Date archives "February 2009"

India: Keeping it in the family

There’s a nice saying in English which is: every day is a school day. It means that you learn something new each day.

This is exceptionally true when you are immersed in to a foreign culture.

However, today was a school, college and university day.

I was talking to a work colleague, as you do, and he happened to mention that a girl was betrothed (promised) to another man. This girl is about 22 so nothing wrong there (if you discount the fact that she may have had little say in the decision). My school day came when he went on to tell me that the man she had been promised to was her Uncle.

Not a close family friend that is called ‘Uncle’, but a real blood relative uncle. To be specific, her mother’s brother.

Naturally I thought this was a total wind up as India, particularly South India is such a conservative society with strict morals and ethics. Surely ‘keeping it in the family’ would be against every law and religious custom.

To my horror, I found out that this is real and happens often. Wikipedia describes it in more detail for those of you that want to go there. It’s perfectly accepted in the more rural parts of the country for the daughter to marry the mother’s brother.

Furthermore, when I brought up the subject with others, the general attitude was “yeah, what’s wrong with that?”.

It turns out, my maid, is also married to her uncle – her mother’s younger brother. She leads such an unhappy life because she refuses to ‘live’ with her husband. ‘Live’ was the choice of words used by my friend to explain that although she lived in the same house as her husband, she refused to consummate the marriage, much to the displeasure of her husband and the rest of the family.

Guest Blogging: The Lazy Man’s Solution

Guest blogging is for lazy people who want to invite others to contribute to their blog. People get invited because they may have interesting things to say, be an authority voice on a particular subject or maybe it’s just a friendship and you think it’s cool to have others write on your otherwise very personal website.

To be asked to guest blog on someone elses site is a huge honour and should be approached with sincerity and maturity. Hmm. Just kidding. Being asked to guest blog is a pain in the ass as you try and come up with some witty content to prove how wonderful you are.

So, where is all of this leading? To a guest blog of course. I invited my friend Fay to say a few things on my blog and to show other people that there is more than one Brit living here in Chennai!

Now, without furtther ado, may I present your blogger for the day, Miss Fay Kaufhold

When Pete asked me to write a guest blog, “about India – your view and opinion of it,” I’ve gotta say I balked. I started my own blog a few months back thinking that I’d be able to explore my views and opinions on India and life in general, but had such a hard time formulating my endless thoughts and opinions into words, that I’d only managed to rant at the peripheries.

“It’s easy” said Pete, “what you are doing here, why you came, what you think of it, what you miss.” I changed the subject back to his rather unpleasant mustache. Yes, Pete had a mustache – briefly. Ask him to show you the horrifying pictures!

So one of the first things I noticed in India was that about 60% of the male population has a mustache. A mustache seems to be a badge of masculinity. In Britain, mustaches belong to the Army-Major type, or to people whose self-image is stuck in their 70s youth, like my Dad. Any female Britisher knows that mustaches are Highly Unattractive. I take it as an indication of how Chennai has seeped into my skin, or dare I say, my bones, the fact that I now think men with mustaches can be attractive. Can.

Roight (as we say in Suffolk, for I am from Saarffuk, in the UK), what am I doing in Chennai? Well, as an actress from the last century, Ethel Barrymore, once said: “You must learn day by day, year by year, to broaden your horizon. The more things you love, the more you are interested in, the more you enjoy, the more you are indignant about, the more you have left when anything happens.”

I really value learning things, about life, humanity, whatever, and I’ve found that the occasions when I have learnt the most are when I have taken an opportunity that seems pretty daunting.

So I was presented with the pretty daunting opportunity of moving to Chennai and beginning my working life in the education/IT sector after completing a rather dreary maths degree, and I took it up. I have now worked for HeyMath, creating interactive Primary-level maths lessons among other things, for 17 months. And in that time I haven’t set foot back in the UK, or even off Indian soil.

I really love it here. I find it very fulfilling to live in a country full of people who often have different values to those I was exposed to growing up. You only have to read Indian papers for a week to realise that the golden BBC impartiality is absolute rubbish. The views and opinions expressed by the BBC and other UK media are very very British and really do not reflect some common value held by all humanity, as they like to think.

I arrived in Chennai not long after returning to the UK from Havana, where I’d spent 6 weeks soaking up some wonderful Latin-American socialism, enjoying Cuban culture and attempting to learn Spanish. I sat on the plane to Chennai wondering what on Earth I was doing going to socially-conservative Chennai.

I spent my first few hours in Chennai slightly over-whelmed by the noise, smells and my inability to cross the road.

I spent my first few weeks wondering how I was meant to cope without being able to meet my friends down the pub in the evenings.

I spent my first few months craving cheese and other things that I cannot even recall now.

But I loved every second! Or at least the majority of seconds.

There are plenty more things I could say about my experience of life in Chennai, but I’ll finish here with something about friendships. I think the good stuff of life is getting to know people, without that, I’d be very bored and unhappy.

In India, I have found getting to know people to be in some ways very easy and very hard. Very easy because people are generally very friendly and open to other people. Very hard because life is so very family-centric and regular social time with friends outside of the context of family is not really the done thing, or rather, it is for some, but not all. Also, people make prejudiced assumptions about you based on the fact that you are a Western woman. This may make people more likely to seek out, or shy away from, friendship with you. It has taken a while for me to adapt to how friendships are formed here and how I can progress them. It’s been a challenge, but a very worthwhile, wonderful one.


I love Chennai! My home.

You can follow Fay’s blog here, it’s 10 million times more intellectual than mine, and you might even learn a thing or two about the politics of Chennai (rather than how bad the tuk tuk drivers are that I so frequently focus my wrath upon).

And I never had a mustache.

How to spot an Indian

I came across this list on my travels around the internet. Is it true? Speak to your Indian friends 🙂


We Indians are easy to identify!

We are like this only So true, lets start the list

1. Everything you eat is savored in garlic, onion and tomatoes.

2. You try and reuse gift wrappers, gift boxes, and of course aluminum foil.

3. You are Always standing next to the two largest size suitcases at the Airport.

4. You arrive one or two hours late to a party – and think it’s normal.

5. You peel the stamps off letters that the Postal Service missed to stamp.

6. You recycle Wedding Gifts , Birthday Gifts and Anniversary Gifts.

7. You name your children in rhythms (example, Sita & Gita, Ram & Shyam, Kamini & Shamini.)

8. All your children have pet names, which sound nowhere close to their real names.

9. You take Indian snacks anywhere it says “No Food Allowed”

10. You talk for an hour at the front door when leaving someone’s house.

11. You load up the family car with as many people as possible.

12. You use plastic to cover anything new in your house whether it’s the remote control, VCR, carpet or new couch.

13. Your parents tell you not to care what your friends think, but they won’t let you do certain things because of what the other “Uncles and Aunties” will think.

14. You buy and display crockery, which is never used, as it is for special occasions, which never happen!!

15. You have a vinyl tablecloth on your kitchen table.

16. You use grocery bags to hold garbage.

17. You keep leftover food in your fridge in as many numbers of bowls as possible.

18. Your kitchen shelf is full of jars, varieties of bowls and plastic utensils (may of which you got free with purchase of other stuff)

19. You carry a stash of your own food whenever you travel (and travel means any car ride longer than 15 minutes).

20. You own a rice cooker and a pressure cooker.

21. You fight over who pays the dinner bill.

22. You live with your parents and you are 40 years old.

23. You don’t use measuring cups when cooking.

24. You never learnt how to stand in a queue.

25. You can only travel if there are 5 persons at least to see you off or receive you whether you are traveling by bus, train or plane.

26. You only make long distance calls after 11 p.m.

27. If you don’t live at home, when your parents call, they ask if you’ve eaten, even if it’s midnight.

28. You call an older person you never met before Uncle or Aunty.

29. When your parents meet strangers and talk for a few minutes, you suddenly discover you’re talking to a distant cousin.

30. Your parents don’t realize phone connections to foreign countries have improved in the last two decades, and still scream at the top of their lungs when making foreign calls.

31. You have bed sheets on your sofas so as to keep them from getting dirty.

32. It’s embarrassing if your wedding has less than 700 people.

33. All your Tupperware is stained with food color.

34. You have drinking glasses made of steel.

35. You have mastered the art of bargaining in shopping.

36. You have really enjoyed reading this mail, and want to forward it to as many Indians as possible!

No Kissing Please… We’re British!

I love being an expat, I love working in a different country, and most importantly I love being in a place where you don’t have to wonder what the weather will be like – it’s always shorts and t-shirt weather. It’s always lovely and hot. Give me blazing sun over winter blues anyday.

I’d say 95% of the time I love being in India. The other 5% of the time I’m trying to bargain with theives Auto drivers.

One of the best things about being an expat is the sheer variety of people you get to meet, from all over the world. I have my little clique, as everyone does, and yes, it’s full of Brits with the occasional American to mix things up. (I’m sure my Scottish friend will take exception to being called a Brit though!).

Today, for example, I was playing football at the American International School (the private, $20,000 / year school for foreign kids) and there must have been at least 10 different nationalities. We even had a guy from Burma! Burma I tell you! I didn’t think they were allowed out of their country.

So all this schmoozing and hobnobbing with foreigners (I’m British, we’re not foreign, regardless of which country we’re in; they all speak our language [tongue is in cheek here and not meant to be taken seriously!]) brings up a problematic dilemma.

That of the social kiss.

To a Brit, personal space is everything, an acceptable form of greeting is to extend your right hand and have a firm handshake. Applies to guys and girls. If you are very close to the person (and they are of the opposite sex!) a light hug may be acceptable, if it’s initiated by the girl (note to guys; don’t initiate the hug, let it come to you. Could cause all kinds of problems otherwise).

So, I now have to navigate this social kissing minefield with foreigners from all over the world (and we are talking just the females here, don’t get any funny ideas). Honestly, for the poor British, who are perfectly happy with the formal handshake, social kissing is enough to give you cold sweats and shivers down your back.

I mean, do you go right cheek then left cheek? Or the other way round? Do you making a kissing noise? Do you just plant one kiss? Do you kiss the air or the cheek? Should you initiate the embrace? What if she leans in and you don’t realise and leave her hanging? Some people do three kisses, how are you to know? What if you accidently kiss on the lips?

Gah. This kissing problem is something you don’t consider when you move abroad. Consider yourself told, if you are thinking of moving abroad and not confident with your social kissing, you could be outcast and ostracized from the expat community. “Did you hear about Jeff? Monique went to greet him and he actually kissed her!”

And to Anita, if you are reading this, I’m really sorry! We don’t understand social kissing!

Slumdog Millionaire…Review

Well, this is not exactly a review, more my thoughts on the movie which I saw the other day. Crammed around a little laptop.

In the west, the movie seems to have had an overwhelming response. Loads of awards, nominated for oscars…all sorts. In India, the reception has been, umm, a little different and possibly less than positive.

About the movie, it’s a good film, well made. It’s not a hollywood meets bollywood film. It’s a hollywood (or is it British) film set in India. The production value is western and the editing is western.

In some places the film is completely unrealistic. For example at one point the two kids are on a train and they get knocked off…rather conveniently just outside the Taj Mahal. A western film in India without showing the Taj Mahal is like a scene in Paris without the Eiffel Tower or a scene in New York without the statue of liberty.

So anyway, yeah, the Taj Mahal makes a guest appearance.

The next unrealistic part is the little kid, who skipped school and never made any indication before that he could speak English, suddenly develops a well spoken middle class English accent.

The film is a bit gruesome in places, just like much of Danny Boyles’ work. Who can forget the baby scene in Trainspotting or the thumbs in the eye sockets in 28 Days Later.

In India, the film has been criticised because it shows ‘poor people’ – and if you hadn’t heard already, there are no poor people in India – especially if you are from the wealthy or upper middle classes! You can drive around all day and not see any poor people 😉 (I could write at length on this topic!)

There is a little dance at the end of the film which is a nod to bollywood, but let’s be fair, the dance scene isn’t a tiny little patch on any bollywood film.

Overall, the movie gets about 7/10.