Eight months ago, O’Hare Airport; Prashant checks two enormous suitcases at the counter. Our embrace is too short. I watch him walk toward the international gate—toward the unknown, the absolute, and the inevitable: go to India and tell your parents you want to get married to an American girl. I don’t know how Prashant’s parents are going to react when he explains that the reason he can’t marry an Archana, a Priya, or a Sruthi is that he’s in love with a Cristina. South Indian-Brahmin parents don’t expect their sons to fall in love with American girls.
We aren’t the first Indian-American couple to stand in a terminal, crying; wondering how our relationship can absorb a heartbroken family. In Chicago, American guys with Indian girls and Indian guys with American girls circle Buckingham Fountain hand in hand, snap photos of each other on Navy Pier, and push raven-haired, fair-skinned babes down Michigan Avenue in chunky, plastic strollers. Sometimes parents bring up the rear: a father, newspaper tucked under his arm; a mother, white Reeboks shuffling below the fall of her sari.
How do these relationships begin? How do people from different cultures convince their families that being together isn’t just a good thing, but the right thing? Or, if unable to gain family acceptance—what keeps these relationships strong?
Over the phone in Fremont, California, Kjirsten Koka recalls how she met her husband Vikram when working in Silicon Valley as a software engineer. “There were a lot of Indians in my company. Vikram was very friendly. I was immediately comfortable with him. We both love to read science-fiction books: Star Wars and Star Trek. We have this nerd affinity,” she laughs. “We started spending more time together and fell in love.”
The desire to be an artist brought Manjiri Acharekar from Bombay to San Francisco to Chicago to pursue graphic design. She lives in Oak Park, Illinois with her husband Jason Smothers. Their apartment is a cornucopia of wooden elephants. On the wall, behind the sofa, rests a colorful oil painting by Manjiri. Where did she meet her future husband? “I first saw Jason in a club,” she giggles. He sits diagonally from her on a wicker rocker that resembles a giant spoon. “My friend thought he was looking at her.”
“She was disappointed when I came over and started talking to Manjiri,” Jason says with a smile. What attracted them to each other? He replies, “I always liked girls with dark hair and eyes.” Manjiri puts her hands on her hips. “And I’ve always been fascinated with Asian culture,” he adds playfully. His wife’s pretend frown transforms into a grin.
For both couples, falling in love and making the decision to be together was easy, but when it came time to inform their families about their relationships, challenges ensued.
Manjiri’s sister broke the news to their parents about the relationship with Jason. Her parents came to Chicago shortly after to visit Manjiri. “My mom immediately liked Jason. But my dad was skeptical. He wanted to know if Jason could provide me a good life. It took some time to convince him,” she says with a smile. “Jason was on his best behavior.” Jason’s parents were more open to the idea. “They were a little surprised, but warmed up to her quickly,” he says, about them meeting Manjiri.
In Kjirsten’s case, Vikram asked a family friend to inform his parents of their intention to marry. “Vikram’s mom was upset. Her brother had married a German and they’d divorced. She was worried it wouldn’t work between us,” Kjirsten says. Her voice softens, “She had all these dreams for Vikram. That he would marry a wonderful girl and live with them in India.” She pauses. “His father worried what people would say about the family. And asked Vikram how he could do this to him.”
Her last sentence reverberates through my head. On December 13th, three days after arriving at his parents home, my fiancé Prashant is asked by his mother what his plans are, concerning marriage. He tells her about me. First his mother, and then his father ask; how can you do this to us? There are tears and words of hurt. And for the next three weeks he will be asked this question every day. And every day he will gently remind them the girl he wants to marry is not a Christian, is a vegetarian, and has been participating in Indian culture, by choice, for over ten years. He offers my photo. It remains packed in his suitcase. They don’t want to see a face. Maybe they can change his mind.
Back in Chicago, I try not to take the news personally. But it hurts. Probably more than it should because I don’t want mere approval—I want parents. Observing parents who love their children unconditionally is what initially interested me in Indian culture. Being born into a family with an attentive mother and a firm, loving father wasn’t my fate. When family assignments were being handed out, somehow, I ended up in the line for dysfunctional units. By the time I noticed the fine print it was too late: no refunds, no exchanges. My dream to have normal, loving parents depends on my future in-laws’ willingness to involve me in the family traditions and rituals that define their lives.
From ten-thousand miles away, Prashant’s voice is hoarse, words barely audible; to watch his parents suffer breaks his heart. I think of his parents, of their confusion with his decision; their fear of being labeled a family with a problem, a family with shame. Stereotypes I’ve heard over the years bounce across my mind: An American woman will divorce you if you don’t hold the door open for her. An American woman will spend all your money on fancy clothes and fancy fingernails. I imagine Prashant’s parents’ friends and relatives laughing, pointing, standing authoritatively; how could you let something like this happen in your family? I imagine his mom sitting alone, tears streaming down the same rounded cheeks she passed on to her son. My heart sinks. How can her pain be avoided? Abandoning our relationship will not prevent more broken hearts. People could say we should’ve known better than to get involved; an Indian with an American. To that voice I say, life is not about how we try and design it, but how we choose to react to what it gives us.
Why do children who love their parents go against their wishes? Parents send their children to America for the opportunity to become pathfinders. To extend and improve our quality of life, these young minds must believe in the power of possibility; that it’s possible the right combinations of mathematics or chemistry will yield faster data networks or more efficient disease treatments. Believing in possibility becomes a way of life. This acceptance of diversity is channeled into the building blocks of loving unions.
Vikram and Kjirsten decided to give his parents time to adjust to the idea of them marrying. During that period an Indian friend of Kjirsten’s, who she had met in college, invited Kjirsten to travel to India with her. “It was my first time and I was really excited. Vikram didn’t go with us, but he thought it would be a good opportunity for me to meet his mom.” A visit to Vikram’s home in Hyderabad was arranged. “I borrowed a sari from a friend and really tried to show I respected their culture and would embrace it to the fullest extent possible. It was a short visit and we didn’t say much, but it was pleasant.”
After Manjiri’s parents left Chicago her mother and sister started planning for a Bombay wedding. “They were excited about the wedding and convinced me that it should be in India. It happened a bit faster than expected. Things happen when they need too.” She disappears into the kitchen and returns with a cup of steaming chai. Her steps are light. When she exhales, a slow, steady sigh escapes from her lips. To be that content, I think, would be the greatest of all satisfactions.
By May, the dialogue between Prashant and his mother hasn’t changed; she tells him what he’s doing is wrong, and he tells her that it will be alright. She tells him that they cannot adjust, and he says they can. He tells her we want to come to India and get married; she says it’s not possible.
Outside in Chicago, thick, gray clouds hang over the trees. In a few weeks, Memorial Day will announce summer’s arrival. But like the Chicago winter, his mother’s uneasiness refuses to recede.
Kjirsten returned to America with renewed hope. She and Vikram continued to take their lives one day at a time, until a friend who’d just come from Hyderabad alerted them that Vikram’s mother was very ill. Vikram immediately flew home to care for her. Kjirsten reflects, “She’d experienced kidney failure and was stubborn about starting dialysis, but she eventually gave in. But the huge thing that happened was she consented to the marriage and also got Vikram’s father to agree. They asked us to come to India in December and get married.” But four weeks after Vikram returned to California, his mother passed away from heart failure. “It was devastating. Vikram had been very close to his mom and loved her dearly.” They observed a year long grieving period and then traveled to India for their marriage.
This year they celebrate fifteen years of marriage. They have two children, twelve-year-old Savithri, named after Vikram’s mother, and Rohan, age ten. “We were a catalyst for change in Vikram’s family. Three of his cousins are married to Americans.” How does she view her role as an Indian wife? “It sets me apart from people I grew up with, who stayed within their own culture for marriage and family. We literally live in two worlds. We live in the Christian world, and we also live in the Indian world. My friends joke that sometimes I am more Indian then them. I can cook a lot of South Indian food and that’s what I prefer to make. I’ve bridged the gap between Indian and American culture and I get a lot of enjoyment out of seeing the parallels between the two.”
On February 6, 2009, Manjiri and Jason were married on Madh Island, Mumbai. Their ceremony took place under a shelter made of oyster shells. Manjiri’s sister and brother-in-law stood in for Jason’s parents and performed the rituals. “My family organized and planned the whole thing very well prior to our arrival,” Manjiri says. “We have yet to go on our honeymoon but after the wedding we visited Goa as a family.” What advice do they have for anyone thinking about getting involved in an interracial relationship? Jason turns toward Manjiri, focuses on her soft, brown eyes, “Do what you need to do. Things work out. In the end … it’s all about love.”
Here in the Midwest, afternoons are filled with a cacophony of cicadas. Flakes of snow are only a few months away, as is the marriage season in India. And though tears of concern still flow from Prashant’s mother, his brother recognizes our determination to be together; he requests we come to India and be married. When I share the news with my Indian friends they are delighted. They tell me not to worry; parents are always strong-willed. Smile. Everything will be okay.
The possibility that one day I will have a loving relationship with Prashant’s parents keeps my spirit positive. That they would come to know the person I am; understand that my desire to be their daughter is genuine; not a fad, or a fascination, but a lifestyle choice; one that completes me.
Indian parents worry their children will lose their heritage if they marry Americans. This fear is certainly warranted. America promotes the individual by discouraging dependence on family. I was pushed from an early age to be self-sufficient; that whatever I need I had to obtain myself. (including a college education). I remain detached from my family because, ultimately, I am alone.
Today, my real family is composed of Indian friends I’ve made over the past decade who’ve invited me into their culture. I choose to be with Prashant so that my children will have the same life-long connectivity to family, education, and God, modeled by his parents. Each time he asks if I need change for the train, or encourages me to work on my writing, I feel his parents’ kindness continuing through his actions.
To all ammas and nannas, aais and babas, mommys and pappas—don’t lose heart. Your son or daughter infuses family, loyalty, and purpose into the lives of Americans whose good intentions are (sometimes) in need of roadmaps. Feel assured that the convictions you hold dearest are being preserved, passed down through blended families, to be incorporated into tomorrow.
No matter how many times I ask Prashant to drink root-beer and eat cinnamon rolls, he whines: it tastes like Amrutanjan, and cinnamon is only for biryani. He’s Diwali fireworks, paper boats on monsoon puddles, and crisp uniforms in blue and white. I’m tangled strands of Christmas lights, plastic kites in April skies, and purple tennis shoes with Velcro closures.
We wouldn’t want it any other way.
Cristina Chopalli, of Chicago, Illinois is currently at work on a collection of fiction and essays about her experiences within Indian culture. She is the organizer of Pravasi: Chicago’s premiere Indian social club. Her blog can be found at http://www.cristinachopalli.com.
This article first appeared in the September 2009 issue of the magazine.