When we arrived at the reception the sun was still quite high in the sky at 4:30. It was located at a pavilion in a public park in Bloomington, IL. The building was built in 1909 and had all the fine details of wooden floors and pretty molding and classic design. The feature that was really pretty was the upper floor full that looked down at the main hall like a balcony with a little railing. Below the railing was a set of light bulbs that stuck out of the edge of the balcony like the lights on a vanity mirror. All the tables were set in white linens and plastic china dishes.
It was like being in a different country really. Or a different culture to be specific. At first there was the usual American 70’s dance music that is played at any typical American wedding. Songs that everyone knows and dances to. The bride was dressed in the most intricate drapey lace dress that hung elegantly from her petite frame. Her long dark brown hair was pulled up into a sweeping voluminous braid that fell over her shoulder in elegant array, bedecked with small white flowers that were just picked that morning.
The DJ then turned to the audience and called for all the Arab people to step up and dance. The music changed and instead of the retro 70 and 80’s dance music, the deep pulses of the distinct Eastern style beat started up. The whole atmosphere was transformed. I couldn’t stop myself from dancing at this point, and many of the wedding guests who were from various different cultures -- but clearly not of a Western upbringing got excited and came to the front of the room, and even if they weren’t dancing, they were curious and seemed amused. This was perhaps not expected.
It was very much fusion in style...between East and West at least as far as music was concerned. I had grown up with a deep love for all kinds of folk music from different cultures. It always resonated with me. I would image all sorts of images emerge in my mind of people long ago, or today, in various different cultures. The imagination is a powerful thing, it can transport you worlds away.
I loved the song and dance.
As someone who once had the potential, and very real, opportunity to marry a native Indian and live in India, the idea of different cultures has fascinated me in a new way. I once believed I was going to be an Indian bride, I thought that I was going to adopt that culture as very much my own. I was learning one of the many languages spoken there, I was making authentic South Indian food straight from my kitchen, I learned how to eat with my hand, and at every opportunity, I wanted to experience more deeply what it meant to get as close to that culture as possible for me. Every day I was learning more about the culture. Everything from family life, to education, to marriage, to general ideas about success and acceptance. It was mine in a way….on a very deep level as I was in a committed relationship with someone. I felt like the outsider that’s true...but that didn't’ scare me off. It intrigued me. I saw first hand prejudices against me just based on the color of my skin and the fact that I was an American.
The first time I went to the Indian grocery store in my own town -- keep in mind, it was really crowded full of families and students -- I think I was the only white person in the store at the time. Different languages were being spoken, and I felt insecure in a way I had not felt before. It even took courage to make my way through the group of young international students to get to the check out. I remember that I walked around the less crowded iles in the store a few times pretending to look for more things before I finally got up the courage to walk up there.
One time, I visited my fiancé’s cousin’s house and spent a few days there. As soon as I walked into the house, I smelled the deep earthy and exotic smell of rich spices. The ginger, cinnamon, garlic, and coriander...mixed with spicy chili pepper and the earthy and sweet smell of masala chai (known in America simply as chai tea). There was no doubt I was in a vastly different home culture from my own or any of my friends. Rolf Potts, in his book Vagabonding, puts it this way:
“In many ways, this transition into travel can be compared to childhood: Everything you see is new and emotionally affecting, basic tasks like eating and sleeping take on heightened significance, and entertainment can be found in the simplest curiosities and novelties.”
And that’s exactly what if feels like. Everything is new, every smell, sound, sight, and taste.
I spent a lot of time daydreaming about marriage and I spent countless hours researching Indian wedding traditions. I bought a saree, petticoat, and blouse. I wanted to visit the country and taste the street food, and wear the traditional clothes. I knew that not all women wore traditional Indian clothes there, many wore western clothes, especially the younger generation. But there was still a very large amount who did. I followed different girls on Instagram who posted a lot of daily life, what they ate, what they wore, etc.
The hardest parts were the ideologies, and deep rooted cultural thought differences. Marrying into that particular family would not have been easy. I tried very hard to be accepted by his sister and mother...I think in a way, I would have been, but not at first. There was an incredible amount of prejudice against me. Because I was an American white girl, I clearly slept around...a lot. Because that’s what every white American girl does, right? It didn’t matter that I was a fundamentalist Christian, who believed in sex only inside of marriage but because I was an American that in and of itself surpassed any other quality, value, or belief I held.
Aside from those differences, and there was a daunting amount of them, I chose to get out of the relationship. The deep rooted reasons why I did that, however, had nothing to do with the cultural differences. It was mostly character reasons, and being in an unhealthy relationship...spiritually it was a dark time for me. Being with him would have went against my deeply held beliefs, and that, not the culture, is why I stepped out of it.
But once I was out of it I felt that all of that culture was suddenly taken away from me. It was not mine anymore. I had no part in it. I was purely an outsider with no chance of getting back in. I would never get to wear the clothing, listen to the music, eat the food in the same way I could have before. It was like counter culture shock in a way. Everything I believed I would get to partake in, was forever gone. But I could not go back to the way I was before. Travel and experiencing different cultures on a deep relational level changes a person in profound ways. All my family and friends were still the same, my town was still the same, I even lived in the same house still, but I was changed. Whenever I taste Indian food, or hear the music, I have a deep kind of connection in my soul because I was part of it for so long. But everyone around me, they didn’t experience it, so they can’t really understand -- not really. See, India was going to possibly be my home. And now I was a stranger. I didn’t have the right to call it partly mine anymore. If we had married, our home undoubtedly would have been a fusion of east and west in a very powerful way. But that part of my appreciation for the east seemed like it had no place in my life now. In fact, I should move on, put the past in the past, and become like I was before everything happened.
But life is not so simple. In dating relationships, people sometimes say to be careful, and not give away pieces of your heart for fear you will get hurt. That’s not how you grow though. In travel it is very much the same, you will give away pieces of your heart to different people you meet, different cultures and countries you visit, and it will change you. But instead of breaking, you will grow. So give your heart away. Travel and explore. Stay curious. In the words of Cinderella, “Have courage and be kind."