Over the past few months I’ve subscribed to quite a few inter-cultural relationship blogs. My focus has been on those between South Asians and Western women. And while this is not a scientific survey by any means these blogs tend to be written by women, and mostly younger women in their mid to late 20s. There are a few older women. Most of the relationships are a few years old. Many of the couples are either living together (before marriage) or they’ve just recently gotten engaged and/or married.
In terms of world views it appears the women in these relationships tend to be white and very liberal in their world view. Liberal defined both politically and socially. They have a very post-modern view of the world and are open minded. In face they place a high value on being open minded. I’ve read of some who are even “secret Muslims” – in a fun and cute kind of way.
In terms of family dynamics this white liberal woman is very assertive and opinionated – whether this is expressed openly or passively. Many seem to have tension with their new mother-in-laws or soon to be mother-in-laws. Some are very argumentative in their approach to their relationships and even to the new culture that they are about to be so integrated with. Somehow their man is above all this stuff but his culture is certainly something that cannot be tolerated or needs to be changed.
In many cases I see many couples as being overly naive in their assessment of what it takes to make an inter-cultural relationship with South Asians succeed. It’s one thing to be in love in your 20s with an exotic man from a far away place, but its quite another to stick it through for 60+ years. While I am no expert in this, I do think some sober thinking is needed – because the practical and the mundane become reality at some point and once the “love-bubble” fades you have to make choices.
I bring all this up because the South Asian culture is inherently conservative. It is religiously and socially conservative. Family is supreme. Relationships are king and social norms are extremely rigid. Family dealings are long term and require much work. In-laws are really not in-laws, they’re in-your-face. Family expectations from cousins-thrice-removed are real. Communication is very different – more passive aggressive than direct for the most part. Ideas are diametrically different – of course the daughter-in-law needs to serve tea and so on and so forth.
One day every inter-cultural relationship needs to deal with this – not in a theoretical love will carry us through kind of manner – but in a practical kind of way. Then there are children and their upbringing – and interaction between their grandparents (on both sides).
What I’m saying is not that these relationships will not succeed (I’m in one and have a personal stake in its success) but rather, the liberated post-modern liberal white woman will need to realize the extent to which her liberation, her post-modernism and her liberalism will be challenged by a culture and tradition older than most civilizations on earth. I have seen many walk away because their ultra-feminist ideals were more important than family peace and harmony.
Overcoming this is a tall order. It can only be conquered when you recognize how tall the order is and ensuring that you have a worldview strong enough to carry you through.
Pretty interesting piece on CNN on weddings that blend cultures and families. It documents some recent intercultural marriages. The slideshow (which cant’ be posted here) is great as is the article. I like how it demonstrates the way couples try to find commonalities to bind each other’s traditions:
For instance, both Hindu and Jewish traditions marry a bride and groom under a structure. In Judaism it’s called a chuppah, and in Hinduism it’s termed a mandap. Kavi and David Moltz married under a chuppah made from birch wood that was adorned with silk and fabric from both sets of grandparents. “Both Jews and Hindus get married under something,” David says. “It represents your first house.” One tradition that is common to the Jewish, Hindu and Greek Orthodox religions is the breaking of something at the end of the ceremony. Jewish couples break a glass with their feet, while Greeks drink a glass of wine and throw the glass. Hindus break a pot. Another common symbol that transcends various traditions is the exchanging of something during the ceremony. Indians exchange garlands, Jews and Christians exchange rings and Buddhists exchange white scarves. Finding commonality between traditions can make a ceremony meaningful, but make sure to have someone explain the symbolism to the wedding guests, or most will be in the dark, says Macomb. Also, she advises intercultural weddings can seem more cohesive if an officiant and readers incorporate some native languages into the ceremony as a nod to family members who have traveled from another part of the world.
It’s a great read, hope you enjoy it as well.
This past Saturday afternoon we gathered the kids, piled into our car and went to the Nepali New Year celebration. We try to participate in these types of events as much as possible and we were all excited. We ended up having a good time. The girls loved the dancing, the deserts and the balloons. My wife and I enjoyed reconnecting with some people we hadn’t seen in a while. We live in a pretty big metropolis and the Nepalese people are scattered all over. The ones we seem to get along with live the farthest (figure that one)!
I ended up having a pretty interesting discussion with one of the elders. This gentleman has been in the US for over 31 years. He helped found the local Nepali organization and is a very well-educated man. He has grown children in their thirties and of course all were raised in the United States. He made the observation that it’s hard to get his kids to think about marriage and getting married. Only his oldest (who is almost 40) is married he said. He said he has seen this issue with other families as well and is quite puzzled by it.
As we talked more about this phenomenon I felt like I had some insights. I think that the second generation grows up very confused about marriage. Most in the first generation had arranged marriages and have very strong ties to that mindset. To the second generation arranged marriage is basically an alien concept. As much as they may understand the system and the structure they never feel that it’s for them. (I could be wrong here, so jump in with your thoughts if you have a different view.)
Add to this their natural impulse (as Western people mind you) to seek out the “normal” love marriage and they grow up extremely confused. As they age they have to balance the desire to please themselves vs. pleasing their parents. I think most just choose to forget about it and wait. After a point of waiting (past 30), they begin to become comfortable with a love marriage and slowly start to venture out and settle down with their partner of choosing. At this point the parents are way past worrying about this and just let it go.
I don’t know what this gentleman thought of my ideas but he certainly hadn’t thought of it that way. It caused him to think a bit but it was loud and the music as pretty distracting so we didn’t dwell on these deep thoughts too long. We never talked afterwards, but hopefully I shed some light on why his kids are refusing to marry or even discuss marriage.
What do you think? Are you a second generation child of parents who had arranged marriages? Share your thoughts.
Sometimes I feel that my relationship with Shreemati is a microcosm of a much larger cultural difference. This seems to be case when we face challenges. A few years ago I was in the process of a career change (or adjustment). During this time she continued to be optimistic at the opportunities that lay before us and I kept a continual focus on fate and destiny and loss. Perhaps this is a personality difference but as I’ve lived in America for all these years I do notice that the people in general are an optimistic bunch.
I’m not saying that there are not exceptions, of course there are, but what I’m saying is that the fatalism that I grew up with is very ingrained in my mindset. While I try not to hold on to it and it goes against everything I now believe, it is still there. And I’m starting to think that while I am a very happy person and have a very positive outlook on life, there is a lingering thing in the back of my head that at times holds be back.
Right now we’re facing a few challenges and this issue keeps popping up. The “can do”optimism that Shreemati shows at times rubs me the wrong way. I think this is in her personality but it’s also a part of her nationality and culture. This sense that with hard work and a little bit of smarts anything is possible. I on the other hand keep focusing on the difficulty and the quiet sense that in the end it’s really just a matter of destiny. At least that what I seem to be operating under. A total lie of course.
Image used under creative commons license from Flickr account ID ragnar1984