A Punjabi wedding in Washington


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Category: Travel Date: 29 Jul 99

Taking time out of a hectic vacation for a few hours to recoup and reflect in a dark hotel room with a slit of light through the curtains and the whirr of the air-conditioner as distraction is absolutely necessary in America unless you want to be swallowed up by this vast country.


The children and their father were out sightseeing, a treat I was glad to miss in this heat which has left much of America limp with fatigue. Our first stop was Washington - actually a suburb of it - where we were to attend a typical Punjabi Indian wedding. The daughter of Indian parents who moved to Tobago when she was just three, and later Trinidad, was getting married to a boy whose parents moved to America when he was just six months. They are perfectly matched, both engineers, both qualified in the States.


Here we got an inside look at what is normally only guessed at: the many bubbles in which immigrant communities in America live. The difference between immigrant communities in Trinidad and those in America is that here the original country or culture is copied and stamped on to where ever migrants settle. (We have had to reinvent ourselves since even many of our parents haven’t experienced an original mother country.)


This is a country of immigrants who live in bubbles of their original or parents’ homeland, who, despite their American status, call themselves Indian, Korean, Mexican, Pakistani, or whatever, and refer to the white settlers as “Americans”. In Washington and its suburbs, the Punjabi community alone is 50,000 strong. The language, religion, apparel, food are maintained almost in toto. Fashions and trends are updated by frequent visits “home”, in states, countries, and continents of their birth.


As in India there were several ceremonies leading up to the actual wedding, including the mehendi - where henna is applied in intricate designs on the bride’s hands and feet, and then to those of the women around her. On this occasion there is robust dancing to the catchy beat of the bhangra - a long-standing craze among young Indians, in and outside of India.


Here I meet young pretty women, married and single, dressed in salvaar khameez, eagerly holding out their palms for henna, dancing and mouthing the latest crazes in Indian film music, speaking Punjabi, Hindi amongst one another - looking as if they’ve lived all their lives in traditional India. But once they open their mouths, the reality is that almost every young woman in this room, including the bride, is highly qualified, in traditional male fields: computers, engineering, medicine.The girls work, and even as they observe all the tradition of respect towards their elders, and live in a largely Indian community, they are as independent as their “American” peers for one simple reason: they have earning power.


The surprise is that despite the world’s worship of America and all it represents, despite the impressive freeways with seven lanes, the never-ending highways, the overt affluence of public buildings from theatres to banks, the private excesses, the ability to create and market celebrities and commodities, there is no such thing as an evolved American being.


The only difference between us and them, as a young woman explained to us in a downtown outdoor cafe, is that everyone, from the chairwoman to the CEO, takes immense pride in their work. “We define by our work ethic. We take pride in every job we do.”


It is not politically correct to applaud America. Immigration has given rise to more than its share of hate crimes towards non-whites. Blacks, despite the fact that they are rooted in the history of this country, still have a long way to go before they are assimilated here. But America has also given asylum to more refugees than any other country in the world. The success stories of immigrants are apparent everywhere - in banks and businesses, in universities and on the sports field, in entertainment and the arts.


The actual wedding, in a five-star hotel in Washington’s suburbs, was an overwhelming example of the affluence that immigrants have obviously earned here. Here, well-heeled guests, all Punjabis dressed in expensive silks and loaded with jewelry, drank scotch, ate the rich food of the North, and danced the night away to the Bhangra beat and, to the delight of the party from Trinidad, a calypso or two.


It may have been the heat - white sun bouncing off white marble-faced buildings - monuments to Presidents, Capital Hill, tall Smithsonian buildings, but in the day, Washington, with its lifeless streets and wide inaccessible roads, struck me as one of the most boring cities I have been to. It lacks the soul and energy of Chicago, New York, London, Paris.


What is lovely though is the landscape in the parks and outside the cities - endless pine trees flanking wide streets, wisteria climbing walls, the smell of freshly hewn grass, and a plethora of summer flowers - from the common daisies to large gaudy roses.


But one thing I will never get over - and it will probably be a recurring theme in these travel pieces - is America’s ability to produce, market and consume. Everything is big, huge: the cars, the servings, the people, the roads, the shops. The image of a person who is obese, gluttonous but never sated comes to mind.


Next week: San Fransisco and LA.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur