Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Marriage and the Indian Diaspora

Rimi had a very interesting comment on my last post, wondering why Indian-American men gravitate towards desi women, despite having been brought up outside India. Fascinating question, and I've definitely pondered over it quite a bit, but as you shall see, I'm hardly the person to provide any valuable insights on the matter. Why is it so? Well, let's see.......flashback to the time when I was 13 years old (a long, long time ago).

We receive a letter (pre-telephone days for our household, the arrival of the postman was eagerly anticipated). The letter is from my mother's aunt, annoucing that her son who was in the US pursuing a PhD is engaged to be married. This is how the conversation between me and my mom went:

Me: So who is he marrying? What does she do?

Mom: She grew up in D...(Mom's hometown). She's studying for a Masters in Math.

Me: What? He's not marrying an American?

Mom: What do you mean? Why would he marry an American woman?

Me: He lives in America. Why should he marry a Bengali woman?

Mom (gives me a hard weirded-out look): We don't do those things. We marry our own kind, and he's a very good boy who let his parents choose his spouse.

Me: Oh no! Don't tell me he's having an arranged marriage!

Don't ask me why, but I always assumed that my uncle, studying in the US, was statistically far more likely to date an American (and I excluded Indian-American from the list) woman. It was a bit of a shock that not only did he not date an American woman, but he actually came over to India on vacation and got engaged to a girl shortlisted by his parents. I had a hard time understanding why an Indian immigrant man might want to seek out his own kind, facilitated by his parents; the fact that Indian-Americans might want to seek Indians and Indian-Americans for the purposes of marriage was beyond my comprehension.

But then, over the years, I've come around to understand to an extent why cultural affinity is uppermost in the minds of a majority of people when they think of marriage. I personally cannot relate to it, I've never, ever pondered over the question of cultural affinity in picking out dates. But cross-cultural relationships require a lot going for them, not the least being the willingness of the persons involved to look beyond differences and focus on similarities.

That's easier said than done, and depends to a great extent on the value systems of the persons involved. An acquaintance of mine, an Indian woman, was dating a Turkish man for 5 years before they broke off their relationship. The reason? Disagreement over the religion their yet unborn children would follow! Religion is a huge bogeyman for many, and many in the Indian diaspora are brought up by conservative parents who incessantly drill it in them to "keep their faith".

In fact, religion is a big deal for many diasporic communities, not simply because the norms of a previous generation get fossilized, but also because religion becomes a focal point for the community to bond over. Many Greek-Americans actively seek out followers of the Greek Orthodox faith, so this is not just confined to the Indian community.

And then of course, there is the amorphous, hard to define concept of "shared culture", which could mean anything from childhoods spent preparing for Spelling Bee Contests, to keeping track of Shah Rukh Khan's hairstyles over the years. This of course would only apply to Indian-Americans seeking other Indian-Americans, and indeed that's exactly what an overwhelming majority are looking for, if Shaadi.com profiles are to be believed (yes, I have many stellar uses of my time, including trolling Shaadi.com for the priceless amusing profiles).

In fact, the relationship between an Indian-American and an Indian who grew up in India would have cross-cultural dynamics, and there are many Indian-Americans who are loathe to take that on, besides of course unwilling to become visa and green card mules. But there are some Indian-Americans who would actively seek out spouses from the old country, and perhaps these persons were the focus of Rimi's comment (Rimi, please clarify).

Now I personally know only one Indian-American woman who got married to an Indian man who was raised in India. As far as I could tell, primarily it seemed that she held the notion that someone raised in India would have a stronger commitment to what are perceived as "Indian values": loyalty to the girlfriend, commitment to a long term relationship (and the institution of marriage), and specifically the idea that dating would eventually lead to marriage. In fact, she made him commit to a wedding in the future even before she went on their first date!

Now gender reverse all of these things for an Indian-American man seeking a desi woman raised in India. Of course I'm not implying that's the only reason why an Indian-American man might date an Indian woman, he might be just attracted to her, period. However, if an Indian-American man insists on only going out with women raised in India (usually for the express purposes of marriage), probably he has a few of these ideas in his mind.

He may have grown up with the exotized ideal of a submissive,homebound desi woman, projecting perhaps the qualities his mother possesses on contemporary Indian women. Again, this is not merely confined to the Indian-American man, a lot of Caucasian men have similar fantasies about "docile, meek" Asian women. He may have a very romantic and regressive notion of an ideal family, and feel that a woman raised with "old world values" is best suited to raise such a family. He may be disillusioned with Indian-American women for some reason (real or imagined) and seek out an alternative in the form of Indian women. And finally, I think there is the very real concern about the compatability between his future wife and his parents, and he might feel that a woman raised in India would be the best fit with his family.

All this pop analysis isn't backed with a shred of data, but is mostly gleaned from conversations, lives of acquaintances, debates and articles about the subject over the years. Now that I re-read the post, it seems to give the impression that cross-cultural marriages are very rare in the Indian diaspora. Far from it, I've seen several cross-cultural relationships and marriages involving one Indian or Indian-American partner and someone from another culture. It's really cute when the kids from such relationships are brought to community celebrations, heartening to see how effortlessly they seem to straddle two cultures and glean the best from them.

Ultimately it all depends on whether you focus on the commonalities that transcend differences, or choose to opt for what is ostensibly familiar. I try to be objective, but I will say that there's something magical when a girl from the Midwest and a boy from Bangalore are brought together over their shared love of rock music. Or a girl from Pakistan bowls over a US Marine, and a he dances the bhangra on their wedding. Or an Indian man, married for over 30 years to an American woman celebrating their son's graduation.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Red, White, Blue and Gold

Let me not waste space trying to line up the 653 different reasons why I didn't update for weeks. There really aren't 653 reasons, that random number is courtesy my friend Em, his random numbers are never rounded off. One of those reasons was being chatted up at professional seminar by an Indian-American man (I know too many people who hate ABCD, so I refrain from using it). All because he caught me peering into his name-tag in the line for appetizers (yay! free food).

What piqued my curiosity was the fact that he had a Bengali last name, and my odds of running into a fellow Indian, let alone a fellow Bengali at these professional dos are hopeless. So yes, I peered a bit too intently. And soon enough, he walks up to me and introduces himself. I find out that he's not Bengali, but yes, his parents did migrate from India. And then he starts asking me questions, when did I come to this country, what do I do, when am I graduating, what jobs am I looking for. And then finally, most peculiarly "So, are you a citizen?"

Huh??? I'd consider it a bit presumptious to ask a stranger you've met 10 minutes ago what's on their passport. But my brain, trained from years of FOB-ABCD discussions, suddenly hit epiphany. Oh lord, he's hitting on me! And not only that, he wants to make sure I'm not a citizenship-whore by asking what passport I have! "I'm an Indian citizen", I said pointedly. He seemed slightly disappointed. By this time I was plotting my escape. "Mmm....I need to go get some ice tea". Conveniently, my glass had just become empty, and I started darting towards the drinks line. But he had recovered sufficiently by then to hand me his card and make me promise that I'd look him up when I visit his city.

Dude may be tactless, but he's certainly loaded, the VP of a huge bank that has branches all over the US. Unfortunately, I was born without an ounce of gold-digging instinct, so I get to go snuggle up to my boyfriend and earn my own dough. But somewhere there's a paranoid Mr. Moneybags looking for a desi woman who wouldn't screw him (literally and literally again) for his passport. If you're as fed up of grad school and being poor as I am, and believe that the bourgeois should share their wealth with the proletariat (meaning fund their shopping sprees at the Beverly Center), then send me an email and I shall provide contact info.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

India's Past Through the Lens of Ebay

Contemplating on the Banaras bomb blasts, reading the posts for Blank Noise, and fretting over my own dissertation had made me very morose. It was hard for me to concentrate on my own work, so I did what I do best under such circumstances - troll the internet. Specifically, I tried to lift my spirits with retail therapy (yes, I'm that shallow) and ended up browsing through the mother of all retail therapy websites: Ebay.

Now Ebay's great for a bunch of things, but what it is excellent for is vintage stuff. All of American seems to be unloading its old junk on Ebay, and the most amazing bargains on coveted stuff from yesteryears can be found. I'm especially fond of silk sheath and pleated, flared dresses from the 1960s, the sort my mom used to wear before giving them up when she got married, that are still stylistic inspiration for many women through images of Jackie O and Twiggy. So as I was looking for the dresses, I came upon one in particular that was made in India. Curious about what else of vintage India might be out there, I searched for Indian vintage stuff and found a curiously eclectic bunch of things.

For starters, here's a boarding card for Air-India from the 1960s which has the most adorable illustrations, which have unfortunately disappeared from Air India ads recently. The illustrations are very similar to the legendary Amul ads, so they may have been done by the same agency.

Also I saw at least three examples of souvenir pillow covers and tablecloths with the exact same image: a map of India with the Taj Mahal ensconced within it. And guess what? In each case, the map of India is a pre-Independence map, with the landmasses of Pakistan and Bangladesh included. Also included is Ceylon (Sri Lanka), which was part of British territories at the time. Here's one of them.

This is absolutely amazing. It is being sold as a textile label from the 1920s, but it appears to bear the images of three of the most prominent political figures in pre-Independence India. I can recognize Sarojini Naidu, Kasturba Gandhi and Kamala Nehru. The fourth figure is a bit of a mystery. How interesting that they used to put images of political personalities on textile labels!!

Speaking of which, this seller, who incidentally is based in India, has a bunch of other textile labels from the 1920s. Very cool images, do check them out.
The name of the textile mill? Kaloomal Shorimal. Jeez, why did Indians of that era have such godawful names! I've heard Gaindamal, Kirorimal, Vilayatiram.....

And then someone is selling scans from a tourist guidebook on India. The images appear to be from the 1940s or 1950s. There's a gorgeous view of Malabar Hills, Bombay, and now the nostalgia of a Greek sailor I met for 1960s Bombay becomes amply clear. Wow, the place was so pretty!

And another one which is actually a postcard sent by someone based in India to the US. The card was sent in 1951, so obviously the image is even older. Also check the Indian stamps affixed to the postcard. The image is of Khiddirpur in Calcutta, and I would love to have folks reflect on how it compares to current Calcutta.

There's tons of such images, textiles, craft and memoribilia that is either locked up in Western and Indian museums or languishing in private homes in India. I remember visiting the National Archives in Delhi for a project on photographs of Indian women from 19th century and eary 20th century. The staff at the Archives were absolute sweethearts, they just asked me to go sift through the piles and piles of photo albums they had and pick what I liked to be reproduced.

The collection had some stunning gems, like a mid-19th century album of Kachin tribal women in Burma taken by a British army officer. Also potraits of the Nepalese royal family from late 19th century. And a very, very young, very delicate Indira Gandhi, years away from morphing into the fire-spewing satrap she eventually became. There were nearly a hundred albums of photos taken during Nehru's Prime Ministership, following the Prime Minister on his travels around the country,including on crucial album of his first ever visit to Kashmir after Independence in 1948.

So basically what I'm getting at is, please do take the time to appreciate family memoribilia when you can. Old pictures, old textiles, handicrafts. In some cases, simply because they don't really make them like they used to. So if you have a Jamawar shawl lying around the house that your granny carelessly tosses into the musty trunk, hold on to it for dear life, for the art of Jamawar has declined drastically. Ditto for old Lucknawi chikan, a delicate craft that bears no resemblance to the atrocious mass market stuff sold in its name. Sometimes, the Indian past feels like another place altogether, a place long vanished, so take good care of its souvenirs.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Blank Noise Project

I have terrible posture. That's what I discover in every exercise-dance class that I attend. Movements that should look graceful with the right posture look awkward, my shoulders droop. Did I never learn to walk with my head high in air, shoulders thrown back, breasts thrust up and with the confidence of being secure in the space around me? Actually, in my first gawky teenage moments, horrified by the first signs of a sexual persona in the form of growing breasts, I closed in my body to obliterate this shame of mine. And thus I walked home from school, fearful that my transition to womanhood would attract more of the sort of groping and pinching that had sporadically occured even when I was a child.

Yes, even at age 7. By a man who had kindly offered to seat me, the little kid, in his lap in a crowded bus. And then proceeded to grope me under my dress. I was puzzled, terrified, and never mentioned one word to my beloved uncle who had seated me on the monster's lap to save me from being choked by the crowded bus. In later years, I had the relative security of a school bus full of fellow students for most of my commutes, but the rare bus ride would be full of dread and anxiety, and as I grew up, I created a mental force field around myself, and became preternaturally aware of any clammy hand that tried to violate my physical space.

However, unsavoury incidents occured frequently. I told a male friend that I had been harassed twice by bastards who had been trying to press their obviously erect organs agains my shoulder as I sat in a bus. He was incredulous, he couldn't believe that there could be such lewd public behaviour in a country that can't seem to shut up about morality. A few weeks later, he called me, shocked, and told me that he had indeed seen a man on the bus he travelled in, with a very public erection, trying to thrust it against an unsuspecting seated woman. I wore, loose, ill-fitting clothing in the hope that it would make the harassers forget about my gender. Regardless, men even when they couldn't touch my skin, would try and tug at my clothes.

A friend of mine got her breasts groped in a crowded bus while her father was next to her. For months, she walked around morose, afraid of the dreadful incident being mentioned in her presence. Another friend had a man ambush her from behind and brush his lips against her cheek. She felt so violated that she burned the skin on that spot with a hot spoon. Sometimes, mentally I pummell and beat the crap out of every man who had ever sexually harassed me, and I had not retaliated then, because I was too afraid, too embarassed, too concerned with propriety. Yet, the one time I did complain to a police officer standing nearby that I was being harasssed, I stopped the officer from thrashing the guy and insisted that we take the man to a police station for due procedure to be followed. You see, I don't really believe in vendetta, I believe the effective implementation of existing laws is the best deterrent against harassment of women.

At times, Suze and I talk about our experiences growing up, and wonder why we aren't all cynical and jaded and hateful of Indian men. The fact is that for every asshole who's sexually harassed us, we've found countless other men who've been strong, supportive, and empathetic. Some of them have horror stories of their own, of being sexually harassed by other men, stories that meet with far more incredulous responses than women's sexual harassment accounts. A friend had to endure sexual predators who were his male teachers at a religious seminary he attended, till he couldn't fend them off any more and ran away.

Of course, we are the world champions of sexual hypocrisy. Suze called me one day, fuming, saying she had read about a 5 year old child getting raped by her grandfather in India, and legislators yak on endlessly about how Western influence is finishing off our civilization. We hear non-stop sermonizing over the relationship between revealing attire and harassment, and yet, in all my months of working in poor settlements, I heard conservatively dressed women, the sari draped over their heads, frequently express fear of harassment in public spaces. We are obsessed with keeping appearances, and denial of uncomfortable truths.

Though I think the worst problem is not denial that sexual harassment takes place at all, but to not think of it as a serious issue that restricts a woman's ability to make use of public spaces and amenities and live a life equal to a man. Years ago, the journal that I was the editorial assistant for had carried a superb piece by the Pakistani journalist Imran Aslam, where he had detailed his traumatic experiences of taking a bus in Karachi covered up in a burqa which hid the fact that he was in fact male. He was stunned at the level of harassment he had to endure, given the fact that not a single curve was to be discerned within the shapeless burqa. Perhaps that is indeed the solution, to make all the academicians, politicians, religious leaders, saviours of society at large to don a burqa and travel in a public bus all day. Then we can get them to shut up about how revealing clothing provokes harassment and take proactive measures to address harassment of women.

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Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Dubai Ports World Saga

I should have been rubbing my hands in glee, basking in smug, self-satisfaction to see my obscure, niche, academic field get its moment under the sun. I cannot turn in any direction without a constituent of the American and international media pontificating over the takeover of P&O by Dubai Ports World. I've loved and studied ports for the last four years now, and back when I started there were but a handful of academic port experts in the country, one of the finest being one of my own mentors. That was rapidly changing even then, as the September 11 events saw a great sense of urgency around port security. I have little to no academic interest in port security matters, but that's where the money was being poured in, and the greatest buzz of activity.

However, even though congestion and environmental pollution concerns in the Los Angeles region garnered the two local ports regular headlines in the local papers, ports had not yet become a matter of tremendous national interest. Animated discussions over the maritime industry was the substance of academic conferences, and mention of a dissertation on ports did not invite too many other questions. For the past two months or so I had been following the bidding war between the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) and Dubai Ports World (DPW) over P&O, one of those venerable British companies that are almost institutions, with great interest. The matter was being reported in the pages of finance publications and tucked away in the business pages. Till on February 10, PSA decided to bow out of the race, and DPW was all set to acquire P&O.

At that point, something curious happened. Within the next few days, rumblings of controversy started brewing in Washington with some Senators expressing strong reservations over the takeover of P&O by DPW, as P&O had leases to operate terminals at six US ports. Well, actually, that is not how it appeared in the media, as newspaper after newspaper proclaimed around February 16 that six US ports were being sold to the Dubai based company, which of course is not the same thing as a terminal lease. The argument advanced was that this would compromise security at the ports, as Dubai banks had been a conduit for al-Qaeda money and the UAE government had recognized the Taliban regime.

Now, just like all other industry experts and professionals, I see no problems with the deal. What is very amusing to me, and a bit disconcerting is the near-hysterical coverage of the issue, and lack of rigorous and accurate information on the matter in the media. The number of self-proclaimed port and port-security experts have multiplied several fold overnight, and it seems that everyone and their grandma have an opinion on the matter which they are eager to dump on newspaper opinion pages. There are honourable exceptions, of course, and industry standard business publications such as Forbes, International Herald Tribune and the excellent Journal of Commerce (alas, subscription only) have managed to bring us consistently good coverage of the matter.

The issue has very quickly degenerated into a slanging match which has curiously turned the direction of all the verbal polemics that we have seen between conservatives and liberals in the American media. After a few years of hearing liberals accuse conservatives of racism against Arabs and Muslims, and conservatives denying the charge stating they are merely acting out of nationalism and security concerns, now the tables are turned. Hilary Clinton (Democrat) (with Senator Robert Menendez) writes:

But by first failing to adequately secure our ports and now approving the sale of operations at those ports to a company controlled by a foreign government, it is the administration itself which has put this nation dangerously at risk.

The entire piece is full of factual inaccuracies, not the least of which is the simple fact that companies controlled by foreign governments already run terminals at US ports (they don't own them, no country in the world except for United Kingdom allows for fully private ports). American ports are without exception landlord ports, they lease terminals and collect fees for use of the premises.

The outrage is bipartisan, and a number of Republicans have also expressed deep dissatisfaction with the deal. A Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter (from California no less) stated "I intend to do everything I can to kill the deal". Additionally he wants a rollback of all foreign investments in ports, electricity plants, and other areas critical to American security. Ahem....good luck with that. Senator Richard Shelby says "Everything in this country can't be for sale". Well sure, but these assets that you speak of belonged to a British company anyway, whose shareholders are scattered internationally.

Now while politicians and commentators at large are having a field day, I scan for news and opinion pieces for well-known experts in the area, officials from the Maritime Administration, high ranking port officials, shippers, terminal operators, academics, journalists who specialize in reporting on ports, etc. Very little is forthcoming. I'm a little puzzled by the lack of expert voices in the media, till I realize that most true experts have wisely decided to watch from the sidelines as politically motivated warriors battle it out over flimsy logical grounds.

Finally, day before yesterday (February 28), the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee called in a panel of experts for a hearing, where the respondents provided extensive information on the maritime industry and the very international nature of the terminal operations and shipping business (do watch the video if you are interested in global trade and have 3 hours to kill). The clarifications provided by the respondents were excellent. Wish I could say the same about some of the questions. Senator Barbara Boxer (California, again!) mentioned the dismal state of women's rights in the UAE as she grilled the Chief Operating Officer of Dubai Ports World, Ted Bilkey, about UAE's boycott of Israel! Besides the fact that it was a throwaway remark for which she probably had no evidence, if that was the basis for deciding business deals, most of them would fall through. And strangely, she asked Bilkey how many women were in senior management positions in the company. Huh???

Another Senator repeatedly asked Michael Jackson, Deputy Secretary, Homeland Security if the money spent for port security was "enough". Well, it all depends on the level of security desired, doesn't it? The fallacy of only 5 percent of containers being screened was repeated ad nauseaum till Jackson clarified that all containers were screened, and only 5 percent inspected. Which is exactly what I was told on my visit to the Maersk terminal at the Port of Los Angeles.

Senator Maria Cantwell wanted to know if DPW would require ALL their terminals around the world comply with US programmes such as worker background check, electronic seals, radiation devices, as a requirement for getting the deal cleared. Regardless of whether these terminals send goods to any US terminal or not!! It's pretty amazing, the Senate Commerce Committee seems to be ignorant about the way the shipping and port operations business is organized. It is almost as if the heavy foreign ownership of the terminal operations business came as a big surprise, almost a shock to them.

Actually, almost none of the American operators have any sort of global presence in the shipping or terminal operations industry. The field is dominated by players from East and South-east Asia, with a few key European operators like Maersk. And now, in a spectacular trajectory of growth, DPW has gone from starting with the port of Jebel Ali, UAE in 1999 to acquiring CSX International in January 2005 and now poised to acquire P&O to become the third biggest terminal operator firm in the world. Of course they've hit a roadblock in the American sector for the moment.

So yes, moral of the story. Contrary to a lot of the rhetoric around the world about Americans being at the forefront of globalization and expanding aggressively to other nations, sometimes they are caught by surprise to find the globe in their own backyards.