Friday, October 10, 2014

Preparing your foreign partner to visit India for the first time

(My first trip to India...9 years ago! In Vijaywada, AP)

In every Indo-intercultural relationship, there are huge milestones. For example, becoming boyfriend/girlfriend, telling the parents, as well as that very first nerve-wracking trip to India to meet the parents and the extended family.

There is no place on Earth like India. Even if you have had tons of traveling experiences (even in Asia) India is completely unique and unlike any other place you will ever go to. So this really makes a simple task like "meeting the parents" quite daunting. Knowing other foreigners who have visited India, people either love it or they hate it. Or a bit of both! India is kind of like that first lover that you just can't stop texting! India is like an LSD trip!!!

"Meeting the parents" is stressful enough as it is - but when you're in an Indo-intercultural relationship, you also have to drag yourself ALL the way to India and deal with things like language barriers, cultural customs, differences in formalities, and a country that is overstimulating in its nature. And nothing is really explained to you beforehand - because to Indians from the Motherland, the eccentricities of India are totally normal.

If you have a foreign partner that you are taking to India, it is extremely hard to prepare them. You would have to really think of what your family life looks like from a foreign perspective. Are there any customs involving male/female touching and/or hugging? And what about proper dress? Are there any customs around mealtimes? You would have to explain to your foreign partner in detail about how things are carried out in the household. For example, there may be no touching between genders, even if you are married. If you need to change your dress, you should not do so in front of other people. You may not wear revealing clothing. You should sit and be served rather than trying to help out in the kitchen. And also, let your foreign partner know if there are any sensitive topics that should not be discussed openly, for example: dating, being gay, sex, divorce, menstruation, ex-boyfriends, etc. This can be especially confusing for a foreigner because topics like finances are openly discussed, whereas dating is not!

As an Indian partner, you should stay close to your foreign partner at all times. Answer and divert any questions that he/she is not comfortable with - have a secret "rescue me!" cue with your partner. For example, relatives may try to keep stuffing your partner with food when they are already full - this is a perfect time to step in! You should protect your partner, but at the same time, give them space to interact naturally with your family. You will need to be like an Eagle sitting on top of its perch, gently watching interactions and ready to dive in. You cannot bring your foreign spouse all the way to another country and expect them to fend for themselves and/or know everything.

Also, there may be a difference as to whether you foreign partner is a man or a woman. For a foreign man, you may be bombarded by personal questions to purposely challenge you (and your masculinity). For a foreign woman, you may not be asked any direct questions other than small talk like "Do you like India?" and the majority of questions about you (and right in front of you) may be asked to your Indian partner, as if you are mute.

One big thing to keep in mind is the toilet situation. Many Westerners are not used to using the bathroom while squatting. You could even do a (clothed) demonstration of how you would use a traditional Indian toilet and what the small bucket is for. Even if you don't have one in your family home, when you are out and about they will eventually be faced with the toilet dilemma.

I always recommend that a couple stay at a nearby hotel because in India there is very little privacy. The privacy aspect can get seriously exhausting for a foreigner, as we are being watched AT ALL TIMES - both inside and outside the home. However, in many cases, that is not exactly possible since some families live in rural areas which is not close to any hotel.

The reason why I recommend a hotel is because your foreign partner can get some alone time where there would be nobody staring at them and commenting - it can get exhausting. I remember being commented on even in the way of which I was eating my food! Your foreign spouse will be getting stared at because they are foreign. And returning to India as a mixed couple, you will also get more stares than you are used to. People will often take pictures as you are walking by.

However, staying with the parents earns some serious brownie points, but it can feel like a very high pressure situation! If you do end up staying with the family, then make sure to take your partner out A LOT.

No matter where you are staying - make the trip a fun thing! Let your foreign partner see all the monuments, go shopping, visit restaurants and try street food/chai-wallahs, and generally partake in anything and everything to make it into a trip they will never forget - a life experience! India is a long way away and you may not be able to return for a while, so make it count.

Also, get them as involved as possible. If there is a religious function (like a pooja) let them participate in it and learn about it. Indian customs are so beautiful in their intricacies and are really interesting for a foreigner to learn about.

A trip to India will increase your tolerance to spice, heat and nosy relatives! 

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What do you think, dear readers? How can you help prepare your foreign partner to visit India? If you are a foreigner who has visited India before, in what ways do you wish you had been prepared?

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25 comments

  1. Good advice ! The hardest part for me was interacting with male relatives. (Padparadscha)

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    1. Me too....that was incredibly confusing and awkward!

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  2. Hi Alexandra - hubby and I are a pretty unconvetional Indo-Latin couple in the sense that we don't do all the dog and pony show with our families so the first time we visited each other countries was relaxed and fun. But I agree with the fact that India can be overwhelming for the first time visitor. This is what he and I did to help minimize the culture shock and be able to fully enjoy the trip:

    1- We went to India for 20 days and saved the last five to see his family. He wanted to show me India and as a first time visitor I did not want to spend 3 whole weeks doing nothing but family things; I wanted to experience India which I did and loved. Also keeping the last days for family instead of at the beginning of our vacation prevented us from having to deal with "stay here longer" shenanigans.

    2- Book a hotel nearby the family instead of staying with them for the first time. Such lack of privacy can be daunting for a first time visitor to India and it feels good to decompress and have some solitude with your love at the end of the day

    3- Everybody and their cousins will invite you for a meal. This from house to house hooping can get overwhelming since everyone wants to host you. Our solution was to rent a hall and have a luncheon for friends and family. Whoever wanted to see us came and it was a very stress free function.

    4- Don't jump full in with the "fit in by doing everything Indian". The truth is we will never fit in so wear what you like and feel comfortable in as long as is modest and respectful, leave the full face makeup behind. You don't feel like eating Indian food 3 times a day, ask future MIL for a chili cheese toast (she will be delighted to make it for you) or some grilled chicken with veggies.

    5- You don't feel / want to touch elders feet; you don't have to. They know you are a foreigner and while they will be delighted if you do, they are not going to reject you if you don't.

    Hope this helps,

    Millie B

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    1. Fantastic tips. I love the part about waiting til the end to visit family. There are just endless people to visit! It is true that we will never fit in...no matter how hard we try...

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  3. Argh this all sounds so scary LOL. Is there anything someone can do to prepare yourself (mentally, and physically) for meeting the Indian in laws, and the rest of the family. And is there anything i NEED to pack that i cant get easily over there.

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    1. Ah, is not that scary. Just don't over think anything and have an open mind. Be respectful of their way of life but nicely put your foot down when needed. Your significant other should also have a talk with them before hand and explain the differences between cultures. Most likely they will be as nervous as you :)

      They will feed you to no end even if you tell them you are about to burst. I was never forced feed because I just said no thank you from the very beginning. Stay strong and don't do anything that makes you uncomfortable.

      Mentally, make sure you get your time alone to decompress. You will need a thick skin for this one because Indians (and my family) have no clue what personal space means. Other than that, just be yourself; your partner will help you along the way.

      Physically, get your immunizations in order. Ask your doctor to give you some Cipro (good antibiotic for stomach illness - ah the dreaded Delhi Belly) and buy Imodium. Also take aspirin, cough drops (India is very dusty and your throat will tell you), cold medicine and any medication that you take on a daily basis if any. Whatever hygiene products you use, take with you if you don't want to buy in India. Get individually wrapped wet wipes and keep a stash in your purse. I also carried a roll of toilet paper and a small hand sanitizer in my tote. Stay hydrated (bottle water please) and be careful with street food. Comfy shoes are a must. Good brands are Jambu, Ahnu, Skechers and Merrell to name a few. Leggings and tunics that go down your butt are always a safe dress bet. Take a couple of scarves but you can also buy them there; they are gorgeous.

      If you are talking about taking gifts in your last sentence, is up to you and your SO. We took a woman and man watch for the parents, lipstick, travel size gift sets from the body shop and some candy for the girls. Oh and this is going to sound weird, but take something for the maid; you will make her day. We got her a hand and feet care set and she was beyond herself.

      Just have a good time :)

      Millie B

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    2. Need to pack - only beauty items, toiletries, menstruation items. You can get the majority of your clothes there - tunics and leggings. The tunics are so beautiful and the perfect weight for Indian heat. Leggings you can also get there. Pack extra deodorant and baby powder if you use that.
      Pack a few gifts from your home country. And a notebook to record everything. A good quality camera :)
      There's no way to prepare mentally, just accept the chaos that will happen. Welcome to the roller coaster theme park :D
      Physically - immunizations.

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  4. Good post. I'd add that even if the Indian is a Christian and the foreign spouse is too, the way things are done in India could be, and often is, very different than in the US/abroad. Even if it is the 'same religion' don't assume the foreign partner knows what to do or what is going on.

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  5. You have my admiration!!! I am a Tamil Brahmin and I can understand how it must have been for a person of another culture. I completely appreciate the privacy thing. My husband is a Malayalee Christian. Though culturally we are similar his family is a little more westernized. So it is sometimes shocking when we visit my parents and he comes to the bedroom to find my dad flopped on what he thought was his :)!! Tam Brahms ( like Malayali Christians) are largely endogamous. They are not accepting of people of another culture that easily. I have had similar problems with my husband's family when we visit Kerala. I am a strict vegetarian while they are largely non veg. The veg food is cooked so badly that I prefer not to eat. I am usually starved by the end of the day and want to eat out somewhere. My husband watches out for me and tries to keep me off nasty female cousins/ aunts.

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    1. So interesting, so many similarities! I have heard that about many Malayalees also.
      I hate it when veg food is done badly, it is so frustrating for my husband and I. Over Thanksgiving we went to my aunt's house, and she basically served boiled potatoes with the meat dish - the meat being the central part. I felt so bad for him!

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  6. @alexandra

    When an indian gets to know that his child has found somebody, a coupcle of things happen. It has to do with insecurities. The fact that their child has taken a decision and they are not part of it, kind of like a breach of trust. Some take it like an uneccesary distraction in academics or job. It naturally has an effect on other members life like marriage prospects of your siblings. These may sound absurd but in india everything is interlinked. It depends on how lucky you are. You often cannot separate one from other. This does not end with one generation but carries on. Parents probably do not want continued trouble for children. There are some parents who are controlling as well. It a very complicated thing because an indian carries many identities caste, religion etc. at the same time.

    There is something about love which makes us uneasy. Parents feel shocked that their "good" child had feelings for the opposite sex. With this comes physical intimacy. All this seem immoral to parents. Most of them question themselves whether they were good parents or not. It is like a personal failure. Love is more like an nuisance on the path of a settled comfortable life. There are lots of these factors that play on the minds of indian parents and children in this situation. It is not simple. To say that indian parents only want to manipulate their children's life is simplification of a highly complex situation. However those at the receiving end it is not very happy situation.

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    1. Very interesting. In many aspects I hate the secrecy part. In Western families, the child will usually be totally open from the beginning of their friend, then going on dates, becoming serious bf/gf, then living together, etc. This gives each respective family YEARS to get to know the person. One of my cousins married after 15 years of being with his girlfriend, so that is like already 15 years of festivals celebrated all together, so the merge of the families is effortless by the time they do get married.
      I think love & attraction are natural part of growing up...why is it so taboo? I can never understand. It is a beautiful thing to be celebrated, not to be feared, secret and "wrong".

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  7. Thank you for a very interesting post and one day I will face this exciting and nerve wracking experience. My husband is from a small rural village in Punjab. Maybe I am naive. I feel as if I know nothing as Im yet to experience India but I have no fear or worries with my husbands parents. But I do worry about how the people in the village will react to me.

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    1. Exciting! For a rural place, you will probably have to stay with the family. Also in a rural place, there will be an absence of foreigners and people having interactions with foreigners. Also, surprisingly, I have heard from friends that more rural families tend to me more accepting.

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  8. Argh... I cannot believe my very long comment did not get published due a glitch in the server!!

    okay, a short summary as I cannot type a long one again and I speak from fresh warm off the stove experience. A lot of advice was from you :)

    My experience: Bf visited parents and no one else. So, basically it was less stressful than say meeting a barrage of relatives. Also, i am more likely to lose it before him because we both don't like crowds.

    - Talk to the family over skype with your partner, so that they do not feel like strangers.
    - See that the house is cleaned well.
    - Keep a large stock of mineral water bottles.
    - Hope that your house has a western toilet. If not, just stay in the hotel. It is too many things to deal with and can be overwhelming. Some people cannot poop without western toilets. India is stressful enough for foreigners.
    - Arrange for toilet paper. This is a biggie. I even packed 2 rolls because even though I know it is sold in the market near my house, you wouldn't be doing that in the middle of the night.
    - Get your toiletries., The same scent and product gives you a sense of familiarity.
    - Get anything you need for your morning rituals - coffee mug? Coffee powder? Anything that sets our day right.
    - Your western partner might wish to have something western after days of western food. I had no idea that there are supermarkets in India selling all the western cheeses and stuff and we discovered it after bf did research in India and insisted on going there. So, he got his cheese and bread and olives. Food brings familiarity and comfort.
    - If you do not have your own car and driver, arrange for transport. You cannot really rely the westerner to take public buses except maybe once for the experience.

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    1. Great points. I missed my cheeses too!
      Definitely agree with getting a driver....otherwise it is impossible to travel around.

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  9. I just typed this really long comment and it disappeared because of my computer. Argh!

    Ok, I'll type an abbreviated version.

    Great advice Alexandra!

    Only a minority of Indian parents are open minded enough to fully accept a foreign partner for their child so the first visit to India is a good test to observe if your SO will support you and if necessary estrange himself/herself from the family.

    Prepare yourself and respect local customs. If you have not traveled to a third world country before be prepared to experience extreme culture shock and be stared at constantly like a monkey in a zoo. Staring is normal in Indian culture and not considered rude there.

    Avoid nothern India if possible, it is not safe. If you must go consider hiring bodyguards. I went there once and will never go again, my husband's desi relatives also avoid northern India.

    If you have time visit Kerala. It is beautiful, mostly clean, and a lot more fun to visit than any other part of India I have traveled to. I especially liked Munnar which is a pretty hill station with tea plantations and nature preserves.

    I agree that foreigners either love or hate India. I like a few things about India but find most aspects of Indian culture repugnant.

    Have a stock answer ready for the ubiquitous "Do you like India?" I reply that I like the food, which is true. Occasionally you will be pressed about what you do not like about India, think of a non-offensive response; I tell Keralites Mumbai is too crowded and Mumbaikers Mumbai is too crowded because everyone thinks Mumbai is too crowded. I learned the hard way that is it very unwise to share candid negative observations and opinions of India with desis. Even most desis who have lived comfortable lives for years in the west and themselves complain endlessly about India cannot handle a foreigner criticizing India. I do not know why, maybe some have an inferiority complex and perhaps others a colonial mental hangover. When a foreigner criticizes my country I usually agree!

    Please keep in mind that every culture has good and bad. If you marry your SO and have a family you can create a hybrid culture and actively adopt the good and reject the bad from both of you cultures.

    Rebecca

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    1. I loved Munnar...it was one of the most beautiful, romantic places on Earth!
      LOVE the last part...that is my motto :)

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  10. Also, foreigners attract a lot of beggars in India. Child beggars are often exploited by their parents and both child and adult beggars are often exploited by thugs. I carry packets of biscuits while traveling in India and give those rather than money. - Rebecca

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    1. Yes, food is much better to give than money.

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  11. Excellent post! Growing up in an Australian family, I was always taught to use my manners whether it was to my mum or to a friends mum as a sign of respect. However, one thing I wish I knew earlier on is that please and thank you are not often used amongst indian families, or indians at all. Every time I used please and thank you I noticed a slight nervous giggle from my partners family members which I later came to realise was more of an uncomfortable sign. Although I thought it was a nice gesture of respect, they felt it was unnessesary and awkward. This may not be the case with all indian families, but if it is, ditch the manners! It only kept me in the guest zone rather than family zone for much longer than it should have!!!

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  12. Thank you for your advice. It is very helpful to read about your experience. :)

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  13. Thank you for this post! I am very lucky that my Indian family is so welcoming. I will be going to India for the first time this fall! We are already married. When we had family in town, I found it very difficult at first to remember the no touching, you just get so used to it!

    Q: Have you learned your husband's regional language? I am finding it very difficult and wondered if you had any tips and tricks?! Thank you!

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  14. This is nicely put. !

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