To celebrate our first Christmas in Delhi, we invited our friends and coworkers over to enjoy as authentic an American Christmas as we could manage, given the fact that neither of us are practicing Christians, that we couldn’t purchase half the food we’d normally eat on the holidays, and that we didn’t have an oven for roasting anyway.
Christmas in an Indian market. Photo by Flickr user DanBrady.
Our menu was a mishmash of our traditions: Jewish potato latkes, hot mulled wine, ginger cookies, sweet potato casserole (technically a Thanksgiving dish, but we didn’t tell anyone), and homemade eggnog. Assembling the feast required great effort—beyond our lack of oven, we were also lacking a food processor, an electric mixer, and the assertiveness to ask Ganga to help with the labor. So the hours preceding our party were spent peeling yams for the casserole, grating onions and potatoes for the latkes, and beating cream for the eggnog.
When our second Delhi Christmas rolled around a year later, we wanted to recreate all of the fun but with none of that effort. So, rather than cook everything ourselves, we decided to make the event a “potluck”: we asked each guest to bring a dish to share with everyone else.
This request was not very well received.
Within a moment of sending my email invitation at work, some coworkers descended upon my desk to mock my backwards American practices. “Who brings food to a party?” Sonia demanded as the others nodded. “You’re supposed to have food served to you!”
And so we nearly ruined another Delhi Christmas.
You see, our first Christmas party had nearly ended as soon as it began. Having spent all that time preparing our feast, we wanted our guests to eat it while it was hot. So we’d assembled it buffet-style on our dining room table, and we’d handed out plates practically as soon as the guests arrived.
The American attendees ate. The Indian attendees refused.
“No, man,” I remember Pankaj telling me as he handed the plate back. “I’ll eat later.”
And the more we insisted they eat, the more uncomfortable they grew. The retreated into groups. They eyed us suspiciously. They whispered amongst themselves.
We didn’t know what we’d done wrong. And it wasn’t until we were guests at a few house parties ourselves that we finally figured it out.
In Delhi, we finally learned, there is generally an order to how parties progress: you drink, you dance, and then you eat. The booze loosens you up, the dance floor bounces you around, and then, in the wee hours, the food calms you down for the ride home.
Food is the signal that that party is over.
And it’s a universally understood signal at a party. Somewhere around 2 AM, we’d hear the doorbell over the sounds of Dard-E-Disco. Delivery from the dhaba! The living room floor—which, until that moment, was being eagerly bhangra’d upon by even the most uncoordinated gora—suddenly empties.
Kebabs are imbibed. Chinese noodles are slurped up. And then goodbyes are said, handshakes are exchanged, and the ritual drunk driving begins.
Behold my uncoordinated bhangra!
American parties usually begin with food. Indian parties usually end with them. The difference creates a dramatic incongruity: at our first Christmas party, our offer for guests to eat right away was interpreted as a request that they leave.
Fortunately, that party survived the faux pas. But a year later, at our second Christmas, our cultural ignorance threatened the party before it even began. Because if serving food implies that it’s time to go home, what were we implying by asking them to bring their own signal to leave?
Once my coworkers pointed out my foolishness, I quickly sent out an email clarifying the potluck concept. And fortunately, on the day of the party, we managed to assemble quite a spread.
Still, attendance at the party was half of what we hoped. And we found out later that the timing of the meal wasn’t the only thing we’d messed up. My coworker Anurag told me of his mother’s reaction when he’d mentioned the invitation to her: “At what kind of party,” she’d demanded incredulously, “do you have to bring your own food??”
Which actually made us feel better. We could chalk up the weak attendance as a reflection of the unfamiliarity of the potluck concept—and not of our friends’ and co-workers’ actual opinion of Jenny and I.