I had a lot of friends of Indian descent when I lived back home in the Chicago suburbs. They are the reason I can pronounce the word “Hindi” correctly, have seen the Bollywood version of “When Harry Met Sally” and know that I love gulab jamun. As much as I grew to love Indian culture, there was one way in which I could never relate to some of my friends: I was free to date whomever I chose.
One of my Hindu friends couldn’t even have her platonic Muslim friend over to her house, let alone date someone of a different faith background. And another friend of mine kept his over-two-year-long relationship with his Catholic girlfriend a secret from his parents. I certainly had other Indian friends who were able to date freely, but it seemed grossly unjust to me for those who could not.
Last Thursday night, I attended a forum hosted by the South Asian Student Association, or SASA, entitled “Desi Dating Dilemma.” Saaniya Bedi from St. Louis University came to Memorial Union to present her ongoing study on dating practices in South Asian cultures. Bedi has had 40 participants in her study so far and plans to update her results as the study gains more data. So far, 65 percent of the people interviewed have kept a relationship secret from their parents.
Bedi had some interesting things to say about the special nature of the relationships between mother and son, and daughter and father. These opposite-gender parent relationships had a higher impact on the child’s dating experiences than those with the parent of the same gender. Psychologist Sigmund Freud would probably love to explain that one, but I think I’ll wait to see what the rest of Bedi’s study shows. Overall, the study found that children who keep dating secrets from their parents have lower levels of parental support than those who are honest. Bedi was hesitant to assign causal relationships to these findings in her study. For now, she will take the results as simple data points and learn more as the study grows.
Bedi’s attitude toward the parents discussed in the study was understanding. “India is changing, but our parents here don’t see that,” she said.
Holding to the customs with which they grew up is the only tie a lot of Indian parents in America have to their country of origin.
The most interesting part of the forum for me was the open discussion after Bedi’s presentation when MU students got up to share their experiences with dating — secret and otherwise. Dipika Chadhuri spoke about her parent’s reception of her boyfriend, who is African-American. She said she knows her parents would prefer her to be dating someone from her cultural and religious background, but “they’re pretty accepting.” Chadhuri also commented on the surprised reactions she receives when introducing people she knows to her boyfriend for the first time.
“People usually assume you’re dating someone within your same race,” she said.
One student shared that she had been in a secret relationship for almost three years and has no plans to tell her parents anytime soon. Another student summed up his dating experiences by saying that he continuously lied to his parents, which he hates, but feels that he has no choice. Others told stories about the double standard that exists for men and women in their families, the sibling support that a few rely on, and the close-knit nature of many South Asian extended families that makes dating someone your family doesn’t approve of that much more difficult.
“No one’s really ever good enough until your mom picks him out, you know?” Deepika Parmar said.
Parmar is dating a man who shares her faith and is from the same state in India, and her parents can’t stand him. Her boyfriend is from a different caste. Parmar described the caste system, which is legally abolished, as still very much socially present.
“They would love it if I let them pick,” Parmar said of her family’s attitude about the man she will eventually marry.
The discussion was as widely varied as the experiences in the room. One audience member even asked if anyone else received proposals from men they barely knew, and a few female students responded understandingly, telling stories of their mothers taking them over to someone they simply had to meet at a family wedding.
I really enjoyed listening to the experiences of those in the forum. Through the kind explanations from some students of why they thought their parents imposed the rules they did, I came away feeling more understanding of the perspectives of some of my friends’ parents, who I previously had thought merely old-fashioned and overly protective. I also came away grateful for my own parents, who have given me far fewer rules to wade through in this arena than some of my friends.
Have any of you ever kept a relationship secret from your family for cultural reasons? My guess is that this isn’t an exclusively South Asian phenomenon, though it is certainly prevalent in that cultural sphere. We invite you to share your thoughts.