Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year's Eve

It's New Year's Eve, and I realize an end-of-year wrap-up post would be apropos, but let's face it, it's been done, and done. On top of that, I have nothing to count down, and my "ten best" list would not be of interest to anyone outside my household.

So instead I'm going to tell you a little story that happened yesterday as we were out shopping for everything, by which I mean everything. Cereal, gum, oranges, bread, eggs, eggplant, chocolate, chips, cheese, milk, salad greens, both kinds of dog food. Everything.

We had fortified ourselves by going out to breakfast and were at the first of four stops, checking out and making small talk with the cashier. My husband Mowgli (not his real name) was putting things in bags; we bring our own and have learned that bagging our own tends to result in better use of space. Granted, this makes us sound like a couple of uptight turds, but seriously, it's just easier, especially if you have a spatial relations genius in the family.

But I digress. The cashier asked if Mowgli was from India, and he said yes. Then, instead of the usual "what part of India?" follow-up, she asked if Indian women wear dots on their foreheads because they're married. He was caught off-guard (fair enough -- who expects a cultural question in the middle of bagging their own purchases?) but said yes, it can mean that. Then I chimed in and said it could also mean that they'd been celebrating a religious occasion. She seemed satisfied with our answers, and we paid and headed for the parking lot.

Now that I've written this and thought about it, this little incident encapsulates our year pretty well. We've been handling the mundane tasks of life, and occasionally discussing bite-sized bits of Indian culture with total strangers.

Not a bad year at all.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Behold, the Power of Sausage

I went to my mom's for Christmas, and because we are Polish, there is never a question that we will have kielbasa for dinner at some point during the stretch of luxuriant meals. We spend several weeks discussing what to eat when, what side dishes to make, where to pick up the best and freshest foodstuffs.

When it comes to kielbasa, there is only one place to go in Baltimore: Ostrowski's. And that is the first place we went after my mom picked me up from the airport. It's in a narrow-streeted section of the city called Fells Point, and when we pulled up, there were no parking spots to be found. My mom double-parked, and I sat in the car while she went in so I could move it if necessary.

At first, I was nervous. This was not my town; some of the people walking by and chatting on their stoops looked like stevedores who wouldn't think twice about roughing up outsiders. Then, one by one, other cars pulled up behind and in front of our car. Every driver did the same thing: double parked, put their flashers on and went into Ostrowski's. I relaxed and started rummaging for reading material and CDs.

Then my mom called from inside the shop to say it would be another 15 minutes or so because they were just loading up the sausage stuffing machine. Apparently the meat delivery had been late because of the storms, and the fresh kielbasa was going to be extra-fresh. By this time, the line of people was out the door and two houses long, and the line of double-parked cars covered most of the block.

My mom waited half an hour for the sausage we ate on Christmas Eve, and I'm here to tell you, it was worth every minute of that wait.

The Immigrant Experience, Baby Edition

I have a friend who works with new moms and their babies in a hospital that serves a broad population including immigrants from a huge range of countries. She regularly handles discharges with the aid of a phone interpreter and is used to seeing all sorts of traditions, such as kohl eyebrows drawn on female Somalian babies by their fathers.

Recently, she cared for a Burundian mother who spoke not a word of English, and when she brought the baby to the mother for the first feeding, she gestured in a way that said "will you be breastfeeding"? The mother gestured in a way that indicated she would not, and my friend was puzzled, but she respected the mother's wishes and brought a bottle.

Later, a minister from the woman's church came to visit her. She spoke English fluently, so my friend asked her whether women in Burundi typically breastfeed. The minister, also a woman, said of course, that's how we feed our babies. My friend then related the ealier conversation with the new mom and asked the minister to help her talk to the mom aobut it.

During the short conversation, the woman said she hadn't wanted to breastfeed because she was worried about offending my friend. Alone in a hospital, thousands of miles from anything familiar and unable to communicate, she was not feeding her baby in the way she wanted to because she thought it would be rude.

My friend quickly explained that it was not necessary to be polite about this, and the woman promptly lifted the baby to her breast and began to feed her.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Arranged Marriage, Part Three

If you're just joining us, this is the third installment of a four- or five-part series on arranged marriage that is the result of an e-mail correspondence with a reader, Barani. Here is part one and part two.

Today, we'll learn about caste, diet and religion. Again, the text in italics has only been edited for clarity.

Next we move onto the caste taboos:
There are thousands of castes, and the upper castes tend to be vegetarian.
Virtually no caste that is vegetarian is lower caste.
In my caste, they will accept love marriages with any vegetarian caste (which is also forward caste).
One of my cousins married a Gujurati Patel (vegetarian) as love marriage with family support.

Familial opposition will be severe if the other party is non-vegetarian (can be assuaged if the other party agrees to become vegetarian).

So the first fault line is diet.
The second fault line is religion.
The line is between Indian origin religion and foreign origin religion (can be assuaged if the other party agrees to become an Indian religionist).

Diet actually goes like this:
Vegetarian = 95% probability of being upper caste
Non-Vegetarian = 75% probability of being lower caste
The other 25% Non-vegetarian upper castes are soldier castes who have to be used to bloodshed and the soldier castes also do animal (goat) sacrifices to get used to blood.
Often people to find out if a person is low caste, ask whether he is vegetarian.
Crudely - Vegetarian = Upper caste
Goat, Chicken, fish eater = low caste
Beef and Pork eater = Dalit (untouchable)

So there is a 3-way segmentation based on diet.

Marriages are fairly common between Hindus and Sikhs, Hindus and Jains and Hindus and Buddhists.
Often within the same family you may have 2-3 Indian religions.

In the birds and bees conversation in India, every teenager learns - you will be dead meat if you bring home a non-vegetarian or a non-Indian religionist.
In Punjab, 10% of all murders are done if a hindu or sikh (Indian religion) marries a muslim or a xtian* (foreign religion).

*Editor’s note: “xtian” denotes Christian.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Naturalization Test

Tomorrow my husband Mowgli (not his real name) will take a written and oral test of English and a 10-question U.S. civics exam as part of his naturalization process. Herewith I present to you a sample test, culled from the 100 questions contained in the study booklet he was given. A passing grade is six correct answers, and for fun, I've posted the answers to the questions below the photo.

Let's begin, shall we?

1. What is the supreme law of the land?

2. What are two rights in the Declaration of Independence?

3. In what month do we vote for President?

4. What ocean is on the East Coast of the United States?

5. Name one war fought by the United States in the 1800s.

6. Who was the first President?

7. Why does the flag have 50 stars?

8. What did Susan B. Anthony do?

9. Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?

10. How many amendments does the Constitution have?

1. The Constitution; 2. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; 3. November; 4.The Atlantic ; 5. War of 1812, Mexican-American War, Civil War, Spanish-American War; 6. George Washington; 7. each star represents a state; 8. fought for women's and civil rights; 9. Thomas Jefferson; 10. 27.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Arranged Marriage, Part Two

Last Sunday, I wrote a post about arranged marriage, which you can view here. Today I'm posting part two, covering virginity, the traditional Indian view of marriage as being between two families (not two individuals), and the generalities of how a match is made.

All text in italics was written by a reader, Barani, who is kindly sharing his first-hand knowledge of this topic. All I've added is punctuation.

In Indian society, it is compulsory that the bride is a virgin.
The only exception is if the groom has a blemish, such as old, bald, poor, handicapped etc.

So very few Indian boys will knowingly marry a non-virgin.
In some cases, non-virginity is hushed up, sort of don't-ask, don't-tell.
If the woman already has a child, then it is impossible to use this fig leaf.
In Indian divorce law, if the bride is a non-virgin, then it is a legitimate grounds for divorce.

So no parent will allow his or her daughter to date.
If a man asks a girl for a date, her brother or father will come after you with a gun or a sword.

More than 75% of Indian women are virgins and 0% are unwed mothers (will lead to shot-gun forced marriage or honor killings).

Next, in the Indian context, marriage is between 2 families because after the marriage, you owe your in-laws as much responsibility as your own family.

Next, until recently and even now to some extent, poverty is widespread in India and the girl's parents want a good earner, not a hunk. Only well employed men need apply, no students.

Now that we have understood that Indian marriages are a merger deal between 2 families, then it means that both of the families must be of comparable socio-economic status and speak a common language.
India has 25 major languages with 20 different alphabets.

So you need to specify, Gujurati, Punjabi etc. to indicate Language.

People like to marry within their own religion, even in the west.
So classified Ads in the west will say Jewish, Catholic, Born-Again etc.
Same way in Indian Ads you have to specify religion.

There are traditional matchmakers in rural areas who do this for a living.
In north-India, the bride has to be same caste, and not closer than 5th cousin.
In South-India, the preference order is sisters daughter, Fathers sisters daughter, Mothers brothers daughter.
If these are not suitable then they search among second cousins and neighbors daughters of the same caste.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

McDonald's in French is "McDo"

This morning a news item about the recession hitting McDonald's caught my eye. I'm sure the piece is meant for those who indulge in the daily ritual of sniffing after signs of economic recovery and/or further deterioration, but I am not one of those. My only thought on skimming the article was "Right about now, someone at Mickey D's HQ is saying, 'Thank God for the French.' "

After successfully battling beaucoup de resistance from labor interests, aesthetes and farmers, McDonald's ("McDo" en Francais) has 1,000 locations in France. If memory serves, France is roughly the size of Texas -- which, it seems, had 1,041 restaurants back in 2004. But those numbers only tell part of the story -- according to this article, the Louvre location is the most profitable in the world. Also, the French spend more per visit than Americans and linger over their meals, just as they would in a bistro.

But how did this seemingly incongruous thing come to pass? The short answer appears to be marketing. Le Big Mac knew that in order to win the hearts and minds of the French, they would have to placate the country's protest-loving farmers, lest they use mountains of potatoes to block the entrances of touts les McDo's. This article details the story of McDonald's in France nicely, and the most telling details, I think, are that 1) the man largely responsible for the success of McDo in France is in fact French, and 2) since 2001, McDonald's has had a large display at the weeklong Salon d'Agriculture, an event meant to showcase the people and products of French farms. McDonald's mission there was not to pass out samples of frites, but to tell people that 75% of the produce used in French McDonald's restaurants comes from France.

Marketing-wise, this was brilliant not only because of its visceral appeal to the pride of the general populace, but because it was a pointed message to French farmers, who at the time rabidly, publicly supported a protester who'd vandalized a McDo in 1999. They'd been enjoying the economic benefits of selling their crops to McDo's while criticizing them. And now everyone who happened by the McDo booth at the Salon d'Agriculture would know the farmers been biting the hand that bought their food.

Zut alors! Or as we say here in the U.S., D'oh!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Arranged Marriage, Part One

About a month ago, I received a comment to my "Classified Ads" post from an Indian who said that martimonial ads have improved the matchmaking system; he then offered to tell me about arranged marriages from his perspective. I set up a "contact me" button, and shortly thereafter, Barani (his chosen pseudonym) began to send me long, detailed e-mails full of well-organized, concise, honest statements about all aspects of arranged marriage.

It's fascinating to suddenly be given a different lens to view a thing that I've been trying, and failing, to understand. I'm grateful that he's taken the time and energy to write to me, and that he's trusted me use his words as I see fit. Some of what he says is not news to me; for example, what he says about the reasoning behind the system:

In the west, you date for 3 years to find compatibility
In India, if you marry within similar castes, the culture is identical, and you don't need the 3 years of getting to know
Both sides know exactly what is expected and there are no surprises

But some of it is revelatory, such as what he says about going through the winnowing process via matrimonial ads:

It stung, even though it was long distance rejection
I could never handle direct rejection as in the western system

He draws parallels between matrimonial ads and western personals -- though I would take it a bit further and argue that eHarmony and its ilk are watered-down, western cousins of the arranged marriage system.

These matrimonial ads are no different than what western people do in their personal ads

Of course all women claim to be beautiful and all men handsome
In reality less than 10% will be beautiful or handsome

And he lays out the details of the process (note: my understanding of biodata is age, occupation, education, religion and caste):

So first there will be matrimonial ad
Next step is photo exchange
and both sides can reject based on photo or biodata

After mutual photo approval there is interview of 1 hour
Next if both sides agree, then marriage takes place

The vast majority of my non-Indian readers will probably have a strong reaction to that last line. I used to, but now that I understand the reasoning behind it, it just seems like a different way to approach marriage. Not one I would be comfortable with for myself, but one that's worked for millions of people for many hundreds of years. Granted, there are arranged marriages that don't work well, but obviously, the same can be said of love marriages.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Photopost: Useful Souvenirs

I went to Poland with my mom back in 2000, and we were both overwhelmed by the wide array of crystal items in Krakow's Cloth Hall. These little cordial/shot glass thingies are among my favorite souvenirs, maybe because I actually use them.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Philosophical Side of The Sopranos

My husband Mowgli (not his real name) and I have been on vacation since last Friday, and I had grand ambitions for this time, detailed in a long list that I plan to keep as a reminder of my folly. To be fair, I did roast a chicken and make a veggie pot pie, and we did visit Lincoln's home in Springfield. But -- citizenship quiz studying? Not once. Attempt dosas with new recipe from kind cyberfriend? Didn't happen.

And writing? Wasn't even on the list. I didn't think it needed to be. I thought I'd spring out of bed and start pecking away until Mowgli snatched the laptop from my flying fingers. I did my usual blog posts, but that's all I did -- the minimum. Unless you count the plethora of Facebook updates on the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, which, to make myself feel better, I do.

What I've been doing instead of writing is so weird, it makes me squirm to admit it publicly. I've been watching season 5 of the Sopranos. I haven't loved it as much as I've heard some do -- the violence prevents that -- but I've liked it enough to look forward to watching one or two episodes before the day gets rolling. In fact, I watched one this morning, and it spawned today's topic. Lucky thing, too, 'cause honestly, I had nary a post idea when I got up this morning.

It was Episode 58, "Sentimental Education," and about 10 minutes in Tony B., who's been trying to go straight after 18 years in prison, compares being an immigrant to being in prison. The rest of the episode underscores this theme, with pointed remarks about Koreans and dogs, and Carmella's affair failing because of her lover's prejudice against women like her, i.e., mobsters' wives. Toward the end of the hour, Tony B. beats up his Korean business partner, destroying his best chance at achieving his goal of going straight. Tony Soprano responds to this news by saying, "It's tough to do business with outsiders."

Granted, this is a show that delights in making cartoons of ethnic stereotypes, but it did make me think about the three-way battle between heritage and fate and free will. To what extent are we all bound by our heritage, the shapes of our noses and cheekbones, our last names?

What do you think, readers? How have you experienced these strictures? Are they good, bad, or somewhere in between?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Last Year's Thanksgiving

This year, our Thanksgiving will be low-key and at home, and I will be thinking, on and off, of the Mumbai terrorist attacks that happened a year ago this weekend.

During "11/26," as it is known in India, hundreds of people were killed, wounded and terrorized at multiple sites across the vast and tangled metropolis of Mumbai. The attacks went on for days. A landmark hotel was occupied and burned. The head of the police force's terrorism unit was killed. Suspicions that the perpetrators were Lashkar-e-Taiba operatives were bandied about (and later confirmed).

The siege began at 9:15 p.m. local time Wednesday, November 26 -- Wednesday morning, for us -- and so my husband and I were glued to CNN for long stretches of the four-day holiday weekend. I'm pretty sure I detached myself first when I realized I had all the information I needed and wanted. In that respect, it resembled my reaction to 9/11 -- it is a horrifying event, but watching the same thing over and over serves no purpose.

We called my husband's parents, who live in far-south Tamil Nadu, because it seemed possible that the whole country was under threat. The only aberration they reported was heightened security measures. I e-mailed my cousin, who was staying at a school outside Bangalore with her family at the time. She said that they hadn't been aware of the attacks until someone from the outside world (her mother, I think) notified them.

HBO has come out with a documentary about the attacks that uses cell phone audio and suveillance footage to reconstruct the sequence of events. According to this review, "we're not left in awe of the precision and strategic cunning of the terrorists' plan as we were in the wake of 9/11. Instead, ... what's stunning is that such a haphazard attack could've resulted in such a staggering loss of human life."

Ugh. Despite my curiosity, I'm now struggling with the "to watch or not to watch" question for the same reason I quit watching the live coverage last year. Concentrating on making good food may be the better choice.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Bethesda Prayer Center

Following our failed attempt to visit the waterfall outside Coimbatore, Mowgli and I stopped at a Christian prayer center we'd passed on the way out.

The Bethesda Prayer Center is part of the legacy of Dr. D.G.S. Dhinakaran, who had a conversion experience in 1955. He was on his way to the railroad tracks, intending to kill hemself by jumping in front of a train, but was stopped by his uncle, who introduced him to Jesus. According to his bio, the doctor "experienced a sudden wave of divine peace and hope, flood his heart. His mind was transformed and he returned home enlightened."

Following his conversion, he built schools, held massive prayer meetings focused on healing the sick, started a magazine called "Jesus Calls," and served as a conduit for the word of the Lord. One of the messages he received was to open a prayer center:

"On August 12, 1983, the Holy Spirit guided Dr. D.G.S.Dhinakaran to do something for those who are in need for prayer at any time of the day. Therefore Dr. D.G.S. Dhinakaran erected a 24 Hour Prayer Tower. Today the Prayer Tower is a full-fledged Prayer Centre equipped with modern facilities. Specially chosen and trained Prayer Warriors endowed with the compassion of Christ, attend to such calls round-the-clock."

When I tell people about visiting this place, I am invariably met with astonishment; Christianity in India strikes most people as an impossibility. And yet, it is widely believed that the Apostle Thomas traveled to and died in India; today, India has upwards of 20 million practicing Christians.

I admit, though, that the experience of finding a fervently faithful group of Christians in the middle of an Indian agricultural area was jarring, not least because when I said I was from the U.S., I was greeted with an enthusiastic, "praise the Lord, sister, praise the Lord." Never in a million years did I think I'd be in Tamil Nadu the first time someone said that to me.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Of Dogs and Donations

There's a photo from our trip to India a few years ago that's not spectacular, and yet, I can't bring myself to delete it because of the story and the memory behind it. Here it is:

That's our vehicle the dog is next to. We'd just driven out of the city for the first time since we'd arrived because we wanted to visit a waterfall in the jungle. The jungle entrance had closed early due to issues with elephants (some habitat encroachments are more equal than others) and so we were standing around, talking about what to do next. Being inclined to take photos at all times, I started snapping away and shot the one above.

And then my husband Mowgli (not his real name) became mildly agitated and told me to back away from the dog. I recall being unimpressed by it -- as you can see, it's pretty small and a bit on the thin side. Also, we have two dogs that, combined, outweigh me, and since I've fed, bathed and walked them for 10 years, I'm pretty comfortable around canines.

But I took my husband's word for it and backed up instead of trying for a shot of the dog's face, which was reasonably cute. As I moved away, I recalled him telling me more than once that dogs in India are not to be touched or even looked at because most of them are street dogs and therefore dangerously aggressive. It's not just his opinion -- the Mumbai high court ruled 2-1 earlier this year that "nuisance" dogs can be killed. Which might sound less awful once you know that 25,000 Mumbai residents a year are bitten by one of the 70,000 feral dogs who also live there.

By contrast to the photo above, here is one of my dogs, Georgie, recovering from knee surgery:

Even as I think "aw, the poor thing," I think, "she has it better than the vast majority of dogs, and maybe people, in the developing world." And that's when the guilt kicks in and I start to think about donating to an organization that helps the poor. I think I'll use Gori Girl's excellent "how to help the poor" guide to figure out which one to give to.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


A few weeks ago, interesting blog-related things started to happen. Seeds I had planted, sometimes unknowingly, began to sprout. Like any farmer in springtime, I was thrilled to see fresh green shoots of possibility poking up through the ground.

First, an intercultural relationship blogger, Gori Girl, found my blog and left a comment on one of my posts. Once I started digging into her blog, I was even happier she'd found me, because she handles complex topics like giving to beggars with thoughtfulness, clarity and heft. Her dedication to her main topic is evident in pieces like the two-part interview with her in-laws wherein she delves into their thoughts on her relationship with their son.

Next, Maami, a blogger based in Madras, contacted me to talk about a project involving intercultural relationship blogs, and I happily directed her to and Earlier this year, I'd found her blog by clicking on an "arrived from" link in my stat counter report, and liked it so much I left a comment and bookmarked it.

Right around the same time, someone left a comment on my "Classified Ads" post offering to give me the inside scoop on arranged marriage from an Indian perspective, so I set up a "contact me" button. It's not clear what the final outcome of this exchange will be, but at the very least, I'm gaining a firsthand, horse's-mouth understanding of a complex topic.

Finally, my apprent doppelganger (Midwestern girl married to a South Indian) left a comment on my "Two Lists" post, saying she'd stumbled on my blog by clicking "next blog." Now we're Facebook friends.

I didn't have a huge stack of expectations for this blog when I started: My main goals were writing practice, learning something new, and fun. I probably should have expected to learn a lot about my husband, his culture and myself. But thanks to the curious alchemy of the Internet, I've been given what feels like a bonus: connections that are full of untold possibilities. Imagining what might happen next is starting to occupy large, happy chunks of my imagination, and for that, I am grateful.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Gene the Pumpkin Man!

Gene the Pumpkin Man is an institution unto himself up in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He's been in the pumpkin growing and selling business for 52 years, and his family's been farming since the late 1880s. I've made many trips to Kalamazoo to see family, and whenever I passed the bright orange signs of Gene's, I'd think, wow, I really need to check that out. Finally, this year, the stars aligned and I made the pilgrimage with one of my girl-cousins.

Gene is a man who is fully dedicated to his chosen path in life. My aunt once saw him and his wife out at breakfast in the off-season; he was dressed in orange. His Christmas lights? Orange. His car? I don't want to ruin it, so just scroll down now if you can't wait.

And now, I will tell you a little secret: I am jealous of Gene the Pumpkin Man. He does what he loves, and clearly, he can live on what he makes. I'm starting to strive for that kind of life, and I'll tell you, as I do it, this orange-clad man is one of my sources of inspiration.

By now, you're probably wondering how any of this is at all related to other cultures, so here you go, straight from the informational booklet given to me by the Pumpkin Man himself: "The pumpkin is fruit of the gourd family and is native to Central America. It was grown by the Indians in North America when the first colonists landed."

Enjoy the photos, dear readers. (By the way, they were all taken with my iPhone.)

Pumpkins as far as the eye can see.

Big ones, little ones, different varieties.

Pumpkins, pumpkins, pumpkins.

There are more pumpkins in that barn, I promise you.

Doubtless by now, word-of-mouth is the only advertising this man needs, if in fact he needs any. But I loved this bit of merchandising: behold the Gene the Pumpkin Man pumpkin carving knife.

This sign is visible from Route 43, which passes in front of the farm.

He also raises a variety of wacky squashes.

Some of them look like they have tumors.

Others reminded me of sea creatures.

Gene the Pumpkin Man is happy to pose for photos. On nice days like this, a line full of kids and adults forms.

Naturally, he drives an orange Cadillac.

With personalized plates.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Special Kind of Selfishness

Last week's horrific attack at Fort Hood left me very sad, baffled, and concerned on several levels. After the initial shock of "what?" and taking in the "who, what, why, how" bit by bit, I started to worry about my husband.

It's a special kind of selfishness, this concern for a man who has nothing to do with the tragedy that's stirring up strong emotions across the country, and yet I can't help myself. In the back of my mind, I'm always concerned for his safety, and it's not because he drives a bit fast (he is, overall, a very good and safe driver).

There is a look he gets, not every day but some days, an accusing look that has nothing to do with anything but his skin color and what people think it means. He is good-natured about these glances, and it's hard to imagine that there would ever be any physical contact associated with them, but still, I worry. My concern is that the mentality behind statements like, "Maybe Muslims shouldn't serve in the U.S. military" will someday create a dangerous situation for people who are perceived to be Middle Eastern.

I know, it's fantastical thinking, and the likelihood of something like that happening in our city seems slim. Yet last week, the thought of soldiers being killed by a soldier on the largest U.S. military base in the world was unthinkable, and this week, we're still trying to understand why and how that happened. And after a while, all I can think is, "Well, crap. Clearly, the world's gone mad. Anything can happen now."

The other thing I think at times like this, and that makes me utterly crazy, is that I should be careful about what I say and write. Such is the polarized nature of our country right now: There are people who think that there is only one correct response, and that any other response indicates anti-Americanism. There is no room for nuance, no space for debate.

So let me be very clear: I have no sympathy for that man. He is very sick, and what he did was horrendous. My fervent hope is that by studying how this happened, the authorities can make sure that nothing like this will ever happen again, that no mother will ever have to be told that her child was killed by someone who was trained to heal people.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


Last night I was watching the Osaka episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, a show that makes me pea-green with envy because really, all this guy does is wander the world, eating, drinking and getting paid for it. Oh, and smoking, which he was thrilled to be able to do in restaurants all over Osaka.

He does, however, delve into the history of the places he visits, and in this case it was fascinating. Osaka is known for its food, and in particular the practice of eating great quantities of it. This tradition was a side effect of a piece of 16th-century legislation that forbade the rising merchant class from building showy houses or wearing fancy clothes. So they started going out and eating (and drinking) themselves silly, and along the way, invented a spectacular array of food that goes very well with beer.

Mowgli joined me partway into the program, and I can't quite recall, but I think he wasn't actually on the couch with me when the segment on okonomiyaki started. Good thing, too, because first I blurted out "okonomiyaki!" and then, well, I kind of spazzed out because the memories of eating this awesome food in Japan came flooding back.

Mr. Bourdain didn' touch on the roots of the dish, but my understanding is that it was born of necessity just before or after World War II, when there was a lot of flour and cabbage about, but not much wheat. The following description (from this site) backs me up:

"The roots of Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki lie in something called "Issen youshoku" (one-penny Western food) that spread across western Japan like cheap candy before the war. Wheat flour was mixed with water and spread in a circle on a griddle. Chopped green onions and such were sprinkled on top, then the concoction was folded in half and served. This proved to be an extremely popular dish. As the name implied, you could buy it for one "sen" (1/100 of a yen), which at the time could purchase two large lollipops."

But that's Hiroshima-style: layered ingredients. In Osaka, everything is mixed together before being plopped on the grill -- in front of you, if you're at one of the countless okonomiyaki restaurants in Japan. You can cook them yourself, but the staff are experts. Here's a video of how that works, complete with helpful subtitles to let you know what's going on, and a bed of peppy Japanese pop:

So you might be wondering: What does that crazy word mean? Okonomi means "what you like" and yaki means "grilled." And now I have a major craving for what I like, grilled.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A Very Happy Halloween

Seven years ago today, I was driving to work, thinking about the awesome party I’d been to the night before. This is what I looked like:

I know, it’s hard to tell from that photo, so I’ll lay it all out for you: I was a battered Statue of Liberty. On my back was a sign that said, “Kick me, I’m Ashcroft’s bitch.” I must have been feeling particularly passive-aggressive activisty that day. Later I found out that the hostess had worked for Ashcroft, but she never brought that up as I paraded around her house, insulting her former boss. Her mama raised her better than that.

But I digress.

The costume was a last-minute thing, pulled together in the space of a few hours when I committed to the idea of looking silly and socializing with other silly-looking people. It wasn’t complicated, but I was proud of my bent cardboard crown, my thrift-store-sheet toga that I’d stomped on in the backyard, the black eye a makeup artist friend had given me.

So there I was, smeared in mud and fake blood (I think I burnt parts of the crown, too), my makeup intentionally smeared and runny, and in walks the dreamiest-looking guy I’d ever seen in person. Yes, it’s dramatic, but it’s true: I saw him from across the room, and I just kind of went “ooh” inside. After a while, he came up to me and we chatted about his grad school days at the university half my family had attended, movies old and new, and astrology (he guessed my sign correctly).

The next day at work, a longtime friend of the hostess laughed when I said I wondered when my new boyfriend was going to call.

Two hours later, she got an e-mail from the hostess asking if I would mind passing my phone number along so she could give it to the man I’d talked to all night. He wanted to ask me out, but wanted to be sure I was interested.

We talked later that day, and the conversation was a bit over-long for work. I didn’t care.

Two weeks later, we had our first date.

Four years and 11 months after we first met, we were married. The Halloween party hostess lit the candles for us.

And when I saw my almost-husband on that day, I went "ooh" inside.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Apples, almonds and philosophy

It has been raining here, on and off, mostly a slow, soaking rain that makes most people crabby, and makes me think of Michigan, where I was born and where I went to college.

On Monday, claustrophobic from the rain and antsy from a grinding morning at my desk, I decided to run errands at lunch, rain be damned. My lunch that day was a salad -- delicious, but not road-friendly -- so I grabbed my coat, keys and an apple, and headed out.

In the car, the apple proved delicious, but not enough to keep my stomach happy, so I rummaged in the door pocket, where I found a baggie of almonds and raisins. As I started in on these, it occured to me that this was exactly the kind of lunch Henryk Skolimowski would have served me.

Henryk was the paramour of my work-study job boss, Joan, a kind, funny, soulful woman who paid me the maximum allowed by the university for my clerical position. Her professor beau could not type all that well, and she told me that if I wanted to, I could work for him on the weekends, essentially taking dictation into a computer. She also mentioned that he would feed me, and this being college, that appealed to me immensely.

On my first day, once we had worked for a few hours, me typing furiously and occasionally supplying the right word for something, Henryk announced that we would stop for some food and tea. We trundled downstairs and he brought out apples, cheese, bread, nuts and dried fruit.

I'd look forward to this kind of simple meal for as along as I worked for him, but it wasn't just the food I liked. We'd sit at a small table near a window in the snug kitchen, munching and sipping and talking, sometimes about his wartime childhood in Warwaw, sometimes about current events, sometimes about not much at all.

Looking back, and looking at the man's Wikipedia entry, I'm surprised that I wasn't intimidated by this man's intellect; he was a profssor of philosophy, in his late 50s and writing about really weighty stuff involving UNESCO. As far as I can figure out, I felt comfortable with him because he was Polish, as I am, and even though I had never been to Poland at that point, we had enough common cultural ground that he seemed more like an uncle than an employer.

The last I knew, Henryk and Joan were married and splitting their time between Poland and the U.S. I hope to see them again someday, and in the meantime, I'll think of them whenever I have a simple lunch on a rainy day.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Two Lists

Ways in Which We Are Just Like You

1. I am the one who smells food to determine whether it’s gone bad.
2. We talk about the thermostat. A lot.
3. I am the keeper of the social calendar.
4. He is the computer wrangler, faucet installer, and lifter of heavy things.
5. I am the buyer of greeting cards and sender of packages.
6. He does not cook.
7. I do not organize the garage.
8. After a bad day, nothing helps more than a hug from him.
9. We take classes together to keep things interesting.

Ways in Which We Are Different From You

1. Our budget includes trips to India.
2. Some of our misunderstandings revolve around language.
3. We own a rice cooker.
4. The time difference between us and his parents is 10.5 hours.
5. There are saris and churidars in my closet.
6. Some of our religious celebrations involve incense and fruit.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Stunning Moment of Monumental Stupidity

Yesterday at work, I received one of those rare e-mails that make you squeal: You have a package at the front desk. I didn’t even have to unwrap it to find out what it was; the heavy-duty shrink-wrap showed me it was the rice cooker we’d ordered last week.

If you’ve ever cooked rice on top of the stove, you know that while it is not rocket science, it can be tricky and tends to take a long time. With a rice cooker, the process is fast and the rice is perfect every time. The newer ones come with steaming baskets so you can do veggies or chicken or fish at the same time, and the bowls are nonstick. For households with South Asian residents, they’re an essential piece of equipment.

Our old one had an aluminum bowl that had to be soaked and scrubbed after every use. I was convinced we were eating Alzheimer’s-inducing particles along with our rice and dal. It did work perfectly though, right up until I killed it.

It was a Sunday, I think, and I was making lava cakes, which require a lot of butter. I had used all the refrigerated butter for the cakes themselves and needed one more hunk to grease the ramekins. I was also steaming broccoli in the microwave and assembling a salad for the next day’s lunch, so I was going at full speed, confident in my ability to monitor, stir and chop.

I grabbed a stick of butter from the freezer and picked up a knife. I put the butter on the counter, ran the knife under hot water, and cut through the butter, leaning forward to put more weight on the knife. Then there was a loud pop and a gasp from the living room.

“Did you just cut through the rice cooker cord?”


I wasn’t sure. I had been in such a hurry, I had to look. On the counter, a few inches from the stick of butter, I saw the two neatly severed ends of the cord. I held the knife up to get a better look at the blade. Here’s what I saw:

“Yeah, that’s exactly what I just did.”

My husband had been lying on the couch, watching TV, and had had to sit up and turn 180 degrees to see what I was doing. He had seen me going to cut the butter, had seen the flash. He still doesn’t know why he turned around at that precise moment.

For whatever reason, I was not even mildly shocked by the incident – not physically, anyway. And even though I had cut the cord before the end of the cycle, the rice was as perfect as ever. I'm still using the knife -- it's a good one, and it's a good reminder.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


Last night at dinner, I was able to explain Diwali (pronounced “Divali,” and meaning “row of lamps”) to a tableful of people while my husband Mowgli (not his real name) was in another room. When he returned, he commented that I’m starting to know more about Hinduism than he does.

It’s not that I have the fervor of a convert; I don’t practice Hinduism, or any other religion, on a daily basis. But when he doesn’t know the answers to my questions, he’ll take down a book from a shelf, or go online, and then my love of research takes over.

So, though there’s a lot more to the holiday than this, here’s what I’ve learned about Diwali:

- The central theme is good triumphing over evil, and hence light over darkness. This springs from the festival being the anniversary of the death of a demon (see below) as well as a harvest festival.

- In Southern India, Diwali is celebrated as the death anniversary of the demon Narakasura, who had been terrorizing the earth and imprisoning women. There are two versions of how the demon was killed; one is that Krishna beheaded him with his discus, and the other is that his wife, Satyabhama, killed him when he knocked Krishna out. She was able to do this because the demon had received a boon from Brahma that he could only be killed by his mother – and Krishna’s wife happened to be a reincarnation of the demon’s mother.

- In Northern India, Diwali is celebrated as the homecoming of the god Rama following a 14-year exile and the defeat of the nasty king Ravana, who had kidnapped Rama’s wife, Sita. Clay lamps filled with oil are lit to welcome him.

- Lakshmi (goddess of wealth, light, prosperity, fertility and wisdom) is a central figure during Diwali; this has to do with the harvest aspect of the festival. To do a proper Diwali, you should clean your house thoroughly so that when Lakshmi visits, she will be pleased.

- Diwali is a time when you forgive transgressions and accept forgiveness. Accounts are settled, new accounts are opened, and people visit with each other and exchange sweets.

- Celebrations go on for days in India and vary according to religion (Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists also celebrate Diwali), and vary according to the region and individual traditions.

In our house, we poured water on the front walk and steps and lit sparklers, dabbed our heads with oil (probably related to Krishna taking an oil bath to cleanse himself of the demon’s blood), showered, put on new clothes, prayed in front of our house shrine, and then had some rock candy.

Mowgli might be right about my growing Hinduism knowledge in certain cases, but if there’s a pop quiz on gods and goddesses, he’ll beat me every time. And without his mother, we’d both be lost; Mowgli prepared the shrine and directed the ritual according to her directions.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Classified Ads

Not long ago, I picked up a copy of an Indian-American newspaper after dinner at one of our standby Indian restaurants (House of India). Back at home, I skimmed the articles about Indian diplomats visiting New York, read one about a 13-year-old environmental activist addressing the UN, and rolled my eyes at the Bollywood gossip column. All pretty standard stuff for a New York-based publication aimed at this audience.

And then I came to the classifieds. These are not about selling cars and looking for apartments; these are personal ads, desi-style. Here's a typical sample:

There was a section for males, too; I found the one at the top of this photo particularly interesting because of the age of the advertsier and the outright mention of divorce:

The one in the middle of this photo might be my favorite, because it makes me imagine the writing process. Were the parents huddled over a kitchen table, debating the veracity of their claim of "outstanding personality"? Was the guy there, insisting that he be referred to as "extremely handsome"?

The ads made me think of my brief, entertaining, unsuccessful foray into picking dates from ads. I tried to picture myself meeting those guys (who, by the way, did not comply with truth in advertising standards) for the sole purpose of seeing if I might want to marry them. I couldn't; it's too much of a leap for me, even though I understand and respect the traditions of arranged marriage and matrimony by classified ad.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Photopost: Soft Drink with Bonus Haiku

Japanese soda
So fizzy and so tasty
But what is that taste?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Photopost: Temple Rededication

On Sunday I wrote about the local Hindu temple's kumbhabhishekam, or rededication; later that morning we attended the conclusion of the four-day ceremony. I took loads of photos, and I have to tell you, I wasn't the only one, although most people were snapping away on cell phones.

The entrance to the temple grounds, coming from the parking lot next door. The grey object in the center is the head of Ganesh; he is the remover of obstacles and the lord of beginnings.

The entrance to the tent outside the temple, where there were pujas to purify and revivify the temple and its contents going on for days. Up until a certain point, the temple was completely closed.

This was a holy occasion, and thus, a shoeless affair.

I don't know what this pole's purpose is, but it's new. At the end of the ceremony, a priest came out and put things on its base, but by the time I got up to it, all I saw was a small bowl with a bit of water. People were dipping their fingers in it and dabbing their foreheads and throats.

There are seven of these golden spikes; they're new, too, and according to a priest we flagged down, they draw divine energy into the temple.

This lady is holding a kumbha (vessel), that's wrapped with thread. A group of people (who I believe paid for the privilege) were allowed to take the vessels, which were partially filled with holy water, and pour their contents on the main altar. This is known as abhishekam, or sprinkling, and it can also be done with milk, ghee, oil or milk curds. The garlands on the door behind her are made of fresh flowers.

The only place in St. Louis I've ever been able to lose my husband in a crowd.

And then the helicopter appeared, carrying one of the temple's priests. He was flown around the various parts of the temple so he could sprinkle holy water and rice on the building. Ordinarily, this is achieved with ladders and internal staircases, but the fire codes prevent this.

Then he did the same to the crowd in front of the temple; it was windy and gritty and joyous.