A love story that spans cultures, continents and croissants, ahem…maybe even masala croissants! In our first couples’ showcase on “How We Met”, we are proud to introduce our Editor of Cultural Perspectives, Séverine Perronnet, and her husband, Rahul Venkit.
Séverine was born and raised in Lyon, France until she moved to Beijing, China, to pursue her passion for languages. In China, she studied Mandarin, English, and business, while continuing to indulge her love for dance and literature.
Rahul grew up on an entirely different continent. He was born and raised in India where he also started his career at the age of 16 with The Indian Express Newspapers in Pune. After completing his Master’s in Broadcast Journalism at the University of Westminster, London, his career took him to China, via Singapore and London, which is where he met his future-wife-to-be.
Séverine and Rahul’s love story thus began in Beijing, China, in 2008, where they met through friends of friends. “What attracted me to Sev was her warmth and simplicity. She seemed to know how to pause and smell the roses while I had been running around like a headless chicken for as long as I could remember,” recalls Rahul, alluding to his hectic career.
Let’s hear from the couple on topics that we all want to know more about:
If your love story was to be made into a movie, what would you call it?
Sev: Croissants au masala
Rahul: Masala croissant is apt. We actually saw such an item on sale at the Mumbai airport once. I thought it was funny that we Indians would take a perfectly pleasant, trademark French creation such as a croissant and then assault it with masalas to make it delicious! Of course, Sev thought the entire concept was a disgrace and an affront to her culture. In response, I offered her a bite of the masala croissant. She refused. So rude.
How did your families react when you told them about each other?
Sev: My family and friends were very happy for us. We have a very open family and so a different cultural background isn’t a problem and being in an inter-cultural relationship is quite common.
Rahul: In my career and daily life, I simply didn’t come across and connect with many Indian women. My parents realized that the likelihood of me finding an Indian partner was slim. Even though they may have initially preferred having an Indian daughter-in-law for cultural and communication reasons, after meeting Sev, they were floored by her simple, well-grounded nature.
[perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Factors like being an inter-racial, international couple, alone aren’t a big deal. The fact is, sustaining a long-term relationship with anyone is hard, regardless of cultural background and upbringing. As long as there is enough common ground between a couple and a willingness to evolve and adapt, there’s hope.[/perfectpullquote]
How was it meeting each other’s families for the first time?
Sev: I first met Rahul’s mom in Singapore, where his parents used to live. Rahul was giving me a tour of the garden when his mother came back from work, so we met while entering the building and she just said with a big smile “Hello dear, I’m Padma!” No fuss, no drama, just a warm welcome. When Rahul told her I loved dancing, she put on music and the two of us started dancing. We told Rahul that we were having great fun together and that he could go away and let us have fun!
Rahul: Yes, Sev’s first meeting with Mom and Dad couldn’t have gone better. It’s still a bit disconcerting to me that my mother and Sev have a similar sense of humour and find the most bizarre things extremely funny.
As for Sev’s family, luckily there isn’t the same sense of drama there tends to be among Indian families about “approving” partners. Their attitude tends to be: “it’s your life, your decision. We’re here if you need us, but you will need to live your own life and live with your choice.”
What were your ideas of an ideal mate before you met your significant other?
Sev: This is interesting because before I met Rahul, a friend asked me what my ideal man would be, and so just for fun I made this list of my “ideal man”. When Rahul and I went on our first date, I realized that he was ticking most of the boxes on that silly list! Some of them were: love of travel, love of dance, makes me discover new things, older than me (he’s exactly four months older than me), beautiful hands … So I decided that the universe was sending me a very important message and that I’d better listen!
[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Your companion will have strengths and weaknesses. If you can benefit from the former and learn to live with the latter, you’re sorted.[/perfectpullquote]
Rahul: I always wanted a partner who would be an equal in every way. In time I’ve come to realize that it’s extremely rare to find someone who’s going to be an equal in ways you imagined in your head. And even if one were to find said equal, that poses a range of other problems along the lines of who follows whom around the world. Relationships are about give and take.
What was the proposal like?
Sev: Rahul wanted to do things the right way, and so he first called my father to ask his permission. He rehearsed this in French with a friend and then made the call from India… to which my father replied that he had no say in this and that it was my life, thus my decision!
Rahul took me to the roof of his house in India, after sunset, and candles were burning. I had no idea. I thought he had organized a cozy and romantic dinner for us. He said something about me changing his life and all of a sudden he was on one knee with a little red box in which there was a ring. I don’t remember anything he said, except that he wanted to marry me. I said yes!
Then, I was informed of the best dates for the nuptials and I must admit that this was a bit too much for me, as I had just been engaged!
I think it was quite a traditional proposal from a French point of view, including asking my hand in marriage to my father first.
Rahul: To clarify, I had already told my family and close friends that I intended to propose. Mom and dad were obviously excited and already started planning ahead. Auspicious dates were hard to come by, it seems.
What are some of the cultural challenges you face as a intercultural couple?
Sev: We were brought up in very different ways, but both with an appreciation for arts and culture.
France is a socialist country, so we have this social security net. By contrast, in India, you must work or die. So I think my vision of life is more rosy and poetic than Rahul’s, who is more down-to-Earth and practical than I am.
French meals are very codified, and the most important dish is meat.
[perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]You can imagine my horror when he cooked a 100% vegetarian meal! I asked him: ‘alright, no meat… but eggs, at least?”. For him, a meal cooked without gravy, sauce or spices is not finished. Not to mention medium cooked or raw meat![/perfectpullquote]
Rahul: It perhaps plays into certain (western) European stereotypes, but I found it tough to reconcile with Sev’s lack of drive and passion to excel. Where I come from, one has to be the best just to survive. Mediocracy, to me, is the bane of society. I realized I was subconsciously judging based on my own personal, somewhat arbitrary yardsticks. Sev may not have grand career ambitions but family means the world to her.
So I learned to recalibrate my expectations. Now, we each have our specialty domains within our relationship and complement each other. Perhaps, our relationship roles are more traditional than I would’ve expected, but we’re a functional family unit. That’s already an achievement.
How do you handle cultural conflicts?
Sev: By talking and listening to each other’s points of view, trying to understand where they are coming from.
Rahul: Also by taking a longer-term, pragmatic view of differences. Ultimately, we realize we’re on the same team and there’s more that binds us together than tears us apart.
So, tell us a bit about your wedding!
Sev: We had two weddings: a civil ceremony in Belgium, where we live; and a big fat Indian wedding in Pune, Rahul’s hometown.A third one remains to happen in Lyon, my hometown. It’ll happen when some family members are fit to travel.
I had no idea about what organizing an Indian wedding entailed, and once I understood, I let go of my European ideas and embraced it. For example, Rahul’s parents gave us a list of people they wanted to invite to our wedding which was quite long. When I asked Rahul who these people were, I was shocked that he had no idea. In France, we select very carefully whom we want to invite. Once I understood the social significance of a wedding in India, it was much easier for me to accept the idea of total strangers attending “the most special day of our lives”
We had a Tam-Bram (Tamil-Brahmin) wedding and I did a lot of research about the significance of the rituals and we decided to keep only what we liked, to make it our own. We also added other Indian traditions that are not followed in the Tam-Bram community, such as the baraat (wedding procession). The ceremony was thus very much tailored to us. We still had a few surprises from the priest, such as chewing on paan (betel-nut leaf, I almost threw up!), or me bowing down to my new husband’s feet (he wasn’t asked to bow to me). Also, the priest couldn’t say my name properly.
Rahul: Indians know the only way to make it through an Indian wedding unscathed is by surrendering and going with the flow. But I was mighty impressed by Sev’s commitment to understanding the significance behind each ritual.
Here is a preview video from Sev and Rahul’s wedding:[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xDchfZxEaLI]
To watch the extended version, click here.
What are your favorite memories of cultural integration?
Sev: Learning Bharatnatyam (a traditional Indian dance form) and performing it during our wedding
– Trying to make round chapatis and ending up with triangular ones; being mocked by the cook and Rahul’s grandmothers for said triangular chapatis.
– Rahul’s mom asking me to light the lamps at nightfall
– The cleaning lady trying to teach me prayers in Marathi
– Realizing that no matter how conservatively I dress, if I kept wearing Western clothes, I would always be looked at in the streets in India; thus going to a shopping spree to get myself a whole new wardrobe of salwar kameez and kurta
– Going to Crossword (Bookstore) and picking up the latest Indian books
– When I entered the house as a bride and was made to step in kumkum so that my foot prints would be like (Goddess) Lakshmi’s when entering the house
– When I tried and succeeded to make paneer by myself
– Getting married in India!!!
Rahul: I now speak French. Sev and I continue to speak English since that’s the language we “met in” in Beijing. I guess I get French humour a bit more now. Also, French festival meals lasting longer than a Bollywood movie are no longer shocking to me.
Sev forgot to mention that she never takes off her mangalsutra (called Thali in Tamil, a wedding necklace). She says that to her it’s like a wedding band, so it’s part of her everyday life.
How do you integrate culture/festivals in everyday life?
Sev: We live in Belgium, where the culture is very similar to France. So we try and make an effort to integrate Indian culture into our daily life. We have an altar with Hindu deities. We also have a lot of decorations from India, so our home has a strong Indian touch.
We go to the mandir (temple) here for important festivals, or we gather with Indian friends to celebrate them at home. Our daughter also likes to ring the bell at the altar and put kumkum on people’s forehead. We do aartis (prayer lighting a flame before the Gods/Goddesses) often.
Rahul: Our idea is to celebrate both cultures, including festivals and traditions, to enrich our own lives and also to let Aria get the best of both worlds. Our aim is to make sure she’s at home with both cultures. Right now, she’s immersed in Belgian/French/European cultures, so making sure she’s exposed to Indian culture is the challenge. We usually go to India once a year around the Christmas break but last year (2016), we went for Diwali, which was brilliant – literally and figuratively. We’re hoping to make a habit out of it – celebrating Diwali in India and Christmas in Europe. Best of both worlds again
How do you think society perceives interracial couples?
Being in a relationship is always challenging. Being a multicultural couple is just one of the multiple challenges, but it does force you to expand your horizon, and your ways of thinking and seeing the world.
Sev: In both French and Belgian societies, being in a multicultural relationship is quite normal and not shocking at all. Recently though, there has been a wave of extremism in Europe, and a fascist party almost made it to the presidency of France. That really scared me.
Rahul: Brussels is a liberal bubble, a bit like certain expat circles around the world, I imagine. So, us being an international couple is very much part of the norm in our daily lives. I’m very much aware of it being extraordinary for a large majority of Indian and other largely conservative societies. In India, I do remind Sev not to indulge in PDA (public display of affection) but that’s part of being culturally aware.
Do you have any advice for those dating outside their own race/culture/religion?
Sev: Understanding the cultural background and values of your partner helps a lot. Learning their language as well. I learned a lot about the Indian psyche by reading Indian literature, watching Bollywood movies, and practicing Bharatanatyam. Traditional and modern culture are equally important things to integrate.
[perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Point is not to find the perfect person, it’s to know if you can live with someone’s imperfections. [/perfectpullquote]
Rahul: If it feels right, has passed the test of long distance and/or time, and if you’re willing to live with the consequences of your choice (like you do in any relationship), go for it! As long as there is good communication between the couple and certain common values, dating outside race/culture/religion isn’t an issue.
Severine is a translator for Xinhua News Agency, the Chinese news agency. She is also the Editor of Cultural Perspectives for the Parent Voice, Magazine.
Rahul is a Brussels-based multimedia journalism & communications professional. To read more click here.
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