Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A custom of criticism


One of the things that irritates me being married into an Indian family is that there's never any shortage of criticisms. Talk to any Firangi Bahu and she will have a mental inventory of harsh things her Indian family has said to her - usually regarding appearance, lifestyle, cooking - you name it!

For example, when I was in India, some rude Aunty told me that I "got fat after delivery". Just an observation, of course. Out loud!!! Another time, husband-ji's friend's brother told me that I "would look perfect if I lost 5 kgs". As if I am remotely interested in fitting into his notion of a perfect woman! 

Seriously. If I gain weight, someone will remark that I "put on weight". If I lose weight, someone will remark that I "look tired". Criticisms are plentiful, and compliments are scarce. This is expected when you marry into an Indian family - that you will be constantly criticized. You kinda learn to tune it out...eventually!


One of the things that surprised me when Maya was born was that my MIL and husband-ji would NOT let me gush over my baby. Still - to this day. They both turn their nose up if I say one good thing about her, like "she had such a big lunch today", "she's such a smart girl", "she ate so well", "she's growing so tall". They will literally give me the stare of death if I say ANYTHING good about my daughter. Of course, that doesn't stop me from saying it - but every time I do they "shhhh" me as if I am saying some kind of profanity!

Why? Because of the evil eye - or a jinx of sorts. They believe that if I praise my daughter, she will regress. The moment I say that she's a good eater, they fear that she will stop eating for days. They think that even a well-intentioned compliment or praise could invite in the curse of the evil eye. I know, I know...it is absolutely absurd.

For me, it is so automatic. If I think she's cute, I will just say it. To me, showing love means showing it verbally. To them, showing love means criticizing. Totally a cultural thing.

A while ago, I had to reference something in the book Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies (Abbe J A. Dubois), and it said:

"A Hindu, on the contrary, when he meets a friend, no matter how strong and well he might be looking, never fails to offer him the following greeting: 'How sadly you have altered since last I saw you! I fear you must be very ill,' and other equally consoling remarks. It would offend a Hindu deeply if you were to say he was well when you were first meeting him. Anyone who was so ill-advised as to make so indiscreet a remark would certainly be suspected of feeling jealous, envious, and regretful at the signs of health which were the theme of his unfortunate compliments.

In the same way, you must never congratulate a Hindu on his good luck; you must not say that he has pretty children, a lovely house, beautiful gardens, or that everything that he undertakes turns out well, or that he is happy or lucky; he would be sure to think that envy prompted the compliments of this kind."

After reading this, I had a big "Aha!" moment. Is this why I've been criticized so much? Not because I consistently do EVERY thing wrong (as I assumed), but because people actually wish me well? And here I thought people were actually thinking badly of me, all this time. And me feeling like I may never measure up. Rather than casting a protective web of criticisms to shield me from drishti. It is definitely food for thought!

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Dear readers, is your Indian family overtly critical? Do you notice that criticism and praise is actually related to the evil eye/superstitions?


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26 comments

  1. Hi Alexandra,
    I have been reading your blog for a few months now and can relate to many of the feelings and struggles you face marrying into an Indian family. Interestingly, I have not faced any criticism from my MIL or FIL as both of them speak Hindi, live in India, and speak no English (this may be an advantage as I cannot get offended by a language I do not understand). I do however get criticism from my SIL, who does speak Engilsh and Hindi and has been in the U.S. Less than 5 years. My SIL moved from India with her husband (my husbands elder brother) to the U.S. I felt terrible when the first day she met me she kept pointed out some acne scars on my face and kept asking me what happened. I'm not sure why my complexion was such a surprise to her as no one not even my husband has ever pointed it out. I always feel like she is trying to prove how I am not as good as she is. I have tried to be closer to her aS SILs in India seem to be but I often feel like an outsider when she's around.

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  2. I do not think that is the case always, if so how do you differentiate between abuse and this so called "love in the form of criticism"? This is what classic abusers do right, constantly undermine someone so that the person losses their self confidence and self esteem.
    I think to a certain extent criticizing is ok, but the kind of stuff that Indian families do with their DIL's, is far from trying to ward off the evil eye. Also, why is all the criticism directed mostly only towards the women and rarely or never towards the men in the house?
    I think this is a classic way of making the women loose all their self confidence and become completely dependent on the man and his family.

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  3. Hi Alex,
    I am Indian and a woman. I really do not think criticism is a form of love, at least not currently. In spite of being Indian I will be offended if someone commented negatively on my physical appearance, mannerisms etc. I don't think the age old belief of "evil eye" holds good today, times have changed. I moved to the US 4 years ago for my Master's and on my first trip back home everyone pointed out I had gained weight (about 10 pounds). I remember feeling so insecure and upset. I can totally relate how you feel. Don't let them get to you .. and no it is not okay to comment on someone.
    Love your blog!

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  4. Hello...I'm a long time reader of your blog, but have never commented. I could really relate to this post. My Indian inlaws are always saying to me that I look weak and feeble and ask if I'm eating. Everytime I see them, it's the same story. I am normal weight, and not weak by any means...but your post made me realize that they are trying to show their concern for me. Also, there are many other comments too that now make more sense. Thanks for your insight!

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  5. Hi! Have read your blogs for some time now and many I can agree to the experience. This one I cannot, based on my experience. Unfortunately, my Indian family will gush one moment and criticize in the next. It influenced my husband enough that he took criticisms about me to heart and it destroyed our marriage. I do not blame a culture, race, or nation. I blame the ignorance of a family who are willing to use culture when it serves their purpose. They said they loved me for bringing their son back to his cultural roots, yet hated I was not Indian myself. This brought out a nasty side of them that, frankly, warrants no excuse. I'm glad to see some families work out and actually love their Firangi Bahu. I only wish I shared in that experience!

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  6. Hi Alexandra - I don't think just because this behavior is something that Indians do "all the time" that it should be expected, accepted or tolerated. There is no excuse and using the "it is out of concern and for your own good" is not going to cut it. And I am sorry but the evil eye... Not everyone believes in it and I just wish that people that do respect the beliefs of people that don't.

    And criticism that is hurtful and intrusive is not by any means a form of love and goris need to realize that they don't have to take this type of behavior in order to be accepted just as Indian women shouldn't take it either. We shouldn't feel inadequate or not measuring up just because we are not Indian. There is nothing superior about them just as there is nothing superior about us.

    So no, I don't think criticism and praise are related to evil eye. I honestly sometimes think that Indians don't know how to praise because they were never praised. So continue to encourage and praising your daughter and honestly tell people that tell you not to, to please don't interfere and that this is how you do things in your family: basically to mind their own business. I think is important for children and everyone really to be encouraged and praised when due.

    Millie B

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  7. I think the weight thing is definitely an Indian thing. My brother-in-law is American and he was the one who pointed out how people incessantly comment on weight when they first meet you, and he's a super fit guy. I think this might have to do with being in a culture where food scarcity was an issue. It's also why in a lot of Indian langauges 'have you eaten?' is a greeting. A mix of care and concern. The weight question might be seen as 'Have you eaten (too much or too little)?" I've been both too thin and too fat so at the receiving end of both.

    The criticism thing, hmmm, I never put it down to the evil eye superstition though that makes sense. I live in Hong Kong and among Chinese people it's even more acute. People compliment but the reciever always plays it down massively. If you've read that Tiger mom book, she explains how Chinese parents never never praise their kids, because they see witholding praise as a way to spur them to greater heights. I've noticed that in Hong Kong too. I always put down the not praising to the emphasis on modesty in Asian cultures coupled with using it as a strategy to push kids to do better.

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  8. All the comments that you receive from relatives and family friends are definitely not to ward off the evil eye. I look at it as : some people really care about you, some are jealous of you and some have a natural tendency to criticize people :)
    But I don't believe in the evil eye but I do believe that people who are jealous of you , emit a negative energy which is not good for you.
    So stay away from such people.
    Regarding babies, I believe you should praise their good habits and encourage them as well as help them understand if they are doing something which is seen as a bad habit.
    Appreciation is very underrated in Indian society.

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  9. Ha. This freaks me out a little - just yesterday I was saying how pretty my niece (in law) is. I did not get any bad reactions, but now I am afraid they thought something bad. Hah.
    Nevertheless my family has never criticized me on these things. It would kind of hurt if they would. Every family has the dark side, even mine, but this is not it.
    With that being said there was a time when our maid praised how a suit looks good on me. I was immediately put through rituals ow warding off the evil eye.

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  10. Yes, my Indian family is critical about 60-70% of the times. We don't always celebrate success. I think that is a good thing because that has led me to realize that success or happiness can be temporary and we must work hard and diligently to create "continued success or happiness".

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  11. I am Indian, I don't believe in superstitions or evil eye.
    But when I was reading the post, and you were praising Maya I immediately said "Oh, don't say that out loud!"
    I guess motherhood does that to you.

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  12. Hi Alex!
    I really felt that I could relate to this post. I myself am far from the thinnest person. At first it never bothered my boyfriend so much, but it did bother his parents. My boyfriend was very hurt when he overheard them making comments such as “I don’t get what he sees in her” (referring to me being bigger). It has affected him, because now he encourages me to eat healthy choices and go to the gym.
    At first I was highly insulted. In western culture its very taboo to mention something weight like that, especially to a woman. I won’t lie, it still bothers me a lot, but I’ve come to realize it’s more of a health thing that a visual. They want a wife for their son who will live a long healthy life and they don’t see that will someone who is overweight. Of course I’ve always wanted to lose, and at first I saw their encouragement as an insult, now it’s really become motivation.
    Luckily for me they don’t feel inclined to hold back on compliments. Aside from the weight his mother always said that she thought I had a beautiful face, and I think I’ve made a positive impression through my enthusiasm to learn Indian cuisine. That has always been met with positivity.
    I wanted to mention, I think you are very beautiful! I’ve shown your blog to my boyfriend before and commented that I thought you were very pretty =)

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  13. whew! never really knew about it!! we in our family are pretty open with compliments. i guess its all about we are brought up and the environment we are in.

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  14. It's not just in families, India as a whole tend to only speak of the bad and complain all the time about what's bad. It could be because of that evil eye thing. But personally I think it is highly unhealthy, negative attracts negative in my book, it doesn't repel it.
    If you listen to a lot of people in India, you end up having the idea that everything is bad and ironically even though people want to acknowledge it, they don't even want to change a thing, they keep on cribbing. The neighbours are horrible, the sabzi wallah sells crap, the climate is nasty, the quality of stuff in stores has gone down, the milk man is a cheater, the lady down the street has gained weight, or she is slutty, or her husband drinks and she should do something about it. The amount of energy spent trying to find flaws in absolutely everything is mind boggling at time.

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  15. Well when you quoted a book written by a westerner who has been to India a couple of times or studied India's viewpoint from a western book, it is called short sightedness. The same things mentioned by you happens in corporate world, in politics, among countries... How many times has America criticised Soviet Union and vice-versa. The solution to these criticism can be found in Mahabharata, where Krishna says to Arjuna, " You shouldnt be elated by success nor be depressed by criticism and failure." Well I have been in the receiving end of this criticism all through my school, because of not getting better scores than my fellow students. I felt bad initially, but then I let it go. If you have Money and say you are happy, then thats not called happiness, but when you dont have money and still you are happy thats called Happiness. How many times a teenager get criticised by parents for not behaving as the parents want, and how his/her peers criticise him/her if they dont act as per their will. Many a times, a teacher keeps criticising a student so that the best in him/her comes out. SACHIN TENDULKAR revealed that his coach never praised him, and only criticised him even if he played well, because that bought the best in him. Australian cricket team is known for disorienting a good batsman with bad cuss words on mother father etc, but they failed disorient Sachin because of his teacher's training. Society is that teacher who criticises because it wants you to grow Spritually.

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  16. Hi, you are so right about this Indian fear of praising a child or any loved one. you are also right about people freely making negative personal remarks. but the two are not the same thing.
    so, the theory is a child must be protected from the evit eye or in its more modern from "not spoilt" by too much praise. I find that this form of protection. Indian children, esp girls (sons get praised to other people...even if they receive no praise themselve), grow up insecure and constantly wondering if they are good enough. That cannot be a good thing.
    But, negative personal remarks have nothing to do with protecting/not spoiling and everything to do with bad manners. The next time someone says something about your appearance, just say "I like myself the way I am and as it happens so does my man." Should shut them up for a while.
    I just read this .. food for thought ... I see a version of this in tradtional indian (I am indian) parenting... http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/24/opinion/david-brooks-love-and-merit.html?smprod=nytcore-iphone&smid=nytcore-iphone-share

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  17. reading the messages coming from Western girls married to Indians I can not understand why for you all is so important to be accepted as Indians...I am married to an Indian man and I can say I never cared what his family thinks about me, that does not mean I treat them with disrespect but I do not like to be treated, called or what so ever as Indian. I am not Indian, I never going to be and I do not want to be. The family of my husband know about that and they never bothered me or made inappropriate comments, I never have any problem with them. They do not even bother me to wear Indian clothes, I do it only when I want and when I think that my husband will like that. I do not have problems to have to cook Indian food or any Indian customs at home or outside. I never had problems with my husband about that. I can not imagine to live with a man whose religion will not allow me to eat meat in my own home. I do not mind to cook for him anything he wants but he never stopped me to eat meat even he does not eat meat. Sorry but that is my opinion and I wish luck to all of you girls who so much want to become Indians instead of keeping your own personality as western/white women the dream of every Indian woman. The real love accept the person the way he/she is... not the way she/he wants him/her to be. Have a great weekend everybody.

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    1. Unfortunately, I agree 100% with this comment. This is something that I never understood and don't think will ever understand. I can never relate to this type of struggles as a Western woman married to an Indian man because I never experienced them. I don't tolerate any form of meddling or interference from family and neither does my husband.

      I think this starts at the very beginning of the relationship. In all honesty, I don't think I would have married my husband if he was a conservative Indian man; would not have even been attracted to him and he tells me the same if I would have been a conservative Latin woman.

      As I said, I cannot relate to this experiences but I think that is important for Western women to know, especially the younger ones who seem in my opinion to more freely accept this type of behavior as part of been with an Indian man, that this is not healthy or the norm. I and plenty more Western women that don't tolerate this behavior will attest to that. This goes as far and as long as you allow it. Quite frankly, nobody should have a long mental inventory of harsh and bad things said or done to them. It also doesn't help that a lot justify this behavior as cultural norm - IT IS NOT. Again, is what you allow.

      Millie B

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    2. This is a very good point about looking for acceptance. And I agree with it too a 100% :) And I am an Indian married to an Indian, in India. In my experience, being accepted is always at issue, never mind where you come from. My own inlaws, were fine with their son marrying me, but wanted me to conform to their customs and ways. It started with the marriage ceremony. I did not want a religious ceremony, my boyfrnd was indifferent. I stood my ground, as my boyfrnd told me I must. That set the tone for me. They struggle with the acceptance part. I don't. I've done and do all the things for them that I'd do for my own parents - from chores to taking time off to care for them when they've been ill. My husband does the same for mine. They never show any appreciation. But then, I put that down to their "custom" :D I realised at some point that this acceptance thing was the whole "now you are part of our family .. have left your parents family" thing. I'ver said to them in very direct ways that I have grown my family, not relocated from one to another. And that I am a person, not a daughter/wife/dil. As we go on, I think things will get better for them, as they realise its possible not make yourself miserable because your dil will not be the compliant cow you want her to be :)

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  18. Hi Alexandra,
    I am an Indian girl born and brought up in India and moved here only after my marriage. I have been regularly reading your blog just to understand India from a foreign girl's perspective. I must say that you have really put in a lot of effort and have really sacrificed a lot to make your marriage work. Your husband is really lucky and so is your Indian family because I can assure you 100% that neither me nor my cousins (girls) nor my friends and anybody in my entire circle can do all what you have done and put up with so much in the name of Indian culture and tradition. Hats off to you!!!!
    But saying that all Indians are like this is no way different from how many Indians think that all western girls are sluts and everybody in the west gets married only to get divorced.. No, all Indian families are not like this and I am not too sure about the book you quoted above as each author has their own perspective. My family has never been shy of complimenting, and this is the same at my in laws place too. If anybody is criticizing to this extent then they surely have no good intentions towards you. About weight, I think nobody has a right especially not "my husband's friend brother". I will not take such comments from even my family so from strangers and husband's friend brother is a stranger to me, never.
    I think it all depends on the environment of the family and their upbringing, but I can assure that this is not the norm. So please continue showering compliments wherever applicable and tell people that it's your culture to appreciate things.
    All the best!!!!
    P.S. Maya looks very pretty and beautiful. Please do not get the self esteem of the girl down by not complimenting her and appreciating her. If you are so concerned about evil eye and dhristi, just put a kaala tiika (a round spot with kajal) on her foot or since she is still young behind her ear.

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  19. Hey Alexandra, I have witnessed this criticism of loved ones in France in certain people and it is rooted in some christian notions I believe. I bought the book of Abbe Dubois on my last trip to India but I am rebuked by some of his prejudices, although I believe he is reckoned to have described very accurately some Indian customs.

    My husband however soothes his child by telling her she is nice and intelligent. At first I found it shocking but now we all say it to each other when we are upset and it works wonders !

    As for criticism from the Indian family I can relate. To me in India some people turn everything into blockbuster movies. The funny thing is now I am starting to talk rather than nod and smile vaguely many relatives seem really scared lol (Pad)

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  20. Alexandra, being of Indian background myself, I never understood such comments growing up and while I understand some people believe in the evil eye, I don't understand how being rude (and let's face it, telling someone they have gained weight, or they have pimples all over their face, or add a comment of your choice here is just plain rude) is supposed to deflect negative attention. Simply don't say anything. Don't compliment but must you really pull down a person? I've struggled with my weight over the years and I was so mad when someone asked me while I was pregnant how I planned to lose "all the weight"...And really, I know I have acne, I see it in the mirror every morning, I don't need the obvious being stated over and over again. I don't think I will ever understand this and I don't think I even want to. Good thing I don't stay in India anymore or I would be walking around with high blood pressure all the time...

    Raina.

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  21. I am kind of not sure about the constant criticism part because it can easily be used to be emotionally abusive and manipulative. Anytime you say you are upset by the constant criticism, they can justify saying that they care.

    But I have definitely seen the evil eye part + avoiding boasting too much. I know that the evil eye pertains to the person not boasting about their good fortune to everybody but I have not seen it encompassing avoiding praise or getting criticism from others.

    That said, Asians are not too much into praise because on has to be modest. People are always praising the other and downplaying themselves. To me, sometimes it feels like low self esteem when one constantly berates themselves.

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  22. @Alexandra

    The custom of criticism is prevalent most Asian cultures especially in the case of children as it make them complacent and they are not going to work hard. Criticism is a supposed to spur them to work hard. However, it is not that Indian parents are criticizing always. They also give incentives to the children if they get good grades. However, criticism and constant comparisons do take its toll. Interestingly, as I gather the opposite happens with American children. They are praised anyway as the parents are too afraid to criticize them in order to protect their self esteem. Two very different thought processes.

    As far as criticisms are concerned, I have heard the western people criticize India culture left, right and centre. Only in their case it is called frankness. It is being told that western people are frank and honest and they are taught to speak their mind. Their criticism though negative is somehow painted as positive. However, Indians have no such chance. Their criticism is always painted as negative. The western culture also sells the idea that a man/women should look a particular way or differentiates between "cool" and "nerdy". I was personally appalled by the way children were branded as "nerds" because they got good grades and the pressures of "love life" at an age when children should be free of adult preoccupations and concentrate on their academics.

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  23. Yes, I have been on the receiving end of this type of criticism since the almost the first day I was introduced to my husband's family. My husband said it would get better after we were married but it only got worse. My new MIL told me what/how much to eat, how I should clean and set up my house, how I should "take care" of my husband and pointed out what I was currently doing was not adequate or correct. From a Western standpoint I was shocked into silence. It was so incredibly rude in my eyes that I was having a hard time believing that anyone could say such things to their new daughter-in-law. Then she started in on my own mother, saying that she ought to yell at me to do things, and she didn't raise me right. That's when I put my foot down and said enough is enough. I told my husband to speak to her (which he did) and the next day she apologized to my mother. Criticism, to some degree, is excepted in parents. But in my opinion it becomes toxic in the Indian culture. To this day I harbor bad feelings to my MIL for what she said to my own mother. My mother would NEVER think to go into someone else's house and criticize them up and down for every little thing. It's just something you don't do, and it is RUDE, and nothing but bad feelings come of it. My husband has learned to tune it out, my MIL talks and it goes in one ear and comes out the other. But words hurt, and though now my MIL is more careful, I am still very guarded around her for fear of her criticism.
    I don't think her attitude is at all related to superstitions. I think it is simply how she was raised. In her culture there is no privacy. Everybody tells everybody else what to do because they all think they know best. I'm past the point of ever trying to please her by actually following her advice. I do what I know is the right thing (which may be the opposite of what she commands) and she can think what she wants. Life is to short to listen to MIL's and aunties gossip about what you are doing "wrong". You might say that their "hearts are in the right place" and their "intentions are good". This doesn't excuse the fact that they are causing harm. If loving someone means constantly criticizing them then I don't want anything to do with your love.

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    1. I am not sure MILs and aunties always have good intentions.

      To me Indian social interactions, especially between women, are all about power, with a hint of sadism too. As a foreign DIL you disorganize their schemes because you have a different status and power. For example I am in India now and and as I can't understand the language, when my husband turns his back I am given stares of death . (Pad)

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