Category Archives: Family

One Country, Different Cultures

by Priya Chhaya

Rangoli artwork

This design is a form of rangoli, colorful artwork that can be drawn with paint or sand, and is a decorative element during celebratory occasions. This particular set is ready made and may be used during one of the pre-wedding events for its splash of color. All photos by Priya C.

Everyone always tells you how complicated planning a wedding is, but I never actually understood until I found myself knee deep in working on address labels for invitations, multiple tastings for Indian food (not necessarily a bad thing) and trying to figure out what to say during my sister-of-the-bride speech.

Then there’s what all the wedding books say is the toughest part of planning—figuring out how to make the experience be both for the bride and the groom.  I am a Gujarati whose extended family lives in Maharastra. My future brother-in-law is South Indian—more specifically he is a Telugu from Hydrabaad. So much like planning a wedding between two different American cultures, planning a Hindu wedding for a Gujarati bride and a Telugu groom has been a learning experience.

Because Indian weddings are an amazing mix of tradition—through dress, food, and ceremony—we’ve taken the care to stop and think about what elements can incorporate both sides of the family.  For instance, the baraat—the portion of the ceremony where the groom’s side arrives at the wedding venue usually includes a horse (or at rare moments an elephant) and some engaging music. Most weddings I have attended use recorded Bollywood music, or a live dhol (drum) player.  In trying to bring in the more southern element, we realized that the dhol‘s Telugu counterpart was a mridangam, which gives a slightly higher pitch drum beat than the dhol—so now for the baraat my future brother-in-law will be dancing to the sounds of both regions of India.

Sets of daandiyas

One-Two-Three-Four! A few sets of daandiyas, a pair sticks used in a traditional Gujarati folk dance. These particular daandiyas are for one of the pre-wedding events.

That being said, this post is not about melding the details between two distinct and separate cultures, it’s about understanding and acknowledging the nuances of the same nationality.  For instance, during a Hindu ceremony one of the most important moments is when the couple takes seven steps around the fire, making their vows to each other and their respective families. For the Telugu there is an earlier moment in the ceremony, when my sister and her soon-to-be husband see each other for the first time, that is just as important. During the Jeelakarra-Bellam the groom places jaggary (a sugary substance) and some cumin on the bride’s head. This is a symbolic moment when two seemingly different items (one sweet, the other bitter) comes together forever—that is two people coming together through the good and the bad times. To some extent, this is also representative of two different parts of Indian culture finding common ground in bringing the two families together. For planning sake though—I didn’t understand the importance of this particular ceremony until the groom’s family put it in the draft to the ceremony program (which will explain the rites to those not familiar with Hindu weddings).  What this process demonstrates on a micro-level is the work needed to bring people together across any cultural divide, Indian or otherwise. It takes open communication, honesty and recognition that in some cases compromise is the best path to take.

Tiny statues of Ganesh

Tiny statues of Ganesh, the Indian elephant god who is the remover of obstacles and an important deity for auspicious occasions. These Ganesh are meant to be a gift to guests when the the formal wedding invitations are delivered.

Of course this is all in the context of planning a wedding and doesn’t include other aspects of Telugu culture—the food, the very different dance and art forms – all just as an important part of the Indian experience as Gujarati culture. In fact—going through this process has allowed me to have some great conversations about what aspects of Indian culture have dominated the American worldview of India. Some argue that the “Indian” in America vision that we see is often more of a Punjabi Indian world view—with bhangra exercise classes, and hip hop remixes at night clubs.

Which prompts me to ask readers the following questions:

  • What are some surprising places that you’ve seen Indian influences on American society?
  • What region of India is that influence from?

Priya Chhaya is a public historian that works with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American (and Indian American) identity.


Posted by on March 7, 2011 in Culture, Diversity, Family


Getting to Know You: Making Connections

by Priya Chhaya

When I was younger there were three things that I feared when my parents told us we were taking a family trip to India. The lack of American/European toilets (something that has mostly ceased to be a problem), spending time with cousins I barely knew, and consequently wasn’t sure I liked, and the rain.

Over the years, the first has become less of a problem, and the third is easily avoided by going to India during the non-monsoon season. Getting to know my cousins is another ball game.

This past month I traveled to India for three weeks. Why?

1) My grandmother turned 80
2 )Wedding shopping (my sister is getting married in May)
3) Vacation time—I finally got out of Mumbai and got to spend some time in Goa

It’s been about three years since I’ve seen most of my cousins face to face (two or three of them have managed to visit the U.S. for the first time in the interim), and this past visit made me realize the value of a particular tool in strengthening our relationship and making it easier to communicate across oceans and continents.


Of course, age does have something to do with it. When you’re a teenager, you are loathe to enjoy a trip that takes you away from the typical American summer activities, and meeting family doesn’t seem like an awesome way to spend your time. But as we’ve grown up—we’re all adults now—we’ve come to realize that we have a lot more in common besides blood. Enter everyone’s favorite social media site.

In previous years, we’d arrive as almost-strangers—scrambling to be filled in on what had happened in the intervening years, trying to find that comfort you feel with close family—something usually achieved right as we head back to the airport. Now, thanks to Facebook, we come in knowing that one cousin has been working on a purse design business, and that another went on a trip to Ladakh, and that another cousin and his wife redecorated their new place in Pune. In a way, Facebook has replaced those single sheet, blue airmail letters that we grew up watching our mothers and fathers send back and forth, and phone calls can now actually be filled with a conversation instead of awkward filler. Facebook is even going to let me get to know my cousin’s future husband despite not being able to go back to India for the wedding.

The Family, in Khandala

And that is why I think this trip was so successful—from the 21-person field trip to Khandala, a hill station just outside of Mumbai, to the excursions to shops all over the city—the trip was filled with camaraderie and a more familial repartee… and the best part of all, memories with family members that I love.

For more information on my visit to India visit 

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Posted by on October 16, 2010 in Family, Social Life


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Dr. Mehta Found a Lump

by Rajshree Solanki

Dr. Mehta found a lump my mom’s breast. I just found this out after calling my sister to wish her a happy birthday.

“Did Dad tell you that Mom is going to Surgical Associates tomorrow because of a lump in her breast?


“Dr. Mehta found a lump and decided to send Mom for a follow up. I’m not sure if they are doing an ultrasound or biopsy. I had to go a few months ago myself, but everything turned out to be fine.”

“What!?! Doesn’t anyone tell me anything anymore? So you’re not sure what she is going in for?”

My relationship with my mother is best described as contentious. As a kid, I would try always to undermine my mother’s authority. She would make roti and saag. I would scream that I wanted McDonald’s. She would dress me in a gifted salwar kameez from India with the matching bangles and necklace. I would pout and then run off to put on a pair of jeans. My mother’s English is broken with a thick accent. I was embarrassed when she would talk to my classmates, teachers, coaches, or anyone. People didn’t understand what she said and would look at me to “translate.” But I realize now, it couldn’t have been easy for my mom.

Raj in Indian garb.

Mom and Dad married in India in 1970. Dad was living and going to school in the U.S. in the late 1960s. He returned home to get married and bring his new bride to the U.S. They were introduced by my mom’s oldest sister and were married in my mom’s family compound in Rajkot. I’ve looked through their black and white wedding album dozens of times, and I keep stopping at a picture of my mom sitting at the edge of a mat.

Raj's mom in her wedding sari.

She is wearing her wedding sari and matching bridal jewelry holding a dish in her lap. She is looking off in the distance. She had to have had mixed emotions about her impending move to the U.S.

Getting married and then moving to the other side of the world had to be a scary and, at the same time, exciting experience. I keep looking at that image hoping to delve into my mom’s thoughts. What was she thinking?

To move here, there would be sacrifices. Communication would be sporadic from India. Letters would be the main source of news about births, deaths, and marriages, with the occasional phone call from village phone. It had to be hard to hear the news from a letter. It had to be even harder to hear that familiar voice on the other end of the phone and realize they were not down the block or in the same time zone. It had to be hard to explain to a grocer what vegetable she was looking for or explain why she was returning a pair of pants to the clothing store. It had to hard for her to see her children deal with bullies and discrimination and then reject aspects of their own heritage.

“Ma, I just wanted to call. How are you?”

“Good. Good. Everything alright?” she said in her heavy accent.

“I’m good. I was checking on you. I heard from Rakhi that you had to go to the doctor.”

She hesitated and responded, “Oh. Doctor Mehta found a lump in my breast. I have to go to see specialist.”

I have to wonder what my mom is thinking about right now.

Will she be able to explain how she feels to her doctor, to my dad, to her daughters?

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Posted by on October 7, 2010 in Family


A country of contrasts

by Avani Nadkarni

It’s almost like a rite of passage for any Indian-American born to immigrant parents: the trip back to the subcontinent.

I have gone “back” to India approximately every four years since I was four years old, taking the 24-hour journey from Seattle directly across the world to Mumbai. When I was younger, I used to love seeing my grandparents and cousins, but saw the trips as a great sacrifice: Using a hole in the ground as a toilet and weaving through free-roaming cows on the streets of Mumbai wasn’t exactly Disneyland.

Since then, it seems, India has become more Westernized and I have become more open-minded and somewhere in between, we have met in the middle.

It was when I went as a 16-year-old high school sophomore who had just taken a photography course that I began to see the unexpected beauty of India. The entire country became a study of contrasts to my teenage eye, something that continued when I returned in my twenties. From the little beggar girl with mangled hair and soot covering her wide-eyed face selling the whitest, most richly-fragrant jasmine garlands to the little boy with the ripped pants selling simple tour books to tourists against the backdrop of the breathtakingly extravagant Taj Mahal to the brightly colored, beautiful saris hanging to dry in some of the most dilapidated slums in the country, it seemed every beautiful thing in the country had a counterpart. Each traditionally Indian facet of the country has a just as Westernized version.

It seems each trip I take there proves my theory more and more. Domino’s Pizza and McDonald’s have cropped up, but the street vendors selling chaat get just as much traffic. Every college kid wearing Nike shoes strolls amidst an elderly woman wearing handmade sandals.

I suppose these stark contrasts are to be expected in the world’s largest democracy, a rising world power where 1.6 billion people who speak hundreds of languages are trying to live peacefully together in a space that is only slightly larger than Alaska, Texas, and California put together. The contrasts are part of the beauty and allure that has become nearly synonymous with Indian culture.

Sometimes I fear as the country becomes more more Westernized in an attempt to live up to its powerhouse expectations, this might change. The beauty and traditions of the country, while they won’t go away, may be stashed in the corner. I was contemplating this on my last trip to India, until something caught my eye.

The non English-speaking fruit vendor peddling pears and bananas seemed like any of the countless others on the street, but there was something about the lettering on the cardboard crate behind him. It read ‘Washington Apples.’

I had traveled halfway across the world to buy a deliciously juicy looking red apple from my home state from a man in a dhoti who’d never left the city. And that’s how I know that no matter how many fast food chains and American brand names pop up in the country, India will always be the perfect blend of contrasts.

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Posted by on September 14, 2009 in Culture, Family, Identity