Chirag: Surprising Exchanges

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At times, it appears that globalization has been so forceful that everyone in this region has some knowledge about Western culture or other ways of life. On the television sets in many of these homes, both men and women alike enjoy watching wrestling competitions and the Discovery Channel. More and more youth mix and match the kurta (a long traditional top) with blue jeans and SMS in both English and Hindi. Lays chips packages are tossed over the ledge of the road. A woman with whom I was working in the field the other day even began to do a rendition of Michael Jackson’s dance! Despite these small markers of Western influence, there is an even more noticeable influence of Indian nationalism, with men blasting Bollywood soundtracks at construction sites and colorful packages of Indian junk food such as fried daal lining the walls of shops. Through daily conversations though, I am also experiencing in many ways how removed these communities can be from both Indian and Western societies. Here is a small collection of these conversations.

Snippets of conversations where my responses have surprised the person with whom I am speaking: (either with a translator or in Hindi-English mix with lots of pantomiming)

A: Are you married?
Me: No
A: When will you get married?
Me: Maybe in 5 years. Maybe in 10.
A: Will you have an arranged marriage or love marriage?
Me: Love marriage. In the U.S., there are only love marriages.

Although the average marriage age for girls has been rising, many girls who do not have the opportunity to continue past 10th or 12th grade still get married in their early 20s, and arranged marriages are the norm. This exchange has happened at least five times, and people are often surprised when I explain no one gets arranged marriages in the U.S.

When showing photos of my grandmother and me making dumplings (called mo-mos here because of Tibetan influence):

B: Are those veg or chicken momos?
Me: Um, they’re made from something else. (Knowing that no one ate pork around here, I frantically tried to decide whether to tell this woman the truth, knowing very well the true answer would make her uncomfortable.)
B: Veg or non-veg?
Me: It’s non-veg…
B: So it’s chicken?
Me: No… you know pork meat? From pig?
B: confused look
Me: draws a pig
B: What? You can’t eat that!
I actually had not known until a few weeks into living here that pork is not eaten at all. I have yet to figure out why that is so,considering I have seen some pigs scavenging around trash areas and they are not revered as sacred like the cow is. Another time, I was showing photos of traditional dishes from South Africa to this same woman. I really surprised her when I told her that one of the meats was beef… from the cow. Because of the language barrier, I do not think she fully understood when I explained that beef is a popular dish in many places in the world. Her main take-away was that only South Africans, Chinese, and Americans eat beef. I am also not sure if this makes her think I am a bad person because I have eaten cow meat.

C: How do you say chappati in English?
Me: There is no English word.
C: No, chappati in English.
Me: It’s the same word. I didn’t have chappati until I arrived here.
C: What do you eat then?
Explaining other foods has been rather challenging. Describing the Chinese food my family usually consumes at home as rice, other types of vegetables, and meat is not helpful. When I explain that we use a pan or wok rather than a pressure cooker and we don’t use masala, turmeric, or coriander spices, the food then sounds bland. The flavors of soy sauce, vinegar, and hoisin sauce have no meaning to the people with whom I am speaking. As for describing other American meals I sometimes have, the only take-away unfortunately is that I do sometimes eat the sandwiches, pastas, and salads they associate with American cuisine.

When showing photos of friends:
D: Some girls in the US have light hair. Why?
Me: What do you mean why?
D: Why do they want light hair?
Me: Your hair is black and that is good. Why would these girls make their hair light?
D: Mm, some people are just born with light colored hair, but others actually want light hair so they use dyes and bleach

Snippets of conversations where I was surprised by the question asked:
E: Do you also wear these clothes at home? (referring to the traditional salwar kameez suit – dupatta draped across the shoulders, a kurta or long shirt, and leggings or loose cotton pants)
M: No, I had to buy these in Delhi.
E: What do you wear then?
I had falsely assumed that Hollywood movies had reached here through television or that enough tourists have roamed through to make such an impact, but that does not appear to be the case. Even more surprising that I was asked this question is that some of the youth here have begun to wear loose t-shirts and jeans.

F: Did you come here by air from America?
Me: Yes
I am not sure what other options would exist for transportation from the U.S. to India, but quite a large number of people who live here have never seen an airplane. As it was explained to me, any child here would jump for joy if he or she gets to see a plane fly by. On the other hand, here I come to sit in front of the view of the Himalayas for hours while no one else even turns their head in that direction. This summer, I have felt very closed off from the rest of the world, but I would not have it any other way. However, with just one day to go until the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, I have yet to identify a reliable television to watch any of the events and that is a bit concerning!

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About Lucia Xiong

Current medical student at University of New Mexico. Former science teacher at Tse Yi Gai High School on Navajo Nation. Studied International Relations with a concentration in Global Health and Penn Class of 2013 graduate. CASI Chirag Intern summer of 2012.