By Sheryl Parbhoo
I set my stainless steel food tray on the folding card table and took my place with the kids. The skin on my neck itched from the wiry stitching on the neckline of my borrowed Punjabi, and I longed to get home and slip into a tee shirt and jeans. As I broke off a piece of roti to scoop up some rice and daal, I listened to the chitter chatter of pre-teen girls around me, but my mind was on the men in the den, who were cheering raucously at the football game on TV.
My husband was in there, the loudest one of all, and I couldn’t be with him. Convention prohibited me from sitting or eating with them at his family gatherings. And I was definitely not welcomed by the women in the kitchen who were busy cooking and swapping stories in Gujarati. I was an anomaly in the seamless fabric of my husband’s tight knit Indian family, and no one knew what to do with me. I was the new American bhabi (sister-in-law).
And I was invisible.
Twenty two years later, I look back on that day, and still feel the sting. I was a twenty-year-old southern girl who had married the man of her dreams, who just happened to be Gujarati. He was handsome and smart, and the most romantic man I had ever met. He was also part of a very loving, and very traditional Indian family, the likes of which I understood nothing about.
He tried to tell me how difficult it would be for his family to accept me, but always the optimist, I believed that all would change once they got to know me. Well, as time would tell, he was right. People are naturally suspicious of change, of the unknown, and acceptance came slowly.
I was treated unkindly in many more instances than I would like to remember, from being completely ignored by people in social situations, to being stared and pointed at by elderly people at weddings. I was compared to the one other American woman married to an Indian man in the community. She practiced Hinduism, spoke Gujarati fluently, and danced more beautifully at garbas than most anyone else around. She was perfect. People would ask me why I did not make the changes she had made.
I did not change because I was not her. Her way of life was right for her. But I knew who I was, and I wasn’t going to change for people to like me.
Someone also once scolded me in private that my husband was no longer Indian because he had married me. But, I believe this statement came from fear of the unknown, fear that I would lead him away from the love and life of his family. Over the years, we have proved this person very wrong. My husband is still just as Indian as he ever was, and I have embraced the core of Indian culture myself.
With the arrival of each of our four sons and one daughter, (yes, we are crazy, and very blessed) I became seen as more and more a part of his family. I was now a mother and a wife that was here to stay, not tear him away from them. We have fought hard to keep both sides of our families close to us all these years.
We do not live with his parents, but live very close to them and spend most of our time with them. They, along with my mother, are a huge part of the kids’ lives, and have shown them what it is like to be a part of both cultures. We have weekly dinners with hotdogs on the grill and matter paneer simmering on the stove. The kids learn Gujarati from Ba, and listen raptly to Dada’s stories of India.
As a family, we have endured the deaths of loved ones, and toasted many joyful times together. His parents are my children’s grandparents, and they are my parents now, too.
I am still a southern girl at heart. I am Christian, I like grits and bacon, and I listen to country music. And, he is still a Gujarati boy at heart. He has Hindu beliefs, eats his mother’s dinners almost every day of the week, and blasts Hindi songs from his iPad in the evenings after work.
Our kids roll their eyes when they see us both dance in the kitchen, lip synching to Toby Keith and Sajaan. Our parents just watch and laugh at us. They are all a family because he swept me off my feet so many years ago, and because we did not give up on our families. I am glad they see that.
To read more about Sheryl Parbhoo’s experiences, visit her blog at southernlifeindianwife.com