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.