A Piece of Advice
A Non-Indian’s Guide to Winning at Indian Family Reunions
From understanding when to use cutlery and shoes to picking up a few words from their language – here’s the definitive guide.
From a distance, the potpourri that is India can often be quite intimidating to an outsider. The geography changes every few kilometres, and so does the culture and language. Sikander Khan, an engineer from Mumbai, was acutely aware of the same when he fell in love with his now-wife Avav Khan, a banker from Indonesia.
For Avav, the journey towards assimilating into Indian culture will always be a continuous one. “My in-laws went out of their way to make me feel at home,” she said. “When I visited my husband’s relatives, I could obviously not converse in or understand Hindi, the language they speak. So, my sister-in-law would frequently help me understand the conversations in real-time so that I wouldn’t feel left out.”
Since the couple married in September 2014, Avav has visited India every alternate year. And that almost always involves meeting the family.
In India, family reunions can often be a high stakes event, usually centred around festivals such as Diwali and Holi, weddings, or year-ender parties. Considering the importance of the concept of extended family in Indian culture, there can be too many eyes assessing your every move at any given time. If you’re a non-Indian, the unsaid rules and customs can be overwhelming. This is why couples and their families need to work together to make the event as seamless and comfortable as possible.
These visits have been a learning curve for everyone involved – Avav, Sikander, and Sikander’s family, too. In case, you fall on any of these sides, here is a five-step primer that has held Sikander and Avav in good stead:
1. Know the Food
Indians and their relationship with food, as is the case with most South Asians, is an emotional one. “The way to an Indian mother-in-law’s heart is through food,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be out and out Indian cuisine. As long as they know that their daughter-in-law can cook even a basic dish with love, they are mightily impressed.”
Although, traditionally, this expectation is rooted in Indian society’s rigid gender roles; in Avav’s case, it is not a problem because she has always enjoyed cooking. For those who don’t, Avav suggests that even helping out in the daily chores of the house with your partner can go a long way in showing you are part of the family.
Sikander clarifies that the expectation isn’t that all meals must be cooked by the daughter-in-law. “Even if it’s a meal or two, it suffices. The idea is to use cooking as a way to express your love, particularly if language is a barrier.” If cooking is a bit much, helping out the family while laying out the table or serving other people, can impress the fam too.
2. Get the Etiquette Right
While cutlery is foundational to Western dining, eating with one’s hands is the norm across much of India. “Especially when you’re having Indian cuisine, drop the additional cutlery and always eat together,” he said.
The way Sikander sees it, using one’s bare hands to feast on a scrumptious Indian spread not only enhances the taste but creates a humbling, inclusive environment at the dinner table. Some parts of India have additional rules attached to this practice. Some eat only with their right hand, and if they’re helping themselves with second servings, use only their left hand to do so. Ask your partner what these little etiquette nuggets are, and desi grannies are sure to love you for adhering to them.
3. Blend In
“Ask any Indian and they will tell you the same thing – wear the country with pride,” said Sikander. “Wearing Indian clothes doesn’t mean you cannot wear jeans. But if you can pair it with a kurta, it doesn’t hurt.”
He believes that the idea that local clothes must be worn by non-Indians is not to “camouflage” them but to show your Indian family that you respect their culture.
He also specified how shoes must not be worn indoors. “Non-Indians might have the habit of taking their shoes in. This is not usually encouraged in India.”
Sikander says that dropping heavy boots in favour of traditional Indian footwear such as jhutis and mjoaris also helps, particularly considering India is a tropical country.
4. Embrace the Language
While knowing the local language of any country one visits always helps, when it comes to India, Sikander believes that the dynamics are slightly different, adorable even.
“Indians don’t expect you to master their language,” he said. “We understand that our languages are brimming with a lot of local contexts. So, usually, they will be over the moon even if you’ve mastered a few common words.”
5. Acknowledge the Mother
Sikander says that Indians, regardless of gender, share a highly complicated relationship with their mothers. “This is particularly true in families where the said child no longer stays in India. Mothers tend to get very protective when that happens. It’s important for the non-Indian significant other to not get intimidated by the same.”
He explains this is also because “mothers always end up fearing for their children when they move abroad” and take some time to get comfortable with the idea that they might have a completely new life moving on.
The journey towards understanding any culture is a long one. In the case of Sikander and Avav, they have both learned these things along the way in the last seven years. But Sikander insists that Indian culture is inherently flexible. “Historically, many people from other countries and cultures have entered India and they have all blended in. This holds true in interracial marriages too.”
Source: Arman Khan, VICE
Was this advice helpful?