Marriage, Between Cultures

12/8/11

To my student,

I’m glad you had a good time over Thanksgiving with your parents, yet I’m not surprised you have received a letter from your father. I don’t know the details of your father’s letter, but I do have a sense of what he may have written. Your parents love you and they are concerned for you.

I did not grow up in an Indian family, but I do have a sense of what it means. Hindu society, even in its modern form, is different from American society. In Hindu society the family is everything and it overshadows the importance of the individual. In American society this equation tends to be reversed; individuality and self reliance are paramount. In Hindu society a wedding is as much the marriage of two families as it is between the bride and groom. In America a wedding is primarily the marriage of two individuals. This is not true in every case, but it is a general rule. For better or for worse you have been born in a Hindu family, yet you have also grown up in America, so both elements are within you. I understand your predicament, caught between two worlds. This is something I regularly point out to parents who come to me for help when faced with Indo-American children.

There is no easy solution to your predicament, yet here is the advice I give to my own children. It may help you as well. Whether one is American, Chinese, white or black, it is hard to be married, so you want to give yourself every possibility of long term success. You really do want the blessings of your parents and other family members. As far as possible marry within your own community. The farther you marry outside your birth community the harder it will be to maintain your marriage in the long run. This advice applies across the board regardless of whether one is Hindu, Christian, Western, White, African American or whatever. This does not mean a mixed marriage cannot work, it just makes what is already hard, even more difficult.

But I am an American father, which means my children know that I have no particular expectations of interacting with their in-laws. Their new family is not necessarily going to become part of my family. They understand I will not demand they marry within a certain family, culture or racial group. I will give them my advice and guidance, but in general I am not going to put any conditions on who they marry. They also know that they alone will take full responsibility for whom they marry. This, however, is not generally the case in a Hindu family. As I mentioned, in a Hindu family, when two individuals marry, two families also become united. This is what your parents have in mind, and whether they have told you or not, it is implicit within Hindu Culture. Your new family is to become part of their family, which means they have an important stake in who you marry. It is only natural they want greater control. I also point out that because of this the Hindu family support structure is much greater than it is in general American society. This is a great asset, but it also means less freedom to choose who you marry. The American way affords more freedom, but it gives less support. The individual, therefore, takes greater responsibly. The Hindu way is indeed different than the American way.

Regardless of whether one follows American or Hindu culture there is always a ripple effect of your actions. Like waves fanning out on a pond, however you decide to marry will affect the lives of others, your children, yourself, your parents, other family members, and society in general. An unstable marriage makes the waters choppy for everyone. In Hindu society the effects are greater because the family unit is bigger and more tightly knit. But even in American society the effects are there. Marriage is a great responsibility.

Go ahead and date whoever you wish. I would feel no obligation to tell anyone, but when it comes to marriage consider very very carefully who you are, where you come from, who you are marrying, and where that other person comes from. Don’t be overly blinded by love. That you come from an Indian family is an inescapable reality. In fact it can be your greatest strength. I do not know what your father has written do you. I am sure it is filled with great emotion. But regardless, your father is speaking with all the love of any father. He is concerned for your welfare and the welfare of your greater family. That is the Hindu way. He is also speaking from the perspective of a large part of who you are. Yet the problem young people have, and particularly a young bride and groom in love, is that they cannot know who they are until they have had children. Children change everything! Even though you are born and raised in America, you will only know how Hindu and how Indian you still are after you have had children. I’m sorry to tell you this, but once you have children you will become more and more like your parents. Yes I feel you shuttering. The same applies to your spouse. If he is Jewish or Latino or African American it will magnify a hundred fold when there are children. Children not only add tremendous financial pressure to any marriage, they reach deep down inside of you and magnify who you are. It is almost scary what happens when children become part of the equation.

So please consider my words carefully, but take them as advice only. You are an adult. Your parents have equipped you with all the tools of education and good judgement. Always know that I will accept and support you however you choose to live your life. I am your friend.

The Priest


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