Weeping My Way Through ‘Secret Daughter’

Do you hear that sniffling? That’s me, ugly crying* after reading Secret Daughter. It’s been on my to-read list for two years but somehow the library never had it when I was between books. Luckily,  a dear friend lent it to me–without my even asking!

And let’s be honest: any book that’s about adoption and India is sure to tug at my heart. And a book about a blonde-haired white girl married to an Indian man? Forget about the dishes, I have a date with this book. Secret Daughter follows several individuals in the US and India from 1985-2005. Broken hearts, troubled marriages, adoption, infertility, poverty, motherhood, family and identity are beautifully woven together to create a gripping tale.

Gowda’s description of India is mesmerizing–she writes of the complexity, beauty and troubles of India through the eyes of someone who loves the country, but who has also lived much of life in North America. As two of the characters encountered India and wrestled with their own identities, I felt like I grew a little too.

Below are a few of my favorite quotes from the book (quotes are in blue, my comments are in black):

Someone in India: I met a guy…He’s smart and funny and so good-looking. And he’s got these deep brown eyes, you know?

Someone who fell in love with an Indian: Yes, I think I do…(they laugh together)

(Can I get an Amen?! Those deep brown Indian eyes…get me every time!)

“What do you think of [India]? It’s a five-star pile of contradictions, isn’t it?…Some people like to demonize India for her weaknesses, others only glorify her strengths. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between.”

After being scolded for wearing inappropriate clothes, an American girl thinks:

“Somer thinks back to the mid-calf length skirt and the T-Shirt [she was wearing]…’Not appropriate’?…She tries to fight her growing resentment of this country, the feeling that everything here is tainted: that the biased adoption process, the opaque cultural rules, and the oppressive weather, all are wrapped up with India as a whole. She expected to feel at home with Krishnan’s family, not so utterly out of place.”

(Somer’s fears and feelings when she visited India as the American wife of an Indian man resonated deeply with me. Written down, they seem selfish and ugly, but they are true. Inextricably intertwined with love and respect for my husband and his culture are roots of confusion, dislike and fear. It’s not a pretty part of me: but it is there)

My family. People [she] had never met and barely spoken to just one year ago, who have fetched her from the airport in the middle of the night, taken her to tourist attractions they had no interest in seeing again, taught her how to wear a lengha, fly tissue-paper kites, eat all kinds of new foods. She was not born into this family, she did not grow up with them, but it has made no difference. They have done everything for her…Through the flickering flames, she sees the faces of her cousins and uncles. My family…At some point, the family you create is more important than the one you’re born into.

(If you know my Indian family, you know this is incredibly apt. Late night airport runs, patience in cultural faux pas, generosity in linguistic mix ups…They have accepted me part and parcel)

Okay, well now that we’re all sufficiently weepy, let’s talk about your thoughts. Have you read Secret Daughter? What did you think about it? Do you have a favourite Indian author or novel?

*P.S. This is the best ugly cry ever

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Italian Heritage Week

This week is self-proclaimed Italian Heritage week in the Rana Household. I know, it’s a perfectly inspiring name. (Feel free to give me a better suggestion!). When my Grandma passed away this Spring, I spent hours with my sister and my Mom sorting through Grandma’s belongings, reminiscing, and digging through artifacts of an 89 year life. Having been born and raised in Sicily, Italy, my Grandma and her family came by boat to New York City 78 years ago.

Steamship ticket from the journey to America

Grandma had the privilege of witnessing the majority of the 20th century, lived through WWII, saw the end of segregation, had an email address and eventually owned a cellphone. Having buried her husband and two daughters, she poured all of her love into her brother’s family and her daughter’s family. She spoiled us with homemade tomato sauce and meatballs, trips to TCBY and presents from travels.

Not wanting to lose my Italian heritage with the death of my Nonna, I have instituted Italian Heritage Week chez Rana. Why ‘week’, you ask? As I’ve mentioned, we’re not so good with the traditions and schedules. Somehow, ‘week’ sounded much more doable than ‘day’. So, for our first annual Italian Bonanza, I made homemade tomato sauce (the recipe Grandma taught me when I was old enough to help stir), pizzaiola (meat cooked in tomato sauce) and 1 kg of spaghettini. (I too questioned whether it was moral to make 1 kg of pasta. My love for tomato covered carbs won out).

Proof of a delicious dinner.

Claiming a whole week for my Italian heritage ending up being a great idea. This means there’s very little pressure for a Day of Awesomeness, and we can enjoy pasta for supper multiple evenings. And I get to defrost another tub of cannoli filling. WIN.

What about you: how do you celebrate your heritage? Do you have a favourite family recipe? What have your grandparents taught you that you don’t want to forget?

Many Villages::The Depths of Cultural Differences

This semester I’m taking a course on Cross-cultural counselling. Part of the coursework is a weekly journal reflecting on anything I’ve learned, thought about or found challenging from the course material. I decided to post parts of these reflections in a weekly series called “Many Villages”.

I didn’t realize how much I like talking about/processing culture until class this week. (The fact that I blog about this very subject should have been a clue to me, but there you have it.) As we brainstormed the meaning of words like culture and respect, I got super excited for the semester. Dr. Chow shared his own experiences in interacting with others from varying cultures and said in passing that as a Chinese man, he never makes assumptions about other Chinese people, because“there are many villages in China”.

Sometimes, I forget that even our home is made up of several villages. I come from a home with influences from Sicily, Ireland and Germany. Varun comes from a home with influences from two regions in India. Between us, we have lived in 12 cities in 5 countries. It would be an understatement to say that there are ideas and ideals from many villages floating in the air of the Rana Household.

And yet, I forget. I make snap decisions, assumptions about people’s motivations, and value assessments using a rather 2D model. My default is to look at the world–people, behaviours and ideas–through the lens of my own experience. This seems obvious, and you’d think that someone in an intercultural marriage would be aware of this. And I am. Yet at the same time, I’m not. Culture runs so deep.

In a real sense, culture is the behavioral expression of one’s values, appreciations and tastes, and relational style in both simple and serious matters of life. Add to this the dimensions of language and cultural memory, and you have worlds within worlds. In effect, culture provides the how and why of an individual’s behavior…” (-I’ve had this quote in a word document for a long time, and I can’t seem to remember it’s author. No plagiarism intended)

Worlds within worlds is, perhaps, the best way of describing it. Too often, I chalk up culture to variations in cuisine and music. I reduce culture to a set of behaviours I can mimic, words I can decode and festivals and celebrations we can adopt. In some sense, I think this is a way of protecting our marriage, wanting to see culture as an opportunity, not an obstacle. And yet, deep down, I know that my cultural background permeates my very being.

Who would I be if I were not an American? If I were not raised in a Catholic home in the late 20th century? What would I think if I were not of European descent? What would seem rude to me if I were raised in a family-oriented, honor-bound culture?

These questions echo through my thoughts, unwilling to be anchored by answers. Because in truth, I have no idea. And this is how I know that my culture—my context, values, beliefs, traditions, foods, memories—goes much deeper than I could imagine. It is far more than losing one’s accent or changing a mode of dress.

Let me give you an example from my own marriage. [Note: This story is not meant to criticize or invoke hurt, gossip or dissent. It’s meant to illustrate how deeply affected I am by my culture ideas, and how much growing I have to do!]

There is a certain behaviour that I have noticed in an Indian family member that I find confusing. I perceive it as something meant to belittle me, and as something that is selfish. I have tried to explain my frustration with this behaviour to Varun, but it never seems to bother him as much as it does me.

Last weekend, we went on a day trip with a family in our neighborhood from South Asia. This family is new to Canada and has quickly become dear to us. We had a wonderful day together! Yet, to my surprise, this same behaviour was manifested in the majority of our new friends! I watched as Varun responded with—what seemed to me to be—grace. As we talked about the events of the day, I expressed admiration of him for his patience. He looked at me, perplexed. I told Varun how patient he was when this particular behaviour occurred repeatedly. Varun laughed, and shrugged, noting that this is a totally normal behaviour. “But didn’t you feel patronized?”, I asked, remembering my agitation. “No. It’s just practical. There’s nothing about you in it, and culturally, it’s an important expression”.

I looked at Varun, sensing the currents of Indian values and collective memories that swirl beneath the surface of his Canadian persona. Even as we create a hybrid culture in our home, we are deeply different.

It’s amazing to me that I can have such a strong gut reaction to something that, to Varun, was not at all noteworthy. And yet as I considered Varun’s understanding of it, and the fact that it was never meant as an affront to me, my feelings began to shift.

Interacting with other cultures is so much more than trying new foods or watching films with subtitles (although this is awesome and important!). It means doing the difficult work of excavating long-held patterns of thought, allowing expressions to have multiple meanings and offering patience and grace. It is also incredibly rewarding; it affords opportunities for exploration and expansion, for stretching myself beyond my natural reactions and gut feelings.

It might take our entire lifetime together for Varun and I to begin to fit into the skins of our hybrid culture. I imagine that even as an elderly couple we will still have the rhythm of our mother cultures pulsing through our veins. My hope is that through the years we will not minimize our cultural differences to guard ourselves from conflict. Nor will we allow the differences to define us, to make us forget that we are family. But if nothing else, Varun’s good-natured patience is sure to smooth out some of my rough edges.

_______________________________

What do you find difficult in interacting with friends or family from other cultures? Do you notice any behaviours or ideas that make you uncomfortable? How are you succeeding at learning and growing from these challenges?

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