Monday, August 11, 2014

The Firangi Insecurity Complex

Everyone has issues. Everyone has certain things that they are insecure about.

Many people know that Indians have some of their own insecurities - about their skin color, language, caste, financial status, region....the list goes on. What a lot of people don't realize is that Firangi's also have their own insecurities, especially when they are in an intercultural relationship.

You see, as a Firangi, you immediately inherit a code of cultural behavior that you are not familiar with and is not properly explained to you. Because in India, there are basically no straight rules! By code of behavior, I mean things like: speaking to elders, religious customs, dress, and even entering a kitchen. It may seem like all the time at times, that you are constantly doing something wrong. I could literally write a book on how many foreign faux-pas I have committed over the years!

For example, here are some common criticisms a Firangi might face: 

"You have pinned the saree in an unflattering way"

"Why aren't you wearing a necklace?"

"You're wearing the dupatta wrong"

"You are not supposed to eat yogurt with that"

"Your bindi is not centered"

"You didn't put enough salt in this dish"

"Why can't you eat with your hands only?"

"You should be waking up at 5 in the morning"

"Do not say _____ to elders" (List of 5, 368, 956, 872 things...)

In general, I have noticed that Asians are more VOCAL about incorrectness. Whereas Westerners are a little more discreet (except about grammatical mistakes). Usually, if you are doing something right, you won't even get acknowledged by Asians. There is no concept of "positive reinforcement". It is only when you are doing something wrong that you will get a full conversation! The ingrained Asian mentality is that "you should always become better" so it kind of normalizes criticism. However, Westerners do not constantly like to be told that what they are doing is wrong - they are more sensitive. Sometimes, it sets up the relationship in which one half of the couple is so obsessed with pleasing, that they are doing all of the cultural compromising. We have all been there...

Case in point: One time I forgot to wear a necklace with my saree while attending my SIL's new baby Punyajanam. I was immediately told by all the female relatives (and some male relatives) that I should be wearing a necklace. I naively thought the saree border was decorative enough!!! Total rookie gori mistake.

Seriously, not even a HELLO! You have flown around the world to see us and we haven't seen you in a few years! They kept pressing me on it, not only making me aware of my seemingly unforgivable mistake, but several times that day - just to remind me again. I left feeling insecure and bewildered, and so many years later I am still traumatized. I will never, ever, ever, ever forget to wear a necklace with my saree again! It literally was a capital offense!

(The one unforgivable incident of not wearing a necklace with my saree!)

The criticism comes from a good place, but the problem is in it's delivery. Indian elders are friggin' scary - let's be real here! Indians typically talk louder, so it feels like they are yelling at you. And everyone in husband-ji's family have huge eyeballs so when they criticize, I literally want to hide because it feels like they are giving you the stare of death! 

(Stare of death)

In an intercultural marriage, learning the spouse's culture can be an overwhelming experience filled with many never-ending trial and errors. It is good to know if you are doing something in an incorrect manner, but I feel there should be equally as much positive reinforcement. In other words: when your spouse does something right - praise them!

And plus, who really makes these "rules"? Maybe I DON'T want to look like a decorated cow with all these necklaces, and maybe I DON'T want sooooo much salt in my food! Maybe....just maybe...I like what I like!

I often get emails from other Firangi's that they are being constantly criticized by both their husbands and inlaws. Well, welcome to one of the less-glamorous occurrences of being a Firangi Bahu! After cricket, criticizing the Choti Bahu is the next most popular national sport! But because many foreigner's have little to none connection to India pre-marriage, it can feel like you're just simply not good enough. It can feel totally personal. It is definitely something that you can bitch to your Indian girlfriends about over coffee together!

Husband-ji is great at not criticizing me too much, except in cooking of course, since he is the chef extraordinaire. He was annoyed at me last week for making Pudina Rice on Thursday and Lemon Rice on Friday ("AIIIYOO! So much of rice dishes!!") To which I replied, "Oh just shut up and eat it!" Besides, MIL told me specifically to not waste food and we needed something to finish off the tomato chutney with! DUH!!!

My MIL - in typical Indian MIL fashion - can criticize me a lot. Even though she swears she does it way less than her own MIL did to her (OMG!). An Indian MIL's full-time job is to give "helpful advices"! Even if they have other jobs, that becomes their main job. They literally prioritize it at the very top. The other day she was telling me that "should become slim" and then telling me to wait longer to have a second child until she immigrates here permanently. Like, yes, my MIL thinks she is in charge of my weight loss and my womb also!!! Husband-ji has told her many times to "please stop talking"....

And thus comes the birth of the Firangi Insecurity Complex. That feeling that you "just can't do anything right"...we've ALL got it.


On the opposite side, husband-ji is convinced that I nag him a lot. What he doesn't realize is that there are so many things which I refrain from saying because I think it will hurt his feelings (Indian men are extremely sensitive, even more so than Gori wives!). For example, for as long as I've known him, he often says, "Move!" when he needs to get by. This is actually quite rude in the Western world but I never had a chance to correct him on it discreetly. A few weeks ago, we were at a restaurant and Maya accidentally tried to reach for a toy and was going to fall. The waitress was taking our order and he had to get up fast, so he pushed her and said, "MOVE!!!" loudly, and she was extremely offended. After he came back to the table, I told him that what he did was rude and the waitress was really upset. He had no idea and was completely shocked. He called the waitress back over and he apologized. I said to him, "I was meaning to tell you that saying that was rude, like 9 years ago, but I didn't want to start a fight"...

Husband-ji replied, "Well at least I was polite enough to tell her to move! In India you would just get pushed without warning!"

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Dear readers, if you are in an intercultural relationship or living abroad, do you have a foreigner's insecurity complex? If so, what about?

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47 comments

  1. I love that you tell it as it is!! Frankly this is not the difference between the western world and Indian world. It is the difference between archaic lifestyle and modern era. MILs all over India do the same thing. Relatives feel in charge. But the new bahus, they don't take this crap. Just like you, we take it all out here and feel irritated when these things happen to us. Hopefully it will change when we are MILs!

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    1. A very good point...archaic vs modern. I think the new generation of women is going to be very different MILs than that generation.

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  2. This is a really great post. You hit the nail on the head. We screw up so many times and don't even realize it until we're reminded many times over and over about how we didn't do/wear/say/etc. something right lol. I did get lucky in one aspect, my husband will tell people right off the bat that I'm not Indian and don't know these things and then somehow I seem to get a pass on most things. If it's critical he'll tell me ahead of time what I have to do. I still make mistakes but it's kept me from looking like a total idiot more than once. :P

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    1. That's great, ya it totally is better at least if we have our hubby's on our side. I think they are also shocked by the criticism we face!

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  3. I'm really glad you wrote about this, as I've actually been going through something similar quite recently. There seems to be a little room to make a mistake once, but after that, or forgetfulness can cause serious trouble. It depends on the situation though. Not to mention some rules (an unspoken code indeed) I would have never fathomed.

    Like APPI, DN has mentioned to his family, "She didn't know, she's still learning." - But that doesn't seem to really excuse whatever strange mistake I may have made.

    It can definitely leave us with a complex. I too, have felt like I can do no right. I have to remind myself not to think negatively, and that it's just as much of a learning experience for DN as it is for me.

    My first trip to India made me quickly realize that judgement/criticism is quite normal there. DN has taught me that judgement helps improve people, especially in an interdependent society. I don't agree with most scenarios, but I have at least come to a mutual understanding. I understand it exists... :P Doesn't mean I cope with it well, or agree with it.

    So yes, it's safe to say I have my insecurities. To sum it up, it's about: Weight / body type, differences in culture, the "slut" label Westerners are tagged with, make up (or lack of), not being able to communicate in Hindi...
    These are the major ones, anyway.

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    1. I feel the same, I feel judgement is so negative and it leaves no room for compassion. Judgement creates a wall between you and the other person, hindering a relationship and an emotional connection.
      My insecurities are the same as yours. If I am wearing make up it is either too much or too little, my weight - I could always be "10 lbs thinner", all the Western stereotypes drive me mad.

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  4. Hi Alexandra - this is as always, a wonderful post. I am going to give you my honest perspective as a Latin woman married to an Indian man for almost ten years (in October and all together for almost 12).

    We put too much pressure on ourselves to become something that we are not to please our loved ones and to be accepted by their loved ones. For me, this only lasted about the first couple of months into our relationship. Gladly I realize that this is not who I was and this is something that I created myself and nothing that he expected of me. He actually had to say to me to don't worry about these things and that he loved me and accepted me the way that I was just as I accepted him and love him the way that he is. The rest did not matter.

    I have never considered myself the "firangi, gori or pardesi" wife, I am just his wife. I don't mean to offend anyone that identify themselves with those terms. I just don't. I think sometimes this is part of the problem. Is one thing to mesh two cultures together but is another for one of them to be the predominant one. We also don't care about what other people think and we don't conform to either one of our cultures requirements just for the sake of culture. It feels like we actually created our own culture. We do what we feel is right for us. We appreciate opinions and criticism but at the end of the day we make decisions that work for us and our families know this. They have no crazy expectations from us. Just to be happy and love each other and for us to love and respect them. Family is very important to us but we don't allow meddling and constant unsolicited "advise".

    I agree that Indian criticism is also a little too much. But in reality so is Latin. Unfiltered and insensitive at times. A simple "this is not how things are done here, you are entitled to your opinion and these are different times" should suffice. BTW, you looked stunning in that sari and it did not need any further embellishment. My MIL said is not a requirement to wear a necklace with a sari. Is hard to not take things personal when something like this happen. We just need to prepare ourselves better for these type of situations (I would have said "this is how I like it - ou wear a necklace I don't - neither one of us is wrong - is a matter of personal preference and this is MY preference"). We also need to develop a thicker skin to deal with these things. Not only with Indian culture but any culture.

    We are not Indian wives. We will never be. We didn't grow up the Indian way and in my case, my husband didn't grow up the Latin way. We respect and accept that about each other. After all, that is the way we already were when we met. We shouldn't adopt certain customs just because we feel that otherwise we will not be accepted. We should be true to ourselves.

    On a final note and from my experience, is not very hard to be in an intercultural marriage. Acceptance of each other is key. Accept the fact that we are not Indian wives. That we did not grow up in that culture. That we ate different things, liked different things, learned different things. Accept the fact that our husbands did not grow up in our culture either. And while we should accommodate certain aspect of each other cultures we should do it without sacrificing who we are as individuals.

    Millie B

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    1. Very well said, Millie....you are such a wise soul.

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  5. I agree with Nisha and Millie. This is more of a mark of traditional society than a Indian Vs Foreigner if we really observe.

    Don't worry, sometimes I make mistakes like a FIrangi in India ha ha. There is no one set of rules which is what makes it difficult.

    Right now, I do not really have a firangi complex because both of us are abroad. I doubt that will come up because both of us do not really follow the path in our own respective countries. LIke U told me many times on this trip to India that I was more firangi than him lol!

    Don't worry about the nagging, I have had that too, wear a chain, wear bangles blah blah. At the end of the day, I would say that is what I like and I will wear it that way unless someone gave me a small thin chain and I would wear it for an hour or so.

    I think, often we compromise more when in new cultures because we do not want to be rude and listen quietly but we don't have to. I like it that way should shut many people up. Anyways, you are finragi ;)

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    1. Totally, the part that bothers me is that one relative will say I am doing it wrong, another one will say it's right, then they will start arguing. There really are no set rules!

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  6. I know many Indian ladies who are getting the same kind of crap from their MIL and are bugged, so it is not the fact that foreigners don't know the culture, it is just that MILs really like bringing crawly archaic notions out and pass them as "Rules". In a decade in India I learned that the best is to ignore, and move on, and to certainly not think that the way a dupatta is draped, or a bindi applied, or how one's dal taste is part of Indian culture. I would see the same kind of grumpy ladies in Switzerland cribbing about the new generation not wearing lady like shoes, or wearing too much or too little make up. Their weekly, if not daily coffee house chat was loud enough for all to hear. I got old ladies randomly tell me to my face in public places that I was doing things wrong in Geneva, including how I sat not properly straight. The Indian version just sound the same to me.

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    1. That is very true, sometimes my aunt's do that too, except it is less extreme. Sometimes I think it is jealousy, like they are jealous that we have so many modern objects to help with child-rearing, like high tech baby monitors and nipples and whatnot.

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  7. I really really enjoyed reading this post. As I was reading, I realize how I've experienced some similar incidents too with my very own mother! And I'm not Indian! I'm a Malay girl in her mid twenties and I realize besides culture differences, generation gap plays a role too in two individuals having different views of what is supposedly the social norm.

    I've been through that unforgivable incident of not wearing a necklace too with my mom and after a couple of times, she just accept the concept of "less is more".

    Personally I think talking it out, sharing our own views with the other person might help when both individuals have different ideas of what is right. Either one of them might just end up learning new information along the way :)

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    1. I agree, I think it is more a generation gap than anything! Somehow elders are too critical of us youngsters!

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  8. @Alexandra

    I present you the the songs of the greatest poet/director of bollywood, Guzar. You won't even need subtitles, the songs are so beautiful that you would be transported to another world, such beautiful poetry. Whenever I find some songs or articles I like to share it with you.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F2A_fV2qMmE

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  9. Ha! Just the other day relatives demanded an acceptable reason as to why I hadn't worn a sari. And then I was asked why I hadn't put on weight. (I replied, it's because I put effort into maintaining a slim healthy body!).

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    1. Hahaha! You always have the best comebacks, Sharell!

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  10. I think it's important to have thick skin and stand up for yourself, but most importantly I think it's important for your man to back you up. If you want to be in an intercultural relationship, you have to set boundaries between the family members. Intercultural relationships are not easy, but they aren't impossible. I think that a little motherly criticism and advice is good, but anything offensive such as weight, makeup, appearance, is 100% rude and I would want my bf/hus to stick up for me and (in the nicest way possible) tell whoever it is making a comment to kindly keep their opinions to themselves.

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    1. That is very true. The problem is that elders think talking about weight & appearance is fair game. That is where we differ...for our generation, things like that we don't bring up.

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  11. The red saree is really beautiful! And yes, totally enough without adding a lot of extra gold.
    I can't wait to try out my first saree.
    Being complained on by future relatives is something I should be glad to wait with though...

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    1. Thank you! The red one is one of my faves!

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  12. Oh Alexandra, thank you for this post ! I'm currently in India meeting the family and totally relate to what you wrote. I find everybody to be overbearing, except hubby's Aka (elderst sister) who is hearing impaired but very attentive to others and sweet. I also find people to be very harsh with one another over here and it upsets me. Hugs (Padparadscha)

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    1. First meeting with family can always be so intimidating, there will be so much speculation, like you are under a microscope...it is tough! Hang in there!

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  13. Hello, I'm new to reading your blog. :) I was wondering since you have feminist views if the anti-feminist reasons for sarees bother you? I want to wear one but the fact it was made to hide women's bodies gets to me.

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    1. I see sarees as more revealing than anything! But really, it is such a flexible garment - it can reveal or cover up. It is not a burqua...

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  14. I talked about your post to hubby and he told me I am intoxicating myself with mind brandy lol

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  15. @Alexandra

    Today is 15th August, India's Independence Day. Happy Independence Day to you and family. Here is a link to the historic midnight speech made by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India in the Parliament of fee India. It the most inspiring and scintillating speech. It is ofcourse crisp british english.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1wUcw8Ufx_Y

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  16. I am in a relationship with an Indian man and he takes our baby daughter in the car without her seat belt. This horrified me and I told him he is never to do it again, but caught it happening another time after that. He is a terrible driver and crashed my car and it was a write off. Thank god our daughter was not in the car that time. I am really stressed out. What to do?

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    1. How stressful. Do you live in North America or abroad?

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    2. I live in Australia

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    3. So that is absolutely illegal there! He could get ticketed and-or fined, and also it is so dangerous!!! Please show him a youtube video of a child being thrown out of the car. What a terrible dilemma, as a fellow mother, I would have a fit! He needs to know that cars go way faster and higher impact in Australia....in the majority of India you cannot go fast at all due to all those potholes!

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  17. @Alexandra

    The word firangi was a derogatory term used for British. The word Videshi would be more appropriate for a foreigner because it means foreigner in Sanskrit/Hindi. In desi Hindi it would be Bideshi. The same goes for Gora which also had the same negative connotations. However, gori is a positive word used frequently in bollywood songs to describe the beauty of the heroine like 'Gaon ki Gori' (fair girl from village).

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    1. Good to know! I do not find it derogatory to myself though, I only like it because it sounds closest to "foreigner" in English. Although Videshi has a really nice ring to it!

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  18. More people need to keep the Golden Rule in mind. I can’t imagine anyone likes being told to lose weight or dress in a different way. Is there really a right or wrong way? Who really cares if you wear a necklace? In fact I think it’s actually quite egocentric to offer unsolicited feedback. Its bold to assume you know what is better for an individual than themselves. As long as you’re not intentionally offending someone or demeaning their culture – live and let live!

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    1. I know, right? It's like they would totally get offended if I said anything to them. Of course I can't say a word to elders.. LOL

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  19. Hi Alexandra,

    What you are facing is Bahu insecurity. Every bahu goes through it who has an Indian MIL.
    The helpful advice part is so true.... but sometimes that is what helps us i feel.
    Even the comparison of MIL to her own MIL is so true. They always make their bahu's feel that they are treating them better than their MIL's used to.
    I dont know but i always make a mental note that i wouldnt do in case I have a bahu in the future( m just married this year :)
    I also always feel that i am been judged at all points in my MIL home.
    Sometimes i feel like a guest :)
    Dont worry, we are in the same boat :)

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    1. Very true...
      Sometimes I take the helpful advice, but sometimes it just hits me at the wrong moment, like am I not doing enough? Of course, that is not her fault.

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    2. I always tell my mind that it is for the man i love so much and my future child who I want to have his/her grandparents presence in his/her life

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    3. Yes, it is so important for grandkids to be with their grandparents....

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  20. Hi Alexandra,
    You have great insight into the Indian way of life and a captivating manner of writing; kudos to trying to balance the two cultures. While India is a complex place and some of the people are often exasperating even to an Indian, I wish to point out that one of the main flaws in that society is the emphasis on caste. I am happy to note that it is slowly losing its grip in the urban areas, and wish we would leave it behind us soon.
    So with that in mind, my suggestion is to drop the Iyengar label from your website title; in my opinion it loudly proclaims the caste of your husband and reminds me of the staunch caste divisions in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere. I admire the discipline and values of the Brahmins (I generally avoid stating my caste) but their exclusivity is the Achilles heel of the group. I just wish people focused on the work ethic and not on pride and divisions. Your in laws may feel differently, I am merely expressing my take on caste labels.
    Look forward to reading more about your insights into a multicultural past, present and future. Wish you a wonderful life with you husband and family.

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    1. Yes, I absolutely agree....the most difficult thing for me to learn has been about "caste", and I simply do not believe in it at all.
      As you must know, the Iyengars are notoriously non-mixing, which is why I have it in my blog title - precisely to show just how difficult it was for me to enter this family and be accepted. I have been refused from entering a kitchen, all because I am not Brahmin. I have been refused from cooking food, precisely because I am not Brahmin. You can only imagine...!!!

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    2. You must have certainly faced humongous barriers in dealing with caste issues, but you have done so with a balance of grace and firmness.
      Yes, I am familiar with the traditions but being an Indian I had fewer problems opposing them. All the best, your open attitude and presence and in their lives will certainly have a beneficial effect of those who see you balance the two cultures.

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    3. That is just an excuse! My husband is a Telugu brahmin and i am north indian brahmin. My mother in law does not let me into the kitchen while she is cooking and will cringe even if i am 5 feet away - i might touch her and defile her. As if I am an overzealous puppy and dont know my limits. Sometimes i think dogs are treated better. So it has nothing to do with your not being a brahmin. Further, as per hindu traditions, you have the same caste and gothram as your husband after marriage. Ask your husband. He surely knows. Ask him your gothram. Your gothram(lineage) is the same as him. And you cannot have his gothram without having his caste. This is a way of making the daughter in law uncomfortable and a perpetual outsider. That you broke their rules and you have to pay for that transgression through your life. They have been pulling wool over your eyes.
      Im sorry i find telugu culture offensive now. And i fail to understand why my husband married me if his family had so many issues. It is not as if i was his girlfriend. We had a proper arranged marriage. I dont know how they can crib that i dont know telugu, dont follow telugu customs, dont cook food 'as mother does it' and believe it or not dont watch tv. Everybody conveniently forgets at this time that i came from a different language, region, have a much more cosmopolitan family as both siblings had an inter caste marriage, have worked for almost 15 years and lived alone in a metro for 10 years. Every detail i personally explained to husband before marriage. And then the benchmark is my sister in law who has never stepped out of the house. Everything the daughter does is right, but nothing the daughter in law does is right. If daughter's mother in law criticizes daughter's cooking, the family pouts and takes offense. But when my mother in law criticizes my mother - whom she has seen exactly twice, no conversation as different languages, it is ok. Nothing of this sort happens in the north. And when it does, people have the grace to accept it as dysfunctional. What is the use of education if you dont have basic manners...
      Lakshmi

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