Monday, February 23, 2015

Hand-feeding in India (and why it's not bad)


As a Firangi Bahu, one of the aspects of my husband's culture that has been difficult to understand is the concept of hand-feeding your kids, well into adulthood. I have really struggled to grasp this concept, as it is one of those things that we just don't do here in North America.

The first time I witnessed it was on my MIL's first visit to Canada. I went to take a bath and came out to the living room, only to discover that my MIL was mashing up food and stuffing it in husband-ji's face, while he was sitting there looking completely satisfied (like the pampered Indian prince that he is!!!) I had never seen this before (not even on our previous times in India) and I was a little shocked that a then-30 year old man couldn't possibly lift his own spoon and feed himself dinner. When I walked in on it, it was pure awkwardness! I stood there with my jaw open and didn't know how to react. Then my MIL held up a handful of food and said, "Want some?" She wanted to stuff my mouth too! Like literally put her fingers IN MY MOUTH. "Uhhhhhh no that's okay...."I said, and fled to the other room.

In my culture, hand-feeding is something that you only do for babies and toddlers so that they don't make a mess with their food. Once the child is about 3 years old, then they feed themselves and it is a milestone that we encourage to make them independent. We believe children are capable and we feel proud of them when they assert their independence and autonomy. It also makes things easier for the parents who are living in nuclear families. So seeing my adult husband being hand-fed made me feel like he was being extremely babied - and I struggled to understand this for YEARS...

Being in an intercultural relationship, you will be faced with many things that you don't simply understand. It is important to remember that the way other cultures do things are not wrong - they are just different.

I began to understand this hand-feeding concept around the 7 year mark in our relationship. I began to notice that hand-feeding was an expression of love and affection towards a younger member of the family. And a sense of togetherness. However, understanding it did not mean that I wanted to participate in it - I wasn't ready yet. And the more I saw of hand-feeding, the more I normalized it and learned the reasons behind it. In typical Indian families, love is shown by actions - by thoughtful gestures.

On our most recent trip to India, we spent a lot of time at husband-ji's aunt's place, a joint family home. With every meal time, my MIL (the eldest sister) brought a large plate and husband-ji's cousins (ages 14-28) all sat around her in a circle while she mashed the food and fed them each one by one. They all chatted jovially while they were being hand-fed, and my MIL relished in her job of nourishing all of the kids. 



As a mother, I feel like I understand things differently now than I did before. I understand that joy that you feel when you put a spoon in your child's mouth. I understand that feeding your child is very much a bonding experience. And plus, Indians are totally obsessed with food. Whenever we phone MIL, the first thing she asks husband-ji is "saaptiyaa?" [translation: "have you eaten?"] She gets great happiness in cooking meals and then watching her loved ones devour the food. It is practically orgasmic for her!

We recently visited our Tamil relatives in Seattle, and I found myself doing the exact same thing. When it came time to feed the kids, Maya and her cousin would sit in front of me like little birds and I would feed them one by one. The kids would say, "my turn!" and take a bite - being both slightly competitive AND learning how to share. I literally took on my MIL's role of "elder sister" and relished in the responsibility of feeding the kids. She would have been very proud of me!


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33 comments

  1. I must say that as a South Indian, I'm a little perplexed by this phenomenon, do you think its a family thing? I haven't seen or heard of any of my family or friends doing this....or maybe specific to Andhra Pradesh? Only the smallest ones in the family are hand-fed...

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    1. yup ...definitely family thing ... plate sharing yes ..i've seen this in Marvadi famiies ..and Muslim families ...hand feeding older kids ..No Way !

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    2. Definitely a family thing, and more specifically an Andhra thing as I would guess. Our Telugu side of the family is very close. Outside of our family, I have seen it in a few other Telugu families that I know of - varying castes - but all Telugu.

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  2. We don't do this anymore in our nuclear family but when I was a wee kid some 25 years back, I and my half a dozen cousins used to sit around an aunt who would ladle rice balls+rasam/sambhar/curry into our extended palms during lunch. Aaah the good times.

    When I have kids with my Caucasian wife, although I'll explain this to my kids for novelty, I don't see myself letting them indulge in this group feeding ritual. Unless they really want to.

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    1. In a nuclear family it is almost impossible to do, with all the household chores, I find. But it is really fun when you have a bunch of kids around the same age and it makes them sit in one place - when I did it myself I understood the sweetness of it. I think I may be the only Firangi Bahu to carry on this tradition...LOL.

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  3. Hi Alexandra,
    It's so nice that you were able to take it positively and normalize. I am Indian and my parents feed me even now(i.e at 33). Though in my relatives it is not considered good (as in babying me)and relatives pass comments, but my parents do not pay much attention. When my parents feed me i just feel like the kid who is all innocent with no adult tensions. A beautiful feeling....Am so glad you could experience it too.. especially with your MIL... such a rarity...
    Aboli

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    1. Awwwww that is wonderful. It is such an expression of love, and now that I am a parent myself, I understand it on such a deeper level.

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  4. Glad to hear of your inclusion in the hand feeding of a meal - you are not a 'firangi' atleast to your in laws. I have never experienced or seen this in either of the two Indian cities where I grew up - Mumbai and Pune. Only children - I guess - up to the age of 5 or so were hand fed in my recollection. In fact, there was a lot of drama of not touching anyone's food (in their thali) for cleanliness purposes.
    Sometimes ladoos/mithai are fed by hand for some happy occasion.

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    1. Our Tamil side is like that - they are obsessed with cleanliness regarding food. Telugu side still does the hand-feeding thing.

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  5. As a Tamil Iyengar myself, married to a Tamil Iyer, who grew up in Chennai, I find this very weird and I think it's more of your husband's family thing rather than a South Indian thing. I have seen that being done for kids Maya's age, but certainly not with teenagers or adults in a group. But it's sweet that you are able to understand this custom and even appreciate this.

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    1. Definitely a family thing, but it seems to be more Telugu than anything. Several Telugu friends from varying cities in Andhra still practice it as well, regardless of castes, all from different families. I probably should have mentioned that it was our Telugu side only...LOL. It is amazing how each region and family do things differently...our Tamil side would probably be looking at the video like "WTF are they doing?!"...ha ha.

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    2. I'm from Karnataka and have been fed (food placed in the palm by turn)like this along with my cousins especially during holidays.
      It was convenient more than an act of love I think- it enabled a single adult to manage the meals of many children with minimum fuss and only one plate to wash at the end of it all :) Pretty smart idea in retrospect :)

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    3. Mydesidaaru, I am from Karnataka too! In retrospect, it makes absolute sense for moms to hand feed their kids- less mess and we got done with eating very quickly as opposed to the half an hour my six year old daughter now takes to eat a simple sandwich. :-)

      Raina

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    4. @mydesidaaru + @raina - I totally agree...there is a major convenience about it. Only one dish to wash and one effort to mix the fod, many kids get fed in one sitting. It is actually a time saver when many kids need to be fed quickly.

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  6. Of all the blogs I read I find you very mature.
    :)
    You are the best

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    1. Thank you :) I am very appreciative of your kindness

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  7. Hi Alexandra,

    I really believe this custom is not specifically attached to any culture but more to the individual family.
    I come from a Malay family and even at my age now (mid twenties), I really like it when my mother or grandmother feed us food sometimes. Like you said, this custom is really an expression of love and affection towards a younger member of the family like how I felt it each time I see them feeding people food or being fed food myself. It's that same experience and feeling of being taken care of you get when you're sick and someone looks after you and feed you food/porridge.

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    1. So interesting....yes I believe as well that it is more an act of love and service..

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  8. @Alexandra

    It seems that your MIL is distributing some kind of prasad. Sometimes prasad especially rice, curd mixture is distributed like this during poojas. This kind of hand feeding is mostly practiced by rice eating communities in India like Bengalis and South Indians. North Indians, the roti eaters that they are, make fun of the way South Indians mash rice and sambhar and then eat it. Bengali mothers mix rice and fish and feed children. All communities have staple food for children. This is the staple food for bengali children. Rice eating is definitely more messy than roti eating. Most north indians are actually fearful of rice and bengalis and south indians cannot do without it. I especially like the way south indians make innovative use of rice idli, dosa, uttapam etc. You guys don't eat roti, do you??

    BTW, whenever I read you calling your MIL Sandhya, I cringe. I understand that you refer to her by her name but for my Indian upbringing calling someone elder to you by his/her name is blasphemous. I hope I have not offended you.

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    1. It is not prasad, it is just every day dinner in our Telugu household ;) They are eating sambhar rice and I think we had bindi fry that day (maya's fave). Rice is so essential in the South Indian household - my hubby can eat roti but doesn't feel full from it. Literally, our rice cooker is on every single day! Ha ha!
      I guess I am lucky in that sense that my MIL is ok with me calling her Sandhya...for me it is an expression of friendship and closeness. I couldn't call her anything else. But when in India I am more conscious and try to call her "aunty" more in front of relatives.

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  9. Isn't it amazing that one can see what one wants to see in any aspect of culture :-) I love eating with my hand which is a bit hard to explain to ppl not brought up with it in Australia haha .
    When I graduated in philosophy in college and learned about different philosophical beliefs one that always stuck with me was our perception can change anything in the world. One person can see a rope but another can look at it suspiciously as a snake without even coming close . Thankfully you are open enough to come close and examine things and make your own beliefs based on your experiences. Good on you ! Ana

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    1. Thanks Ana! I try to look at is as different, and am definitely more than willing to try anything, at least once. This is one of those instances that I understand it better after becoming a mother.

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  10. Anonymous @Alexandra all I can say is you need to open your mind and horizons too honey :-)
    I can understand you are cringing because of MIL being called by her name Sandhya because of your cultural upbringing but it is a very personal thing between Alexandra and her MIL . Looks like as mature Alexandra is in bringing the best of cultures together for her hubby and her family , her MIL is also a very wise woman and she is making an effort too to make it all a success. It is shallow and egoistic ppl who make small things a big issue .
    I am sure Sandhya understands her daughter in law and can see the effort she makes and is very fine to make that tiny effort to understand Alexandra's culture too.
    My boys being brought up in Oz still call their Indian relatives as uncle and aunt and x y z but I can tell you they have closer relations with ppl they can call by name . When I started teaching here I used to love being called as Ms Ana but it's so much better to be just called Ana now and yes my students still respect me as much if not more :-) So I think we all need to appreciate and applaud Alexandra for bringing too cultures closer together in this world where we are all so anxious to point out differences .... Ana

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    1. Very true....luckily my MIL has been abroad since 2008 so she understand that it is not so offensive in other cultures. If my MIL was still in India, I would probably have to call her "aunty" predominantly. I am glad that she knows that I mean no harm by it. Just like hand-feeding, it is different, not wrong.

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  11. My mom used to feed my brother and I in the same way when we were young. We would sit in front of her and she would make these rice balls with either rasam or sambar with some vegetables mixed in and feed us by hand. I don't know when the practice stopped but it did stop before we were 10 years of age. What surprised me though is how influenced I was by that because I found myself feeding my daughter while my husband looked on, perplexed, wondering why I wasn't letting our daughter find her own way and eat, mess and all. I think it is only then I realized the connection between love, food, and hand feeding :-).

    Raina.

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    1. yes!!! Those rice balls are brilliant! My husband does it so well. It is in little ways like that, that we carry on these traditions. I wonder if my daughter will remember it when she herself becomes a mother...I hope she does.

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  12. This is not done in DH's family, I have seen the hand feeding done more in the South than in the North over the year. The only thing we hand feed each other in my husband family is Prasad food, and it is only one bite. I think the spoon feeding stops at around age 3. All my nephews were given easy to handle by hand food around that age, while I started finger food with my daughter at 7 months of age as I was doing baby led weaning.

    I can understand the whole affection and love gesture of it, but I have seen too many babies and toddler being pretty much force fed that way. When kids are hand fed too long, the danger of not recognising when your kids are truly full is there and it is easy to misjudge quantities.

    I think one of the difference I have noticed between India and the West when it comes to love and food. Indians see the act of feeding as an act of love and caring, while in the west we see the act of cooking something extra special and presenting it well on the plate as a sign of love. There is no right or wrong in both approach, they are just very different

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    1. The majority of my friends here do baby-led weaning also.
      Yes, the only negative about hand-feeding is that sometimes the parent may force-feed the child to the verge of throwing up. I have seen it many times and we have also mistakenly done it once or twice. Now that my daughter is talking a lot, she will say when she is finished. But when she was very little it was really hard to tell if she was just being fussy or actually not hungry. But generally, most kids will eat when they are hungry.

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  13. hi alecandra .. u r so sweet ..innocent ... lovely sweeet girl who is so mature and take every thing so positve.. i love ur blog ..when i read ur things ..i feel .. we are all one ..A Human ... its not matter of indian or amerian ...

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  14. Nice post.....I remember as a child I used to sometimes eat with hands......though preferably I was a spoon-person......my granny used to eat with hands too...she would feed me and my brother similarly and we enjoyed eating kadi-chawal ....(rice and curry made with chickpea flour) with hand.....It was a different feeling to do it....Now with one kid who eats on his own and the other one too small to do that, hand-feeding has become almost a ritual.....poor spoon feels discarded and offended....I love you spoon...your time will come....as of now.....just play patience......all my love to you.....:).....nice take from someone who has grown up differently yet appreciates the meaning of it......

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  15. Honestly I find hand feeding a grown up man disgusting...I am yet to see it in any Indian family except when the mom is overly possessive...it has nothing to do with culture or religion. if the mom loves to cook and feed, she can serve and put together a nice plate for the son/daughter but why hand feed??? he is an adult right?? I would have serious hygeine concerns with it. in fact in Hindu (Brahmin) culture the concept of "Jootha" or "Joothan" is very important...which means if one person touches the food it is unclean for anyone else to eat it...it is unclean for 2 people to eat from the same plate....if you touch food you should immediately wash your hands before touching anything else coz your hands are unclean. So I would have serious concerns if this happened in my family. I think you are really patient and understanding...

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  16. Very nice post Alexandra. It is a cultural thing and it is common among Indian families to share plates, to be hand fed by mother or aunt or some elderly person. Not all families do it but it is common. As a child I used to feel even the most simplest meal tastes better when my mom feeds me and when I eat the same thing by myself it is boring. I used to wonder what is that secret thing that makes it taste different. May be it wasn’t difference in taste but being filled with love and sense of nourishment. The energy of the person feeding also gets transmitted through the food, so at any age it is a blissful experience to be hand fed by mother or someone close to you. Ofcourse, it will be awkward if done in public.

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  17. Im a filipino and I just want to share this experience, my friend has a Tamil boyfriend who is currently taking medicine in the Philippines specifically here in Davao. I understand that way back in India they were hand fed by their members. But being indipendent and taking medicine in a different country. It would also be best if they would have adopt our culture. I felt sad that my friend needs to hand feed him in public and I can see the awkwardness that my friend felt everytime someone is looking at them. I hope this can be fixed.

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