Monday, October 24, 2011

How it all began

My name is Kathleen Patel. I'm not Indian by birth, but I've had the honor of joining the Indian community because of my marriage.

When I met my husband, Hiren (Harry to most of his friends), I knew nothing about India or its culture. Although I must admit that as a little girl playing dress-up, I used to wrap sheets around me in a feeble attempt to look like I was wearing a sari. I even used my mother's lipstick to create a bindi - the decorative dot that Indian women wear on their forehead. I guess I always admired the beauty and elegance of Indian women.

My husband, Harry, and I met almost twenty years ago - completely due to fate.  This is why I believe in destiny.

For years I went to work everyday and turned on my radio on to the same station.   On this particulat day, for some reason, I could only get reception for one station.  It was a station I had not listened to before that day.  All day long, the DJ's talked about a fun celebration for Bastille Day.  It was going to be happening that night, Friday, July 14th, 1992.  After hearing about it all day, I called my sister and asked her if she wanted to go to the festival after work.  She did and we were soon on our way to changing our lives.

Harry happened to be in my hometown, Chicago, on business. He was exhibiting at the convention center and staying at the Hotel Sofitel. That was where I found the love of my life. We met while standing in line for a glass of wine.  We instantly bonded. We watched the fireworks together. By the end of the week we both knew in our hearts that we were soul mates.

When I dropped Harry off at the airport he told me that he loved me. We both had tears in our eyes as he boarded the plane to New York.

When I returned to work, my radio was back to normal and I was able to get my regular station.  It was meant to be.

Little did we know, however, that we were on a rocky road to happiness. We both had a lot of learning to do.

When I first started to learn about the Indian culture, it was an exciting adventure. I wanted to know everything. I would haunt Devon Avenue every weekend - it made me feel closer to Harry during our long-distance romance. I wanted to learn all the beauty secrets of Indian women and I purchased all the lotions and oils that I could find.  I bought all of the Indian masala (spice) mixes and attempted to make Indian dishes for my family. I wasn't very good at it but my mother and sisters didn't have the heart to tell me.

I made Basmati rice every day and used Indian hair oil every weekend. I did research on India and the Hindu religion. I even bought the Bhagavad Gita,which is kind of like the Hindu bible. I would report all my escapades to Harry on the telephone every night.

Harry and I earned and used a lot of frequent-flyer miles over the next year. I had met his extended family in the states- his brother, wife and young daughter.  I had met several of his friends. I had also spoken to his mother, brother and sister in law, who live in India, over the phone.

I know his family was apprehensive of Harry getting seriously involved with an American girl. I could understand their fear. All they really knew about Americans was what they saw on television. Shows and music videos on MTV and such- didn't really make a good impression for Americans.

I wanted them to know that I was not the type of American portrayed on MTV - that I was, in fact, ashamed of that ridiculous American stereotype.

Being a first-generation Irish American myself, I feel that my values and morals originate from my heritage. The Irish culture is similar to the Indian in the fact that we are very family-oriented with strong values, respect and religion. I wrote several long letters to his family, explaining my beliefs and values.

Our relationship was met with a lot of opposition. Some of Harry's Indian friends tried to convince him to dump me, because I was American. It was a tough time.  I shed many tears that year.

On my side, initially people tried to warn me of the differences in our cultures and the problems we could encounter, but after meeting Harry and realizing what a decent, moral man he is, he was embraced by all my friends and family.

It was rather ironic. White Americans always are accused of being racists and bigots but it was actually a handful of Harry's Indian friends who were screaming the loudest. It was very sad.

On the other hand, the Indians who did accept me were some of the most gracious, hospitable and considerate people I have met.  My biggest advocate was Harry's brother, MG, who lived in California.  MG was married to a lovely Austrian woman named Brigitte and had a gorgeous young daughter named Neesha.

What it all comes down to is this: If you see that someone is happily in love, if you love that person, you will be happy for them.  My in-laws were kinder and more accepting than any of his friends.  It almost seemed to become a struggle for control. 

It was the most difficult time in our relationship but it made us stronger. In the end we discovered that the people who really loved us cared only about our happiness and were able to put aside any prejudice or racism. A year after we met, both of our families gave us their blessings for our marriage.

The next question that arose was what type of ceremony we would have. We both agreed that we believe in God and we respect each other's beliefs and religion. I attend many Hindu prayer services known as pujas and Harry attends mass with me on Catholic holidays.

We decided to marry in a non-denominational chapel. It was not a church or a temple, but it was a house of God. We are a nontraditional couple and we had a nontraditional wedding in Vegas (of course) but when we went to India later that year, we had a special puja to celebrate our marriage.

The most exciting experience of all was that first trip to India. We prepared for months. We shopped and packed and shopped and packed some more. We had four huge suitcases weighing in at about 80 pounds each. I didn't bring any clothes because I wanted to buy the lovely two-piece outfits that are called salwar kameez in India. I had purchased some tapes to learn to speak Hindi and I listened to them faithfully every day.

I was so nervous when our plane landed in Mumbai; it felt as though my heart would explode. I really didn't know what to expect. I wanted so badly for Harry's family to love me. I was soon to learn that I would be enveloped with love from the moment I met them.

They welcomed me with open arms. I was treated like royalty. I even felt guilty about being pampered so much and I kept offering to do little jobs around the house. They wouldn't allow me to lift a finger. I was so grateful to be a part of a family so full of love and goodness.

I also was struck by the hospitality of everyone I met in India. I was so touched by all the kindness shown me. Even the poorest people wanted to share a cup of tea and whatever food they had. The community where my in-laws live is particularly close knit.

In fact, after having spent an afternoon in bed with stomache ache and diarrhea, the following morning I was approached by at least a dozen people who were concerned about me. We still laugh about that today.

I had planned to impress everyone with my newly-acquired Hindi vocabulary. Unfortunately, I was so nervous all I could remember was "Where is the railway station?"

Since then we have made several trips to India and I have had the opportunity to really get to know my Indian family and bond with them. My mother-in-law also has spent time with us here in the states. Oh, and my cooking has improved. I can really make some great Dal, and Pav Bhaji is my specialty. My dishes don't always come out exactly authentic, but they're made with love.

Harry and I will celebrate our 19th wedding anniversary this next August. We are looking forward to celebrating at least 50 more.

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