What The Big Sick Gets Right About Intercultural Relationships

Until I saw The Big Sick, a romantic comedy out this Friday, My Big Fat Greek Wedding was the only film that came close to encapsulating my family's intercultural, intercontinental situation. As the daughter of a Greek man and an American woman, watching My Big Fat Greek Wedding was a cathartic experience. The film depicted the divide my own family had been grappling with since before I was born with tenderness, humor, and — rarest of all in real life — a happy ending.
After giving his daughter, Toula (Nia Vardalos), a ridiculously hard time for dating the American with “the big long hairs on top of his head,” Gus Portokalos (Michael Constantine) finally accepts Ian Miller (John Corbett) into his family during his wedding speech. Cue the circle dancing.
For the rest of my life, people would ask me, “So, your family is just like My Big Fat Greek Wedding?”
In some ways, yes, we are. As with the Portokalos clan, about two thirds of my extended family is named Nick or Nicky. Like Toula's parents, my father’s Greek-Cypriot parents weren’t thrilled that their son was dating an American woman. At my parents' wedding, the Greeks put their gripes aside and danced the kalamatiano with Americans.
But my parents’ issues breaching the cultural divide didn’t conclude with a cute wedding speech, as Toula and Ian’s did in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
I usually tell those people, who ask if my family is just like the Portokaloses, “Well — we’re less funny.”
My Big Fat Greek Wedding touches upon the battle between independence and tradition that mires many first-generation children in guilt, but ends before Toula faces any real repercussions for her choice. By marrying Ian, Toula vanquishes her parents’ prejudice, triumphs over the tyranny of family, and gets to keep everyone she loves in her life.
Spoiler: That didn’t happen for my parents. For years, my mother hovered around the periphery of my dad’s big fat Greek family; she befriended his third cousins, not his sisters. Then, since my sister and I were only half-Greek, we were only half-accepted. After I’d muster up a clumsy sentence in my father’s native language, family members would sigh and say it was a shame my mother couldn’t teach me Greek. If they weren’t old and senile enough to say that outright, I saw it plainly in their pitiful glances.

Kumail is torn between two types of love: Love of an individual, and love of everything you know up until that point.

That’s what brings me to the glory that is The Big Sick, the first movie I've since My Big Fat Greek Wedding to tackle the swirling mass of love and guilt and transgression that is dating outside of your culture.
Like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, The Big Sick is full of big, hearty laughs. And like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, it features an individual defying his family’s wishes for the sake of a relationship.
For a while, Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) attempts to satisfy both Emily (Zoe Kazan), the woman he loves, and his traditional Pakistani family. He goes to wine bars and comedy clubs with Emily, but every Sunday, meets a new potential match at his parents' house.
Kumail is torn between two types of love: Love of an individual, and love of everything you know up until that point. Love of tradition, comfort, and family. If he chooses Emily, Kumail effectively will sail away from his home — a home which, judging by his brother’s very happy arranged marriage, is just as capable of producing love as a Western marriage is.
In the States, we are indoctrinated into romantic love through the school of Romeo and Juliet. We are taught that Romeo and Juliet were correct to place passion over familial obligation. The Big Sick isn’t as convinced.
The film never purports that one love is more important than the other. But since Kumail refuses to choose one, he ends up with neither. Once both parties discover his duplicitousness, Emily breaks up with him, his parents disown him, and he sulks in solitude.
Given the magnitude of his problem, Kumail spends much of the movie mired in indecision. He reaches clarity in an unlikely place: In a Chicago hospital with Emily’s parents, after she’d fallen into a coma. It turns out that his very white ex-girlfriend is also the product of an inter-cultural marriage, of sorts. As Beth (Holly Hunter) explains, her gentle, awkward, New Yorker husband didn’t fit in with her family of tough North Carolina army vets.
Kumail asks how Beth and Terry (Ray Romano) surmounted the baggage of their backgrounds. Beth replies, in what might be the most accurate summation of my family life until this point, “Lots of awkward dinners.”
I know about those awkward dinners. Some, I lived through — dinners when the sound of forks and knives clattering in the Mediterranean heat was louder than conversation. Others, I didn't — dinners my mother cooked in the early '90s, which my grandparents abstained from eating.
Now that my family doesn’t have those awkward dinners anymore, I’m grateful for them. With time and food and effort, the Greek and American sides of my family have fused together at last.
Lately, when my family gets together over the dinner table in Cyprus, my Greek aunts ask my mom for advice for their trip to Disney World. My sister and I speak in Greek with my grandma, a language we finally learned in college. My dad offers my cousins a place to stay, should they decide to study in the States like he did. I’m not just Greek, and I’m not just American. I’m the product of an ongoing negotiation between national borders and ways of life — and I’m happy to have been part of the conversation.
The Big Sick bursts our collective, beloved myth that love conquers all, that a romantic relationship can (and should!) topple generations of tradition and deep-set family values. At the end of the movie, Kumail's parents are still hurt by his decision, unlike Toula's parents, who accept her wholeheartedly. Instead, The Big Sick subscribes to the more accurate paradigm that love erodes all.
Odds are, it'll take many dinners of stilted conversation and muffled laughter with Kumail's parents before Emily stops being a symbol of difference to them, and starts being an individual. Yet what might result from those awkward hours a breakthrough in empathy and understanding neither side though they were capable of.
It’s worth it. I would know. While my family might not be as funny as My Big Fat Greek Wedding, we’re as real as The Big Sick.
The Big Sick comes to theaters on June 23, 2017.
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