Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Marriage and the Indian Diaspora

Rimi had a very interesting comment on my last post, wondering why Indian-American men gravitate towards desi women, despite having been brought up outside India. Fascinating question, and I've definitely pondered over it quite a bit, but as you shall see, I'm hardly the person to provide any valuable insights on the matter. Why is it so? Well, let's see.......flashback to the time when I was 13 years old (a long, long time ago).

We receive a letter (pre-telephone days for our household, the arrival of the postman was eagerly anticipated). The letter is from my mother's aunt, annoucing that her son who was in the US pursuing a PhD is engaged to be married. This is how the conversation between me and my mom went:

Me: So who is he marrying? What does she do?

Mom: She grew up in D...(Mom's hometown). She's studying for a Masters in Math.

Me: What? He's not marrying an American?

Mom: What do you mean? Why would he marry an American woman?

Me: He lives in America. Why should he marry a Bengali woman?

Mom (gives me a hard weirded-out look): We don't do those things. We marry our own kind, and he's a very good boy who let his parents choose his spouse.

Me: Oh no! Don't tell me he's having an arranged marriage!

Don't ask me why, but I always assumed that my uncle, studying in the US, was statistically far more likely to date an American (and I excluded Indian-American from the list) woman. It was a bit of a shock that not only did he not date an American woman, but he actually came over to India on vacation and got engaged to a girl shortlisted by his parents. I had a hard time understanding why an Indian immigrant man might want to seek out his own kind, facilitated by his parents; the fact that Indian-Americans might want to seek Indians and Indian-Americans for the purposes of marriage was beyond my comprehension.

But then, over the years, I've come around to understand to an extent why cultural affinity is uppermost in the minds of a majority of people when they think of marriage. I personally cannot relate to it, I've never, ever pondered over the question of cultural affinity in picking out dates. But cross-cultural relationships require a lot going for them, not the least being the willingness of the persons involved to look beyond differences and focus on similarities.

That's easier said than done, and depends to a great extent on the value systems of the persons involved. An acquaintance of mine, an Indian woman, was dating a Turkish man for 5 years before they broke off their relationship. The reason? Disagreement over the religion their yet unborn children would follow! Religion is a huge bogeyman for many, and many in the Indian diaspora are brought up by conservative parents who incessantly drill it in them to "keep their faith".

In fact, religion is a big deal for many diasporic communities, not simply because the norms of a previous generation get fossilized, but also because religion becomes a focal point for the community to bond over. Many Greek-Americans actively seek out followers of the Greek Orthodox faith, so this is not just confined to the Indian community.

And then of course, there is the amorphous, hard to define concept of "shared culture", which could mean anything from childhoods spent preparing for Spelling Bee Contests, to keeping track of Shah Rukh Khan's hairstyles over the years. This of course would only apply to Indian-Americans seeking other Indian-Americans, and indeed that's exactly what an overwhelming majority are looking for, if Shaadi.com profiles are to be believed (yes, I have many stellar uses of my time, including trolling Shaadi.com for the priceless amusing profiles).

In fact, the relationship between an Indian-American and an Indian who grew up in India would have cross-cultural dynamics, and there are many Indian-Americans who are loathe to take that on, besides of course unwilling to become visa and green card mules. But there are some Indian-Americans who would actively seek out spouses from the old country, and perhaps these persons were the focus of Rimi's comment (Rimi, please clarify).

Now I personally know only one Indian-American woman who got married to an Indian man who was raised in India. As far as I could tell, primarily it seemed that she held the notion that someone raised in India would have a stronger commitment to what are perceived as "Indian values": loyalty to the girlfriend, commitment to a long term relationship (and the institution of marriage), and specifically the idea that dating would eventually lead to marriage. In fact, she made him commit to a wedding in the future even before she went on their first date!

Now gender reverse all of these things for an Indian-American man seeking a desi woman raised in India. Of course I'm not implying that's the only reason why an Indian-American man might date an Indian woman, he might be just attracted to her, period. However, if an Indian-American man insists on only going out with women raised in India (usually for the express purposes of marriage), probably he has a few of these ideas in his mind.

He may have grown up with the exotized ideal of a submissive,homebound desi woman, projecting perhaps the qualities his mother possesses on contemporary Indian women. Again, this is not merely confined to the Indian-American man, a lot of Caucasian men have similar fantasies about "docile, meek" Asian women. He may have a very romantic and regressive notion of an ideal family, and feel that a woman raised with "old world values" is best suited to raise such a family. He may be disillusioned with Indian-American women for some reason (real or imagined) and seek out an alternative in the form of Indian women. And finally, I think there is the very real concern about the compatability between his future wife and his parents, and he might feel that a woman raised in India would be the best fit with his family.

All this pop analysis isn't backed with a shred of data, but is mostly gleaned from conversations, lives of acquaintances, debates and articles about the subject over the years. Now that I re-read the post, it seems to give the impression that cross-cultural marriages are very rare in the Indian diaspora. Far from it, I've seen several cross-cultural relationships and marriages involving one Indian or Indian-American partner and someone from another culture. It's really cute when the kids from such relationships are brought to community celebrations, heartening to see how effortlessly they seem to straddle two cultures and glean the best from them.

Ultimately it all depends on whether you focus on the commonalities that transcend differences, or choose to opt for what is ostensibly familiar. I try to be objective, but I will say that there's something magical when a girl from the Midwest and a boy from Bangalore are brought together over their shared love of rock music. Or a girl from Pakistan bowls over a US Marine, and a he dances the bhangra on their wedding. Or an Indian man, married for over 30 years to an American woman celebrating their son's graduation.


Blogger Arthur Quiller Couch said...

I'd say, if they agree on marrying each other, that's the biggest affinity.
Or mistake. I'm not very pro-marriage here.

12:11 AM  
Blogger Adagio For Strings said...

Hiya :)! I did a post just for you :D! Actually responded to this post. Should warn you that I kind of got into a flow and started making arguments a little academically so it might sound more aggressive than I meant it was to be. (and ofcourse since its 3 am it might be intractable because I might have written nonsense) . Also if you do look at shaadi.com - mere liye tote bandiyon per nazar rakhna :D. (the sugar mumma etc comment from last post etc)

2:59 AM  
Blogger Bonatellis said...

i think this is particularly predominant among Indian males ... and, for that, lady, i think you need to understand the psyche of the "typical" broad-minded yet conservative-to-the-core Indian male :)

i think anurag mathur's "the inscrutable americans" does, in some way, highlight that ...

4:52 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Arthur, in these commitment phobic times, that should certainly be sufficient! Let's divide the world into the marrying and non-marrying kind, that's the fundamental schism right there :).

Adagio, again let me clarify, the last bit is for Indian-American men, not Indian men from India! All the tote bandiyan in Shaadi.com are looking for sugar daddies of their own.

Bonatellis, again, this is about Indian-American men, not Indian men raised in India. Very different mindset and assumptions!

7:22 AM  
Blogger Aishwarya said...

Great post.

A cousin who has lived in the US all her life is getting married in a couple of months. She's marrying a boy from the right community, the right state, the right ancestral village! We are a small community, and finding such a man must have been rather difficult. She did it all by herself too...not an arranged marriage.
While I live in Delhi and have been in a relationship with a white american for three years. It's...strange.

9:25 AM  
Blogger Bharath Hemachandran said...

I would have to agree with the others above me. A bang on the money kind of reflection you've churned out here.

1:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

. But there are some Indian-Americans who would actively seek out spouses from the old country, and perhaps these persons were the focus of Rimi's comment

Yes, chiefly. But you extend the territory delightfully. My other concern was what you covered in the following paragraphs: the flux of cultural dynamics between the 'parent' country and the diaspora. Doesn't make any bloody sense.

And need I say, Swati: brilliant post. Exactly what I'd have wanted to read on the topic :-)

10:54 PM  
Blogger Rimi said...

Bloody hell, why does this happen to ME? That previous comment was mine.

10:56 PM  
Blogger www.gypsynan.blogspot.com said...

I have realised that American Indians sorry Indian Americans basically have a very sad life growing up and are more of a misfit than even Asian Americans or Arab Americans, simply because they are never a part of the mainstream and also dislike hanging out with their own kind!!!Go figure, which comes from having hyper competitive parents who go to the US and only hang out with people from their own state! I am not sure why but this is how it is. I am going home simply to make sure that the kids when I have them are not the weirded out misfits they will be.

11:23 AM  
Blogger Soumyadip said...

I don't know exactly why, but when in alien societies we tend to develop a closer affinity to our native cultures. Though not as distant as India and America but being 2,000 kilometres away makes me feel that. While Indian Americans fly down to marry birds of the same feather, Indian Indian men and women are increasingly going beyond language (and obviously caste) to take those saat-pheras (or the signature ceremony at the registrar's office).

6:25 PM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Aishwarya, your cousin is nothing if not tenacious! But I've seen Greek girls ferret out boys from the old country who come from the same village s as their parents.

Bharath, thanks!

Rimi, glad you liked it! Yes the dynamics of the diaspora are extremely complex, and I'm barely skimming the surface here.

Gypsy, I don't know if that's necessarily true. Perhaps for some, but most Indian-Americans I meet are remarkably at ease with being bi-cultural and proud of both aspects.

They really don't dislike hanging out with their own kind, in this case, their own kind being other Indian Americans. Can't expect them to have instant affinity with recent immigrant Indians, no?

And I'm sure your kids would grow up very sophisticated and adjusted, with such world traveller parents :)!

Soumya, very true. There is certainly a heightened awareness of identity outside native lands. But Indian-Americans who willingly go down to India to find mates are a small minority. Most prefer to find their mates in the US, within and outside the Indian-American community.

2:11 PM  
Blogger Old Spice said...

I'm a little late on this, but I've posted a response on my blog, too. Being a foreign-brought up confused desi, I may have a different perspective on this, but probably won't. It's been very thought-provoking, this discussion. It's forced me to think through a lot of my ideas, and the topic is very close to home, so thank you.

7:46 PM  
Blogger Psyche said...

Recently I was supposed to hook up with an Canadian-Indian who was tam-bram and all. We didnt work out, never mind.. but anyway this is what he had to say about his previous relationships.. why they didnt work,

"I never want to have to explain the humor in tamil movies".

Really!! He was seeing a chinese woman before this, but never with the intent of marrying her!!

11:42 PM  
Anonymous Sanity Starved said...

Hmm... will generalize then.

I find Americans hardest to connect to except at work. Make great friends but find them least, err, "gravitating." I have developed this theory - the more closer they are, geographically, the more "gravitating" they are. More similarities and easier to bridge.

Of course, going by that theory, once more, Bong girls will score most! :D

4:11 PM  
Blogger Dipanjan said...

We need to look at the parents of the Indian Americans currently in the marriage and dating pool.

Most of them came to US in 70s and 80s. Globalization was not as strong back then as it is now. Most of those Indian immigrants kept their professional and social lives quite isolated from each other - often for good reasons. Naturally their children did not develop the social skills and the network needed to be successful in a competitive dating world. Quite often they became emotionally more dependent on their parents than Americans growing up in US or Indians growing up in India. So when the time for marriage comes and the parents demand someone (from India) they could relate to, they agree - grudgingly and with apprehension.

The parents' conception of "Indian values and cultures" is frozen in time. So the choices they make are often disastrous. For a cousin of mine and a friend, both brought up in US, arranged marriage with Indian spouses ended in quick divorces. Sad. It's just a transitional phase though and will be a non-issue in a generation or two.

6:36 PM  
Blogger Patient Portnoy said...

Wonder why...

Am now in this British firm which is delightfully infested by what people here call "phirangs". But I love them, and our dissimilarities. I see nothing unnatural about getting to like them, or even being very prone to crush after crush :-)

2:40 AM  
Blogger eve's lungs said...

It's basically a question of ethnic affinity and comfort levels, I would say .The security of knowing that your wife would happily cook your maach bhaat would be comforting ,I suppose to a man . But people differ within communities too and in a marriage ,it ususally ends up with the woman adjusting . Look at me - I married a person from a very different background (albeit within the community ). The culinary difference , I realised was the biggest difference ,with music next ! Despite that there were so many other points of contact that the differences stopped being so bumpy . But again I had to do a lot of adjusting - I eat maachh and listen to bangla folk but my Significant other refuses to eat chholey or listen to the Eagles .

4:55 AM  
Blogger Urmea said...

So where's a new post hmm??

3:39 PM  
Blogger Red said...

Hmm, my friends and I had a big discussion about Indian American men getting brides from the homeland. All my female friends were of the opinion that these men were usually losers who couldn't get it going with either the American women or the Indian American variety. Us boys just stayed mum.

5:06 PM  
Blogger HutumpaNcha said...

Its about finding ones own level. Isn't it the same everwhere?
aar ghorer chele ghore phrle aappotti ta ki?

3:47 AM  
Blogger Rapid I Movement said...

but I will say that there's something magical when a girl from the Midwest and a boy from Bangalore are brought together over their shared love of rock music.
...lol...and are you in the happy notion that this can well be a bridge for connubial bliss? I would be very very surprised!
One of my pals from collge met his sweetheart while they were working at a Tsunami relief camp at Nagpattnam. The girl is a born-and-brought-up Indian in the US. Now that I agree can be a way to gauge someone. I mean, unless you've seen certain gestures (not simply interests in music/movies/books)...it's very hard to judge pple, you know.

3:29 PM  
Blogger Dreamcatcher said...

My sister married someone who is half German and half Irish, born and brought up in America. She's Bengali - born and mostly brought up in Kolkata. While I do tend to agree with pretty much a lot of the things you say in thir article, I guess differences would exist pretty much everywhere. In every family. Ghoti, Bangal and all that jazz. From how you cook your food to how you celebrate your religion. I was just surprised to realise that my brother in law's parents are basically like mine..I guess they choose to 'focus on the commonalities that transcend differences' like you so eloquently put it. A great post.

3:51 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Hi Graduate, I read your post. You make some great points, and I thank you for putting down your personal perspective on the matter. Priceless!

Psyche, I'm never able to decide if these men are victims of their upbringing, or cynical scumbags who twist tradition to their own ends.

Pidus, that's some generalization, for all 290 odd million of them! Surely it's a matter of the person and the time invested in the relationship.

Dipanjan, excellent points! I completely agree, the relationship with the parents tends to be even more joined at the hip compared to that of Indian kids in India.

Patient, go for it! Perhaps you should try to convert crush into something more substantial :)

Eve, thanks for sharing your experiences. Yes there are many points of affinity and differences. A pity your husband didn't take a liking to your food and music.

Urmea, you don't say eh :)! Ki kori, need to graduate and make some money.

Red, I don't know about that. I don't think it has much to do with their desirability at the dating stakes. It's more about their own relationship to their parents and their upbringing.

Hutum, apotti kichhu nei. But in this case (Indian-American man marrying Indian woman) it is not about ghorer chhele ghore phera.

9:26 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Rapid, that's not what I suggested. What I was trying to say is that two persons brought up in two different nations and cultures can still have something in common to commiserate over.

Beyond this, there are many other requirements for a successful relationship, but recognizing similiarities over differences is a good start.

Dreamcatcher, thanks! Yes, it is quite amazing that when you investigate matters such as core values, there really isn't a lot of difference between say the middle-class in different countries. My boyfriend's parents value the same things in their kids as my parents do - academic achievement, good manners, empathy, and stability in life.

9:31 AM  
Anonymous Sashi said...

I had written a quasi apologia for arranged marriages, which is also a refutation of (what I thought was) a badly written piece on the same subject, by a journalist of Indian ancestry. I thought I would leave a link here in order to add my two bits to this interesting conversation.


9:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"An acquaintance of mine, an Indian woman, was dating a Turkish man for 5 years before they broke off their relationship. The reason? Disagreement over the religion their yet unborn children would follow!"

Hey, I'm a first time reader of your blog...I must say its an interesting read :)

Your surprise on the reason for the break up for their relationship - surprises me! Its important to discuss such things before you commit to a person and have children with them. Religion tends to be very important to people and if not settled before the kids come along, it is the kids that will be affected by the arguments. Its better not to have children if you cannot agree on things like religion.

Thats my 2 cents!


8:42 PM  
Blogger BidiSmoker said...

It's amazing to me how any actions taken by Indian men are always assumed to be negative or born out of weakness and insecurity. Is it not possible that Indian-Americans choose to marry other Indians because they enjoy their own culture and would like to continue it? Maybe, like all human beings, us poor, nerdy brown guys who are dominated by our mothers and can't get dates, are just attracted to people who look like the conception of beauty we are raised with. I've written extensively on this topic on my blog.

2:17 PM  
Blogger Jammu said...

My wife's family was thrilled to have her marry me ... a gora ... but then again my wife was over thirty and anybody would have been approved by ma. But I've found all of the desi women I know would never marry an Indian man because of those certain views on marriage. To each their own.

7:54 PM  
Anonymous yourfan2 said...

@Dipanjan- Bang on. Gem of a comment.

6:15 AM  
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