As I’ve said before on this blog, I’ve never really considered L and me to be in an ‘intercultural’ relationship. Cultural differences don’t figure that much in our day-to-day lives (unless you count our heated differences of opinion!), or even in our plans and hopes for the future. Yet I started this blog because I closely identify with issues being discussed on existing intercultural relationship blogs. Reflecting on my responses to other bloggers, I’m increasingly realising that it’s more my relationship with my parents that is ‘intercultural’ than my relationship with L.
This observation must be obvious to anybody who knows me. But as L and I are going through a tumultuous, uncertain time at the moment, I’ve managed to forget for a while the equally pressing issue of whether my family will ever actually accept him. When I was still living with my parents, I often aggressively confronted them about their (non)acceptance of L. Unsurprisingly, given my juvenile mode of communication, this never turned around their attitude towards L. But until reading some stories in the intercultural blogging world (thanks to all bloggers who share their experience :)), I haven’t directly confronted the question of broader family acceptance, beyond a tacit recognition that it will never occur without a bunch of relatives I don’t really like gossiping and judging me behind my back.
Don’t get me wrong – my parents’ acceptance is the thing that means the most to me. Neither of my parents are gossipers, and they’ve brought me up with the belief that uninformed gossip and judgement of others is distasteful at best, and harmful at worse (i.e. it’s bad bad karma). Since moving to the same city as certain members of the extended family in my teens, I have actively avoided having to spend time with them. I certainly have not confided in them regarding my relationship. Unfortunately though, as my mum likes to say, you might avoid the gossip but the gossip never avoids you. These loud-mouth relatives are an integral part of my parents’ social world, and without ever reflecting on it explicitly, I have even convinced L to follow me to the other side of the country in the hope that we can be together without having to deal with the hurtful comments of ignorant aunts and uncles. (So much for my self-professed claims that I don’t care what other people think!)
One aunt in particular comes to mind. She is well-known for her hospitality, particularly towards nieces and nephews who have just arrived in Australia, but at the same time she is just as well-known for judging and criticising these same guests behind their back – down to their looks, the shade of their skin, the fact that they are overstaying their welcome. This might seem like an irrelevant aside, but I’m struggling to understand why people act like this (I’m probably indulging in ‘uninformed gossip and judgement’ right now…my parents would be disappointed).
In particular, I find it unsettling that a lot of ‘ignorant aunt’ comments I hear are blatantly racist, especially towards black people, and I’m hesitant to expose L to this. My mum has expressed some racist views too, but at least I’m close enough to her to challenge them (topic for another post). I’m quite happy to confront other family members on their views…if I share any trait with my family, it has to be my sharp tongue. But alas – I can only express my witty, sophisticated responses in English, a language not fluently understood by middle-aged relatives (at least not to the point where they pick up on ironies and nuances in meaning). And alas – it’s not just particular relatives in Australia, I’ve noticed that a lot of relatives in South Asia can hardly talk about black people without throwing in some kind of derogatory, racist remark. Here are just a few examples to illustrate my point (I’ve thought long and hard about expressing racist views on this blog, but I can’t really talk about them without tackling them directly):
Example 1 – A visiting uncle from America describing African Americans as lazy and crime-prone (that’s the toned-down version). I was in my late teens when this occurred and decided to argue the point with him…he was quite shocked at the ferocity of my attack (‘what’s so racist about stating the truth?’) and I was reduced to tears about the fact that somebody I am related to could be so ignorant (I had just been exposed to the rest of the family at this time ;))
Example 2 – Aunt commenting about Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s appearance on the evening news. “Look at him, his skin’s like that, his face is like that.” Fortunately her husband jumped in and pointed out that the guy has been tortured numerous times…
Example 3 – Uncle in South Asia…without giving away the details because I don’t want this post to appear on google searchers by crazy white *supremacists, let’s just say he drew parallels between certain types of people and certain types of primates. This time his daughter, who had just returned from studying in America, confronted him and countered his argument (not that it changed his views). And this guy is an urban, educated college professor…
Example 4 – Aunt in South Asia going through her daughter’s wedding album with me. She spoke proudly of all the white and brown-skinned guests at the wedding, but then gave an embarrassed laugh and skipped quickly over photos of the black guests…they’re ‘just the guys’ her daughter worked with last year at UN.
To give an idea of how unthinkable it is amongst the extended family to marry somebody black, at family dinners some of my cousins will mercilessly tease their parents with the “I’ll marry a black Muslim” jaunt. Apparently this is the ultimate threat, but always said in jest because everyone implicitly agrees it will never happen. Again in this view black people are not acknowledged beyond the colour of their skin; there blackness is instead a currency, a barometer-measure of a person’s intended (never actual) rebellion against parental expectations.
I wonder why there’s such a tendency towards racism amongst South Asians, and I have found myself increasingly resentful of the extended family as, over the years, they have heard through the grapevine that I’m with L and have taken the opportunity to throw in snide remarks here and there. People will always talk, but obviously the nature of the talk would be very different (and much less hurtful) if I was with a fair-but-brown-skinned Brahmin doctor. I would love to heal the rift with my parents, but if I’m going to be honest, as long as my parents live in the same city as extended family I wouldn’t want L and I living there, or if we do I can’t imagine ever socialising with these relatives in a positive way.
The irony here is that the extended family is not rejecting me for who I’m with – at the end of the day, as long as I’m not their own daughter, they don’t care beyond the juicy gossiping opportunities L and I create. Instead, I find myself rejecting THEM for who I’m with, partly out of growing frustration at their ingrained racism, and correspondingly out of a desire to shield L from such unacceptable views.
Perhaps, in this matter, I am the one who has to accept them?