Monday, 29 June 2009

Bolly in China…

I got my first invite to a desi party in China last weekend and I was obviously thilled! After a hiatus of more than three months, my hips were aching to do the thumkas, sway to jhankaar beats and do what I do best – be a crazy desi girl.

‘Beer, Bollywood and Curry...' said the invitation, and it was only natural for me to anticipate an overdose of melodramatic Bollygiri…But, it turned out that I was competing with the Hindi film, Saawariya, to be the only Bollywood export at the party! And I can proudly say – I whipped RK’s taut derriere into a nice froth!

The audience, comprising mainly of Argentineans and Australians didn’t seem too impressed with their introduction to Bollywood – a painstakingly slow and poor rendition of Fyodor Dostoevsky's White Nights. But, they did seem impressed that someone who didn’t look like she had anything to do with Bollywood, was the only person actually following the movie in its original language – all others were reading the subtitles (of which you cannot expect much in China!).

There were four Indians at the party, including myself. One was a Canadian Indian, another Malayasian Indian and yet another, Australian Indian – all of whom did not understand or speak Hindi. So, here I was, the Indian Chinese explaining to others what the dialogues meant!!!

To think of it, I actually whipped RK’s fanny into fresh cream. Had I drubbed it a little more, it would be fit for consumption on a sumptuous cake. And, all that without performing my desi girl antics!

Thursday, 4 June 2009

All for a finger bowl...

There are several things I miss when I dine at Indian restaurants abroad. And, they have nothing to do with the food served.

I have made my peace with the fact that I may be eating at the best and most highly rated Zagat and Michelin restaurants, but the food will never taste as good as it does back home. This, I understand may be influenced by many factors, most of which are beyond the control of restaurant owners.

Hence, my next logical yardstick for judging the restaurant is how much at home it makes me feel. Sadly, the hospitality and experience at most Indian restaurants abroad -- especially in the U.S. -- have been way off mark.

It is natural for cuisines to be altered according to popular tastes of the country or region they are situated in, but some rituals of dining define the very personality of the culinary experience. My three essentials for Indian cuisine are as below -- they are neither cost intensive nor inconvenient, and yet they complete the experience of Indian dining for me.

1) A quarter plate of onion rings, sliced lemon and whole green chillies.
2) Water served in a steel or copper tumbler.
3) A finger bowl with one or two pieces of sliced lemon, at the end of the meal.

Like they say, things come at you when you least expect them. And in a country of just 20,000 Indians, as compared to nearly 3 million in the United States, I didn't expect the Indian cuisine scene to be any better.

However, I was pleasantly surprised a couple of weeks ago. And, Punjabi Restaurant in Beijing's Chaoyang Gongyuan, popularly known as Lucky Street,deserves a special mention. Not so much for its mediocre fare, as for its attempt to provide an authentic Indian dining experience.

Yes, it served us water in shiny copper tumblers and provided us fancily decorated hari mirch and kaanda. But most of all, it provided me with that elusive bowl of luke warm water with two freshly sliced pieces of fragrant lemon.

Me bellowing impolitely over the heads of at least eight other diners was well worth the effort. "Bhaiya!!! Finger bowl dijiye na..." I had yelled!

Now I felt like doing the jig. "Oye hoy! Balle balle (with both hands up and index fingers pointed)...!!!"

Punjabi made me feel at home in China!

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Mere blog ki toh ban(ne)d baj gayee...

As many of you already know, my blog has been banned in China and I have not been able to post on it since more than a week now.

As of now, in true Indian style I am trying to do some 'setting' and looking for alternate solutions to it. But, till I find that permanent solution, I will be posting in proxy (i.e. I will have a friend of mine post for me).

So all my dear followers, please bear with me if I take a while to publish comments, reply or put up new posts. Also pardon any grammatical errors that may mistakenly get published on my blog. I will try and keep it as error-free as possible, but if the process of formatting introduces any errors, I apologise for it.

However, that is not to say that those errors must be ignored. If any of you see a problem, please bring it to my notice and I will try to rectify it as soon as I can. Thank you in anticipation.

For now, I don't know when my blog will be unblocked. I don't even know if it ever will. But, please be patient with me. I will try and put up at least one new post every week, but if I do not, it's probably something to do with the proxy me :)

Mere blog ki toh ban(ne)d baj gayee hai...par mein band ab tak baja rahi hoon...So fikar not and keep reading :)

Thanks for all your support and sorry for any inconvenience this whole exercise may cause.

The Yellow Indian :)

Judging a person by their bargaining skills...

I love shopping. But it’s not for the shopping itself.

It is for the process of bargaining – the holistic experience of that heady potpourri of money reluctantly changing hands, power play and subtle drama. All at once, it makes me feel like a hotshot business tycoon, a high-profile politician and a nuanced Bollywood actor.

Last Saturday, I visited Beijing's popular Yashow market. I was to meet a former colleague in the Sanlitun area later that evening, and since I had time to kill and walking gear to buy, I figured I might as well go and pay the cursory visit.

Yashow, can at best be compared to Fashion Street in Bombay – a market with reasonably priced clothes of moderate quality, a spattering of tourists and salespersons literally dragging you into their store. I must state, the frequency and aggression of the last act in Yashow has not been matched at any market I have been to, yet. Fortunately for me, I sauntered through all the chaos around me, without much trouble. I didn't look like a foreigner at first glance, you see... (this was one time, as you can imagine, I was secretly happy that I had small eyes, yellow skin and fit into the stereotypical image of a Chinese!)

At Yashow, they sell everything a shopper would want – chi paos (the traditional dress), shirts, dresses, shoes, cloth, hair and body accessories, sporting gear and even tailors (no they didn't SELL them, they just had them in case you want something custom made!) – and after crossing a couple of rows of stalls, I found what I wanted: track pants and racer tops.

Pointing to a black track pant with bright pink stripes on both seams, I asked the salesgirl, "Chi do cha chhen (What does it cost)?"

"140 yuan," she said. "Where are you from?"

"Hubei," I said.

"Hubei? Ohhhh..." she said.

"Han quai...(it's too expensive)...Sao chhen (make it less)," I told her.

"120 yuan," she said.

My instincts immediately kicked in and I began trying to cut a deal a good businessman would be proud of. "Give me a good price and I'll take two items," I said pointing to a matching pink and black racer top.

"240 yuan for both," she said.

"Haah!" I laughed. "I will not give you more than 80 yuan for both."

"That's too less! Only 80 yuan! No I can't give it," she said.

It was now time to play my part.

I shrugged, turned around, ambled away like I didn't care a damn and nonchalantly said, "Ok...If you don't give it to me, someone else will..."

The trick worked. The salesgirl called me back, "Ok. I give you 160 yuan, both. Only for you."

"No." I said curtly. "I told you, I will not give you more than 80 yuan for both."

She then went further down...140 yuan...120 yuan...100 yuan...

Astutely, I took this opportunity to tell the sales girl, "I will come back to buy track pants from you again...give it to me for 80 yuan…"

"No. No. Last price 100 yuan!" she said.

"Ok," I said, " Let's settle at a price that's neither yours nor mine...90 yuan for both!"

Putting her hand forward and frowning, she said, "Give me money!"

I reached into my purse, pulled out a 100 yuan note and handed it to the salesgirl. But, her gaze was fixed on me.

"I know where you are from...," she unexpectedly said, "You not from Hubei... You from India! Only India people make money so less!"

(Strangely, it was the second time in as many hours, that the topic about Indian bargaining skills was broached. On my way to Yashow, an Australian lady I met was telling me about the perils of shopping at Yashow. "Oh! And you have to bargain or they will cheat you," she had said. When she later got to know that I was Indian, she blithely said, "Oh wow! Then I guess I don't need to even tell you how to bargain. You guys are masters at it!")

I was extremely amused at how my bargaining tactics gave away what I really was. It is something, I, as an Indian, take for granted But, it truly is such an accurate measure of my identity.

Feeling extremely proud of my achievement of having brought down the price of the track pant from 140 yuan to 45 yuan, I said, "Yes, I am Indian. But, my great grandparents were from Hubei."

Now, the salesgirl made her last ditch effort to get my sympathy. She probably hoped it would melt me into letting go of the 10 yuan she had to return.

Holding the bag of clothes in one hand and 100 yuan in the other, the salesgirl looked perplexed as if she was going into loss..."It's too less but because you promise to come again, I'm giving you..." she said.

However, I was distracted by another racer back. I promptly took the shopping bag from the salesgirl, plopped the racer back in and handed an extra 30 yuan to the sales girl.

"But it's 45 yuan each, according to our last settled have given me only 40 yuan for the third item!" she protested.

"I was only taking two items then. Now I'm now taking three..." I said and walked away.

After just a couple of steps, I turned around and said to her, "I told you, I'll come back..."

She shook her head from side to side and laughed. "You Indian people!" she said.

Thoughts as of: May 14th, 2009.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Authenticating my ethnicity...

While most Chinese are trying to figure how I am Indian, some colleagues at work are trying to dissect my Chinese ancestry. They are hell bent on making me prove, that I am indeed of Chinese descent.

“You are Chinese!” exclaimed one colleague, as he started yakking with me in Mandarin, at the speed of 100 words per minute. I, of course, didn’t get a word of what he said.

“ you don’t understand or speak Mandarin, aaahhh?” chuckled my colleague.

I explained, “I do not speak Mandarin, but I can understand a lot of it because my dialect is similar. However, for that you need to talk at half your pace.”

“If you don’t speak Mandarin, what do you speak?”

“I speak Hubei khwa (loosely translated, it means I speak the Hubei dialect)”, I said.

“Ok then, we will find someone from Hubei to converse with you,” he said.

A few days later, I happened to drop by that colleague’s department again, and he promptly called me over. When I went up to him, he called upon a reporter who was doubling up as a copy editor, for that day.

Pointing to the reporter-copy editor, my colleague said, “He is from Hubei, a proper Hubei person from Wuhan (its capital). Now, he can talk to you…”

Turning to him, my colleague insisted, “Say something to her in Hubei khwa.”

Kao Mo Seeh?” the reporter-copy editor said.

“What? Say it again,” I told him. He repeated but I didn’t understand.

“What did you say?” I asked him.

“It meant, ‘What work do you do?’”

I said to him, “But in our language, we say it as ‘Ni chao sung sih?’”

By this time, a few other colleagues had gathered around to get their dose of amusement for the day.

The reporter-copy editor asked me, “Are you from Wuhan or from another county in Hubei? You know, the Hubei dialect in the north and even other parts of the province differ from that in Wuhan.”

I smiled at him and said, “I don’t know which county I come from. I just know that my great grandparents were from the Hubei province.”

The crowd laughed...

By this time, I was tired of their ragging and so I said, “This is the first time I have ever come to China, forget the province and the county I hail from! I am Indian and I just look Chinese!!!”

My colleague who started this whole prattle, laughed and said to me. “Ok, find out which county you are from and we will find a person from your county.”

In retrospect, I should have told him, I speak Indian Chinese.

Now, let me see him getting someone who can speak that dialect!!!

Friday, 1 May 2009

Only in China (or maybe Beijing)

- People in the subways of Beijing will give up their seats to children (some who are almost on the threshold of their teens), but they rarely offer their seats to the aged.
P.S. A little correction here. They may not offer their seats to the Chinese elders, but they almost always offer their seat to elderly foreigners (June 3, 2009)

- Parents will often make a measured slit in their children's pants, strategically placed between the two buns of their bottoms. The Chinese find it convenient for their children to answer nature's second call and to clean up thereafter.

- Saying 'NO' is disrespectful.

- Wearing pyjamas and night suits to go out is considered a sign of wealth and prosperity. In the olden days, the only people who could afford to wear pyjamas and night suits were the rich, and people in China still subscribe to that mentality.

- Vendors at shopping hot spots quote a price 10 times of what they will eventually give it to you at, if you have the good sense and acute skill to bargain.

- Japanese Anime dressing is the perennial style. Everything is worn with stockings, everything is cute to the point of being nauseating and everything has super kiddish designs and motifs. This is especially true of the youngsters.

- People are very friendly and polite. So much so that they are polite to a fault. They will never directly tell you that they have a problem. It will usually be through your friend or a colleague you share a good rapport with. Like they say, "Too much of a good thing is good for nothing".

- You will be stopped by a random stranger on the road (especially if you look like a Westerner), who will offer to take you to coffee or tea, in exchange for helping them practice English.

- Do they have the concept of desserts that are 'steaming hot'. (Actually they probably share this with other Asian countries like Japan and Korea).

- While having a meal with several Chinese people, you eat more entrees, than rice (something that is quite the opposite in India). If you ask for rice at the beginning of the meal or mid-meal, it is considered disrespectful to your hosts. Apparently, only the poor ate rice in ancient China.

- If you look Indian or especially Pakistani, people will hound you for pictures with them.

- A normal conversation, to a foreigner's ear, will sound like a cock fight. It's not the people, it's just the way the language is spoken.

- After first use, you realise that a brand new non-stick wok is everything but 'non-stick'. The wok itself will get burned after 5 minutes on the stove, you will have to use oil like you are deep frying yourself and everything that can possibly get stuck to it (read oil and food) will do just that.
Check out the picture of the KangShuangChuJu non-stick Wok, after one use and overnight soaking in soap water. Now that's what I call 'Made in China'!!!

- After just a week of using the soap cake, you wake up one morning to see that it is split wide open like a sea shell robbed of its oyster. I don't know if it's the water or the soap itself that caused this...but whatever it is, it doesn't speak much for locally made soap cakes!

- If you want plain cold or room temperature water, you will be served steaming hot water and given ice to cool it down. Yes, it's crazy but true!

- Telling a person that they are younger than they really are is considered an insult. Age here is associated with wealth, wisdom and experience.

- The male of a couple will have his girlfriend's handbag casually slung over his shoulder. They do this unhindered and without feeling any embarrassment. I guess it's an essential part of wooing and courtship.

- A boyfriend and girlfriend will wear design-colour coordinated t-shirts. Thankfully, manufacturers take the pains to make the tees boyish (usual baggy style) and girlish (shorter, more shapely and more fitted). Oh! They also wear colour coordinated crocs!

This list is not comprehensive and will be added to as and when I come across more such quirks. Any contributions are welcome. Thanks in advance!

Monday, 27 April 2009

Telling a person by their clothes...

On my second day in Beijing, a member of the foreign affairs department of my office said to me rather gleefully, “Today you are looking more Chinese!”

I didn’t know whether I should take that statement as a compliment or as something that was being said to me sarcastically, given my Indian birth and Chinese ancestry. When I looked quizzically and queried, “…Mmmmm…more Chinese? What is that supposed to mean?”

I was told. “On the day you reached and even yesterday you looked very colourful…But today, you are sober like the Chinese…”

On the day I arrived, I was wearing white slacks and a brightly embellished aqua blue kurta with an equally bejeweled pair of Kolhapuri sandals. And, on my first day at work, I topped up my rather formal (and sober) outfit with a deep purple sweater, hurriedly borrowed from my friend Marisha Thakur, after I was caught unaware by Beijing's wind.

On Day 3, when I was told I "looked more Chinese", I was wearing a grey sweater.

Yes, the Chinese may be a little less sober than the Americans when it comes to the colour of their work clothes, but they are still not half as adventurous as Indians.

Their choice can be traced back to their history. First, emperors and kings dictated what they wore (during the Sui Dynasty, in the 500’s AD, the emperor ordered his subjects to wear only blue or black, while royalty were permitted to wear colourful clothing). Later, during the Cultural Revolution, most people wore military uniforms as a symbol of the revolution.

I guess I should take the statement of me “looking more Chinese” as an indication that the person who said it to me, embraced me as his own. I am happy, if that was the case.

However, that will not change my choice in colours...I am happy to "look" Indian :):):)

Friday, 24 April 2009

When I get lost...

If there’s one thing for which I never had a problem in India, it was being recognised. And, even though I never was inclined towards any hanky-panky, that was probably what subconsciously kept me from it :)

On my annual visit to Mount Mary, which could pass off as the kumbh mela for its sheer number of devotees, I always told my friends and parents: “If I ever get lost in the crowd, look for the Chinese face!”

That WAS a novelty in India. And, I often revelled in it!

Alas, on my first trip to Hong Kong in 2005 I realized those tactics would be useless there. With its sea of people, all with Mongoloid features, it would be futile to look for the ‘Chinese face’. Now I had to tell my parents, “Look for the darkest, shortest and fattest Chinese-looking person, who is not smooching someone in the middle of the road!” (Yes...Yes! The British rule has left them with a stiff upper lip that needs to be chewed on by another stiff upper lip, so that both sets of lips are moisturised and nourished to seem perky!!! What’s that they say about two negatives making a positive!)

When I first landed in New York in August 2007 and went to the dormitory allotted to me by Columbia University, I swear I thought: “Oh my God! The Chinese have invaded the earth! Run all you mortals who are not Chinese!” The ratio of Chinese to the non-Chinese in my dorm was definitely 10:3. I later learned that, yes, there was a considerable population of Chinese in New York, but the Indian population was also quite sizeable. That put me in a unique situation. Now I would tell my friends, “Look for the Hindi-yakking Chinese-looking person! That has to be me!”

It is now the spring of 2009 and what do I know – I am here in Beijing wondering what I should tell friends here, in the event that I get lost...I can’t tell them “Look for the Chinese face!” – there are too many around. I can’t say, “Look for the darkest or shortest or the one that’s not smooching” – most people here are more or less my height and colour and are not as smooch-loving as their Hong Kong counterparts. I can’t say, “Look for the Hindi-yakking Chinese-looking person!” – because in China if you don’t speak Mandarin, you ARE lost(and it doesn't matter even if you look Chinese)!

I guess I have finally found a place where I CAN indeed get lost...So, all my dear friends in China, if I am ever lost please do just one thing – GO TO THE POLICE STATION!!!

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Tadka maar ke...Indian ishtyle

When I left for the U.S. my cousins were teasing me about returning with an accent (“Oh! So will you be one of those people who go to the U.S. for a couple of years and acquire a fake American twang!”), not being able to have the street-side food that I so pig out on (“When you’re back you will say, ‘Sheeessshhh…that is so unhygienic!” and “Oh! I can only drink mineral water…”) and in fact, not returning to India at all (“Everyone says they will come back, but no one does….”).

“Hell no way!” I said, then.

Today, after eating Chicken schezwan fried rice on the pavements of Free Press Marg, drinking cutting chai from a tapri at Fort and indulging in bambiya bolbachans with everyone from the taxiwallah to random strangers to my very many friends in Bombay…I can still proudly say: “HELL NO WAY!!!”

I wouldn’t say that my cousins were wrong in their impression of people heading to the ‘land of opportunity’. I have seen my fair share of that species – ones who become allergic to the dust of Bombay, cringe at the humidity and heat, curse the crowds and wish for nothing more than to go back. Those that go to a country and culture not even their own, for a couple of years, and allow it to completely wipe out the 18-30 years of their prior life and experience. People who don’t realise the worth of growing up in a culturally rich country like India, just because it does not offer them the convenience of a cushy lifestyle or the zany packaging that they have gotten used to or the aesthetic satisfaction they seek.

I feel pity for such people. I never wanted to be one of them.

When I was leaving for New York to do my Masters in Journalism at Columbia University, I always knew that I wanted to return home and I knew that I would. Call it patriotism or obsession or passion – for me my home is where my heart lies. And, that place is India.

Its dust, grime, humidity, heat, warts and all, is like the masala in my chai, the tadka in my dal and the lasoon chutney in my vada pav.

I could do without them, but then life wouldn’t be so chatpata!

Thoughts as of: March 26th, 2009.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

‘Cheap’ thrills…

There’s one good thing that came off my time in the U.S. – I appreciate India's standard of living more now, than I did when I left for New York in August 2007.

Being a typical bambiya, it has always been my birthright to bargain for anything and everything I buy. However cheap something was I just had to haggle…A roadside store owner in Bangalore once asked me, “Madam, aap Indian toh nahi dikhte hain, par agar aap Hindustani ho, toh aap zaroor Bombay se hain.” When I asked him how he was so sure about me being from Bombay, he answered, “Sirf Bombay ke log yahan aake bhaav karte hain.” And, I have pretty much, always, lived up to that reputation.

However, after spending (pun intended!) two years in New York barely managing to cover my rent, yet never having been able to bargain there, I found India liberating…to say the least.

In the three weeks that I spent in Bombay, I surprised myself and didn’t bargain for anything even once. My experience in New York had redefined the word ‘cheap’ for me – $15 hand gloves at Old Navy was what would be considered ‘cheap’ in New York. So, anything that cost less than that in India thrilled me to bits!

Shoes: Rs. 700 (“It’s lesser than $15!”)
Sandals: Rs. 400 (“Not even $10…”)
Clothes and accessories: Rs. 100-450 (“Wow! I can get so much in $10!”)

My mother wasn’t too pleased with me comparing the prices in India to those in the U.S. “You are not earning in dollars to be converting Indian rupees into USD…so stop converting!” she said.

I guess she is right, but I figured that I’d rather be ripped off by a small store owner selling his wares on the pavements of Bandra and Colaba, than burn a hole in my pocket at stores like Gap, Old Navy, Forever 21, Charlotte Russe and Express – which more likely than not will have clothes, shoes and accessories ‘Made in India’.

Thoughts as of: April 10th, 2009.

Indi-aahhaaaaa!!!! Wah wah!

Two things never fail to give me goose bumps. Jana Gana Mana, the Indian National Anthem and the first sight of India’s land mass from a couple of thousand feet above.

Today, was no different.

I was finally returning home to India for good, after a not so good two years in the United States; and anything that even remotely signified India – the airline, Indian ladies with embroidered kurtis and bindis, the food, the sight of the Indian flag hoisted purposefully on the aircraft’s tail, the imli sweets and even Hindi movies on the flight’s entertainment system – made me feel a gush of emotion, pride and love. And of course, the first glimpse of the motherland gave me goose bumps all over.

The general consensus among my friends is that I am a sucker, and I mean SUCKER, when it comes to India. And, I unabashedly agree. But, as I was gliding over the clouds in the darkness of night, just 10 minutes and a couple of hundred miles away from landing, I was pondering over whether I overdo the patriotic bit. I wondered, “Ok! So, India is a great country, despite its flaws, but then so are many other countries. What is it about India – apart from the fact that I was born and raised here – that makes it so special and why exactly do I need to get the goose bumps?”

I concluded that I’m probably just an emotional fool and in my head I promised myself to consciously pull back at the tug on my heart strings the moment the ‘I’ of India was mentioned.

When we finally landed, I rushed off the plane, skipped down the stairs, onto the tarmac and into the waiting bus which would take us to the airport for immigration clearance. As I boarded, I could already smell the musty air, feel the moisture on my skin and see myself relearning the art of standing in one square feet of space per person. And, even as I was feeling a strange excitement about all of it, I chastised myself for overreacting again. I lugged my overweight cabin bag into the bus and balanced it on my feet (which were precariously holding me up).

Rrrrrrrr...the bus started. I swayed. The people around me swayed along. And just as I was swinging back and forth for the nth time, I felt someone nudge my arm. I turned around and saw an elderly couple sitting on a two-seater. Both of them shifted towards the outside of their seats to make a small space and insisted that I sit between them.

Embarrassed, I thanked them and resisted (not once but thrice!) saying I was fine and that they should sit comfortably. They persisted, “You are like our granddaughter and we don’t want you to stand with your heavy bag. You must sit here.”

By this time, the people around me were obviously privy to the conversation and decided to add their bit. “Betaaaa, if elders are telling you so much, you must listen. Please sit.”

Reluctantly, I gave in and squeezed myself into the tiny space provided. And, suddenly I felt the goose bumps again.

However, this time, I just let it be. I let my heart rule my head, like I did before my needless pondering. I didn’t care if I was being an emotional fool.

THIS (the people), I realised, is what makes India so very special.

Thoughts as of: March 19th, 2009.