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

How Do You Get a Guy to Dance?

L comes from one of those African countries with a reputation for deadly booty-shakin, feet-groovin funky tunes, whose music and dance culture is rapidly growing in global popularity, particularly via South America. Whenever we’re out and people realise where he’s from – and that he refuses, point blank, to dance – I never fail to elicit sympathy and surprise from friends. “A [Insert African country here]-ican you doesn’t dance?!”

Yes it turns out tv lied to us: not all Africans groove and shake the night away.

Now I’m the first person to admit that people from foreign cultures are in no way obliged to fulfil our misguided stereotypes of them…

But geez I wish L would dance! Even just a little.

I’m no party animal in any definition of the term. I prefer to spend my time reading, writing, camping, hiking or any other activity that’ll set me down at the end of the day with either a good book or a good feed. But I love dancing and loved clubbing in my late teens and early twenties: The buzz of the music, the pulsating beats, the thrill of busting it out with randoms who I was too shy to actually speak to. Dancing is human bodily communication par excellence – you can be anonymous yet connected. And as a withdrawn and socially awkward 20 year old in a club at 3 am, it’s hardly surprising that I got such a high out of it, completely unassisted by alcohol or drugs. In fact, I can still dance non-stop til sunrise on water alone.

Which is why I’m a bit bummed that L refuses to dance, or even go out most of the time. We’ve been in a new city for a while now but I still haven’t made too many friends to go out with, and I was hoping L would morph into my partner in crime. Unfortunately, things haven’t quite gone to plan. The only time I’ve seen him on the dance floor is when a friend asked him to look after her mum, who was visiting over the weekend and had joined us at the pub.

(Which makes me think…maybe I should drag him out clubbing with my mum when she visits….and then they’d both get dancing…and maybe my mum would actually give him a chance…but that’s a story for another post!).

When I recently complained about his lack of enthusiasm for a good night out, L gave his usual Oscar-the-grouch-reply – “Bah, I hate dancing. Go without me”. He mentioned that his ex-girlfriend, before he moved to Australia, would also always complain about his refusal to dance. “I used to go up to other guys at the club and ask them to dance with her.” He twinkles remembering. “Nobody ever said no, they’d have big grins on their faces”.

Then confusion slights his eyes.

“But I don’t know, she would always just get annoyed with me anyway”.

Sounds like she doesn’t know how luck she was. At least he took the girl out!

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Filed under Cultural Difference, Music and Dance

Revised About Page

This blog has turned into quite an enjoyable little project for me. I feel like writing tonight but I don’t have a specific topic in mind, so I thought I’d revise my About page.

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Colonial Fantasy, Sexual Desire and Saving the Exotic Dark Other (aka Why Are You With This Guy?)

One of the most insightful articles I remember reading during undergraduate anthropology was by an English literature scholar examining western fascination with the ‘exotic other’. He described how the white tendency to fetishise and ‘study’ colonised populations was driven not only by the need for expanding markets at the economic level, or the need for greater territory and military prowess at the political level, but also by sexual desire for the exotic at the psychological/unconscious level. Indeed, he suggested that cross-cultural interaction and influence during the colonial moment (which is ongoing in many parts of the world) spreads through a limited number of ways – namely, language and sex (I can’t remember if he included trade). He often referred to colonial anthropologists and geographers who were well respected in their home countries and professional fields, despite of (or because of?) their wide-ranging sexual relations with ‘the natives’. Such sexual desire for ‘the natives’, according to this writer, was underpinned by a sense of adventure and conquering the unknown, and a drive to realise and strengthen one’s own civilised whiteness and identity by saving the exotic other from the dark throes of savagery.

Thankfully, ALL the people he referred to were male and white. In fact, the entire article was about white male sexual desire and how it is indulged through colonial relations and the western missionary/saviour complex.

Phew! thought the starry-eyed humanitarian in me. I’m not white, I’m not male, I don’t have a penis which can hide my brain when it doesn’t want to work, or a libido that can be titillated by a brown-skinned girl in a coconut bra. So my desire to help all those dark people in all those poor villages is not at all related to white colonial sexual fantasy and an unconscious saviour complex, right?

Ummm…wrong, according to my therapist.

To backtrack slightly, L and I are having some pretty major issues right now as he goes through a rough patch. To deal with all of this, I booked myself into a counselling session, because I don’t really know what else to do besides cry tears of frustration and slam all the doors in the house until they disintegrate into cracked splinters. (Oh, and blog).

The therapist took one look at my situation and saw western-wannabe-humanitarian-meets-black-boy-in-distress. She gently explained to me how, sometimes, people with a human services orientation meet somebody ‘interesting’ and initiate a relationship with that person not for who they are, but because of who they represent, because of all the potential in them to change. Or, more accurately, the potential in them to be changed (i.e. be saved). She reminded me that “He is not a project; he is not a member of population you are interested in studying; he is a human being who can only help himself”.

Yup, thanks for reminding me that my partner is a human being.

Forgive my sarcasm. I just can’t help but feel completely misunderstood and patronised. I know she was well-meaning and concerned for my welfare, but implying that I am with somebody for all the wrong reasons and that I am incapable of loving somebody outside of my professional and academic commitments, is hardly conducive to healing. And the more sinister implication that I am with L only to realise an aspect of my own identity (western saviour to this ‘traumatised’ black boy) was absolutely devastating.

(I guess my therapist, if she ever read this, would read a lot into my defensiveness here. But whatever).

I fled that counselling session and am yet to get up the courage to go back. Maybe if she had asked questions about how we met, how long we’ve been together, the nature of our relationship and how we feel about each other, she would have realised that I am acutely aware of this dynamic. It took me almost 3 years to agree to go out with L because I wanted to make sure my feelings were genuine. I would never have been that careful had he been a white guy; I would have plunged into the relationship, ‘given it a shot’, and sorted out the issues later. Yes, I treaded water carefully because of his personal and cultural background, even tolerated things that I would not have tolerated had I been with the guy-next-door. But ‘giving way’ in such a relationship (where there is an imbalance in racial privilege, at least publically) – or even BEING in such a relationship in the first place – does not automatically call into question one’s basic reasons for loving their partner.

These thoughts have arisen in response to a great conversation amongst South Asian intercultural relationship bloggers about balancing their ‘gori’ identity with their partner’s culture. Some, like Sara at A Little Bit of that Too, went through a stage of enthusiastically courting South Asia. Others have never felt the need to embrace their partner’s culture so enthusiastically.

Adding my two cents worth, I commented on a number of posts that I would never overtly embrace the markers of L’s culture, or even directly express interest in the cultural differences between us. If I did, L would think I was just being a middle-class, confused white person who doesn’t truly understand cultural difference at all (and worse still, a try-hard white person because I’m not actually white: trying to be white by trying to be ethnic!). On the back of his interactions with westerners here and in Africa, he very much associates this fascination for ‘other cultures’ with white fantasy and colonial exoticisation (in Australia, it’s certainly true that most people’s perceptions of and questions about Africa are based more on personal ideas/fantasies than on any real knowledge of what life is like over there).  So, if I expressed interest in his culture, for him it would be more about me using it to explore an aspect of my own identity (Eat, Pray, Love style), rather than actually understanding where he’s coming from (even though I LOVE learning about other cultures, and from my perspective it’s about understanding others as well as myself). And in so far that I have the privilege, education and resources to make such dips into another culture to ‘discover myself’ and ‘have a spiritual awakening’, yes, the process is inherently exploitative and tinged with racism. In the extreme version of this argument, embracing Africa would simply be a tool to solidify my own sense of self as an enlightened cosmopolitan westerner (the ‘trying to be white by trying to be ethnic’ thing isn’t a joke).

A lot of this stuff also comes from my own experience of fielding ‘culturally sensitive’ comments and questions from people in Australia who, despite their good intentions, come across as infuriatingly ignorant. But it’s best not to get started on this…

Until now I have felt just a wee bit smug populating the blogosphere with my clever commentary. The “I’m so enlightened and cosmopolitan and suave that I don’t even have to embrace another culture to prove my enlightened-cosmopolitaness” type of smug.

Then I remember how hurt I felt when my own motives for being with L were bluntly questioned. And how angry I felt when we were typecast into a saviour/other script that, at least in my mind, ran with the more extreme points of the exoticism and colonial desire argument; without once acknowledging all the love, frustration, joy and anger that goes on between us as two people, independent of any historical and psychological meta-narrative we may fall into.

Having spent much time at university examining patterns of racism, exoticisation, white fantasy and colonial guilt in western culture and politics, it’s been easy to project these same patterns onto other people’s intercultural relationship experiences, based on this-or-that post which I just happened to read. What’s been harder, I’ve discovered from hurtful personal experience, is to let go of my assumptions and understand people’s experiences from their point of view rather than my own.

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Filed under Blogging, Cultural Difference, Interracial Relationships, Race, Racism, Western Privilege

Western Privilege and Interracial Relationships

Sara over at A Little Bit of That Too has been sharing a number of humorous and informative posts about her intercultural relationship and personal identity journey, which she is satirising via the Partner of a South Asian (POSA) Identity Development Model.

Her posts and comments by fellow bloggers made me think about the role of racial privilege in interracial relationships. I’m sharing these thoughts here as many of the twists and turns between me and L are very much associated with our relative experiences of racial privilege/disadvantage:

I would love to hear more about other people’s experiences of white privilege in their relationships, because it’s been such a source of tension between me and my partner. While I’m not white, I’m certainly ‘whiter’ than him. I’ve grown up in the west with all its privileges, including material wealth and stability. I’ve never experienced racism in finding employment, in dealing with bureaucracies or police, in obtaining visas and moving freely around the world etc…. My partner on the other hand, is a black African guy in a country where (African) blackness is still rare, poorly understood and exoticised.  He has not only experienced prolonged institutional racism via the immigration system, but also everyday racism, often from people in positions of power associated with governance institutions (especially police), not to mention the racism he’s faced in finding employment.

All this has made L very suspicious of what he calls ‘white’ institutions – governments, police, schools, employment organisations,  welfare organisations…the list goes on and on. He sees all of these as instruments of control and gets extremely frustrated with me when I show any kind of trust in them (e.g. an African friend of his went missing for a bit once, and my immediate reaction was to go to the police). It reminds him that I’m in a position where I can work these institutions to my advantage, whereas he feels targeted by them.  And it exposes the gulf between us – while I may be critical of these institutions and institutional racism in theory, I can remain aloof to them in practice. He has no such luxury.

For a guy as well, I guess it can be quite emasculating to struggle for things that everyone else (i.e. those with ‘white’ privilege) takes for granted – like finding employment and securing a stable income. (This is some conjecture on my part – he is quite vocal on issues of racism but silent on issues of masculinity). When these frustrations really build up, he can express some pretty intense anger towards white people, and their taken-for-granted privilege; an anger which is directed at me in our heated debates. “You have such a white colonial mindset, thinking you know better than me what’s good for me”. I’ve asked him to please not bring global race relations and world politics into our personal arguments, but again this request is a function of privilege – the privilege of assuming that racial power relations play out in a political realm that is somehow independent of our personal lives and every day existence. Geez, my reasoning sounds pathetic even to me: “I don’t go around saying that you have a black mindset, so please stop commenting on my race” (read: “I can’t help that I’m privileged, just like you can’t help that you’re black”).

As he gets so personal and argumentative when discussing politics, I’ve deliberately stopped conversations on current events. Palestine/Israel; the west’s hypocrisy in focusing on China’s human rights record given their own doubtful human rights record; the west’s recent vilification of Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi…these have become NO GO topics, even though we actually hold very similar political views.

Anyway…blaaahhhh…I guess all I’m trying to say is that I find this a very difficult issue to negotiate!

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Filed under Interracial Relationships, Race, Racism, Western Privilege

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