and communities are identities, placeholders for what a person is. For some it was a vocation, it was what they do- art, poetry, being a community leader etc. and for others, it was relationships- motherhood, being a spouse etc. I sit here with all their answers in my hands and wonder about what I am really sifting through all these perspectives for, right now. Some part of it is clear already, others would probably emerge.

One large predicament I am in is of being in-between cultures. It's not easy to float in this space, not knowing where you belong or with whom. This might also be happening simply because of my age and this time I am in. I have friends who think this life I am leading in a developed country is amazingly easy and awesome. Well, it's awesome, I'll give you that. But I have to tell you that it's not easy. I have to dispel any thoughts you may have of me leading a rosy life based on my Instagram/FB news-feed. Different aspects of self-concept (by definition- 'an idea of the self constructed from the beliefs one holds about oneself and the responses of others') are churning like concrete in my belly of a giant mixer, it feels like it hasn't yet had the time to set. But I think it is finally setting at the edges at the least, for now. I had these key moments already mapped out in my head (it's been brewing in there for months now) and when I began to research the terms to articulate this discovery, this charting-- it fell right into my lap.

'Response of others' in the process of my identity formation has been rather pivotal in figuring out who I am. The aforementioned cultures I am a part of plays a huge role in what I have come to believe, how my interpersonal interactions are formed and the relationships that arise out of it. There are two different cultures I have already been a part of and that which I am having an opportunity to encounter right now.

India, by and large adopts a collectivist culture. A collectivist culture tends to put the needs of the collective ahead of the individual. In these cultures, selfishness is a vice, you work towards gelling in with the society and in helping one another. It relies on interdependence and an expectancy of largesse in your actions: my neighbours took care of me in Madras when my parents were away, I have taken care of the neighbour's kids when their parents were running late, you invite anyone who arrives at your threshold into the house, you share whatever you have. Growing up, there was absolutely no concept of 'mine' in my household. I am not joking about that. Any toy, chocolates, fancy food or gift that came through to my sister or myself were 'ours'. I didn't realise what my parents were inculcating in us as we grew up. Of course, it was also that we were two girls born five years apart with similar body types- we exchanged clothes all the time. My sister just returned from a trip from India, bought me a bunch of stuff I had asked for. I was over at her house the other day and she showed the clothes she had purchased and said 'take it anytime you want'. Perhaps, the sense of ownership has slightly tilted but the idea of interdependence and oneness hasn't.

America on the other hand, which is where I am now adopts an individualistic culture. This culture asserts itself through individual independence, by not wanting to 'bother' or 'burden' someone with health/wealth problems. Emphasis is laid on the individual, on their uniqueness and self-sufficiency. I don't know a thing about my neighbours except for a few of their names. Their doors are always closed. Most people I see eat by themselves, commute by themselves and have a large boundary around them for personal space (I am not here to say I think ill of any of these aspects of this culture, just making observations).

At this juncture in my life when I am still malleable and forming pieces of my self towards a more detailed, organised and acknowledged idea of a personal identity, it is hard to be floating about without any grounding. The concept of personal identity changes from one culture to another. I collect pieces of what people say, do and think out loud in my presence and I am always putting these  pieces together. I wonder why someone would say something to me and why they are comfortable enough or not to tell me something. And then, there is this huge, beautiful part of 'individual' and 'relational' selves that plays a key role in identity formations. In short, individual self (as I understand it) talks about personality traits, attributes and characteristics of a person (Example: cheerful, bold, analytical) whereas the relational self talks to our relations with the significant people in our lives (Example: friend, husband, lover, sister). There is also the concept of 'collective self' (from what I understand) that allows us to reflect on our membership in social groups (Example: Indian, American).

I believe these three aspects are important pieces that we need to ground ourselves in while on the path towards discovery of who we are and  with regard to the formation of our identities. I was recently riding the bus with a peer and we were continuing a conversation that had begun earlier. I told her how I usually befriend bus drivers and chat with them during transit whereas she mentioned how it was going to be nothing beyond a nod or a smile of recognition and familiarity. She's from Australia (which seems to have a similar culture to the States). She mentioned how she wouldn't like people entering her space on the bus, that she was on public transport but would be prone to assuming a setting which pretends that there is no one else there. I find that culture exclusionary, that you drop people who are on the fringes of your everyday life that aren't people close to you. I was sitting there and reflecting on how transit times in India, on the other hand, form deep friendships. My culture (and I use 'my' to refer to what I have been exposed to all these years) is about inclusion. It's about inclusion of your neighbour, your co-passenger, the grocer, the bus-driver, the extended family and their extended families. My mother's best friend (Kasthuri aunty) became her best friend because they have been taking the same bus back home for decades. The collectivist culture seems to have allowed and given space for deeper connections with increased familiarity. Here, I find it stopping at mere recognition. You will find co-passengers in India who take the same means of public transport everyday, at a fixed time talk greatly of their friendships there. Transition is a time for interpersonal connections in the collectivist culture and one of silence in this one. This is not to say that I have not witnessed passengers on the COTA bus not recognise one another. But I have not seen them talk beyond that first line of  'How you doing today?' or 'You don't have your hat on this morning!'. Transit is by and large via individual vehicles in this country and of the people taking public transportation, there appears to be a large sense of exclusion; less acknowledgement of the person sitting in front of you or next to you.

All this was very riddling to me initially. My individual self is that of holding a cheerful demeanour, to be kind/compassionate and to make someone feel included (for I knew from past experiences how it was like to be excluded). I can strike conversations with almost anyone unless they're visibly shutting me down out of a sexist/racist/any other -ist agenda. I know three bus drivers by name, two of whom will know me by name and what I do because we have already discussed that. We have discussed about work shifts, about art in the city, about what we do, about our 'everydays'. One of them, Carl, asked me recently if I am always like this-- always this cheerful with a smile on my face? I told him I have my down-times but I have no reason to frown at someone because I am having a turbulent time on the inside-that's just not right. It warmed me the first time when another one of them, 'Happy' Harold told me that I made his day because I asked his name as I was getting down at my stop. I was elated that day because it dawned on me that people in different cultures still are the same at the basic level- everyone wants to be loved, recognised and most importantly, be seen. It still bothers me that I have no neighbours whose doors I can knock on to give them some food for Tamizh new year or have a cup of tea with. As an individual from a collectivist culture living in an individualistic culture, I am afraid to step on people's toes. What is a sign of inclusion into my personal boundary in my culture is a breach of privacy here. This makes it all the more harder, to navigate through these social situations and relationships.

It's hard because my ways of making someone feel included or make known as important to me is to risk losing them altogether in this culture. Where does one find that line? I feel rather lonely in this country sometimes. I have kind of lost my sense of belonging to any one place because I seem to be losing friendships in India and not really being able to ground some in America because of the vastly different connotations of relationships between these two spaces. My expectations of a relationship/friendship and cultural norms clash. Of the select few that I have come to love and trust, I tell them beforehand that it isn't my intent to breach into their space. I am only trying to connect in ways I know to and if I withdraw, it's only because I am scared of losing them.

When I look at my past and about how I have transitioned in the last decade, I see a pattern and a sense of seeking something on the 'other' side. Growing up in a collectivist culture had me guarded and safe. I was always looked out for- by my parents, siblings, cousins, family, road-sweeper women workers during late nights alone, auto and bus drivers, and most other people on the roads. I was fairly certain in my assumption that I would have someone to help me if there was a predator that I couldn't manage myself, and that gave me a sense of fierce boldness to be authentically myself in public and private spaces. The intimate levels of my personal self has lesser borders as I trust someone but I am never something I am not. It's still a part of me. I believed in not giving up my personal self of identity away for the sake of the society, which paradoxically also curbs you from doing/being/saying something that is tangential to societal norms. I don't believe in conformity. I also ended up reading a lot of Ayn Rand as a teenager and it has taken me a while to see large holes in her theories. I think it would be interesting to discuss this with someone from another cultural setting. It appealed to me at a time when I felt society was suffocating me with its ideal collectivist expectations and norms. Now, with the time to reflect in a different setting- everything changes. I was moving towards establishing a sense of increased individual self of identity when I was in a collectivist culture.

The collectivist culture that I was a part of had assigned most of my individual self itself. I was a tom-boy growing up, rebellious, masculine, an athlete and a gymnast, loud, obnoxious and unafraid. This collectivist culture only managed to pick out what already stood out in the crowd for further reinforcement. I was well-known as a sportswoman. I was associated with toughness and masculinity. My softer sides went largely unknown. I was a trained Carnatic vocalist and I realised only recently that most people didn't know about that side of me. I am a very sensitive person and very few people actually recognised it. My sense of individual self came from the acknowledgement from outside and then, myself. I recently did a Johari personality awareness mapping and most of the people I invited to take part in it were from my relationships in India. 'Bold' was a recurring word. I also realise now that it might not be the chief word any of my American relations would pick out because my own sense of personal identity took a huge turn here. It became all the things people in India missed seeing, it was beyond educational qualifications and professions. In India, one's qualifications became an easy acquisition into one's own identity. I can very easily tell someone that I am an architect and a designer, I don't think twice nor do I doubt it. But for the longest time, I never claimed I was an artist (until a year ago, to be precise).

America allowed me to call myself an artist without fear or doubt. Now, I have to introduce something else before I take that previous statement further and that is about relational self identity. Bear with me for a moment. In India, I was always introduced in relation to someone else. I think that is why I felt like I belonged there. I was introduced as someone's friend, sister, daughter, family, neighbour. No one ever introduced me as a writer or a poet or an artist first. Relationship came first, everything about the individual came next. Come to think of it, I miss that in America. I realise that when I speak of someone here to someone else, of the relations I have acquired here, my first impulse is to speak of our relationship. I always say 'so-and-so', 'they are my friend from _____' and then, 'they are a wonderful poet/artist/designer/musician'. I also realise that most of my American friends don't do that. Their means of introducing me is generally on the front of how they formed this relationship with me (Example: she's my classmate) or what I do (Example: she's an artist/architect/poet) but not that of relationship. If I heard more people introduce me in relation to them as opposed to what I do, I guess the sense of belonging would automatically set in (as that is something I am used to). This is not to say that I don't encounter wonderful people in America-- I do. I love some people very dearly. I have just realised what may still keep me away from them. But if my introductions are about my art and not myself, if someone doesn't explicitly state my relationship with them- it's hard for me to imagine that I am what I think I am to them. This can be viewed as a silly problem space- but it's real. India always allowed me inclusion by emphasising on relational identities.

America on the other hand, has been emphasising on my individual identities. When my friends introduce me here to someone else, they say- 'She's Hemu, she's a visual artist'. Now, I must acknowledge that I have never introduced myself as an artist with the level of confidence that I do right now. I always said 'self-proclaimed artist/poet' (because what if someone came up to me and said 'you call this art?' or 'you call this a good poem?'). By not acknowledging something I could be potentially good at, I found myself searching for who I was all this time. America, this individualistic culture has given me the space to accept who I am- yes, I am an artist. Yes, I am a poet even if I may not be a good one. Yes, I know people have larger problems than I do living in a developed nation but that doesn't mean what I am going through isn't validated. I went on a huge rant one night to a friend  in America because I couldn't comprehend sifting through the scale of what I was feeling. I was losing friends in India because they can't relate to me anymore, that my struggles seem like a speck of dust in relation to their own, and I can see where that is coming from. But to lose the only few important friendships I have built, trusted and loved over the last decade come crashing down was a huge shift for me. I couldn't figure out if I was being an asshole to them all these years by talking about my problems, that what I am feeling now are 'complaints' that need to be seen against a larger picture, whether I am 'creating' these for myself. My friend listened and told me that my thoughts and feelings were validated no matter the scale and I am immensely thankful for that. America has allowed me time for myself: for developing my individual self, to carve out identities for myself that would have been harder in my own collectivist culture of upbringing. I reinvented everything when I came to America, especially my wardrobe. People call me 'feminine' in this country and you have no idea how wonderful it is to be seen the way you want to be seen: I was never considered 'feminine' or 'dressed on-point' in my country. Ever after I started embracing my femininity and established my intellectual assertions as a woman of her own free will, thinking and independence,  my community, friends and family always looked at me as their little girl who doesn't know what she was talking about or just ended up hurting me by not even listening.  

The third part of this essay talks about the realisation of my collective identity. Some days, this country has my knees hugging at my breasts because most connections are single-tiered. It hits me hard because I have taken my sense of community and belonging in Madras for granted, for 20 long years. I always felt at home at Madras, I felt like I belonged there (even though I was excluded in some social groups). I had a very clear sense of collective identity, I was from Annanagar (the locality), from the city of Madras, from the state of Tamilnadu and lastly, from India. Patriotism was a given. My sense of love for where I come from was unadulterated- here's where I have lived all this time, and the place and its people will have my undying love and loyalty. When that was suddenly uprooted, I had stumbled upon a whole new context for comparison, a new level of reflection to see what something really means to me because I, now, have a much larger picture of what it is I am looking at and seeking. Coming to America and seeing real racial problems made me more aware of my own classist society in India. As a person from a middle-class 'upper-caste' household in India, reservations were never for me. I belong to FC (Forward caste) as mentioned in our official papers by virtue of what religious community I was born into. I think I have borderline resented reservation systems. I felt that they had to be based on economic status and not on socio-religious agenda. But now that I have brought myself out of that system and see much bigger problems of the world, I have come to terms with the benefits of that system, acknowledge that my ancestors were oppressors in the past and that I have to live with that aspect of what my community has been in the past and the privileges I still have till date because of the community I was born into. At the same time, India offered me secularism. I don't understand America's large sense of 'other-ing' some communities,  religions and race. I am still learning. My perspective has shifted and I have now, started being a part of a different collective identity. If I had previously called myself an Indian, I also now call myself a 'person of colour'. I am learning every single day about race relations, about privilege and about power. Would I have known about what it means to have lesser socio-cultural privileges had I still been in India? I may have had an intellectual understanding of it but no experiential knowledge and sometimes, the latter teaches one more than the former.

In short, I guess I wanted to evaluate my growth as a person. Yes, I wish I had a different sense of relational identity in America, I wish I meant more to people in terms of being 'someone' to them. But I also learned what it means to embrace who I am without fearing what other people would think of my interpretations of my own identity. I have moved beyond boundaries I had earlier, towards adopting a whole other collective identity. I realise I am un-learning, re-learning, growing and trying to shape my life everyday. Some days it's crazy hard to not even find anyone to talk to. I find myself sitting in my house wondering who I can call and talk to without fear of losing them and eventually end up making more art, writing more or designing more. But there have also been times I have moved beyond that fear and been vulnerable with someone. These identities are changing, they're setting in and I am growing.

In the process of figuring all these out in the past few months, I have had different conversations with many of my friends and acquaintances-- some who are international students like me in America, people working here, immigrants, people from the past with whom I have a whole shared history with and some over here, with whom I establish an immediate sense of collective identity with. My closest relationships are with whom I seem to connect on all these three aspects of one's identity. My friend from college recently sent me the link to a very interesting TED talk by Taiye Selasi. She explores our multiple identities in this world with an intriguing set of three R's: Rituals, Relationships and Restrictions. She speaks to the intent of a question and it made me think of how it all falls together with these aspects of one's identities I have been talking about so far. It's an interesting talk to see if you haven't already!

At last, I have lost some, I have won some. I am changing. It's scary. Not everyone understands that and that's okay. But I am glad I am moving forward and that I have acknowledged pieces of who I am, what I could be and where I stand at this point in my life so far. Life isn't easy at all but it sure as hell is beautiful to understand and learn from this journey.

Thank you for reading all the way till the end.

Much love,
Hemu

P.S: I have interpreted these based on my research of these terms and how it fits with my experiences. If it is jarringly wrong, please do let me know though this is largely a subjective account. I would like to learn.

A picture of me at a place that is closest to Madras- A beach in Florida, shot by my high school friend, Vimal Raj.







Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Curious Case of Food and Friendships - Culture Diaries: India and Amrikka!

Ever since my arrival at the United States, everything has been a learning curve- a learning curve not only in terms of what I learn from this culture but in terms of what I see as weirdly different from my own and, how it probably affects my relationships and interactions. I would venture on to say that my posts, poetry and writing have all been a product of my socio-cultural and economic upbringing- they are my little snippets of cultural diaries and on that front, this topic is something that I have been sitting on ever since I came here.

Within weeks of having arrived at America,the initial newness of the physical surroundings and people diminished; customs, practices and people's levels of interactions started looming in on my now more-aware mind. I have been trying to keep an open mind to learn about new cultures and ways of interactions but some parts of how India works with its relationships blew me away after I realised just how significant they have been to my development. I keep running simultaneous comparisons between how things are back home and in my brief life here thus far- they have been a very interesting mix of emotions. The last year and a half has made me a more critical person, a more accommodating and a less pampered person. It has made me more of an independent woman that I was than ever before and I cannot stress enough on the importance of some friendships here. My life here has pushed me to discover pieces of myself I hadn't known about before- in some cases in a good way and in some ways, not so much. America, sometimes is the backdrop, a contrast that has been teaching me to recognise different scenarios and different ways of living our lives- how I have been living mine, what this culture has to teach and what really does work in my own culture.

In this piece though, I want to elaborate on food and relationships. You might not think there is much of a connection between the two, but good lord, there is! I'm not exactly talking about food itself in entirety but in the bonds that are developed over sharing some. Have you heard the quote about 'families that eat together stay together'? I cannot believe in that idea enough. I sit here at 3:00 in the morning writing this with a cup of hot chai and it only reinforces it. It takes me back to conversational times with my friends and family, my own tea-master and our discussions. It's nostalgic, it's beautiful. Food does that to us- it brings all our senses together to that particular time, it helps us be in the moment more than anything else. Think about your last meal together with someone when you/your friend didn't look at your respective phones? When was it? What did you guys talk about?

I would assume it's easier to remember if the scenario existed because we are completely engaged in the conversation. We remember what we ate, we remember the music and the sounds of the cutlery, we remember the smell, we remember the way our food felt and we remember what we see. All this is logged in to our memory because we decided to have a good, mentally stimulating conversation over something physically nourishing to the body. This is the time for our body and soul combined! This is also one of the chief reasons I have ever invited the few people that I consider to be important to me in this country to come over to my apartment and share a cup of chai with me, if nothing else.

Eating together isn't necessarily something that builds relationships within family members but it extends to relationships outside home, too. I firmly believe in the concept that people who eat together build better relationships. When I was much younger, family dinners were accompanied by the radio in the background (we didn't have a fancy TV with fancy programmes on it) and absolutely delicious comfort food by my mother. I had this habit of reading books while eating which my parents never encouraged. I think about it now and am glad they did that (Now, I reflect on how televisions are ruining that time together. Me... I was content with the radio). That dinner etiquette stops me from listening to music or cordoning someone off by indulging in a personal activity when I have a meal with someone around me- it's the first space in my culture where I learnt to invite someone in.

On the large too, the Indian community and other Eastern communities are so organised so as to bring  the extended family together several times a year. We have a lot of celebrations each year for which we congregate to have large events and food (which we all eat together). The act of coming together to cook and eat is a wonderful concept, it's personal and it's important. We also have yearly rituals like devasam which are days on which members of the whole family get together to pay respects to our deceased ancestors. We have specific menus for most of these-we have aunts who specialise in each of these recipes and we all await food with the plantain leaf on the ground, all hungry. The men in the family help serve (as in mine) and it's the time where at the least 15-20 people sit together in a batch to eat as a family, jokes running about. In fact, devasam has its own menu in our culture that no one ever changes and we constantly keep telling the elders in our family about a change in menu because we get bored with the same food each year. One of my aunts says every year that she will have it written in her will that she will vouch for pizza and sandwiches for her devasam menu; it's a standard joke we all share each time. Post-death-remembrance is a solemn topic, you'd think. And yet, sitting together and talking about it with a pinch of lightheartedness and acknowledgement of our own temporal states in this world is pretty common and healthy, over comfort food and a congregation of people that care about you and love you.

And here is the thing, this probably exists in Western cultures too- getting together for meals and occasions, probably a little lesser given lesser number of major festivals that conventionally and culturally demand togetherness. But what strikes me as alarmingly different is what I find in friendship circles and peer networks. My friends from school (KG-Grade 10) and I still are in good touch. Many of us are in different parts of the world pursuing our own careers and we still try to keep in constant contact. I would think that a lot of it stemmed from our relationship blooming with sharing food. You see, when I was in school, I would generally take two boxes of lunch: one was for me and the other was for my friends. My friends loved my mother's rasam sadham and on many occasions, I've opened my lunchbox to find hardly any in it. We didn't ask one another's permission to have some food from the other. We'd all attack each other's lunch. I can still tell you which dishes are the specialty of which of my friends' mother/father. In college, one of my friends could take one look at my food, eat it and tell me if my mother or my father made the food. In a lot of cases where my dad would have made it, she would say 'Come on Hema, he has to improve! Tell him'. It was hilarious. I'd recount these tales back home and there is now something that connects my friends and my family before they get to see one another in person. Personalities and familiar affection already builds itself in. 

In my culture, you don't really refuse food when someone offers you some, it's rude to do so. I come from a nourishing, feeding culture. My late paternal grandmother used to tell us that when someone arrives at your doorstep, you invite them in irrespective of whether they're your friend or foe. You give them something to eat and drink, and then proceed to discuss matters. For some reason, it has stuck with me after all these years because I saw them all do it. I've seen all the matriarchs in my community nourish those who arrive at our homes. When someone is content and well-fed, you're going to have a more cordial conversation, I would assume. Every time I go to someone's house in India, the first thing I am asked about after basic inquiries about my well-being and my family's is an offer to eat/drink something. With some of my friends' parents it's almost no choice-- you are going to eat no matter what, if you've not had your meal yet. I see it as a manifestation of love and care. No one exactly forces you to eat but you are always offered multiple choices and when you finally deny it to a point where some of them might get hurt- you ask for some water so as to not offend the person trying to feed you.

What is actually happening in this scenario is that you are taught to accept the love that friends/family offer you. When that happens, you are letting someone into an intimate circle of your life- you are giving them the right to feed you without feeling like you owe them something in return. For me personally, when I let someone pay for my food, it's a step higher in our friendship. I would only do so with people I am comfortable with or trust. I would get the next cheque, I know. But it also means that I have reached that stage in the relationship where I am comfortable at the prospect of someone paying for a basic necessity in life at the time without feeling like I owe them something in return. Friendships bloom when you feel like you don't owe your friend something in return. This isn't a transaction (I still don't understand some of my American friends tell me 'I owe you one'. It makes me feel like an outsider).

Friendships and sharing food/meals go a long way. Some of my best friends and I bond over good food and amazing chai. Sometimes, I feel very lonely in this country because I don't have anyone to share some tea with. Don't get me wrong, I love my alone time and there are many moments I have been glad for no company but for some piping hot ginger tea and a good book. But there have also been those times when I'd sit on my apartment's porch hoping I'd find some neighbour or even a passer-by to sit down and have some tea with me because it gets that lonely. That is one of the things I have had to come to terms with living alone in a foreign country with its own values and culture. And oh, I wish it was a little more amenable on this front.

What I also find innately different when it comes to food culture is how rushed mealtimes are in the States. Eating food has to be a calm, relaxed time with your friends/family or yourself. I find the American culture of 'to-go' and 'drive-in's' a little scary as it puts people in a rush-mode. I keep spotting people eating wrapped burritos and sandwiches in their cars or at their desks, alone. I find it odd to sit in a room that has seven people with three of them eating at their desks, alone; because my first cultural instinct is to gather with them and eat together, offer them whatever I have. I simply cannot imagine not offering people what I have before I touch my food myself and even though I know it's nothing personal when my American friends do decline, it still kind of feels hurtful and weird to me-- it's almost as if I am not really friends with them because I have not crossed the borders of having dined with them.

Almost all my friendships grew with a healthy relationship surrounding food and dining habits. I tell some of my good American friends: in my culture, when you become friends with someone, you don't just become friends with them; you become friends with their family. More so, your closest friends become family. I can drop by any of my best friends' houses without warranting their presence in their own homes and still be treated as family by their own, be fed and have conversations with. You always end up having them. Sharing food is the first step towards inclusion in many communities. If I am seeing a friend's mother for the first time, my first instinct is to bring up something we can both relate to. Most often, it's the food she may have sent through my friend or a story my friend passed on to me. When I am my best friend's house and her grandmother offers us tea and breakfast, it's amazing to see how her grandmother gives it to us every time- she would have made chai with exactly the amount of sugar each of us take in our beverage. She tells us which of the two cups is for whom. Now, that is an intimate detail. Food is an intimate detail, you learn that when you start eating together. My sister has been away from home ever since she turned 18-- going from college to work to marriage and now, here in USA. I am spending time with her over dinner conversations after almost a decade now. She is highly maternal and makes really great food that I love. Sometimes though, we'd be having food-- my baby niece, my sister and I; with my mother on Skype and I'd take a small serving of a particular dish. My sister would insist on me eating more and would start commenting on how little I eat and how it is affecting my health. My mother would suddenly intervene saying that that isn't a dish I particularly like or that that is not how I eat/cook that vegetable. That too, is intimate knowledge. It takes a long time to understand what our friends and family like with respect to food. I finally have the opportunity to catch up with my sibling over mealtimes now and I believe it fosters a good, much stronger relationship. Similarly so, tell me: don't you feel somewhat happy when the waitress at your regular diner knows your favourite dish and how it's cooked, whether you take coffee with milk or hot chocolate with whipped cream? Why do you think that is?

This isn't just for friends and family. I would even go on to talk about my own neighbours, for that matter. My neighbours in Madras know the dishes of theirs that I like and sometimes make some extra for me. They drop by and give me some food if my parents aren't in town and I need dinner. My mother and our maid would sometimes sit together for coffee and biscuits after the work gets done. At my place of internship during my architecture days, the employees would sit together and have lunch. These are times that bring people together and it bothers me a little bit that eating is a largely solitary affair in this culture.

Mealtimes are mostly meant to be communal times, in my opinion. We would all benefit from sitting together and sharing a meal or even a cup of tea, once a day. Of some of the culturally different situations I have come to encounter, just trying to schedule times with friends to hang out and have dinners/a quick cup of coffee or tea has been the hardest. I wish there was more space in this culture for more on-the-fly, extempore meetings for breakfast and the like. The people I am most acquainted with and close friends in the country have all been to my tiny apartment in Columbus for a cup of chai at the least because I don't know of any other way to welcome someone into my life and personal space. When you meet someone outside of the conditions in which you would ordinarily meet another, you are planting the seeds to a good relationship.You are opening yourself up to more than you regularly do- more emotions, more trust and more conversations. You are generally less cranky when you eat and you have company, which is almost always a good thing. You tend to be more comfortable, more happy and probably more conversational.

I hope more of you start eating together or set aside time to have more in-person meetings over food/drinks than indulging in a solo eating affair. Tell me if there is some food from my culture that you want to try and I'll try and make it for you. Let's get together and bake cookies. Offer me muffins if you make some. Eating together is a culture I don't want to forget coming here (I don't mean to say this in any accusatory way, by the way).

We have little time with one another. I hope we can bond over chai and biscuits, not always emails/texts. I hope we can become good friends. I hope we can be friends enough to let myself ask you if you want to catch some breakfast together, if free, out of the blue.

Much love and the smell of ginger chai to you,
Hemu

Also, here are some heart-warming advertisements for you to check out. These ads particularly work well with an Indian audience because these are all some real-life situations. This is honestly one of the best ways we bond. I would love for you all to take a look at these tiny clips and see what I am getting at! :)







And some interesting articles I found online:

The Importance of Eating Together
The most American thing there is: eating alone

Would love to know your views! :) 

Friday, January 6, 2017

The Privilege that Comes with a Penis | Understanding Us (Women) and Your Privilege

You've read much about the Bangalore New Year night's incident: inebriated men passing lewd remarks at the women gathered that night for celebrations, groping and sexual assault. You've probably seen the molestation incident at Kammannahalli caught on CCTV camera. You probably saw the onlooking bystanders who did not intervene- there were about five of them. I counted. They saw, some stopped and came back to stare more and did not do anything. It makes me sick to my stomach. You've probably read that a million times now on social media. Women are coming forward with these attacks, trying to raise their voice loud and clear above a drowning chant of men and other women who refuse to see the original problem of the situation. Sometimes it works, it does create awareness. But, I don't know if it has ever been detailed for some of you. I want to do that today. I want you all to crawl into a woman's skin (I'm writing this in binary as men and women/femme/queer- I welcome the thoughts of trans and other genders- I didn't write this in entire inclusiveness because I don't know your experiences and didn't want to write something wrong that may offend anyone) for a few minutes as you read this post. 

You think sexual assault is horrible, a terrible act. That's a wonderful start for you to acknowledge it. But it's not enough. Those onlookers in the Kammannahalli incident probably agree with me- they agree it's wrong to molest anyone. But again, it's not enough. I would gamble on one of these being chief reasons for not intervening- fear of being attacked themselves, not wanting to be involved in an issue that could become a police case (and in turn, the possibility of their families being put at risk), nonchalance or of a she-asked-for-it-late-this-night mind-set. Some of them are understandable reasons even, but still- they are not enough for you to merely watch when someone needs help. Now, the woman in the video was brave (that's a default setting in women that I have to explain to you later) and fought till she could get herself away from these people but what if she had been overpowered? I hate to ask of men- What if it was your daughter/mother/sister/wife/girlfriend/friend? Other than hitting an emotional nerve at the thought to simply have you imagine the feeling, it makes me sick that I would have to put you through a fabricated hell dragging a loved woman into the picture in order for you to even see a fraction of what I am talking about simply because then, it is again not about the woman. It's still about you- a man, and what runs in your head when someone close to you is hurt. Step away from your privileged role with a penis. This is not about you. This is about us and our everyday battles and wars. 

Now, some of you wonder why I would have to sound so crude in saying 'penis' instead of a man. I am sorry, but I am not really sorry. It is true. You have the privilege to be a man simply because of your penis. At the least, a cis man, of the heterosexual orientation. You have a privilege. You have a voice louder than a few people from other categories combined because we are historically still there. We live in a patriarchal world. I am writing things down this crudely because I want you to reflect on this. I don't know who this is reaching.I don't know if it reaches beyond my echo chambers but to the masses that I know to read and agree with this (as I see on my newsfeed), I want you to see even further. 


A friend had recently posted about her experience with a stalker on her blog, racing thoughts of what to do, how to react and simply- the kind of fear every woman is acquainted with. Only yesterday, I was one of the two/three women at a poetry night to read poems surrounding sexual assault and molestation. I know of women in my family and my friends circles who have been victims of abuse and domestic violence. This is just what hit me in the span of three or four days. If I have to account every time a man touched me inappropriately, I could give you a book. Almost every woman would, especially if she is from India.



Now, you all know this to a good deal. Let's dig a little deeper. 


Men: Assume you want to go from point A to B and you don't have private transportation. Say, you'd have to take the bus. What would you do and what would go through your mind? I want you think about it for a second before you read any further. 


Done? What was it? Say it out loud, please. Great. 

Alright. Do you want to know what we go through? It starts at home with our parents asking us to be careful. An average Indian woman's mother would have asked me (an average Indian woman) to adjust my dupatta if it looks like my breasts are garnering attention; I am asked to be safe (I really don't know what that means- it's out of my control). I go out to the road, I wonder if my clothes are in order. Is my cleavage visible? Are my bra straps peeping? Is that guy across the road a threat? Why is he staring at me like that? Is it my dupatta? There is the bus stop. I hope I am not attracting too much attention. Would that neighbour aunty think I am promiscuous because I am wearing extra kaajal today? Here comes the bus. Oh boy! It looks crowded. Do I wait for the next one? But I'd be late. All the seats for women are taken. I could wear my backpack and keep the men away but I'd be yelled at for taking up too much space. There is the stalker boy. Why doesn't he give up? I can feel someone's groin against my back-wait-is it just a lunchbox? Maybe. No. It's a hand- definitely a hand. Here is this woman making an eye contact with me- she knows. She understands. Maybe if I moved a little? No, that would mean two men at my back. One of them looks harmless though. But are they, really? Why is this bus jerking so much! There is my stop. Let me get past this crowd. Did that guy just touch my waist? Get out. Get out. Ah, air. Let's get to college. Oh, great- I have some sneering, lewd comments. How does that guy know my name? Is he following me? Shit, he's following me. There are not many people on this road either. Wait, oh, I am okay. He wasn't following me. There is destination B. Breathe. 


(In fact, I wrote to a publication about this 6 years ago- An Open Letter to those Opportunist Uncles who Sexually Abuse women on Buses).  


Now, tell me. Was that tiring to read? Yes? That's how we feel every single day. Don't get me wrong, we are not fragile, defenseless women. If a man would try to touch me brazenly, I would now raise my voice. I would try to hit him and defend myself. But more than the physical strain I would ever have to go through, coping with issues of trusting men at all comes to the foreground. I have been sexually molested several times- starting from when I was in Grade 2 or 3 (that is the earliest I remember) and here is the thing- it's not just that preying man on the road. My Grade 3 memory is with a family member! These people are within families- extended and otherwise- people that your parents trust you with. One of my closest friends and I are conversing about this fatigue just as I write this and with her permission I am telling you her story: She was inappropriately touched by her grandfather. She is still uncomfortable about getting physical with her own boyfriend of several years- her heart says yes but the body screams no. She is one of the strongest and well-read people I know with a clear voice but no one but for me and a few others perhaps, know about this-not even her mother, whose father was responsible for this. Can you imagine how deep a disgust has to be if we can all feel it in our mouth after decades? I've been sexually harassed by opportunistic uncles on the bus, a bus conductor, stalkers when I was in school, a coach I loved with all my life- you have to understand how much energy I need to summon in order to write all this so publicly. When I read my poem yesterday at a poetry night I consider to be a safe space, a piece that took me 9 years to write, I saw in the eyes of some women that they felt what I was talking about. It's a kind of experience almost most of you men will never go through (I am not dismissing the innumerable cases of men who have been molested and raped though. Again, our society doesn't validate their trauma either. They ask them to buck up and be a man). 


Do this, my dear men reading this. I know you are against sexual assault and victim blaming. I do. But have you ever sat down to talk to your lady friend or sister about what goes on in her head? I bet you have listened to these experiences but have you asked them to tell you in detail, to trust you enough to tell you how it hit them mentally? Do any of these incidents after decades still have a hold on them; weigh in on their everyday decisions? ASK your wife or your girlfriend. Go on. I would ask you to be prepared to listen to the disgust, though. 


Is this post one of those big rants? I would partially agree. But would you learn more about your own stance against sexual assault towards a greater understanding- I would be inclined to say yes. Learn more about consent. Learn more about empathy. I am trying not to hug my own 4 year old niece without her permission- consent is everything. I hug only when she is okay with it. We have a lot of experiences and one kind of physical contact that you deem harmless may in fact, scare a woman to no ends because of her experiences. I read an article online that summed up what rape anxiety is-I need for you to read it. Almost every woman you come in contact with has definitely experienced this. Do you understand how real this situation is? Do you understand how tiring it is to be un-trusting and on-guard all the time?


A lot of mothers tell their daughters: ALL men want one thing. Now, I have my qualms about that statement. I would like to think it is not true. I was talking to the previously mentioned friend about this and this is what she said: "That's the problem you know. Remember the uncles you wrote about, in the buses. They are someone's father. Someone's husband. They are men that care very much for their families and this families care very much for them. Love them. Just the way we do our fathers. What goes wrong? Why can't they be trusted? It makes me realise that it's all men. And the futility of that. All men! How does one fight that?[sic]"


What can I say to that? These are merely some difficult conversations and thoughts we have to have every day. I am not saying I don't trust men. I'm actually on the other end. I try and trust people on the outset, with my own boundaries. I try to let not scarring incidents change my trust in men. But it's something I have to dedicate myself to do- I have to spend time and energy on something I would very easily get blamed for- as a victim. Victim-blaming is way too real. My relatives have implied that of me. Your parents are doing the same when they say 'This is why she shouldn't go out late in the night!' A lot of this is care and concern but it's stifling and suffocating. I can't have a regular life because a boy on the streets can't control his sexual urges? I can't wear comfortable clothes, I have to avoid crowded buses, I can't hang out with male friends, I can't watch a late-night cinema, I can't stand around tea-shops, I can't do this and I can't do that- all of this is for absolutely no fault of mine. I have a curfew because I might get raped. Do you realise how fucked up that narrative is? 


This issue has been misinterpreted in many ways. The #NotAllMen hashtag in response to the Bangalore's incident is a disgrace. Am I supposed to give you an award for not molesting someone? These hashtags are virtual good-for-nothings. What happens to us is real. The trauma and the hurt is real. If a woman cries when she sees something like this happen, like when you remember Nirbhaya's incident (remember this?), it is because we know this. We can feel it in our bodies- it's a lot of disgust.  And I don't even want to start on marital rape which is still not considered a crime in India!


For starters, we want you to acknowledge this situation we are in. Let's agree that there is still a chauvinistic, patriarchal setting in the country that blames the victim and not the perpetrator under the guise of cultural values and belief systems. Read about it more. Ask people. I want you to understand this inside out to the point where you feel like you can't bear to hear of the details anymore. Then, I want you to use your privilege for good. Next time your parents say that the girl in the shorts was asking for it, tell them they are wrong. The next time one of your peers tells you that a woman is over-reacting, call them out. There is nothing manly about standing there and not saying anything about it. The next time a woman tells you how tiring it is- listen. If you see someone being attacked on the streets- help them. Let's all call out on misogyny and making all this sound normal. It's not! Movies are constantly showing the lead actor as a stalker who pursues a woman until she says yes. (If you know and understand Tamizh- see this. It's nicely-explained to some extent) I would assume that the man who hacked a woman (who refused to fall in love with him) to death at the Nungambakkam Railway Station is one such follower. Let's use social media to boycott such movies and raise opinions. What else can you do beyond sharing FB posts and outrage on Twitter? I would love to hear from you. 

My dear men reading this, I am not saying you're all like this. No. But I am saying that most of you do not really know how much trauma lies under this because you're privileged. You're privileged if you can go out at 2 AM for a run without being worried about being sexually harassed. Now, you may be afraid of being robbed- have you been afraid of being touched without consent? Especially in a country like India where this is happening, it's growing and it's scary. The response to these things are a list of victim-blaming and chauvinistic tones coming from people in power, politicians. Why don't we have a sex-offenders registry in India yet? If I can report every single man who touched me inappropriately, if there is a fear in the system, I would readily do it. (We are going to have a sex-offenders registry in India, hopefully soon) But a lot more of what we have are men and women in positions of power that say 'boys will be boys'. That, I hope never becomes something you teach your kids, even as something that could be interpreted in a matter-of-fact way. It's a shame! 


I have to stop this for this is something that I can keep going on about. All I am saying is you are privileged in more ways than you know, as men. I want you to see to the maximum possible extents that you can, what it is that women have to face every day. Ask them. Make this a breakfast table topic. Learn, educate yourselves. Tell others who might not be on social media, not in your echo chamber. If you don't tell your parents who victim-blame a woman that they were wrong to be wearing what they were, or drinking, or out at 10 PM, you are still helping the oppressor. 

You are still a part of the problem. 

Be the change you wish to see. 



Much love to you for reading all this! 

Hemu 

Also watch other videos that shed light on the things we have discussed here and the like :

Image Source: A still from the short film 'That Day After Everyday' by Anurag Kashyap. The image doesn't belong to me.