ASK A HONGKONGER; A FRIENDLY HEART-TO-HEART ABOUT (BUT NOT ONLY) THE CURRENT SITUATION IN THE FRAGRANT HARBOUR

 

 

An ordinary talk with Kamal Mirwani, a native Hongkonger

T: First of all, thank you for going out of your way and taking the time to talk to me. We always talk about random stuff – serious or not, so I just thought your input as a Hongkonger would contribute to a better understanding of what is currently happening there.

Kamal: No worries at all. More than happy to help.

T: For starters, could you tell me a bit more about your family background/descent and how you identify yourself in terms of culture etc? Many people may not realize how diverse Hong Kong is in terms of its citizens´ backgrounds.

Kamal: Sure. My family moved to Hong Kong because it had a thriving business climate in the 1990s. Before the internet was really thriving, there was a gaping hole in the market for traders, especially who could arrange goods to be delivered from China to the west. Seeing this gap in the market, my family moved to Hong Kong as traders to seek wealth and a better life.

I was born in Hong Kong, and from a young age, my first language was Hindi. However, after realizing that there were English entrance interviews to get into international and British primary schools and kindergartens, my parents stopped speaking Hindi and Sindhi to me and replaced that with English. Hence, I have a distinct gap in my knowledge when it comes to Indian languages.

Culturally, I grew up surrounded by Sindhis (a group of people of Hindu and Muslim ideologies who lived in India until Partition, when Sindh became part of Pakistan and most Hindu Sindhis fled) and attended youth groups not too dissimilar to Christian Sunday schools. I learnt about the gods, legends and customs of Sindhi people, so I have a familiarity with Sindhi, Hindi and Sanskrit hymns (though I don’t know what half of them actually mean).

As I got older, I attended a British school and my friendship group became far more mixed and international. It was at this point where I became what’s known as a third-culture kid. Assimilating bits of other people’s culture into my own ethos until I was neither of them. This leads to a slight disconnect whereby, I am not really very Indian or Sindhi in my mannerisms, but I am not truly western, either. I guess, the best way to describe it is being a chameleon, able to blend in wherever I go.

T: Chameleon. That’s a really unique way to describe it. I think this is the biggest difference between our cultural backgrounds. I’m Czech, born in the Czech Republic (although back then it was Czechoslovakia) into a fully Czech family. Unlike you, I’m “fully-integrated” within the original society of my country and it was only because I had the life-changing opportunity to live abroad, travel and experience various places and cultures, that I filled up my personal map. You, on the other hand, have lived it ever since you were born. How did being Indian by descent and born in HK change your perception of the world?

Kamal: HK has always been my hub because even when I traveled somewhere else, I’d come back to HK to visit family and be back home.

It’s strange. Those who can go to British schools in Hong Kong are sort of shielded from needing to really assimilate fully into Hong Kong society. Everyone wears a uniform, everyone is forced to speak English and everyone takes the same classes and has the same experiences. We make our friends at school and there’s no room for a lot of individualism. I guess it was here that I realised that I was neither Indian, western or even Chinese. But, because of my easygoing nature, I could hang out in all these groups and be seen as a friend. most people in my school hung out in cliques, sometimes by race, sometimes by interest and sometimes by popularity. I just went between everyone and never really belonged to any group, but also was never lonely because I could fit in wherever I pleased.

This made it easy to travel abroad and assimilate into other cultures later on in life. For example, when I studied in the US, even though I had never lived there before, no one really suspected I wasn’t from America until they found out about my life story and experiences. My accent changed to fit my environment and I found it easy to make personal connections. I’m always ready to learn and do my best to make others comfortable around me, so I guess this ‘sponge’ mentality, to absorb my surroundings and assimilate, makes me great at never feeling too out of place.

The best thing is that many of my friends from abroad see me as a link to Asia, a part of the world they are not so familiar with. It’s great to be able to sort of bridge those worlds and bring different cultures together.

As travel becomes easier, it’s more common for people to seek or find experiences beyond their own communities that shape or change their lives in one way or another.

I think it’s a good thing, as what you don’t know or understand you often fear. Visiting other places and meeting people of other cultures creates understanding and breaks down barriers of ignorance.

T: Definitely. After some time the world seems much smaller in your eyes and there are fewer things that surprise you, right?

Kamal: Yep. Definitely. You need to go further and further away and to more isolated places to be surprised

T: How would you describe Hongkong to someone who has never been? Usually what we see in mainstream documentaries only shows glitz and glamor, but we both know that’s far from true.

Kamal: Hong Kong is often described as the gateway to Asia, or even Asia’s world city, but it’s rapidly losing its soul. The Hong Kong I knew in the 90s was a place of color, neon signs and thriving small businesses. Now, conglomerates own everything, skyscrapers necessitate the need to demolish entire blocks of mom-and-pop shops and brands like Gucci and Prada have taken over the minds of the people. You have to travel further to locate traditional food, green spaces within the city are difficult to find and children often grow up not knowing the outdoors because it is not promoted by many parents in HK. Yet, just beyond the concrete jungle, there’s a plethora of mountains, beaches and beautiful landscapes just waiting to be discovered. This is the Hong Kong I love. Getting away from the large buildings and claustrophobic bustle of people that many tourists seek out because that’s what they’ve been told is a ‘cultural experience’.

The reality is, HK locals live in ‘matchbox houses’ and are forced to part with well over 50% of their salary to afford rent. Many Chinese people from across the border buy homes that they don’t use and these vacant apartments artificially raise the price of rent and housing to the point where the average HK citizen will never own their own house in their lives. I know I certainly won’t and I have a higher salary than the average Hong Kong citizen. This sad reality of crazy rents affects businesses, too. Grocery prices increase often because the consumer has to pay the extra ‘rent tax’ that businesses can’t shoulder. Bars have gotten extremely expensive and the premise of a cheap night out is now non-existent. One need only attempt to book accommodation in Hong Kong to see my point. Many backpackers opt to stay in cramped lodging that is extremely overpriced, but these are seen as ‘bargains’ compared to real hotels.

Many visitors also see Hong Kong as a progressive city, but under its flashy exterior, the people have no say and the members of government are puppets of China, declawed, de-fanged and helpless to fight for freedoms that the citizens so rightly deserve. In 2047, HK is set to become a Chinese territory once again, but already the encroaching reach of China can be felt. This is why the people revolt these days and protest that the government are doing nothing to help them. But, when the nominees of the Chief Executive are hand-picked by China, what can you really expect. We have a false choice that is not a choice at all. It is like drinking from a poisoned well. We all need governance and guidance like we need water, even if we know it will ultimately be our downfall

T: This is actually the topic I wanted to discuss. Over my 5 years of regular visits and hanging out with locals, I believe I know Hong Kong much better than an average tourist who is just passing by; and yet, it’s still kind of tricky to navigate the current situation. The burning point is Chinese armoured tanks lined up at the centre in Shenzhen. When I tried to argue with my European friends that this might be misinformation or misleading, I was bombarded with satellite pictures etc. How can you describe this as a local?

Kamal: A climate of fear is being created by pro-China supporters that paint Hong Kong in a negative light. What better way to get people to stop protesting than to claim there are tanks at the Shenzhen border? Are people brave enough to die for Hong Kong? Let’s think about this logically. The government would WILLINGLY have to allow tanks to pass through security checkpoints at the border or to be brought in by train. If tanks attack citizens on the streets, it will create international turmoil and ruin China’s chances for fixing the global trade war they’re in.

Currently in China, the protests are downplayed, lied about or full-on ignored. Fake images are easily created to show protesters acting like thugs or behaving poorly. This is so the average Chinese citizen will stay in line and not think for themselves about what’s happening in HK. This is especially important as many Chinese now call HK home and can see the truth. Government news vs real people’s word of mouth? You know who’s winning that battle, especially with doctored photos.

Now, let’s look at who is putting out this fake garbage about tanks and stuff. Usually discredited international news sites looking to make a quick buck. Track their sources and you’ll quickly find they reference an article, which references another article, which just states there are tanks with no proof provided. This is garbage journalism. HK Free press and other unbiased Hong Kong news outlets will generally paint a better image since they don’t want misinformation spreading. In HK, it’s becoming common to hear conflicting messages about what’s happening as pro-Beijing parties flood the internet with fake claims and false stories. This is to try and divide the people. A nation of protesters united is far stronger than one that’s divided.

Of course, this misinformation is also prevalent on the HK side of things. So, it’s important to consider both sides and really fact-check. In one of the famous tank invasion images, you can clearly see it’s a photo from a Chinese province nowhere near HK because of the station name in the background of the image.

T: How would you explain the footage showing the Chinese army lining up in Shenzhen? Or the satellite pics?

Kamal: Half the time, it’s not even pictures of Shenzhen. A lot of these pieces of footage are not even from 2019. Regarding the most popular images, The Global Times noted in its report that 12,000 police officers, tanks, helicopters, and amphibious vehicles gathered in Shenzhen on August 6 for what appeared to be anti-riot drills. These drills are what people are equating with an attack force. There are certainly military trucks in that famous satellite photo of a stadium in Shenzhen. But no tanks. And no plans to attack HK. That would be a global disaster.

T: Can we say it’s a move that aims to spread an atmosphere of fear?

Kamal: Exactly. If China does nothing, the citizens will wonder why. So they do these stupid drills as a show of power.

T: Is that the purpose of military trucks at the sport center in Shenzhen?

Kamal: No idea. But they aren’t coming to hk, that’s for sure. Too much garbage information out there

T: In 1997, during the handover, HK represented 20% of the Chinese economy. The estimated number these days is around 2%. Do you think this could make China view HK as “not so important anymore”?

Kamal: I believe that China does not want to rely on Hong Kong any longer, which is why they are taking great pains to create cities like Shenzhen, Shanghai and Guangzhou to act as hubs to China that will eventually take over from Hong Kong. These regions have more flexible visa laws, the internet will be less-censored in certain areas and the infrastructure is going to be new and shiny, so businessmen see this amazing new side of China and have no need for HK any longer. The less important HK is in the eyes of the world, the easier it will be for China to absorb it in the long run.

Just look at what’s happening in Tibet and Xinjiang. Just because Xinjiang province is not somewhere famous in the global eye, the Chinese government can get away with doing terrible things there. Indoctrination camps, an influx of Chinese residence to promote ethinc mixing and eradication of a culture and even the banning of Arabic in the province are all steps to create subservience out of a place that doesn’t really fit what China sees as perfect and obedient. In Tibet, they kidnapped the Panchen Lama and replaced him with a Han Chinese boy. This ruins Tibet’s religious faith and there’s clear oppression where foreigners can’t visit Tibet without a local Chinese guide. That’s some North Korea bullshit right there.

Luckily, HK has public awareness and it’s not so easy for China to just do these things to HK. By making the airport protest an international issue, the world had to take notice and HK protesters got more of the spotlight. But in 20 years from now, when China’s cities outshine HK…who knows if we won’t start seeing worse things happening to the citizens. That’s why HKers fear the extradition bill. Who wants to be tried in a place like China, where there’s an authoritarian rule of law?

T: That’s a really paradoxical situation. On one hand, China tries to attract businessmen and make the country look more “free” (what an oxymoron) and on the other, according to experienced sinologists and experts, the Chinese regime has been progressively more aggressive and oppressive.

Kamal: Exactly! They’re trying to have things both ways. But they’re going to end up opening themselves up to international criticism. In the future, foreigners might be banned from certain areas. Just like North Korea

T: What about HK, itself? Should we be concerned about additional visa requirements or internet restrictions in HK?

Kamal: Not anytime soon. China still doesn’t have enough power to do that. It’s against their best interests.

T: Hopefully you’re right. Considering the experience with China as a brutal and oppressive regime, we never know.

Kamal: But now they’re a global player. Their wealth will collapse if they isolate themselves. They’re not truly communist anymore. In fact, they’re capitalists to the extreme.

T: In terms of economics, yes.

Kamal: But they definitely can’t attack or use force in Hong Kong. It would lead to a huge problem for their economy.

T: Let me ask you. What’s going on in HK is decently covered in the international press, but I’m not sure if it’s possible for people to imagine how it really looks like. I know all the places where the protests are happening more than well, and it hasn’t even been 3 months since I came back from my last visit to HK. Yet, it’s still quite difficult to imagine. What’s the impact on lives of Hongkongers?

Kamal: Weekends, especially, you’ll see protesters everywhere. Be it in small groups or as part of a larger movement. They chant slogans for the corrupt police to get out and for Carrie Lam to step down. Most normal places are okay, but any major public transport areas or tourist hubs are often targeted. Many trains and tunnels are blocked etc. So tonight I’m in tst, but I might not be able to get home until late because a lot of districts will be locked down for protests.

T: What do you think about protesting at the HK Airport? Isn’t that a bit too much? For example your sister, she didn’t make it home after not visiting for about a year because her flight was canceled due to the protests at the HK airport.

Kamal: I think some people took it too far. Blocking check-in desks was stupid. If they had stayed at the arrival hall and just made incoming passengers see the signs etc, that would have been fine. The reason so many of them were at the airport is because the cops have been getting more violent. In the airport, there are international travelers, so the protesters would be safe from police violence there.

T: Things don´t seem going well for Hong Kong. What do you think the future holds for this lovely place, especially after 2047?

Kamal: I think it’s almost impossible to predict exactly what will happen to Hong Kong on the path to 2047, let alone after. Without a doubt, unless something majorly radical happens in that time, Hong Kong will be given back to China in 2047. Personally, I think that to have a progressive city like Hong Kong suddenly become a full-on territory of China overnight when 2047 comes, is unrealistic. Because of this, I believe we will see much more unrest as China tries to slowly worm its customs and culture into the lives of Hong Kong citizens. For example, there is already talk of making it mandatory to sing the Chinese national anthem in all schools, even international ones. I think there will be a slow erosion of power since direct force will draw too much attention and ire from the rest of the world. How it turns out and how China plays its cards can only be known in time, but I am certain more confrontations are ahead thanks to our puppet government and its Beijing overlords.

T: Isn´t it quite sad that there are things we chat about privately, but can´t really publish in order not to put your safety at risk? I think that´s the best possible summarisation of the situation in HK.

Kamal: Yes. Sadly, there are things I cannot openly speak about for concerns of repercussions later on. There have already been approximately 1,000 citizen arrests thanks to the protests in Hong Kong. High-profile people like Joshua Wong have literally been plucked out of their lives and arrested for being at protests. It’s a sad state of affairs that we can’t speak completely openly. It does tie in nicely to just how much Hong Kong has changed from only ten years ago. We had a utopia back in the day, but the cracks are beginning to show and it’s not just because of this extradition bill and the protests surrounding it. Unsustainably expensive housing continues to plague the people and I do believe that at least s small part of people’s frustrations and reasons to protest are also to do with having such a bleak future. Owning a home in Hong Kong is a dream that most people won’t realize – I know I certainly will never own a home here unless the entire property market tanks. Things taken for granted in other parts of the world are being lost in Hong Kong, but luckily we still live in one of the greatest cities in the world, and I hope that these protests can serve as a wakeup call for the government to act in the interests of the people.

T: Thank you Kamal. Really appreciate it.

Kamal: No worries at all! As a closing remark, there seems to be a little progress regarding the bill, as it is being scrapped. Yet there are still many requirements the protesters have that the government must adhere to if there is to be civil discourse and a de-escalation of the situation. In all, there are 5 key demands that protesters want the government to listen to: 1. Formal scrapping of the controversial extradition bill, 2. an independent probe into the use of police violence, 3. amnesty for arrested protesters, 4. ceasing to categorize the protests as riots and 5. universal suffrage. We’ve achieved the first demand, and here’s hoping that the rest are on the way!

 

Thanks for stopping by!

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The World We Live In

Written by my favorite person in the world, Kamal J. Mirwani.

What is the true measure of success, and how does success factor in to happiness? Arguably, success is what we strive to accomplish on a daily basis in a plethora of ways. The digital age has given us unparalleled access into the lives of people we should not, and otherwise would not, compare ourselves to. Young girls now idolize the disproportionate, surgery-enhanced asses of the glitterati-those people deemed too beautiful for mere mortals to fully emulate. Young boys now watch with awestruck expressions and dilated pupils as daredevils hop from rooftop to rooftop, seemingly oblivious to their own mortality, but fed by a continuous stream of likes; the currency of social media approval. We do not see the pain involved in botched surgeries since no one shares failure on social media, only success.  We do not see the stories of rooftop jumpers plunging to their deaths because those stories are too discouraging to tell. Everyone is obsessed with success, but gluttonously gorging on the social media success stories of others ironically causes feelings of worthlessness and self-loathing for young people, these days who are unable to meet the unrealistic standards of their idols.

Away from social media, parents compare and contrast the lives of their children as if they were assets. “My son is a doctor,” exclaims the typical Asian mum, as she beams with pride. “My son is an engineer!” Exclaims another. The third remains silent as her son, merely 24 years of age, still seeks to “find himself” in the world. The plastic smiles the youth put on for their parents so that they feel loved, accepted and successful, they are nothing more than timid lies. These lies fester into rotting wounds that leave gaping rifts and psychological scars. Suddenly the kid who “found himself” is traveling the world and finding happiness on his own terms, while the doctor and engineer suffer in silence, living the lives of their parents rather than their own.

In the workplace, what is it that truly motivates the young and inspired? Wads of imaginary currency, put into corrupt establishments that leech off ordinary people? The prospect of getting ahead in life and finding happiness around the next corner? Perhaps meeting some long-term target that inevitably leads to confusion and emptiness since the chase is always better than the catch. We tend to measure success by how long we can maintain our positions at work, by how often our salaries are increased and by what skills we think we learn, as a result. But really, does this lead to happiness? This busywork occupies the mind, certainly, and a bursting bank account allows for bragging and spending sprees; but is this really happiness? Those who seek more time to themselves, to indulge in simple pleasures that most would call “lazy”, have found little bubbles of happiness that the judgmental masses seek to burst. Spending a few hours immersed in a videogame, a book or in any other hobby deemed “childish” or “stupid” is happiness that many fail to understand. Finding little moments of success by beating a videogame level, overcoming a horrible obstacle with your favorite fictional character or even just making a small meal, these successes are too miniscule to measure, and are deemed unworthy for anyone to experience by the facebook generation and young professionals who see work as their only salvation. If it cannot be measured in wealth, practical skill or by social media likes, no one should be entitled to this type of happiness. Best to bury yourself in your workplace screen and work a few more hours for that Employee of the Month bonus, right?

How does someone know if they are in the perfect relationship? They compare and contrast based on other preconceived notions of happiness. Have I hoisted my girl over my shoulders at some overcrowded concert? Have I taken her to the Maldives and dived in its pristine waters? Have I bought her expensive gifts so she can brag to her friends? Most importantly, have I taken photos of all this and uploaded it to Facebook for the world to see? Our happiness does not exist unless others watch, judge and approve; like some sick pantomime. Relationship success is no longer about spending a silent moment with someone you love while being lost in their eyes. Nor the fluttering of your heart as your hand touches hers. People would take pity on the man who finds happiness in looking into his girl’s eyes and seeing the world in them but being too poor to show the world to her. And yet, therein is the purest measure of success in a relationship. Strip away the glamor, the likes, the expectations, and is there real love left? People seem to build relationships on the unstable platforms of nothing other than the approval of others. How “hot” are both parties, how rich are they? Do they have exactly the same interests? In reality, the real question should be, when things are boring and dull, when they are just laying together, can they still feel content and happy simply to have their other half beside them?

Success is a term that is difficult to pin down and define since it is so markedly different for every individual. Yet, success is beginning to become “standardized”; a checklist of things to cross off before you can be deemed successful in the eyes of the public. This checklist is what we now equate with happiness. Those of us who go against the grain, who live for ourselves and shun public opinion, we are the ones who may have the smallest shred of a chance at finding both, success and happiness. Make your own checklist, play that video game, spend a few extra hours taking that bubble bath, enjoy a few days of unpaid vacation. Live YOUR life. Measure success by your own terms, measure success in small dollops so that you always feel somewhat accomplished. Most of all, live for yourself and appreciate your successes without comparing it to others. This, I think, will lead to happiness that is measurable to every individual on a very personal and meaningful level.

 

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Indian Wedding Madness

Written by Kamal Mirwani

Pre-wedding Shenanigans

This was the first trip to India I was actually looking forward to. No visiting aunties that I had last met when I was five years old, no obligatory pilgrimages to overcrowded temples and no eating copious amounts of food at relatives’ houses just to be polite. I was going back to India after over 10 years because one of my best friends was getting married, and I was taking my girlfriend. This was going to be a trip of great memories, riveting adventures and lots of surprises.

Immediately, I warned poor Teresa that she would potentially be stared at a lot at the wedding, and in India in general. She’s a petite, beautiful blondie with emerald-green eyes- quite a contrast from the average Indian complexion. In a country where pale skin and the west is somewhat idolized, I knew Teresa was in for quite an interesting experience.

The wedding was to take place in Udaipur, also known as the White City. The buildings here are often white, or sport white roofs at the very least, which is where its moniker comes from. We were staying at the Radisson Blu, a hotel that was very posh and painted completely white, despite its name.

Our first order of business upon arrival was to get Teresa a custom-fitted Lehenga Choli. A Lehenga Choli is a type of Indian outfit worn by females for formal occasions like weddings. She had already picked out a shop to visit for her new Lehenga Choli, and we took a quick auto-rickshaw ride to get there.

The shop was a kaleidoscope of bright fabrics and funky colors. Teresa looked visibly worried, much to my amusement. She’s definitely not the type of girl who likes bright, flashy things, but luckily she had requested certain fabric colors online beforehand. I dread to think of how pissed she would have been if she had been forced to wear an outfit made from one of the standard fabrics.

As Teresa’s fitting took place, she was draped in various fabrics until she found a combination she liked. I snapped away with my phone’s camera to document this cool moment. I later realized, while analyzing the backgrounds of one of my photos, that there was a massive sign saying that photography was not allowed in the store. Oops.

The Wedding

The wedding of one of my best friends, Akhil, was to take place over four days. Though I am Indian of descent, this was to be my first Indian wedding, and I had plenty to learn. My girlfriend long ago realized that relying on me for information pertaining to the formalities and customs surrounding an Indian wedding was a waste of time. If anything, she helped me far more than I helped her in terms of preparation.

Unlike typical western weddings, Indian weddings are filled with lavish parties, intricate ceremonies and loads of parties. In all there were around ten events spanning the entire duration of the wedding. Each would require a different outfit, and neither I, nor Teresa had the willpower to purchase a different outfit for each event. Thus, we improvised!

Teresa took the smart approach, trawling the net for Indian outfits being sold on the cheap for her to wear. She lucked out and managed to find several outfits at low prices. I, on the other hand, had two different Indian-styled jackets made and just rotated a combination of blue and black slacks and shirts to make it seem like I was wearing different outfits each time. Somehow, we both managed to pull off our outfits spectacularly!

Just in case any of you are curious, here is a full list of the events: High tea, welcome Dinner, Youngsters Party, Aashirwad, Mehendi, Sangeet, Leena’s Haldi, Akhil’s Ghari Puja, Wedding and the Reception Dinner. Explaining what each of these events are would require a separate article on its own, so I will only touch on a few major highlights of the entire wedding experience.

Firstly, Teresa and I learned that nothing in an Indian wedding starts on time. The first event, which consisted of high tea, started some three hours after the announced time. With not a soul in sight and with near 50-degree (Celsius) heat frying us in our outfits, we retreated to our room for some air-conditioning, which even Teresa enjoyed for once.

The Welcome Dinner was my time to shine. I was scheduled to make a grand speech for Akhil with another childhood friend of mine, Nicky. The speech was supposed to start with a Bollywood track, but the DJ seemed not to have gotten the memo, so our grand entrance was somewhat less grand. However, thanks to some great stories and improvisation skills, Nicky and I managed to make the crowd laugh after the heartfelt and emotional speech that came before us.

Teresa and I continued to attend as many events as possible, which proved tough after plenty of drinking and shenanigans during the Youngsters Party. Let’s just say that some Slivovice (strong Czech alcohol) was involved and caused one of the best men of the wedding to get so drunk that he went comatose and had to be carried back to his room. Good times, good times.

The Mehendi was a bright and colorful event where girls could get henna applied by locals. The event was traditional with dancers, great food and a lively atmosphere. Akhil rode in on a bicycle/rickshaw with Leena sitting in the back. The bride and groom’s parents escorted the couple out with enthusiastic Bhangra dance moves and upbeat music. Teresa and I watched the event with glee as we suspected Akhil may have been slightly hung over from the previous night’s shenanigans.

The Sangeet required guests to dress up in their most flashy and impressive Indian outfits. Since I’m not too fond of Indian outfits, I settled on an Indian-style jacket and some slacks. Teresa, on the other hand, was resplendent in the outfit she had custom-made a few days earlier. She received plenty of compliments for her outfit, and though it was heavy, it suited her to no end. The night was spent making merry with music, dancing and drinking. I did more drinking than dancing while Teresa made new friends on the dance floor. She looked so beautiful that she even managed to get me to dance for a few minutes. Those who know me will appreciate how much of an achievement that is.

The following day was the day of the actual wedding and what a treat it was going to be. I had joked with Akhil previously that there should be no animals since most typical Indian weddings have a horse to carry the groom, at the very least. Turns out Akhil forgot about that conversation because as we entered the hotel’s driveway, there was a massive elephant waiting. Some of its handlers fed it treats to keep it calm until Akhil arrived. Once again, the previous night had been a late one and Akhil looked even more hung over today. I think the gravity of what was about to happen hadn’t fully sunk in for him, but once the elephant knelt down and he scrambled up the saddle, he looked positively green in the face. Poor Akhil.

Lofted atop the elephant, Akhil was preceded by an enthusiastic group of his dancing friends. Teresa and I opted to drink brightly colored alcoholic concoctions being handed out by hotel staff. I might have had more than Teresa, but in my defense, it was hot. The elephant led Akhil to a grassy field where the wedding ceremony would take place.

The actual wedding ceremony featured a mix of Sindhi and Bengali prayers conducted ceremonial priests. A slightly raised stage allowed the guests to see Akhil ad Leena, resplendent in traditional Indian attire, following the prompts that the two priests gave them. The priests chanted impossibly quick after the vows, offering prayers to the gods and blessings to the couple. Finally, Akhil and Leena started walking around a small fire. This is the equivalent of saying “I do” in western weddings. They walked around the fire seven times, before sitting back down next to the priests and being showered with flowers and a final few good luck prayers. Finally, they were pronounced husband and wife in both the Sindhi and Bengali traditions which was signaled with the popping of small fireworks and sparklers. There were plenty of tears, loads of smiles and one VERY proud friend. Teresa definitely knew I was ecstatic for Akhil and Leena.

 

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A White Girl at an Indian Wedding; In a Pursuit of a Lehenga Choli

„Yo, Teresa, Akhil is getting married in India in April, wanna be my plus one”?

„Sure! That sounds like fun”!

Little did I know what would be necessary to go through during two months prior that event. Well, after booking the tickets to India, the real fun started.

„Listen, Kamal, what outfits do I need for the thing”?

„I have no clue… And I’m not wearing any of that”.

„Whaaaat?“ (Yes, you are, you just don’t know that yet.)

Alright, luckily, the engaged couple created a wedding website with all the necessary information, for instance a list of events and suggested dress code. I still remember how did it feel after visiting that website for the first time.. How do I do this? Words like lehenga choli, salwar kameez or anarkali didn’t sound really familiar to me, neither the given„hints“ such as „Indian glamour“, „Indian chic“ etc. Basically I was to get outfits for 10 events within 3 days, of all the outfits, 7 were traditional Indian. Boom!

I gave up on asking Kamal for advice really soon because all I got was: „I have no idea“. (Sorry Kamal, you’re a nice person, you really are, but you SUCK at being Indian. Actually, I’m convinced you’re a fake Indian!) So I turned to good old Google for advice. After hours of researching, my head was about to explode. There are billions of Indian outfits out there and every extra hour of researching was creating bigger mess in my head. What styles are appropriate, what should stay covered, which colors are or are not allowed, what if those outfits vary depending in regions, what about jewelry, what about shoes,… Not to mention, that I as an extreme minimalist struggled a bit with the philosophy of an Indian outfit itself.

After all that research and getting some advice from „more Indian Indians“, I was still kind of stuck. I knew too little about the Indian culture, that’s a matter of fact. Indian weddings are known for their colorful and bright atmosphere, but also, on the other hand, I was warned that Indian weddings have turned into kind of pretentious display of wealth. My main goal was to make the effort and also, not to offend anyone by „not knowing“. I had to bear in mind that this wedding was going to be very traditional.

Alright, you might think that after finding my feet in the Indian dress code requirements a little bit, the rest was easy peasy. Unfortunately, that is VERY incorrect. The real struggle was to get those outfits. I’m not an activist and by no means have I mastered the zero waste approach andd other stuff, but I always try to think about the environment to the level that is doable for me so I try to get „local“ things first. After paying visit to three stores with „Indian“ clothes in Prague, I had to admit that wasn’t gonna happen.. The clothes there either were not Indian (just western clothes in crazy colors) or ugly as f… Hey! Just because it’s difficult, I will not settle for something ugly just because it looks Indian! You know, I’m a girl, I want to look good!

Not being able to get anything in my country made me think and actually gave a first useful hint. „Wait a sec. Maybe there were more girls in this country attending an Indian wedding, managed to get the outfits and since most probably they don’t need them anymore, they try to sell them online. Bingo! Just like that, I found my first anarkali dress. The seller was even so nice that she sent me the outfit letting me to check and try it on and send the money afterward. Such things still happen these days?

Step by step, little by little, I was collecting my modest Indian wardrobe. The next outfit I got was borrowed from my dear friend Eva, who was in India years ago and since she was attending a wedding there as well, she found a local tailor and got an outfit which was suitable for the Udaipur wedding as well. Luckily, we are the same size (we are the same size we were 10 years ago, isn’t that impressive :)?), Eva still had the outfit and her mum was super nice and willing to search for it in her house. Then I searched through second hand stores in Prague and even tried ebay. Unfortunately the reviews of the sellers there were terrible and I didn’t want to end up stuck with some „rags“.

Although I managed to put some outfits together, I was still missing the icing on the cake – a lehenga choli (also known as ghagra choli or chaniya choli), a three-piece heavy and heavily embroidered attire consisting of a looong skirt, a cropped top and a massive scarf called duppata. Since buying lehenga online was not an option, I tried to find a tailor in Udaipur, who would be willing to cooperate with me prior my arrival, to take my measurements real quick and sew my dress ideally until the next day. I succeeded and this is my big thank you to Mr. Ravi from Madhushree Sarees in Udaipur. We agreed on my budget and preferred colors for this piece and step by step, we put the perfect one together. I kind of enjoyed Mr. Ravi’s whatsapp messages with pictures of more and more fabrics. After landing in Udaipur, one of the first things we did was a trip to Madhushree Sarees. They took my measurements real quick and the next day Mr. Ravi delivered it to our hotel. He was so nice that he also showed me how to handle this masterpiece and how to pack it.

 So this is the story about a white girl getting ready for an Indian wedding. Some of you might think that I was too stressed about it and shouldn’t have cared that much. Nah, not my style. Whatever I want to do, I do it with all my heart. Honestly, this was a team work. Thanks Eva for your Indian outfit, thanks Simona for tailoring two dresses for me, thanks mum D for finding a nice choli in Wroclaw, thank you random people online, thanks Míša for your sparkling shoes and pretty much everyone who helped me not to fail on this mission 🙂 I don’t have pictures of all the outfits, so check out a sample if you like.

 

 

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Hanoi Vibes

Unpredictable. Surprising. Chaotic. Full of amazing stories. Delicious food on every corner. Tasty and spicy. Charming. Colonial.

 

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