Meet the Parents

I’ve been wanting to write about my mum for ages now. Actually, I have been writing about my mum for ages. Just on everyone else’s blogs except my own. A shout-out to all those bloggers who’ve put up with my long, obsessive comments…I need to write to process things, and during the last few months it’s predominantly been my own things rather than genuinely responding to the thoughts of others. When people raise South Asian ‘issues’, to me it’s usually an opportunity to directly or indirectly think about South Asian culture (particularly gender) and try to come to an understanding of my own mother and why she acts so…well, just so damn impossible sometimes.

My mum is actively anti my relationship with L, a relationship which has been going for well over 3 years now. She wasn’t always like this. When I first told her about him, her reaction was generally positive. Or more accurately, it wasn’t overtly negative. She did ask “Is he Muslim?” with concern when she found out he’s black, but on the whole she managed to refrain from any other ignorant stereotypes (quite an achievement considering she’s not the world’s most politically correct person). She even stated that she would never wish for us to break up, because she would never wish such a painful experience on her own daughter.

Still, she was relatively cold to L during their first meeting…avoiding his eyes, showing little interest, and letting dad lead the conversation (this is a total role reversal for my parents – dad is usually the quite thoughtful one and mum the cheery social butterfly). Because I sensed this hostility from mum towards L, I gradually avoided bringing them together and even avoided speaking about him in front of her. My dad, fortunately, has always been gracious enough to ask how he’s going, but even then I would feel prickles from mum which would kill the conversation (although at that time she never said anything explicitly anti).

I guess from there I let it slip. Maybe if I’d been more insistent that they get to know each other from the beginning, she wouldn’t have such a hardline stance now. But at the time, my thoughts were, “it’s my life, he’s my partner, I don’t expect my mum to love the person I love, but I do expect her to just accept him”. Given the fact that my mum is constantly advising her nieces and nephews that “you should choose who marry, it doesn’t matter these days where they’re from”, and that both my parents have told me in the past that they don’t expect me to marry a South Asian since I’ve never actually lived in there, I certainly hadn’t expected her to launch a covert personal war on L a couple of years down the track.

She’s even genuinely happy and beaming when all these cousins in intercultural relationships get married and engaged and have babies, and I find this so bloody hurtful. In my eyes, by acting cold towards L she deliberately snubbed her chance to know him, and yet here she is celebrating everybody else’s love and future happiness.

After two years of pretending L doesn’t exist, mum launched her offensive a year and a half ago. All of a sudden, I’m betraying her by being in a relationship she doesn’t approve of. In her attempts to express her frustration and anxiety about our relationship, she’s pulled many strange things out of the woodworks. I’m with L only because I feel sorry him. L is with me only for my money, it’s obvious because I have family and support in Australia and he doesn’t (not sure how that relates to L being after money I don’t have…). By marrying out of the caste I am jeopardising the life-after-death of the whole family (even though we were screaming at each other at the time, this one had me laughing out loud…my parents never mentioned caste when I was growing up. As I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in South Asia I gained a fair idea of how the caste system works in my early 20s; my brother, who’s only left Australia twice in his life, doesn’t even know what caste our family would fall into). She once said it would be better if I was with a white guy who wouldn’t face the amount of racial discrimination that L does; what’s the point of them moving to Australia and battling all that racism when I’ll end up going through the same hardship anyway? (Because it makes total sense to discriminate against L on the basis that he’ll be discriminated against by others…).

Nothing she says is consistent or logical or rational. It all comes across as desperate and unreasonable. And as I’m not the world’s most patient person when it comes to petty racism and unfair personal attacks, it’s hard during our fights to maintain even a semblance of respect for each other. What hurts more than anything else is the fact that she feels betrayed – on such unreasonable grounds – yet doesn’t realise how betrayed I feel by her unequivocal rejection of my partner (though I’ve yelled about it often enough). Aren’t parents supposed to smile and celebrate when their kids meet the love of their lives? Instead of threatening them with emotional blackmail?

I should note that I have a dear friend who’s in a very similar situation to me. Except her mum isn’t South Asian, and my friend is not in an intercultural relationship (she’s Australian going out with an Australian). So having your mother unreasonably object to your relationship and refuse to engage with your partner (while being nice to everybody else’s partners, just to rub salt into the wound), is not just a South Asian thing. Seems to be more of a strong-willed, opinionated mother thing. But there’s no doubt that the way my mother formulates and expresses her objections is culturally-informed. And that my “mind your own business and just accept who I choose” attitude is culturally informed. As our personal battle of wills continues, guns blazing, it’s becoming painfully obvious to me that to my mum, minding her own business means…uhm, minding my business.

My parents will be visiting in a month’s time, and spending a week with me and L. I can’t speak for L (as I’ve never quite come clean to him about how intense mum can get), but I’m feeling a tad nervous about the whole thing. She would never say anything to his face, but we are planning to go out to a national park for a few days, and if L has to work it means being captive in the car to both our tempers whenever we have the L discussion. I guess it means dad will do most of the driving…


Filed under Cultural Difference, Family Acceptance, Interracial Relationships, Parents, Race, Racism

12 responses to “Meet the Parents

  1. This is such a hard situation…to see it actually intensify over time, and to see the double standard (others marrying interculturally is ok, but not you) definitely rubs salt in the wound.

    A few thoughts…don’t know how many apply or how you could make them work with your mum…

    – What is she really afraid will happen if you marry L? Is it ultimately your unhappiness? Your children’s unhappiness? Her unhappiness? As long as you don’t know what the REAL issue is (and South Asian parents seem to excel at throwing pile after pile of BS and emotional manipulation instead of just SAYING THE PROBLEM), you can do nothing to help her except end the relationship with L — which isn’t going to happen. If you know the real problem, then you could explain things to her, or even actually adjust plans, in a way that helps her feel better about the relationship (I’m centered on her experience, rather than yours, because that’s where she is right now).

    – How are those relationships that she supports different from your own? This statement can be hurled as a challenge, or asked as a genuine question. Her answers may be infuriating, too, but at least it gets you closer to the core of the problem, and thus closer to a solution. You could even couch it as something like, “I see you as a reasonable person and I value your opinion and insights, even if I don’t always take your advice because we’re different people. You’re clearly worried about this relationship, and I want to know why — more than we’re from different cultures or economic backgrounds, but really what you think is going to happen. You once told me you would never wish a breakup on your own daughter, so I know you take the relationship seriously, but I don’t understand what changed — I don’t know what you see as so bad in this relationship that you now wish a breakup on me.” The hardest part is staying calm through statements that go against your values — like treating cultural, economic, etc. differences as self-evident reasons the relationship will fail.

    Side note — I think we all have finally communicated to my MIL that we do value her thoughts and often ask advice, but we also expect to make our own decisions — we’re asking for insight, not permission. She’s realized that not all her friends’ kids ask for advice like we and my SIL do, so I think she’s made her peace with being a highly valued consultant but not the ruling parent…so that’s also where some of my suggestions are coming from. Good luck…sounds quite stressful!

    • Mum’s main fear is the economic factor – that L is in a very similar position to my parents when they first moved here (i.e. facing a lot of discrimination in finding work) except even worse (L was battling a mammoth visa situation, settled now but with long term consequences. Fortunately mum and dad moved here before draconian visa laws were put in place). She’s certainly good at piling the bs, but she’s also very good at just stating what’s erking her, and she’s explicitly said that by being with L she fears I’ll lead a hard life and be unhappy (which in her mind undoes all the hard work her and dad did to get to where they are now…hence the ‘betrayal’ factor maybe?) She tends to pile the more outrageous bs when I’m not listening to her simple objection. (Just to clarify, I do listen, but she defines not listening as not dropping everything and breaking up with L when she points out how ‘hard’ my life is going to be).

      That’s also the major difference between her perception of my relationship with L and her perception of everybody else’s intercultural relationships. I think in her mind, nobody else is shooting themselves in the foot (in economic terms) like I supposedly am with L. (This is obviously a very hurtful reason because all the factors she objects to are outside of L’s control…but it’s hard to get into all the issues re racism here. Let’s just say everybody else’s partners are white, so yeah, they’re not going to face the kind of structural barriers that L is facing. And mum KNOWS this from personal experience).

      Also, mum’s not the kind of person to ‘disapprove’ of somebody else’s relationship anyway….she just wouldn’t see it as her business. As an aunt, she’ll listen when her nephews and nieces need it (she has a way better relationship with them than she has with me), and she’ll be happy for them when they’re getting married or whatever, but she rarely passes moral judgement on anybody outside the nuclear family. It’s just that as her daughter I don’t count as ‘somebody else’!

      And this is where her rational fears end and where her emotional fears kick in. I’ve been thinking about this a lot through other blogs. South Asian mothers get a lot of their self-worth through their children. Seeing your children into a successful marriage is probably the most important indicator of one’s success as a mother and a woman. In the migrant context, a ‘successful’ marriage isn’t necessarily a mono-cultural one (that is obviously unrealistic), but it does secure the overall wellbeing and happiness of your daughter/son. And for my mum, a viable future livelihood is part of security and happiness (not saying she would want me to marry someone just for money, but she certainly gets very anxious about this point re L). I don’t know how else to explain the fact that my dad, who holds similar concerns about our economic prospects, has never taken personal offence to my relationship with L (in fact, he’s offered to help out). If by ending up in a bad relationship, I’m challenging mum’s worth as a mother and her entire sense of self, it’s not hard to see why she feels such personal betrayal and frustration.

      Not hard in theory that is.
      In practice, talking to her about it still makes my blood boil.

      Thanks for your suggestions 🙂 It’s really helped thinking through them. I would love to be at the stage you are with your MIL – comfortable enough to seek advice without feeling like I’m losing myself, and assertive enough to pick and choose which suggestions I’ll take up, without ending up in a screaming match.

      • I should clarify that it’s where we are with my MIL *at this moment.* I think the difference is that our decisions now are things like what kind of cookware to buy or whether it’s foolish to buy a new TV right now — things that more overbearing mothers might become obnoxious about, but that my MIL is happy to give her view and let us make whatever choice we wish, foolish or wise.

        I have no doubts that all HELL will break lose the moment there’s a whiff of grandchildren in the air. A casual reference to saving money with young children by buying second-hand clothing (which my upper-middle-class, PhD-holding advisor STRONGLY recommends) nearly brought dinner to a screeching halt with NO plans for pregnancy in the next few years. However, all the wedding arguments were had through A, so my goal is to be able to have our fights directly by the time there are kids to fight about — and I have no intention of losing so many fights when it comes to my kids!

        I think it comes down to a genuine terror that your life will be bad — that she will have worked so hard so that you wouldn’t suffer, and now you’re tripping along the same rough road she had sacrificed to spare you from. How much has she told you about her sacrifices? It could be that she feels like you’re unprepared for that life, or don’t understand how hard it really is? If she’s coming from a predominantly arranged/utilitarian view of marriage, it could also be that she doesn’t value “but this is the partner I want, and I am willing to accept the life that might go with him” as a rationale. Not sure how you could bridge that gap…

      • I guess asking for advice in smaller decisions is a good way of making mothers/MILs feel involved, or at least consulted. A lot of the key decisions I’ve made in life – e.g.what I studied, taking a year off to travel by myself, moving to the other side of the country for a job I really wanted – were made with almost no consultation with my parents. They always found it weird that I would just come home and announce things (I’m a bit of a last-minute decision maker), but they never interfered. Looking back I realise just how much mum would’ve felt left out and undervalued by this – that as a mother her daughter never asked for her advice on such key matters (whereas I turned to friends all the time).

        If I had my time again I would definitely try to involve her more in life decisions…it’s hard now for the smaller things because we live so far away. But like you say the life-partner/family decision is on a completely different playing field to any other kind of decision. And it’s in this decision that mum feels most rejected and betrayed. It’s been a combination of me leaving her out (avoiding talking about L and making no effort to help them get to know each her after the first 12 months, when she acted really cold about him), and her actively withdrawing in the first 18 months before trying to ‘take control of the situation’ now she realises we’re serious.

        It does come down to genuine terror and anxiety on her part, and the fact that we value different things from a marriage. I’ve tried to explain the “I’m willing to accept the life that might go with him” line so many times!!! I’m hoping when she visits us, she’ll realise that our life, in terms of material circumstances, is actually pretty damn good!

        The kids thing is difficult…mum’s trying to interfere more and more these days (in the big things), despite the distance between us. Like trying to get me to break up with L. Or suggesting I marry L before moving in with him. (Her famed inconsistencies again). I know it’s really juvenile, but I get so resentful with even a whiff of interference into decisions I consider highly personal. I’m also not planning to lose any fights (I’ve won them all so far….I think!!) but gee whiz it’s difficult to keep firing the ammunition, especially when her behaviour is so hurtful.

  2. Your mother seems to have a typical ‘not in backyard’ vision. No problem when others engage in a intercultural relationship, however it is a problem when her daughter does.

    Maybe you should try to be more understanding towards your mom. That doesn’t mean that you agree, it just will take more of the ‘tension’ away

  3. I know this is going to sound bad but Rabindra told me that Nepalis, on a whole, don’t think fondly of Africans. That they are “disgusting”. After living in Australia, Rabindra has met Africans and has had more personal experiences with them which has broken down his own stereotypes. I personally think it’s ridicolous when you consider how Nepal and parts of Africa are so similar in terms of economic status and how people live. Anyway it’s probably your mum’s upbringing in Nepal to make her think like that. The only way to break down that stereotype is if him and your mum to really spend time together.

    • I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with racism against Africans in South Asia – it’s like a public, taken-for-granted fact that black people are almost less than fully human. It’s awful.
      I really do hope that when my parents come up here mum will get to know L better and it might break down her stereotypes. And also that she’ll get to see us together and see that we’re happy. Up to now it’s been impossible to convince her that I actually love L. She keeps putting it down other, un-genuine reasons (like I feel sorry for him, he’s manipulating me…). Not very pleasant to think about these things, especially when they relate to my own mum.

  4. O

    Hey Taswin
    Thanks for this post because I see so much of my mom in yours, which makes me feel not so lonely.

    I am at a place, where I feel I have heard most of the BS (I have increased the physical/emotional distance with my parents just to avoid it).
    In the last conversation my mother had with me with regards to my relationship, she conveyed to me that I should break up with my boyfriend as well as get married to him. In the SAME conversation. Go figure!

    However, unlike you, I knew my parents won’t like me being in a relationship with a Muslim. So I kept that on the low initially. On knowing, they reacted okay: concerned but logical, which was relieving. Except sadly, it went downhill from then.

    My mom has given me a variation of your mom’s “by marrying out of the caste, I am jeopardising the life-after-death of the whole family”. My mom’s version (much worse than your mom’s, I think) was that she didn’t have to let him in the house because he was untouchable. Never mind that, he had, in fact, been over to her place before without that coming up. Or the fact that she said it would have been okay had I been with anyone non-Muslim or even with a Muslim but with a less conspicuous name.

    So I hear you.

    Oh.. All the mad, crazy things my mother has said to me.
    So I am at a place right now where I just don’t know what to make out of any of it. I was back home at my parents’ recently. It was nice (I think I was expecting the judgements/nastiness). I came back unharmed. Except I was on a walk yesterday and one of her comments just came to me and hit me hard.

    • Hi O, welcome and thanks for your comment 🙂 I needed that – it hurts less when I’m heard. I recognise that feeling of emotionally distancing yourself from your mum, that’s what I’ve done too. When it’s so hard to keep things rational, I often feel like that’s the only option. It’s certainly helped that I now live on the other side of the country from her. This is probably naive, but I hope with time things get better for both of us.

  5. Bharatiya Nari

    The irony is that South Asians more resemble Africans than any other group of people on the planet. And as someone else pointed out above, the socio-economic conditions of South Asia resemble Africa more than any other place on the planet. Perhaps it is the ghettoized people of African descent living in the US that South Asians are so eager to denounce. Can’t blame them. There is a high percentage of social pathology and criminology in the inner city ghettos, but this does not represent Africans in Africa or the African diaspora as a whole. However it is probably the most visible example of African descent people that South Asians have, being that ghetto life is often portrayed on TV and in movies, and unfortunately is even promoted as being “cool” – just look at the worldwide spread and popularity of hip hop and even “gangsta rap”.

    Funny thing is, these gangsta rappers and hip hoppers think that album sales translates into people wanting their daughters to marry you – uh no. Young people may buy your albums but on the whole the world considers your values to be valueless.

  6. Pingback: Migration, Identity and Language | taswin12

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