“Something I can help you with?” – Mr. Sharma peeped into the kitchen when i was rolling chapati. “You can make green tea, – i replied, – just boil water in the kettle and pour it over tea leaves.” Imagine my surprise, when I caught sight of glass teapot on gas stove, passing by few minutes later.
“No, no, no, no, no! – I muttered lost for words, – no need to boil water on the stove like for Indian chai. Simply steep tea leaves in hot water from electric kettle!”
Culture means so many things that are taken for granted. For Sudhir – tea is always boiled, for me – always brewed in warm water. And all these years in India didn’t help me guess he would boil green tea.
Mastering the balance of cultural differences is the key to a happy life abroad. I still learn bridging those invisible gaps between me and my husband, family, society.
Our marriage brought together salient hodgepodge of religions, food and languages. Similarly role of expat exposed subtler differences confusing and discomforting at times. All these are blessings in disguise. I’ll talk about obvious and non obvious blessings of mine.
By birth I’m orthodox Christian and Mr. Sharma is Hindu. We visit all the temples and churches together. Trying to become better human beings is the only religion we practice.
It was my first day in India, thick smog hovering over Delhi. I smelled sweet, spicy, flowery odours mingling with pungent whiff of urine and agarbatti, as we walked to a punjabi restaurant in Connaught Place.
“If you love Indian food, you will love India”, – Sudhir promised, ordering chhole bature.
I lingered over the plate with sliced onions, pieces of lime, mango pickle and green chilly-looking pods.
“Is that chilly?” – i wanted to know.
“No, that’s sweet!” – he chuckled.
I’ve lost trust to my future husband and developed high tolerance to spicy food once I ate the whole pod. My tryst with Indian cuisine began right then and there. Over the next few years i’ve learnt cooking all the basic sabjis, dals and breads which are staple for Indian family and exotic for dad and friends in Kyiv.
I speak English with my husband and colleagues. I speak Hinglish when shopping at kirana, directing a rickshaw or talking to bai. Feeling safe enough to make mistakes I chit-chat in Hindi only with my mother-in-law. Seeing her understanding is my biggest reward.
People around are so empathetic that often there’s no need for common language. But whatever little you know helps to become independent, – move around and get things done on your own.
People in India always sound straight-up and enthusiastic. But it doesn’t mean they’re going to do what they say.
After few unfulfilled promises, I started thinking “If it doesn’t mean anything, why bother?!”. It took me few years to get the difference between ‘promise’ and ’Indian promise’. Giving a word in Ukrainian culture means “I do what i say and i say what i do.” I’ve learnt that in India promise means intention, – “I mean what i say and i have intention of doing it sometime.” This understanding taught me taking it easy, – not to expect anything and not to get disappointed.
In India you start living by IST or Indian Standard Time. Beyond the time zone it’s quality of human thinking. Generally people are very relaxed, – coming a little early or a little late is on time. Meeting at 3 pm in the city may mean 3-3.30 pm, which in smaller places can easily fluctuate by 1,5-2 hours. The only thing that helps is patience. For getting something done in government organisation you’ll need it even more. After working day starts, as a rule you’ll have to wait. Once your person is there and there’s line at the counter, it’s tea break time. “Relax and smile”, – Sudhir taught me. And truly that’s the only thing that works.
There’re rules and there’re more rules helping you follow them. The thing complicating life in India is that none of it really works. In office, for example, daily salary gets deducted if you don’t reach on time. And still many of us get late. The time we asked our maid to come is 8 am which she translates as 9-9.15 am. Even threats to find another person can’t help it.
Driving in India is one more challenge for expat. Once behind the wheel, you know there’re no two people on the road following the same rule. Initial confusion turned into amusement when i learnt ’Indian rule’ from our driver:“Do not touch anyone and do not let anyone touch you.” Other guys may honk, overtake from left or right, – just chill and make your way bindass. Later I made my own ‘Indian rule’ – be patient with those taking shortcuts, it will save you and your time.
People here are mostly not straightforward, which is form of Indian politeness. Often we visit parents after office. Every time my mother-in-law asks: “Chai peeni hai?”
“I don’t want ( i really don’t want) but if you want, i’ll make it” – i reply.
“I don’t want but if you’ll have, we also will have, – half a cup – she murmurs in Hindi. – I will make”.
“No no, you don’t worry, i will make,” – I tell her on the way to kitchen. And then we all have tea.
Finally i discovered a shortcut for this etiquette. Every time we enter home, i ask her directly: “I’ll make tea?”
“Just half a cup,” – she says grinning.
I was lacking emotional comfort in India for a long time. How to depend on people if they cannot keep given word or be on time? How to decipher what they mean? You need an open mind, curiosity and patience to accept another culture. But it’s 100% worth it. My mantra is “Listen to your heart and try becoming a person you’d want to see in others, even from different culture”.