To Lucy, A Virginia Girl Attending a New Boyfriend’s Family Wedding In India

In November, my husband’s family (and this includes me and the children) will be traveling to New Delhi, India for a family wedding.  If you follow my blog, you know that I have been to India before and that I am firmly established in the family, despite my ridiculous white American-ness.  You can probably guess that I am excited to return – the sunlight is different there.  

My brother-in-law (Amar), who is six years younger than me, is coming too this time…and bringing his girlfriend, Lucy.  I am just getting to know Lucy and I am lucky to be doing so.  But, although she was born to Mennonite missionaries in Tanzania, she has lived in the same small Virginia town since early childhood. Despite a deep desire to travel far, I do not think she has traveled outside her comfort zone, no further than the family Caribbean cruise.  And with Amar’s encouragement, I prepared some practical advice for Lucy, about how to be a white girl from Virginia navigating a large family wedding in Delhi and come out of it ok.     
And the letter went like this…
Hi Lucy, 
ok, india…let’s see….a top ten list for a girl from Virginia…
10.   It’s only number 10 because I think I already told you about it.  if we stay with the family in their Kennedy-esque 5-story marble compound with a roof garden, know that the servants (there’s one for each floor) will take away your dirty clothes daily, wash them in a river, pound them with rocks and dry them, starch them, and iron them.  All of them, including thong underwear.  Then the servants will lay it all out on a communal table on the first floor for retrieval…your lacy thong underwear (now starched like a standup collar) next to dad’s briefs (out of respect for him I will not give you complete details on that one.  unfortunately it is etched on my brain, even eight years later).   So either hide your dirty underwear, or bring Hanes Her Way white granny panties that could be mistaken for shorts.
9.  Do not eat anything that has not been cooked without express permission from someone who would know.  This does NOT include Amar or his brother, my husband.  Neither of them know ANYTHING, although they will pretend to.  Yogurt and other dairy products are not cooked.  I got sick from yogurt because somehow I assumed yogurt was cooked sometime along the way.  It is not.
8.  Men and children are peeing everywhere, dropping trou full frontally beside main streets during rush hour. I’m not sure what to do with that.  In some ways it seems liberating–if you are a man or a child.  Maybe not so much for a woman walking on the same sidewalk.  
7.  Speaking of pee, everywhere we will likely visit  will have toilets you recognize, but rest stops in rural areas may not.  Traditional India toilets are holes that you squat over.  In that respect, wearing long skirts is much easier than pants and probably the best sort of thing to pack given that we will probably visit some temples (that being said, all the female family members I traveled with were wearing stylish American jeans, but they weren’t into visiting temples or historical sites in general).  If you stumble unthinkingly into an underground dirt toilet alone, no worries.  Kindly, irregularly-toothed aunties tend to be there,  All women were always kindly to me in bathrooms.  
6.  Don’t be completely shocked if little children follow you around laughing and pointing.  It is quite possible you and I will be some child’s first white people.  But they don’t mean any harm.  And their mother will apologize in perfect English before swatting them away with something.  And it’s ok if you find that experience stunning.
5.  To be “homeless” might be different in India.  You will see families without four-sided homes getting ready for school and work on the side of the road.  Men will be putting on starched white collared shirts and shaving – complete with foaming shaving cream and a straight edge – in front of a mirror hung from a tree.  I still don’t know what to do with this information but I think about it often.  What is a home, anyway? and what does it mean to be “less” one?     
4.  The Indian women of our family wear silver or gold heeled sandals all the time, but particularly for weddings.  Your entire outfit will be dictated by whether you choose to wear silver or gold sandals, because the thread on the sari must match the shoes.  For dancing (and there will be dancing), they usually wear gold or silver strappy sandals with at least a  2 inch heel.  Mules or heeled thong sandals are also popular.  Women dance while men drink a lot of Black Label.   You are also fine to drink, or drink and dance, or dance.  As long as you are wearing gold or silver sandals.
3.    You will be showered with food and maybe some pretty serious jewelry – definitely loads of bangles.  Don’t even think about refusing bangles.  If you aren’t comfortable or sure about whether you should accept some piece of jewelry, Mom is pretty good about sending signals if you look in her direction – I trained her well :).  Also, she will always take care of whatever the situation is in Hindi.  Get used to being talked about in Hindi right in front of your face. And it is really easy to tell they are talking about you.  No worries, they’ll be talking about me too.  Also, you show respect to elders by bending over and briefly touching their feet when you see them.  No one will expect you to do it and they will be pleasantly surprised if you do it.  They will also be pleasantly surprised if you can eat a raw jalapeno with the seeds.  They have low expectations for Americans, which is often a boon–although it occasionally leads to me eating an inordinate number of raw jalapenos with the seeds.  Try not to fall into the same trap.
2.  It is difficult to refuse food and not appear rude.  The family will never give you unsafe food, so there’s no reason to worry there, but if you eat everything they want you to, you will be horribly overfed.  I tend to remind mom in advance that I don’t want to be force fed because I will get sick, and then when things get bad I stand next to her and she takes care of it in Hindi.   
1.  Don’t let the elephant driver put his hat on your head no matter what.  It doesn’t matter if you have to be rude about it.  
And omg it will be an amazing experience.  I’m looking forward to it and I hope you are too. Let me know if you have any specific questions.  If I don’t know the answer (and I probably won’t) I’ll find out.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. stanlyam says:

    I read this and smiled to myself, I'd give similar advice to anyone visiting Ghana. Different cultures different ways of living but its amazing how those become trivial when we immerse ourselves in the lives of the people Have fun on your trip!


  2. Laura Gogia says:

    Thank you, Stan. I sent this email off last night, and toyed extensively with whether or not to turn it into a blog or not. And yet my blog has organically evolved into a place to explore relationships between women – in this case, new girlfriend, established daughter-in-law, kind matriarch who acts as a generous buffer between the Indian family and the consistently non-Indian women her sons tend to bring home. In many ways, this post is about that. In in other ways, it is, as you say, about what happens when a first-world inhabitant encounters the rest of the globe – it is disorienting the first time around. I am intensely curious about how it will seem the second time around.


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