Reflecting on my culture

(Man, I’m really write-happy this week, aren’t I? If you’re checking in for the first time in a while, I’m really sorry!)

Sushma and Prasanna have sent out links to the attendees of their December wedding (one of the two I attended when I went to India, the second being of Prasanna’s brother Prasad and Aarushi three days later), and it’s making me wax nostalgic about being there. It’s also making me a bit nostalgic for those really familiar traditions and ceremonies–not that a wedding is extremely familiar, since those were the first two all-out ones I’ve seen (the only one I saw prior to that was in 1990 in Pittsburgh, so yeah, that doesn’t count)…and it’s not so much reminding me of my Indian heritage, as it is helping me to think about it more.

My close friends and family know that I like to say that even though I may not do the whole outward “Indian thing” (I grew up with virtually no other Indian kids my age within reasonable visiting distance in Atlanta, so I’m a bit “detached” from a lot of this stuff…but I think that even if I did have a decent group of South Asian friends prior to college, I’d still be avoiding Desi-only parties and all of that inclusive/cliquey stuff like the plague–totally not my cup of tea), I’ve sort of internalized the culture and customs into how I make my daily decisions and view the world. Indian culture is why I have such a hard time eating out at almost any restaurant in Japan (“what do you mean sausage/bacon/chicken isn’t meat? How can you not eat meat or fish? Yes, we’re Buddhist, why do you ask?”), why I’ve never set foot inside an onsen and never intend to, and why Japan isn’t so foreign to me in some ways but surprisingly so in others. Buddhism has had a huge impact on day-to-day Japanese culture, in kind of the same way that Hinduism has become so intertwined with Indian culture. Because both religions originated from India, there are a lot of basic similarities between the cultures of the two countries; one can easily compare a sari to a kimono, the strong ties to family and ideals of respecting one’s elders ring true for both…the people both countries even stare at foreigners. (Yeah, bad joke.)

But my being one of two Indians in the prefecture (there’s a guy down in Anan who I’ve seen in passing but never talked to), not counting the ones who work at the two Masala restaurant locations in Tokushima or the Sri Lankan gentleman who co-runs the Ajiroman restaurant in Yamakawa…anyway, it makes it really easy to just not think about the specifics of Indian culture. At the same time, I often get people asking me what I am (Indian or American, or even Canadian or European on occasion), which singular nationality I am (“both” just doesn’t fly with some people–they can’t wrap their mind around one-and-a-half/second-generation people like myself), which country I like better (I really hate when people ask me that–why must I prefer one over the other?)…I also get people who keep forgetting that I’m from America because I don’t “look” American, people who think that I moved here from India and that I “went home” to my family in December…I’m really confusing everybody here.

At any rate, being Indian comes up on a regular basis–it came up in both my introductory eikaiwa classes today, and in both sessions it spawned a discussion about the similarities between India and Japan and the ease of my adjusting to Japanese life. But though I can and do talk about it frequently, I don’t really think about it. I forget that I have 3 salwar kameez and 3 or 4 kurti hanging up on the hooks on my wall–I used to feel so different wearing them, as if I were entering some alternate lifestyle or something, but that’s changed as I’ve become more in tune with my personal definition of myself and my role as an Indian and an Indian-American.

But it’s really easy to lose touch, too. I miss tasting and smelling that fantastic mix of spices and vegetables. I miss the smell of silk and the rustling sound it makes when at a pooja or any other cultural function with many sari-wearing women present–I even kind of miss the tang of mild body odor/musk in the air. I miss the slightly rough-around-the-edges, but still reverent in its obvious and matter-of-fact regularity, methodology of how the religious poojas and whatnot play out. I miss the conversations with relatives and “the Indian families,” where people have multiple conversations at once and keep trying to talk over one another as the volume keeps spiraling up and up. I miss how non-remote the ceremonies are (particularly for south Indians), and how people have the freedom to duck in and out, and even crowd around to get a good look at the proceedings. I miss hanging out with the circle of ladies in the “women’s room” and getting in on all the community gossip while the men have their own area to congregate and inevitably discuss business or politics. I miss the sound of spoken Tamil, and I even almost miss SunTV (a Tamil-language cable channel) and its ridiculous dramas (hey, Mom, how does the theme of that one we were keeping up with in India go? If you remember, sing it for me the next time we’re on the phone!). I miss the quiet peace hanging over the pooja setup in the second closet in my bedroom at home (our bonus room, and now my brother’s bedroom) when we all would meet for our quick pre-dinner prayer. I miss the tangy taste of slightly dried raisins as they mix with the scent of the kumkum my grandmother applies to our foreheads during the almost-nightly prayer time, and the mingling scents of burning sandalwood incense and camphor. I miss the feel of cold concrete under my bare feet at the temple, and the sound of the even-pitched but lilting voice of the temple priest conducting archana for us in the cool-floor-tiled room with the ornate wooden doors and the grand statue of Lord Venkateswara. I miss seeing the worn but comfortable-looking cotton sarees my grandmothers wear around the house. I miss the mixtures of bright and dull colors, the blacks and golds, the batik and paisley and floral, the vibrant and opaque, the bright shades of gold, all of which grace nearly every form of Indian art in some way or another. I miss the weight of the bangles on my wrists and the struggle it takes to get them on and off…and even the struggle to make sure the pants of my salwar kameez are long enough without falling off due to how ridiculously low I have to wear them sometimes. I miss the excitement of seeing my grandmothers after they’ve returned from India with a suitcase full of clothes and crunchies and sweets and other goodies (especially now that they’re entering their twilight years, and my elder grandmother has made the very sobering declaration that the two weddings in India in December probably constituted her final trip to India, because the stresses of international travel are becoming too much for her in her old age; my younger grandmother has echoed her sentiments to a lesser degree).

I want to take in as much of this as I can when I go home this summer, but I’m just not sure there’ll be enough time. I hope that I’m able to return in winter as well, stay for at least two weeks, and truly get my fill then. I found it so difficult to pull away from India when I had to return to Japan, because after 10 days of so much tradition and familiarity, all the differences in Japan stuck out so painfully. I’m sure that going back to the US will bring out the same sorts of sentiments when I return, but I’m really in need of a recharge and some time to surround myself with familiar things.

I actually was going to write about something completely different today, but I’ll save it for later, I guess. Oh, well.

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