Imagine moving from the US to India in your late 20s for work, only to fall in love with the people and their culture; now imagine meeting and marrying an Indian man who spent his late 20s in the United States. That experience would likely give you and your husband a fairly unique worldview to say the least.
This week I’m joined by Jessica Kumar who, along with husband Abhishek, co-hosts The Invisible India Podcast which highlights lesser known facts of Indian culture from the perspective of a returning NRI–non-resident Indian–and an American living in India. Abhishek and Jessica are a cross-cultural couple exploring the mysteries of Indian culture and current social issues through conducting interviews with various experts, sharing personal experiences.
We discuss Jessica’s move from Chicago to India (1:16), her exposure to Indian culture (6:38), meeting her future husband (9:11), how she and Abhishek have blended their cultures (13:20), how they’ve adapted despite most in husband’s family coming from arranged marriages (16:41), their strategy for revealing mixed-relationship to traditional Indian family (22:47), Jessica provides some choice advice for individuals going through a similar journey (25:25), she reveals the biggest-positive impact Indian culture has had on her life (28:24), the conscious vs unconscious changes she’s noticed after years of exposure to Indian culture (30:06), finally Jessica lays out her long-term goals for The Invisible India Podcast (32:51).
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I’m a lifelong Southerner married to an Indian man who grew up in South Africa during apartheid and I am fiercely proud of both. If you don’t like that Well bless your heart. I’m Sheryl Parbhoo and this is Southern Life Indian Wife.
Jessica. I just wanted to welcome you to the show thanks so much for being here. Thank you so much.
I’m really glad to hear you so I’m excited to connect with you because you and I are so similar in many ways and different in many ways because of our lives and our families. We’re both married to Indian men. We are both white American women. We both have kids and we both have podcasts that we talk about intercultural experience which is always an experience right. Yes. Yeah but pretty much that’s where the similarities end I think because just because we’re both married to Indian men doesn’t mean things are the same. But we have a lot of things to talk about for sure. So first of all just kind of you know give me a background of where you’re from where you’re living now.
Yeah. So I’m from Chicago in the US and my husband is originally from Bihar. It’s a state in eastern India.
OK. And it’s kind of known to be more downtrodden place as a poor reputation in India. And usually when people hear that you’re from Bihar people kind of snuff their nose at you like I can anything good come out of that place and I can tell you that it certainly can. And actually the longer that I’m here. I really see how great the people are and how much potential this place really has and how much growth is happening. So that’s kind of his background is a bit you know coming from the place that’s not known as a metropolitan area whatsoever. For many years it was kind of known as the most corrupt states in India and the poorest state in India. So that’s kind of where he is. Yeah that’s kind of where he comes from. And we met in well actually we technically met when I was working in India.
I’m a marketing professional by trade and I was in my early 20s and I had gone to India for this assignment and I was working there for a couple of years and I had learned Hindi in that city where I was living. It was a wonderful experience for a young 20 something girl and yeah. That’s exciting. Living outside of metropolitan India was an awesome experience. So basically I had this incredible cross-cultural experience living in India. And at the same time my husband had moved to the US in his own cross-cultural experience in two southern Indiana.
Oh. Right. So he had gone on the border of Kentucky. No. Hell yes even while that’s even more of a cultural culture shock. Yes. Yes.
So he had gone from you know living in India and he had actually gone to college in a larger city in Boone. And it was a very multicultural experience for him and not in that city a lot of people from many different countries and we had roommates from Ethiopia and Bahrain and the U.S. and from all over the place. So OK he had that kind of multicultural experience before he moved to the US and then he moved to southern Indiana which is any thinking puts people to struggle right.
That’s about as white bread as it is.
Right. So that’s the juncture in life where he and I connected. OK. And I was in India and he was in the US and a friend introduced us. We were both volunteering with the same organization except I was with the Indian branch and he was with us. And a friend introduced us. You don’t know. Appreciate it. You’ve never met him. No. So we connected and the rest is history. So when I come back to the U.S. It was my assignment had actually finished up in that we met face to face. So the short answer like how we met is actually not what you asked me.
No I was going to. I wanted to know. So that’s really good that you guys were both able to experience each other’s culture before you met. Because that’s really different from what it was like when my husband and I met. Sure. Because I. He was born in South Africa. He’s never been to India but he grew up in this little Indian community. And I met in Memphis Tennessee. And I was just a little Southern girl. And. I have I still to this day have never been to India or Africa and just it’s not my my world.
So he had to make a lot of changes. Sure. Living in the south. And it was it was hard for me though because I was living in the south. In my world. And yet when I was in his family and with his Indian community it was like being in another world in another country. So yeah. There was no context I guess in which to function. So I felt like an outsider. Absolutely. From the beginning so did you feel that way even coming from knowing more about his culture from the beginning. I I don’t think I ever really felt like an outsider I have felt like an outsider in India.
When I first moved to because you know I didn’t know the language at that point and I didn’t know I was very just trying to figure all those things out and trying to walk that tight balance of accommodating the culture but yet so retaining who I was at the same time and recognizing that I would never become Indian no matter how much I tried or how much. And that wasn’t even the goal anyway. Right. Never to become Indian. But it’s a funny thing actually because in India we especially for women for foreign women there’s kind of like this pressure to you know oh you should do this and you should do this they want it. People want to make you into this like nice little Indian woman but no matter what you do you’ll never be back. So I kind of accepted Yeah except that from an early phase of you know I’m never going to you know my my skin tone and my background and my my culture backgrounds never going to change. And I can accommodate as much as I can to the culture and learn the language and learn how to make the food and where the Saudi and all these things but really I’ll never be an insider. And so I kind of accepted that even before he and I ever met and I wasn’t. By the time I had met him I mean I had already you know was already speaking Hindi at that point pretty smoothly and I already had the wardrobe and knew all the you know not all of the nuances. That’s not fair to say. But you know knew how to manage you know who to do a phenomenal must day to and whose feet to touch and all of these things you know it’s like walk through that world already. So by the time he and I met I had realized that we we weren’t. You know I was really going to be more of an along sider. And like I like that insider outsider or a by Sider I sit next to cider. So I think that got resolved pretty early in our relationship. And I also never had that expectation with his family that I needed to immediately be accepted. And I know a lot of people don’t have that expectation.
But how old were you when you guys met.
I was only twenty five minutes OK.
So you were still a young man. Yes. Because I look at it like with me I was 16 when my husband and I met. And this is something that I. I go over in my mind even to this day I’m 47. It’s been a really long time but I didn’t know who I was when I fell in love with those gorgeous Indian boy that walked into the Baskin Robbins. You know I got thrown I sort of went into you know I fell in the rabbit hole I went into this crazy upside down world thing. First of all I had no idea who I was and then there I was everybody saying well OK. You know once we got married Oh you have to learn how to cook. You have to learn how to dress.
You have to learn the language the religion and then they would turn around and say well you’re trying to be like us and we don’t like that. So we don’t want your help. And so does a number on your your sense of identity.
Oh it sounds like you had it together a whole lot more than I did. I wouldn’t say I had it together at all.
I think I had but that’s hard I mean being so young and trying to you know figure out all of those cues and all of those when you are still figuring out who you are and who you’re going to be. But there’s something really amazing about that where you’re figuring that out together as that as I guess you have your friends first and eventually became a couple.
How do you figure out your identity as a couple and one thing that’s always been interesting for us is we we almost created a third culture early on. OK. We’re not gonna be totally Indian we’re not going to be totally Midwestern American we’re going to be kind of a blend and it’s gonna be something else. So if we put it in either of these boxes we’re gonna be disappointing somebody. Right. So I think that’s kind of where we sell a lot. You know we have to create something different and it might be completely uniquely for us and it might not be replicated all but I’m sure you guys have like how have you mesh walk through that of creating your own.
We have done it very dysfunctional. I think.
I think we fail. Oh yeah.
Because you know one of the things I don’t know about you but I generalize with a lot of women that I know young girls as you go into a marriage or a relationship and think Oh I love him he’s so wonderful but I’m going to change him. You know this guy this can’t keep going on and it may not be a conscious thing but I think that that’s a tendency for a lot of women and I’m guilty of that. And I think he kind of wanted to change certain things about me. So since we were so young we didn’t go into it with that sort of conscious like OK we’re going to create our own culture it was just how we’re going to be married we’re in love love can conquer all. And then we tackled things when they were thrown at us.
You know I guess maybe that’s just our personalities to just kind of you know go at running the gambit but as far as culture since we live here in the south we don’t have a lot of Indian culture in our lives because our community we live in a really rural mostly white counting and we don’t have a lot of involvement with the Indian community mainly because at the beginning I wasn’t accepted. And so you know we started having our kids and I was just like well I don’t want to go to this function. They’re not gonna I mean I’m sure and that’s not the case now at all. Lovely people in the community. But you know years go by and it just it is what it is. So but how did you guys consciously make that those choices with things in your life in your family to make them blend.
Well we’ve been married for almost 10 years OK. Our first six years of marriage were in the US and. Our last three ongoing now for years have now been in India and actually in Bihar where my husband grew up which I guess you know we we tried to surround ourselves with people who if they weren’t Indian we found people that were interested in India. And so because that was just such a a part of our lives and our story and just people who had kind of a multicultural background and that a lot of our friends were cross-cultural couples different flavors and different the combinations and just people who had lived abroad or were international students from China or Saudi Arabia or wherever. And so we kind of this for you. We just can form this community around us or just really it wasn’t intentional just kind of happens and yeah you gravitate toward people that you feel comfortable with and share.
Commonality with here. Did you have any couples or people that you knew in his family or your family that had married. Cross culturally especially Indian and an American because we didn’t we didn’t have any role models. No one to talk to about it. Right.
Well you know I in my family I didn’t really have any one the head married cross culturally. However my family was very open to that. I think since I was a young person and seen since I was probably 9 or 10 years old they say here that I would end up overseas somewhere. I just kind of my dad’s an international business person and I was always asking questions and always.
I grew up hearing him on the phone at 3:00 in the morning you know talking to Mr. Kim in Korea and you know going every couple of months to Slovenia or wherever you is just constantly on the go and I grew up kind of having understanding that people from different cultures had a lot to offer and that there was a big world out there.
So I felt that I didn’t necessarily have a lot of cross-cultural interactions myself as a child. I grew up actually in a pretty white suburban community of Chicago. But my family was very open and I guess with all my interactions in India and I had gone and lived there for several years I kind of groomed them for that possibility.
I guess that sounds negative but I kind of prepared them for that possibility that you know my life would be heading in different directions. So they were prepared they had seen things so far. Yeah that’s good.
And in any Sheikh’s family this is actually really a great story. So his you know most of the people in his family have had arranged marriages and he’s you know from what we call a trans national family right. So he’s got people who are in Canada Australia New Zealand India the US just kind of all over the place like some of his core family members. So his folks basically have not lived anywhere besides there this state of Bihar. So they are very I.
I am so blessed of my home. They’re very they’re very traditional but they’re very understanding. And that’s taken them you know they’ve they’ve been through on their own journey but we know the family is not in Indian families especially it’s not just your nuclear family it’s not just your parents.
So yeah. So that was a huge adjustment for me. So you’ll definitely have to tell me how you adjusted to it.
We we had you know so in his larger family we have people who are kind of settled all over his sister’s in Canada. So our uncle or Abu Sheikh’s uncle had gone to settled in New York. I don’t know. I guess it must be almost 50 years now. Wow. Back in the I think he was in his 60s or maybe late sixties. I’m not sure. And he kind of settled his family over there. And because of that a lot of Abu Sheik’s parents and other relatives had been exposed to some of Western culture or just the understanding of how life was there. So that was a positive thing. And in some ways I think it was negative because some of those stereotypes came through. However one of Abu Sheikh’s cousins. One of his older cousins the patriarch of the family got married to a wonderful white American man and everyone was so happy for her why and this is the patriarch of the family who’s basically you know granting this and they had this lovely amazing Hindu wedding in New York and then they also had everything in the ancestral village way out in the boonies of Bihar.
Now it’s still there if you’re listening cousins I really need to talk to you about your experience because this is just I can’t believe you would go here we go from New York to the village. But yeah that’s that’s like completely different sides of the universe. It is.
So anyhow so that was a huge door open and actually at their wedding Abu Sheikh looked over at his cousin and his cousins like I guess we can marry whoever we want now.
Which isn’t entirely true but that was a huge open door for us. And actually he and I had just started talking at that point. So we waited we waited a while to kind of we waited for the right time to talk to his family. And I think one of the one of the terrible things is that I think for Western women and Indian guys this tends to be this tension of you know I don’t want to tell my parents about you. Yes. Yes. Mm hmm. And that can be really hurtful I think for a lot of Western women or women who come from non shamefaced cultures prior where it’s like why don’t you want to tell them about me. Right.
Is there is there something wrong with me. Are you right.
Yeah. And it’s like no actually if we want this to go right I have to wait for the right timing which just doesn’t make sense to us. Right. So in this case you know we had to wait for the right timing.
So it was after you know this this cousin’s wedding and it went beautifully and everyone just obviously loves them and they’re just fantastic people.
So everyone loves them and we’re so happy and you know they they got to see this American dude in the village just doing all this all these really archaic old type traditions and they were just everyone was so happy. So I saw it. He was amazing.
And then after that experience we thought you know after that all goes that might be the right time to say hey by the way mummy papa there’s somebody that I want to tell you about.
Yes. Let me tell you. Yeah.
So we wanted that to be fresh in their mind. And I think that was a huge help. And then for women the standard is definitely different. Right. You have to. You know there’s a lot of expectations to kind of be subservient and you have to kind of be the household servant sometimes.
And and so all of those things you know you kind of have to go through this testing process to see if you’re able to do that and if you if you’re going to be good not just for your husband but for the whole family. So basically you know from the from the beginning it was you know bubbling I have somebody and I’m I’m serious about her because there’s no like idea of at least in my in-laws family there’s still not this idea of like dating culture it’s like you’ve got someone and you get married.
Absolutely yeah. We had to wait till we were quite serious about each other to reveal that I existed because otherwise it would be like well what are you gonna wait around for when you get married or not talk about it right. It was kind of like you know this this nexus of how serious are we about our relationship but are we willing to let it go if everyone is against it or I or. Are we willing to count the losses if it’s really going to cause a lot of heartache and pain for us for the rest of our lives. And so that was kind of the point that we were at of either we’re like going to get go forward with this or it’s all going to end. Yeah.
I guess we did go through that. Only it wasn’t as calculated as yours it was like I think I was a senior in high school and we’re sitting in the car out in front of my house and it was sort of that discussion like OK. You know either I’m telling him either you’re going to tell your parents about me or we’re done. And he’s like well OK we’re done. Because he just. Yeah of course we got back together like a week later but it’s just so much pressure for the person that Indian person in the family from their family about the expectations and not wanting to disappoint. And I don’t know about you I guess because you lived in Indian culture you knew more about it. I kept asking him and asking myself well why can’t you just do what you want to do. You’re on a diet. I can understand that. My head was just not going to grasp that. So that was always. But it sounds like you’re like you have a better foot on the Indian ground than I did.
So yeah which sometimes takes away all my excuses though. And if I mess up it’s like you should know better. But again I’m not an insider I never be an insider and so sometimes people still give me those excuse. Let me take my excuse.
I mess up so it doesn’t sound like you had to correct me if I’m wrong like forced yourself into a category to try to change to please people because yes something you you chose. You knew what you were getting into a great deal as a blogger and podcast and a writer. I get people sending me messages emails asking me advice Oh I’m married. I’m married to an Indian guy or I’m dating an Indian guy. And his parents want me to do this or how much am I supposed to change for them to accept me. Do you get messages like that from people. Yeah yeah yeah. And what do you say. Because it’s so hard because you know you’re living your life in your contacts. I’m living my life and my context everybody’s so different. So what kind of advice do you give to people.
Yeah it’s hard because the standards for women sake on one hand I want to be like a stark feminist like you know no change for anybody except you the way you are. You know the other hand I want to be honoring of Indian culture and of the background and history of what that means.
And and so I usually encourage people that you know to try to to try to accommodate in some ways. And again like it’s it it is going to feel like a slippery slope. Well if I do this and they’re going on me do this and they don’t want me to do this and they’re going to do this you know they might but but you might not see it always put your foot down at some point and say I want you to wear bangles and put on and the. And if they want you to learn how to cook something or if they want you to come to some event and you know where the Saudi and sit there and look pretty like you know why not. But you know why not. Or you know and learn a few phrases and whatever your spouse’s native language or whatever their family’s native language like why not you know some of these little things go a long way. But if you I I guess what I would say is if you if you are willing to adjust and accommodate in some of the small things you gain ground and you’ll gain you’ll gain the permission to kind of put your foot down when the big things come along. Yeah.
Absolutely right. It’s creating goodwill. Exactly. And one thing I tell people you know they’ll ask me Well do you wear the Indian clothes and you know do you do what your mother in law says and that sort of thing or what do you do about religion with raising your kids. I don’t like this tradition about Hindu culture. So should I do it or not. And I just I tell people don’t change your self for your husband or your in-laws. Change things about you if you’re comfortable with it and if there’s if you’re marrying somebody that’s Indian or a different culture there is a reason that you were attracted to that person in the first place. And then culture is a big part of them. So give it a fair shake. Yeah. So you’re you’re so immersed in the culture and I am so not. But I have so many aspects of it that have my life. Yes. What is the biggest impact that Indian culture has had on your life in a good way or one thing.
I don’t know if there is one thing. I mean I’ve been so I recently told a sheik that something is changing in me and I don’t think it’s ever going to go back to the way I think I cannot go back to the way that I was. Now why this is and this is after you know I’ve been involved in Indian culture now for like 13 years since I lived in India. And it was this year particularly I felt something shifting in me. And. And I’m like I’m in it. And it was almost it was it was a little scary because I felt a part of myself being lost my Americanness being lost and yes. And I and I saw it kind of slipping away from me. And I’m always adopting a new way of thinking or I felt very permanent to me. And I don’t know if that’s just because we don’t visit the US often or I’m not sure why. But I don’t exactly know what it was that was changing. So I’m probably older reflect in 10 years without it right. But I do think that you know once you’re once you’re immersed in the culture there’s so many things that do change about you things that you consciously changed and things that you unconsciously change and right you the conscious things you can change are learning the language and learning to eat you know eating Indian food then making decisions you know thinking about I’m OK. Well I’m going to show up. The invitation says 5 p.m. but I’m going to show up at 7 consciously frantically making those decisions. And then there’s things that change unconsciously like Oh man. You know the woman that woman said that she’s not going to be able to meet me and she would come to my house. She directly said you know Oh I am sorry I can’t make it. And I feel bad about that because you’re supposed to say Oh yeah.
I’ll come to your house I come to your house even if you’re not going to come to their house. Right. And I actually I genuinely feel sad about it. Like what happened to me. What did you do.
I used to be so direct you know. So those are the things that unconsciously change your feelings your your underlying.
Yeah. Just like your underlying ways of emoting in ways of navigating.
And I think I would say if I had to give an answer I think I would say that just like my entire world view about people and why people are motivated about things. Mm hmm. It’s it’s it’s for me it’s actually kind of the core of my worldview is that it’s kind of morphed and that’s why it can be a very deconstructed type of thing and airy.
But also as you kind of reconstruct your world view together into the area you know positive and enlightening and seeing things through a completely different lens that’s exciting actually. And I think also for a person especially like a mom you know you’re going to change in your life anyway because you know you were a career woman and then you were a wife and then you’re a mom and then you have these struggles so you know regardless of where you are it’s going to change. You just have a little bit more of a drastic change because of your locale and the culture that you’re in. And I can tell you I’m older than you and you’re going to be a completely different person in ten years and then 20 years. And that’s a great thing. We we grow so much. Yeah. Yeah. That’s great. So your podcast it’s called invisible India. Yeah. What’s your goal for that. How did you get started with that. Yeah. Well this is really just a hobby.
We have a lot of other work that we’re doing here we’re involved in non-profit work and we have a small business or starting and those are the things that kind of you know sustain us and pay the bills.
But one of the things that we found is a lot of people were really interested in what we’re doing and interested about our lives and Indian culture and our perspective and how we’ve navigated east and west and and I think that some of the ways that we are discovering different aspects of India through a perspective of a foreigner who is kind of adapted to Indian culture and then a returning NRI which an “NRI” is a “non resident Indian”. So he was abroad for several years and then came back and people I think are really interested in that perspective. How do you think India’s changed. How have you changed. How have you been able to raise your kids there and so that some of the things we like to talk about. Our goal I think is just to educate and inform and have a dialogue. And as we discovered this this this subcontinent and its massive quickly changing landscape yet fiercely traditional landscape at the same time. So how do we.
Do life here and how do we work with those those changes and things that are happening here. So one of the topics we talk about are.
Raising kids and we talk a lot about women and men’s roles and gender roles. We talk about different things that are happening in India. Different stereotypes misconceptions and how we found this to be true or untrue.
It’s great to be able to create and create a dialogue is just so important because I think people here don’t know anything about Indian culture. When I tell somebody that my husband is Indian they look at me sometimes and go oh yeah I like Indian food. That’s their only context with it. I’ve seen the Jungle Book it’s like oh goodness. Yeah. So I think they’re creating a dialogue about all of that is really great. And I mean that’s one of the reasons I do this podcast is just to get people’s stories out there because if you don’t know someone you’re going to look at them and say oh they’re different from me. I’m not going to like you. That’s what people tend to do. But just getting stories and talking about people and to people is so important in this world today. What do you have on the horizon for the podcast. You have any good app come upcoming episodes.
Yeah I’ve been working on bringing some some expert and guests on OK so I’ve done a few interviews with different people who work with different non-profit organizations and things like that who are really involved in the frontlines of social change. So I had one interview with a lady that I know here who is involved in gender violence projects and so we interviewed her and that was like I thought one of the best episodes I have a few people on the horizon that are international researchers or HD doing their PHC. I have a few just really interesting guests. One guy who is a cultural intelligence expert and yeah hoping to get his schedule he said yes. Now we see to get the dates figured out. So I think by the end of the year I think we’ll have some of these released. So I’m really excited about just getting more experts on Indian culture and people who come from this perspective from a cross-cultural perspective. And I think we need to get more. I would like to kind of take it in a more direction where we’re talking about social issues and some of the things that cause conflict or debate.
Yeah. Excellent. I’m looking forward to listening to more of those because listening to your podcast and talking to you really gives me a new perspective on the things that I go through in my life. I do have a little bit more of a reason for why you know this has happened or this person has said this. It sure just gives you a wider context. So that’s great. Well I look forward to hearing more on your podcast. And I look forward to talking to you more about some different things I’d love to hear know at a later time maybe what it’s like to raise kids in India. The difference between that and the US and you’ve got little kids 5 and 2.
Yeah I could even give you a little bit of advice if you Yes please. Oh. Well I knew some of your episodes I enjoyed listening to your son leaving for college and your daughter now.
That’s been really encouraging to me and to be able and one thing actually on one of your recent episodes with Sally I think you was talking about him and his wife and this is that they’re in right now of. Yeah yeah.
You have to do some things to kind of keep that romance alive and realizing that this is a phase the house always smells like poo. And this is I think in that just touched my heart. And I had been holding on to that for a couple weeks of yes that is the Phase I made. Yeah. The reality so and you do you need to hear from old people that yes it will pass.
So I definitely hear that.
All right well thank you so much for being here to talk with me. I really appreciate everything thank you so much.
I was really looking forward to this and just getting to speak with you and and I really enjoy your podcast I really think that it’s an important voice that you have and I think that there’s just a lot of discovery that needs to be done from so many different perspectives and I just appreciate what you’re doing.
Well thank you and likewise so I hope to have you on here again. I definitely would love to talk to you again. Thank you. I like to thank you. If you like this podcast so far. Please continue following along by tapping the subscribe button wherever you listen to podcasts. If you really liked it go on the awesome and leave a rating in a review. Find me on all social media too by searching Sheryl with an S. Par Bhoo that’s p a r b h o o. Thanks for listening to Southern life Indian Wife.