At the age of 19, my mother fastened a red bindi in the middle of her forehead, wrapped herself in a silk sari, and walked seven times around a sacred fire in Karamsad, India with a 26-year-old man she hardly knew.
At 19, I was a single Indian American college sophomore who certainly did not have any plans to have an arranged marriage like my parents. And a relationship was not really an option, because my parents did not allow me to date. For years, they had one strict rule: I was to focus on school until I graduated from college. Meanwhile, most of my friends were in committed relationships and some were even engaged to their high school sweethearts. I resented the rule, and felt that they were limiting me from dating because they did not have any experience themselves.
Arranged marriages have been a common practice in India — and many other cultures — for centuries, but my parents never pressured me into one. The summer after I received my college degree, my mother casually told me I was allowed to date. My parents understand that since I was raised and brought up in a different culture, it may be hard for me to not marry for love. They told me that race or religion did not matter, as long as the man I dated respected me.
But even with this freedom, I have found it challenging to navigate the scene. I am now 23 and feel years behind my friends who started in high school, and I lack a dating model from my parents that resembles my own.
Intergenerational disagreements and gaps about relationships between second-generation young adults and their immigrant parents are common, according to a recent study in Marriage & Family Review authored by Olena Nesteruk and Alexandra Gramescu, from the Family and Child Studies Department at Montclair State University.
“Because immigrant parents did not experience growing up in the U.S., participants believe that their parents are not familiar with issues relevant to American teenagers,” the authors conclude in a study of 35 young adults who were interviewed about their experiences with mate selection and the influence their immigrant parents had on their dating preferences.
Like me, many young adults from immigrant families felt as though their parents were strict when it came to curfews and enforcing restrictions on when the appropriate age to date would be.
A young Peruvian woman told Nesteruk and Gramescu that when she would ask her parents what age she would be able to date, they replied, “Never, till you finish college. It’s always education first, and boys last.” With time, though, her parents’ attitude relaxed: “But now they have become more Americanized and the rules have changed a lot! My younger sister is allowed to date.”
The study also highlighted the issue of immigrant parents who resisted interracial or religious relationships. “It’s not ok for me to marry outside of my religion—I have to marry a Muslim. My parents would prefer someone Arabic because the culture is the same,” a Yemeni female participant said.
In conversations and a survey with young San Gabriel Valley residents with immigrant parents, I also heard many youth say that they were up against stiff parental restrictions on dating, uncomfortable conversations, and resistance to marrying outside of their racial or ethnic group.
George Molina, 17, told me that he dated “a couple of times,” but said his parents felt he was too young and preferred that he focus on his education. A female respondent to the survey wrote that her parents had rejected her choice of partners because they were not of her ethnic group. She said that despite the fact that she is in a relationship with a Caucasian male, her parents have been trying to fix her up with other partners, particularly from the same race.
“My parents tried to fix me up with boys they like when I was at my 20s and wouldn’t give any of the boys I picked a chance. They automatically assumed they were all bad,” she wrote. “Growing up, this kind of mentality is what I saw in most of traditional Asian parents around me.”
As much as I wanted to talk with my parents about relationships, it did not not happen until recently. When I was young, my parents did not really have the “birds and bees” talk with me, nor did we even talk about “crushes”. For many years, I struggled to talk to my parents about issues I wanted to discuss, mainly because I wasn’t sure if it was the right time, or was too embarrassed to bring up the issues with them. I’d assume they felt the same way, too - because they never experienced what many young adults face when dating.
My parents, whose families arranged their match, only had two hours alone together before getting married, just a few weeks before their wedding ceremony. Rather than a date, it was more of an awkward two-hour chat about each others’ likes, dislikes, and career goals. “It felt like a nerve-wracking interview,” my mother recently told me. “But it was probably the most important interview of my entire life.” They have been happily married for 26 years, though they have had their share of difficulties.
Recently I decided to start introducing guys to my parents. I was tired of hiding relationships from my parents, and felt relieved that they were okay with me dating. Getting comfortable talking about it, however, has meant adjustments on both sides. I was very nervous introducing one guy I met to my parents, but they were receptive and even let us spend a little time alone together. I did overhear them talking about whether it was “serious,” and realized that dating for them meant getting ready for marriage. For me, it was more of a dating journey and getting to know someone else. Nothing serious.
Through this new experience of discussing relationships with them, I feel much more connected with my parents. In college, I just could not understand why anyone would marry someone without falling in love first. But as I’ve seen their love grow over the years, I have had a deeper appreciation for their arranged marriage. While I do not think it is for me, I no longer think it is necessarily inferior to a love marriage. And I now realize that my parents were trying to protect their first-born female daughter from getting her heart broken. I would not do it to my daughter, but for that, I appreciate and respect them.