My Indian In-Laws are Here!

When a family grows, it usually happens gradually, by one or two people at a time. Maybe it gains a child or a set of in-laws. Under normal circumstances, the family has time to prepare and understand most of the challenges that will come along with the new addition. They buy the things they will need, they arrange the living space, and they mentally prepare for their lifestyle to change. Obviously, there will always be unexpected issues that arise and unforeseen things that need to be adjusted.

The point is that most people don’t wake up one day with five new family members all at once in their house for the very first time.

Most of my husband’s immediate family is here for a visit with us. This includes his parents, one of his sisters, and her husband and son. They are all from India, but the sister and her family currently live in Dubai. Our house went from being evenly divided between Indian and American to having a strong Indian majority.

Luckily, my husband and I have been preparing for this visit for quite a while. We’ve planned our approaches for navigating many cultural differences and methods for how to accommodate this number of people in our two-bedroom house. We’ve even tried to collect some magazines and brochures for the adults and some activities and toys for the child. We’ve also made our master suite a kind of getaway for ourselves when, not if, we need some quiet, alone time.

Our visitors have been here for a week so far and I am just now able to sit down to write about it all. It has all been kind of a blur of cooking, cleaning, organizing, talking, translating, laughing, crying, then cooking and cleaning some more.

One thing that has happened so far is that for a split second, I forgot I was sitting at my dining table in my own home. We were all seven sitting around our dining table eating and everyone else was speaking Bengali. I was listening, trying to pick out some of the words I know, while thinking that I wanted a second helping of the pulao. I wondered for a split second if these people would mind if I ate some more of their food, since I was a guest in their house. I momentarily forgot that it was at my house and I had even cooked the pulao!

I am gathering more of my thoughts and plan on writing some honest posts about what it is like for me, an American, to host all these Indians. We’ll laugh, we’ll cry, and we’ll definitely talk about the food!

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Why Good Community is Hard to Find

I was walking in our town one day recently and, with it being winter, there are fewer animals around right now. I was walking past some houses and saw something move out of the corner of my eye and looked to see a sizable hawk with some prey in its claws. The hawk was sitting on the railing of someone’s deck, holding down its small prey, carefully balancing itself against the wind, since it was a gusty day. I stood and watched the hawk eating because I was curious about what kind of animal it had managed to catch.

I thought it might be some small rodent, in fact I hoped it. We like to think that if something has to die, it might at well be something we consider as a pest. I was a few yards away, so things weren’t as clear as I wished, but I didn’t move closer for fear that the hawk would fly away and I wouldn’t get to see what it was eating. After a few minutes of it tearing at the small animal with its beak, I noticed that the hawk was pulling out the animal’s feathers to get to the meat. As the small light-colored feathers fell much like snow onto the ground, I felt surprised and a little sad that the hawk was eating another bird. One of its own kind. As I began to walk back home, I considered my sadness and wondered why I felt sad? This was just nature, right?

It made me think about community and how we crave it. We desire to meet up and spend time with like-minded people so we sacrifice our time and sometimes money to be a part of a group or organization. But many times within those groups, we end up, consciously or not, looking for ways to tear those other people down. Or trying to find ways to make ourselves look better than the other people in the group. Competition is a huge driving force in nature. Many times, communities break down and fail due to individuals being unwilling to set aside that primal thing called ego and work for the greater good. Of course, in nature there are the groups that are blood relatives that stick together and take actions based on what would be better for the survival of the group, but those in the group didn’t necessarily choose to be born into that group. I’m just considering groups of unrelated people, like social, religious, and groups related to specific interests.

The best kind of community, a truly loving, encouraging, lift-others-up and diverse kind is very hard to begin and maintain because it doesn’t exist in nature. And going against nature is a very challenging thing to do. Look at all the families who had a “surprise” baby. Look at all the people who don’t want children and have to deal with the challenges that come along with the hormone fluctuations every single month, not to mention pressures from other people in their lives. Look at churches and religious organizations that are struggling to maintain active membership. Look at all the groups and organizations that spend so much time, effort and money on outreach.

I don’t have any suggestions or thoughts right now on how to build and maintain communities. I don’t have anything else to offer at this moment other than this.

Good community is hard to find because it’s a bird eat bird world out here.

The Things That Keep Us Up at Night

My husband and I have been married for almost three and a half years now. We have gotten to know each other pretty well and have talked about a myriad of things over the years. We’ve been through a few different stages in our relationship and have moved to different houses and states. I would say we have grown up and grown together a great deal since we first were getting to know each other.

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you know that we are from different countries and grew up speaking different languages. Clear communication continues to be a challenge at times, just like in any other normal relationship, honestly. If you are in a relationship with someone who isn’t exactly like you, you’ve probably experienced something like this:

You both usually try to go to bed at a decent time. You cook, eat, clean up, get ready for bed and are feeling good about your time management today. You’re about to get plenty of rest. Then it happens.

One of you brings up some topic that’s been bouncing around in your head, keeping you from falling asleep. You start talking. You each talk about your opinion of the issue, why it is the way it is, you reach some common ground and then you hear it: the mispronounced word.

You try to ignore it because you know it’s not a big deal, you still understand what the other person is getting at. You start itching to clear up the mispronunciation because you want your spouse to clearly communicate with the rest of the people he or she may interact with other than just you. But it’s no big deal, it’s no big deal, it’s no big deal…

Finally, you can’t hold it in any longer and you blurt out, “It’s warm, not worm!”

What!?

This leads to a back-and-forth pronunciation game where one of you keeps saying it wrong, or not being able to hear the difference between the two. You argue about it then you laugh about it. Then you remind each other that this is one of the charms of your relationship. This is one of the things you love and cherish about being married to someone from a totally different culture than yours.

Then you realize it’s 3:00am and you have work in the morning. Yay.

Family or Not?

Hello readers! I’m finally back. It took a pretty long time for me to settle in at my new job and find time again to write. I will write about my job, but today I want to talk about family.

The word “family” is one of those words that probably means a lot of different things to different people. I’m sure we Americans have a different idea of family than the average people in other countries, and vice versa. Practitioners of different religions probably also have definitions that include some families and exclude (many) others. But according to the definitions found on ye olde interwebs, there are certain criteria that must be met for some people to be found worthy of being labeled a family.

A family is:

  • The basic unit of a society
  • The primary institution for the socialization of children
  • Living in one household:
    • a parent/s and child/ren
    • more than one generation
    • a number of people greater than one
  •  Living together or apart:
    • individuals related by blood, marriage, or servitude
    • descendants of a common matriarch or patriarch

I’m not completely convinced that these criteria are an exhaustive or inclusive definition of family. I think I would add some criteria and maybe even take some out, but we’ll get there.

Here’s what got me thinking about “family”:

I work in the office at a luxury assisted living and memory care company. As I’ve been getting to know the ins and outs of dementia and other problems that come along with aging (even for the richest of the rich), I’ve met a number of residents and their families. One specific case is a lady who had early-onset dementia and her relationship with her extremely loving and loyal husband began to fall apart simply because her mind was. Her husband wrote a book about how they had been dealing with her dementia symptoms and their history as a couple. He devoted one portion of the book to the years right after their marriage where they spent time travelling the globe and how happy they were in those times. He praised the time they spent as a couple only. And then, he said, after all those years, they started their family. They had, I think, about three children over the course of the next few years.

It made me wonder what the heck they were before they started their family…

Another situation that I have faced many times since changing jobs is meeting new people and coworkers who ask the same old questions in order to try and get to know me.

  • Are you married?
  • How long have you been married?
  • How many kids do you have?
  • Why do you not have kids?
  • How can you not want kids?!
  • And then the kicker… Oh, you’ll change your mind. You just haven’t gotten there yet.

This has literally been the conversation I’ve been subjected to when I’ve met about 80% of the women at my new workplace. There were a couple who thought that as long as my husband and I feel the same way about it, that it’s fine. Like their approval of mine and husband’s lifestyle choices means something in the first place. There was one coworker who told me that she never wanted to be a mother, but she is. She conceded that she loves her child, but she might would not have had him if she could go back in time. Her revelation was strangely satisfying to me.

All of these instances meshed together over the last few months to make me wonder if my husband and I could be considered a real family, even though it is and will probably be just the two of us. We feel we are a family, but many definitions of family would disagree I suppose. As I thought more about the concept of family and which people can fit the mold, I will admit that I felt a little left out. I felt bitter that a term that means so much to me because I grew up in a very close traditional family, some may feel doesn’t apply to my relationship. How can the presence of a child be the determining factor as to if a couple is a family or not? Does a couple only reach “family status” when they procreate? Are friends only friends if they’ve exchanged friendship bracelets?

Then I thought about a friend of mine who is married but cannot have children. She and her husband desperately would like to “start a family” in the sense that my resident and her husband did, but she cannot. Does she and other couples who can’t have children feel left out, too? I imagine she does and it made me sad. My husband and I not having children is a choice for us, but a forced reality for her.

Then I considered LGBT couples who are fighting right now for the right to be family. It must hurt many of them deeply to not be recognized as a family unit like traditional couples.

I also must admit that, on a not-so-serious note, my husband and I have been watching season three of Orange is the New Black and on many occasions, the ladies who fall into the different groups within the prison all refer to their groups as families.

All of these thoughts make me feel the need to express what I think constitutes a family.

I believe that a family is two or more people who feel inexplicably bound together based on individual circumstances and events, who support each other financially and/or emotionally, and who would feel a profound sense of loss should something happen to one of the other individuals. They love each other and hold tight to each other through the mountains and valleys of life.

My husband and I are a family whether we have children or not. My mother-in-law and I are family, even if our communication hasn’t grown any better than it was when B and I first got married almost two years ago. My parents and my husband are family even if they don’t see eye to eye on religion. We are all trying to make it work and it will.

My Favorite Indian Foods

If you have ever tried Indian food, you notices that it has some major differences from American food. It is usually served with rice that the serving of each dish is mixed with to the right consistency. It generally has a higher number of spices, more liquid (gravy) in dishes, and generally a larger number of individual dishes are served per meal. Also, Indians at home tend to use their hand to eat and dishes are served in the order based on which dish has the least complex flavors to the dish that has the most complex flavors. It’s all very interesting to me and the food is some of the best I’ve ever had.

Side note: Indian food has become my absolute favorite type of food. As you know, we cook Indian/Bengali food at home about 75% of the time, which is strange for someone who had never even tried Indian food prior to the last couple of years of college. Eating Indian food, specifically the homemade type, usually prepared with less oil than in restaurants, has really awakened my taste buds, helped regulate my digestive system, and made me love food even more. These days, if I go a few days with no Indian food, my body craves it like nothing else. Something about the spices makes me feel so good! It is no wonder that ancient cultures have used spices not only for their taste, but also their medicinal qualities. I am the luckiest girl to be married to an Bengali man who enjoys cooking with me.

I want to share a list of my favorite Indian/Bengali foods/dishes I’ve had so far. And if this list makes you hungry, go to your nearest Indian restaurant for lunch!

#1: Dal (Lentils)

There are so many types of dal in Indian cuisine. I had never really had a dish that was primarily dal here in the US. I had eaten dishes where some dal was thrown in, like in soups, but they never were the main character in the dish. We cook dal at home very regularly, mostly moong and masoor varieties. Something about those little beans packed with healthy things makes such a satisfying dish. B even says that dal is what they eat when they are feeling sick, much like we here eat chicken noodle soup or something like that. My favorite way of cooking and eating dal is very simple with toasted cumin seeds, turmeric, and salt. I also like it when vegetables have been boiled with the dal and when other types of dal are used. It is such a flavorful, comforting dish that has many options when choosing how to prepare it.

#2: Ma’s Cucumber & Potato Curry

This is a strange sounding dish to us Americans. We tend to think that cucumber can only be eaten raw. We imagine that if you try to cook cucumber that it will be terribly watery and unpleasant to eat. But let me tell you, this is one of the best dishes I’ve ever had. B cooks this dish according to a recipe his mom gave him and I think he probably cooks it really close to what it would taste like when Ma makes it. This dish manages to keep the freshness and bright “green” flavor of the cucumber and combines it with the comfort of potatoes and fragrant spices. It is amazing.

#3: Aloo Methi

We just had this dish a couple nights ago. Aloo is potato. Methi is this fragrant plant that has small oval shaped leaves. I can’t remember if there is an English name for it… But it has a slightly smoky, earthy flavor in addition to it’s green, fresh flavor which makes for a very tasty combination. We boil the potatoes (but you can add other vegetables), add the spices from Ma’s recipe, then throw in the methi leaves almost at the end. Once they are wilted, the dish is ready to eat. It usually disappears pretty quickly in our house.

#4: Samosas

Ah, samosas. These are usually not a dish that is made at home because they are a little complicated. These babies are similar to the fried pies served here in the US, but with much more complex and spicy fillings. They are also shaped like pyramids almost. The best ones we get around here come from the Indian grocery store. We love the Indian grocery here! It always smells so wonderful when you step in and they serve freshly fried samosas and sometimes biryani and sweets. Their samosas are filled with a potato and green pea mixture, fried fresh to a golden crisp, with the flakiest of flaky crusts. Every time we go there, we at least order four. Oh, and they are only a dollar!

#5: Shondesh

This is another strange sounding dish to us Americans. Shondesh is a famous Bengali dessert that is made from paneer, which is like a homemade ricotta or farmers cheese. It is very simple to make at home and I have made it a few different times. Basically you boil milk, add lemon juice to separate the curds from the whey, strain the now paneer/chana, rinse the lemon flavor from the chana, press to remove excess moisture, then add your sweetener of choice and cardamom powder, knead, cook, shape into bite sized pieces, and finally chill. It sounds like a complicated process, but it goes much quicker than it sounds like. Once chilled, these morsels are sweet, creamy, chewy, and very satisfying. It only takes about two of these until your sweet tooth is satisfied. Yum.

#6: Ma’s Fried Eggplant

I must admit that I have so far been unable to re-create this dish to be close to as tasty as Ma’s. Also, I was never a fan of eggplant until I started having it in Indian/Bengali dishes. Nowadays it is one of my favorite veggie dishes. I can’t tell you how Ma cooks her’s, but I can tell you how tasty it is. There are pretty thick slices of eggplant, with spices and turmeric rubbed generously on both sides, the slices are then fried/sauteed, most likely in mustard oil until they are cooked through, but somehow they maintain their structure and integrity of shape. These slices are packed with flavor and comfort. When mixed with rice, they are lovely. And they are lovely when eaten with roti/flat bread. I will look forward to having these next time we visit India.

#7: Okra & Potato Curry

This dish we also had very recently, and that will also sound strange to at least us Southerners who like to eat okra only if it’s battered and fried. Okra and potato curry is another comforting dish that is pretty simple, but so satisfying. We cook this at home when the okra looks especially good at the grocery store. We chop the okra and potatoes, garlic, and green chilies. If you want the okra to keep its round shape, stir-fry the potatoes for a bit first, then add the okra. Fry, stirring continuously until they begin to soften. Add salt and turmeric (and any other spices you want, we just keep this one simple), then add a little water, cover and boil until cooked through. This is good served with rice or bread. As long as your okra dish is not too oily, it will be very tasty.

As I typed this, I realized that these dishes are not necessarily listed in any particular order. I guess it just depends on the mood I’m in as to which is my favorite. If you have been too afraid to try Indian food, please consider it. You could be missing out on something you would love and your body could thank you for. Step out of your comfort zone, ask your Indian friends to share a dish with you; they would probably be proud to share some of their rich, spicy heritage with you!

P.S. Spellcheck did NOT like these non-English words, ya’ll.