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Since moving to New Jersey from Tamil Nadu, India at age 10, my life has been a battle of two normals, of not knowing when to cry tiger and when to cry wolf. It is normal to set a watermelon on fire, for religious purposes. It is also normal to lie in a coffin-like box of ultraviolet light, or as Snooki would call it, “tanning tanning.”
I’ve compiled a list of four aspects of normal life in these two very different places. Why four? My India side would say because it has numerological significance. My New Jersey side would say because I fucking felt like it.
Near the beach in Chennai, I once saw a poster for “Harry Potter Fitness Center.” It was on one of those outdoor walls that have shards of broken glass cemented onto the top, to prevent people from climbing over it. My guess is that the owner is either really fond of the boy wizard, or is named Harry Potter himself. I wouldn’t dismiss the latter — many South Indians have startlingly Western names. Dark-skinned, mustachioed men wearing dhotis may introduce themselves as Stanley or Ricardo, or Harry Potter. “How sidey!” my cousin exclaimed, when I told her about the poster. Sidey is slang for lower class.
The not-so-sidey gym I go to during long summer visits to Chennai has mandatory personal trainers. Every week, you are taken into an office for a checkup. After measuring your BMI, the technician might say, “A little chubby, no?” While running on the treadmill, the person next to you might tap you on your shoulder to ask what you’re listening to. Even if you look like everybody else in the city, people just know when you’re foreign.
Almost all the cardio machines at my gym in New Jersey have personal televisions, with comically inaccurate closed captioning. It’s far less social than a gym in India, unless you go to one of the classes. The gym makes a distinction between “Zumba” and “Latin Heat” class. “Latin Heat” is more popular because it is taught by a muscular Brazilian named Alberto. It is a lot more expensive than other gyms in the area, but people like that, since it attracts a more “whole” crowd.
The two biggest dating websites in India are Shaadi.com (translation: “marriage.com”) and Bharat Matrimony. Bharat Matrimony subcategorizes into dating websites for more specific ethnic groups: Sindhi Matrimony, Tamil Matrimony, etc. Those subcategorized dating sites will ask you for your caste: If you’re Tamil, then Brahmin or Chettiar or Reddy, etc. I find it strange, to see something as ancient as caste listed as options in a drop-down menu.
While arranged marriage is still common in Tamil Nadu, dowry and all, a lot of people date the same way people in New Jersey do — through friends of friends, class, work, etc. I do hear of wilder romances in India, though. My cousin’s driver met his fiancé by dialing a wrong number; she was on the other line. They eloped a week later. I was told that a girl who used to work at my grandmother’s house ran away with the “iron man,” the man who irons clothes on his outdoor cart for a small fee.
The romantic freedoms and relative disregard of socioeconomic class (romantically, anyway) in New Jersey lend a thinner foundation for dramatic courtship. A few days ago, at my local coffeeshop in New Jersey, I overheard a conversation in which a college-age guy was talking about how his ex broke up with him over the phone.
“What’s her sign?” asked his blond, scraggly-haired friend, adjusting his glasses.
“Hmm,” he responded, in a way that indicated a quagmire solved.
I almost gaped at how much he sounded like an Indian parent shopping for a son- or daughter-in-law.
Chennai has a soundtrack of car horns, of all different pitches, constantly buzzing in the background at any time of the day. If you look out the window during a traffic jam, you’ll notice that the air shakes like Jell-O, from all the petroleum and diesel. It’s hard to tell whether Chennai-ites are good or bad drivers, because they just seem to be stopped in traffic jams all the time. Crossing the road can be deadly, which brings me to the subject of roadkill.
It’s fairly common to meet a person who’s hit another person while driving, though it’s not always fatal. It’s almost like Chennai’s pedestrians have a survival instinct against road accidents. Other animals are not so lucky. My sister and I once saw a dead horse in the middle of a rural road. Stray dogs and cows — some of them with their horns painted in colorful stripes, for religious purposes — walk amongst the cars in traffic, as do beggars, who stubbornly knock on the window for money.
New Jersey drivers are notorious for being the country’s worst, as proven by the state’s exceptionally high car insurance rates. We tailgate, we zip through yellow lights, we wouldn’t dream of signaling before changing lanes. People attribute aggressive New Jersey driving to aggressive people, who always want to get ahead even if there’s no rush. Politically incorrect people attribute it to the high number of new immigrants in the state. We treat all roads like we treat the interstate, which is evidenced by the flattened squirrels or skunks or rabbits that mark every block of a sylvan neighborhood.
“Fair and Lovely” is a popular skin-lightening lotion in India whose television ads feature histrionically morose, dark-skinned women immediately basking in attention from men and employers once they use the product to lighten their complexions. In an attempt to be more subtle, a competing company released a cream called “White Beauty.” These ads are especially caustic to South Indian women, most of whom have hues that the cosmetics industry would call “espresso.” Not that it stops the creams from flying off the shelves at every Nilgiris in the state.
While women in India are obsessed with being lighter, many Jersey women put themselves at risk for skin cancer to be more tan. Ever hear of “the tanning mom”? She was sent to court for allegedly making her five-year-old daughter hit the UV-box and incur terrible sunburns. She also looks like a leather satchel. But she’s an isolated instance of “tanorexia,” and we cannot let her represent the whole state.
Spoofs on New Jersey women show them wearing absurd amounts of animal prints, fake nails, fake boobs, and hoop earrings. Really, it’s only the women who constantly talk about how “Joy-sey” they are, for lack of anything more interesting to share about themselves, that look like that. The rest of us look pretty normal. Whatever that is.