Thursday, September 20, 2012

On Being a Vegan Indian Daughter-in-Law

So, I try to promote veganism as a loving, delicious lifestyle anyone can enjoy. If a person chooses veganism, great! If not, that's their personal choice. Indian society, however, does not lend itself very well to individualism. And when you're in a family, food and "personal choice" don't always jive. Like most Asian countries, India is about the collective... especially within the family. This has meant some confusion as it pertains to my personal ethos.

Here in India, identity is largely shaped by your role within a larger unit. These roles are often clearly defined, though they're becoming increasingly blurred over time. In my mother-in-law's generation, the daughter-in-law's role was basically that of a homemaker. Living with extended family members meant that she was also responsible to the mother-in-law: she'd learn her recipes, clean in the ways outlined by her, and play a "behind the scenes" role in the household. If the household was structured like a corporation, the father-in-law was the CEO: people jumped to his beck and call, and the newly-hired subordinates (the wives of his son) seldom interacted with him out of deference and respect. The son is probably next in the org chart; if he took on his father's business (the common route back then), the son would like the managing director of the company: he'd be out on business trips with the CEO getting things done, not home often, and not able to manage the affairs of the office. He expects those affairs to be tightly managed, but not by him. That job went to the mother of the household. She was basically like a supervisor/office manager. Which means she basically supervised the daughter-in-laws; the ones at the bottom of the org chart. They'd be the worker bees--vital to any corporation. They weren't always acknowledged, but management saw their jobs as easy given the job security and the benefits. She did "low level" work that didn't require an education (which she seldom had, anyway) but was still exceptionally necessary. Practically speaking, she took her marching orders from either the daughter-in-law older to her, or the mother-in-law.

Today, the "corporate structure" has changed. I don't fit the daughter-in-law role outlined above in several ways. I have great conversations with my father-in-law and I don't see him as an untouchable authority figure. I have great respect for him, but gone are the traditional methods of showing such respect (never telling him a joke, not sitting in the same room as he, or standing beside his plate and serving his meals for him at lunch). My mother-in-law doesn't tell me the ways she wants the house cleaned, nor does she dictate what I make for dinner (did I mention how well I get along with my mother-in-law?). My autonomy is generally respected--a value not given much consideration in a large Indian family generations prior. All of these things are great.

But in other ways... blurred roles can create a lot of guessing and misunderstanding. My family company offer letter didn't come with a bullet point of job responsibilities, so to speak, which is great, but learning the right ways to act have been tough at times. This is because my role in the family is still undefined in many ways. This ambiguity is for many reasons: first and foremost, my in-laws know that things have changed since their time. They've adjusted their expectations to accommodate this reality. They also know I'm foreign and from a very independent-centric, Western country. This means they know that typical Indian daughter-in-law characteristics (whatever those are), are not axiomatic for me. They also don't know me well enough to know how much I'm comfortable with taking on (such as cooking), and this is mostly because I don't know myself how much I'm comfortable doing. It's not just a matter of miscommunication or a lack of dialogue: if you were to ask my in-laws what my role is, they'd probably say my role is to make sure my husband doesn't get into too much trouble, to be good and kind, and to be happy. Something along those lines. They would never say, "Well, she has to make dinner 4 times a week, clean up after breakfast every day and do the dishes if they're in the sink." But of course there's the subtle expectation that I help with these things. Which I totally understand. My husband and father-in-law work long hours without blinking twice to ensure we can afford the bills and then some more. Really, making a dish on occasion and doing a few dishes here and there are the least I can do, and I'm happy to do it. And to me it's not a gendered obligation--if and when I wanted to work, I have no qualms with renegotiating house maintenance and my husband knows it. It's a deliberate, conscientious, mutually-agreed upon choice that's right for where we are in our lives.

When it comes to me adopting the traditional daughter-in-law role of cooking a meal, there are several confounding factors I face--a lot of them entirely of my own mental constructs. 1) I'm a lousy cook. Or at least, I'm very, very self-conscious of my cooking. When I offer someone a meal I've cooked, I don't react well to anything other than, "Wow, this is amazing!" My veganism has made me into a one-person island, in many respects, because I'm used to my version of "good" (a plate of ripe pineapple, or a nice avocado) being different from another person's version of good (glazed chicken with a side of buttery mashed potatoes). So, I don't trust my own tastebuds when cooking for non-vegans. I've cooked dishes I personally love, and have found it received with lukewarm reception by others--"needs more salt," they'd say, or, "perhaps if you just added a bit of sauteed garlic in olive oil." The whole lousy/hypersensitive cook part means I feel very ill-equipped to prepare meals for those who mean a lot to me. 2) My family sees anything that's not Indian food as "different."Naturally. I mean, if I was born in India and married a Texan, I could only imagine how their reactions would be to dishes like upma and ragi. It doesn't matter if they'd been to a few Indian restaurants here and there, or if Indian fusion cuisine was all the rage--it'd still be "different" food to them. Even vegan food in the US tastes "different" to many Americans, so I can imagine how "different" American vegan food is to their palate. 3) My father-in-law is a closet food critic. The man loves his cooking shows and will be the first to announce if something is too salty, if the vegetables are overcooked, or if the rasam is too spicy. 4) My small Indian family has incredibly different interpretations of good food. Take my father-in-law: he loves light, clean vegetarian European food (which is great--he and I are most alike in terms of our taste). My mother-in-law is very flexible in what she eats, but she's very used to standard spicy, non-veg Indian cuisine. She also has a sweet tooth that my father-in-law doesn't have. My husband? God love him, he eats whatever is put in front of him and is generally happy for it. He's more like his mother than his father, though.

What these things mean for my role in cooking vegan non-Indian cuisine: It's a miracle if everyone likes my food because as stated, I'm not a great cook, and there are so many different preferences amongst us! It's great if my father-in-law likes it... but my mother-in-law might want more salt, or it won't be sweet enough. Also, I could make pretty decent food every day of the week and (though she's too polite to admit it), my mother-in-law would get very tired of the food very quickly. My husband probably would, too. Why? Well, if you're an American reading this, imagine having to eat Indian food every night. You might really like Indian food, but you could crave your "normal" food after just a few days. I'm pretty sure my family feels the same way about my vegan food.

The one role I take seriously as a daughter-in-law is trying to make the family happy. But when it comes to doing that through cooking? I still haven't figured out how to do that. I'm quite positive my father-in-law would be thrilled if I took the reins and cooked a non-Indian, vegetarian dinner every night. I'd lose my sanity, but I'm certain he'd be happy with this. If I cooked every night, I don't think my mother-in-law would like this arrangement: I can't cook the food she prefers (which is flavorful meaty Indian food). So, we mix it up where she cooks some nights; I cook some nights. I don't know if she wants to cook for her own sake/personal preferences, or if she feels she has to cook. If she wants to cook, I have no problems with that. But I worry she feels like she has to cook, and that's where I get all kinds of upset. Is it because she thinks my vegan food is lousy? Even though I know deep down this probably isn't the case, is she worried that the food I cook isn't nourishing, tasty and satisfying enough? Am I diminishing her role and importance in the family by cooking vegan meals?

I know this last concern might seem irrational, but it's really not--food is love in this country. And in my mother-in-law's generation, she saw it as her duty and honor to ensure the well-being of her family members. The recognition of her hard work wasn't noticed in most of the things she brought to the table, like a clean house: a traditional Indian man doesn't walk into a spotless home and says, "thanks for keeping the living room clean, honey--keep it up!" Because a clean home was the norm in his eyes, he'd really only grumble if he noticed something needed cleaning. The clean laundry folded neatly on the bed, or the nicely tailored shirts...not a word. With cooking, on the other hand... well, that was her time to stand out, be noticed, and verbally appreciated by the family. It's heartwarming to hear, "wow, this tastes amazing." I think everyone feels special and wanted when you hear that about your dish; not just mother-in-laws who have devoted their time to making sure their family is happy. With my mother-in-law, it just now hit me that all of her famous dishes that cause my husband's eyes to light up are meat-based. I honestly didn't really think about that connection until now. I guess it's a good time to remember that most acts performed by others have nothing to do with you personally: in this case, it has nothing to do with her wanting to undermine my vegan efforts in the family, or take over because she doesn't think my cooking is good enough for her son. It is, more than likely, about her desire to contribute and feel relevant... something we all want. I don't think that men in a traditional Indian household think about the connection between love and food, of cooking and the way it gives a woman respect and recognition. Being a traditional Indian wife is a largely thankless job: I shouldn't say "thankless," but more like, "not verbally appreciated."(Now's a good time to add that this comment comes from a person whose culture is effusive with thanks and praises). And I've heard her laugh this off when I've mentioned it by saying that she doesn't need thanks for what's simply her job. But I still see the quiet smile on her face when my husband (and hers) say between chews, "Good chicken, Amma."Anyway, I don't expect her not to cook meat, any more than she expects me to learn her chicken recipe. I just think there are some dynamics that have yet to play themselves out between how often we cook, what we cook, and who wants to eat what.

So these are my gray areas. The gray areas where Indian family etiquette means you don't ask these things aloud. It's sort of like how you don't ask your boss if the reason why took on your project was because she thinks your work sucks, if she doesn't agree with your vision/creative bent, or if she just wants to help out and make your job easier... at which point you begin to wonder who's responsible for managing the project in the first place. I'm still wading through these waters.  


  1. I just found you from the mofo blog roll and was browsing around the blog:) I 'd love to keep reading about your journey at your in-laws. this is an amazing post, factual, no judgement, about the adjustments needed by not just one but all in the family after an event like a wedding.

    1. Thank you so much for the sweet note--comments like these are the greatest motivation bloggers can have! Once I've finished the encyclopedia-like entries of India's produce I hope to write much more interesting content. Because yes, no matter how wonderful my Indian family is (and they're fantastic), it's still quite an adjustment for all of us!

      Can't wait to follow your own vegan adventures as well.

  2. I was looking for information on using longans when I was directed to your blog. Let me introduce myself first, I am Srishti I was raised in Chennai and have been living in Australia the last 8 years. I am a lacto vegetarian and I deeply respect the vegan ethos. I found your blog quite interesting, it is not easy being vegan in general and in India the social norms can make it a little confusing sometimes I suppose. I loved your take on the Indian family unit and how it operates. I do not live with my in laws but can really relate to what you experience as I am the vegetarian daughter in law in a meat loving household. It does get a little tedious explaining the vegetarian perspective and the health benefits it offers. I do not use leather and animal tested products and try to make my carbon footprint as minimal as possible, another thing people find hard to understand. Just like you said, I have wonderful in laws as well but it is an adjustment for all of us. I blog about my vegetarian adventures so if you are interested, look me up on :)