What do you do when cultures collide?
When people from India meet us for the first time, at some point they ask the inevitable question, “How did you meet?” They look at my husband a handsome brown man from Bombay who speaks Tamil, Hindi, English and some Gujarati—’enough Gujarati to eat,’ we say—and then they look at me, an outspoken curvy white woman from the American South with blonde hair and they can’t imagine why or how we became husband and wife. My husband of now 23 years should have had an arranged marriage by his parents to a nice, black haired light-skinned South Indian Tamil Iyengar woman who was trained in either Bharatanatyam dance or perhaps she was trained to play the stringed musical instrument called the vena. She would have been educated, had a professional job likely in business, would have been younger by 3 years, and also she would be strikingly beautiful, Bollywood worthy, and even then, she would have not been good enough for their first born son.
I can still remember the day, months after we had been dating, really actually we were already living together but we didn’t want his parents to know—when he picked up the phone and begin dialing the 10 digits on Reliance to place a call to his parents in Bombay. There in the basement of his shared grad student apartment he finally told his parents that he engaged to someone in the United States. It was the scariest call for him and for me. I listened to his tone, what he said in Tamil, though I couldn’t understand, nor hear what they were saying. They talked for a long time, he was visibly upset. It was clear that not only did they not approve, they wanted him to come home to talk about it—which was by far my worst fear. My girlfriend had fallen in love with an Indian boy before. Once they were engaged—he went home to talk to his parents to plan their wedding. When he came back he was married to someone else—a hastily arranged Indian marriage to a suitable girl his parents selected. She was understandably devastated. It was then and there that I vowed I would never get involved with an Indian Tamil boy who was a brahmin Hindu. And yet, there I was heart racing, sitting on his twin bed with tears in my eyes, ready to have my heart broken and not about to let him fly anywhere alone.
“Listen, honey, don’t worry, it’s going to be fine. It wouldn’t matter how hard they worked to find the perfect Indian bride for me with the perfect education, perfect family background, from our own religious community, who met every one of their expectations for a bride of a first-born American Ph.D. educated beloved son. She will never be good enough and ultimately they would not approve of her—even after selecting her. So, honey, if they are not going to be happy anyway, at least this way I can choose someone whose good in bed.”
Through the tears, I began to laugh. We hugged, took a deep breath and began to imagine a future where this conflict of races, cultures, religions, and languages did not seem to be such a big deal. I mean, love is love, right? Eventually, they agreed to host a wedding for us in India, but it had to be the first one. We always said, “If they come and inch, we would go a mile to meet them.” So, a Hindu wedding to take place in Madras was planned for January, not August or September because of the rains. And not December because it wasn’t an auspicious month. Who gets married in January? Apparently we would.
My family was not any better, worse if truth be told. While my mother was sweet and cordial, my sisters were tolerant of us, with one sister in particular being downright hostile. I am the youngest of 5 children, four daughters and one son. I am not the beloved baby of the family. My father was not their father. My disagreeable sister made her opinion known in an email to me. By then we were living in our own small apartment on High Street in Columbus, Ohio not far from the campus of The Ohio State University. The collective-community oriented culture in South India required that marriages are between two families, not two individuals. Every family member plays a role—each contributing toward the rituals as well as the costs of the wedding. In reality, like traditionally in the USA, the bride’s family is to pay for the wedding and to arrange everything. To ask my fiancé’s parents, who did not approve of this match, to pay for our wedding was already a herculean request, so we were trying to bring a few aspects of the Indian expectations to my family to invite their participation. That backfired!
The plan was to meet my fiancé’s uncle in Pittsburgh to allow for him to meet my family and him to represent the family and meet me. In preparation, we thought we could send back to India some gifts to his family and in particular provide a suit as a gift from my family. My sister’s email was to inform me that she was not about to contribute to such an endeavor and that she was coming to Pittsburgh to see her mom, nothing more. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up as the now familiar heart pounding fear rose up into my throat. Standing behind me before I could delete the email was my guy, my beloved, the prized first-born son of India. My family was too crass, too uneducated, too common to get why this was important. If I thought it was going to be all wine and roses, I learned that day the conflict between our cultures went both ways. My Southern Christian racist xenophobic uneducated dysfunctional family was showing their true colors, and I was embarrassed. This was not going to end well.
We arrived in Pittsburgh and his uncle was delightful company—funny, lighthearted, smart, welcoming, and curious about my family. My mother decided that she needed to sit down with him and explain why she had been married and divorced five times–something he did not know about in the first place. So unbeknownst to me, she chronicled all five marriages and divorces to his uncle. In between stories, she kept commenting on his bald head and how that was a sign of “virility” while also sharing she was seeing someone but they were not yet married. Then my niece, who was involved with an African American man and had a child out of wedlock with another, shared she was not planning to get married either. Another niece, herself divorced, was dating a Muslim guy from Egypt, they were not yet married but hoped to do so. My sisters both were divorced prior to their current husbands, and my brother was married, but also previously divorced. So, when his uncle joined us at the end of the night in the car as we drove away to our shared hotel room, he had little to say but this, “Doesn’t anyone in your family believe in marriage?” To which I replied, “I do.”
And we did, the whole nine yards, the ‘I do’s’ and the vows; we walked the 7 steps, tied the three knots, exchanged the garlands, signed the marriage license and it was officially official in two countries, two cultures, two religions, two languages, two families and two weddings on two continents.
Oh, yea. What’s the answer to the question, “How did we meet?” We simply say with all seriousness, “We had an arranged marriage—two of them,” and watch the Indians in our company stare appropriately in amazement.
If you are involved in an interracial interfaith marriage (or know someone who is, please forward this blog post) please consider taking my survey below. I am conducting doctoral research on social change and social justice advocacy within interfaith interracial couples. Go to: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/InterfaithandSocialChange