Friday, November 21, 2014

Being the "invisibly visible" Bahu


Being married into an Indian family & being married to the culture has lots of ups and downs. Part of the dichotomy that many foreign women experience is being extremely VISIBLE and extremely INVISIBLE, simultaneously. There is no in between.

At times, it is nice to be the foreigner. You have the added perspective of seeing things from the outside in. You learn so much about a different country and it's many cultures within. An added bonus is that you get to opt out of certain traditions as well as ridiculous family drama by playing "the foreigner card".

At other times, it is harder. When you don't understand certain things and there is a lot that is not properly explained to you, when there is SO much expected of you. It is hard when nobody speaks directly to you, instead they speak to the Indian who brought you into the family. It is hard when people constantly pick you apart and talk about you when you're right in front of them. When they comment on your dress, appearance, your movements, what you're eating, and your facial expressions. At times, I feel as if I'm the lone fish in an aquarium. Sometimes I wish I could shed my skin color completely, because so many people can't see past it. Either I am haggled, exoticised, or treated like a breakable porcelain doll.

In my experience with my husband's family & the process of attempting to blend into such a strong and dominant culture, I often find myself feeling either very visible or completely invisible. (In true Indian fashion, it is either/or!)

Sometimes, I stick out like a sore thumb. Sometimes every move I make or every freckle on my face is dissected or put under a microscope. The younger women in the family are very aware of this and make it worse by teasing me or openly criticizing me.

Other times, I am completely invisible. I am not spoken to for hours at a time. I am left out of conversations. Nobody bothers to translate anything for me, so I am left to eavesdrop and many of the conversations are about me. My opinion (because I'm foreign I am apparently not allowed to have any insights) does not matter. Not only being a woman, but a foreign woman. 

What would she know about anything? 

In India itself, it is more noticeable and extreme. Every eye is following my every move, yet I am not spoken to. Any question is asked about me to my husband, who is practically my gatekeeper. What would SHE like to drink? How is SHE doing?

Being simultaneously visible and invisible creates a strange isolating experience that acts like a glass shell around you. It can take years to break out of this shell with no opening.


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29 comments

  1. Wow awesome piece! I totally agree! There are times especially at group functions, I can feel all the eyes on my knowing that I stand out, but in reality I am so lonely because everyone states but not many actually engage me on a real level. This is especially true at the Gurdwara ( temple). One of the main reasons I would not want to live in India is because I need a since of anonymity, just blending in. Getting things done like anyone else. In india I stood out too much, no matter where I went, but no one was interested in ME they were interested in my being different. I was even asked to have photos taken with me. I am special but not because I was white in India. I am special because I am a caring loving person.

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    1. OMG group functions are the worst.... it is so awkward, like being an animal at the zoo! With so many people staring it is hard to feel comfortable...

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  2. I'm about to marry my fiance in less than 10 days. Oh.. and I'm black and fat. I'm sure It will be a lot worse for me.

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    1. I am here if you ever need to vent!

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    2. your fiance loves you and wants to marry you. celebrate that. the big fat indian family isn't worth losing sleep over. enjoy your wedding and don't let any petty carping from the BIG fat indian family ruin your day or the rest of your life ...

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  3. This is such a great description. Its frustrating when my in-laws treat me "normal" at a family dinner and then fall into the typical Indian trap of treating me like an outsider when we are all out at a large gathering.

    Additionally, I totally agree that its super annoying when part of the reason we don't fit in is because things are not properly explained to us.

    To the the girl that about to get married, good luck! I'm from a Mexican family and almost everyone invited on my side had never even had Indian food before my wedding....let alone experience the hoopla surrounding the event(s). It was defiantly an experience for them.

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    1. Ughhhhh I hate that. Ya it's like it's all fine when we are chilling out at home, but outside it's like "who is this girl?!" and then they feel the stares and the questions too, and it is awkwardness all around LOL.

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  4. Wow, this is an amazing post! I am an Australian girl who has been in a relationship with a south Indian guy for about a year now whom I met whilst travelling the beautiful country. I recently went back and stayed with him for 4 months to learn a little more about himself and his family.

    EVERYTHING you wrote about, I experienced. His family were totally comfortable asking many strange and what foreigners would sometimes call rude questions about my flaws, such as "what happened to your arm? is it a deep fry burn?" ... "no that's just a mole" or "you've lost weight since you came to india, before you were very fat". Yet would prefer to ask my partner questions directly in front of me like "her face has become very small, why is she upset?" "what happened to her?" "will she have rice after her chapati?". It could be so frustrating, and at times before my partner had the chance to respond I would, in an effort to show everyone I could understand them and would prefer they ask me directly. I knew they meant well, and were only trying to ensure they didn't upset me, but it just surprised me how they felt it was totally normal to comment negatively on my appearance to my face, but felt uncomfortable asking about my appetite or mood.

    However, as you wrote above, being a foreigner also comes with its advantages like being separate from family dramas, and having the ability to totally zone out and relax without seeming rude, when everyone is having a conversation around you.

    There was one time however, when his family decided it would be great to go on a temple tour together and see some historical places. It was such a kind gesture and I was looking forward to learning a lot more about Hinduism and Indian history. But it didn't quite turn out that way, and left me feeling like such an outsider. Despite the fact I had asked numerous questions, no-one took the time to explain the history behind the forts, or the beliefs of the hindu religion. Because of this, I couldn't properly appreciate and understand each place. This meant I wasn't showing as much enthusiasm as everyone else, and it made me come across as bored and ungrateful. It was times like these where I not only felt invisible, but unwelcome too.

    It took a lot of resilience and understanding to get through those 4 months. It really tested my patience and confidence and taught me to understand things from a difference cultural perspective. We have a long way to go in our relationship, but I know being 100% accepted by his family is going to make things easier and help me to understand that they really do mean well.



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    1. Wow you had a really tough time. Hope things are working out now slowly and steadily. More power to you.

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    2. I feel you girl. There are so many things that I wanted to learn that have never been explained to me, I have had to take it upon myself to learn. Things like Hinduism, they have learned from such a young age and there are so many stories that are hard to explain. And also in india I feel a lot of things are done that are ingrained without thought. Like if you ask WHY they may not even know themselves, just that it is to be done that way...LOL. It is certainly a learning experience!

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    3. Hey... I am Indian... and I will say this, there are two kinds of Indians, the ones who assume that a foreigner knows nothing and so will start explaining India to you starting with "we are a very ancient civilization..." and likely everything they are telling you is hear say and not entirely factual; and the other kind of Indian does not introduce/explain/etc. anything. They may not even introduce you in a room full of strangers; my spouse (also Indian) while making small talk with a relative we had to visit with his mother told him that the next time it would be super to meet his wife... the wife, whom we had never met before, had been in and out serving tea etc. :D As for not explaining the meaning/purpose of hindu rituals or places of worship or historical monuments, I'd say you are better of researching this stuff yourself, Most practicing hindus don't know why they do the things they do, or what the prayers mean or anything. They just do this stuff, because their parents told them this was what you do. Same goes from pilgrimage/historical place. I cannot count the number of times I have heard Indians "explaining our culture" to a foreigner and its been utter nonsensical tosh! Your research will alsoearn you brownie points "look our american/swedish/whatever daughterinalw knows so much about our culture." :)

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    4. Exactly, I have faced the same lol, people googling eyes, questions never asked me, but my husband…
      Thst is not the worse, the thing I dislike the most is that kind if staring, but with no contact.
      Somewhat like you stare at animal in ZOO, people look at you and dont fell embarased comment about you, although they know u hear it.

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    5. My mother in law peeked inside my blouse and asked me why I had blemishes on my back. THRICE in public - when my husband was not around. Some Indian mother in laws are plain crazy.
      Lakshmi

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  5. After the first 2 yrs of pleading with my Indian husband to explain 'things' to me I gave up & decided the only way to learn things in this culture is A) observation & B) internet research. (THANK HEAVENS for the internet!!!!)
    A lot of the rude stuff mentioned is just the crap an Indian DIL has to endure be she a firangi or not.
    However, for me the staring has never gone away.
    We've quit going to weddings in India as the guests stare at me & not the bride.
    Even when we went to my MIL's funeral last month & I was covered head to toe in an abaya & hijab people still stared at me the entire time. Enough already!
    PS-
    I like your outfit in the Taj photo there Madh Mama, you must introduce me to your tailor!

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    1. Thanks! I have a great tailor in Hyd in case you ever need one...I got the outfit from this store Kilol.
      Sorry to hear about your MIL :(
      This month we are going to 2 Indian events and I am getting ready for the stares. I don't think anyone has informed them that there is a foreigner coming who is married to a family member....shocker!

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  6. Very true. Now after 10+ years together I see that I don't need to know most conversations and that I could know some of the language but don't


    BUT they know I don't so basic things like the time we are leaving or when there is a change of plans... someone PLEASE send me a memo ! I have to get the kids ready & me!

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    1. Hahahaha, I know right! Classic Indian saying: "I am not a mind-reader!"

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  7. I can totally relate to what you wrote ! Interacting with my Indian family is a little bit like walking blind folded... sometimes it feels like running into a wall I didn't know about and sometimes it feels like walking cautiously in an open space... But sometimes I get it right :)

    Hubby looks so much happier in India, it's worth the effort. Funnily enough although India makes me crazy, it is also probably the only place on earth where I feel free - with London of course. (Padparadscha)

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    1. I can definitely relate to the dichotomy too..

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  8. Fortunately I didn't really have this problem with my husband's immediate family, as they are pretty progressive and open. If my mother-in-law wants to know if I wanted to eat something or wanted more, she would just ask me. Her friends, however, were a different story. I went on my own to visit her in Bangalore over the summer and her friends came to see me (literally). They stared. A lot. But not in a bad way...more like in a "I can't speak English but want to see you and get to know you" kind of way. It was overwhelming at times. My MIL would shoo them into the kitchen with her after awhile.

    Going out in public was another story. The first time I went, I took my mom and aunt with me, who are also very fair and light haired. We had our pictures taken in many places, both with and without our permission. My husband got shooed out of our pictures by a group of students who were from Bihar. I think felt slighted but I felt like a celebrity.

    I have to say, I had the ultimate "feeling like an insider" moment this past summer when I went on my own. A much elder cousin was visiting my MIL for tea and asked my MIL if I had any girl cousins who were like me and available for marriage. I HAD MADE IT INTO THE INNER-CIRCLE! I couldn't wait to tell my husband about it. I think my MIL was extremely proud.

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    1. Awwwwwwww that's amazing!!!!!!! This past trip to India I finally felt accepted by my husband's extended family, but I still don't think they would want another Firangi in the family, I think they can handle only one unfortunately. I can only hope though ;)

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  9. Hi Alexandra
    I understand how strange it would feel. It might seem as though the household people get to know everything but iam sure they are left out of certain conversations too. Just a bit of consolation for you. And you might notice that over time your MIL might tell you things which she wouldnt want her son to know. Not sure about her english tv series crushes if your husbands aware of those :P. Indian households are coming out of it gradually but they are slow like with many other things. To avoid confrontation or any misunderstanding anything to the new bride is told through the medium the husband foreign or not. And its the same from the girls side of the family they wont tell the husband anything directly but through the girl. And the head to toe stare happens even to indian brides and grooms. A granny was staring at my husband for a bit and then he told me he figured she was trying to see if the chain was gold or not :P. And i was wondering if i was the one who was being scrutinized. And since we speak different languages and our communication is in english, a lot of their relatives assumed i didnt understand till they commented something n i retorted back in hindi. So i guess at some point you become inert to it or you can try to tell them to talk to you directly. believe me you are not alone, being from india iam clueless about what i can or cannot do. Most of the time i need to be told by my mum or my MIL. Like they called me over at the wedding and i happily walked over , my aunt was chasing me, i turn around and she goes for today try to behave like a girl, you always have to be walked over. How was i to know:p

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    1. Ha ha, I can relate :) Thanks for sharing...I am not alone! This recent trip to India I had bonded with a lot of relatives who previously gave me the cold shoulder. It only took them 9 bloody years! LOL

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  10. Oh the change of plans thing is so classic. Not everyones like that either in India. like my parents are planners and my fil is also a planner. MIL is the mediator between the planners and non planners. And its almost like herding sheep. to get everyone out at the same time my goodness is a feat..n u need spl skills like the pied piper of hamlin

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    1. Hahaha hilarious......we recently had a cousin-sister's engagement in Hyderabad and literally to get all 20 of us out of the house and into the cars with the fruit offerings and whatnot...took forever!!!!!!

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  11. hey .. I found this blog looking for some... any ...help on how to deal with an Indian mainlaw ... and I am Indian :D I've returrned to the blog after ages ... if its any comfort, its not being a racially different foreigner (although that does come with a sp set of issues) , it is just being different/non-traditional/from a dif caste/linguistic/religious group that is the problem. Unless you totally accept their ways and fulfill their stated and unstated expectations, and I suspect even then, you will never be fully accepted. In my case, having a husband who said to me at the start that he did not expect me to meet any of his parents expectations, that I should do my own thing, never do anything that makes me uncomfortable or unhappy and that he would support me never mind what (and he has) that has made the difference. Its important to remember that these women are deeply insecure, have spent their lives subserivient to their hubands, and that their self-affirmation comes from having a "good daughterinlaw". If you are lucky they may actually learn to love you, but, most of us are not lucky :)

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  12. I relate to every word in this post. All of this has made me anxious even hearing that there is going to be a family gathering or a function. So many times I have looked for a fault in myself... On one hand India has made me stronger than ever, but on the other hand it has broken me apart. Sounds weird, but it's a fact.

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  13. Hey, thanks for the relatable article.
    When in Pondicherry/South India, (numerous) people asked my boyfriend's father if they could take pictures with me. Other people remarked I looked like a porcelain doll or like "the mannequin".
    Meg

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