“So when did you have your first cultural shock when you first came to America and what was it?” Was the question I was asked last night at one of the Desi dinner parties. Without waiting for a reply my jewelry laden fifty something year old hostess went on to ask “Was it the big malls, the efficient freeway systems, the clean streets or the lack of noise?”
Over my heavily laden plate of tandoori chicken, naans and ma ki daal I stared into my patronizing hostess’ eyes and wondered whether she really wanted a reply to her backhanded insult. In a matter of two questions she had made my homeland, India sound like a country of snake charmers, elephants and loin cloth. The gall of the woman failed to amuse me especially given the fact that she was a first generation immigrant from the very same country.
Silence had fallen over the table as all the uncles and auntyjis ( in India it is a custom to call people fifteen years or older as uncle and aunties instead of mister or misses so and so) stared at me waiting for a reply. Taking a deep breath I smiled and answered truthfully, “The Jerry Springer Show”
The conversation then took a turn towards the loose morals and lack of values of certain sections of American society and how they as Indians had to protect their children from external corruption and bring them up with strong Indian morals and values and the result was that most of their kids had successful professions whether in the field of medicine, finance, software or running their pop’s 7-Elevens.
Between all the loud self-congratulatory conversations that buzzed over my head, I took a bite of my hot chicken and felt the juices melt in my mouth. The food seemed to compensate for the crappy company. Chewing on the naan I let my eyes travel down the table that seated about ten people and my eyes fell on our hostess’s daughter in law who happened to be an American of German descent.
The way she was staring at our hostess had the song play on my mind- If looks could kill she would be lying on the floor, begging please, please, please. Ah, things were sure gonna heat up and soon.
I had suddenly lost my appetite as I felt embarrassed and kind of guilty about the boorish attitude of my fellow expatiates. Staring at my plate I reminded myself that I had no reason to feel guilty after all it wasn’t a reflection of my opinion but then again they were my countrymen and it was a rather delicate situation which the old buzzards remained oblivious of.
I opened my mouth to tell them that I realized that the show merely reflected certain sections of the society who were dysfunctional and we had ours too back home but I was beaten. Sarah’s (the daughter-in-law) crisp Boston accented voice broke through the conversation, “If you thought this country’s morals and values clashed with your Indian customs and traditions then why did you come here in the first place?”
An awkward silence fell over the table as the mother in law and daughter in law stared into each others eyes with enough hostility to nuke the table. An auntyji broke the silence and answered, “Honey, you don’t understand. We love this country. Why, its way better than India where there is so much poverty, disease, load shedding, cows on the roads, corruption and …….” She looked at her slightly tipsy husband for help who pitched in a rather loud voice, “Yes, yes … we love America, it is a land of great opportunity, best colleges are here and umm…..India is so chaotic, it’s gone to the dogs.”
But, then when he caught my eye he slumped in his chair rather guiltily as a minute ago he had been the loudest in selling the virtues of the holy cow and now here he was calling her a barren, wild, dried up has been.
I merely smiled at him and forgave him as a wise Indian saying crossed my mind. Dhobi ka kutta na ghar ka nag hat ka. Translation- a washer man’s dog doesn’t belong at home nor at the riverside where his master washes the laundry. In other words, immigrants often find it hard to give up the world they left behind, and embrace fully the new world.
What these people wanted was a country with America’s modernism and India’s traditional outlook where their word would be the law by virtue of their advancing age. They were oblivious of the new India, where both co-existed happily, and where life was little different from life in any Western city.
As the dinner came to an end and I volunteered to collect the dishes along with Sarah, the ladies smiled their benign approval and walked back to the living room with their husbands.
While I was a bit miffed by this expected dismissal, I held my tongue. There was no reason why I should paint my countrymen any blacker than they already had. However, I decided to apologize for their actions.
Handing her the dishes which Sarah began to rinse and then load the dishwasher I gave her a weak smile and said “What happened in there was not right and I’d like to tell you that their outlook is not shared by us all.”
Sarah stared at me for a second and let out a small laugh. Closing the dishwasher with a snap she leaned against the counter and spoke in a rather amused voice, “To tell you the truth I really don’t care. When I married Ajit, his mother gave me a tough time. Not only did her only son marry a white but that too someone like me who doesn’t excel in the art of diplomacy as you Indians do.”
I raised an eyebrow and asked her “What do you mean?”
Pulling a chair out of the kitchen table she sat down and explained, “When all those pricks were bitching about your homeland you held your tongue whereas I could not. I’ve noticed that most Indians practice restraint when in the presence of your elders while we on the other hand are upfront and frank. And this has been a sore point between Ajit’s mother and me.”
I laughed and answered, “We practice the art of winning in losing. Plus there is always intrigue in relationships with our in laws. It’s a never ending chess game.”
Patting my hand she turned and pulled out a piece of paper from the drawer and gave me her cell number. “Call me any time.” She said and as we were leaving the kitchen her cell phone rang and as it was on the conference mode I could hear the person on the line. “Sarah? Have those bloody Indians left? Did you survive the dowager’s company?”
Sarah’s fair skin became red with embarrassment, giving me a weak smile she switched to it back to headset mode and muttered into the phone “No, mom I’m still here and I’ll give you a call later.”
By then I had heard enough and as I was leaving the kitchen Sarah put a hand on my arm and said “I’m sorry you had to hear that. It’s not as it seems. My mother can’t stand Ajit’s mom and that’s about it.”
I looked at Sarah and wondered if I should tell her that her mom’s words reeked of cultural racism and that she was as bad as the lot sitting in the living room. But then again her husband and mine were work buddies off on a business conference and I did not want to ruffle any feathers at their workplace.
Patting her hand I reassured her, “No offence taken Sarah. I know it was just a figure of speech.”
She smiled and gave me a hug. Suddenly I wanted to go back home as quickly as possible. Walking back into the living room I made my excuses and breathed a sigh of relief as I got behind the wheel.
Turning the key in the ignition I stared at the road grimly. My cell phone rang and as I flipped the lid I felt my husband’s warm voice remove the tension from my body.
“Honey, how did the dinner party go? How were the guests?” he asked
As I began to drive home I told him, with a smile, “Interesting – I realized that every basket needs its rotten apples.”
[Fiction - for the most part]