All posts by Jessica Kumar

Global Nomad from birth. Indophile. Cause Marketer. Veg food lover.

Top 5 items to bring from the West to India

With many people coming back and forth from the West to East, there are items which one cannot find while here. Since I find myself asking these questions on a regular basis, I thought I’d share my knowledge and what I’ve found.

Top 5 Items to Bring 

1) Safety items for kids – The best thing I brought from the US was a helmet for my 2 year old. With all the riding on scooters and motorcycles, this has served us well. Child helmets are just breaking into the Indian market, but they are often awkward and hot. I brought a bicycle helmet with holes for ventilation and it has probably been one of the most used items we brought with us. Carseats are also limited since they are not required here by law. Carseats here are often imported and extremely expensive. My advice is to bring your own from North America.

2) Food items -This is a biggie. I’m going to break it into three categories.

  1. Baking- people doing their own personal baking is just catching on in most homes in India. If you have certain molds or ingredients you really like, I’d advise to bring your own. Other specialty and gluten free items really don’t exist here. Cacao powder, almond flour, coconut flour are not available in most places. You may also be surprised to find the quality of vanilla, active yeast and chocolate chips to be less than stellar.
  2. Grains and health foods- Quinoa and other grains sourced from North and South America are very costly in India. Goji berries, real maple syrup, maca powder, spirulina and nutritional yeast are not readily available. Certain herbal teas that are sourced from other parts of the world are not available- matcha, jasmine, etc.
  3. Firmented foods are not really a thing in India (except for achaar and dahi). For those who like kombucha and water kefir- bring  your own starter and brew at home.
  4. Cheese- High quality and certain varieties of cheese like gouda, feta or cheddar are only found in import quality and very expensive. HimalayanCheese.com does source, produce, sell and ship in India.
  5. Coffee- if you’re a coffee snob, most of the Indian brands will leave you unsatisfied. Starbucks is newer in India, but unless you live in a major metropolitan city, you won’t have access to those dark roast kind of beans. There are a few place doing their own roasting like Blue Tokai in Delhi.

3) Kids Books- Unless you are in a big city with Oxford Books, you won’t be able to find specialty kids books in English. There are a lot of general things out there for older kids, but the collection before age five is limited. Also, if you speak another language like Korean, Spanish, you won’t be able to find children’s books here. Books for small children in local languages are starting to make an entrance in the market. Publishers like Tulika have Hindi, Bengali and a few South Indian languages are available.

4) Holiday sentimental stuff- American holidays like Thanksgiving, 4th of July and even Halloween are non-existent here. So bringing your own cornucopia and candy corns are probably necessary if you’re sentimental like that. Up until the last few years, Christmas was even hard to find. However, Indians have taken a great liking to the secular meanings of Christmas. Christmas trees and Santa Clause stuff is not so hard to find anymore. Kirti Creations in Delhi’s Khan Market is one of the few carriers of quality Christmas garb in Northern India. Other holidays where there aren’t large communities represented (like Rosh Hashanah or Chinese New Year) don’t have a large representation here either.

5) Ladies specialty items- Topics like menstruation, pregnancy and breastfeeding are taboo in most of India. Anything having to do with these normal passages of life do not have the representation of goods in the market. Ladies undergarments I find are not as high quality in India and have limited variety, particularly for nursing or for plus size women. Nursing pads, breast pumps, etc are best to be brought from abroad. Ladies menstrual hygiene goods are very limited on choice as well.

Worst 5 Things to Bring 

1) Water filter- Water filters are widely available in India and quite necessary. Carbon based countertop filters like Brita are actually dangerous in India due to the quick bacteria buildup inside sitting water. Save yourself the trouble and buy a Reverse Osmosis mountable filter upon arrival. They come with warranties and often have guys come along to do regular servicing.

2) Most Electrical Appliances – Save yourself the headache and heartache (when it burns out) and just buy stuff here. Ovens, microwaves, blenders, etc are all available. I have still not been able to find an affordable Vitamix or SodaStream India, but other than that, everything is available here in 220 Voltage.

3) Toys, Markers and crayons- Kids coloring and drawing stuff is widely available in India. I find the quality to be pretty much the same. Many of the plastic toys are available here, but not as many educational type creations. There are new companies like Flintobox in India that are making a splash.

4) Clothes and shoes for kids- Clothing for kids here in India is exceptionally good. There are certain things which we North Americans love like baby onesies which aren’t as widely available here in non-urban areas. But if you look on the tag of many of your kids clothes a lot of them are actually made in India. Also, most of the clothes here are made for the climate here.

5) Food items which are found here – My advice to people is to eat local. You can burn thorough a budget pretty fast by buying all imported foods, most of which aren’t that good anyway. There are several fad foods which are consumed in the US which actually originate here- coconut oil, chai, certain spices and anything with turmeric. No need to bring any of these items with you. Just buy the original when you arrive!

This is just my starters list! Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments!

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The Cure for Mommy Brain

I used to wonder what stay at home moms did all day. I was annoyed and frustrated when friends told me they were “too busy” to hang out or return my phone calls because they now had kids and were stuck in the house all day.

Now being a mother of two small children, I certainly feel the pinch in being able to complete certain tasks, such as responding to a sensitive text or committing to making plans with a friend for an outing. But I still sometimes wonder why people tell others they are “too busy.”

“Too busy” is really a poor use of semantics to describe a lack of mind space. What we should say is “I’m too distracted.”

Being a mother of small children is an absolute doozy on a woman’s brain. Even the most efficient women find themselves pulled between multiple tasks at once, which stretches her short term memory capacity to the maximum and her patience to shreds. Being regularly interrupted for years on end breaks the power of her concentration and trains her mind to be constantly multitasking. Then she beats herself up when she can’t focus. This is nothing but a law of nature, yet she fights it.

Yet somehow in our Western culture, we are feed young moms the white lies like they are recent graduates at a cheesy commencement speech –  “the time is now”, “now or never”, “seize the day.”

Why does Western culture insist on torturing young moms by dangling the unrealistic notion that it is easy to have a monetized mommy blog, write a book on your maternity leave or go back for your online MBA while bouncing a toddler on your lap? Enough already.

These things are all achievable, for some people. But for a caretaker of young children, there are actually much better times in life to do certain things like start a business, go back to school, or work on certain areas of your own professional development. This is the time to give your overachieving self a break and focus in on the tasks at hand in the next couple of years – raising healthy human beings.

There isn’t a cure for “mommy brain.” But you can learn to accept it.

So here is a challenge to all my young mom friends. When you’re fed the cultural lies, refuse to digest them and make them your own. Hold onto that extra baby weight for a little bit longer. Push away the lies that you need to be a productive, career woman and have perfectly behaved children, all while baking homemade bread and brewing kefir. It just isn’t gonna happen right now.

You really can’t “have it all.” At least not all at once, right now.

Themes of Honor and Shame in Bollywood Movies

Two huge Bollywood blockbusters just hit theaters in the last two weeks across the world. Both are selling out as crowds flock and millions of dollars have been made so far.

On the surface both films look quite different.

Padmaavat is an epic drama about two warring kingdoms, staged in the 13th century. It capitalizes on the glamor of the royal life in the prime of Rajput glory. It has clear protagonist (Queen Padmaavati and King Maharawal Ratan Singh) and antagonist (Sultan Alaudin Khilji). The basic thrust is that Sultan Khilji becomes obsessed with Queen Padmaavat and conquers her kingdom so that he can take her for himself. Spoiler alert- in the end, upon defeat of the Rajput army, the entire clan of Rajput women burn themselves alive to prevent capture by the conquering army, thus maintaining the honor of the community.

Pad Man, is staged in dusty streets of North Indian Varanasi, in modern times. The protagonist is real life inventor, Arunachalam Muruganantham and the antagonist is society itself. He is a simple man fighting against societal norms to create low cost sanitary pads for women. The thrust of the film has created a movement across India to openly discuss menstrual health of women, a topic which has been taboo for millennia in the Indian subcontinent. He faces many obstacles, the biggest one being the sheer shame put on him from the community, accusing him of being a pervert, an adulterer and mentally ill.

However different these two films may appear, a common thread ties through both of the films – defending honor and avoiding shame.

In understanding the underlying motivations of societies, there are three worldviews:

  1. Guilt-innocence cultures are individualistic societies (mostly Western), where people who break the laws are guilty and seek justice or forgiveness to rectify a wrong.
  2. Shame-honor cultures describe collectivistic cultures (common in the East), where people are shamed for not fulfilling group expectations and seek to restore their honor before the community.
  3. Fear-power cultures refer to animistic contexts (typically tribal), where people afraid of evil and harm pursue power over the spirit world through magical rituals.

These differing worldviews are what propel a number of our East/West conflicts and misunderstandings. Grasping the shame and honor context is one of the most critical pieces to understanding modern India, as we know it today.

Most of the Bollywood films have some sort of shame/honor theme. If you watch closely, even the most seemingly glitzy and modern Bollywood films carry this theme underneath the skimpy dancing and flashy cars.

Amidst the glamor of Padmaavat and the simplicity of Pad Man, these films show how critical these motivations are to Indians. However modern, anglicized and forward India may be on the world stage, lets not confuse the true underlying motivations of shame and honor that lay in the modern Indian heart.

 

Credit to Author, J. Georges, for definition of three worldviews.

East Meets West Parenting

It seems that North American and Indian parenting styles have many opposite features.

Lets have a little quiz just for fun. In which culture would you hear the following statements, North American or Indian?

  • “Its the school’s fault that my kid hasn’t learned to speak yet.”
  • “Just let him pee his pants in public, he will learn potty training from shame.”
  • “I can’t go out because my child has exams this month.”
  • “Its ok that he fell off his bike, he will get back up again.”
  • “You are not getting any other kind of food until you eat your vegetables.”
  • “Its bedtime.”

If you guessed the first three to be from Indian parents, and the last three to be from North Americans, you’re right!

To qualify, I’m making broad generalizations and comparing middle class North Americans to middle class Indian people. People who live in the village, who don’t have access to education, or on the other end are very wealthy can not be compared directly to the variety of flavors of Western parenting models available in the US and Canada. I’m attempting to compare one middle class segment to another. 

General Principles which I find to be the most contrasted in Indian vs North American culture

1) Role of the child in the home

The joint family system creates an interesting challenge for parents in India. Grandparents, aunts and uncles living under one roof provide a hedge of protection and love for a child, but can also be confusing if there are not consistent rules and expectations. I’ve seen parents who try to enforce rules, which are then trampled by grandparents who have their own ideas. The child becomes the center of the home because of this power struggle between the elders and adult children.

In many North American families, the child is not the center of the home, the marriage and husband/wife relationship is. After that, comes the children, and other family relationships. There is little question of who is in charge of the child’s development and often times grandparents are cut off by adult children because they try to implement their own ideas or “push the boundaries.” The role of the parent being in charge is clearly defined and culturally accepted.

In middle class India, the child is the center of everything. Your world is dictated by the child. All grandparents, aunts and uncles circulate around the child’s school schedule, food desires and sleeping habits. Even professional offices are child-centered and allow flexibility for parents when a child is mildly sick or in need of extra care.  This is simply not the case in middle class North America. There are other outside forces (careers, parents’ hobbies, husband/wife relationship) which dictate the center of priorities.

2) Role of parent vs role of school in behavior development

Teachers are somehow responsible for everything in India. I have actually heard people blame the teachers when their children get poor marks on an exam. In North America, this is a matter of personal responsibility for the child and parents.

To share a personal story, in my son’s school, there are people employed there to actually hand feed your child. There are people employed to change the pants of the child when there is a toilet accident. In the West, these are all the child’s responsibility to learn on their own and the school remains uninvolved in these matters. In the West, by the age of 2 or so, a child is expected to be able to eat on their own. Potty training is a personal matter and parents are the sole contributors to the process.

There is immense pressure to perform in school in India, yet kids somehow end up not learning as much as they could. Due to this pressure, parents often complete the school assignments for their child to “impress” or “keep up” rather than helping the child to really grasp the concepts. The end goal seems to be to “complete the assignment” rather than “learn the concept.” The goal is to impress the teacher, get good marks, not learn.

In North America, parents give more space for their child to try and fail. I don’t know of any Western parents who would ever complete a child’s homework for them. There is no concept of propping up the child to protect them from failure. You often find parents who don’t “push” their kids in school or who are pretty uninvolved in the learning process of their kids. Parents let their child manage their own workload and take responsibility for their mistakes, even if they fail.

3) When to enforce discipline

Discipline in studies is of utmost importance in Indian culture. But correcting bad behavior seems to be something which is reactive rather than proactive in the early years. The attitude is “when kids are small, they are bound to misbehave.” There are little efforts to proactively teach the child to behave properly. But when they start school at a later age, things somehow shape up and the kids turn out to upstanding citizens of society.

In US and Canadian mainstream culture, the behavior of the child is something that needs a lot of correction and attention in the early years. Discipline in studies isn’t a main focus, but making the child into a “good, well rounded person” is the goal. Discipline and consequences are often enforced in the early years. The goal is the make the child independent in the long term.

 

Westerns would call the Indian style of parenting “coddling” or “pampering” with no discipline whatsoever at home. Indians would call the Western model of instilling independence “uncaring” or “aloof.”

The issues of discipline, roles in the home are central to forming a culture at large. Observing these cultural patterns, can give great insight to the psyche and behaviors of a people.

This post isn’t meant to be a criticism of either culture, just observations from a parent who finds herself confronting these contrasts in her daily life. 

Making the “Love Languages” Cross Cultural

If you’re ever heard of the “Five Love Languages” concept, you probably know about its popularity and worldwide reach. The love languages books have been translated into 50 languages around the world, but are they all applicable to other cultures?

Quality Time, Words of Affirmation, Physical Touch, Gifts and Acts of Service are the five ways that identified by the author Gary Chapman. The idea is that different people have different pathways in which they receive and give love. Meeting the needs of those in your life according to their way of receiving love is the main thrust of the concept.

For the most part, I think these five “languages” cover a broad spectrum of human need in relationships, but they aren’t entirely translatable cross cultures.

First example, in some Middle Eastern and South Asian cultures, directly giving words of affirmation is very awkward and not well received. Praising that person to a third party else is more highly valued when they hear about what you said about them through the grapevine.

Secondly, public physical affection between spouses or romantic partners is also taboo. Holding hands walking down the street is scandalous. Even physical touch (hugs) between brothers and sisters are not common. These are two love languages which are dominant in the West, but much less prevalent in non-Western cultures.

I’d like to add a couple more “love languages” which I see as being central and unique to non-Western cultures.

Food

I believe this one has the weight to stand on its own. If you’ve ever had relationships with folks from a non-Western culture, you understand how important food is. Food is a shared experience. Sitting to eat together is a bonding experience in every culture, but the fast food mentality of the West has degraded its depth. In cultures like India, the time and effort put into cooking a meal for another person communicates depths of love, duty and respect for the person. Not offering to serve someone drink or food is a direct insult. The acts of serving food and sharing food are mediums of building and maintaining strong relationships.

Respecting family

Respecting the family of one’s significant other, particularly in honor/shame cultures, is an overlooked approach to showing love to one’s spouse in the “Love Languages.” For example, making an effort to get along with a spouse’s family and understanding the interconnectedness of family relationships is an important part of many non-Westerners lives.

In many cultures, the joint family system is hinged on the importance of a new spouse getting along with all the other family members. If the daughter-in-law and mother-in law don’t get along, the husband/wife relationship is in trouble. Likewise, this can be said for building love in non-romantic relationships. A wife showing respect for her husband can build love between her and her mother-in-law. A father teaching a child to respect and honor his grandparents shows love to his parents on a different dimension.

Showing love to one’s spouse who lives in a communal society looks very different from the Western approach. Saying to your spouse “I love you because you are smart” may not have an affect. But showing love by cooking for a spouse’s parents speaks much louder to non-Western minds.

The Love Languages are a great concept and have undoubtedly helped millions of folks from non-Western countries improve their relationships, but pointing out the nature of indirect communication and the importance of family networks is crucial to making it a truly global concept.

Rachel Dolezal is a Product of Extreme Individualism

America is individualism to the extreme. We let the “self” define everything. To us, societal and family ties mean very little compared to other parts of the world where you are defined by your group. In the West, we have this idea that we are the author of our own future, our identity and fate. Some of this is good, but when we take it too far.

There are some cultural trends in Western culture, which in my opinion, have swung in a negative direction:

  • Pursuit of the individual over community (family, group of origin)
  • Breaking from tradition, just for the sake of it

Family – We white people are particularly guilty of this. In general, in many white communities, we seek autonomy with our parents. Parents become friends rather than someone designed to be in authority over us. Respect for parents is considered to be antiquated,  only for the small-minded and religious zealots.

Tradition – We have decided that it is fashionable to break from tradition just for the sake of breaking from tradition. Many people would do anything else rather than to follow the religion of their parents.

How did our culture become such that each person becomes an individual molder of their own identity?

How do other cultures handle individualism?

Lets consider a place like India- where billions are born into a caste and die in that caste. Nothing can change that. In Indian culture, the young are free to pursue careers to a certain extent, but in many cases, the individual does not have power to make individual choices. Parents and elders dictate the values of the community and values of the individual. The community is more important than the individual. When these young people become the elders of the community, they instill the same values. The idea that you could change your family or racial identity is absurd.

Take a country like South Africa- where race was painfully defined and has carried out a societal structure. From this point of view, where racial identity is so well defined, it seems absurd that someone would “choose” a race for themselves. As if it was that simple.

Extreme Individualism

It is true that race is a “social construct.” But, social constructs are called social constructs because they are defined by society, not the individual. Just because one person have a different idea, doesn’t mean that we can topple a social construct with an individual idea.

This type of extreme individualism that we embody in the West, leads to an internalized belief that “I can be whatever I want.” Taken too far, we get Rachel Dolezal and the idea that one can pick their own race. If we look at the patterns of other societies, this idea of being “transracial” is totally corrupt.

Its like white privilege and Western individualism had a lovechild and Rachel Dolezal is what we get as a result.

The pendulum has swung too far in the direction of “individualism” in the West. I predict in future generations, we may come back to a closer balance between the individual and the community.

 

An Isolationist India and Tagore’s Lost Dream

Rabindranath Tagore is considered one of the masterminds of modern Indian civilization. While mostly known for his artistic endeavors in literature, music and education, Tagore was also an active cultural anthropologist. The magnitude and influence of his poetry and music often overshadows the observations he made about culture. Gandhi and Tagore had wildly different perspectives on India’s interaction with the outside world, yet Gandhi’s ideology has been more widely employed. Tagore lived from 1861 to 1941, before the politically charged Indian Independence and Partition era. And even further from the rampant globalization era that we are now in the midst of.

gandhi-tagore-cropped
Gandhi and Tagore in 1940 – Photo Credit – Wikipedia

Tagore believed in an open India, an India open to the world’s ideas and influence. He believed that Indians should never be threatened from an outside worldview, but that it would only make one more aware and appreciative of his/her own context.

He was quoted “Whatever we understand and enjoy in human products instantly becomes ours, wherever they might have their origin.”

Is this a timeless perspective to be adopted? Or simply a reaction to the isolationists of the early 1900s?

Was he aware of white privilege and the tendency to appropriate cultural phenomenons? Or was his audience merely the paranoid/exclusionists Indian, who were afraid of letting other cultures invade and corrupt the ancient Indian past?

In our current age, the pace of global interactions is astronomically different than the simplicity of the early 1900s. Merchants no longer travel from faraway lands, peddling their goods, bringing art and music from afar as they settle down and make Mother India their own. The speed of our travel, connectedness and technology quickens the pace of cultural exchange. There is now a trend to make things ours, without appreciating or acknowledging the source. Cultural digestion trumps cultural appreciation.tagore

 

Tagore also said “Celebration of Indian civilization can go hand in hand with an affirmation of India’s active role in the global world.”

I hope this can still be true today, and I believe it depends on the attitudes of the Indian people and retaining confidence of Indian identity in a global world.

When we are challenged, we are expanded. And that expansion can help us see the beauty about who we are, and the truth about where we come from.