Assuming you actually managed to convince an Indian girl to go out with you, there are a few things you should keep in mind:
First of all, congratulations for actually getting a date. The usual reaction, when you ask a South Asian girl out, is for her to take off so fast, they sometimes leave skid marks. I'm not entirely sure if this is caused by the fact that culturally dating is a big no-no or the fact that I look quite revolting. It's hard to say.
Anyway, in the beginning, before the girl starts to feel more comfortable around you, you'll need the patience of a guru. It will be impossible to hold her hand, particularly if in a public place. This because Indian families are so vast that a massi (aunt) ora mama (uncle) are bound to appear around the corner any minute now.
You'll notice that with you she'll be more vigilant than a bunny around a pack of foxes. Her eyes are always scanning the area you'rein, her ears are ready to catch the scream of "DOLLY!" erupting from some far distant relative that may have spotted her in the company of that abomination (that would be me).
So forget about kissing. Actually, forget any type of physical contact for the time being. And don't even think about holding her hand. The only thing you can do is be patient.
This of course was next to impossible for me since, being Italian, the entire culture is based on constant physical contact. Family is greeted by kissing the cheeks, touching hands, touching someone's shoulder when talking to them. In fact, physical forms of affection are so common for my family and culture that we do them without even thinking.
If you accidentally kiss an Indian family member out of habit from your family, you'll be in big trouble. In some instances, the girlfriend's family would run away in fear that, the moment I got up to leave, I'd kiss them. It's pretty funny and you may consider doing it just for kicks.
Mama ji was always ready to remind me, whenever I moved up to her that "in our culture we do not kiss. No, no!" So I touched her knees instead which apparently is the right thing to do. Then I'd get patted on the head like a good little boy. The patting is, I'm told, some sort of blessing. But this is something you will have to wait a few years before it will happen. Getting her family to even acknowledge that you exist, much less come to terms with the fact that you're dating their daughter, requires the same love and care as growing a Bonsai.
So strict is her family, that in the early stages of dating, you can't even pick up the girl from her house. She'll have to leave in all secrecy and meet you somewhere you two have agreed on previously. Eventually, when the girl will inform her parents of your existence--mostly to make them back off the whole arranged marriage planning they've had in mind--a parade of potentially suitable husband have come in and out of her front door and you're both--quite surprisingly--still alive, she will invite you over to meet the family. But like I said, no need to panic. That'll happen in a few years, if you're lucky.
If you're dating Sikh, you'll soon notice how everyone has the same name. Or at the very least, the names end in either -inder or -jit. You can bet good money that if someone has either ending in their name, they're Sikh.
That is, of course, assuming you know them by their real name. All of them use nick names, such as Dolly (which appears to be quite popular) or Pinky (almost as awfully popular) and of course, everyone's favourite, Lovely. There are a few others, but imagination doesn't run very wild in that department, so it's usually one of those three.
My nickname, I assumed, was Sala Cuta1. At least, that's what the girl I was dating kept calling me, in a tone that was so sweet, flowers bloomed each time she opened her mouth. So one fine day, mama ji asks me what my nick name is, pointing out that her daughters are nick named Dolly (complete surprise for me), Pinky (now I was in utter shock) and I forget the last sister, but it was something like Rani (Queen), quite possibly due to the rather spicy character of the girl, though I'm wildly speculating here. I'm guessing that there is a hidden rule where you can't have more than one Pinky at a time. I remember there being a Lovely too, but that happened to be a cousin of sort — everyone is a cousin of sort.
So I said that mine was Sala Cuta, thinking it was something cute like 'Goat Wrangler' or 'Ye who is well endowed, I'm sure,' judging by the loving tone in which I was called so by the girlfriend.
The reaction was rather unexpected. From what I later understood, Sala Cuta is some sort of insult, referring to you as the brother-in-law (sala) of a dog (cuta). Apparently this is mighty rude or something. You can imagine the reaction from the family, while I stared blankly ahead looking more idiotic than usual, as I tried to figure out where the insult was.
Another thing you will be called quite a bit, as family discusses you in their native tongue in front of you, is gora.
I looked this up, but made a mistake and landed on ghora, which means horse. So for the longest time I could not understand why whenever I came in their house, there was this agitated talk about some horse and what not.
But it's actually gora, which is what white folks like myself are usually referred to. This is something you will eventually discover when you decide to take the suicidal task of learning Hindi. For every word, there is one that sounds slightly similar which means something completely different. It's a nightmare and to this day I cry myself to sleep when I glance at my Hindi books.
By the way, mama ji means uncle, where the ji is a sign of respect you say to people who are older than you. But mamaji is also what I called the woman I assumed would eventually become my mother-in-law. If you find this confusing, you may find comfort in knowing that it is a heck of a lot more complicated than it sounds here. Each family member's position in the genealogical tree has a unique name that immediately identifies them to which branch they belong.
I'm still a bit confused on the matter. I was under the impression that Indian families were patriarchal, but so far it seems that the wife runs the show and the husband sits there, quietly, hanging his head. Every feminist I've met crying criticism for the Indian way of life has no idea what they're talking about. No matter what papa ji may say, the final word rests with the mother. So even if your father-in-law is cool with you dating his daughter, you are not safe until the mother says it's a go.
It only took me five years to get approved and by then, news of my existence reached the farthest corners of Punjab. People I will never meet saw my photos and gave their views on the entire thing. Hardly anyone was pleased.
Let me talk about stigma: the fact that my background is Italian does not go well. And who can blame them? Italians here are an annoying bunch who act arrogantly and make big asses out of themselves. I, being one, would know.
Then there is the fact that you're white. With a group of people that has issues with members of their own family that are not fair skinned, outsiders are regarded as even lower than pariah--the so called class of the untouchables.
And, of course, hypocrisy. It ain't just a Christian trait. Sure, Sikhism rants and raves about equality and that the caste system is out, but if someone is of a high caste, they'll be sure to point it out to you. Naturally, when someone will proudly boast to you their caste level, it'll mean as much to you as when one of those Geeky looking guys tells you about what level their little Necromancer has reached in its latest quest for something or other.
Hindi is, apparently, the lingua franca of India. I say apparently because I've yet to meet someone that actually speaks it. And those that claim that they do, no two speak it alike. Family members all seem to speak something that sounds like Hindi, but they tell me it isn't Hindi but some sort of Punjabi dialect. Everyone speaks a different Punjabi dialect compared to other families you'll meet.
To make things more exciting, everything is written in Devanagari, (the scribbles) but nobody seems to be able to read or write that either. It took me two straight days to learn how to read it and while I read with the same skill of a four year old, I have no idea what I'm saying.
The problem with Devanagari is that it's too damn fancy compared to the actual language. They have a myriad of little scribbles, each representing a phonetic sound you, white boy, will never ever be able to pronounce correctly. And the first time you glance at the, er, alphabet, the scribbles will all look the same with some minor variations from each other. You will cry. I know I have.
In my attempt at fitting in, I started learning Hindi. If you're considering this, don't bother. Like I said, nobody seems to be able to speak it, anyway. If you're familiar with Latin, Hindi will immediately appear similar, fooling you down a path that appears incredibly easy. But unlike Latin, Hindi seems to have no concept of grammar. Much like the Japanese, everything seems to be based on rules of politeness that make little or no sense.
For example, asking someone how they are, you would normally say 'hal kya he,' which means literally 'condition how is,' which sounds like something I'd ask my computer. There are a lot of assumed words you don't have to say, so unlike us in which we have to point out to the person we're talking to that we want to know of their state, in Hindi it is safely assumed.
Of course, if saying 'hal kya he' is proper, the right way of saying it, to show politeness, is 'kya hal he,' which puts an extra emphasis on it. That means 'how condition is.' Don't worry if you're confused now, it only gets worse.
This of course may not even be correct, as each person has given me a different explanation, making me wonder who exactly knows what's going on.
In fact, during my studies on Hindi--which are still going on and I'm doing quite miserably in--the most general rule you can find is that every sentence has a subject-object-verb structure. Other than that, you can arrange the words in almost any way you want as long as it ends in 'he.' Of course, depending on the order, you will appear as either ultra polite or a grumpy, rude and uneducated chap, which only made my situation worse.
Though the girlfriend's family was impressed that I could mutter enough words to make myself understood, I was later told that what little I was able to say sounded much like some uneducated person living in some remote part of India.
By the way, the whole caste thing is quite amusing. Those that are Sikh are, in theory, caste free. I understand that caste is no big of a deal in the big towns of India as well. But much like my Italian family that has remained deeply rooted in beliefs that have ceased to exist half a century ago back in the fatherland, here the caste system still creeps around. A lot of emphasis is also put on title, career and amounts of money one may have.
So don't be surprised if you get told that so and so is Sikh and a Brahmin to boot. Brahmin--something I only later understood--is the top of the caste food chain and not the name for those holy Indian cows. Hindus, not Sikhs, like cows.
The first time I was actually invited for lunch at my girlfriend's house, I was not sure what to expect. First of all, I was surprised I was actually invited, considering how much I was liked at the time. But I welcomed the occasion, partly to finally meet face to face who might eventually turn out be my in-laws (or my killers) and part because the little bit of Indian food I had was acquired via the various restaurants. Seeing as Italian food in Italian restaurants sucks, I could only assume that Indian food in Indian restaurants was equally bad. Of course, having no idea what real Indian food was like, eating the equivalent of Desi Chef Boyardee for me was like a banquet with the Gods.
I should also mention that you can eat Indian food with a certain degree of safety. Usually it is all vegetables, so no weird stuff like fried locusts or chocolate covered ants like I had in the Middle East. While perhaps they may be yummy, they quickly lose their flavour when someone tells you--in between her belly dances--that those deliciously little fried shrimps actually liked to hop around on land, before they landed on your plate. But with Indian food, you're safe and sound--to a certain degree.
I learned three important things at lunch that day. The first is that all the Indians I've met seem to be annoyed at Indian food. So if you're dating South Asian and propose to eat Indian (food that is) because, you know, you want to acquire the taste of the culture, don't be surprised if they look at you funny, groan and make some strange remark referring to you as gora. In an Indian home it's Indian food or no food at all, so they're all kinda sick and tired of it. I ended up cooking and eating more Italian food than the norm, than Indian, which kinda sucked.
The second thing I learned is that yogurt is your friend. If you ever find yourself invited over for some fine Indian cooking, before you start stuffing your mouth, determine where the yogurt is. Once you find it, pour a hefty helping in your plate. Trust me on this.
Thirdly, the other thing about real Indian food is that it is not just spicy, making it next to impossible to determine what it is, but hot. I thought I was a tough guy for putting Tabasco sauce on my food, but Indians probably keep it chilled in the fridge and drink a bottle or two much like we drink coke. I cannot emphasize how hot the food is. Set yourself on fire and you would almost get the idea.
During this famous lunch, mama ji opened up a glass jar and poured some weird stuff on my plate. Actually, it's not a plate, it's called a tali and it's something like a rectangular piece of metal with indentations where the food is poured. It was novel to me and I was all excited about it.
I have no idea what the stuff poured on my plate was called, as my memories were rather fogged at the time, but if they need to think of a name for it in English, I'd call it 'napalm'. But being ignorant on the matter, I grabbed a piece of naan, scooped up some of the stuff and tossed it happily in my mouth2.
The entire table stopped to stare at me. "Uh oh, did I do something wrong? Will they excuse me for being white and ignorant?" The staring, of course, continued while I tried desperately to figure out what I had done wrong. Did I scoop the food up too fast? Did I use the wrong hand to scoop my food up? Did I just mix something with something else that I wasn't supposed to mix? What?
It didn't look like they were upset, more like curious. Then it hit me. I have no idea what the hell the stuff I had tossed down was, but it burned. My mouth felt on fire. My tongue felt as if it was about to explode. I felt my face turn bright red. My lips started hurting. Was this their way of getting rid of gora so that he'd leave their daughter alone?
Determined to pretend nothing was wrong, my mother's voice came ringing in my ears "When food is spicy, eat bread to lessen the burn." So I grabbed a piece of naan and stuffed it in my mouth. It did very little. Tears at this point are rolling down my face. And to think I always wanted a quick, painless death.
I grabbed for the metal glass and gulped down all the cool, precious liquid. At first there was some relief, but the burning only got worse.
My girlfriend finally turned around to stare at me and I must've looked rather unhappy with my current situation.
"Is the food hot?" she chirped, sweetly, possibly not noticing that my face was red and I had tears pouring down the side of my face.
"What the fuck did I just eat?" I asked.
"Hmm-hmm hmmm-hhmmm??" is what actually came out of my mouth.
"Eat the yogurt," said with a smile that would've stopped the Cold War.
And I did. And the burning suddenly passed.
Mama ji later explained to me that the stuff, whatever it was, is kept in a glass jar because it corrodes through metal ones after awhile (sulfuring acid must be one of the most active ingredients in there) and that they just touch the naan to add some flavour (seriously, flavour).
"We don't normally eat it."
Thanks for telling me.
Indian food is, in my humble opinion, simply fantastic. But then again, I love eating and I will try anything once. But Indian food has a special place in my heart--or perhaps stomach--as it is not only delicious, but it combines an excellent flavour and a sensation, after eating it, that you're going to explode.
There are a great deal of places to buy Indian food in Toronto, but I can only think of two that are really worth visiting: the first is Bar-B-Q Hut, located in Little India, down by Gerrard St. It is more Muslim/Ismaili cooking, but the food is excellent, especially anything (as the name would suggest) that they toss on the barbie. The other place is Mothi Mahal, which I have renamed as McIndia, since it reminds me more of a fast food joint than anything else. Here too the food is fantastic. There is a good way to determine if a place has good food from the culture it claims to be: how many people from that culture are eating in there.
Mothy Mahal is packed with Indians and if Indians, who would know the difference between good and bad food eat there, then you can rest assured you're going to a good place.
There are a few other places in Toronto where you can eat Indian food at a fairly decent price, but the food seems to be washed down in order not to offend the delicate palate of white folks and instead of talis, you get to eat in regular plates.
Indian weddings are dangerous places, just like Italian ones. The only difference is that you have no idea what's going on and the married couple happens to be Sikh. If you're curious to witness a South Asian wedding, I suggest you stick to Ismaili ones. My experience so far with them has been that they're tame but important affairs and there is no drunken brawl waiting to happen.
While the ceremony is quite remarkable, involving lots of reading from the holy book, petals and money, with the groom and bride trying to look as innocent as possible, the party that follows are things of legend, which make my wilder days during College seem likea regular daily routine.
To start, if you decide to wear a typical Indian suit, a curta pajama, you'll be the only male wearing it. The fact that you're white will have everyone stare at you, especially since you're hand in hand with someone Desi. Everybody else is wearing a suite with a tie and flashing you the dirtiest of looks you can manage. Keeping a low profile is next to impossible, since everyone knows who you are(besides, you stand out like a sore thumb) but don't worry. Eventually the news about you will work its way around and if mama ji has reluctantly approved of the two of you, there will be a general consensus among the masses that you're okay, even if gora.
Then there is the dancing, which involves no physical contact and to run around in circles in positions that remind me of various karate stances. The dancing changes mildly according to the songs, but as far as I can recall, there are no slow dances. That would require touching and that's a big no-no.
And of course, whenever someone says 'We're good Hindustani, we do not drink,' be sure to check on them in about 20 minutes. They'll be smashed.
Oh, and there are always fights.
If you lack religious fanatism and your attendance in the Roman Catholic Church is nothing spectacular (though some might argue that you're being a practicing Catholic just the same) and you decide you want to marry your girlfriend, go for an Indian wedding. Not only do you get to wear a turban and ride a white horse, but her father will even present you with a sword. How cool is that?
And at the very least the sword would come in handy to fend off drunken guests when they tried to kill you.