Love & Biryani
It is nearing almost 2 years since I discovered two of what I consider, possibly some of the best kept secrets of Pakistani culinary culture (as available in Brisbane), desi ghee (butter on steroids) and Achar Gosht Shan masala mix (the easiest dish to impress my Kiwi family with). While I have advanced to now, appreciate more intricate ingredients, these two rather mundane members of the Pakistani cuisine (although I beg to differ), are forever symbolic of my almost 2 year journey of intercultural love. A Kiwi and a Pakistani. Two people from opposite ends of the globe, colliding into one another in the postgraduate center of Griffith University. What are the odds?
As we celebrate Valentines Day, the one day a year when love truly does transcend all intercultural and interfaith borders, I sit here pondering the deeper meaning of my intercultural relationship, particularly in terms of my own identity and my own transformations. On this occasion I will share with you some rather amusing experiences of my intercultural love and my cultural evolving as an individual.
What some come to consider as the BIGGEST barrier to an intercultural relationship, religion can actually play a very rewarding role. Let me rewind…
The first sincere question posed by my boyfriend was “So, are you Catholic or Protestant?”…
What did he just ask me, I thought to myself. “Errrm… neither?” I responded.
“But you have to be one?” he innocently probed.
Oh. Dear. How, and where was I even to begin in explaining that growing up in New Zealand no one posed the question of religion; no one’s identity was inextricably linked to one’s faith. Yes we grew up in a society of ‘Christian’ values, but no one asked and frankly, no one cared. How could I pitch this to my Muslim boyfriend who grew up in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan – born a Muslim, unconsciously a Muslim – without sounding like an atheist soulless disbeliever? (Note: to have introduced my not-so-unique concept of karma, universe etc… would have been just too much for my boyfriend to fathom at this point, so it was better to stay hushed).
While this presented a very early STOP and RECONSIDER warning sign in the relationship, it has yet to severely derail the everyday running of our union (I know some of you are thinking ‘Ah just wait till marriage and a family’). Religion in this context has infact enriched this relationship. Cue flashback…
It was 4 months into our relationship and Ramadan was approaching… and I was panicking. I terrorized Google search on a daily basis, absorbing every detail required to mitigate any cultural or religious mishaps. But in reality, I think what I was really looking for was the reassurance fasting for 12 hours a day would not kill my new international boyfriend. During this time I became enriched with Islamic knowledge. I was fueling a desire I never knew I had for a deeper, more philosophical understanding of the world – one I had never fed. I witnessed the nature of giving during Ramadan and the collective spirit between Muslim and Non-Muslim communities. What a beautiful time this was – just one of the many gifts from my intercultural relationship.
“Why are there so many words for Uncle in Urdu?!” – The Linguistic Challenge
Recently I watched The Stream (a show via Al Jazeera), highlighting the topic of intercultural love. The main points being, isn’t love alone hard enough, let alone negotiating an intercultural and/or interfaith relationship? The show touched on what I think is the biggest challenge to my own relationship, not faith, but culture and more specifically the linguistic element.
Linguistic expression is the strongest, and most enduring expression of one’s cultural identity. My international pyara (boyfriend) can ride the bus to work and eavesdrop between his choice of Urdu, Punjabi, Hindi and English. Me, well its English, English and English! Oh, and when he talks to his family on the phone, I pull up a seat and watch the theatrics! Hands flying everywhere, it is amazing he can still keep the phone to his ear. Pitches rise and fall – everything sounds tense, but that’s just part of the passion!
But this is where I feel disconnected from him. The linguistic challenge is testing. It’s not because my international pyara lacks a competent level of English, quite the opposite infact. It is because there are those moments when all he wants to do is bolo (speak) in his mother tongue – to truly express that angry day at work, a funny joke etc – “English just doesn’t have the same meaning” he would say. “English has no expression, no passion”.
It’s not that conducting a relationship in English is boring (I don’t currently have an alterative), but I am conscious of how this separates us. You see, this is one of the two dimensions I cannot connect with. Firstly it’s religion, and secondly it’s Urdu. The two fundamental elements to his existence are not mine. This is where my pseudo-Pakistani act falls short, and I hit the ground hard realising ‘wow we are just so different…’
The here and the now
It’s always an exciting time when my international pyara returns to his motherland. It’s my prime opportunity to strengthen my Pakistani persona. I have the parandas (but my hair is too short to wear them) and I have the bangles (but according to him Australia doesn’t have the right occasions to wear them). Each time I increase my list of necessary requests. ‘I want a salwar kameez’ I plee! ‘No! You’re not a Pakistani girl, stop trying!’ is what I am met with. Bhel thukit (absolutely right), I’m not. BUT, doesn’t he understand, it’s not about alluding people to believe I’m not really a gori (white girl) with freckles, it’s about me being able to archive this relationship, because in a sense it is such a surreal adventure! These tangible assets all help to preserve the memory.
So where am I now? Well since coming down from the 6 month initial Shan masala high, realizing desi ghee in abundance is an enemy to a females thighs and the daily consumption of rice was not, in the long term sustainable for my Kiwi taste buds, I have settled quite nicely into the rhythm of my intercultural relationship.
I spend hours bonding with my kitchen, experimenting with endless recipes, while being mindful to avoid the Urdu, I adopt simplified gori versions to maintain my pseudo-Pakistaniness. Two years ago I was a Kiwi, but now I feel there is a stroke of something else. This intercultural relationship has invigorated my senses and more importantly my lust for South Asian food. Life and love are COLOURFUL. Growing up in my white European New Zealand, our culture is bleached white. We attempt to negotiate ourselves between European cultural façades and Pacific realties. My Kiwi identity alone lacks the richness and the complexity I can take from my international pyara. I am starving for this detail and depth – and now I can have it, and I do – I take layers from his culture and wrap myself in them – in all attempts hoping to prove one day I could be Pakistani too.
*Luci West is a PhD candidate at the School of Government and International Relations, Griffith University, Australia, Brisbane and executive editor of Alochonaa. You will often find Luci in the kitchen cooking up a storm.