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Interpreting India, Part 2

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By Robyn C. Morris, Amish Tour Guide

My daughter married a man she met in India while studying there. She has lived in New Delhi for the past 9 years. Through their wedding and births of three grandchildren, plus other visits, I have visited India seven times, each visit for between two and five weeks.

I have spoken to a few of the Amish school children about life in India. I start out by saying that nothing is the same as in the U.S. Now, of course, that is a small exaggeration. People are the same. Everyone eats. Everyone sleeps.  But the entire experience of daily life in India is so completely different, that it is nearly unimaginable.

I encourage the Amish kids to ask me about anything, because every question turns out to be a good one.  

Q:  How do they cook?  Cooking is done in a pan over heat. It might be a frying pan, a pot, or a rounded pan called a kadhai, similar to a Chinese wok. And the heat source could be oil, propane, or even cow dung. In my daughter’s house, the burners look like a camp-stove, sitting on the counter. Many foods are fried or boiled. What Indian (and many Asian) kitchens do not have are ovens. Breads served in Indian kitchens are fried flat breads. When she got married, my daughter’s husband bought her an oven so she could bake. The oven sits on the kitchen counter, and is about the size of a large microwave oven. Baked items such as cookies and yeast breads are uncommon in India.  But my daughter is able to make them, and she even made a small Thanksgiving turkey.

Q:  How do they eat?  Wouldn’t you think that this very basic thing would be the same everywhere? It’s not.  When I visit, my daughter makes sure to have paper napkins available because I prefer to use them. They are not in common use in Indian households. It is traditional to eat with one’s right hand, never with the left hand, which holds a different purpose.

A common lunch would be a type of stew made from lentils, called daal. There are many flavors of daal, with or without added vegetables, but it’s always made of one sort of lentils or another, and is generally lunch food, along with rice or flatbread, cooked vegetables, spiced yogurt, and maybe a side dish of sliced cold vegetables such as carrots and cucumbers.

I am so tired of daal.  To me, it’s the same food, day after day. Once, when visiting the U.S., my daughter’s husband made a similar comment about sandwiches.  To him, they are all the same. Day after day, a sandwich for lunch. My daughter countered with the many flavors of sandwiches, all tasting different from each other. He feels the same way about daal. To him, it is flavorful and varied, and deserves to be lunch food every day.

I would eat rice and daal with a spoon or fork. An Indian eating in a traditional manner would use the flat bread, with his hand, to scoop up the food. No utensils needed. And then wash hands when lunch is done. No napkins.

Q:  Okay, but bathing, brushing teeth, toileting.  That can’t be different, right?  Oh, where to even start?  Remember that you never eat using your left hand? That’s because the left hand is used for personal cleanliness after using the toilet. But not with toilet paper, which is not traditional in India. Indian restrooms are all outfitted with a personal water sprayer. Toilet paper can be purchased, but usually only one roll at a time, and generally is used only by foreigners, such as myself. Even the most primitive toilet in a remote village will have some way to wash with water after using the toilet.

Bathing is not done in a bath tub, which, in India, is considered kind of weird and dirty. Why would you want to sit in a pool of your own dirty water? Only showers or bucket-bathing is done. Bathing by sitting on a stool in the shower area, with a bucket of water and a large cup to pour water over oneself, is actually most common. But you need to plan in advance for your shower. It is common in India for each bathroom (and the kitchen) to have its own 10-gallon hot water heater, right on the wall. About 20 minutes before showering, you must turn on the electric unit to heat some hot water. Then turn it off again when done.

Brushing teeth is done in the way you would expect. But the tap water in India is usually not safe to drink so I need to have bottled water to wet my toothbrush, rinse it, and rinse my mouth. It is so freeing to come home to the USA and just use tap water – without a care – when I brush my teeth or take a sip of water.  You have no idea how much we take for granted.

Robyn Morris has been involved in our community as a local tour guide, bed and breakfast proprietor, and volunteer.  She was the creator of the “Ghosts of Burton Historical Tour”, and is quite knowledgeable about Amish culture.  Morris has lived in Geauga County for over 30 years.  She holds an MBA from the University of Pittsburgh, and an undergraduate degree in Psychology and Linguistics.  Her other interests include history and historical architecture, as well as cooking and fine dining.  And of course, traveling near and far.

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