M was always a great storyteller, so even before we were married I knew a lot of these people. I did have a problem with names, though. Seriously - I have only 1 aunt and 3 uncles. Only 3 first cousins. M has 87 first cousins on his mother's side alone. His father was one of 21 children that he knows of. (He was the next-to-youngest, so there may have been more who passed away before he was born. Also, the only reason his parents stopped at 22 was because his father passed away...) That's 21 Puppas and Chachas to remember. My 2.5-kids per family America brain had a hard time with all those names for awhile.
When we got married, things got a little easier. At my request, M's parents had brought with them a big stack of old pictures. It was one of the activities we'd planned to do together to help us start to feel more like a family - we'd all sit around in the evenings, after M came back from work, and look through the pictures together. Very often each picture would serve as a jumping off point for more stories, too.
After having spent two years hearing all about these people and looking through their pictures, in the days leading up to our trip I asked for a sort of refresher course. I knew I was going to have difficulties with all these names, so I tried to map out a quick family tree; just the aunts & uncles and their kids - M's cousins. I kept that piece of paper folded up with me when I was in Pakistan, but I didn't need it very much, and not at all after the first week. It was surprising how much our prep work had helped; after meeting everyone the first time, it was like I already knew them all!
The trick I want to write about didn't start out as a trick at all, in fact. The first night of our visit, we were to attend a cousin's nikah, or wedding ceremony. Because the entire family would be there (both M's mother's relatives and his father's relatives) not that many people came by the airport or house to meet me beforehand. I was going to meet everyone for the first time at this event. As soon as we walked in, it was a whirlwind. (I didn't even have time to consult my family tree!)
After meeting a handful of people, I saw a gray-haired man approaching me. I had heard so many stories about him, and seen his picture so many times, that I already knew him. The eldest maternal uncle, or Mama. I already knew about how Baray Mama had brought M his first bicycle from Saudi Arabia when he was young. I knew about how M would go to sleep over at Baray Mama's house in the summers, and how Mama would sneak into the boys room when he thought they were sleeping (they weren't) and visit each boy, stroking their heads and then raising his hand to kiss the fingers that had just swept through the boy's hair - as if he was saving a little piece of each boy's youth for himself. I knew how Mama had helped M to get special treatment at the Karachi airport because he'd worked in the airline industry all his life, and poor M was so nervous about flying to America. I knew how Mama had instructed M to make sure to pack two outfits in his carry on luggage because his airline, TWA, would surely lose his luggage (they did.)
So of course I recognized this man when I first saw him walking towards me. Seriously, it didn't even feel like I was meeting him for the first time! As he was approaching me, I happily called out "Baray Mama!!!" and it was only the look of surprise on his face that reminded me that this was our first encounter. "How do you know who I am?" he asked as he grasped my hand. "I...I....I already know you..." I sputtered... "I've seen so many pictures of you."
The smile on his face was very big, and I realized that M and I had done something right. Just this first greeting had helped M's uncle realize that M's choice of an American wife could be a good one. He could tell that family relationships with M's family still in Pakistan was going to be important to me, and that M would not lose his connection with his roots (two common concerns that I hear about desi-nondesi marriages.) That mama has since always been very kind and very friendly with me. A first impression really can go a long way!
M and I quickly realized we could use this to our advantage, however, and sometimes for significant family members, he would whisper the names to me. Or as we were driving to someone's house, we'd review the names of the people we were going to meet. After a while, I developed a bit of a reputation for already knowing everyone's name and I even started to get quizzed on them. Luckily, I did pretty well. (My short-term memory's pretty good. Your results may vary.)
So that's my trick - make of it what you will. If you plan to meet some desi family members, try your best to look at pictures and ask for stories about these people. Giving yourself a backdrop to work faces into will help you remember and retain their names, and facilitate relationship building early on. Plus, it will make them happy! You can even give yourself some clues and hints to remember people's names. (Like we called one cousin of M's "Beauty Store Appi" and that reminded me of who she was, and it made her laugh when she heard it!)