April 16, 2010

Snapshots in Diversity: Special Series- AARTI

As any reader of my blog knows, I am fascinated with cultural diversity. I seek it out in the books I read, the movies I watch, the food I eat, and the friends I make whenever I can. April is Cultural Diversity Month and I wanted to do something special to celebrate all that is unique about people in our world. I have the privilege of getting to present to you, dear readers, some of the world's great book bloggers sharing about their cultures.

Today I asked Aarti, of the book blog, Booklust, to share with us a snapshot of her culture. Please read, enjoy, and leave a comment- even questions! And be sure to bookmark Lost in Books as the series continues through the rest of this month.

What culture(s) were you born into?

I was born in Chicago, IL, so am 100% American. My parents were both born in Bangalore, India, so I am also 100% Indian. My parents were both born and grew up in a city where the populace speaks Kannada, so I am 100% Kannadiga. However, their family language ("mother tongue," if you will) is Telugu and they speak Telugu with their relatives, so I am also 100% Telugu. You all can do the math on that :-)

What culture(s) do you identify with?

I identify most with the American culture. I visit India a lot, understand both Kannada & Telugu (though I speak neither), can eat rice, tear naan and scoop curry with one hand, and can walk in a sari, but no Indian would ever call me anything other than American. I am very happy and proud to be American. And I love that I am American but can also double-dip and be Indian, too. There are aspects of being Indian that I wouldn't trade for the world. More on that later :-)
Naan bread: A leavened, oven-baked flatbread that is absolutely delicious.

What is a stereotype of your culture that bothers you the most?

Everyone thinks we are all doctors and engineers! We're not. Also, many people think India is some sort of backwards place, but then they also claim to want to go there for spiritual cleansing or something, which doesn't make sense. The whole spiritual cleansing thing is one of the main reasons I have no desire to read Eat, Pray, Love. I think many people also see someone with brown skin and think that that person is Indian. That is not always the case. There are other countries in South Asia.

What myth about your culture would you like to debunk here and now?
I hate people who greet me and assume I've read The Namesake. I have not read it. And the same people will say that they love the book and that they "really understand Indian culture" so much better now. Well... I know many Indian people who read and disliked The Namesake, so I'm not sure you're really understanding Indian culture by reading it. It really just bothers me when people read one of the many, many books on Indian immigrants to the UK or the US and then decide that's how it must be for every Indian. It's not.

What are some things about your culture that make you proud?

The one aspect of Indian culture I love more than all others is how much your family and friends are involved with everything. India very much subscribes to the joint family system, and that is extended even when people live abroad. I may not have many people who are related to me here in Chicago, but I grew up with a HUGE network of family friends. If there is a wedding, everyone helps prepare for it. If there is a funeral, everyone is helping out for weeks afterward. If there is a hospital stay, you always have visitors- everyone will come to cheer you up. If you have children, you have an entire phonebook of people to call for babysitters and birthday parties and all the rest.

Indian people are so hospitable, so welcoming and kind. No matter how small the home, when you visit you are always offered food and a beverage and you are always given what can only be termed a "thank you" gift for visiting when you leave, usually some sort of fruit.

And in no (South) Indian language is "goodbye" even a word. The closest version is a sentence that translates to, "Shall I go and then return?" I love that, too.

Are there any things about your culture you don't agree with?

Yes, many! I think there is still a lot of pressure on girls to get married and have children. I also am very uncomfortable with the way religious belief is seeping into all sorts of things. I don't like that the caste system is still prevalent. I don't like how pervasive corruption is in everything. Also, many Indians have deep-rooted racism. Not just against other races, but amongst each other- as there are so many different languages and the country was never united until after the British came in, there is a lot of mistrust and stereotyping.

What is the first thing people notice about you (whether it is skin color or style of dress or the way you carry yourself)? What do you wish they would notice?

Gosh, I have no idea. I've never asked. I dress pretty much like everyone else in my area (though possibly more sloppy!), so I suppose my skin color is pretty obvious. I also have ridiculously curly hair that is miserable to deal with when it's windy or humid.

What I wish people would notice is my charm, wit, sparkling eyes and mischievous grin :-)

How do you deal with any prejudices or discrimination?

The only time I was a victim of discrimination was at an airport in Spain. I think a lot of brown-skinned people are subject to very rigorous security proceedings in Europe (moreso than in the US, I would say, but I have a US passport, so my experience may be different). I also had a heightened awareness of my race in Australia, but I think that is more because I knew there were recent bursts of violence against Indians in Australia when I was there.

I don't really "deal" with prejudice. I am sorry to say this, but it is scary to face someone who is racist or prejudiced against your culture/religion/beliefs and somehow makes that prejudice clear to you. If airport security decides to grill me on my travel plans and why I'm going where I'm going or doing what I'm doing... I answer the questions. And, since grade school, that's the only discrimination I've come up against, except in ways more relating to ignorance than discrimination.

However, there's a difference between prejudice and ignorance. Many people are completely unaware of Indian culture. I guess I don't really deal with that, either. I politely correct people if they ask if I speak "Hindu," but that's about it. When I worked in public accounting for a company that was mostly Jewish, I campaigned very vocally for vegetarian (or at least non-beef) options at staff lunches and events. I don't think that's discrimination, though- just oversight.

What is one thing you want everyone to know about you and your culture?

If you want to know about the real India, watch a Bollywood movie.

No, please don't believe that! I guess I would just want people to know that there is a lot more to India than the Taj Mahal :-) And that the people there are quite possibly the most generous you will ever meet.

Thank you, Aarti for sharing about India and what it is like to be both Indian and American. As you know, my sister is married to an Indian man and they live in America. We got to visit India back in October and I absolutely LOVED it there. I agree that I met some of the friendliest people I have ever met while I was there. I love the Indian culture and love learning more about it and I don't pretend to know everything. And of course anyone who hasn't tried Indian food should. It is amazing.

Snapshots in Diversity (c) is a special series running on Lost in Books through the end of April. Please be sure to bookmark the blog so you can catch the next wonderfully interesting personal essay/interview.


  1. Very cool post both to Aarti and Rebecca. Informative and funny. All I can say is...do what the airport people say. They're just crazy. :)

  2. 1. ZOMG I want naan this very instant. It's been far too long since I last had it!

    2. I love the family aspect you described. I know it's not the exact same thing, but my family, particularly on my mom's side, is very much like that. Everyone helps out with everything, we were always getting together. I grew up with my cousins as my best friends, even when we were living all across the country (Iowa, South Carolina, and Texas) and only saw each other once a year. I can't imagine not knowing my cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc. The idea is so foreign to me. One of the reasons I moved back to TX was to let my kids be close to all their 2nd cousins (since they didn't have any 1st cousins at that point and still only have 1).

    3. When I read the Bollywood thing I just blinked and stared at it blankly for a minute. I couldn't even move on. I kept thinking - did she really say that?? When I finally went on, I cracked up laughing. Your deadpan was awesome, Aarti. I really thought you meant it for a minute. :D

  3. Love this post! It's interesting that you find more discrimination against brown-skinned people in European airports than American ones. I would have thought American airports would have gotten miles worse about that since 9/11.

  4. Trisha- They REALLY are! But after Amanda shared with me HER airport story, it's clearly not just brown people that are attacked!

    Amanda- 1. Naan IS awesome. But is kind of misleading as an "Indian" food in some small ways as it requires a very specific oven to make it in all that fabulousness. And no one in India (or anywhere) has those, so it's only in restaurants!

    2. I love it, too! I also love calling anyone Indian who is a generation above me "aunty" or "uncle," even if I just met them, and it not being weird. I love having such a strong community of people around me.

    3. ;-) I love Bollywood for many reasons, but not its realism!

    Jenny- It IS weird, isn't it? Maybe it was just Spain? To be fair, it was after those train bombings (but significantly after those). And I feel like maybe because I have an American passport, I might get treated better in the States. But I don't know. I actually don't think Americans are as obsessed with the possibility of terrorism as we are made to seem.

  5. This is a great post.

    First, I love that you brought up the whole subject of spiritual-cleaning etc and said that that's one of the reason you don't want to read Eat Pray and Love. Exactly those kinds of thoughts were going through my head when I read Eat, Pray and Love. Being spiritual is so often associated with India in a way that reminds me of prejudices, it is supposed to be a country with lots of people, deep religious/spiritual feelings and its backwards, as if a country is so easy to pinpoint!

    Anyway, I can imagine a big family of support is a great feeling, and I love that line: "shall I go and then return?" I have to remember it.

    It struck me that you had to deal with racism in a Spanish airport. In the Netherlands the airports are usually worst on plains flying to the US, due to the policy the US governments asks of the airports. My sister had to go through lots of paperwork just to visit a friend in the US, more so than with other countries. But maybe part of that's just an image as well?

  6. What a great feature!

    "I hate people who greet me and assume I've read The Namesake." I'm going to assume that these are readers and it's interesting that they relate to other cultures via books. I do too; I'd probably commit that faux pas. However, I also relate through food so I'd start talking about how I love garlic naan, mango lessee (sic), tikka masala, paneer... Gosh, I'm getting hungry!

  7. Wonderful interview! My mother is first generation American, so I know it's not always easy, but it sounds like Aarti handles it with grace. I agree that she has sparkling eyes and a mischievous grin!

  8. It's great to see Aarti's beautiful face over here. :-) This is a great post; I love her good humored comments on the misconceptions many Americans have about South Asians. Thank you, Aarti and Rebecca!

  9. "If you want to know about the real India, watch a Bollywood movie."

    Of course, there are plenty of things you can learn about (specific parts of) Indian culture by watching Bollywood movies. You can learn about conservative ideals: like media everywhere, US included, Bollywood tends to be two progressive steps behind the actual people, and four steps behind young people! (The only exception is art cinema, and India has a large non-Bollywood film industry, too!) For instance, the infamous non-kissing couples! Actually, that tradition is changing. The hero will often steal a kiss or two from the heroine before the end of the movie! *If* you see into a married couple's bedroom, you'd probably see two separate beds, which doesn't reflect reality! Speaking of marriage, you can see the tension between love marriages and arranged marriages You can also see a small part of India's diversity in Bollywood films. Though they are almost all in Hindi, the dance styles represented tend to be drawn from all over India.

    In conclusion, no, Bollywood movies don't represent the reality of India. But they are popular for a reason and analyzing that popularity can open some doors in understanding certain parts of Indian culture. I actually took a class on the Indian diaspora that was through the frame of Indian film (both Bollywood and art cinema). It was one of my favorite classes! It's also interesting to note that, while they are hugely popular in India, they are even *more* popular among the Indian diaspora, perhaps because they are eager for anything from the "homeland". Plus, they're a lot of fun! XDXD

    I would talk about the worst customs treatment I've had (England), but I think this comment is long enough!

  10. Iris- Yes, exactly! I hate how Britney Spears can go to an ashram and claim to have been helped so much by it. I mean, good for the ashram being so open, but seriously... Britney Spears is obviously not a meditation expert. And I agree- the whole spirituality thing IS a sort of prejudice, or a back-handed compliment in a way. Like, "Let me go where things are simpler and people are less worldly- to India."

    Stephanie- When I read this post, I winced at my word "hate." It's too strong. I also think it's great for readers to experience other cultures through books, but at the same time, I don't think people should assume that Indians have read every Indian author. I guess I was using The Namesake as an example (though it's definitely the most popular book mentioned). But people DO say many times that they feel like they understand Indian life more through that book. But personally, I didn't think it was that true to MY life.

    And connecting through food is great! Though it sounds like you are very focused on North Indian food, and should try some South Indian food, too!

    bermudaonion- Well, thank you for noticing :-)

    Stephanie- Thank you!

  11. Nisa- You're right. You can learn about India through seeing the culture represented in Bollywood (kind of a conservative ideal), but it's not as realistic as some of the arthouse movies. I agree it's changing more now, and isn't as formulaic as before, such as in the movie 3 Idiots, which I really liked.

    That said, though, I think with the gorgeous costumes, all the singing and dancing (which usually doesn't even take place in India), the tear-drenched scenes, and the huge, spectacular sets, it's not very realistic in terms of how Indian life really is.

    And yes, Bollywood is huge in the diaspora! I think that the industry is catering more and more to the overseas crowd, setting so many movies abroad, too.

  12. This is a fabulous idea...thanks to Rebecca for the idea and to Aarti for sharing!

    I love that there's no word for goodbye in the South Indian languages. It reinforces what you said about the culture being so welcoming.

  13. Aarti thanks so much for sharing. Most of what I know about Indian culture comes from books, it is one of my favorite places to read about. Also, I threw Eat Pray Love across the room before i finished. I did read the namesake but read A Fine Balance and The God of Small Things which were so much better.
    I did do the math and came up with 92. Hmm

    Rebecca, as always I learn so much when I come to your blog!

  14. What a great post! I love reading about different cultures and Aarti's responses were both thoughtful and humorous!

    I love what you said about the extended family. It's very similar in Thai culture. We call people aunt or uncle or sister or brother (based on relative ages), even if they're not specifically family. And I love that family is all up in your business, but also fiercely protective and loyal.

    I tried to pick up "Eat, Pray, Love" and it just didn't work for me. On the other hand, I did love "Shantaram" - it didn't make any pretenses at saying "this is India". If anything, you got the sense that India was far more complex than any stereotype. It was just "this is an Australian man's view of India and how he felt overwhelmed and still managed to fall in love."

    I'm very much hoping to visit while we're in Thailand, seeing as how the flight will be considerably shorter from there! ;)

  15. Softdrink- Yes, I LOVE that. I love how culture can infuse a language.

    Bookmagic- Strange, I came out with 87. We better double-check!

    Jade- Yes, it may be a part of Asian culture to use the "Aunty/Uncle" thing. My sister finished Shantaram recently and enjoyed it. I've never read it, as it intimidates me with its size, but soon, I hope!

  16. I really do love this post because you, Aarti, talked about how you view both the Indian culture in India *and* in America. My best friend is Indian (India-born parents) but was born in Canada, raised in the U.S. She is VERY American but, like you, has traveled to visit family and understands Kannada. I'm actually going to meet a large amount of her family that will be traveling to her wedding here in October and I'm really excited!

    I think yours is a somewhat new situation that is slowly becoming the norm. More Americans now live a truly dual-culture life with the ability to take long visits to their native countries (India, Mexico, China, etc). I think that many immigrants in the past were in a one-way ticket situation. My Spanish ancestors (about three generations back, at the time of Franco) barely made it here and I don't believe they ever had the chance to return to Spain. And yet, my grandma has been able to travel back and meet family members in our home region.

    This is a fascinating subject to be and I'm glad, Rebecca, that you are thinking globally!

  17. Great post!! Thanks Aarti and Rebecca!! :)
    And in no (South) Indian language is "goodbye" even a word. The closest version is a sentence that translates to, "Shall I go and then return?" I love that, too.
    I LOVE this about South India too! In Malayalam, we say "poyi varatte" that translates to the exact thing that Aarti wrote!

    --If you want to know about the real India, watch a Bollywood movie.
    You had me giggling here, LOL!

  18. Kristen- I never thought of it like that, but you're right! I love the dual-culture ability I have. And that now, people are more accepting of different cultures, instead of trying to get rid of one in favor of the other.

    Aths- Yes, South India is so great :-)

  19. Great post. Awesome questions and even more awesome answers. It's great to find out more about you Aarti. You have such a rich heritage! It must be great to sometimes think on where you're coming from (metaphorically speaking). Oh, that Namesake thing was kinda funny (I know it isn't for you) because it brings to mind all the 'ridiculousness' of what people assume (in my case, everyone I meet assumes I know every other Polish person only because I am POlish).

  20. This is such a brilliant post and idea! I love it. And I'm so with you with the whole 'auntie/uncle' thing. All my parents' friends, my friends' parents are all aunties and uncles to me. I come from a mixed background, live in a different country to that of my birth and parents and have friends from all over the world and I feel that I've gained so much from it (and I hope I've given something back too). And it makes me really happy when I see a lot of cultural mixing going on.

  21. The one thing I will take away from this post: India is exactly like Bollywood. ;)

    LOVE Naan bread. I usually have it with spaghetti, though. :P

  22. lilly- I get a lot of people assuming I know everyone Indian, too :-) I think those questions are kind of fun, though, because sometimes I DO know who they are talking about!

    chasingbawa- I absolutely agree with what you say! I always feel so blessed to have grown up with such a strong Indian cultural background as it contrasts so much with American life. Not in all ways, but it's nice to have so many close friends nearby to depend on, and it's nice to have clothes that are so colorful, and weddings that are so loud, and movies that are so music-heavy. I think it really helps me have a very strong personal identity, and to get the best of both worlds in many ways.

    heidenkind- I've never heard of ANYONE eating naan like that! I'm so intrigued. Do you eat plain naan with plain spaghetti?

  23. Wonderful interview Aarti! I particularly like the aspect of Indian culture that relates to family and friends. I think there is much to be learned about a culture that so genuinely appreciates that relationship. Thanks for sharing your experiences :)

  24. This was very interesting! Thanks for both of your for this!

  25. Nice post Aarti.
    It was fun to know more about you, and mmm naanbread, I do confess that I love them, and curry.

  26. Thanks everyone for the wonderful comments! I loved reading them all!

    Aarti, I feel I must confess something to you. Eat Pray Love is one of my 5 favorite books. I never really thought when I read it that it was putting India in a pigeonhole. I just read it as the ashram was this certain way, not all of India. But perhaps, this is also because I was already acquainted with people from India and knew already that this was one example of India. I think also I liked it because I was going through such a similar experience as Gilbert was at the time and was longing for similar experiences, no matter where she found them. I also confess I wanted to visit an ashram while I was in India. Of course I was unable to, but I really found the whole spiritual side of India fascinating, as I find all aspects of Indian culture fascinating.

  27. I absolutely love the Indian culture and am always trying to learn more about it. I love Indian fiction, both popular and obscure and find the Indian people that I have met to be some of the most hospitable and warm people I have ever met. India is one of my big areas of interest, and have been working my way through sampling the cuisine for many years, and also trying to learn to cook it as well. I would someday like to visit the area, because I feel like there is just so much I still want to learn about the culture and the people. This was a wonderful post, Aarti!

  28. Thanks so much for this Aarti! You had me LOL with The Namesake. How can people think they know a culture from one fiction book?

    We are so lucky here in Vancouver. We have a very large Indian population here and I have quite a few Indian friends. You are so right about generosity. They would give you the shirt off their backs. Speaking of which, there is a huge celebration here each year for Vaisakhi. There is a parade and the sidewalks are lined for several blocks with restaurants and people who live in the neighborhood serving free Indian food, pop, and juice. It is my favorite time of year. The people are so nice.

    I hope to go to India one day. My husband has been there twice before I met him.

  29. Bollywood, eh? I'll make sure I educate myself by going through a movie-watching spree ;)

    Seriously now, I love this post. The family things sounds so wonderful. And the spiritual cleansing thing - I haven't read Eat Pray Love, but the idea of it always seemed strange to me as well. When you go to a place, you take yourself, so can it make that much of a difference to your spirituality? Maybe I'm just too cynical :P

    Anyway, well done Rebecca and Aarti! I'm now a little nervous that my own post won't me nearly as interesting :P

  30. Yay, another bit of motivation to finally watch a Bollywood movie (besides seeing how cricket is played). LOL

    I saw The Namesake movie and wasn't a big fan, but not really for the resons portrayed here. I do want to read the book this summer. Haha, I've found that some people are always going to assume that once they've read one book about your culture, they are an expert (don't even get me started on all the kids who think they are black just because they can "talk black" or listen to "black music." GAH!)

    I never really thought about but so many people do think that Indians are doctors, engineers of own 7 11s *rolls eyes* Obviously, like any othe culture, Indians have jobs of all different types. So true about people seeing India as a spirtual place and I agree with Nymeth, how do you find yourself and change when you're taking your same self?

    Thank you Rebecca and Aarti for this lovely interview. Love the idea of this series since I'm fascinated by other cultures :)

  31. I love that the thing you want people to stop saying about your culture is so bookish related :) I've never heard of that book at all though...

  32. What a great feature!!!! And, thank you to Aarti for contributing and sharing! I absolutely love the closest equivalent to good-bye. I've always hated good-byes and this would totally make them easier!! LOVE it!! :)


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