Saturday, November 28, 2015

My Intercultural Love: Fawad & Satu

This beautiful Pakistani-Finnish couple lives in Europe together and combines their cultures effortlessly!

My name is Satu and I’m from Tampere, Finland. My husband, Fawad, is Pakistani Punjabi,  raised in Islamabad. We currently live together in Espoo, southern Finland and are expecting our first baby.

Three words that describe you...
Intuitive, impatient and thoughtful.

Favorite childhood memory...
Long summer holidays from school and all the activities during those holidays: travelling around Europe with my family, spending time by the lake at our family cottage in Eastern Finland, long walks in the forest with my Labrador retriever Tessa, picking berries and flowers with my mother and grandmother. 

Where/how do you feel most inspired?
Definitely in nature. Finnish nature offers four very distinctive seasons and each of them involves different traditions and activities. My mother taught me to always admire and respect nature and that has stuck with me until this day. I might stop to adore a specifically beautiful shade of green grass and I still get excited (and equally scared) whenever there’s a thunderstorm.

Where/how did you meet your spouse?
We met in Tampere, Finland, at University circles. I had recently returned from Turkey, having lived there for six months for exchange studies. I didn’t want to let go of the international atmosphere so I joined a group of exchange students and international degree students in Tampere and quickly met Fawad through common friends.

How long have you been together?
We met in May 2011 so it has now been 4.5 years.

What qualities do you admire in your spouse?
Fawad is a very loving person and really takes care of those close to him. I have no doubt that he will be a great father! He is also very fun loving and never fails to make me laugh. He has an amazing ability to always think positive and he makes people comfortable by keeping the moment light.

Favorite memory together as a couple...
It’s really hard for me to choose one favorite memory over others! But I specifically enjoyed our trip to Istanbul back in 2013. Due to a small confusion with flight dates (oops!) we ended up spending 10 days there instead of the planned 4 days. We were in my favorite city in the world, roaming around with ample of time, enjoying the food, the atmosphere, the history and the sights. On top of it all, Fawad got a call with good news on a job AND we celebrated my birthday. It was just such a stress free trip and I feel like we connected in new ways.

What did you know about your spouse's culture prior to your relationship?
Pretty much nothing. I had never met a Pakistani person before and my knowledge on the country was limited to news of Taliban and Osama bin Laden. I’d like to think myself as open minded though, so I never let prejudice define how I looked at Fawad. And here we are!

How did you tell your friends/family about your intercultural relationship?
Most of our friends are international so it was no big deal for them. There were some friends/family members that I knew would struggle a bit with the news, but once they got to know Fawad, their worries disappeared. Fawad also told his family about me at an early stage.

How has your relationship enlightened your life? How has it changed you & your outlook on life?
It is amazing to learn about a new culture so different from your own. It really widens your perspective and gives new points of view. On a personal level, there are some values in my life that have been re-kindled with Fawad’s influence. I have become more positive and laid back and Fawad has brought the hugging culture even to my side of the family!

Who proposed and how?
We had been discussing getting engaged and already bought the rings together so it wasn’t really a surprise to me. We went on a small trip to Tallinn, Estonia and spent a very pleasant few days in a nice hotel. Fawad didn’t have a grand speech prepared and was clearly a bit nervous, but he did say some very beautiful words and proposed in the hotel room, privately but romantically, just like I wanted. Earlier he had also met with my parents to ask for my hand, not that we needed their permission, but because we thought it would be nice gesture towards them. This story ended up in my dad’s speech at our wedding!

Describe your wedding...
We had two weddings, one in Pakistan and one in Finland. The Pakistan wedding took place in April 2015 and lasted for two days. We had a Mehndi party for friends and close relatives, with music, food, dancing, colorful clothes and all that. The next day we had the Walima reception which was a more upscale dinner event, us sitting on a couch on a platform and being photographed with all the guests one by one. Regardless of the horrifically last minute (in my Finnish, calm-natured, confirm-everything-six-months-before opinion) preparations, everything went really well and both events will always be some of my best experiences of Pakistani culture.

The Finnish wedding happened in August 2015 in Tampere, the city where we met. We had a civil ceremony in a beautiful blooming rose garden and a reception at a manor. The program was quite traditional with the ceremony, food, speeches, wedding dance and so on. We kept the two weddings separate in a way that one was completely Pakistani and one completely Finnish, with one exception of the wedding dance in the Finnish wedding where we performed a short Bhangra show. That turned out to be a hit!

What does being married mean to you?
Getting married was like gearing up to the next level. We are both calmer now and quarrel less. We share the same values and goals in life and being married is kind of a testimony for that. Our marriage is still so fresh that I sometimes forget to call Fawad my husband – it sounds so grown up. And I get weak in the knees when he calls me his wife!

What are your dreams for your future together as a married couple?
We want to maintain our relationship as affectionate, bubbly and happy even when the times get busier. We want to buy a home, settle down and start our family but at the same time keep all doors open for news career prospects and locations. We also want to keep on travelling regularly.

What's the best marital advice that you received from elder family/friends?
Never go to bed angry.

What positive cultural values do you bring to your relationship?
Meaning what you say and saying what you feel, honesty, and love for nature.

What do you do to keep your relationship alive? What kinds of things do you do to connect with your spouse?
For us the small acts of kindness in everyday life are the key to keeping the relationship alive. We need regular together-time to just relax, laugh and be cute. Another important thing for both of us is travelling, whether it’s a small weekend trip to a nearby city or a longer overseas holiday. Learning and seeing new things together connects us in a very special way and creates precious memories.

In what ways have you adopted aspects of your spouse's culture?
I like the fashion and clothes and own way too many shalwar suits considering that I’ve only visited Pakistan twice! I’m also slowly increasing my threshold for spicy foods and recently learned to love lentil soup. Last but not least, I’m trying to learn Urdu which is a bit of a challenge as there are no classes available where I live. Fawad also likes to mix Urdu and Punjabi which doesn’t make my language learning any easier!

Has your family adopted aspects of your spouse's culture?
They like the Pakistani food that Fawad sometimes cooks, given that he makes it Finnish-friendly (no chili or other hot spices). And we did see some bhangra moves from them at the wedding!

What aspects of your spouse's culture do you find difficult to embrace?
No matter how late or behind of schedule you are, there’s never a hurry to get things done. This can be really frustrating for someone like me who can’t relax if there’s unfinished business lurking around! Another thing that is totally different from the Finnish culture is the perception of and need for privacy. I’m used to having my own space and time so adjusting to a big family household with people constantly popping in and out can be tough. In Finland, even friends and family let each other know beforehand if they want to visit, and life in general is much more private and centered on the nuclear family.

What's the best and the worst part of being in an intercultural relationship?
The best part is that there is always something more to learn about each other and each other’s backgrounds. It is such a richness to be able to build your own family culture while picking the best sides of two very different cultures. The worst part is that someone’s family is always far away and not all big moments can be shared with both sides.

What do you think are the biggest misconceptions that people have about intercultural relationships?
That there is always some background agenda to the relationship other than love.

What are the biggest misconceptions about Finnish women?
Probably the general misconception that all European women have no moral values and are after money, and they cheat on their husbands the first chance they get. 

Have you come across people who disapprove of your intercultural union? If so, how do you deal with them?
No, at least not very openly. Although following the current European immigrant crisis I have noticed more people giving bad looks because they think Fawad is a fresh-off-the-boat immigrant who’s here to take advantage of the social benefits and stealing jobs and women from the locals. Luckily Fawad isn’t at all bothered by this!

Take-away advice for other intercultural couples...
Follow your heart. In the end, it’s your life and your choices, not your friends’ or family’s. If you are struggling with cultural differences, it might be worthwhile to search for some reading material and assignments for intercultural couples to learn to better understand each other’s backgrounds.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Ask Firangi Bahu: "My Indian boyfriend's MARRIED ex-girlfriend is still in love with him!"

(Img via Oscar Keys)

Sharing a letter from a reader...

"I'd be interested in your perspective and that of other readers if you have the time or interest in replying. I honestly don't know if there is any kind of answer to this situation, but it's also a strangely dramatic story which is entirely foreign to me and I wonder if you/your readers will find it entertaining/have any insights for me.

My boyfriend and I are very happy to be building our lives together here in the US. We're both 28 and this relationship is the most mature, sincere and loving relationship either of us have experienced. He's been in the US for six years, first doing his master's degree, and for the last several years working. During their last visit here, my boyfriend told his parents that he would like to find his own wife, according to him their response was "Fine, but don't come crying to us if it doesn't work out." I take that as a hopeful sign they'll eventually accept our relationship. But I also expect that his parents were probably still expecting him to eventually ask for an arranged marriage. I feel secure in our relationship and trust that with time and communication things will eventually work out. So, the family stuff, I feel okay about, the concern I have is about an ex-girlfriend of his. 

They "dated" while they were in college in India. He's told me about their relationship and I am not worried that he has lingering feelings or anything like that. It reminds me of my relationship with my first boyfriend- mostly sweet and innocent "first love" kind of stuff, but without the realities of adult life. They dated for over a year while in college - but she ended things when he decided that he wasn't interested in following her to the US for grad school. He wound up working at home for a year and then later decided to come here. At this point, their relationship ended seven years ago.

She had an arranged marriage, but is apparently still hung up on my boyfriend. She sends him Facebook and WhatsApp messages once or twice a year. The messages range from cordial birthday greetings, to plaintive cries for attention and love. Seriously, the message read like my high school journal when I was processing the end of my first love. "I'm sorry for caring so much, I'm sorry for loving you too much, for wanting to see you everyday, for always thinking about you before going to sleep." Not even kidding, that is straight out of the latest message.

Three years ago, she flew across the country and appeared on his doorstep unannounced to confront him about why he had stopped responding to her attempts at communication. She was married at that point! Who does that?! His house mate let her in and she spent the night in his room while my boyfriend slept on the couch and called her husband, (yeah that seems like a yucky patriarchy thing to me too, but also, I don't know what I would do if I were in the same situation.) At that point he told her explicitly that while he cared for her as a friend, he didn't feel comfortable continuing to talk to her or exchange messages. I did not know him at that point. Since then, he hasn't really engaged with her when she sends messages, but she continues to do so. 

I feel a bit like a bad feminist for saying this, but I'm getting frustrated by her presence in our life. I mostly feel really sorry for this woman, she is clearly carrying a lot of pain and anguish over this relationship which ended SEVEN years ago. Honestly, it is entirely possible my sweet, wonderful, perfect match for me now, boyfriend, was not a great boyfriend to her when they were younger. I don't know. I know I've grown and developed as a person and handle changing relationship dynamics much differently now, than I did when I was 21. I've experienced a heart shattering break up which took me a year to learn and recover from - but it's been seven years and this woman is STILL holding on. I know there isn't anything I can do to control her behaviour, I would really like to send her counselling and therapist options for her area - but that might not come across very well. 

It's also frustrating for me, because as the white girlfriend, his family doesn't know me and we haven't announced our marital intentions publicly yet. I guess I'm feeling a bit of desire for public recognition of my place in his life, like maybe that will either help her see that this is clearly inappropriate, or at the very least, I'll feel less bothered by her nuisance if I'm publicly recognized as his partner. Does that make any sense? Or am I just borrowing trouble to even engage with this issue at all? 

Should I just keep my mouth shut about the twinges of irritation I feel? Just support my boyfriend in his decision to NOT respond to her? I feel really sorry for her, it must be very painful to continue carrying this emotional burden. 

Also, it's totally possible this last message has me more annoyed because he's at home in Chennai right now and I just miss him and our relationship is going through a significant milestone - he's telling his folks about me. It is a nerve-wracking time for us and her latest message came at the right time for me to get bent out of shape over. 

Any insight? Or is this just something I should peacefully ignore and let run it's course?"


Dear readers, should the reader get involved or stay away from the drama?
How do you handle people who just can't seem to let go, despite the amount of time that has passed?
Have you ever dealt with a stalker ex?

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Canadian Thanksgiving in the USA

This week, Americans are celebrating the huge holiday of Thanksgiving in the USA, while we Canadians celebrated it last month in October.

Since my parents' were away and we had a holiday weekend, we decided to make a quick trip down to Seattle to see our Tamil family for the weekend. Over the past few years, we have made soooooooooo many trips to Seattle, as it is only a short drive across the border.

I love Seattle. It is such a great city, and so kid-friendly. It is just enough to get my fix of "American-ness" which I often miss, now that we are residing in Canada. Seattle is a city that is very subtly American. It is not as "Yankee" as places like Texas or New York. It is American, without being too American. Seattle also has a very cool and calm nature, much like many of the cities in the Pacific Northwest. I would compare it to a place like Goa, in terms of it's relaxed attitude - and lots of hippies too!

I also love that Seattle is such a diverse city. Thanks to Microsoft, there is a huge community of South Indians, which we don't have in Vancouver. The Indian food in the Seattle area is much better than the limited options in Vancouver, which are mostly inauthentic Punjabi cuisine.

While we were there, we got to do a lot of fun stuff, such as explore the Public Market, shop downtown, and take the monorail to the Space Needle and The Children's Museum. We have done all these things before, but when Maya was younger and was asleep for most of it! It is fun to do these things again, as she is older. I love seeing the world through her eyes.

The best part of the trip was seeing her play with her little cousin, who is like a big brother to her. Seeing her cousin was more fun for her than a trip to Disneyland!

While the kids played, husband-ji also got to have the chance to spend some good quality "guy time" with his cousin-brothers.

This was our last official trip of the year that we have planned. As winter rolls in, the only plans we have are just to stay home, keep working, and stay warm! It's hard to believe that a year ago, we were in India! Time just flies!


Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers! 
What are your plans for Thanksgiving?

Monday, November 23, 2015

Interview with Thrity Umrigar on her book "The Story Hour"

One of the novels that I read this year that really stayed with me was "The Story Hour" by Thrity Umrigar. It was one of those novels that I devoured late at night and just couldn't put down. Each word seemed to reach out to me and touch my soul. Characters came alive in my head, and they were so familiar to me. I imagined their faces and their surroundings in pristine detail. There was something about this novel that really got under my skin. Not to mention, this is one of the few novels that I have read by Indian authors that features a masala intercultural love story - a Blindian couple! YES, YES, YES!!! This book is a must-read for anyone who is in an intercultural relationship.

Hands down, my favorite thing about the novel was Thrity's exploration of multi-dimensional female characters. The two female protagonists were complex and flawed, which made them even more realistic and likable. Boy, do I love a flawed woman!

The novel also touched on many important themes that effect our masala community, such as: arranged marriage, the struggles of immigration, culture and love, isolation, reinvention, marriage, mental health, forgiveness, betrayal, and the innate power of female friendship.

(Img credit: Robert Mueller)

Today I'm thrilled to feature an intimate Q&A with Thrity Umrigar about her book, "The Story Hour"!

I loved that the two main protagonists were both multi-dimensional, complex women, which made this book even more precious to me. The theme of the flawed woman is also present in your other novels. What fascinates you about the idea of the flawed woman?
Thrity: I attempt to write novels that are reflections of reality as I see it. And one thing I've learned is that life is complex and so are people. There is a gap between who we aspire to be and who we are. Indeed, our flaws are evidence of our humanity. So, by definition I create flawed characters. I am not interested in black-and-white representations of reality -- we can leave that to the comic books. I think most of us live in the gray and that's where I nestle my novels.

One of the main themes of The Story Hour is female friendship - two women from completely different backgrounds who form a very deep and complex relationship. Why did you choose to write about the power of female friendship?
Thrity: I'm not sure that I chose to write about female friendship. I just chose to tell the story I wanted to tell about two different women from different class and educational backgrounds and they ended up seeking out each other's friendship because each needed to learn something from the other. 

In the novel, Lakshmi is brought to the US by her Indian husband and finds herself trapped with no support system and living far away from her family. Do you think this is common for many Indian women who relocate abroad after marriage?
Thrity: I'm afraid that it may be true for immigrant women of a certain class background. If they are not in grad school or working outside the home, there is a possibility of them being very isolated. Who would they turn to for friendship? And since arranged marriages are still common in India, even their most intimate partner -- their husband -- may be a stranger to them. I would imagine that this adds to the isolation, especially if the man is domineering or abusive or they find that there is no compatibility between them. Or, even if that's not the case, the man would be at work almost the entire day, leaving the woman to fend for herself.

How can people rebuild their lives after moving to an entire different country? Do you think people who haven't made such a drastic uprooting underestimate how hard it is?
Thrity: Absolutely. I think the vile rhetoric that we hear about immigration from our presidential candidates at the moment would end in a minute if people really understood the magnitude of the emotional trauma that immigration engenders. I mean, we are not even talking about people whose migrations are fueled by desperation -- whether it be abject poverty and violence in Mexico or the upheaval in Syria. Their trauma is almost too unbearable to fathom. Even someone like me, who came for the happiest of reasons -- to go to grad school in the U.S. -- I can still cry when I think of that awful scene at the airport when I left my entire family behind for the first time. I was 21 years old, brimming with optimism and raring to see the world. And yet, it was heart-wrenching to say goodbye to all the people you love. 

The novel also touches on some mental health topics, like suicide and depression. Is discussing mental health issues is frowned upon in Indian culture?
Thrity: Not frowned upon so much as misunderstood. Among the lower classes, there's no real understanding of PTSD or panic attacks or depression. The binaries are stark -- either you're crazy or you're sane. And there's very little support system for someone suffering from depression etc.

Lakshmi is also trapped in an emotionally abusive marriage by her controlling husband. What made you decide to write about emotional abuse - which is often overlooked (and therefore allowed)?
Thrity: In my novels, I'm always interested in the "smaller," less dramatic stories. So, writing about physical abuse didn't interest me -- it's common and easily understood. But verbal and emotional abuse is so much more interesting in a literary sense because its secretive and subtle and can be much more painful and lethal to a person's sense of self and personhood than more overt forms of abuse.

This novel was also very much about marriage and how long-term love changes and develops over time - for both Lakshmi & Maggie. How is marriage viewed differently in India than it is in the US?
Thrity: I think people in India are generally less romantic about marriage than we are in the West. I'm not sure how much people believe in soulmates etc. like we do. But then, we have so many more options -- staying single, marrying for love, geographical mobility, entering in same-sex unions -- than people in India do. So many people, even young people, still have arranged marriages. The saying in India is that there, love comes after marriage rather than before. I find myself quite dubious of this but there you have it.

Do you think Indian men have different expectations of marriage than women do?
In my very limited experience of life in India today -- I have lived in America my entire adult life -- I would suggest that Indian men are much more conservative and traditional in their expectations of marriage than the women are.

Both Lakshmi & Maggie are married women, but are childless - which is a taboo in both Indian and Western cultures. Do you think this helped the characters connect on a deeper level?
Thrity: This is one of those instances when the reader is more intelligent than the writer. I guess I was so focused on the other connection that the two women share -- that they both lost their mothers at a young age -- that I missed the connection that you made. Lakshmi, of course, is young enough to yet have children.

Being in an intercultural relationship myself, I absolutely loved that Maggie & Sudhir were a "Blindian" couple - which is quite a rarity in our community! What made you decide to write about a mixed masala marriage?
Thrity: I just thought that giving Maggie an Indian husband would give her yet another point of connection with Lakshmi. But I also wanted to point out the limits of that connection. Sudhir and Lakshmi are both Indian, yes, but they come from such vastly different class backgrounds, that they don't have all that much in common. And at a crucial moment, Maggie finds that her knowledge of her husband's culture doesn't help her understand and comfort Lakshmi.

Many of my own Indian family are scared of African-Americans when they come to the US, much like Lakshmi's husband was towards Maggie. What made you decide to write about some of the racism and mistrust that some Indians have towards people who have darker skin?
Thrity: I wrote about it because it's something that has always puzzled and angered me. I've heard of instances of Indian foreign students, for instance, refusing to say hello to a fellow black student on campus. I feel embarrassed when I hear these stories. So I decided to explore this phenomena and perhaps even suggest a path forward. India is one of the most color-conscious countries on Earth and I'm afraid that we carry our prejudices with us when we come to another nation.

Both Maggie & Lakshmi have painful secrets from their past that they share in the novel. Do you think painful secrets tend to catch up with oneself? Do sharing these stories with others help the healing process?
Thrity: If a secret is shameful, if it is weighing you down or corroding your insides, the best thing you can do is set it free. Then, the worm becomes a butterfly. And sharing our stories with one another is one of the fundamental things that human beings do. It affirms our humanity.

I loved that you wrote Lakshmi's thoughts and dialogue in heavily accented English - it reminded me so much of how my Indian Mother-in-Law thinks and talks. Were you worried that readers who are not familiar with the Indian accent would have a hard time understanding it?
Thrity: Yes. I was terribly worried. Not just about readers not getting it but whether I was getting it right. I didn't want Lakshmi to sound stupid or ignorant. I didn't want readers leaping to that conclusion. And so I really struggled mightily to write her in the most authentic voice I could.

This novel was very suspenseful and many times I felt as if I couldn't put it down! When you set out to write this, did you have a plan? Or did the story take shape organically?
Thrity: I think it was a combination of both. I had some idea where I was going -- I think I knew early on what Lakshmi's big secret would be -- but everything that happens from that point on took shape organically.

Are any of the characters based on real people?
Thrity: No.

Where do you feel most inspired?
Thrity: Out in nature. And in my shower.

I noticed in your biography that you are a professor. What about the teaching profession appeals to you the most?
Thrity: Teaching is a creative endeavor, much like writing. And I like to "infect" my students with my love for literature.

What advice can you give to aspiring writers who are just starting out?
Thrity: I would advise them to write as much as they can for as long as they can. I'd tell them to write for the joy and love of writing, without any thought of publication. You have to get your 10,000 hours of practice in first.

What's next for you? Are you working on another novel?
Thrity: I'm actually working on two novels. One is a novel with an African-American protagonist -- no Indian characters! -- called Everybody's Son. The other is a sequel to The Space Between Us.


A huge thank you to Thrity Umrigar for sharing this amazing book with our readers. For more information about Thrity and her upcoming books, please visit her HERE. To purchase her book on Amazon, click HERE.

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