This article is an interesting story about how alongsiding with international students in the US can lead to deep, lifelong relationships. If you are interested in learning more about befriending and serving Indian international students, be sure to join us at this year’s Rethinking Forum on July 22-24, 2022, either in-person in Dallas, TX or through a digital option. More information available at this link: Rethinking Forum ’22.
– The Editor
Indian weddings are an amazing experience spanning several days with many rituals and traditions. To attend an Indian wedding is to really taste the culture and witness the functioning of the family unit.
I recently returned from *Ajay’s wedding in India. Ajay (not his real name) was one of my family’s first close international student friends in America. He was a masters student at our local university. Over the several years he studied nearby, we saw each other frequently and he learned much about following Lord Jesus through our friendship.
Since graduation he has been working for a big tech company in another state and his long-awaited wedding had to be postponed twice due to the pandemic. I was thrilled when it worked out that I could attend the week-long wedding in India and even spend several days with his family in their ancestral village where Ajay grew up. Now that this trip has ended, I have been able to reflect on several things that really helped me during this adventure.
Cultural awareness helped me a lot on this trip. Understanding Hindu formalities of hospitality and relationships helped me be a good guest. Ajay’s family felt more comfortable around me because I was more aware how to navigate socials norms. Knowing how to respectfully greet elders, eat spicy food with my hand, use a squatty potty (Eastern toilet), and wear Indian clothes earned me tons of favor. Ajay’s family quickly embraced me and included me as part of their family.
While I had traveled much of India, his family’s community was a new context. They were very proud teaching me about their local culture. A favorite story was learning about a great-grandfather who was a freedom fighter and famous spiritual guru who lived to be 105!
Sometimes when events happen very differently from my own home culture expectations, I can feel quite uncomfortable. My last days with Ajay’s family after the wedding back in the village home were quite interesting. As a visiting American who had helped their son during his studies in the US, I was treated as a guest of high honor. The bungalow house had two bedrooms upstairs and two downstairs. I was given a private room upstairs, all by myself, with brand new furniture installed just for me. Ajay’s family had clearly been preparing for my visit! In the other upstairs bedroom, Ajay and several of his younger cousins shared a bed and slept on the floor. The aunties, older female cousins, Ajay’s new bride and her attendants all slept downstairs in the two bedrooms. Ajay’s father happily slept on the floor in the living room. With almost 20 people sleeping in the home, it was hard for me to feel like it was “fair” to take a room all by myself while Ajay shared a bed full of his cousins right after his wedding. Yet I knew the appropriate response was to graciously accept this generous hospitality from the family to bestow them honor as they hosted me.
Hindu people practice a wide variety of spiritual beliefs, so I had to ask many questions to learn what members of Ajay’s family personally believed about God. Many wedding ceremonies weave together symbolic traditions revolving around preparation and purification for the marriage stage of life with spiritual elements. Family and friends appreciated that I wanted to learn the significance of their community’s rituals.
One day we visited several temples, including a very famous one in the state where newlywed couples travel to for specific blessings. Coming along with Ajay’s family to these Hindu temples to observe and learn opened the door for family members to want to know what I believed about God. Long car rides together between cities and temples provided great times to shares how Lord Jesus changed my life, and the lives of other people in the Gospels.
Ajay’s father noticed that my life and character did not match what he assumed most Americans were like (think Hollywood media). This made him eager to have late night chats with me about his spiritual journey and curious to know my thoughts.
Besides Ajay’s father, another uncle, and several younger cousins, most people in his family and village didn’t speak English. Knowing some Hindi opened up the door to actually be able to communicate with them. While they could speak with me in Hindi, they all spoke with each other in their own local language, different from the Hindi that I knew. Learning phrases from their mother tongue earned me extra bonus points.
Being able to talk directly to me, rather than relying on Ajay to translate, also helped take me from a distanced outside observer to a family member. By the main wedding day I had learned several phrases in the local tongue. These brought huge smiles from Ajay’s family and shocked surprises from the family’s guests at the wedding venue.
1 Peter 3:15 – But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…
I was able to live in an honorable way within Ajay’s community, showing respect to his family and also representing Lord Jesus, because of what I have learned about Indian culture,. My love for their culture and my love for God opened up the possibility for Ajay’s family to be eager to hear about my faith. But those wonderful conversations didn’t happen on the first day of the trip. It took some time for relationships to grow and trust to be built before it was safe to have these deeper conversations.
At the end of my trip, Ajay’s father described me as “simple living, open-minded, intellectually sharp and spiritually deep.” Wow, what an honor! I didn’t expect this at all, but these kinds words showed his respect for me and his openness to hear about my perspectives and about Lord Jesus.
I encourage you to spend the time needed to grow in your learning of Indian culture, spirituality and language. I know it will be advantageous to you as you walk alongside your Hindu friends in grace and love.