Marrying into a different culture – The clash of East and West

Image courtesy of www.shutterstock.com

Image courtesy of www.shutterstock.com


My husband’s decision to marry a ghori, or “white girl”, wasn’t a cause for celebration among his relatives. I recall how the seriousness of the situation hit me like a physical blow when he explained our relationship could cost him his family.

The eldest son in a Pakistani household, custom and family honour dictated his responsibilities and choices. Many Asians of his parents’ generation saw Western women as disrespectful, slutty and irresponsible. Growing up as a British immigrant, it hadn’t crossed his mind that one day culture and family would force him to make a difficult choice.

Our relationship unfolded in a raw and reeling, post 9/11 world. Following the 2005 London bombings, Muslims were regarded with suspicion. Anyone matching the Identikit of brown skin and a backpack was scrutinised warily. Paranoia bloomed and it felt like social attitudes to race and culture had abruptly regressed to “Them and Us”. Although we knew the risks involved for K, I had no idea how my parents would react.

Not for us the heady, early-relationship delirium of getting to know one another – we had to be sure from the start, and the pressure was immense. We asked ourselves questions other couples need never consider. Could we cope with being vilified by one another’s cultures, or our own? Would the differences be too great to overcome? Society seemed to think so. How would we handle society? It would make some peoples skin crawl just to see us holding hands. How would our children be treated? In lieu of answers, we went with instinct. We were stubbornly optimistic – in the face of hostility and scepticism, a little obtuseness was no bad thing.

So, we had talked it through and decided to continue – now all that was left was to break the news to our families: the final step that would make it a reality and irrevocably change the course of our lives. It was time to face the judgement of society.

Despite my ambivalence at the suggestion, K insisted on phoning my father and asking his permission to marry me. He figured it was Western custom, “It’s how it’s done, right?” – I thought it unnecessary. I wasn’t even on speaking terms with my father at the time, and would have married with or without his blessing, but K was adamant – he was still my father and deserved the respect that incurred.

I don’t remember my mother’s reaction to our news. I’m sure she expressed happiness; it just wasn’t the excitable, infectious, high-pitched kind. Neither of my parents questioned my decision, or asked if I was aware of the difficulties that lay ahead. There was no pre-nuptial passing on of parental advice, or enthusiastic discussion of wedding arrangements. All the usual elements of an engagement were absent. Mine is the kind of family that pointedly ignores the elephant in the room. With no-one admitting to a problem, it was impossible to address it. An invisible gulf lay between us, no doubt filled with the questions they couldn’t bring themselves to ask. My siblings also kept their distance; once married it was as though I ceased to exist. Ultimately, even gaining two nieces and a nephew didn’t penetrate their detachment. By the time I moved to Canada, my eldest was five. Of my three sisters, one never met my children, and the remaining two saw them for the first time when I arranged a farewell meal.

In contrast to this inertia, K’s family were predictably more voluble. Having disgraced them in the worst way imaginable and denied them a marriage they approved of, the sinful boy had succumbed to the temptations of the West. Torrents of angry Punjabi rained down. Passionate condemnation gave way to absolute disapproval, threats and finally, the silence of rejection. The one thing that stood in my favour was the fact that I was a muslim, but this was still eclipsed by the colour of my skin. The message delivered  was indisputably clear: consider yourself disowned.

 

36 Comments

  1. That is sad. I hope that while you are here in Canada, the two of you and your kids will be welcomed in. Family can be mean and sometimes there is nothing you can do about it but just go on and hopefully one day they will accept you in, if not for you but for the grandchildren.

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    • I always was an optimist Catherine :-) Can optimism overcome deep-seated prejudice?

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      • If anything, it will give you better coping skills.

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  2. Oh this is so sad…
    As I read your story it brought tears to my eyes.
    From memory (reading your previous posts) are you on speaking terms with his family now?

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    • It seems I’m destined to be a global orphan! No family will have me! Seriously though, thank you for such a touching response. I’ll get around to posting more about my cultural experiences soon. As with most areas of my life, it’s a bit of a convoluted tale!

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      • You have each other. They will miss out on the most wonderful and joyous experience of grandchildren.

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        • The choices people make, eh! Still, the upside is that it makes expat life easier…

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  3. I’m in an interracial relationship and I don’t know how I would feel if his parents disowned him for being with me. I’m interested to see more posts on your experiences on this topic and the status of the relationship now. Thanks for sharing.

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    • Thanks for commenting! I’m glad you have a more tolerant relationship with your partners parents. I know you stay tuned in here so expect to see some more posts soon :-)

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  4. I can relate to your challenging experience marrying from two different cultures. African/Arab families are just as wary of welcoming “foreigners” into their midst. Also, depends on their level of education and wordly experience. But even with highly educated much travelled families there is still resistance. Sometimes, even when grandchildren come along…even if you blend and accept their culture..change religions. But as in the above comment I think it results in better coping skills, a tough skin…probably makes a marriage stronger becasue of all the odds. Thanks for sharing your story and hope that one day his parents realize how much they have missed. Maybe even a large Asian reunion?

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    • Thanks Zvezdana, I think the main thing I learned was not to lose sight of your identity and try to become who people want you to be. If they can’t accept you for who you are, it’s their problem. It’s a lesson I needed to learn.

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  5. How incredibly sad, Aisha. Times supposedly heals all wounds, but honestly I’m not sure it overcomes everything. Take solace in knowing that you both have the opportunity to demonstrate a better, kinder, more loving way. Be the best couple, best parents, best grandparents that you know how to be. It is a gift your children will appreciate in the years to come.

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    • It’s true Linda, we’ve had fantastic teachers in “How NOT to be”! I hope we’ve learned our lessons well.

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  6. Lovely post, Aisha – appreciate your strength in sharing your life, warts and all, which of itself reveals other strengths!

    I am surprised that, even though you were a Muslim (have you told that story previously of when you turned to that faith? May have missed it), they still disowned you.

    Anyway, they have a wise saying here in the land down under for dealing with situations like this. It goes something like this: f**k ‘em.

    Excuse my French.

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    • Thanks Russell, if we can’t share what we’ve learnt then there’s little chance for improvement. I haven’t yet shared my story of how I became a muslim – very difficult to talk about a personal religious experience without people switching off because they anticipate preachiness. Maybe I’ll get around to it. In answer to your point though, despite Islam being a religion without any clergy or heirarchy there still exists a level of pious snobbery among some people with the Saudi’s at the top of the pile. Having white skin means I’m right at the bottom. Sometimes I am admired for my supposed enthusiasm for the religion having made the choice to adopt it, and other times it is clear I can never be as muslim as someone who was born into the faith. Either way, there will always be detractors.

      Thanks for passing on your snippet of Aussie wisdom. I know it as “Plan B”… ;-)

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        • Human nature isn’t it? We all want to feel good, it’s just some achieve it by comparing themselves more favorably to others. People who follow a religion are no more immune to this than anyone else.

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  7. Aisha, are you aware of http://eslmarriage.com? They are a similar combination and I enjoy their blog too.

    I didn’t realize you and your husband were a cross-cultural marriage too. Seems there are a few of us on WordPress.

    Yes, it is difficult when families have difficulty accepting. We did not have that problem, but Intregrated Memoirs (another blog I follow) are experiencing difficulties.

    My husband is also a Muslim, although raised a Christian. You and he have something in common.

    Best wishes to you both from Team Oyeniyi.

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    • Glad that Robyn mentioned me as it helped me find your blog. Really interesting story, thanks for sharing. I’m so sorry to hear about the reaction from your in-laws. That must be very hard to deal with

      Nice to meet you! I’m an expat in Canada too :-)

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      • Hi, great to meet you too! Thanks for dropping in. Yes, the treatment from my in-laws was difficult to handle, but at least I know I gave it my best shot, and the situation isn’t due to any short-comings on my part.

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  8. hi nice post but i wouldnt choose an girl over my family

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  9. Same here. My husband is Dominican (Cadbury milk chocolate brown) and I am English and white. There was no universal delight from my family, although they sort of accept him now. His family were delighted as it is a status symbol to have a foreign and white wife. We could never live in England though as we encountered racism at every turn there. Here in the DR we have no issues at all.

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  10. I can really relate to your story. Both my parents faced the same issues.
    Both me and my wife have experienced some of prejudice from relatives, but once you have your own family you realize nothing else matters other than the love between you and your children.

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    • Absolutely agree with you. All the rest pales into insignificance. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

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  11. I was told not to “Bring a White European Woman” to my house by my mother. The same instructions, although refined, has been passed down to grand children today. But there are other reason centered around wealth and economic wrangling. I see nothing wrong with families taking this position.

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    • Why limit love when it’s the only thing that can overcome ignorance and division and bring people together?

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  12. This is such a touching post. I can relate to it 100%, except for myself it is my parents who are completely against my marriage to an American convert. My parents are Algerian and view culture being more important than religion or compatibility. I must admit that love does conquer all, however not having accepting parents does make my marriage a lot harder and it is tough to cope with. I am unable to enjoy my life of marriage or even the simple things. Sad to see how cultural parents put their kids dreams aside for their own. I just hope the next generation will be more tolerable.

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  13. Aisha
    Having lived in 11 different countries over the past 50 years I have seen examples of parental behaviours ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous – most of the latter being driven by religion/so called culture. My stays have included 5 Islamic countries and have to say over the past 25 years there has been a big increase in religious intolerance cum xenophobia from them, IE I believe the Islamic world is becoming more radical. I can remember the days when Paklistan was a fabulous place to live, I travelled all over the place and never ever had a problem. We also used to go weekend shopping in Kabul, a 6 hour drive away.
    Would like to hear your story of your conversion and also of course a few words about getting back onto horseback.
    Glad you are feeling better in yourself too. I read your pieces as often as possible on Expat Focus.

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    • Hi Arnold, thanks for your comment. It does seem like we’re all poised on a knife-edge sometimes, doesn’t it? I try to avoid people who identify themselves as religious, it seems to be doublespeak for regimental and intolerant. Anyone who feels the entirety of life can be summed up and covered by a set of very specific rules is missing something up top.
      It seems today people think religion is a blueprint for morality when, in fact, it’s just the jumping off point – the arrow pointing you in the right direction…

      Thanks for the ideas about what you’d like to hear more on from me – a post about my conversion has been in the works for some time, but always seems to get re-purposed into something else. I’ll nail it eventually. Nice to know you’re dipping into the column over on Expat Focus too.

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  14. Dear Aisha,

    Its a beautiful post and a courageous one too. I find it hard to document bitter realities of life, wondering that I may offend the ones, who have already abandoned me. So, I can not imagine, how much courage it must have taken for you to narrate your story. Even though impressed I was not planning on leaving a comment till I read a line you have written in response to a comment. “It seems I’m destined to be a global orphan! No family will have me!” I think a person who hasn’t missed being loved can never truly love another. Its mothers like you who raise children that this world can be proud of and your family is where you stand. Never mind the absent parents or scorning in laws, we all have them in common. What you doing is great, and I hope it brings you peace. (I am an Indian Punjabi, and if its a Punjabi family you miss belonging to… You will always find a welcome place in our homes and hearts.)

    Regards,
    Piya Singh

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    • Thanks Piya for such a melting comment – another layer to my armour for those times when loneliness holds me to ransom. And another reason to remember I did nothing wrong. Means more than you know…

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  15. I am in an interracial marriage and am so thankful I have not had the same experience. My mother in fact roundly told me off when I asked if it was an issue that I was dating a British Asian and family were overjoyed at my engagement. Similarly his mum and sisters welcomed me with open arms (DH’s father had passed away years before). DH’s father’s family were a little different and didn’t attend the wedding (the younger generation were in fact instructed not too). However this had come on the back of a lot of dysfunction that my DH and his nuclear family had sought to leave so I knew that I was the last straw/an easy excuse and that it had nothing to do with me as a person. We had over 500 extended family and friends attend our Indian wedding celebration so it was they that missed out. We also experienced very little racism in our day to day life as a couple in the UK (a few odd looks from older Asian ladies when we held hands). I think my parent’s experienced more cultural difference in their marriage (upper class English and working class Irish) then we ever have. Incidentally we also now live in Canada with our two Canadian children. :-)

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  16. Gosh this situation sounds exactly like my parents’ situation way back in the 60’s when they got married! It also sounds like the experience of many of my friends who married out of the south asian culture (into chinese, caucasian etc. etc) or into the south asian culture (depending on which side of the racial fence you want to look from). It’s in any traditional culture I think, to balk when the “racial and cultural mushing” (that is occurring due to the world getting so small and travel so easy)suddenly appears inside one’s family home. After all – what a disaster (sarcasm) – these things happen outside in the world, not in our private homes!! :S

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  17. Thank you for sharing your story. You seem very positive and it permeates in your words. Now I live in India, I came to understand a bit more about the cultures in this part of the world. It is very different from what I am familiar with. Your being happy in your life and in your relationship will do the justice. We are also an interracial couple and have had many bumps, but we’re a happy family. Your blog is very enticing!

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  18. This was a compelling piece of writing Aisha but such a sad story. I’m so sorry that your parents and family have treated you like this. How hard for you both and for your children. I find it unbelievable that in this supposedly modern world, people are still so unaccepting of cross-cultural marriages. Thank you for linking up to my marriage linky. Such a diverse set of stories emerging.

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