Marriage tradition meets tension in Indian American homes

Dating and marriage, a universal source of parent-child friction, can be especially shaky in the homes of Indian-Americans, as U.S.-raised children of  immigrant parents carefully tread between assimilating into American culture, and remaining true to their parents' old-country beliefs and customs.

 

When parents have spent their critical teenage years in a different country, generational and cultural chasms can combine to create delicate situations and force life-changing choices.

 

"There is a gap in the culture…when you filter, you lose stuff," said Rajni Venkateswar, 55, who was born in New Delhi but now, lives in a southwest Chicago suburb.  She and her husband were engaged one week after their very first meeting, in the U.S.

 

Generational differences pose challenges that can lead to secrecy, unfamiliar conversations, compromises and sometimes tough decisions.  The most difficult:  How, and for how long, will young adults play the field?  How, and when, will parents get their daughters married off?

 

 "A lot of mothers I know keep nagging me, 'When are you getting your daughter married?'" said 59-year-old Darshana Brahmbhatt of Milpitas, Calif., whose only daughter, Flora, 34, is unmarried.  Brahmbhatt was married in India when she was 19. Although Brahmbhatt is used to frequent questions and implied judgment, interrogations from Indian friends and family, whether well-meaning or just nosy, can lead to stress for parents of unwed adults.

 

"South Asian parents actually have a lot of peer pressure," said Ranu Boppana, a psychiatrist in New York who has treated hundreds of Indian clients.  "It's almost considered neglect on their part if they don't get sort of over involved, as we see it," she added.

 

Indeed, many immigrant parents are quick to direct, lest their children lose all sense of their heritage.

 

"The kids, if not properly guided, are definitely going to melt in the big melting pot," said Syed Sultan Mohiuddin, a 62-year-old retired electrical engineer in the Detroit suburbs, who married through an arrangement in India in 1972. Looking back, he regrets the eight-year age difference between him and his wife, who was 16 when they wed. Finding shared interests has been a 38-year struggle, he said.

 

The divergences between South Asian immigrants and their American-raised children seem to be more about personal experiences than anything else.  Parents see the world through a different lens, colored by growing up in India, severely limited or no dating, and a drastically different educational background.

 

"A very large percentage of second-generation Indian-Americans in this county have parents who got married in an arranged marriage," said Jasbina Ahluwalia, a California-based matchmaker who has counseled hundreds of single Indian-Americans, and sometimes their hopeful parents.

 

In pre-arranged matrimonies, there was not a lot of dating or courtship involved, Ahluwalia said.  And if parents restrict dating, children will hide details about their love lives.

 

"The kids were utterly confused" about dating and navigating two cultures, Detroit retiree Mohiuddin said, "so they would do things behind our back."

 

"They want to be able to do their own thing without hurting their parents, so they tend to keep it private," explained David Popenoe, director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.

 

Additionally, the Pew Values Survey found that younger Americans are more accepting of interracial dating than their older counterparts.  "Most parents want their child to marry someone who is very much like themselves in terms of race, ethnicity, class," Popenoe said.

 

Still, some South Asian parents have adopted more-American views on coupling up. Flora "wants an Indian guy, if possible, but what's in our destiny nobody knows," said Californian Brahmbhatt, who is of the Hindu faith.  "In this day and age, if it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen," she added.

 

Hindus are the least likely to marry or live with a partner outside their own faith, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

 

Friends who call to set up Brahmbhatt's daughter up with men are grilled on a few things before mom will agree to a date.  Is he well-educated?  Is he at least 5'10" or 5'11"? Like Brahmbhatt, Mohiuddin, in Detroit, deals with the stigma of having a single daughter over the age of 30; two, in fact.  Mohiuddin's unmarried daughters are 35 and 34.

 

That's "an anathema in our culture," he said.  "Most people are bewildered when a girl is so old and not married," he added.

 

And young women aren't the only ones facing the matrimonial ticking clock. "The next step for my son is to find a girl and get married," said Vasanthi Iyer, 60, who lives near Dallas.   

 

People in the Indian community, anxious to fix up their daughters, inquire after her 29-year-old son because he is single, has a graduate degree from Boston University and a good job, said Iyer, who married in India at age 24.

 

"It kind of worries me a little bit, but not that much," Iyer said of her son's singleness.  She is OK with her son marrying someone of a different culture, but firmly believes a couple should not live together or have sex before marriage.

 

For most South Asian parents, even liberal-about-dating parents, those are the two big no-nos. "Men can get away with it more easily than women," Mr. Venkateswar said.

 

"The reason is, it doesn't look pleasant coming in at 2 a.m. versus 11 p.m.," Mrs. Venkateswar added.  These restrictions, she said, are to protect the girl and stem lurid gossip in the community.

 

Modern Brahmbhatt, however, backs the idea of two people, dating exclusively, to share a home without marrying.  A live-in relationship is easier than wedlock because if something goes wrong "you can just throw them out," she said.

 

Arpana Sircar, a professor at Miami University in Ohio, also believes it's OK to share living quarters before walking down the aisle.  Her 30-year-old daughter has been living with her American boyfriend for three years and she's fine with it.  Her only stipulation:  "If you want to bring children into this relationship, it's better to be married," Sircar said.
 

Sircar, who allowed her two daughters to go out with boys in high school, dated her husband for three years before they said "I do."  She calls this lengthy courtship "not typical" in India in the 1960s.

 

Again, personal experience plays right into parents' stance on dating.  Sircar saw her two older sisters pushed into arranged marriages, but she was essentially raised as a boy.  "I had all the freedom in the world," she said.

 

The dating generational gap is not likely to disappear, Sircar said.  As long as immigrants come to the U.S., parents and children will continue to struggle with dating and marrying.

 

Leslie Patton