Category Archives: Parents

Goodbye 2011!

Well thank goodness it’s 2012!

The last few months of 2011 weren’t that great for me. And that’s an understatement. I wasn’t sure where my relationship with L was headed. Without confidently knowing that our relationship had a future, the last thing I felt like doing was blogging about intercultural relationships, or anything remotely related. It would have felt fake.

I flew to my parent’s for Christmas and New Year, giving me and L a well-needed break from each other. And although I’ve only been back home for a couple of days, I’m pleased to write that we’re slowly getting back on track.

NYE was fantastic. Being with my uni friends again meant I had the fun, wild nights I never would have had in my current town. It almost makes me miss the big city (almost, but not quite. I’m still not really a big city kinda girl).

But of course being at my parent’s meant I had to confront their questions, worries and fears about my relationship with L, especially given what they saw when they visited us last year. My mum approached the issue in her usual way: demanding to know what my plans are, insisting I was causing unnecessary stress, and then when I refused to talk about it (how could I, when even I didn’t know where our relationship was heading at that stage, and my mother can hardly be relied-upon for neutral relationship advice?), subtly falling back on the betrayal trope. Well, at least she was subtle about it.

Dad took a different approach, for which I’m eternally grateful. He recognised that any conversation involving me and my mum is always going to become emotionally intense and unproductive. So while Mum was occupied with the tennis one night, he called me upstairs asked me to tell him the whole truth, promising confidentiality. Without being confrontational, he also asked what I see in L, whether our values and interests match, whether we’re compatible (in arranged marriage speak, I guess) for a long term future. I know my dad is so worried about me, and for him it means so much that his kids are open and honest. And he came close to guessing the truth…maybe not the details, but he certainly guessed that our situation is uhhmmm…let’s call it ‘high pressure’. But as I’ve said before I can never tell him the truth, he simply wouldn’t understand. And the last thing I want to do is cause more stress. So I tried to be as honest as possible about the state of our relationship (i.e. that I wasn’t sure where it was heading, and that being under pressure to provide an answer on the “what are your future plans” question was extremely stressful), while outrightly lying about the reason.

Not the most satisfying answer, but he didn’t press the point. Instead, he noted that “a good thing about living in Australia is that you can live with a partner before marriage”,  and make a more informed decision about whether you really should commit to them forever. As he didn’t fully understand the good things between me and L (I was pretty stunted in communicating this, as I wasn’t feeling great about our relationship at the time), he seemed a bit perplexed about why I was with L; when after a year of living together we were still being tossed around by strong undercurrents of turbulence. “Maybe you’re only with him temporarily? I don’t know why you would do that. Maybe so you don’t feel alone? But that’s not for me to judge, it’s your life”. I assured him that L and I had always intended living together to be a permanent thing.

Despite his cultural generosity, he obviously held onto a flicker of hope that perhaps I would ask for his involvement in my marriage one day. “You know, you can always tell us if you want help in finding someone.” I always get defensive at ‘hints’ like this, even if they’re meant with little or no pressure. “Dad, whatever happens between me and L, I will always find the person I want to be with. I don’t need anyone’s help.” He leant over then, and lightly touched my wrist, “That’s ok, chhori, you don’t need help. I understand that.”

Oh please, I hope we’ve clarified that expectation now, for good.

It was one of those talks, you know, where you’re supposed to come out feeling great (and I hope my dad came out feeling great, or at least less concerned), but I came out feeling awful because I know I was hiding so much of the truth. Uggh…that awful burning feeling, knowing he was so close to the some of the truth (but not the whole truth, not the positive things, because that’s what he wouldn’t understand) and I was responsible for steering him away from that. Responsible for steering him away from the truth he values so dearly.

A lot the negativity I feel about this conversation reflects how I was feeling about my relationship at the time. L and have talked a lot since I came back, and we have solid plans and resolutions. Which gives me hope. We know there’s going to be no miraculous relationship blitz. Some habits are hard to change. But we have done it before and there’s nothing like a new year to revitalise and inspire us into doing it again.

So bring on the hard yards, the joy and the love, 2012!!

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Filed under About, Family Acceptance, Parents

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

Parents, Partner and Heartache: Let it Be

So the parental visit…How dramatic hey?

But for all that moaning and groaning, all the emotions and confusion and heartache, there have been some good things that have come out of the last couple of weeks:

1. L and I have had long long chats and he’s learning much more about recognising and handling certain emotions

2. For the most part, I controlled my temper. Yes, I had to in front of my parents, because I was trying to hide the truth. But I guess that’s the point: there are times when I feel so confused and full of rage even I don’t know where it will lead to. The last two week’s prove I do have the ability to control my feelings if needed. So to ‘lose’ control of them, to hurl abuse at L with the excuse that I’m too emotional to control myself, is just that – it’s an excuse, and it’s abuse.

When I wrote my last two posts, I was full of emotion after all those intense conversations with my parents.  It was only a couple of days later that the full impact hit: at the time when we most needed to get my parents on-side, at one of the few opportunities we’re going to have to include them in a positive way in our lives, it all fell apart.

And I wanted to scream. I wanted to scream at L “how could you fuck up so badly” (especially when it was going so well).

But I remembered our talk, I remembered how mortified he is feeling about the whole thing, I remembered to remove myself from a situation where I was obviously loosing my temper. So I went for a drive alone and screamed out everything. And then I realised that it’s probably not the safest thing to be doing, screaming and driving. So I stopped sreaming, calmed myself down, and went home. End of anger.

Just goes to show – my logical side can sometimes rein in my emotional and physical responses. I needed badly to prove this to myself.

3. Blogging as helped! It has helped in expressing my need for support. And in actually getting that support through all your kind responses and suggestions. Thank you 🙂

Now that I’ve admitted I need support, I realise just how much I’ve isolated myself over the last 6 months. I didn’t want to talk to any of my friends, I didn’t want to go out…except for starting a blog and commenting voraciously on other people’s blogs, I practically dug myself into a hole. Now wonder I’ve been feeling so trapped!

I’ve also stopped all the activities that usually give me some emotional relief. I miss my music. I’ve never been particularly good at it, but I sorely miss having a piano in the house to smash out a tune when I’m feeling bad. I miss dancing and laughing and going out with friends for a coffee. I miss drawing and painting and reading my favourite novels.

This will be my challenge for the rest of the year – to start becoming myself again!

We’re obviously in damage control with my parents. I’ve made some attempts at reaching out to my dad, but I can’t report on much success just yet. We’re just going to have to let it be for now, let time ebb away some of the hurt and work some of it’s healing magic.

I’ve always found this song comforting, especially when things feel tough. I like this version from the film ‘Across the Universe’ – it’s so beautiful and dramatic (especially the start!). What I’m going through obviously doesn’t compare to wars and race riots. But it helps to dramatise my feelings write now, in a way that is positive and constructive rather than destructive.

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Filed under About, Blogging, Family Acceptance, Music and Dance, Parents

The Aftermath Part Two: A Disastrous End

This is the second of two posts describing what happened while my parents were visiting me and L last week.

OH SHIT

It’s no secret in Blogland that L and I are having difficulties lately, a lot of it related to things outside of our immediate sphere of control (e.g. structural racism). The last two months we’ve not had any fights – largely because L has pulled himself together. Me, well, I’m not sure yet whether I’ve managed to unlearn all the bad habits of the past 6 months…the screaming, the smashing, the whole-body trembling, the reactions so physical and so violent L almost thought I was possessed by demons.

I’ve been through three therapists in three months trying to sort myself out. It hasn’t always helped. But one message that has come through consistently is: It is normal for him to lapse. Lapsing is a process of learning your limits and learning your boundaries and pulling yourself together with the knowledge required to handle whatever comes your way. In this sense, lapsing during recovery is “good” (as long as you don’t relapse into another destructive cycle).

Oh, and it’s most likely to occur in emotionally turbulent times.

So there I am sitting in the counsellor’s office – got it, don’t lose my head during a lapse.

But it’s been going so well for two months and my dad at least likes him so far and is happy for us and did I ever in the name of anything consider the possibility of a lapse while my parents were visiting?

God no.

I got the panicked call from L while my parents and I were hiking on our fourth day (the morning after we’d had a massive fight). I was surprised I had reception because we’d been out of range the whole trip, but fortunately he called me just as I was standing on top of a hill. I’m the kind of person who freaks out after an emergency rather than during it (as in, I’m kinda freaking as I write this…), so we quickly came up with a plan of action and a story to tell my parents. All I can is, the situation was bad. I was due home with my parents that night and there was no way he wanted them to see him in that state, so he arranged to stay a friend’s place.

My parents believed my story (lie) the first night but when L was off the scene again the next day and night (completely inconsistent with our original story) so that he wouldn’t even be there the night they were flying out, they really smelt the fish.

You’re hiding something from us, aren’t you?

To make matters worse, my car battery went flat because it hadn’t been used in 5 days (we’d hired a larger car) and it all just added to the stress as we were catching buses everywhere and running around.

Plus there was obviously some bad omen in the air because as I went to sit in a park trying to evade my parents’ ears and discreetly talk to L, the stitching at the back of my shorts completely split. A few hours later Mum got a massive tear in the back of her skirt. Great.

Despite all this, I did my best to distract my parents that last day. Took them on a breezy ferry ride and to a stunning pub right on a beach on the edge of the peninsula. But they were worried. My story morphed into: I don’t really know what’s going on, I’ve never seen him like this before (that’s kind of true, my parents have never visited before), I guess I’ll find out when I see him.

To my parents’ credit, they never once came out with, “See, we told you this black boy is trouble” (not even Mum). Instead, they gently let me know I have their support if anything goes wrong, and the decision is up to me but I have to think carefully about my future. Do I really want to be with somebody who can be emotionally unstable, even if it is because of unfortunate circumstances he has experienced in the past?

Needless to say we had a long talk: them doing their best to get me to open up and me doing my best to hide the painful truth. When Mum went to the bar Dad said to me, “You probably don’t want to tell us everything, because we’re your parents and you think we’re just going to oppose him no matter what. But that’s not true. I know your mum can get really angry and upset without saying properly why she’s upset, maybe that makes you feel like you can’t tell us things”. He gave me a deep look. “But you can tell me.”

It took so much not to cry.

Dad continued, “I don’t think either of you have done the wrong thing by being together. In life some things work out and some things don’t. We’re your parents, we’re concerned about your happiness, we’re not concerned about judging you or telling you off. But we expect you to be honest with us. If you’re honest with us and it goes wrong, that’s ok. If you’re not honest, if you’re hiding the truth to save him, then that’s not ok”.

Jesus Christ, how does he know what I’m up to even at 25? (If you’re not aware of the complex I have at the suggestion that I’m with L just to save him, read this).

Even Mum, when she came back with the drinks, said, “I get angry easily with you guys and I probably shouldn’t, maybe it’s menopause” – certainly not, I remember you having a fearful temper since I was a toddler! – “but when I worry about you it’s from the bottom of my heart, I really want you to be ok”.

They also somehow picked up on the fact that I don’t have too much support up here, because they kept asking how many friends I have and how often I get out of the house to do something fun.

The worse thing about all this is how my parents have given me all the room I need to open up completely and honestly. But I can’t. Because to do would require me to describe the intimate side as well, why I’m still with him. I’ve never been that close with them (I could barely look Dad in the eye when he said that he was happy I’d found a life partner), there is no way I could delve into such intimate details to give them the full picture.

But if I have any duty as a good daughter, isn’t it to let them be good parents?

The ball is in my court and by hiding the truth I am betraying them as parents. For Dad I know that being a good father means being there for his kids, giving them the space to be completely honest without feeling like they’re going to be judged. He would be so hurt if he knew the actual truth. Or more accurately, the extent of my lie. Mum is much more suspicious and much more on the ball – she knows and expects that I’m hiding more than I’m revealing.

It was a long day made longer by their 2 am flight. Only after I’d seen my parents through the departure gates could I drive home, lie down, and finally cry out all the tears of the last 3 days like a baby.

Do you know that beautiful song Shelter Me by Australian band the The Waifs? That’s how I’m feeling right now.

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Filed under About, Family Acceptance, Parents, Race, Racism, Western Privilege

The Aftermath Part One: From Smooth Sailing to Choppy Waters

This is part one of two posts describing what happened while my parents were visiting me and L.

A FANTASTIC BEGINNING

It started off so well.

So well, in fact, that I spent the first few days dreaming of the victorious blog post I would write when my parents left – “We should have never worried about a thing!”

Before they got here L and I spent hours cleaning our unit. Actually, L spent hours cleaning our unit…he scrubbed all the crevices between the bathroom tiles with an old toothbrush and wiped out all the light shades and ceiling fans, poured boiling water over all the walls and scrubbed out the stains…geez he even took apart his keyboard and tapped out the dust from under each key. Being a more homely person than me, he had bought a few essentials we’d been living without until now, to make sure my parents had a comfortable stay: a microwave, some glasses (we’d just been drinking everything out of mugs), a shower curtain (we were never bothered by a bit of water on the bathroom floor), and more cutlery.

They were arriving in the middle of the night and we both drove to the airport. Mum and Dad seemed really pleased to see both me and L, and the drive home was pleasant chatter. Phew! That was the first hurdle down. I was afraid my mum would be cold towards L at the start. At one point during the drive home she did give out this massive, frustrated sigh (I was driving with her in the front seat, and Dad and L in the back). When I nervously started chewing my nails she turned around sharply and asked, “What’s wrong?”, but apart from this there were no tense moments.

We showed them around the first two days and it was all family fun: Dad insisted that L get in every photo, and the second night L totally won them over by cooking a killer chicken curry. We even sat down and went through some photos of his family – his brothers, his parents, and his brothers’ children. Considering my mum has been known to say things like, “One good thing about Australia compared to the US is that you don’t see as many black people around”, looking at photos of L’s little black nephews and nieces was important to me. Because you know, her grandkids will probably be black.

Fortunately there were no references to skin colour, unless you count an innocent sunscreen error. My Mum has much fairer skin than the rest of us, coupled with a number of friends who’ve had close calls with skin cancer. Growing up, we were never allowed to leave the house without a healthy dose of sunscreen and a good hat. Dad has always resisted wearing a hat and sunscreen, and while we were lathering up on our first day out on this trip he asked if it was absolutely necessary. Yes Dad, the sun is really strong here. Then he looked suspiciously at L and proclaimed, “But you’re not wearing it!” No no, L explained, I just have sunglasses. And that was that 🙂

When I took them to the local fresh fruit and veggie market they bought an expensive bottle of homemade chilli-sauce for L, insisting that he’ll like it because he likes hot food (I’m not so much of a chill person) – and this was while L wasn’t even with us!

Also they insisted on buying me a present. Now one thing about South Asian culture is that there is an ever-present ethic of giving gifts to your daughter, especially once she’s moved out of home, and often in the form of jewellery or household appliances. They’d been asking me for weeks before coming up what I wanted, and I kept replying nothing because they were already spending a lot of money to come and see me. Of course they decided to buy a gift while here and guess what it was? Nothing personal like jewellery or nice shoes or a new dress or anything…but an esky set!! “So you and L can use it when you go for picnics”. This was another win, to have them gift the two of us, which is really an acknowledgement that L is a part of their daughter’s life.

Then Mum, Dad and I went away for a few days. L couldn’t come along because he didn’t get the time off work, and I was really afraid the trip would be all fighting. But no, the first three days were surprisingly smooth sailing – we were enjoying being together after not seeing each other for a long time.

A ROCKY MIDDLE

It went rocky with my parents on the third night. Or more accurately, it went rocky with Mum.

When they first told me they were visiting, about 4 months ago, I had offered for L and I to have a civil marriage while they were up, assuming that they’d be uncomfortable with us living together. At the time they had not warmed to the idea, and Mum had suggested that I “stay with him for a while before jumping into marriage, take you time to get to know him” (in the hope, obviously, that I’d get to know him and then choose the break-up path rather than the marriage path). She asked me what our plans are regarding marriage now. I replied, a bit defensively, that because she’d rejected the idea and I had only really offered to get married for her sake (L and I aren’t religious and getting married is not really a priority at the moment), we haven’t thought about it any further. “But we’re still planning to be together long term, we just don’t want to get married”.

Mum and Dad had both discussed my offer at the time, and decided it was not a good idea to get married with just L, me and my parents present. As if we’re hiding from the rest of the family (Dad’s brothers have also moved to Australia over the years) and doing something wrong. “A wedding isn’t something you hide from everybody, it’s something you should celebrate with everybody. So if you ever decide you do want to get married, we’ll do it properly, and openly”.

Ok, I’m glad we’re on the same page there.

Dad even said: “I know why you offered. You were offering to get married for us, so we would be ok with you staying together and so you could receive us into your home. But we don’t want you getting married for our sake, if you’re going to get married, it has to be for your own sake. We’re mainly concerned that you’re happy with him, whether you’re married or not. To get married just for us would be wrong.”

I was really touched by this but Mum kind of ruined the atmosphere by muttering “Speak for yourself…”

Then she started. He’s not the right age. Nothing has happened yet (i.e. we’re not married or pregnant) so we can safely call it off. It’s too much of a risk committing to someone if you have no way of finding out about their background.

I blew up, of course. L has spent days cleaning for you, even attacking the floor with a toothbrush. He speaks of you with the greatest respect yet you won’t even acknowledge his existence, much less mention his name, when we speak on the phone. He has no family in Australia and he’s always hoping that you will become family for him.

Fortunately Dad backed me on this one. When Mum said it’s too risky to be with somebody who’s background you can’t investigate (i.e. ask friends of friends about L and his family, as per the arranged marriage system), Dad pointed out that “it would be even riskier to leave him.” He added, “L seems like a real gentleman. It’s a big thing for you to find a partner. I can see you’re happy with him, and that’s all we care about”.

Again, before I could thank him for his empathy Mum took over with her raving: When you were going out you lied to us about staying over at his place. I’m so hurt by what you’ve done to me. (Uhmmm…what have I done to you?). I don’t need to say it now, you know what I mean. And on and on it went.

Finally, exhausted, she became sullen and quiet and slipped into bed with the doona pulled above her head. Dad could see I was really upset by this stage, and tried to calm me down. “All we care about is your happiness. Your Mum thinks this too, she just doesn’t know how to say it. If you show her over the next couple of years that you two are fine and you’re happy together, she’ll come around too.” He paused. “But don’t just show that you’re happy of course, don’t put it on for us. We need to know that you actually are happy”.

I almost broke down at this. L and I didn’t have to put on a show these last few days, but we have had some huge difficulties since we moved in together, as we grapple with all this stuff related to racism and how it affects our relationship. Two months ago, our relationship would often turn into a microcosm of everything that is wrong with the world when we both lost our tempers. But when I’d just converted Dad into accepting L, and while Mum was lying there openly hostile, how on earth could I blurt it all out? A part of me so wanted cry out, “It’s been really difficult, please teach me how to have some strength and empathy and patience”, but instead I crouched down near my mother and asked if it was true. “Will you really be happy if I’m happy? Because I am, and it hurts me that you’re not recognising it. And that, worse still, you’re personally offended by happiness!”

That’s a pretty desperate cry right, to ask a mum to say something nice?

No such luck. Instead she said angrily, “We’ve done our duty towards you by bringing you up and graduating you, now you have a duty towards us”.

Grrrr…what fucking duty?

But she wouldn’t say.

Now I don’t know much about what goes in my Mum’s head, but the fact that she wouldn’t say it in front of Dad makes me think it has a lot to do with the whole sex before marriage thing.

You may have noticed my parents have rather different approaches to parenting. Mum has always been a strict disciplinarian, while Dad is more of a gentle, understanding, flexible type. This characterises their clash of personalities when it comes to their entire relationship, really, and the argument was quickly becoming as much about them as it was about me and L. That’s the problem with family fighting and family politics, everything becomes about everything else and instead of solving it all in one go you end up amplifying it all. I dashed out of the room before bursting into tears, not bothering to respond to the one, reconciliatory “good night” from Mum.

Later Dad called me into their room. “Your Mum wants to say something”. I walked up to the bed and he nudged her. “Tell her”. But again she simply muttered something about not being able to say things she doesn’t mean, and pretended to sleep. “Sorry, she said she would say that she’s happy for you. But even if she doesn’t say it, that’s what we both mean”.

Thanks Dad. I want to thank you for all your support and being a great father but I can’t. I’m choking again.

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Filed under About, Arranged Marriage, Family Acceptance, Interracial Relationships, Parents, Race, Racism, South Asian Marriage, Western Privilege

We are picking up my parents in 20 minutes from the airport…

!!

This is the first time my parents have visited me since I moved across the country…and of course the first time they have visited since I moved in with L.

I’m a little nervous, especially about being with my mum because things can get so intense between us. Here’s hoping it all goes well 🙂

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Filed under About, Parents

Sex Before Marriage? I Should Have Lied

If your mum is anything like my mum (strong-willed, dramatic and South Asian), there are some things you should probably hide until the time is right.

Unfortunately for me this realisation has come a little late.

L and I live together now (we’re not married) and there’s no point in hiding the obvious. But back when I was still living with my parents, I could have spared both mum and I two years of feeling hurt and betrayed if I’d just told one tiny white lie. “No mum, we’ve never slept together”.

I’ve always been honest with my mum. In the early days of my relationship with L, I was keen to share, hoping my openness would warm her up to the idea of us being together (in case you’re wondering, this strategy didn’t work). Clearly there were things I would never have told her. Usually these were things that left me feeling dirty and low myself – having a one night stand, for instance.

But making love to the guy I love, and having such intense feelings for each other the whole thing felt almost sacred? That to me was something to cherish. It was certainly not something I would ever deny when asked about, as if we were naughty kids doing the wrong thing. To hide it would have felt belittling and dismissive of our love.

Which is why, when I told mum the truth, and she hit the wall and basically implied I was a whore, I came out of the battle badly badly bruised. Yes, she apologised for saying it (after I didn’t speak to her for a couple of days), and now that L and I live together the issue barely rates a mention. All mum has said is, “Make sure you don’t get pregnant”. But the memory still stings. It was after this episode that I clammed up about L…avoided mentioning his name, stopped hinting that he and mum should try to get to know one another better. All I could think about was how my friends’ mums welcomed their partners with open arms (they didn’t all do this, but I wasn’t looking out for such reality checks at the time). And how my own mother, in contrast, had not only refused to be happy about my relationship, but had actually shot down my self esteem and selfishly turned the whole special thing around to make it be about her. How could she insist that my making love to my own partner is the ultimate betrayal? How is that logical? Or loving? Or anything else a mother is supposed to be?

And it’s not just with me either. She once found a packet of empty condoms in my brother’s room and went wild at him, replaying the betrayal script once again. (My suggestion that at least it was empty and at least he’s being responsible didn’t quite go down as I had intended).

It was after the fight with me that mum became explicitly anti-L. On some warped level of reality, she obviously did recognise the seriousness of the relationship, because she realised at this point that we were in it for the long haul. But the whole thing also allowed her to crystallise her objections, to turn our relationship into – out of the all the special things that it is – a personal attack against her!

I do understand that my mum has sacrificed a lot for her children. And I do understand that it must hurt so much when your kids act in an almost alien way, completely disregarding some of your most dear values. Just as it hurts me deeply when I feel mum has betrayed some of my dearest values – like the assumption that she would be happy for me when I found my long-term partner.

But hey, at least I was honest.

I wonder how mum would’ve reacted if I had approached my relationship with L the way most of my cousins have approach their relationships: by hiding them from their parents until they’re ready to get married or move in together. And then, in the case of monocultural relationships, asking for their parent’s permission and hey pronto, turning it into the perfect (self) arranged marriage. Everyone’s happy and no one’s asking questions.

I never grew up knowing my cousins or how they interacted with their South Asian parents (maybe if I had I’d be better equipped to handle my mum). But I do wonder: doesn’t it hurt to hide your relationship from your parents? Doesn’t it feel demeaning of your love? Maybe these cousins understand better than me what their parents can and cannot handle. And maybe they know better than to feel hurt by lack of parental understanding.

I’m not so sure sharpened cultural awareness would have made me less honest (and therefore more sensitive) with mum back then. There was definitely a stubborn assumption and expectation from my part that she would react just like all the other mothers I knew. Considering all these other mums were white, this was hardly a fair expectation and I don’t think it’s entirely mum’s fault I came out of it feeling so hurt and resentful. And anyway I’ve learnt my lesson. With cultural understanding has come a much less militant attitude towards honesty.

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

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…

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

Family Gossip, Acceptance and Racism

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?

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

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