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An Innocent Chinese Girl Goes to India for a Week

Popularity 3Viewed 1047 times 2018-10-11 16:09 |System category:Life

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Before getting on the plane to India, I became hesitant. Suddenly I felt like not going because I was envisioning mayhem in temples, strange smells, no public toilets, unsafe water, diarrhea, abandoned cows, and of course, the heat. But my mind struck that thought away like the way I would smash a mosquito against the mud-brick wall I grew up with in Sichuan.

Four hours later, I landed in Singapore. ‘Getting closer’, I again became excited. After all, traveling in India has been my dream for 8 years. When I got to the security entrance, I already saw some Indians waiting. When I got to the gate, I was the only Chinese waiting in a sea of Indians and my hesitation returned.

Half way from Singapore to Bangalore, the Indian flight attendants started serving food. “Good morning madam, would you like English breakfast or Indian breakfast?”, since I was determined to live like a local for a week, ‘this is a good chance to start,’ I said to myself. “Indian breakfast, please.” The flight attendant passed me a tray with a box, a piece of bread and a plastic cup of water. As soon as I tore open the cover of the hot box, I could smell the pungency of the contents, which were two small brown balls sitting in a yellowish soupy mix. I noticed there was no spoon or fork when I tried to taste the food. “Excuse me, could you give me chops … I mean, spoon?” ah, damn, old habits die hard! The flight attendant turned back with a confused look. But in a few seconds, he passed me a cutlery set. I fished one of the small balls out onto my spoon and began nibbling, ensuring that my stomach was up to the task. It tasted sweet, too sweet for me. I had no idea about the ingredients of those balls, but didn’t feel like eating the second one.

Two hours later, looking through the plane window at the land I’ve been dreaming about for 8 years, I spied mountains, little towns, and winding roads running through villages and over the mountains. ‘Hello India,’ I greeted the land below.

While the young customs officer was asking me immigration and customs questions, an older officer came over and standing behind the young one seated at the counter, began to repeat some of the questions presented by the junior. “What is the purpose of your trip?” he said in a thick Indian-accented head-bobbing manner. “I want to live like a local for a week.” He was amused by this answer. A few minutes later, “Welcome to India”, the young officer said with a wide white-toothed smile. “Thank you!” … ‘now I’m officially in India!’

As my next flight wasn’t for 6 hours, I was subjected to wandering around Bangalore airport. My expectation was that in a big city airport like Bangalore, people would wear casual, yet most women walking around were in colorful Saris, or long dresses. I only saw two young girls in shorts! Unbelievable because in China in the summer, shorts and short skirts are the norm. Standing at one end of the main hall, I could see there wasn’t much room to wander. “Don’t walk out of the airport until you see us!” my Indian friends, Pooja and her husband’s warning was still fresh in my mind. So I paced back and forth, observed the airport’s Indian-ness, and then retired to a charging station and read my book.
 
I looked out through the propeller plane’s window as we were approaching Hubli. The little town below looked very much like a little town in some northwestern Chinese province: low houses, not modern and an overcast sky. It only took 5 minutes to walk with the crowd from the prop-plane to the terminal building, which looked more like a Chinese train station. I looked back at the runway as I was nearing the terminal building, and saw that my plane was the only one on the tarmac.
 
Pooja and her cousin were already waiting at the gate, though I did have to take a closer look to make sure it was her. Now that she was in an Indian dress with an Indian hairstyle, she looked very much different from the one I see in the office. Her cousin looked like a tough, however, I was soon to discover his exceedingly warm-hearted nature.

As we drove to Pooja’s town, Belgaum, her cousin turned on the obligatory Indian songs. The weather was refreshingly cool on the plateau during this monsoon season. Trucks passed by with colorful religious drawings on their sides, cows wandered on the road, and carts with a depiction of some God’s picture on the back, lazily pulled by their bovine brothers, whizzed by.
 
‘When you’re in Rome, do what Romans do’, so I walked barefoot as soon as we walked into the apartment. But when Pooja showed me my bedroom, I did my best not to let my mouth drop. ‘So I’m staying here for 7 days?’ I thought painfully to myself as I glanced at the thin mattress spread on the floor next to the huge monolithic wardrobe.
 
“Do you want to take a bath? I’ll show you to the bathroom” and proceeded to lead me to an ill-lit room. I couldn’t identify much under the dim light. Ug, the wet, cold concrete floor sent chills up through my feet to my spine, raising the hairs on the back of my neck. ‘I don’t really want a “bath” here.’ I turned to her, “I’m having jet lag, will do it tomorrow morning,” as I glanced around trying to identify something that looked like a shower or bathtub.

It wasn’t till dinner time that I realized there wasn’t a dinner table to be found in the apartment. Two mattresses were spread on the floor. Then about 10 plates were placed in front of the mattresses. I sat at the end of one mattress against the wall so that nobody could notice my ill manner. A teaspoon of salt appeared on my plate, then some pickles, then some yellowish mix, then some flat bread, a tin glass of water appeared on the left side of my plate and a small bowl of soup appeared by the right. I was hesitant to drink the water but Pooja’s father sensed my apprehension and ensured me “it’s very safe water, don’t worry!”. I gulped down the water and smiled at him.

That night as I was laying on my mat, I was anxiously waiting for the legendary waves of upset stomach to commence but nothing came. I fell asleep to the sound of silence punctuated by the sounds of insects that emanated from outside the apartment. It was a still and beautiful night.

I woke up to the chirping of birds and laid there comfortably on a bed of pillows, feeling surprisingly well rested.

We went to have “south Indian breakfast” the next morning. The owner of the little stand by the side of the road expertly made the breakfast on a gas stove. Soon we were given a plate with a donut-looking bread, a big bread roll and two small dishes of sauce, one white and one yellowish. In China, if I bought breakfast from the side of the road, it will be served in plastic bags. But here in India, we enjoyed our breakfast on plates, standing by the side of the road. Oh, how civilized and delicious!


The wedding

# 1: Before the wedding

Two days before Pooja’s younger sister’s wedding, the ladies in the house would have a “Face massage”. The female masseuse they made an appointment with earlier came in the morning with her set of tools. Pooja sat on the mat and the massage lady started to mix some cream in a small bowl. When that was done, she applied the white mix onto Pooja’s face and around her neck. About 20 minutes later, the white mix was washed off and the real massage started. After the massage, Pooja’s skin looked so great, it radiated and shone. I asked what the cream’s made of, “herbs” she replied with a pleasing smile.
 
That evening, the girl friends of the bride came to visit. Being the bride’s college friends, they chatted lively and the living room was filled with loud laughter. They came with a mission – to draw mehndi for the bride. Before coming to India, I thought mehndi was like a tattoo and only certain people are qualified to do it. And so if you want a mehndi, you need to go to a parlor. Yet the girls just pulled up mehndi images on their phone and asked the bride to choose her favorite. Once the decision was made, one girl started drawing expertly on the bride’s hands and feet, and it was as simple as that. The rest of them started drawing mehndi for each other. Pooja did the same for me. The design I chose served only as a reference for her, as she was constantly putting her own ideas into the drawing. It was a time-consuming job yet the finished work was a piece of art.
 
On the morning of the day before the wedding, we started preparing gifts for the groom and wedding guests from the bride’s side. For the groom we prepared colorful sweets while for the guests we prepared stainless steel bowls containing two bags of snacks, one with two sweet balls and the other with a dry spicy mix crunch. We sat on the floor packing the bowls. With about 500 people attending the wedding and probably half of them from the bride’s side, the packed bowls stacked in the corner looked like a large shining silvery cellophane gift-wrapped egg.
 
Late in the afternoon we drove to the hotel where the wedding would take place. It was the same hotel where Pooja’s own wedding was held. At the entrance of the wedding hall, there hung on the wall a rubbing representation of the ubiquitous elephant God and laying beneath it was a colorfully chalk-drawn lotus flower with heart-shaped leaves. The wedding hall was right next to a buffet area, which is where the guests would be enjoying light meals between the coming rituals. That evening the family did a religious ritual that lasted for about 2 hours.
 

# 2: During the wedding

Everybody was up before 7 and started dressing up for the big day. Bright-colored Saris were laid out on the bed, along with numerous bangles, gold necklaces and shining earrings, fit to be the wardrobe of a bird of paradise going to meet her suitor. The intricate folding and draping of the dress pleases the aesthetically minded, a feast for the eyes, particularly with the colors of peacock plumage, where the hue of green abounds. Green is for married women. Pooja and the other married women all put on green bangles and Pooja’s mother wore a flowing green sari. When the dressing was finished, everybody looked like the stunning stars from Bollywood movies.

At 8:15 a lady came to the hotel room to do make-up and hair for the bride. Having nothing much to do, I went to enjoy Indian tea on the small veranda and enjoy the view of the street below. Pooja’s father walked over and sat at the same table. “In our caste, weddings are like this.” Then we had a small talk about the wedding, the city and the state of education in Karnataka.

“Lauren, the groom will arrive on a horse, let’s watch.” Pooja’s husband excitingly announced. Before long, the noise of what seemed to be thousands of drums approached from one side of the street. “Lauren, will you dance with me?” Pooja’s father invited. Remembering my painful experience of people laughing at my dancing, I instinctively said “No” with my quintessentially apologetic Chinese smile. ‘Me, dancing?!’ my painful memory was still fresh “you look like a robot when you dance!” had said my university roommate. I wasn’t going to embarrass myself again today. But the drums came closer, and I could see a sea of orange approaching. Blocking the traffic, the wall of orange, I quickly realized, belonged to the hats of the largely male wedding entourage.

“You want to dance?” Pooja asked me. “No, I’ll just watch.” The orange sea stopped about 100 meters from the hotel. The drums beats became faster, inviting me to dance. My legs moved me to the crowd. I gently swayed to the drum. Soon I found myself dancing in a small circle with other ladies. A hand pulled me out from the circle, “madam, madam, see!” directed a middle-aged man as he guided me. Every Indian is a born dancer it seemed. They danced with never-ending passion.  
 
The groom came on a horse. He was in a long purple-trimmed white traditional southern Indian two-part suit with a purple Hindu hat adorned with a white feather at the front. He had a noble look about him with his confidence exclaiming “I’m the king today”. The crowd danced more enthusiastically upon seeing the groom. As I bobbed back and forth and as I struck my hand out to the imaginary center of the crowd, I sweated buckets inside my blue sari as my perspiration turned it bluer by the moment. As the dancing crowd and now groom dancing toward the hotel, I found myself finally dancing with Pooja’s father.

The colorful crowd moved to the hall. Two Hindu priests were sitting on the stage preparing for the day-long rituals, which, of course, I had no concept about whatsoever. At one point, they started a wood fire in front of the hall. The number “7” is a magic number at weddings. According to Hindu beliefs, marriages are made in heaven and once the marriage is solemnized, the two souls are joined for seven lifetimes. “7” represents the upcoming seven lives. The new couple committed to each other that they will be a couple for 7 lives. The new couple walked around the sacred fire for 7 times. The bride touched 7 nuts sitting on rice with her feet. Pooja gave me some colored rice and explained that throwing it at the couple would bring them good luck. I threw pinches of rice whenever the crowd did, and we did it 7 times.
 
The rituals went on for hours. After that, the bride and groom had a new task: taking pictures with almost everybody present that day. Since there were about 500 guests, the picture-shooting session lasted for over an hour. When some of the more elderly ladies, hunch-backed and grey-haired, hobbled to the stage for their photo, I couldn’t help wondering if they’ll ever see copies of the digital pictures. But again, it’s India, just enjoy the moment.
 
After the photo session, we walked to a lower floor to have dinner. I grabbed a plate and spoon on a green vegetable mix, red paneer masala vegetable, cabbage, corn salad, mango pickle, chapati made from whole wheat flour, and a bowl of white, sweet Ras Malai, resembling yogurt. All were amazingly delicious vegetarian dishes.

The new couple ceremoniously fed each other for the first time, which seemed to precipitate a feeding frenzy by the groom’s friends and family with the groom at its center point. I was suggested to feed him but the groom wore a painfully tortuous expression as people endlessly stuffed food into his mouth, so, taking pity, I chose a small brown sweet ball and gently popped it into his overworked mouth.
 

# 3: After the wedding

It’s customary for the bride to be accompanied by a good female friend when she goes to the groom’s home for the first time, yet on that day the bride’s friend’s menstruation came so, according to Hindu custom, this is a no-no. Pooja also couldn’t go because somebody from her husband’s family had passed away a week before. And I was also a candidate even though I was totally unfamiliar with Pooja’s sister, but more importantly, I also was in my ‘no-no’, so we all waved goodbye at the rather worried bride as her car joined the traffic and headed to Hubli. I turned my head and saw Pooja’s mother wipe her cheeks—another chick had left the coop.
The next day after breakfast, we headed to Hubli to visit the newly married couple. The insane traffic is a recipe for head-on collisions as every vehicle seemed to be in a race with constant overtaking. “Indians can wait for anything but traffic.” Pooja’s father commented. In addition to the death-wish driving, I witnessed the world-famous overcrowding of buses and vehicles, most noticeably a three-wheeler running in front of us with young guys hanging all over, following close behind was another three-wheeler but empty, however, it seemed the passengers preferred to board the previous three-wheeler in part to the enjoy the actual ‘hanging-off’. Pooja’s husband turned to me and said with a gleaming smile: “they think it’s cool, I used to do the same.” Most of the buses on the road were without doors and never seemed to come to a full stop for picking up passengers and were painted yellow. Apparently the white buses have doors and if you are lucky, air-conditioning. Traffic in India is a kaleidoscope of transport forms, from water buffalo drawn carts to colorful trucks, from tuk-tuk types to antiquated buses.     
 
We stopped at a solitary roadside restaurant that had about 100 un-filled tables. We sat there alone as the staff lounge. Ordering my favorite Indian tea, I wandered to the store adjoining the restaurant to have a look and spotted Chinese characters adorning boxes of toys. Made-in-China even here.
 
The groom’s family home is a 3-storey building. The groom’s elder brother showed us around. A huge kitchen, inclusive with alter and prayer space, lay on the ground floor, three bedrooms with the obligatory mats on the second, along with a living room with a massive TV screen showing real-time feeds from the surveillance cameras positioned all over the outside of the house. There was another kitchen on the third floor. “This is a non-vegie kitchen”, Pooja explained to me, “he loves his wife very much and so he lets her cook meat in here for herself.”
We stood on the rooftop to see the town from where I could see low-level houses, coconut trees and temples stretching to the horizon. I pointed to the Arabic-looking words, which I later found out was written in Kannada script, on a building nearby, and asked Pooja’s husband, “What does it say?” I was surprised that he replied with “Sorry I can’t read it,” but when I realized there are over 22 major languages and over 720 dialects spoken with 13 different scripts, it made sense that Pooja’s husband wouldn’t know as he is from a different state.
 
Immediately after finishing my lunch on the stretch of tables outside the house, one of the million sacred cows that roam the street of India walked over, looking for food in the trash can. “Feed her,” Pooja’s husband encouraged me, so I offered a piece of bread which it gladly accepted and then sauntered away. Cows are everywhere yet beef is illegal, which is probably why cows are everywhere.

At dusk, the rituals started in the main kitchen where a big crowd had stayed behind to watch. “I’m watching this ritual for the first time, too!” Pooja said. Soon, the ritual group moved to the front gate of the house and started dancing with the groom’s mother in the circle with everyone dancing around her, each carrying a torch. The crowd blocked the door so I stood on a chair to watch the show where I witnessed the mother dancing as if in a trance. Suddenly a hand pulled me down from the chair and directed me to sit on the stairs so as not to block the dancing crowd from returning into the kitchen, all of whom seemed to be directed collectively by an unheard command. All I could see were people’s backsides so I retreated outside and watched the ritual through a mosquito-net window at which point I heard a screeching retch which I believed emanated from the mother, meanwhile a Hindu priest sang.
 
“Indian brides have to do so many rituals, after that the real struggle begins.” Pooja jokingly said, as we stood by the kitchen window watching the events unfold. ‘I’m hanging outside a kitchen watching a wedding ritual in some small town on the Indian subcontinent,’ a voice inside my head mused. An eventful, interesting and educational week, no doubt.

It finally happened

My appetite in India was good, only there was one problem, I was constipated the whole time until the last day. On the way to Goa, the natural scenery was fantastic however I began to feel cold and my mood began to darken. Something was wrong. After we visited Pooja’s family temple in Goa, I had a bout of diarrhea and then proceeded to vomit on the streets of Goa for the next hour. Indian food poisoning was taking its toll. I thought I would die that day, but my inner voice tried to calm me ‘It’s ok, it’s a beautiful place,’ but everything was blurry. Squatting, a hand tried to pass me water but I refused. I stood up trying to walk again, but I stumbled. After a good while I tried to walk again with my hands holding my stomach. A shop owner across the street glanced towards me and pointed at the T-shirts. I pointed at my stomach. “Oh sorry”, he knowingly and apologetically commiserated.
 

Farewell India

After the worst of expelling whatever it was that my stomach and bowels had rejected, I began to feel somewhat human and was then escorted to the airport by Pooja and her husband. Though still pale, I could walk upright without vomiting. My friends were concerned but non-flyers are not allowed into the airport, so I hugged my gracious hosts, but for an instant I had a sudden urge not to go. I had immensely enjoyed myself and loved the people as everybody had been kind to me. I definitely would return to this strange and beautiful country, but now it was time to return to China and my own reality. Besides, I have a great fiancé at home.


(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)


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Reply Report GreenNanning 2018-10-12 16:28
LaurenLiao: Hope you can finish reading it.
I'd love to, but it is very unlikely, because it takes too long a time, and nowadays people like to see images more than words. If you are a writer, you should take care of your readers, right?

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