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From Confused to Confident

By Nermeen Saba Arastu

Single Woman's Journey Through a Desi Dinner Party


For me (and many single Desi women in their 20s), the Desi dinner party is always a difficult, yet humorous experience. The event requires hours of preparation under my mother’s strict eye; some painful, some arduous, some downright silly. From waxing eyebrows, to hours with a hair straightener, to the perfect ironing of my Desi attire—such preparations can last from half an hour to three hours. Other Desi women have echoed the same frustrations; no matter what our profession, level of education or salary, many of us end up at such gatherings because of pleading from our parents or social obligation. While mothers pressure their daughters to be home and ready at least two hours prior to a gathering, I have seen my brothers and male cousins just attend in the khakis they had been wearing for the past three days. These same young men simply show up,

eat and leave, while we women find ourselves cajoled into staying the whole time, wearing traditional itchy dresses, and struggling to maintain fresh lipstick at all times. Above all else, many of these gatherings follow the same, predictable format:

Arrival Time
Though recently we have seen great reform in Desi standard time policies, in many parts of the country, the standards have not changed. This means that if we are invited to a party at 6:30 p.m., we show up no earlier than 8:00 p.m.

Warning: Showing up early is usually awkward! Once, I attempted to actually show up on time to a 6:00 p.m. dinner invitation and found my host opening the door with a towel in her hair, while her husband was frying the last of the samosas. As I awkwardly sat in the living room flipping through a Reader’s Digest from 1997, the family got ready, finished cleaning their house, bathing their kids, and hiding their ready-made samosa bags. I vowed never to show up on time again.

The Small Talk
After an initial set of greetings and hugs, a customary round of compliments go around the room, with each aunty complimenting the other’s outfit/jewelry/shoes in a sort of self-enforcing "support group" manner. Usually, such compliment sessions branch into mini-arguments of who looks better or has better clothes.

After the support-group behavior subsides—though it usually continues sporadically until the end of the evening—Desi dinner party conversations usually fall within a narrow band of subjects:

Women
Recipes for South Asian dishes
Detailed Bollywood gossip
South Asian fashions
Women X's scandalous daughter who married Y
Women Z’s scandalous son who decided to drop pre-med and become a journalist.

Men
Israel
Israel
Israel
Bush
South Asian cricket teams

Warning to unmarried girls: Vulnerables like you (and me!) are prime targets in these arenas. We brace ourselves for relentless comments on weight…

Are beti, tum kitni moti hogayi ho?
(Oh daughter! How fat you have become!)

Allah, tum kitni dubli ho gayi ho! AB tum achi lagti ho!
(Lord! How skinny you have become, NOW you look good)
Uh thanks for implying I looked bad before?

Or comments on our skin or complexions…

Tumhara library mein padte padte rang gora hogaya, Alhumdullilah!
(From sitting in the library and studying so much you have gotten so fair, thank God!)
Can we not thank God that I passed my first semester of law school?

ARRE! Tumhare moon peh kyaa nikla hai!?
(Oh my! What is this thing on your face?)
Any minute pimple?

…and finally, comments on how 1) if unmarried, you should get married 2) if married and childless, you should have a child or 3) if you have a child over 15, you should start thinking about that child’s marriage.

If you are a girl, you should sit through all talks with a serene smile on your face. Never look bored, and God help you, NEVER question the Bollywood fact exchange (unless you have been spending four hours or more a day watching Zee TV, too). From watching my male relatives, I have realized that if you are a boy, it is usually acceptable for you to go into another room and play with the host's six-year-old son's PlayStation. Or, you can simply eat, excuse yourself saying "I have to study," compliment the food, and leave. If you are a girl, usually saying "I have to study" will result in a lecture on how it is more important for you to "expose yourself to society" and "meet people”— all of which implies that finding a suitable boy trumps studying.

Khana (Food) Rules
Food. The beginning, middle and end of all Desi parties. From the delicate serving of punch at the beginning, to the samosa appetizers, onto heaps of biryani (flavored rice dish) and buttery naan (flat bread), topped off with sugar-saturated sweets, puddings and deserts, ending with heavily creamed chai (tea) and a final, much-needed digestion aid—sawf.

1. Men must be served first.
The concept of "ladies first" is simply nonexistent at a Desi dinner party. Who cares that children are crying in the "women’s section?” It doesn't matter that they have been slaving in their kitchens since 5:00 a.m. Men will always eat first. They will typically say "Bhabhi, khana bahut acha hai" (“Sister, the food is great”), and heap their plates, not giving a second thought to the intricately decorated biryani, the flower cut radishes, or the color coordinated Lennox China presentation. Their main goal is to return to talking about Israel. By the time the women get to the food, it has splashed all over the tablecloth, the seven layer pudding is now mush, and it’s time to start washing the men's dishes and serving them tea.

2. If the host has a daughter, she will inevitably be asked:
"Beta, tumne kya banaya?" (“Daughter, what did you cook?”). It doesn't matter if you are 10 or 20; a med student or on a traveling soccer team; if you cleaned the house all day, or shined the silverware; if you polished the leaves on the fake plant or if you made the salad. If you didn't partake in the cooking of the Desi food you will hear: “Arre! Jawan beti hone ka phir kya faida hua!” (“Oh my! Then what is the point of having a grown-up daughter?!”)

To this, I usually think: “I have been up since 8:00 a.m. mopping the floor that you have now chosen to scratch with your three-inch heels. I will be staying up until 12:00 a.m.—after you leave—washing the 100-piece Lennox crystal set my parents chose to use—which is not dishwasher safe—and I will manage to ace my law school final tomorrow.

In reality I say with a nervous giggle, “Uhh..errr...Aunty...I ...uh...cut the vegetables.”

Aunty walks away shaking her head, and I add a big red pepper to her biryani—sweet revenge.

3. If you don't eat for three, the host will be offended (and other etiquette)
A. If you want more food, say you don’t and people will put spoonfuls more on your plate anyway.

B. If you are a younger woman, and are—God forbid—unmarried, your female relatives will collectively sigh, raise their eyebrows and mention how the girls in Pakistan are just so skinny these days while you add another heaping spoonful of basmati rice onto your plate. Never go for seconds; instead, wait for the host to ask you if you want more food, kindly decline so you save face, and wait for the host to give you the food anyway.

C. If you don’t want any more food, put a napkin on your plate to prevent the host from putting more in. Extremely pushy hosts might make you a new plate, so beware. (Note: Napkins are extremely good for covering the food you need to throw away—of course food should be thrown away in emergency situations only.)

 

4. Food clean-up will be done by women only
Young unmarrieds, you again are the most vulnerable here. This is the testing field, the battle ground, the observatory. All eyes are on you as food clean-up begins, as aunties observe the following skill:

Does she look good in the yellow dishwashing gloves?
Will her dupatta (scarf) fall into the sink?
Will she find the proper Tupperware containers?
How many dishes can she fit into the dishwasher at once?
How impeccably will she wash the pots?
And finally, most importantly, will her lipstick stay on through this all?!

Oh my friends, the pressure is on, and in some communities the competition is fierce. The final challenge: Who will be the dishwasher—a position of excellence and toil. Wars over who will be the lucky dishwasher have been known to draw blood and tears. Becoming the dishwasher can excuse many wrongs, such as not helping with any of the cooking, your imperfect Urdu/Gujarati/Punjabi, or even the fact that you dropped punch on the white carpet. It’s a chance to win the aunties back, and save yourself from getting in trouble with female relatives on the car ride home. Being the dishwasher is your way to Queendom at a Desi dinner party.

Being the dishwasher is your way to Queendom at a Desi dinner party. So here is some valuable help to get to the sink:

1) Be early. Strategically see when aunties are starting on their rice (usually the last thing they eat), work your way to the sink and plant yourself there for when the sea of dishes arrive. The early bird literally gets the worm at Desi dinner parties.

2) If you are too late, don’t worry: use the hip sway. This involves getting as close to the opponent dishwasher as possible (sort of like parallel parking), and with a strong jut of your hips in her direction, literally push her over. If done subtly and with surprise, it will seem more like a friendly dance move than an aggressive race to the finish line. Singing a catchy Punjabi number and doing this at the same time truly seals the deal.

3) Draw attention to how nice/expensive/lightly-colored your opponent dishwasher’s clothes are. Something like "Arre, aapke to kapde safed dood hain! Kharab hojayenge!" (“My! Your clothes are as white as milk. You will ruin them!”) Soon, all neighboring aunties will join in agreement and your opponent will be forced to leave the sink vicinity.

The Never-ending Goodbyes
At some point in the evening comes the time that we anxiously await: when the aunties and uncles suddenly notice the time, suddenly remember what they have to do the next day, put down their chai cups and urgently announce that they must be leaving. It doesn’t matter if you are finally having a really good conversation, or if you are enjoying the desert after finishing the piles of dishes—it is time to get up, grab the keys and head towards the door. You wait. You wait. And you wait some more. I have spent a record of two hours waiting for my parents to say goodbye just to watch them start a new conversation as we sat in our car. My advice for getting out as soon as possible? Tell your mom you think you left the hair straightener/iron/oven on at home. It works like a charm.

While it might be humorous to read about and reflect upon these idiosyncrasies, Desi parties still incorporate many of the sexist biases that still exist in our society today. Many of the “aunties” are actually very educated professionals, yet it saddens me to see women continually discriminate against other women with judgmental comments and pressure to marry. Women in any society have a large role to play in raising respectful men, and when our marital status and cooking skills get more attention than our education and intellectual potential, I don’t see how we can expect any more from the men. That being said, these dinner parties are still a powerful place and have been used to maintain cultural ties, start grassroots political movements, and even vent about the problems within Desi culture.



When not washing dishes at desi dinner parties, Nermeen is a law student at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Writing this article finally inspired her to throw her hair straightener against the wall, throw out the Fairness cream, and show up at the next desi dinner party (shockingly) looking like herself. She rambles about her life as a law student by day and dutiful Pakistani girl by night on her blog at www.nermeensaba.blogspot.com.


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