An Indian Expat Parent: Birds, Bees and Underpants
I think I’ve kinda gotten into the groove of things here. I now understand that when somebody says "What do you know?" they don’t want me narrating all the things I know about everything around me. I get it that it’s just an expression.
I also understand that when someone says they’d like a rain check, they’re not just saying that because it’s raining, because it’s always raining in Seattle; they’re stating their intention of keeping an appointment, but on some other day.
But, when we get down to the three-foot level, understanding what my preschool daughter is talking about is like sitting for the highly competitive entrance exams back home, hoping to pass the test. And I’m not exaggerating when I tell you, the entrance exams are easier.
No, it’s not the birds and bees question that leaves me speechless — DD knows babies come from mommy’s tummy. And I think I’m prepared with the answer for her upcoming “how do they get there?” too. But, the questions that stump me most are about the human body.
Shocking, right? Even with an advanced degree, I’m not prepared to answer basic questions?
Well, that’s where the disconnect lies. These questions are not basic for us, my husband and I. Growing up in India we were programmed not to talk about our bodies, at least not about the covered parts. This includes the tummy, the thighs, the genitalia and such. We referred to such parts as "shame-shame."
As kids, we even had a little couplet for our friends whose underpants were visible or who exposed any part of the body that’s not supposed to be exposed. It goes like this: “Shame, Shame — puppy shame. All the boys know your name.” It was up to the singer to decide who gets to know your name. It could be boys, girls, donkeys, monkeys, anything actually. But somebody will know the name.
Of course, it’s not the same here. People are quite open and candid about discussing body parts. The other day, when DD went up to say hi to a 4-year-old boy who was snacking at the park, the first thing he said to her was, “You have a vagina.”
If you’re re-reading to figure the age of the boy, let me help you — 4. At first I could not quite understand what he had said. But then his mom explained it to me. And that’s when I understood the true meaning of the metaphor “earth slipping away from my feet.”
The kid’s mother must have noticed my utterly shocked, completely bewildered and extremely dazed face. My face is very transparent that way. I’ve never been able to convince people that I like apple pie. My face tells them otherwise. So, she quickly told her son that she would discuss it with him at home and he should focus on finishing his carrots now.
But I was still registering the kid’s statement — that shocker of a statement. I realized how under prepared I was to talk to DD, if she ever had questions about her covered body parts.
Growing up, as adolescent and teenage girls, even if the camisole or the bra strap peeped out of the blouse, we’d whisper into the oblivious girl’s ears, “Sunday is longer than Monday.” And she’d immediately understand and adjust her attire.
That’s how our reflexes were tuned in India. And we always believed the boys did not understand the depth of meaning in that sentence. It was only much later, that we realized that boys used the same code, too. So much for discretion.
When I shared my concern of being underprepared with a friend here, she asked me, confused, “But isn’t India the place where Kama Sutra comes from?”
Yes it is. But you see we don’t talk about Kama Sutra aloud, either. It’s something that’s not discussed publicly and hardly ever spoken about.
But it really got me thinking. Although from very different parts of India, my husband and I had very conservative upbringings. Our definition of modesty growing up was perhaps more stringent than it is now. Or perhaps it is a generational thing. Not to indicate in any way that we are too old, but the outlook seems to be changing in India too, although not to the extent that it is here, in the U.S. But kids back home probably don’t freak out when they see a bra strap hanging out anymore.
Coming to a new geography, we’re working on our own reservations and the values we want to pass on to our kid. We’re figuring out a way that acknowledges our belief system without offending others’ views. As I’ve come to realize, 'shame' is a heavily loaded word here. Back home, to us kids; it was just a word that rhymed with ‘name’ in the couplet that alerted friends to adjust their clothing.
Our little DD is growing up in a completely new world. And with a new world comes a new perspective. We want our daughter to be comfortable and proud of herself as a person — physically, intellectually and emotionally. At the same time, we want her to be cognizant of our value system and tolerant of others'. This would probably require the biggest adjustment on our part as parents. We would no longer be in our comfort zone.
But if it means bringing up a more confident, understanding and sensible child, it’s an adjustment worth making.
Padmaja Ganeshan-Singh is a new expat from India and a rookie Superwoman. This is her first time managing her family without any help and boy, does she have newfound respect for the American woman. She is the mother of a high-energy preschooler who presents her with the challenges of preserving the culture of her homeland while embracing the culture of her new home in Seattle. From driving on the 'right' side of the road to understanding the craze behind Halloween candy, Padmaja's trying to make meaning out of the madness around her. For a peep into her expat life, check her blog .