Archive for the Cross-Cultural Issues Category

My Latest Himal Southasian Web exclusive

Posted in Cross-Cultural Issues on May 1, 2011 by theajnabee

Ridiculous/Sublime
Himal Southasian 29/04/2011
Amidst the British royal wedding frenzy, Sophia Furber looks into the rising trend in Western celebrity nuptials in India.

India has emerged as one of the most desirable locations for opulent ‘destination weddings’ among celebrities from Hollywood and elsewhere, a trend arising from a heady cocktail of their ideas about the country. The West, while regarding India as the cradle of Eastern spirituality and a place of escape from materialism through yoga and meditation, also gawks at lavish Indian wedding parties. The result is a strange mishmash of spirituality and spectacle.

In recent years, the glamour and conspicuous consumption of Indian marriages has captured the Western imagination and generated countless columns of coverage. Expensive weddings are hardly a new phenomenon in Southasia, but with economic liberalisation, multi-million-dollar Indian weddings are on the rise. ‘The socialist inhibitions of old have gone,’ comments sociologist Patricia Oberoi. ‘And there is encouragement from private interests, and by default from the government, to spend more.’

A case in point is the recent March wedding, dubbed India’s most expensive wedding ever, of Congress politician Kanwar Singh Tanwar’s son Lalit. The bash was the apogee of modern-day Indian consumerism; unofficial estimates put the cost at USD 22-50 million. The bride’s family reportedly gifted a helicopter to the groom, who wore a garland of banknotes during the wedding ceremony.

The media in the West is enamoured by India’s growing economic clout, especially since the country survived the recent global financial crisis in a shape better than most economies in Europe and North America. Even at times of the deepest financial gloom, India consistently provided the international media with colourful stories of consumption and runaway growth. Tales of outlandish weddings sit nicely against this backdrop.

Everything for sale
The honour of being the trendsetters for outlandish Western celebrity weddings in India can be bestowed upon Arun Nayar and Liz Hurley, the textiles heir and model, respectively. In 2007, they decided to follow their English-castle wedding with a Hindu one in the groom’s homeland. The ceremony took place at a maharajah’s palace outside Jodhpur. Hurley’s fabled cleavage was tastefully covered with a pink sari for the ceremony, and guests were required to pick an ‘ethnic’ outfit from a boutique set up especially for the purpose in a swanky Mumbai hotel. British tabloids and celebrity magazines had a field day covering the celebrations, reportedly one of the most expensive celebrity weddings of all time. The marriage itself, however, was short-lived. The couple recently separated amidst rumours that Hurley was having an affair with cricketer Shane Warne.

In December last year, American pop star Katy Perry married British comedian Russell Brand in a seven-day North Indian extravaganza. The festivities featured a procession of 21 horses, camels and elephants, and an after-party at which P Diddy, the American rap star, performed alongside Indian classical dancers. The couple later remarked – apparently, without a hint of irony – that it had been a ‘very private and spiritual ceremony’.

Now, the biggest Hollywood celeb couple of them all, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie (aka Brangelina) are rumoured to be talking of a traditional shaadi in India. The couple are said to have turned to 83-year-old Hindu mystic Gurudev Ramlaji Siyag to teach them yoga and meditation, in order to get through a rough patch in their relationship. Rumour has it that it is at this guru’s ashram in Rajasthan that the pair now plans to tie the knot, sometime in 2011. Few stories would be capable of uniting both financial journalists and celebrity hacks in a feeding frenzy, but this one has.

read the rest of the article on the Himal website

The Enigma of the South Asian ‘Miss Call’

Posted in Country life, Cross-Cultural Issues on January 8, 2011 by theajnabee

It’s amazing what people are doing with mobile phones in South Asia. And I’m not talking about mobile banking or anything as sophisticated as that – I mean the language of the miss call, a means of communication which requires you to spend absolutely no money on your phone whatsoever.

A miss call can be used in a variety of ways – as a pre-arranged signal between two people (i.e. I will miss call you when I’ve finished the work), to get one person to call you back when you don’t have any credit, or as a signal that you are thinking of someone. It can be used in a similar way to the ambiguous facebook ‘poke’. It can also be a means of flirting, especially in cultures where there is a high level of gender segregation, like in parts of Bihar and the Tarai. This type of flirtatious miss call is a close cousin of the prank call/wrong number wallah call, also the preserve of bored young men, but is subtly different (see this post). The former is cheeky and generally harmless, the latter can be genuinely menacing and uncomfortable.

This Bhojpuri song is a nice illustration of a certain type of miss call culture, although in real life I think that frustrated young men are doing a lot more of the miss call-ing than girls. Here, a shameless Bihari girl in leggings is miss call-ing a guy, who knows that when a woman calls and then hangs us, it Can Only Mean One Thing.

The key thing with miss calls is that they have agreed-upon meanings between two people or within a subculture. A problem arises when you’re from outside that subculture and don’t know what the signals mean.

In rural Nepal it seems to be correct phone etiquette to let it ring four or five times before picking up so that you can be sure whether it was a miss call call or one that you should actually answer. But how do you know the difference between a missed call that you are supposed to reply to and one that is just an I’m thinking of you call, or indeed that kind of miss call?  I mean, you wouldn’t want to ignore someone that was actually trying to get hold of you, but you also wouldn’t want to give out the wrong signal to that sleazy guy you once met in an internet cafe in Biratnagar who claims to have his own conflict resolution NGO and keeps calling and hanging up (‘wow! she must be easy- she called me right back!’).

The missed call phenomenon is so widespread in the developing world that there have been numerous academic and commercial studies on it – see this article for one example. There is also a plethora of regional songs about missed calling – like this gem from Punjab. What a naughty kudi

Why does my house feel like a train station?

Posted in Country life, Cross-Cultural Issues on October 8, 2010 by theajnabee

To say that Nepalis have a different understanding of the concept of ‘personal space’ from the English is a huge understatement, certainly if today was anything to go by. If an Englishman’s home is his castle, I was under siege today. An assortment of (mostly uninvited) people has been popping in and out of my flat since early this morning. First, I opened my bedroom door to find a child from down the road standing in the hallway demanding chocolate. Thinking that I was alone in the house, he scared the living crap out of me, but did introduce himself very politely once I had recovered my composure. Throughout the morning a we had a procession of members of the landlords’ family from downstairs coming up and down the stairs and hallway with ritual objects for a puja on the roof for the first day of Dashain (To be fair, the only way that the family downstairs can get to the roof is by going through our flat). When their kids got bored of the puja the came and played in our hallway and had a good old laugh at the strange foreigners working on their laptops in the living room/office.

The security guard likes to wander in and out too. Actually ‘wander’ is the wrong way to put it; he likes to make an entrance by saluting, stamping his foot and wearing such a serious facial expression that you expect him to deliver some line like ‘the Queen, my lord, is dead’ rather than ‘your new gas cylinder just arrived.’ The guard is like a kid who has been cast in the as a messenger in a school play and wants to make up for being given a meager role by saying his lines with as much gravitas and volume as he can muster. He frequently scares the living crap out of me too and is just one of many reasons why wandering around in my pyjamas is out of the question here.

Nepaliketi seems to be a bit bemused by Nepali attitudes to private/public too:

In Nepal the public is public and the private too is public….Texting my mom in the micro I can feel the heavy breathing of a random man as he pores over what I am writing. Trying on shirts in a store the clerk feels the need to comment on the texture of my hair and even recommend possible remedies. Paying the bill at Saleways and the guy behind me is also counting how much cash I have left in my wallet. Threading my eyebrows and the beautician forces me to play 20-questions – about my life, love, trials and tribulations.

In the early evening, thinking I was alone (which you’d think I’d have guessed by now is never a wise assumption) I was starting to write this blog post when a little voice whispered in my ear ‘please give me chocolate’, and this time I didn’t nearly have a heart attack when I found the kid from down the road standing right behind me. I’ve gradually come to accept that ideas of personal space are just different, and that there is no point fighting a losing battle against the surprise visitors in the house during my remaining months in the Tarai. It would be nice if some of them could use the doorbell, but ke garne…?

The Wrong-Number Wallahs

Posted in Cross-Cultural Issues on September 25, 2010 by theajnabee

As one of my friends (another foreigner) remarked the other day, one way that you know that you’re becoming a ‘local’ in Nepal is when you start getting prank calls and repeated wrong-number callers on your cell phone.

It happens like this. Wrong-number wallah calls up and barks ‘hello? Hello? where are you?’. Not ‘who is this’? or ‘how are you’? They just want to know your whereabouts. No matter how hard you try to convince them that it’s a galat number and and that it’s none of their business where you are anyway, they still call you back a couple of times just to be on the safe side.

By this point you will have tried to communicate with them in Nepali, and will probably have caused so much hilarity that will they will feel compelled to tell their friends to call you up from another number just to laugh at you.

Wrong number callers are very specific about when they call you. They prefer to wait until you are drifting off to sleep, have settled down with a good book or are in a meeting and have forgotten to put your phone on silent.

There isn’t really all that much you can do about it, although a helpful step is making sure that your business card never, ever falls into the hands of any male who is under the age of 25, drives a motorbike and looks like they might watch too many Bhojpuri movies.

Compare and Contrast: When White People Adopt ‘Asian’ Mannerisms

Posted in Clothes, Cross-Cultural Issues on August 24, 2010 by theajnabee

I have two video clips for you today, readers, both of which involve white women adopting ‘Asian’ mannerisms. One is a skit from Goodness Gracious Me, the other is a product of a rather disturbing Japanese internet craze. I will explain:

Firstly here is the skit about the ‘white wife’ from Goodness Gracious Me. I’ve blogged about this before but this is just so damn hilarious that it merits a second appearance on The Ajnabee. A desi guy marries a white woman who then pretends to be a more-Asian-than-Asian Punjabi housewife in an attempt to fit in. (If I ever, EVER become this person, I will give out my address and you can come over and beat me with long sticks).

The second clip is of a 14 year old girl from the Isle of Man who styles herself as ‘Beckii Cruel’. She has become a superstar in Japan after posting clips of herself on Youtube dressed up like an anime character, dancing to Japanese pop songs. Beckii Cruel (real name Rebecca Flint) takes on manga-like mannerisms and speech patterns, and apparently drives Japanese men wild with her combination of long limbs, oval face and large eyes. To a British person she looks like just another fresh-faced teenager, but is thought to be popular in Japan because her features resemble those of a manga character. The mixture of infantile mannerisms and precocious sexuality is more than a little disturbing.

According to this article in the Daily Mail Beckii’s parents are proud that their daughter has made it big in Japan. I’d be more worried about kind of men out there who might be watching those videos if I were them.

So here we have a white woman who fetishes Southasian culture, and a white teen who has, by way of taking on Japanese anime mannerisms, become fetishized.

And the point of this post? Well, I’m not sure really. Just that weird things happen when white people (actually: read white females) adopt the dress and mannerisms of another culture so wholeheartedly.

Watching from Kathmandu as England got thrashed

Posted in Cross-Cultural Issues on June 29, 2010 by theajnabee

I watched England’s embarrassing World Cup defeat on Sunday with a group of Nepalis plus two Indians in Kathmandu. All bar two of our group were supporting Germany, and a certain fickle person switched sides at half time.

English girl mourns embarrassing defeat

There was some inevitable post colonial/WWII rhetoric (‘Why are you supporting Germany? You lived in my country for a year’ I asked one of friends. ‘Because your country colonized my country for 200 years’. etc) but there was more than enough raksi and good humour to go around over in Sanepa.

Not to be outdone in terms of annoying background noise, Nepal has come up with its own answer to the vuvuzela: the Nepazela. This is a cone made of rolled-up magazine paper with a reed at one end. The Nepazela makes a satisfying honking noise that, combined with raksi-fuelled celebrating, is guaranteed to keep your neighbours awake long into the night.

das ist ein 'Nepazela'

That is if a wedding procession isn’t already keeping them awake. Yes readers, it’s marriage season once more, that joyous time of year when, every time you feel yourself drifting off to sleep, a brass band around the corner starts parping out Bollywood wedding songs. Well, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em I say.

I now need to pick another team to support in the World Cup. Any suggestions?

You Go, Girl!

Posted in Country life, Cross-Cultural Issues on June 11, 2010 by theajnabee

One aspect of Nepali/Southasian culture that I find unsettling is the unequal treatment that many parents give to sons and daughters. To generalize: little boys have attention and funds lavished on them, little girls are expected to keep quiet and help mum with the washing up.

When I was 18 I spent 4 months living with an Indian family in Tamil Nadu. I was often woken up first thing in the morning by the dulcet tones of their small son, Mughil, screaming his head off about something, and being comforted by his mother. Also the brisk thwack of a chappal on the head of Sudar, their daughter, followed by a little murmur of protest. Or sometimes nothing at all. Sudar was smart, affectionate and well behaved, but her parents often lost their tempers with her. Mughil, although lovable in his own way, was a little shit most of the time. I say this from bitter experience because he once tried to throw my passport into the septic tank behind the house two days before I was due to go home to England. His wickedly glinting eyes seemed to say if I do this, you will have to stay in Chenglepattu for ever and ever and EVER. ‘Small boys are like this,’ said his mother, looking on indulgently, as her son brandished that all-important burgundy-red booklet above his head. Maybe she also wanted me to stay in Chenglepattu for ever and ever and ever.

Navaneeta Dev Sen’s essay ‘The Essential Orphan: the Girl Child’ in the recent anthology In Search of Sita:Revisiting Mythology, suggests that a traditional patriarchal family set-up makes orphans of all girl children because their parents know that she is destined to be married into another family and that her loyalty will lie with them (see earlier blog post here). However, when she becomes a daughter in law, her new family will never quite get over thinking of her as an outsider.

I know that there are plenty of Indian/Nepali families who would never treat a girl child like this, but in general let’s just say that life can be pretty grim for daughters in these parts.

This is why, whenever I see little Nepali girls being naughty or acting up, I smile a little bit inwardly. And sometimes outwardly too.

'I'm about to do something VERY naughty'

'Want to interview my Mummy, videshi? Well, we are gonna sing REALLY loudly in your ear while you try!'

Yes, you go for it sano naniharu of Nepal!