by Jennifer Kumar, Cross-Cultural Coach
[Part 2 of 3 Parts - Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3]
To make this section easier to read, I have made a list of the items here, click on them to read further (and also to learn tidbits about Indian culture): In part 1 of this 3 part series, I have listed 10 points of interests, 8 remain for next week's conclusion.
I eat Indian food almost daily. | I use hair oil. | I brush my teeth before I eat. | I wear my saris and salvaar kamiz dresses at any opportunity. | I am more giving and accommodating to others. | I would treat any guest as 'god'. | Give, don't always take! | Sleeping on the floor. | I love 'masala tea'! | Do I really work on IST?
1. I eat Indian food almost daily.
In my experience in Chennai, I stayed with many families that by family tradition going back centuries ate only vegetarian meals. I was excited about this as I became a vegetarian in 1998, and wanted to expand my vegetarian palate beyond the veggie burger. In contrast to myth, there are many healthy choices in vegetarian food, and many are found in the Indian cuisine. I prefer south Indian food, not only because I was in Chennai, but because I prefer rice. I try to cook rice and eat with racam, sambar and curd. The typical south Indian meal (lunch and dinner) consist of three courses: sambarsadam (sambar rice- a vegetable stew type dish with rice), racamsadam (rice with racam a spicy tomato soup), and thayyirsadam (curd rice- rice mixed with yogurt) each served with a small side dish of one or two vegetable curries and pickles (veggies prepared with hot spices and fried). My favorite of all is curd rice, but the curd and buttermilk are a million times better in India! I not only try to prepare and eat Indian food so often, but also eat it by hand. Ironically in India, I hardly ate with my hand, but here I do it to remember India. I am also compelled to share that the other aspect of these meals that made them healthier than the American fast food is that all the dishes are made from scratch, without preservatives, additives, artificial colors, etc. Though a higher percentage of the population in India are considered localvores, the agricultural industry and the public have not yet, in large numbers as in the US, bought into the 'organic' movement.
2. I use hair oil.
This was not an easily acquired habit. Initially when I came to the hostel all the girls used to apply hair oil at 6:30 since the water tap was turned on at 7 and they would bathe and remove the oil. So, between 6:30- 7pm, the hostel premises would increasingly acquire the smell (or, as I described it initially, stink) of the hair oils. Though most girls used coconut oil or homemade preparations made with herbs, but some girls, mostly the Kerala girls, who had family members in Dubai or other Middle Eastern countries, used olive oil. Though, over time, I gained an epicurean sense of smell for different oils, preferring Clinic brand oil, for the longest time, I thought this was gross and smelly and stayed far from it. My mind and behavior drifted toward the use of coconut oil when I realized using it would help me stay cool in the hot sun. Because we had to visit the slums in the hot midday (11am-4pm) sun, which is tiring on the head, and were advised not to use umbrellas to keep the sun off our head, we had to think of other solutions. We use one or both of the solutions the 'local women' did; keep the pullu (sari end) on their heads or apply hair oil to cool the scalp. I tried the sari end on my head for a long time, but was feeling so incredibly hot, so one day tried the oil, and it worked wonders! Not only did it cool my head, but after some months of applying in morning and keeping on throughout the day until I bathed at 7pm, which is common practice among many women in Chennai, my hair began getting thicker and shinier. When I first came back to US, I continued this habit daily until winter set in, and it was too cold to continue, so now I do it in the heat of summer or for short periods in winter. In US, though, I rarely leave the house with the oil in my hair. One of the reasons I continue to use the oils in US, besides brining out strength and shine in my hair is to prevent dandruff. For me, some oils have proven to be better than any dandruff shampoo at removing and preventing dandruff.
3. I brush my teeth before I eat.
The majority of Indians run to the bathroom and brush their teeth as soon as they wake up in the morning. Unlike in the US, where teeth are brushed after eating, in India they are brushed before eating! It took me time, but I also acquired this habit, and keep it to this day. Keeping in line with this, some traditional or brahminic families will prepare and/or eat only after showering in the morning. In families that follow this tradition, some of which I also stayed with, will feed you if you have not yet brushed your teeth or showered, but they will feel very uncomfortable doing so.
4. I wear my saris and salvaar kamiz dresses at any opportunity.
I will be the first to say, I don't usually feel comfortable wearing western clothes. So, in India, I found a haven of comfortable and covering, yet very feminine dresses in India. I have many saris and salvaars I got in India, I try to wear them even here in the US at any opportunity. I even wear my Indian clothes to work. My coworkers love it and I have not faced any problem (yet!).
5. I am more giving and accommodating to others.
Indians, I felt were so generous at giving themselves at their disposal to you if they considered you a friend. They would go out of their way for you. For instance, the time I got really sick, my 'amma' who was moving at the time still housed me while moving and took care of me, making me special foods she never heard of before, with one complaint. People in India seem not only to give more of themselves, but adjust to others more. In western culture, I find people want others to change for them. Should we not try to change ourselves for others by adjusting?
6. I would treat any guest as 'god'.
In Sanskrit, there is a phrase, Atithi Deva Bhava. This means that 'the guest is god.' Guests are treated with adoration and hosts will do anything to please their guest. Guests will be served all types of drinks, sweets and food until the point of overstuffing! Food is only one part of this treatment. Hosts also are sensitive to their guest's comfort. They go to great lengths to make you comfortable. This can be as simple as stocking their fridge with coke (that they don't drink themselves in some cases) or preparing a special place for you to sleep, eat or bathe. For instance, when I stayed in my friend's village, where the girls bathe in the river, her father knowing that is not my culture, constructed a 'bathroom' out of banana leaves, thatched materials and tree branches for me. This was not an easy thing, either, as he had to go to the forest for all the materials, including the vine which he used to tie it together (no nails were used), and this task easily took him about 3-4 hours or more!
7. Give, don't always take!
Visiting others and being a guest also requires some responsibility. One should not visit others without taking something, like sweets or chocolates. If the family recently acquired a new house, someone got married or had a baby, a fitting wrapped gift is appropriate in place of food. Keep in mind, though, when giving a gift many may not open it in front of you. It is custom to keep it aside and open it later. The reason for this, I think, is that if you get a gift you may not like your dislike of this will not be shown immediately to the person who gave it to you. It saves both you as the receiver and the giver from embarrassment of this situation. In fact, I like this custom very much, and often practice this in US. I should also note in India, especially in Chennai, when receiving a gift, it is important to receive it with two hands, the left hand being on bottom. Never receive a gift in only your left hand that is considered an insult.
8. Sleeping on floor.
Many families in Chennai that I shared homes with slept on the floor. Many people I met in Chennai and around Chennai preferred to sleep on the floor. Against some thought, people most surely had beds in their home, but beds were used mainly for the elderly, sick or visitors. Many times people preferred to sweep and mop the floor, unfold their mat, lay on that with a pillow and blanket, with the ceiling fan on above, and sleep. Sleeping on the tiled or cement floors not only proved to be much cooler than laying in a bed, but many believed sleeping on the floor is good for the back.
Often in this method of sleeping, the char pays are folded up and piled along with the pillows and blankets in a corner of the room during the day. For those that preferred not to have beds in their house, their spaces were often used for both sleeping and daily living.
You may wonder if I continue to sleep on the floor. Now, I do not sleep on the floor. Between my return in 2001 and 2004, I often slept on the floor and occasionally slept on the bed. Since that time, I have only been sleeping in the bed.
9. I love 'masala tea'!
Masala tea or chai is made by boiling water and tea leaves and adding various spices, milk and sugar. On a trip in North India from Kalka to Shimla (North India), the train made so many stops at small towns going up the hill, and each station served a cup of tea for 2 rupees and at each stop the masala was different, but so good! If anyone has any good chai recipies, please contribute them to my site!
10. Do I really work on IST?
IST stands for Indian Standard Time. However, some people, when making a pun of IST, say this means Indian Stretchable Time. Unlike in US, where people want to be exactly on time, in India, for instance, if something starts at 10 am, it may not start until 10:30am. This can often happen in the Indian culture in US. I often also find, that since I been back to US in 2001 and have gone back to India twice since, that times somehow feels to pass differently in the two countries.
Stay Tuned for part 3. If you missed part 1, click here.
Thanks for reading.
Why I studied in India and Why I do what I do?
Cross-Cultural tips on bathrooms in India
Jennifer Kumar recently moved back to India a second time and is helping others with their cultural adjustment and immersion experiences via Authentic Journeys.
Updated May 2011.