Monday, March 19, 2012

Expat Culture vs. Living in a Joint Family

Those of us foreigners who live in a joint family system are considered expats. However, there are a lot of differences between us and expats who are not married into Indian culture. It can be rather difficult for other expats to understand us sometimes.

One prime example is in our living conditions. As a foreign wife/husband (from this point forward referred to as gori wives) we are constantly bombarded with cultural aspects expats who aren't married into Indian families don't have to see. Many of us are frequently giving rules, societal standards and family honor codes to uphold. It can be a daunting task to keep up with and in my own personal experience it is quite difficult to draw a line between what must be adhered to and what does not. Often societies rules are thrown at us all throughout the day, every day. Many of these rules don't even make sense to us and we're pressed to follow them anyway.

In many families fear of outside things in society prompt Indian family members to make comments like:
Don't go near a dog, dogs are dangerous (implying all dogs are bad)
Women can't go to places like that (certain restaurants, buildings, neighborhoods)
Someone's going to steal your woman if you don't watch her
Don't stand with your back towards the road or men will stare at your butt

In many homes, women do not go out unescorted. In the homes that do, often the gori's still get chastised about their choice of places to go, how long they were gone, how they got there, etc. So even where there is freedom, there is still a price to pay for it.

Unlike expats, gori wives are questioned on how much they spend on items then no matter what they cost they are told it could have been found cheaper or that it was a waste of money, etc. We are forced to deal with incessant negative comments for fear of the evil eye. The concept is that if something good is said without a follow up bad comment the person could be a target of the evil eye.

Expats can come and go as they please in and out of their homes. Go to friends homes, night clubs, etc. without having to worry about "bringing shame on the family" or "destroying the family honor." Expats can live and breathe here just like they did in their home country whereas gori wives are not afforded that opportunity. Every move they make is scrutinized and I have yet to meet one gori wife who wasn't concerned about causing trouble for her family (that she lived with).

There's also another class I'll call the gori expat. This is a gori wife that doesn't live with family. They have some of the same freedoms as other expats but still the underlying sense of upholding the family honor. They still are subjected to all the good and bad aspects of Indian culture on a regular basis. They still get pressured by the Indian family to produce offspring, control their weight, cook certain foods, etc. It's just not constant like gori wives in joint families are.

All expats, no matter where they live are strong. It takes a lot of strength to live in a foreign country - no matter which one it is. But gori wives, and gori expats just have to deal with a significant amount of pressure from family and neighbors that cause us to have to live and act differently than those not married to Indians.

For gori's - What are some of the crazy things you hear from Indians or desi family members that an expat living alone wouldn't likely hear?
For expats -  What are some comments you hear from other desi's that strike you as different from your own culture?


  1. Honestly, I think it depends on the family/education level/socio-economic class. I have an Indian husband, his family isn't remotely religious or traditional. Case in point, we had a Sri Lankan Buddhist wedding, and neither of us is Sri Lankan or Buddhist. There are no expectations of me. There is no pressure of 'family honor' or any such thing. [Note, by education level, I mean the men and female family members have the same educational qualifications. My husband's grandmother has a bachelor's degree, mom has a master's degree.]

    Most of the 'white woman' 'Indian man' relationship blogs I've read have a lot of drama about cultural expectations and whatnot. I've blogged about the issue [in case you're interested:]. Unlike a lot of these women, I wouldn't have started a relationship with someone who came from a traditional/religious family as I'd be expected to put up with things I didn't want to. A lot of times though, I think these women are being manipulated to bend over backwards to please their men--all in the name of 'tradition.'

  2. hehe I think I'm the gori expat type, married to an Indian but not living with the in-laws. And you are right, expectations are still high. Not just from the family, but neighbours as well, they tend to think that because you married an Indian you are to act Indian, and aunties lecture you about safety, evil eye, and are nosy about how much you paid for what only to tell you that you would have gotten something cheaper at a local bazaar :)
    They also question why you live alone when your husband is not in the city travelling on a business trip, asking you if someone is taking care of you and looking quite shocked that you can manage on your own.

    As a gori expat I don't relate to regular exapts myself indeed, not necessarily on the where to go and not go thing, DH and I are past caring about that, but on the spending power, even being a high salary braket, I just can't go and buy imported goodies all the time the way some of the expats working on an expat salary do.

    Right now I'm in a place where locals expect me to act Indian according to their own definition of Indian, whcih vary from social class to social class, traditional Indians will want me to be traditionnal. Returning NRI and upper middle class Indian who have been exposed to abroad generally get me and where I'm coming from better and have no such expectations, I guess you can say I have something in common with them and they see me almost as a peer, they are as interested in my culture as I am in Indian culture and a discussion of equals ensure.

  3. I agree with you in so many ways. Many of us have the "Indian wife" standards shoved at us only to learn later that Indian women wouldn't tolerate as much as we do. Most of it is because we don't know and hence why I write about so many of the controversial issues I do in this blog. A good many of us are deceived about Indian society and I hear all about these deceptions and misleadings from gori wives all over the world (because yes, some are even misled this way in their own countries). I've seen this exact same thing across all classes with the wealthiest being the worst.

    Some of us have these cultural expectations thrust on us after the marriage and in some cases they don't start until years after the marriage. So basically what starts off as a good, loving marriage becomes more like a hostage situation. Many of us don't know how to react. Most of these expectations are ridiculous at best and do seem more aimed at control.

    While I'm quite sure education plays a major role, I've noticed that less educated MIL's are more likely to be compassionate and forgiving when Indian customs are not adhered to and they are also more willing to compromise for household harmony.

    It's also interesting you mention how you wouldn't have started a relationship with a traditional/religious man. In my case as well as several others I know the men were far from traditional or religious before the marriage. In the last month I have seen Rohit become more religious (he wants something lol). I know others who were in relationships much longer than me and just this year their husbands started touting tradition and demanding their conformity. This isn't different than other cultures but, those of us who live here, wind up feeling stuck and uncertain what to do about it. Contrary to popular belief (not yours but a good majority in India) we do not race for the divorce papers upon the first conflict. Often times some goris are even given conflicting information from day to day such as one day the husband demands her independence and the next he demands submission to age old customs that even his mother doesn't adhere to. I fully intend to address these issues in the coming months to stand up for my friends and girls I've bonded with through this experience. I greatly appreciate input from other ethnicities such as yourself and especially other Indians because without those, none of us would be fully aware of just how unrealistic this proverbial Indian wife standard is. So thank you so much for your comments.

  4. Absolutely! You were part of my inspiration for describing the gori expat. It's great that you have learned so much about managing your life here and in your intercultural relationship. I have learned quite a bit from you and your blog and I hope others will as well. I think you have more experience than most of the women I know.

  5. It's not only that I wouldn't have gone out with someone who was traditional, I wouldn't have gone out with an Indian man who said his family was traditional either. To me, traditional family means that the offspring of said family can revert back to traditional beliefs at any time. Best to avoid such a situation.

    In my case: my husband's parents are divorced and married to different people. His mom's in charge of the South Asian division of a multi-national research firm--so basically, he grew up with a mom who was very busy and there were no gender distinctions in his house (i e, mom cooks and dad watches TV). His mom and step dad are completely non-religious--and while his dad and step mom are a bit religious, they've never tried getting the kids into religion. He's pretty much raised to be an agnostic so I know he's not going to 'revert' to some traditional beliefs because he was never exposed to them in the first place. Pretty much all of his friends are raised the same way.[I came to understand that this is a very unique example of an Indian person/class after reading Indian Homemaker's blog].I think there are two kinds of wealthy people in India--the wealthy and traditional, the ones who are very conservative with their beliefs, and the wealthy and liberal, which is much more in touch with modern times, they're also well read and well traveled. If I had to call it something, I'd call it the Indian genteel class. There is also an emerging 'corporate' class that's earning far more than previous generations, but still adheres a bit to old traditions. I find it very interesting because in Canada, we're very uncomfortable speaking about socioeconomic class distinctions. They're very blatant in India, and I think I'm slowly getting used to it.As for gori-wives, I do think a lot of them get taken advantage of, especially when they try really, really hard to fit in. One of the reasons I really like reading your blog is because you don't take that kind of behavior from people and you're not afraid of standing up to them.

  6. That last comment touched my heart. I think maybe I'm different because I'm so stubborn and because I had no deep interest in India before I met Rohit. I didn't even know he was Indian before we had a fairly solid online friendship developing between us.

    This family is mixed between traditional and progressive. I think the education played into that and confused them somewhat. Women in the family can work after kids but they still aren't going outside of the house alone unless it's absolutely necessary. They must always be escorted. Sometimes I think they're not sure what to do with me because I draw so much attention and they've always lived as far away from public attention as possible.

    I think one of the things I like most about Rohit is that even though he was raised with all these strict rules he's not afraid to break them and he backs me up 90% of the time. I don't think I have to worry about the religious issue because as I mentioned, he wants something right now and that's the only time he even mentions God. It's like Christian in the west who all of a sudden run to church after years of absence because they suffered and need clarity. I can't judge that and wouldn't try but I know Rohit and I'm quite sure after he gets what he wants he'll be back to his old self. Lol.

  7. You know, I have been a silent reader, most of the time, but I have to say, that I really admire you to manage so well in such a difficult and different environment. I don't think I would have been able to manage in a joint family like you describe, despite being an Indian who has lived in India for most of her life. I really think that it is admirable.

  8. Thank you, it is rough. If I didn't have something to keep my busy I sure would have lost my mind by now. Thankfully I'm getting a break soon and then hopefully I won't be back her long before we are moving permanently.

  9.  *blush* thanks for the warm fuzzies and I'm happy that my blog is helping others.