Growing up I never had an idea of the type of man I wanted to be with. In all honesty, my teenage self used to dream about being a single mother of an adopted daughter (I'm weird like that). So I never really thought about being in a relationship, let alone the race of the guy. But I also knew the expectation of my family: find a nice, successful Punjabi boy, preferably a doctor. But I never thought this was set in stone. So I went on with my dating life, thinking once there was somebody good enough to introduce to my family, it would be fine.
My family has always supported me — and I know they always will — but I did question that faith when I introduced my very French boyfriend to my very Punjabi parents. The two cultures could not be anymore different if they tried. The French like cheese and baguettes; my parents wouldn't even know what a baguette is, and the only cheese they know is paneer.
The added twist in my intercontinental love story is the fact that my family and I are naturalised Australians — a fact my parents don't exactly acknowledge the way they should in my opinion. They are Indians who live in Australia. That is their identity, which I wholeheartedly understand since they were 40 years old when they moved. I, on the other hand, consider myself Australian. That is where my home, my childhood, my friends, and my family are.
Most parents and children will face a generation gap and its challenges, but immigrant families also have to deal with the cultural gap, a gap that really highlights the difference in upbringing and personal as well as family expectations. My parents grew up in rural India, surrounded by a massive extended family where everyone was on the same page. But then they decided to raise their own children in a major global city on the other side of the planet, exposing them to a variety of cultures. I have the utmost respect for my parents and the amazing life they have built for themselves from scratch, but in midst of building that life they may have overlooked how their children moved away from the values they hold so dearly.
When I met my very French boyfriend, I didn't think, 'Oh no but he's not a successful Punjabi doctor,' nor did I specifically look for the exact opposite just to spite my folks. We met, and it was natural and easy, so I didn't question anything. But after 6 months of dating, there was a voice in my head nagging me to tell my family. I told my mum first. I was so nervous. The conversation started like, 'Hey mum I've met someone.’ She said, ‘Oh ok. Is he Indian?' as if she already knew, typical mother style. To my surprise, my sweet mother took it very well. My father, on the other hand, did not. Lots of things were said followed by a very long silence in our relationship.
That period challenged all my beliefs about my family. I was angry and resentful. But I also felt at fault — like it had been my sole responsibility to understand my parents and their boundaries, and that I should not have crossed them. I had so many questions. Namely: we're all humans at the end of the day, so why was it such a big deal? And why did my intelligent and deeply empathetic father feel so disheartened by my choice?
I couldn't tell you for sure, but I have my theories. Over the years, my parents have become more nostalgic about India and their past lives there. My mum constantly tells stories of her youth and her family home, and my dad is more engrossed in Indian current affairs. There is also the dark truth about the discrimination and racism they have faced by Anglo Australians. So, the white man — doesn't matter what kind of white — is kind of an enemy. Lastly, they want to keep their heritage alive and be accepted for who they are, not consumed by another culture.
But is it fair of parents to expect their children to carry their prejudices and their anger?
The other hurdle was balancing the family expectations with my relationship. Insofar, I have been lucky that my partner has been kind and patient, even though he struggles to understand some of the conflict. Even I don't have an easy explanation. How do you explain or justify that even after living in Sydney for over 20 years that your parents are actually stuck in 1980s India?
Once the shock of the reveal was over, my very Punjabi parents did meet my very French boyfriend. I have never been more on edge. But the dinner was cordial, and everyone was on their best behaviour. My dad even had a whisky with my boyfriend (that's pretty much a right of passage for Punjabis). I felt such a sense of relief after that meeting. The worst was over, and nobody was killed. So there was a happy ending to this tale, but I still at times feel confused as to why did we have to go through all that?
I can't say that my family is a special case. Majority of the families I know from the Indian sub-continent — and I'm sure many other ethnicities — have also faced similar challenges. I guess my struggle to fully understand my parents is the fact that it was their choice to move to Australia. They were not forced out of their country; they were not fleeing. It almost feels like they wanted to go to Australia, but they didn't want to leave India, so they recreated their culture in the same way in their adopted country of choice.
I feel privileged to have grown up in 2 different cultures and having that unique perspective. But I can't help but feel a certain stubbornness in my parents to accept the consequences of their own choices. I am an advocate for culture preservation. And I think the diversity of cultures I have been exposed to has been a great character-building exercise. But I also believe culture is an evolving and ever-changing idea, more so than ever in the post globalisation age. So why is it that some of us hold on so tightly to the teachings of a generation past? Why is it so difficult for some of us to open our minds and hearts to change?
I am (slowly) accepting that it is my responsibility to point out to my folks their blind spots and gently guide them through a scary new age, no matter how difficult or annoying it may be, but I guess that's called growth and the best we can all do is live our truth.