Culture shock comes in different forms for different people. When I studied abroad in Prague during my junior year of college, the most challenging feat to overcome was figuring out whether to have a questionable pork dish or cheap beer for dinner.
So when I walked into a house full of relatives that were unknown to me, I hardly knew what I was getting myself into.
My father was born and raised in a town called Jaipur, the capital and largest city in the north Indian state of Rajasthan. Jaipur is small, not tourist-ridden, unlike Delhi; if Jaipur were an American city, it would be Houston, Texas, and Delhi would be Austin.
Within five minutes of arriving at the Jaipur airport off of our flight from Delhi, I had already begun to squirm. I needed to use the restroom, and so I opened the bathroom door to find a squatter toilet. I vaguely remembered this unique type of toilet from my first visit to India as a nine-year-old; the toilet is a hole in the ground, and requires its squatter to bend her knees, then aim accordingly. To do it successfully takes superb lower-body strength – I should’ve done more thigh workouts before my trip – but I was secretly hoping all of the squatter toilets would have evolved into Western toilets by 2013.
Unfortunately, they have not.
My father and I walked outside, and a 20-something-year-old man was waiting for us with his car.
“Hi. I’m your cousin…your dad’s brother’s son. Kunal’s the name,” he said, with an Indian accent.
We arrived at a big white house, which was encircled by a big black gate. A pillar at the front of the house read “R.B. Upadhyaya” (in India, each house is labeled with a number and the names of the owners of the house). Upadhyaya is my father’s last name, the name I would have taken if my parents were still married. But I’m a Sharma.
We walked into a room full of relatives on my father’s side, none of whom I’ve ever met. I hugged a middle-aged woman who told me she is my dad’s sister-in-law, then hugged a middle-aged man who told me he is my dad’s brother, and then an old woman approached me.
“Touch her feet,” my dad whispered in my ear.
I dropped to the ground.
“Namaste, Sheena,” she spoke. “You are my granddaughter.”
Following a slew of introductions, we all gathered in the living room and chatted over chai. My grandmother was speaking to me in Hindi, and I was pleasantly surprised at how much I could articulate back. I wasn’t half bad. She began to tell me stories about when I was two years old, and I’d go swimming with my dad, and I’d scream, “Papa! Papa!” every time he would splash me with water.
“May I be excused? Bathroom,” I interrupted.
I ran upstairs – I wish I could say I was suffering from bowel issues post-masala dinner – but I wasn’t. I’d aggressively been fighting a lump in my throat ever since I walked into the house. When I reached my bedroom, I burst out sobbing.
Who does he think he is?
Who are these people, and why am I only just meeting them now?
If he was such a hunky-dory father, why did he leave when I was a baby, and not come back into my life until nearly two decades later?
I had so many questions that I knew couldn’t be answered as swiftly or as accurately as I would’ve liked. My grandmother’s casual confrontation of my hazy past countered my ability – or willingness – to explore what exactly happened during my bachpan. I felt overwhelmed, angry, confused, but mostly, I felt like a hyena up against a pack of wolves.
All of a sudden, I began to regret my decision to open up this can of worms. I should’ve let this one go, I should’ve pretended my father doesn’t exist. I’m not going to find myself here, I thought. I’m only going to find myself more confused.
I sighed and wiped away my tears, then returned to laugh with the room full of strangers.
Later that evening, my grandmother told me she had some things to show me. She took me into her room, where a photo album was lying on the bed; pictures revealed the arranged marriage between my mother and my father. She showed me my late grandfather. Then, she opened her wardrobe: a collection of the most beautiful saris I’ve ever seen, in every color of the rainbow. She took my hand, looked me in the eye, and said: “I’m your grandmother, and I love you.”
I smiled with my mouth closed. I know what she wanted to hear back, but I couldn’t form the words. She told me about the divorce, and how fighting doesn’t exist between spouses in a “typical” Indian household because a woman should know her place, and that traditional gender roles should be followed by Indian girls like myself even in the states, and that I should get married in India.
She told me my father has done some bad things in the past, but that those things don’t make him a bad man, and deep down, there is good in him.
I nodded whole-heartedly, as if I concurred with even one thing she dove so deep into her heart to explain to me.
Then, I walked upstairs and collapsed into bed.