A first time immigrant has a lot to learn. The practical things are easy; understanding cultural differences is the real challenge.
I grew up in India where sharing a cup of tea is a much revered tradition. When you visit someone, your host is not just offering you a hot beverage; he is offering you his time and attention, letting you know that you are welcome.
Making chai is a holy ritual for me. Every morning I pound the ginger and cardamom and add it to boiling water. I add the tea leaves and watch the concoction bubble and rumble. Then I add the milk and let it simmer for a few minutes. The aroma of tea fills the kitchen and makes its way through the olfactory route to my nervous system, finally waking the residues of my sleepy body.
This was my sentiment around tea when I came to America. If I invited someone over for tea or coffee this was the envelope I would have folded my invitation in. What I didn’t know was that an invitation for tea or coffee could be inferred to be much more. This knowledge I gained through Hollywood, Google searches and one real-life incident.
While interning in a new city, my mentor invited me over for dinner. When I arrived, in walked another guest. It was an Indian man who worked with me; I will call him Young Man. Young Man looked equally surprised. It was a match-making ambush arranged by my gracious host. I don’t remember much of our conversation at dinner. I was more worried if I was using the right fork for salad. Afterwards, Young Man gallantly offered to drop me home. After a long uneventful drive we finally reached my apartment. I stepped out and thanked him. Remembering my manners, “Would you like to come up for some tea or coffee?” I said.
Young Man looked at me mouth agape. Shock and confusion clouded his face. He gulped fearfully, bid an urgent goodbye and drove away like the wind. Days later, all of this started to make sense.
I was watching a movie that had a similar invitation by girl to boy, but with very different outcomes. This was followed by some frantic Google searches and the final realization of my folly. I turned red and was very glad that by then, Young Man was working in a building far away from mine.
Understanding that Indian cultural norms don’t translate to American soil can sometimes challenge immigrants, especially so when an invitation to tea is just an invitation to tea.
Sandhya Acharya, a Bay Area based writer is a mother to two young boys, a dancer and running enthusiast. www.sandhyaacharya.com