Despite much talk of globalization and snooty relatives in India dutifully informing you that everything you brought for them (from Toblerone chocolates to GAP clothes) is now available at their nearest shopping mall, the annual visit to India is not without its predictable share of amusement. Most neighbors and relatives would pay a handsome entry fee to come check you out, elevating you to the status of a typical baboon eating a banana in a zoo. They do not hide their amazement at how you can still speak perfect Bengali without an American accent. At one point, I was tempted to fake an accent so as not to disappoint them.
The people all came with many questions about my life in America. However, after meeting a few neighbors, I realized that it became easier to answer their questions about “Tomader America” (“Your America”). It was not because they asked easier questions or stopped asking them for a change. It was because they asked questions from the same question pool, like our very own Calcutta University, infamous for reusing and recycling questions from the time Akbar inherited the throne or your grandfather last watched Krishi Darshan on television.
“Baaabaaa, you look so different”
Which euphemistically means you look old, fat, and ugly. The claim to the prolonged and usually adenoidal “Baaabbaaaa” is not from Baa Baa Black Sheep. You are not a true Bengali if you cannot drone a nasal and dragging Baaabaaaa at the beginning of a conversation to show amazement. What it means, or if it was coined by someone great like Tagore, I do not know.
YOU: Nod and smile, wishing the embarrassing moment of visual appraisal would be over soon.
WHAT YOU OUGHT TO DO: Nod and smile. Please do not ask for clarifications, unless you want to be told to your face that you are fat.
“So what have you got from America?”
DO NOT: Start giving an account.
DO: Keep them guessing. Say this and that. Smile surreptitiously. Do not let them anywhere near your American Tourister suitcases. Stuff some Hershey's Kisses chocolates in their hands instead.
“Don’t you miss home?”
Now this is a loaded question with no politically correct answer. If you say yes, you will need to answer why you did not visit earlier, OPT and visa transition phases be darned. If you say no, you will be portrayed as that insensitive monster of a child who never cared about your old and ailing parents, and while the poor father was toiling hard and the poor mother was cooking for the family in the heat and humidity, you were gambling and having fun in Las Vegas.
DO NOT: Try thinking of an apt answer.
DO: Smile and nod at an angle which could mean both a yes and a no. Just say you have never been to Las Vegas.
“So when are you getting married?”
This question comes in various versions. Some ask if you have decided to marry a foreigner (foreigner by the way is anyone non-Indian). Some specify certain religions and races you should stay away from, even if he is the last man with whom you can repopulate planet earth. Some demand that no matter whom you marry, the social ceremony should be in India, witnessed and blessed by some six hundred odd relatives and acquaintances. Some even ask you if you have come home to (secretly) get married.
DO NOT: Let them believe you are as clueless about your wedding as they are. Do not inform them that you do not have a plan or that useless software engineer from the Bay Area you dated screwed up the relationship and after four years of hanky-panky, he said he needed more time to “figure things out” and you are too old, stigmatized and tired to find someone new or make a Plan B.
DO: Smile suspiciously and coyly. Let them know there is something you are hiding.
“Are you going to settle there?”
This is the most unsettling of all the questions. For one, with the screwed up economy and your unstable visa situation, you are light years away from any kind of stability, work-wise or visa-wise. Your boss is making your life at work miserable and the last thing on your mind after twelve hours of crouching in front of a computer crunching numbers, tallying excel spreadsheets or running statistical analyses everyday is to think if you are going to “settle” in the US.
DO NOT: Try explaining things. Before you know, the neighbors would have found out how much you earn, spend, and save.
DO: Smile and nod making an angle which could mean a yes maybe or a no maybe.
“I’m not asking you your salary, but how much do you earn compared to Indian standards?”
And you can almost see the currency converter in their heads ticking.
“I’ve heard many Indian girls and boys in the US live together. Is that true?”
TRY SAYING: Yes, it is known as an orgy.
“Do you cook Indian food at all? No, you must be eating burger and fries, and beef and pork, no?”
TRY SAYING: Yes, and bison meat too, transported all the way from Yellowstone National Park.
“Aren’t people in your country smelly and refuse to take a bath every day?”
TRY SAYING: (Assuming “your country” refers to America) Yes, and it is sometimes required by the law in certain states that international students soap them clean.
“Is there some good news we should know about?”
TRY SAYING: “Absolutely !!”. Then look indicatively at those tires on your tummy, thanks to a diet rich in Nutella and McDonald’s.
While most questions are innocuous, bordering on curiosity and ignorance, answering them sometimes gets awkward, especially after all that privacy and space you have enjoyed in western society. No one really cares why you are not married or how much your earn in America, unless of course it is the same desi aunty who is visiting her sonny boy in California. You can get away with most questions with a non-committal smile and a head nod which could mean a yes, no, maybe, probably, most likely, anything. Although annoying, answering these questions is strangely not an ordeal after a while. In some comforting way, it is representative of a society that shows care, although in its own idiosyncratic and ostensibly interfering way. I would prefer this society any day compared to the isolation of living in my present, western society, where I do not know who my neighbors are, and highly run the risk of going unnoticed for days if ever trapped in my apartment alone due to a broken bone and unable to ask for help.
Photo credit: Tawheed Manzoor