Wednesday, April 22, 2009


A while back I did a post on my Indian hey-I’m-a-married-lady necklace, so today I’m giving my ring equal time.

To call it a ring is somewhat inaccurate -- it’s actually two rings fused together. Ring One, the engagement part, has the diamond in it, and as you can see, it's not a traditional engagement ring. That’s one reason I love it, and it’s also why the wedding band is a duplicate -- there was just no way to get a regular wedding band to go with it.

Ring Two was made by a talented local jeweler using the trusty and ancient lost-wax process. The sapphire was cut to match the diamond, but I selected the color of the stone, which was surprsingly dificult, as sapphires come in a wide range of blues as well as pinks, oranges, greens, violets, browns, and clear. A few days before the wedding, the jeweler fused them together, leaving me feeling disturbingly light-handed. Silver just can't match the reassuring heft of platinum.

Speaking of platinum, the majority of it comes from South Africa. The sapphire is most likely from Thailand, Sri Lanka or Madagascar; the diamond, again probably from South Africa. The origins of these materials are difficult to trace, however I can tell you that Mowgli made sure the diamond was not a blood diamond.

From various parts of the world, the ring was cobbled together, made its way to St. Louis, and was selected by my husband. With no help from me, I might add.

Ah, the symbolism, where do we start? Two becoming one, a meandering loop of metal joined to another meandering loop of metal, a light stone and a dark stone, the imperfection of the joint that’s only visible from the inside. Mowgli chose one part, I chose the other. I wasn't there when he selected it, but he had my guidelines in mind -- no huge stones, bezel or flush setting because I'm klutzy, white metal.

And we have me, born and raised in the United States, and my husband, born and raised in Southern India, and somehow meeting and melding. It’s as much of a mystery as exactly where the stones and metal of the ring originated, and I care much more about the fact that it all came together than the whys and hows. Now it’s on my hand, and he’s in my life, and he and it make me happy pretty much every time I look at either one.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Welcome Home

My husband, Mowgli (not his real name), likes to arrange things. One day last week, the arrangement above was waiting for me when I came home. It made me smile -- always a good thing, and a very needed thing last week, as I was spending a lot of time and energy getting the dog through a normal but icky knee surgery complication.

Those are humidifiers, by the way. We need them running 24-7 to keep our skin from turning all lizardy in the wintertime, so they may as well be cute.

Greek Yogurt Love

That's not a store shelf; that's my fridge.

I am not a paid endorser of the product above. That would be lovely, but for now, I am merely a freshly minted Greek yogurt addict. I'm not joking. On Wednesday night I bought 8 or 10 tubs of the stuff. A sliced banana in the honey-flavored variety pretty much sends me into raptures. I really can't risk running out, because not only is it amazingly delicious, it's way better for me than those Thin Mints in the freezer.

When we were in New York last month, my cousin introduced me to it, and soon thereafter, my yogurt life changed forever. Even the nonfat version is silky and creamy and rich-tasting, and because it's very high in protein (the cup above has 14 grams), it sticks with you for a good long while. It's also great in recipes; the tandoori chicken I made with it was fantastic, and I understand that it doesn't curdle during cooking like other yogurts do.

Fage (FA-yeh) has the widest distribution in the U.S., and is in fact opening a plant in Johnstown, NY, because their two-million-tubs-a-week plant in Greece can't keep up with demand. Stonyfield Farm has an organic brand called Oikos, and Chobani is another Greek product available in the U.S. If you're lucky enough to live near a Trader Joe's, they have a house brand of both conventional and organic varieties.

If you can't find any in the store, though, I have good news for you. The only equipment you need to make your own is some muslin or cheesecloth or a dish towel, and a seive, because the thing that makes Greek yogurt Greek is a distinct lack of liquid. That's it. No special culture, as I thought. No fancy milk (though some is traditionally made from sheep's milk).

So you can either strain some conventional yogurt, or you can make your own, which is a simple process. You heat some milk, cool it slightly, add a bit of yogurt, put in a warmish place, let it set, and then strain it. Here's the long version of the recipe. Bon appetit! (I'd say it in Greek, but I studied French...)

What was in the Package

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Yesterday's News

Yesterday we received a package from my in-laws, who live in Tamil Nadu. It contained many lovely things, which I'll be posting about later this week. But last night a sheet of newspaper caught my eye and I ended up peppering my husband, Mowgli (not his real name), with questions about it, and now I can tell you all what's going on in Coimbatore.

There's an election going on, and this guy is a politician who's crying because every time he thinks he has another person recruited to his party, they just jump right out of his basket and back into the political sea.

This group of politicians is conspiring to kidnap people to add to their coalition because they can't get anyone to join voluntarily. Check out the guy peeking around the corner in the upper right.

That cow is made of flowers because there's a flower festival going on in Hong Kong:

This one, I didn't need any translation for -- horoscopes are the same all over the world. Virgo: You will drive everyone mad with your high standards. Scorpio: Why so mysterious? Taurus: You will meet yet another seemingly immovable object.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Kalamazoo Easter Masala

Last weekend, one of my Kalamazoo cousins attended an Easter egg coloring gathering that fairly exploded with masala points. Besides her Detroit-born-and-bred self, there were the Korean hostess, another American and two Indian-Americans, one born in the U.S., the other born in India but in the U.S. since the age of 4 or 5.

When the other American noticed a pair of oddly shaped dice with Asian characters, it was noted that the characters were Korean numbers. The hostess explained that she still does all counting and math in Korean. She does most other thinking tasks in English, but math and numbers never switched over.

It turned out that the Indian woman who was born outside the U.S. also processes numbers in her native tongue, which is still prominent for her because she has always spoken it with her mother. In fact, both Indian women reported speaking their native language with their mothers, but English with their fathers.

The Indian-born woman married an Indian, but they each speak a different Indian language, never learned each others’ languages, and thus converse in English. When they visit their families they have to constantly translate for one another, which gets annoying because it stalls the conversation.

I experienced that lag when we visited Mowgli’s family. They speak a mish-mash of Telugu and Tamil, so even though I plan to learn Tamil, I’m pretty much out of luck in terms of ever completely understanding them. The occasional English words they toss in, however, are very funny and quite useful in terms of providing context. And my in-laws both speak English, so if my translator isn't around, we can all get by.

Back at the party, the Korean woman, whose husband is American, had the harshest stance on conversation translation: she either walks away or lets her sister translate. She has also been criticized by family members for not coaching her husband on how to properly eat Korean food items that require a bit of inside knowledge. Her position on that is that he has eyes, and he can learn by watching.

The ladies also enjoyed a little Illinois masala, courtesy of a friend of mine at work who knows a group of ladies who make and sell pepper jelly. When I took some to my cousin a few years ago, she became enamored of it and now I serve as her pepper jelly mule whenever I go up there. She brought some to the party and served it with crackers and cream cheese, and it was such a hit that she had to go back home and e-mail out the “Pepper Jelly Ladies” phone number off the jar.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Saree Dreams

While I was researching yesterday’s post, I came across the online equivalent of a fun-n-frothy Easter treat: a blog about saris. The main poster is a designer living in LA, but there are five other contributors and the content is delightfully wide-ranging. Apparently it’s possible to earn a degree in sari tying, there is a Saree Dreams Twitter channel (#Saree), and saris were banned in Pakistan for quite some time but are currently trendy there.

My favorite post so far is this one, because never in a million years did I think I’d see a woman in a sari playing volleyball. The one showing a leather belt over a sari is a real head-scratcher, and then there’s the one that's only about saris in that it involves people who wear them in Los Angeles.

There’s been a surge in the Bangladeshi population in an area that’s home to roughly 50,000 Korean-Americans and is commonly known as Koreatown. Last October, however, an application to rename the area Little Bangladesh was filed. That’s not sitting well with the Korean residents, who have filed a similar application to name part of the area Koreatown.

This excerpt from the New York Times article about the conflict between the two groups sums up a sentiment I’m used to hearing about when worthy but unseemly projects are proposed in wealthy neighborhoods:

“It’s nice to embrace other communities,” said Brad Lee, a member of the Koreatown neighborhood council’s board, “as long as it’s not in our backyard. Or in our front yard.”

I'm not sure if that comment should be filed under racism, xenophobia or just plain fear, but it just floored me.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Mr. Modi Goes to Washington

If you’re a fan of "House" and/or consume any mainstream news media, you probably know by now that Indian-American actor Kal Penn is going to Washington. He’ll be the associate director of the White House Office of Public Liaison, which will focus on outreach to young people, arts professionals and the Asian American community. I’m curious about what he'll be doing on a daily basis, but I’m also curious about whether he’ll go back to using his given name: Kalpen Modi.

In case you’ve read or seen “The Namesake,” I’m not talking about his “good name.” That’s a name given to a baby by a family member (usually a grandparent) and used by family members and in certain Hindu ceremonies. We’ll probably never know Kalpen Modi’s good name unless he decides to share it with the world, which would be akin to a Catholic film star talking about their confirmation name – it’s just not necessary.

Back before he hit it big, Modi hacked his first name in half to create a stage name, and put it on his resume and head shot to see if his friends were right about the appeal of an anglicized name in a white man’s industry. His audition callbacks went up by 50 percent, leading to roles in “Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj,” “24” and of course “Harold & Kumar go to White Castle.”

He has a few film credits under his full name – one for production assistant for the New Jersey unit on “Harold and Kumar,” but tellingly, another for Gogol/Nikhil in “The Namesake.” Modi came up with the idea of Gogol and Nikhil being credited separately as Kal Penn and Kalpen Modi, and director Mira Nair loved it.

I’m hoping he goes back to using his full name in his new role – he says he prefers it, and since part of his job is to reach out to Asian-Americans, I would think the change would give him greater credibility with that population. Certainly the original purpose of the switch – to help him break into the business – has been accomplished.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Good Hair, God Hair

Back in January, I came across an interview with Chris Rock. He wasn’t talking about his latest comedy special or TV show. He was talking about hair – specifically, African-American hair. His daughter had come to him in tears one day and asked, “Daddy, why don’t I have good hair?” In his quest to answer that, he ended up making a documentary called “Good Hair,” about the significance of hair in the lives of African-American women.

You may or may not be aware of the time, money, energy and emotion these ladies put into their coiffures, but to give you some idea, here’s a number: it’s a $9 billion industry. Here another: An organization in India makes $18 million a year from the hair they sell for extensions, or weaves. It’s a Hindu temple devoted to Lord Venkateswara.

Thousands of devotees who wish to make a special offering to the God line up in front of the temple barbers to have their heads shaved. The temple organization then sells the hair to international buyers. It’s highly desirable because of the quality that comes from years of simple care, and if you were to have some of it put on your head in a salon in New York, it would cost you $2,000. For short extensions.

There are other producers of hair in India – on Oprah later in January, there was a piece about “temple hair” as well as the “dead hair” market, in which women in Indian villages pool the hair that collects in their hairbrushes and sell it to hair dealers. They are given $2 per batch.

When women who’d just parted with their hair at the temple were asked if they were offended that their hair had been sold, they said no, there were pleased to offer it to god.

When the women who took their hair out of hairbrushes to sell were told how much the dealer sold it for, they were upset that they made so little for it.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Lunchtime Walkabout

On Friday I made good on my promise to myself to stop paying ridiculous prices for mediocre produce, and went to Soulard Farmers Market on my lunch hour. It’s in one of the oldest sections of the city, a French-steeped enclave of three-story, Mansard-roofed, all-brick wonderment. For $10, I bought 10 pounds of potatoes, three pounds of Fuji apples, two pounds of sweet potatoes, two zucchini, seven bananas, a dozen brown eggs from chickens that don’t live in cages, and a beef stick.

Back in the car, enjoying my salty, meaty snack, I realized I’d only been away from the office for half an hour, and wasn’t ready to go back. There’s been some stress there lately, and I need my midday break more than ever. Also, Terry Gross was interviewing Leonard Cohen on the radio, and there was no way I wanted to miss that.

And that’s how I decided to go lunchtime walkabout. Be a tourist in my own town.

I pointed my car north on Broadway and started driving. Office buildings and freeway entrances quickly gave way to 18th-century warehouses with antiquated loading docks facing the street and company names painted on their brick flanks in massive block letters. There were a few “gentlemen’s clubs,” a motorcycle chop shop called “Biker’s Paradise,” a tattoo parlor, and many more warehouses. Then the brick buildings gave way to more modern structures, and I got bored and decided to turn west.

I spotted a beige-colored church and made my way toward it, doglegging to find a way over the highway between me and it. Holy Trinity, a German Catholic establishment dating to 1898, and still in great shape. I thought about going in, but felt more inclined to keep driving.

I spotted another church, and as I got nearer, I could see windows broken, including some in the huge rose window that is now only partially stained glass. The shutters of the belfry in disrepair, even some of the stone newel posts out front worn down to nubs from their original cone-shaped prettiness. But even with all that, church buses, a healthy building next door, signs of a community.

Another church, another meandering drive toward it. Plywood sheets over most of the places where stained glass used to be. The lettering on the sign out front indicating a soup kitchen, maybe. No buses, no real signs of life, German etched in stone and the year 1896.

And that’s when I started to cry. Not bawling, mind you, just weepy sadness, thinking about the people who built these places, the hope they must have had, the slow slide into decrepitude that must have led to the plywood, the death of countless communities all over this area of the city.

I was married in a church not far from these – St. Stanislaus Kostka, completed in 1880, built by Polish immigrants, and saved during the 1970s by a community of stubborn Polacks who poured their hearts into renovating the church and building a community center – with little help from the Archdiocese. They all live miles and miles away, and they come into the city every Sunday, and many other days, to celebrate Mass, hold Easter egg hunts and meetings, and plan for the future.

Why? How? So many churches in the area are dead – what made this one, and the first one I saw, different? Was it the collective temperament of the community? One charismatic leader? General histories are available online, but timelines and blurbs can’t possibly capture the alchemy that must have been necessary.

I knew I was near St. Stanislaus, but I wasn’t sure which direction to turn, and at any rate, my time was up. It was enough to know it was there, and feel grateful that it lived. I found myself going south on Jefferson, still a bit sad, but refreshed.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Omote vs. Ura

Part of what I do during the day is track and keep up on trends in the online universe (and believe me, it’s a universe). In particular, my cohorts and I are interested in social media (Twitter, Facebook, online multiplayer games) and their influence on both culture and marketing. There has never been the level of public display that these programs and their ilk have made possible. It’s fascinating, and somewhat weird, and there’s no denying it’s changing the way millions of people relate to each other.

It’s also been making me think a lot about the Japanese concept of omote (public or front face) and ura (private or hidden face). When I first learned about this as a foreigner living in Tokyo, I was baffled and kind of offended. What do you mean my students aren’t really themselves in my classroom? That’s so rude! Part of my reaction was a product of my American reverence for honesty, part of it was sheer youth – I arrived in Japan just before I turned 22, and left at 24.

After a while, though, the uses of the duality, its function in keeping the society rolling peacefully, and the etiquette around it made sense. Observing the principles in action induced me to set my cultural bias aside. I stopped thinking of it as “two-faced” and started employing a few of the system’s ideas. I use them to this day – which is part of why I’m not on Facebook.

I don’t want to be found by my third-grade classmates. I don’t want to put myself on display. I don’t want to be lulled into exhibitionism by the atmosphere of unabashed sharing and then regret it later. Yes, I know I can set the privacy levels, but I just don’t want to crack that door. It’s too tempting.

Ah, you say, but you have a blog. Your ura is getting all over your omote. True enough, dear reader, I have a blog, but when you read it, you’re only seeing as much of my ura as I want you to.