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I am Indian.
I am American.
Am I one? Am I the other? Am I both?
I think I started seriously thinking about it a few months ago, when the marriage talk took on a new level of urgency. I’m supposed to marry a Malayalee Nair guy. They prefer I marry someone from India. I prefer I marry someone from here. Does it make a difference? What do I want for my children?
I am of two minds. On one hand, I am in love with Malayalee culture, its uniqueness, its richness, and its resilience through millennia. I have learned both Carnatic music and two forms of classical dance. I am Hindu, and Hindu with a decidedly South Indian flair (and yes there are regional differences). I want to make sure my children are raised in that culture.
Yet on the other hand, I am in love with aspects of American culture, because it really is a portal to other cultures due to the proverbial melting pot of American society. I love baseball and football (no, not soccer), have decidedly multicultural culinary tastes, and have a doggedly American sense of independence and individuality. I’m a registered Democrat and have little to no idea about Indian politics. I know Shashi Tharoor won in Kerala, Kerala is no longer communist, and the Congress Party is still in power. Beyond that, I’m stumped. I understood cricket for a grand total of 2 weeks following watching “Lagaan” after which I returned to my original opinion (originally Robin Williams’) that “cricket is basically baseball on valium.” My music tastes are varied, but if I go to Pandora to pick a station, it is ultimately a rock station. Even as far as marriage goes, I’ve come to accept (heck, embrace) the idea that you really do need to get to know the person you’re going to marry, even if it is arranged. Perhaps it comes from living in a culture so devoted to dating.
Yet there are days where saying “our” with regard to India-related things feels right, and others where it feels awkward and foreign. Likewise for American. So what is the deciding factor that puts a person squarely in one world or another?
For me, I think I’m more comfortable being identified as an American of Indian origin, rather than an Indian. Yes, my skin is brown, my hair is black, I “look” Indian, but when I speak, I’m American. On most counts, I don’t feel comfortable when I go back to India. Culturally, I can hold my own in certain things. Yet there is one glaring exception: language. Perhaps that is the one thing that will keep me from really feeling…Indian. Yes, I can manage some conversation, but most is grammatically abysmal, and is done more for comic effect or satisfying my grandmother, whose English is about as good as my Malayalam. I can’t find linguistic common ground with my relatives when I go back. Most of them speak English very well, but there’s a certain level of cultural intimacy that only comes with speaking in one’s mother tongue. Maybe that’s what keeps me from being “fully Indian.”
I suppose I walk the line between Indian and American, though I’d like to think that perhaps, I’ve created my own cultural identity that happens to be squarely between both worlds. It is not set in stone, but fluid, sopping up whatever I find that is both rich and profound.
To those among you who are first-generation Americans, or were raised in a multicultural household, do you identify with your birth country’s culture, your parents’ culture(s), or do you fashion your own?
(Still doing recession-related guest posts through 3/9/09, just throwing this in there to add a little variety).
Most of you reading this blog know me, and know what I look like. For those of you who don’t, let me describe myself as best as I can:
I have light tan skin, dark brown eyes, a long nose (though not sharp), a small mouth, and layered black hair (that doesn’t know whether it wants to be straight or wavy) up to the middle of my back. I’m 5’1″ (for all intents and purposes), with a small frame, small hands, short legs, and small feet. Would you really be able to fairly compare me to a 5’10″, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, pouty-lipped, long-limbed girl?
Yet people make these comparisons all the time. Beauty can’t be standardized to the same standard that has taken hold everywhere (tall, thin, light-eyed, long lashes, long-limbed, perfect skin, perfect skin tone, etc.). Among Indians, I see many people around my age wearing lighter-colored contact lenses, because they think they look better, for whatever reason. I had that phase myself for a while during high school, where I wanted lighter eyes (though I never bought contacts). Really though, what’s so wrong with having dark brown eyes?
Beauty is a definition that is fluid. It changes among different ethnic groups, and through different time periods. What may have beautiful for my ancestors (think old-time Nair people) perhaps isn’t the same for me. I don’t like when guys have mustaches, yet most men in Kerala over the age of 35 seem to have a mustache because of some vague standard of “manliness.” Thick, long, straight hair was the ideal for Malayalee women (and still is to some degree) and I get the speech about how I need to grow my hair longer, especially for my hypothetical wedding. My hair is layered and (sometimes) wavy (though usually unruly), two things that don’t seem to go well with some people in my family. Larger people have traditionally been viewed as beautiful across all cultures, and even today is a standard still held by many from my grandparents’ generation, if not more recent generations as well. “Eat more,” they insist, “you are too thin!” Weight was reflective of the amount of food you had access to, which equated to wealth. Yet today many cultures have been shifting towards a thin idea, whether it’s because of the health benefits of being thinner, or the media that glorifies stick thin models (less so nowadays than perhaps a decade ago).
In the past, certain features were “beautiful” because they conveyed some aspect of “fitness” (that is, a person’s ability to survive despite averse conditions). Each region had its own set of challenges, where possessing certain attributes lent a person certain benefits in that environment. However, the fact that many of these obstacles have been controlled in modern society, beauty has changed to reflect that. It seems that since all societies are moving towards the same standard of living, so too are all societies moving towards the same standard of beauty.
Yet beauty should remain something unique and personal, a standard we only set for ourselves. Beauty is not something that should be standardized across all people, for in doing that, we lose some degree of diversity that makes us special, and add so much unnecessary pressure for people to conform. It’s about being healthy, being hygenic, and looking presentable. Anything beyond that is really optional, whatever it is that makes you look and feel good, as only you can define it.
Plus beauty isn’t just about looks, it’s about personality, and other factors that cannot be changed so easily. Beauty is a whole package. No matter how tall you are, how thin you are, how much makeup you slather on, how clear your skin is, if you lack in those other areas, well those are much harder to remedy. Beauty, it turns out, is actually more than skin-deep. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
This is a follow-up to my last Shaadi.com post.
So I should probably start out by saying that I created an account. I will admit it. I have an account on Shaadi.com.
Ok, cue the laughter…all right that’s enough.
Oh, and no you can’t see it.
You may be wondering, “After all that whining in your last post, why did you cave in and create an account on Shaadi.com?”
First, a refresher for my non-Indian readers:
Malayalees refers to people from the South Indian state of Kerala. Nairs refers to a caste among Malayalee Hindus, probably most similar to the general “kshatriya” caste.
Well it’s not like I’m wading knee-deep in Nair guys who fit my parents’ stringent criteria (as well as my own). I don’t have the time to go to many of these Malayalee events and conventions anymore (yes so that means I probably won’t be making it out to the KHNA convention in LA this year…sigh). Sure, Nair guys make up probably the largest chunk of the Hindu Malayalees in the United States, but among all Indians in the United States, we are a rarity. I think if I just left it to chance, I’d probably only end up finding someone who fits the bill by the age of…50? 60?
If I learned anything from my Human Bonding class in college, it is this: the largest pool of potential partners you will ever encounter is in college, after that, social networking/dating sites or other dating/meet-and-greet events are your next best bet (depressing, yes, but true). Well…that and people tend to be attracted to people who look most like themselves, but that’s another story altogether.
So I guess to answer the question in my last post…Shaadi.com may be a legitimate possibility.
However, I think Shaadi.com and a lot of other Indian dating/matrimonial sites seem to cater more to those in India than Indians that have either moved abroad or were born abroad. The vast majority of people who have profiles on Shaadi.com are from India. While, yes, I’m Indian, ultimately I’m a product of the United States. Yes, I took Carnatic music classes and classical dance classes, yes I like Indian culture, and yes I ultimately want to end up with an Indian guy. Yet I was born in the United States, and my outlook has been colored by my experiences growing up in the United States. Perhaps that’s why, for many Indians born abroad, Shaadi.com and similar sites seem ludicrous. I’m not even sure there are any websites geared towards NRI’s (non-resident Indians) or people of Indian origin that has the same popularity (or for that matter, as smooth an operating system) as Shaadi.com.
It would be even better to have a site for Malayalee NRIs/people of Indian origin, but that might be asking too much. If I had an ounce of computer programming ability, I would have started a site myself. Unfortunately, I’m as computer-challenged as they come. Anyone want to help me out?
So I’m hoping something comes out of my first foray into the (big and scary) world of online dating/matrimonial sites. It’s a crap shoot, but at least I’m keeping my options open.
Usually when people think of foreign movies, they think of deep, insightful films, more akin to the indie film genre in the U.S. Many go on to capture such accolades as the Palm d’Or, foreign films Oscars, and headline several of the world’s major film festivals.
Then there are Indian films.
Bollywood represents the biggest share of the Indian films that are produced every year, and they are almost always produced in Hindi, the national language of India. There are, of course, other films that are produced in other Indian languages; their respective film industries usually have nicknames closely resembling Bollywood (Tollywood, Kollywood, Mollywood, etc.). Most are loud, with loose plots, weak acting (but gorgeous actors) and plenty of musical numbers replete with hundreds of extras and questionable choreography.
And that is why so many people love them.
While I haven’t watched that many Malayalam films (I’m such a bad Malayalee), I’ve watched enough to notice a definite trend from good to embarrassing. Gone are the films that were hailed by the world community as intricate exercises in storytelling and acting. Vaanaprastham is still one of my favorite films to date. The problem with films after that is that they have begun to veer too closely to the Bollywood model. Dancing does not work when half of your actors wear shirts and lungis.
P.S. When your male leads are currently 40, some knocking on 50, you may need to find new actors. Sorry Mohanlal, Mammooty, et. al.
Bollywood, at least from my perspective, seems wholly incapable of producing a film that would be universally well-received outside of India. That is to say, a film with a strong plot, strong acting, and (alas) no music (or at least not the gaudy musical numbers endemic in Bollywood). In essence (as a friend of mine put it) they resemble movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood, though not quite as good. At least as late as a few years ago, I could watch a Hindi film with some mild appreciation of the plot. Now, I don’t even have that. Even the songs are getting unbearably bad, with rare exception (Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na comes to mind as one such exception from this year’s batch of films). The last good film that I can think of is probably Omkara. Everything since then has been abysmal.
If I had to name the best actor in Bollywood, I’d have to go with Amir Khan, possibly even Saif Ali Khan (based especially on his performance in Omkara). I’m not even sure I can name the best female actress, most are awful. Aishwarya Rai does sometimes shine, as does Rani Mukherjee, but neither are particularly good.
There are only a few films that have come out of India that are deserving of any merit, in the context of the world community as a whole. Most seem to be coming out of the Bengali film industry, though I have yet to see a Bengali film. Many people have lauded the films of Satyajit Ray, his films are first on my list. The same is true for Deepa Mehta and Mira Nair, though the latter I wouldn’t really categorize as an Indian filmmaker, as much as a filmmaker of Indian origin. Her films don’t necessarily incorporate Indian culture all the time.
I can’t help but turn to Indian films as a sort of source of comfort, because of how over the top they tend to be. Sometimes I just need to completely lose myself in a silly romance with lots of singing to forget how crazy life really is, most of the time. Maybe that’s why that film model is still so widely used; in a country where poverty and hardship is still present in large numbers, sometimes people just need to lose themselves in lighthearted movies. Yet if India wants to gain any respect in film circles, it will need to slowly begin the shift away from these movies towards deeper plots and better acting.
That being said, I’m going to go watch a Bollywood movie.
So I’m Malayalee, but more specifically, I’m a Nair. Nairs are one of the many castes in Kerala, and were traditionally warriors and rulers, so something a la “kshatriyas” for those more familiar with that term. This is meant to be an informal, yet informative piece. It’s based on my own understanding, what I’ve been told, and what I’ve read from various sources.
By the way…as a sidenote, we are not in any way associated with the hair-removal product of the same name. In fact, Nair isn’t even pronounced the same way. Nair, the caste, is pronounced “na-yer.” “Na” as it sounds in “narwhal” and “yer” as it sounds in…yer… Please get this straight, I can’t tell you how irritating it is when people mispronounce it. Of course, I’m not assuming people are born with the innate sense of how to pronounce “Nair.” Now you know.
Nairs themselves can be subdivided into a whole host of subcastes. For the life of me I don’t know the differences between all of them, but there are at least four or five I can name off-hand. Nair, Kurup, Menon, Pillai, Nambiar, Panicker, and Paliath, to name a few. Nairs have, traditionally, held a pretty prominent place in Malayalee society. Sometimes a bit too prominent, and this gets into the whole mess of caste discrimination.
The most curious aspect of Nairs, I think, are their origins. I don’t mean mythological, though from what I understand, the claim is that they were from the North and fled to the South to escape Parashurama. However, perhaps even more interesting than that, is their ethnic origins. While there is one school of thought that claims that Nairs are most likely descended from the Newars (from Nepal/Tibet)–owing mostly to the presence of pagoda-like motifs in traditional Nair homes and temples–there are others that claim alternate origins. A friend of mine sent me an article a while back, the citation is below:
Thomas R, Nair SB, Banerjee M. A crypto-Dravidian origin for the nontribal communities of South India based on human leukocyte antigen class I diversity. Tissue Antigens. 2006; 68(3): 225-234
This article analyzes a set of South Indian nontribal and tribal groups to determine their similarity to other ethnic groups. For Nairs, what was found was that according to the analysis of HLA Class I haplotypes was that, Nairs were most similar to Western Europeans. I am incredibly curious to know if any migration theories exist for this postulation. Another existing theory places Nairs under the same umbrella as other supposed Indo-Scythian descendants (Pashtuns, Jats, Rajputs, etc.). Indo-Scythians spent most of their heydey in the region from present-day southern Afghanistan to around present-day Mathura, in northern India. This ties in weakly with the mythological origin of the Nairs having Northern ancestry.
I suppose if Nairs are related to Jats, that justifies my love for bhangra…right? Maybe? Ok, I’m getting off topic.
Nairs have their own martial arts system, known as kalaripayattu (color-ee-pie-yettu). It is most notably a form of swordfighting, but it does incorporate hand-to-hand combat as well. It is an incredibly elegant system of fighting (note: the fighters may look wiry but they are fast!). There has been speculation that kalaripayattu found its way into East Asia, by way of Bodhidharma–a Buddhist monk supposedly from Kerala–and this gave rise to the modern system of kung fu. Again, just speculation…but it would be pretty cool if someone definitively proved this to be the case.
Nairs were (and to a degree still are), notably, matrilineal. This is a rarity in most of the world, let alone India, where patrilineal societies are still the norm. Indeed even among Nairs, this has taken root. Yet it used to be that the women, not the men, were the real power-wielders in the household. Women were the property owners and family heads, though men were the legal heads of household in some cases.
Nairs have also had an enduring tradition of snake worship. I actually don’t understand the nuances of this, aside from the fact that most Nair households in Kerala had a sarpa kaavu on their property for the worship of snakes. The tradition fits in alongside traditional Hindu practice, but I believe this may be something that even predates Hinduism in the area.
If anyone else happens to have some cool/interesting Nair facts, or other information related to what I’ve presented here, feel free to comment.
Let me set the stage for you:
The girl is a graduate student on her way to applying to medical school next year. She is not in a relationship at this point, and there seems to be no one that has expressed any real interest that would keep mom and dad placated…i.e. Malayalee and Nair. Therefore, the aforementioned parents want to put an ad up for the girl to be married within the next two years, something a la Shaadi.com. The general connotation of Shaadi.com and matrimonial ads of the sort is that of ridicule and considered a “last ditch attempt” by most. Others, however, have found great people (her parents included) through these methods. What is the girl to do?
Arranged marriage has tried to evolve to meet the times, no doubt. Back in the day, couples would be arranged perhaps within the village, but at least within a certain area. Marriages were alliances of families, not just the bonding of two people. It was about preserving one’s identity across generations. In Kerala, for example, cultural and religious practices even differed across the state. Those closer to Tamil Nadu have a culture that melded Malayalee with Tamil rituals. Those closer to the Malabar coast have their own. This is clearly evidenced with my parents, one of whom is from Palakkad, one of whom is from Ernakulam. That union was viewed as almost radical, I mean, a girl from Ernakulam marrying a boy from Palakkad? Insane! That too, they met through an advertisement.
Now it’s my turn.
Being born and raised in the United States my whole life brings about its own set of challenges. I am cynical, which may or may not be a function of my being raised here. I tend to be suspicious of people at first before warming up to them as I get to know them. It seems like my parents were much more open to ads than I am and many of my peers. I tend to think (not entirely erroneously) that half the ads on sites such as Shaadi.com are not made by the person who is being advertised (I’m not including sites like eHarmony and Chemistry because they’re a bit different). “Shaadi” for my non-Indian readers, means “marriage” in Hindi. A quick browse through some of the profiles seems like most were written by their parents, rather than the guys themselves, and that strikes me as duplicitous. Maybe the guys asked for their parents to put the ad in, but if they can’t even invest that much in finding a spouse, I’m not sure I’d want to even deal with them. Part of me still wants to see if I can find someone on my own, who my parents would like as well. Shaadi.com seems like a last resort, if I look at it that way.
Yet there are definitely benefits to this system. At least on Indian matrimonial sites, if you’re so inclined, you can search by region, religion, and caste, which theoretically makes life easier. The same can be said for newspaper matrimonial ads. While my parents are probably more vested in my ending up with a Malayalee, Nair guy, it can’t hurt to have that option available if I want to search for one myself. Like other dating sites (I think) there are the options of looking for profiles with photos and without photos (and praying the photos that are up are not heavily Photoshopped). What’s convenient about Indian matrimonial sites is that you can indicate whether you are vegetarian or nonvegetarian, drink or not, smoke or not, and other things. Me, I’m a pescatarian…yes it’s a word, and you’d be surprised at how things like diet can shape a relationship (there was a New York Times article on it a few months back). I myself am pretty lenient, but I’m just saying…it’s a factor to consider.
Nonetheless, it’s important to get to meet and know the person, regardless of how one found the other. Sometimes that’s a bit harder when the person you met on Shaadi.com lives in India and you live in the States. Even if you both live in the States, getting from New York to say Texas, is easier said than done. Yet the argument can be made that, if there is a legitimate connection between two people, distance shouldn’t matter, right? Still, for me, face-to-face contact is the best way for me to judge a person’s character. Denying me that makes things very difficult. Also (on a slightly lighter note) having my brother play “that brother-in-law to-be” a la Nick Portokalos in “My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding” would be very difficult if the guy’s not around too often before the wedding. It’s an inevitable, right of passage.
So for me at least, the jury is still out on the possibility of me utilizing a site like Shaadi.com, or just plain old matrimonial ads. I’m hoping I won’t have to, that I’ll find someone the “old-fashioned way” but I guess there could be someone special that may be found through an ad. I just hope his picture isn’t John Abraham’s when he actually looks like Mohanlal.
To say India is diverse is stating the obvious. There are thousands of dialects, each falling into a several different language families. For each dialect, there is its own unique culture. The food is different, the religious practices are different, heck the styles of song and dance are different. As Indians from these groups move abroad, they bring with them their own rich, cultural heritage. Oftentimes, they spawn cultural organizations based on their individual, cultural identities. Yet at the end of the day, the Punjabis stick with the Punjabis, the Malayalees with the Malayalees, the Maharashtrians with the Maharashtrians, and so on and so forth. There is TANA, there is FOKANA, there is (insert other Indian organization acronym of choice). There is very little cross-talk, except perhaps among the younger generations. Yet heaven forbid the South Indian child learns bhangra, or the North Indian child learns kuchipudi, or (even worse) if there is dating or (dare I say it) marriage across cultural lines…
Why are the individual Indian communities closed off from each other? There are a few reasons:
1) As Indian expatriates in a cultural environment completely different from the one left behind, people try to preserve the integrity of their own, individual, cultural identities. In order to pass it on seamlessly to the next generation, some communities may feel that they need to keep to themselves to prevent the culture from being mixed with other Indian cultures.
2) There is a certain degree of ego that exists among people in general, in this case, manifested by the “my culture is better than yours” attitude.
We are still “new” in terms of our presence in American, British, Australian, and other Western societies. Inevitably there will be a greater intermixing of the individual Indian cultures, as well as with Indian culture as a whole and those of the Western societies with whom they coexist. It happened with European immigrants to the United States, and it will happen with all the newer immigrant populations over the course of the next few decades. Each passing generation becomes more alienated from their roots and clings more strongly to the society into which they are born. That is just the way things go.
Indian-Americans (and Indian-Brits, Indo-Australians, etc.) are poised to be a powerful influence with if we can get past all these self-made boundaries. The youth is already getting the ball rolling, embracing other Indians (and other people from other backgrounds) in spite of supposed cultural and language barriers. In college, I had friends across all sorts of cultural lines. We all participated in different activities with which we may have not been familiar with while growing up. I am Malayalee but I was on the bhangra team. In HSC (Hindu Student’s Council) we would sing bhajans (devotional songs) in a whole host of languages (Hindi, Gujarati, Tamil, Sanskrit, etc.). We are all Indians. We are all Americans (or British…or Australian…etc.). We are all people. Now if only we can get the larger organizations to initiate some sort of dialogue across cultural lines. It is only to our benefit.
There is beauty in our own individual cultural identities, but even more in learning about another’s. For now, let’s all dance bhangra and eat dosa, or perhaps dance bharatnatyam and eat dhokla? Maybe do the tango and eat pizza. Whatever works!
I have been fascinated by Manuel Uribe’s story. For those of you who don’t know, Manuel Uribe is currently the heaviest man in the world, but is well on his way to losing weight having already lost half his body weight. I figured I’d see how obesity is in India, and found a table on Wikipedia that ranks the prevalence of obesity by state:
So Kerala, the state where my parents come from, ranks at #2. Punjab is #1. Goa rounds out the top #3…no pun intended. So why is this the case?
I’m not a nutritionist, and I’m not an expert on all the dietary habits of the people in each of these states, but I will try to draw some reasonable conclusions.
I love Indian food, that’s the understatement of the year. India is itself a culinary amalgam of different spices and styles. From the richer, dairy-heavy dishes of the north to the comparatively simpler, but no less flavorful dishes from the south, India is full of great cooking. Indians, also, have a genetic tendency to deposit fat around the waist. Yet India, like the rest of the world, is caught up in this need to urbanize and forego traditional physical activity obtained through biking or walking. Some areas are growing faster than others, and maybe that’s why some waistlines are growing faster than others.
So what makes the top few states special? Let me try to break it down as best I can. Punjab (God bless them and their awesome food) is home to possibly the richest food in India. Everything’s steeped in cream and clarified butter (known as ghee), and while that makes that unspeakably delicious, it also sets people up nicely for extensive weight gain. Combine that with less physical activity and voila! Obesity!
Now, my home state, Kerala. Ok I wasn’t born there, but it’s from where my ancestors hail. Kerala, while being the most literate state in India, is the second most obese. Why? Here’s my guess, one word: coconut. Kerala, besides being “God’s own Country” is also the “Land of Coconuts,” and those coconuts are put to good use. Between the avial, mezhukkupuratti, uperi, puttu, and every other dish swimming in some combination of coconut oil and/or grated coconut, we have enough saturated fat to cause heart attacks every minute of everyday. Yet gone are the days of the farmers toiling in the paddyfields, the fishermen hauling in a fresh catch from coastal waters. Here are the days of driving to work, school, sitting around at home, and watching TV serials.
Can we reasonably eliminate all the foods causing this problem? No, it’s a part of our cultural heritage. Can we tweak things here and there to render them healthier? Yes. Our family uses olive oil in place of coconut oil for a lot of recipes, making for a much lower saturated fat content. In addition, we try to stay away from the fried things as much (although murukku and pakkavada are staples in Kerala). Likewise for dosa we use oil instead of ghee, just to spare us those extra fat calories. They’re still delicious. Same goes for any other Indian food, maybe substitute oil for ghee, and avoid (if not eradicate) fried foods from the diet. Exercise is key, cliche as it sounds. Indians may not be known for their athletic prowess (Russell Peter’s sketch comes to mind…) but hey, we do what we can. I love to dance, so that’s my physical activity of choice. Bhangra, bharatnatyam, whatever. Just get up and move.
It is ironic to consider that obesity is even present at all in India, given the image of a predominantly starving country. Yes, poverty is alive and well (unfortunately) and that is something that needs to be addressed. However, obesity is being overlooked, and with a growing middle class and a growing economy, obesity is bound to follow.