Category Archives: Adolescence

Migration, Identity and Language

When I started this blog, I vowed never to write about migration and identity. I hate being type-caste as a “migrant woman” from South Asia. I hate people assuming I have “clash of two worlds” identity issues, or assuming that my adolescent identity issues somehow differed from those of my non-migrant friends. The whole idea of writing about identity seems self-indulgent and egotistical. But hey, isn’t that what personal blogs are all about?

Probably my resistance to any kind of migrant-woman stereotype stems from an unconscious desire to identify with the mainstream, more powerful group. But we’ll leave aside the topic of my unconscious desires in this post (they’re not that interesting – desire for omnipotent power, for oneness with the cosmos, the usual kind of thing…).

I of course had my issues growing up – for instance, about appearance – but what kind of teenage girl doesn’t? For obvious reasons, my anxieties about my appearance were shaped by ideas about skin colour and beauty. But issues of race, migration and culture clash didn’t, unfortunately, dominate my childhood or teenage years. My ordinary life would disappoint a social researcher interested in the lives of migrant children. My parents raised me with values, as all parents do, but none of these values were at odds with the values I learnt everywhere else (I never felt our home or lifestyle to be somehow distinct from ‘mainstream’ Australian society). They never explicitly expected that I would do (or not do) certain things because of their background. Well, not until my mum chucked a wobbly about L, but by then it was a bit late, my upbringing was well and truly over (23 is not a good age to suddenly dump some heavy cultural expectations on your offspring). Growing up with only immediate family was a big part of this, as extended family expectations and obligations play a major role in shaping South Asian cultural identity and responsibility. As I’ve mentioned before, my parents now live in a city with visible South Asian communities where practices such as arranged marriage and extended family living are not uncommon. Mum now laments (or pretends to lament…in her melodramatic moments I’m unsure if she’s being manipulative or sincere) the fact that she didn’t bring us up “strictly”. Whatever that means. (Locking us up? I was such a bookworm that my mum would often hide my novels and force me to go out with friends. Coming from a collective, intensely social culture, she found my private, bookish ways quite strange, and worried about my lack of social skills.) Her regret doesn’t make any sense because my parents were never consciously liberal. We were all just living our lives; and everyday life doesn’t usually involve reification and objectification of your own actions – “are we being traditional enough?” When you’re working, going to school, meeting up with friends, living life….who has the time to even care?

One consequence of growing up in a monocultural city has been my weak grasp of the Nepali language. While Nepali is my first language, I only had a limited number of Nepali-speakers to practice with as a child (i.e. my parents, the only two Nepali speakers in town). Gradually, English became my normal mode of conversation at home, without my parents even realising. I would speak in English, they would respond in Nepali and/or English. It seemed natural to everybody until an uncle visited when I was 7 and exclaimed that he couldn’t understand a word I was saying.  I never thought explicitly about identity as a kid, but if somebody had asked me where I was from, there’s no doubt I would have said Australia. Not out of any rejection of Nepal – it’s just that ‘Nepal’ didn’t figure strongly in my life, except as a place I visited twice. (These days my response to that question would be entirely dependent on who is asking me and in what context). I’ve always felt like I’ve belonged in Australia. As a teenager, I remember visiting Sydney and meeting my parents’ Nepali friends’ children. It was quite an interesting experience because most of them had a strong sense of being Nepali, and demanded to know if I did too. One girl pointedly informed that she “doesn’t like white people”. And – this is not exactly the revelation of the century – having the ability to speak Nepali very obviously bolstered their sense of cultural identity (for instance, bantering in Nepali on the trains, often using this mechanism to talk about other passengers and exclude others from their ‘Nepali’ world…like most things, I guess such behaviour stems from human power struggles…excluding the mainstream world through the limited mechanisms they have because they feel excluded from it themselves).

Yikes it’s taking me a long time to get to the point of this post!

The thing is, I identify pretty closely with Australia (it’s always been home), and have never had any crisis-type identity issues while I’m here. Except for a period around 2005 when racism became quite overt (think Cronulla riots). When I’m overseas, I’ll usually say I’m from Nepal, because I’ve only ever travelled to South Asia and South East Asia, where people will simply think you’re a snob if you have brown skin and say you’re from a western country. Indeed, in India some people thought I was being a snob when I said I was Nepali, as if I was trying to deny my Indianness! (“You are Indian?” “Oh, Nepali”. “But your parents are Indian?” “My parents are Nepali”. “But your grandparents are Indian?” “No, they’re Nepali.” “But your face looks Indian!”). I was often treated quite rudely by workers at train stations because they thought I was pretending to not understand Hindi (all Nepalis should speak and understand Hindi afterall), or presumptuously flashing an Australian passport when I should have had NRI identification. But this was only when dealing with officials and bureaucrats – many Indians themselves don’t identify strongly with the Hindi language, and I was usually treated warmly when meeting people on the street (barring the men who assumed I was a prostitute because I was travelling alone, so you know, that’s probably barring about 90% of my interactions in India).

Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for meeting ordinary Nepalis on the street in Nepal (I can say the same for a lot of men doing a lot of inappropriate groping). Of all the countries I’ve visited, Nepal is the one place where I feel like I can never belong as myself. Is this ironic, or just bloody normal as ‘returned migrant’ experience? Language has been a huge barrier. Nepalis (or, at least my family) find it pretty funny when outsiders are learning their language. While they consider teasing to be a kind of support and positive reinforcement, I find it hurtful and infuriating that they tease me when I’m genuinely trying to learn. For all the teasing, foreigners who learn Nepali are generally admired. But speaking with an accent if you actually look Nepali? There’s a popular catch-phrase in Nepal about “striking an airport accent” (referring to someone who’s left the country and then comes back pretending to have an accent). Here I am trying my best to speak good Nepali and people think I’m trying my best to speak it badly! Talk about discouragement. It got to the point where I was repeating certain syllables so much (I will never be able to say “chha” correctly) I was saying them (badly) in my sleep. Irrationally, I began to envy my cousins for being born in Nepal and for being able to move so seamlessly through society; while I was out there attracting stares, laughs at my funny accent, and constantly being ripped off and getting lost. I envied their fluent conversations, their sharp comebacks to sleazy men, their bargaining power, their ‘right’ connections, their dress sense, their hair and makeup…everything which made them so completely Nepali, everything which seemed to exclude me from their easy world (because how could life be hard when you’re so at one with society, right?). Maybe this is how people feel when they migrate to a different place – envy at the majority for their ability to fit in and work the various social systems; resentment at being teased, misunderstood and effectively excluded. No wonder people feel marginalised. I had one understanding cousin who tried to help. “Try not to speak when you go out”, she instructed, replacing my suitcase with her own clothes and encouraging me to dress more “Nepali” (more feminine) and wear heavy eyeliner. But the makeover wasn’t successful. “There’s just something about you. Even if you don’t talk, even if you wear our clothes, you don’t look like us. Even if you say ‘chha’ a hundred times” – seeing the dark look on my face, she drops her teasing grin – “The way you walk…your head is too high. They’ll pick you a mile off, especially the hawkers! You’re just…too different”.

I’m yet to find a comfortable way of being in Nepal, without everyone questioning why I don’t quite look or act or speak ‘right’. As a teenager I never would have thought of writing this stuff down – language and identity weren’t an issue. Now they are, even in Australia, thanks to visiting Nepal.

There’s this popular perception that migrant children who return to their “homeland” experience positive and culturally-meaningful identity reinforcement. Have you seen the end of The Namesake, when Gogol eventually returns to India to put himself back together?

Bet he comes out more confused.

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Filed under About, Adolescence, Being a Migrant, Cultural Difference, Parents

Confessions and Questions of a New Blogger

I feel pretty new to the world of blogging, and still find myself having to google and wikipedia unfamiliar terms. Just for laughs, I thought I’d share some of the more obvious terms which baffled me when I first started:

Bangla

How could I not pick the meaning of this one right? It came up in one of the first comments on my blog. I considered answering with the question “what’s bangla?”, but decided I better google it first in case the answer was really obvious and I came across as the most ignorant intercultural blogger in the virtual universe.

Am hoping I have enough virtual street cred now to admit to this without it destroying my rep 🙂 I AM culturally aware, I swear I am!!

Desi

I’ve never heard/seen the word ‘desi’ used outside the online world. Before I started reading Desi-Link blogs, I’d only ever heard the word ‘bidesi/videsi’, which means ‘foreigner’ in my parents’ language. But as it’s not an everyday word, and hardly holds any currency when you’re living in bedesh itself (unless you want to go around calling everything and everyone bedesi), my parents never used this word at home and I heard it for the first time in South Asia. It never occurred to me that it might be linked to the word desi when I first saw desi online. Thank goodness Google is around to tell me what desi means, hey?

Still, even after I knew the meaning of both terms, it took a few months for the link between ‘desi’ and ‘bedesi’ to click, which actually happened very recently (hence this post). I’m comfortable with the knowledge that I’m not the most linguistically talented individual, but c’mon brain…it’s such an obvious connection. (Indeed, despite knowing ‘desi’ and ‘bidesi’, I still had to google ‘pardesi’ when I first came across it a couple of months ago).

Ironically, just like the word ‘bedesi’ (foreigner) seems to have more meaning and use in one’s home country, I get the feeling ‘desi’ is a word used more outside of South Asian than inside it…? Given the region is so linguistically, culturally and religiously diverse (not to mention politically fraught), this pan-subcontinental identity doesn’t really make sense until you’re taken right out of context, and commonalities take on more meaning than differences (at least for some) as you try to make yourself feel at home in bedesh. (…?)

I’m not sure how widely desi is used in Australia. I’ve certainly never heard it used amongst my family or friends. Those friends who do identify strongly with their South Asian heritage are more likely to come out and say “I’m India” or “I’m Fijian-India” (etc.). So I’m curious to know…does anybody actually use this term in conversation in Australia or elsewhere? Or is it a word that tends to be thrown around more online, where we do need shorthands for defining identity, blogging context, subject matter and so on?

ABCD

I never paid much attention to this term, assuming it was a variant of ABC – Australian Born Chinese – when I first saw it. But it kept coming up in the intercultural blogging sphere, even when no ABCs were involved, and imagine my shock when I discovered it stands for Australian (or American) Born Confused Desi. I mean, why are you automatically labelled as confused if your parents are South Asian, but not if your parents are East Asian? or white? I was as confused as any teen growing up, but I never linked it to my parents’ cultural background. Because that’s what growing up and life and existence is all about, for anyone, from anywhere – sorting out who you are. (In fact, some would say this existential and self-reflexive aspect to human existence is what distinguishes us from animals, at least to our knowledge…confusion regarding identity is hardly exclusive to South Asians, it’s a distinguishing factor of our humanity).

That said, I do understand the need to identify with others like you, to find a community for yourself (because we are social beings, and community is central way of finding ourselves), and to have a language which lets you readily share you pain and your joys to somebody who immediately understands, because they too have South Asian parents, what you’re going through.

Again I am curious – does anybody out there actually consider themselves to be an ABCD? Is there something about having South Asian parents that gives a distinctively desi spin on existential confusion?

And a shout-out to a reader -The Ideal Indian Woman?

Until a reader commented on this blog under the name Bharatiya Nari, I’d never heard this phrase. Initally I thought it was your actual name! Then I saw a few unseemly google searches referencing the ‘name’ (nothing unusual – most of the search hits this blog gets are from unseemly search terms), and I realised there was much more meaning to it than I’d first assumed. After a brief stint on Google, I’ve come up with “woman”, “good Indian wife”, even some articles about feminism and hardcore rightwing Hindu mens’ rights stuff. Is ‘woman’ just synonymous with ‘good wife’ in India? Is this phrase/ideal common in most Indian languages? I should probably do my research but I’m gonna be lazy and ask if somebody knows what this phrase means (or at least what it means to you), and why it appears in such wide-ranging subject matter? Your thoughts are much appreciated!

At the end of the day…

I’m hoping I’m not alone in this, and I’d love to know what ‘new’ terms you guys have come across in your blogging adventures (including reading and commenting). There’s this entire vocabulary out there to help frame certain experiences through the lens of culture (especially when it comes to migrant/intercultural/second gen stuff). And as I’ve already said, having a language which helps express your experiences in a shared idiom goes a long way in doubling the joy, halving the pain and feeling less isolated when things seem tough.

I can’t say I will ever own the term desi myself though…it seems to confer this really strong sense of identity which I can’t/don’t/won’t relate to. The phrase South Asian (which I prefer and use in this blog) is just as generalising, but in my mind it points more to heritage than identity, and is less prescriptive and presumptive. At the very least, saying “I have South Asian parents” doesn’t automatically imply that I’m confused!

I am not confused thank you very much…only when it comes to desi words and phrases 😉

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Filed under Adolescence, Blogging, Cultural Difference

Woman, Femininity and Feminism

These thoughts are inspired by a few recent posts in blogland around feminism, being a woman and negotiating gender roles in intercultural contexts.

Although it’s an offshoot from the main discussion (which is very robust :)), it got me thinking about how I identify as a woman in a highly personal  way.

I have never been a feminine or girly girl. Like most adolescent girls I was extremely uncomfortable with my body growing up. I developed a terrible posture (which I still have) spending my teens hunched over in baggy trousers and t-shirts trying to cover my curves. I never had the confidence to learn about makeup, and privately rolled my eyes at girls who did (hmmm…so I obviously had some issues). The result? I always felt like the plainest girl in school. It didn’t help that I was one of only a few non-white girls, so I never had the faintest chance of coming close to normative standards of beauty.

This personal horror at anything feminine far outdates my teen years. I was 4 when my younger brother was born. I remember my mum had bought me this brand new pink outfit featuring a rather restrictive skirt (a skirt!) to see the new baby in. Of course, Dad made me wear it when he took me to the hospital for the first time, and I was so mad with both my parents for making me wear this ridiculous outfit I refused to look at the baby (ok, maybe I was jealous and insecure too, but all I remember is how ashamed….yes, ashamed….I felt at wearing a pink skirt and looking so bloody girly).

I also grew up acutely aware that my parents  come from a country where gender differences are entrenched in ways that can be very restrictive for girls (i.e. for me). Children are highly sensitive and pretty intuitive, I think, when it comes to these sorts of differences. I heard my mum use a more deferential term for ‘you’ when addressing my dad, and this didn’t sit comfortably with me. When I was 9 my mum took me to their home country, in South Asia, for the first time. Coming from a spotless, tiny and quaint Australian town, the dust, the people, the poverty was absolutely overwhelming.  Girls my age were vigorously handing washing clothes for their entire family outside during the freezing mornings. They were cooking, they were cleaning toilets, they were looking after their baby siblings. And what was I doing? Being a bratty foreign kid with a lot of culture shock and giving my mum a hard time. I saw, with observant 9 year-old-eyes, just how differently women can be treated. And for a presumptuous 9 year-old, who thinks her-way-is-the-best, this was wrong. Like wrong. I hope I have more maturity, cultural sensitivity and understanding now (I certainly hope I have less ethno-centricism), but there’s no doubt the experience was highly formative. I’ve said this before, most of my friends hadn’t even been to mainland Australia – forget about overseas – and I struggled, in grade 4, to explain to my friends just how lucky and privileged we are, how most of the world has to work much harder just to survive day to day.

From then I became very interested in social justice and feminism. You know the scene in Mary Poppins where the mum is encouraging her female domestic helpers to become suffragettes (“our daughters’ daughters will adore us…”)? Loved it. After visiting South Asia I became even more conscious of not appearing to feminine, especially in front of my family. I didn’t want to appear weak. I spent hours in the shed with my dad. I didn’t want to remind them I was a girl, in case they treated me differently. There were days in high school I would wake up feeling so trapped by body, ashamed by its weaknesses, and secretly wishing I was a boy. (While I wasn’t a girly girl, I wasn’t sporty or physically…uhm…’gifted’either. I’m tall compared to all my female cousins, but compared to most of my western peers I usually get labelled ‘the smallest girl in the room’).

Ironically, my parents are the ones who taught me that girls can do the same things as boys and that women deserve the same respect as men. They’ve never treated me any differently to my brother (except for making me wear a skirt when he was born). I wouldn’t have known what the terms feminism and social justice mean at such an early age if my dad hadn’t spent many hours sharing his views world politics and ideology. And he never taught me to think of feminism as a dirty word; he taught me it means women are equal to men, and we should fight for the social changes necessary to make sure they are treated equal to men.

Still, I couldn’t shake off that nagging feeling that being woman, having a female body, with breasts and thighs and curviness, demeans me in the eyes of others. When we eventually moved to a larger city where extended family lived, I spent many anxious nights worrying about how all my cousins are male and how I wouldn’t be able to keep up with them in games of cricket. (Of course I couldn’t, I’m completely uncoordinated and terrible at sport!) Thinking about it now, I almost had a misogynist, hateful attitude towards my own body.

Now that’s hardly feminist.

There were other things too…I resisted learning to cook because I didn’t want to fall into gendered stereotypes (my brother has always been the better cook). I was rather gung-ho about showing my family I would never become a quiet submissive daughter or woman. You know, just in case they hadn’t realised. I was quick to scream ‘traditional’ and ‘sexist’ at every turn, even though most of my white friends came from households which had much more restrictive and openly-expressed gendered (and racist) stereotypes. Like men do all the handy work around the house and fix up cars (my mum’s always been more ‘handy’ around the house than dad!). And direct threats of “I’ll kill you if you ever get with a Lebanese boy”. Etc.

It’s silly isn’t it? Thinking I would lose my parents’ respect by appearing feminine. It wasn’t just about fighting South Asian gender roles either. There’s a pretty active tradition in Australia of demeaning ‘hot’ women as ‘bimbos’.  Plenty of guys at uni had no qualms about checking out good-looking girls, while standing outside tute rooms wondering aloud how they were ever going to pass. Because surely they have no brains. (And these were the new-age sensitive guys doing Arts courses at an institution well-known for liberal arts; imagine the lads over at Engineering?!)

My mum always encouraged me to dress up a bit, to wear nice things and bright colours that showed-off my figure. Instead of just hiding it, which for a long time was the aim of the game for me when it came to clothes. At uni I finally felt more confident and comfortable ‘being a woman’, and having that reflect in my appearance. But funnily enough it wasn’t until I took a gap year and went to South Asia again that I became truly comfortable being more feminine. When I finally recognised that people wouldn’t demean me for embracing my womanhood, and for looking – gasp – nice. I spent most of that year travelling alone. And when you’re travelling alone in India, you never, ever forget that you’re a woman. Nor can you hide it, no matter what you wear. But I also spent a lot of time with my family attending weddings (big fat weddings), and having amazing, strong female cousins doll me up in colourful saris (no way would I ever show that much stomach at home: wedding or club), beautiful jewellery and graceful makeup. And did anybody think the less of me for it? No, they all said I looked great. Did seeing my body remind them that I was some weak, pathetic female who is supposed to quietly submit to male authority? No, they were all actually in awe that I would travel by myself and said I was “tougher than I look”.

It’s taken me a long time to sit comfortably with my body, and truly understand that physical differences do not translate into differences in personal worth and social status. That I can be feminist and feminine at the same time. Feminism doesn’t mean turning into a boy! My partner L has a rather romanticised (and hetro-normative) view of sexual differences – that one sex completes the other. He thinks it’s crazy I used to hate my body for being female. I’m not so sure about the idea of the sexes complimenting each other (“you have what I need to propagate myself and spread my seed…a womb”) because it comes dangerously close to socially-prescribed gender roles. But I would be deluding myself if I didn’t admit that our differences are pretty central to our sexual attraction for each other. And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I did dress up for L, appear more feminine at the start of our relationship because I equated this with attractiveness. Obviously my ideology and my feelings are not yet completely in sync. But hey, I’m only human: there is room there for confusion and inconsistency I hope 🙂

29 Comments

Filed under Adolescence, Beauty, Cultural Difference, Feminism

Beauty, Skin Colour and Race

I was shocked yesterday when L told me that during his school days, it was common for both primary and high schools to run beauty contests for female students, swimsuit parade and all.

The closest thing to a beauty contest I can remember from school is the Grade 1 Nativity Play. All of us knew that the teacher would pick the cutest girl and guy to be Mary and Joseph. (Yes, we were conscious of our looks even as 5 year olds.) Meanwhile the rest of us lined the stage in white dresses and shirts shining torches into our faces (as angels of course, not ghosts ;)).

Like any pre-teen and teenaged girl, beauty was always a very raw and painful concept for me. High school was full of informal beauty and popularity contests – a formal one would have been crushing. The fact that I went to a predominantly white primary school and high school (single sex to boot) probably didn’t help the self-esteem cause. Moving to Sydney, a larger, more culturally diverse city, in my late teens certainly did.

During my recent blog-stalking forays (which I assure you are still on…), I came across posts by Shreeman over at Bideshi Biya and Between Worlds about their children’s desires to have white skin. Their posts brought back memories of sticking my arm out to my parents as a 5 year old and saying, “See this, I don’t want it, how come it’s not white like everyone else?”

Years later, mum told me how hurtful this question had been, how it had made her and dad doubt their decision to move to a lonely country on the other side of the world where, at least during those early years, they struggled to find acceptance in the wider community (particularly in terms of employment).

Difference is confusing for children. Especially if they’re the only one who is ‘different’ and they are not exposed to cultural diversity beyond their immediate family. But I remember it also being exhilarating; a source of wonder. I would walk to kindergarten thinking how bizarre it was that my parents came from this entirely different country, which I really knew nothing about. Being so young, I took my own life for granted, so the wonder was in the fact that my parents came from somewhere else and were different from all my friends’ parents, not in the fact that I ended up in Australia with all the friends I have.

As I grew older I began to see myself as different as well, especially in terms of appearance – a concept of difference which was no longer tempered by the surreal wonderment of earlier years.

The mainstream notion of beauty in the Australia of my childhood, and in Australia today, is the (straight) blonde-haired, blue-eyed bombshell. Whether we’re talking about the fun blonde or the sultry brunette, Australian notions of beauty are very much based on Western European/Anglo ethnic features. Indeed, cosmetic surgeries and enhancements predominantly focus on changing features which don’t fit into normative standards of beauty – large noses, frizzy hair, unwanted fat, unwanted body hair. Features usually associated with a non-white ‘ethnic’ look (except for maybe unwanted fat). On top of this, popular psychology tells us that we should make these cosmetic changes for the sake of our psychological wellbeing!

As technology advances, it seems that we’re increasingly ‘smoothing out’ our offensive features rather than embracing difference and diversifying our concept of beauty. It is scary to consider, if the genetic technology ever becomes available, whether people will choose white ethnic features for their unborn babies, particularly as that dominant image becomes more attainable, and any ‘deviating’ image becomes a sign of difference/low class/undesirable ethnicity etc . Many of these deviating features are already considered undesirable and unattractive – my Vietnamese-Australian beautician in Sydney even sells nipple whitening cream. Which makes me think: would non-white parents also chose, if they could, white ethnic features for their unborn children?

I may sound a bit extreme but this stuff really played on my mind as a teenager, and (obviously) these anxieties have not completely disappeared. Of course most people have self-image issues at that age. But for anybody who is not white, there is always the added bitterness of knowing that no matter how many products you buy, how much you spend on surgery, how many trips you make to straighten your hair…that underlying ideal equating femininity with fairness and white ethnic features is essentially unattainable because you cannot, at the end of the day, change your genes or change your skin colour (Michael Jackson tricks aside…though his is a classic case of adolescent race-based anxieties informing a lifelong obsession with his face/looks). There was a time when even the term ‘fairer sex’ would bring on tears of frustration, for the simple reason that it excludes me and anybody like me (i.e. not white) from feminine beauty’s first criteria.

Hopefully, before technology advances too far, our society will embrace all types of weird and wonderful human forms as beautiful. Otherwise we’re in for scary times.

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Filed under Adolescence, Beauty, Race

No No…Don’t Have That Arranged Marriage!

Ok, here goes, my take on arranged marriage…a favourite topic because it never fails to ignite some good-ol’ fashioned argument.

Recently, I had a heated debate with my housemates about why arranged marriage is not an inferior form of matrimony to so-called love marriage.

As the daughter of South Asian migrants, I’ve often argued to friends that a system which upholds marriage as a union of families (where love and desire between a woman and man may only be one factor informing the collective decision to endorse a match) is no better or no worse than a system which upholds marriage as a union of two individuals. On the flip side, I’ve fiercely defended ‘love marriage’ to South Asian relatives who are convinced that in the west, marriage = divorce.

Despite this public commitment to cross-cultural tolerance and understanding, I have a personal confession: As daughter of South Asian migrants, I can’t help but feel disappointed – and yes judgemental – when I hear that yet another daughter or son of this-or-that Aunty has opted for an arranged marriage.

Dude, what are you doing? Don’t you know that you’re behaviour is setting a precedent for the rest of us? One down for the team…

(The thought occurs that expecting young adults to conform to the wishes of their peers is just as Nazi as expecting them to conform to the wishes of their parents. But let’s not digress.)

Let me clarify that up until 4 years ago, I was judgemental of ANY form of marriage, ‘love’ or ‘arranged’, convinced as I was through adolescence that marriage is a conservative, misogynist conspiracy out to get women. That view is softening somewhat since (predictably) I met L. In high school, most of my friends had a much more tolerant attitude towards marriage (‘love’ marriage in the context of this post) than I did. I actually have more friend in their 20s (my age group) married or planning to get married than friends in their 30s, and I’ve surprised myself by embracing this desire to settle down with the love of my life…a desire I’ve previously dismissed as romantic nonsense. You can hardly blame us romantics – most of us spent our teens under a conservative Australian government which championed a form of family values harking straight back to the 1950s.

Anyway, back to the point – migrant marriage patterns are influenced to various degrees by both the ‘host’ and ‘home’ cultures, so maybe a general political climate sanctifying ‘family values’ reinforces South Asian notions of family values and hence, for marriageable 20-somethings, makes arranged marriage seem like an attractive and moral choice.

And let’s make no mistake that, at least of the community of youth with whom I’m familiar, arranged marriage is to a large extent a matter of choice (i.e. not a result of outright coercion by parents). Parental pressure may play a role – it certainly does for my female cousins in South Asia – but nobody I’m close to has yet ‘chosen’ an arranged marriage in Australia so I’m unsure how the parental pressure factor plays out here (except for in my own case, where parental pressure is not FOR an arranged marriage, but AGAINST the current relationship).

On the grapevine, I’ve heard that those who are having arranged marriages (friends of friends) are doing so because they want to. They want to have their marriages arranged. They always have since they were a kid.

To sum up so far…they want to have their marriages arranged and they have a right to do so and who am I to judge them for going through with it?

What’s my problem anyway?

I could say that the extended family structure, which underscores arranged marriage (again, through the idea that marriage is a union of families endorsed by the familial collective) is too patriarchal for any woman to have to bear.

But in Australia, couples don’t necessarily live with the husband’s family after marriage, and as I’ve already pointed out, all forms of marriage are based on patriarchal ideals in one way or another (e.g. a father giving away his daughter).

At the end of the day, I guess I’m uncomfortable and confused by the fact that migrant youth my age are identifying with a practice and culture that I have always associated with another time and another world (my parent’s world – which for me has always been at the other side of the world).

STEPPING BACK

I always knew my parents had an arranged marriage. It was an everyday, taken-for-granted, ‘steel is grey’ kind of fact. Indeed, my parents had never seen or spoken to each other until the day of their wedding. Both my parents have older siblings who had ‘love marriages’ (but into the right caste) before them, both had finished their Masters degrees at the time of marriage and both come from relatively liberal urban families. (My mum’s mum, who had been married before she turned 10 and widowed with a large family to support, had given her 7 daughters a choice: we’ll sell whatever is left of your father’s belongings for dowry or spend it on your education…all chose education at a time when it was rare for daughters to go to university). Amongst their social group, it would have been normal for the couple to meet, once the match had been confirmed, in the context of a family gathering. But at the time dad was living in a rural area, and nobody owned a telephone, so no exchange until the wedding day.

I also always knew that arranged marriage was something they did over ‘there’, and that it had nothing to do with me. That too, was an everyday, taken-for-granted fact. I didn’t know anybody in Australia who had an arranged marriage or was planning to…who even gets married these days (much less – gasp – an arranged marriage), right? I remember teasing my dad about not being able to find somebody himself and getting his parents to do it for him. My dad – who has always been much more tolerant of my pigheadedness than I ever have been about some very basic aspects of his culture – replied with good humour that he went to a university with only 3 female students, and being the nerd that he was he never had a chance to meet anybody.

The first time I told my friends that my parents had an arranged marriage – and that they’d never even met before marriage – I was surprised by their surprise. I knew their parents had all dated before marriage, because that’s what people do here, and I’d assumed that they, like me, ‘knew’ that things were done differently in different parts of the world. This discussion happened in a high school English class, while completing an assignment on Jane Austin and arranged marriage (the 18th century English variety) versus contemporary marriage practices. I was even more surprised when one of my friends concluded during this discussion that because my parents had an arranged marriage, I would also take the side of arranged marriage. Again I had assumed that my friends would take what I took for granted: that anything I said about my parents and their marriage was something done over ‘there’, in a little-known country on the other side of the world, why would it have any relevance ‘here’?

These assumptions of course sum up my entire attitude towards my parents’ culture and their way of life, their religion, their language and even ‘their’ family (not ‘my’ family because they were strangers to me for a long time): that it belonged to another world and had nothing to do with me. We never talked about culture, or religion, or values, or marriage when I was growing up…unfortunately these expectations came out much later when I’d already been with L for two years. As a teenager, my dad had told me that when they moved to Australia, they accepted that their children would not marry somebody from [glorious homeland] because there wasn’t anybody from [glorious homeland] here to marry. Their attitude has been changing since they moved to a city with a growing community from [GH]. Studies of migrant communities point to this trend – as communities grow, the less they are forced to assimilate and thus the more ‘conservative’ (in the sense of maintaining/modifying traditions from home) they become. My parents (or more specifically, my mother’s) reaction to L is a case in point …but that’s a story for another post.

I realise now though what my high school friend (who is still a good friend) had known much earlier – that people aren’t just different because they’re in different parts of the world; they carry their differences with them because it’s a part of who they are.

AND YET

And yet I’m still uncomfortable with the fact that having an arranged marriage can be a part of who you are if you live in Australia. Not least of all because it gives my mother leverage to say, “See, [so-and-so] are marrying a nice boy from [the glorious homeland], if only I’d raised you better I wouldn’t have this problem!”

See how your arranged marriage is turning me into a problem?

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Filed under Adolescence, Arranged Marriage, Cultural Difference, Family Acceptance, Parents, South Asian Marriage