When I was 21, I felt my entire world narrowing towards a single point of focus: getting a boyfriend. The desire to be in a romantic relationship was overwhelming, especially because I had never dated before, due to my family’s expectation that I would have an arranged marriage to someone who shared our religion and culture.
Now, a decade into my relationship with a white Australian man, I’m beginning to realise that the cultural differences that defined the early stages of our relationships have actually gotten harder with more time, instead of easier, as I had expected.
Growing up as an Indian-Muslim Australian, the idea of romance was confusing. There was a strong expectation that I wouldn’t date, and remain chaste until I married a man of my family’s choosing. This clashed awkwardly with the other side of my culture — we watched Bollywood movies every weekend that rolled out the most over-the-top romantic tropes known to cinema, reinforcing the notion that no one was whole until they met their other half. I on the other hand was drawn to the western counterculture of the early noughties which I was coming of age in. I was obsessed with emo bands like Fall Out Boy, and my ideal man was one wearing skinny jeans, with a floppy fringe and, let’s face it, probably white skin.
I didn’t know any Indian guys who met these criteria, and my subconscious cultural shame, built on years of racism and exclusion by a predominantly white Australian culture — created a sense of distaste in me for Indian men. My ideal was a white boy, but I knew that actually being with one would destroy my family. If there was one thing I knew for sure, it was that being with anyone other than a fellow Indian-Muslim (and then too, only after marriage) would bring immense shame upon my family and likely result in me being estranged from them.
So when love did fall into my lap, it was unfortunate that it came in the form of a tall white guy, in skinny jeans with a floppy fringe. From the moment I first saw Chris, I was smitten.
Of course, whatever dreams I had of Chris whisking me off my feet were tempered by reality, which was that I still lived at home and my parents continued to police my social life when it came to guys.
It was a battle to move out on my own the following year, but I eventually did with reluctant blessings from my folks, who could see that this was inevitable. They had already accepted that I wouldn’t be in an arranged marriage, but I think they secretly hoped I would stay a spinster forever, or change my mind as I matured.
When my friendship with Chris developed into something more, I was torn — I didn’t want to disappoint my parents or shame my family, but I also didn’t want to miss out on love.
So I did what a lot of young Australians from diverse backgrounds do, and lied about him. For a year, we hid our relationship. That year was shocking for my mental health. I was wracked with guilt, filled with dread at the thought of my family’s reaction, and constantly in a state of anxiety. When I did eventually tell my parents, it was via email.
What followed were years of conflict. My folks wanted us to get married; the natural next step and the only way to validate our relationship in their culture. It was bad enough that I was with a white heathen, but to be living in sin was unforgivable.
We had a period of estrangement but eventually reconciled. Now — much to my past self’s surprise — we actually have a really strong relationship. It took seven years, but Chris is finally part of the family.
But while our cultural differences have been a source of tension for my family, they haven't been an issue for Chris or me. In the decade that we’ve been together, we've started our careers, lived in multiple countries, and introduced a cat, a dog and two horses to our little family.
As we move into our thirties and the next phase of our lives, the gap between our cultures is starting to show in ways that I hadn’t considered when I was 21 and flushed with first love.
We’re thinking of having children. I know we’ll be great parents, but for the first time I’m realising that my culture means a lot to me, and I’m not sure how much of it I’ll be able to pass it on to my children. I worry that they won’t be immersed in cultural events like I did, that they won't grow up eating Indian food and spending time with relatives and family friends. Given the differences in our cultures, the lifestyle Chris and I have is forged from our similarities, and therefore Indian culture doesn’t play a very present role in our lives. It’s always made more sense for us to focus on the things that unite us, so what engagement I do have with my Indian heritage is very much based around the time I spend with my family, which occurs often without Chris present.
This poses a challenge when it comes to our future kids — will their association with their Indian identity be restricted to times that they are away from their father? If not, how do we start the process of integrating Chris with Indian traditions now, when so much of it is based around a language and norms he doesn’t understand? How will the kids learn Hindi, when their father can’t speak it?
As the prospect of introducing children to our lives looms, I can’t help but think about how their cultural experiences will be different from that of both their parents. They won’t really be ‘Indian’ or ‘Australian’. As much as we'll instil in them that they are both, having grown up being challenged by racism and exclusion from both sides, I know that this won’t always protect them.
My way of managing the conflicts between my family and my partner’s identities has been to create a clear boundary around each one. But in doing so, I’ve made it harder to ever mix the two together.
Then there's the difference between Chris and my understanding of how to care for ageing parents. In Indian culture, your parents live with you when they’re elderly so you can care for them. I know Chris will support me with whatever needs to be done when the time comes for my folks, but our understanding of what that should look like is significantly different.
As I get older, I find myself wanting to connect with my Indian heritage more. These are things that Chris doesn’t and can’t really comprehend, and it’s clear to me that if I want to build a stronger connection to my Indian identity, I will have to find a way to make that fit with my day-to-day life with Chris, instead of trying to keep the two separate, which is what I have done for so long. My way of managing the conflicts between my family and my partner’s identities has been to create a clear boundary around each one. But in doing so, I’ve made it harder to ever mix the two together.
These are not insurmountable challenges. But they have gradually emerged over the years and are becoming more present.
When I was that starry-eyed 21-year-old falling in love with the boy at university, I naively thought that the only challenge of an interracial relationship was being accepted by our families. But now I’m realising that that first hurdle was perhaps the easiest to cross.
I wouldn’t change anything about our relationship. Chris is definitely my human, and we belong together. But our cultural differences have defined my adult life, and it’s becoming clear that they will continue to define how I navigate my future.