Culture-Schmulture, I’m Sitting With the Guys

Memphis, Tennessee

My husband and I met twenty six years ago this month on a humid Memphis night.  I was sixteen and scooped ice cream at the local Baskin Robbins to earn money for a car.  One July night at closing time, with Def Leppard blasting from my smuggled boom box, my co-worker and I perched ourselves on the counter, talking boys and eating fat scoops of rocky road.  The door opened and we jumped down and tossed our ice cream in the trash in case it was the owner’s son, who managed the place.  But, instead of the manager, in came the cutest Indian guy I had ever laid eyes on in my life.  He waltzed himself behind the counter and introduced himself as Dharmesh, a friend of the owner’s son.  He was there to get a stack of paper cups for his own Baskin Robbins across town, he explained.  But, his words faded away as I watched his lips form a lazy grin while he talked to me, and his gorgeous black eyes locked in on me.  I flipped my spiral-permed hair away from my face and held his eyes with mine. From that moment on, I was done.  I had no idea how much my world would change after meeting him.

He came to my door a few nights later for our first date, smelling of Drakkar Noir and looking a little Miami Vice in his white pants and loafers without socks. My father grunted at him.  My daddy was less than pleased that my date was 19 and a sophomore in college, and the fact that he was Indian snuffed hope of any warm welcome that night.

In Memphis, as well as in Kentucky where my parents were from, we all understood that white people stuck to our own kind, and this boy in our living room was far from white.  But, the problem with Indians was not really their skin color. The issue was that we “true Americans” all just knew those eastern people treated their women like second class citizens.  Indians and Arabs (pronounced Ay-rabs by some) were chauvinists and women were all servants. But when Dharmesh looked at me, my legs melted under me, and I knew that wasn’t who he was. So, before he came, I assured my mom all would be fine.

“Mom, like chill out. I’m totally not marrying any guy I meet now. Like, I’m only sixteen!

Ha. Famous last words.

Dad shook his hand stiffly, and pretended not to listen when Dharmesh assured him, “Sir, yes sir,” that  he would drive safely and have me home by curfew. I’m glad Dad didn’t own a gun, because I’m sure he would have been cleaning it in the living room that night.  Thank God, he had only his eyes for a threat, and aimed them menacingly at Dharmesh until the door shut behind us.

The thrill of that first date still makes my toes tingle.  On a bench under the starry sky on the banks of the Mississippi River, I stumbled and fell doe-eyed in love with my soul mate.  Little did I know, falling in love with this gentlemanly, brilliant, and handsome Indian guy meant a mind-spinning tumble into a rabbit hole of cultural confusion.

We dated for three and a half years, during which time, I was a dirty little secret kept from Indians in his community, and during which I kept him on the down-low from my all white friends at school. He never treated me as “less-than” the entire time we dated.  On the contrary, he put me on a pedestal, opening doors, buying me gifts, and graciously listening to my teenage chatter late into the nights when he should have been studying for college exams.  We were equals, and maybe I was even a little bit of a princess to him.

My parents warmed to him when they saw how sincere he was about taking care of their baby girl, and gave their blessing.  Things changed when we got engaged, though, and I was introduced to the real world of Indian culture.  I found out that the roles of men and women really are drastically different than in western culture, and the little hairs on my neck bristled the more I experienced.

I was flabbergasted to find out women do all of the cooking, all day long, and when I saw men sitting and talking, being served glasses of water by only girls or women, I gritted my teeth. I never served my Dad! When I found out that men eat together first and women eat together last after serving the men, I almost puked. I felt like channeling Gloria Steinem to the women to incite rebellion, but quickly learned, thanks to Dharmesh putting me in a figurative headlock to hold me back, that this was their culture not mine, and I had no right to judge.

The problems came when I was expected to follow these customs, and I just couldn’t do it.  As newlyweds, Dharmesh and I argued.

“Why can’t you stand up for me with your family?”

“Because it’s not my place to change them.”

“But, it’s not fair for me to have to sit without you at these functions.  You’re the reason I’m there.”

“It’s not about fair, honey. It’s culture.”

Culture-schmulture…I hated every minute of it.

Over the next two decades, his family became not-so-recent-immigrants and some of these rules relaxed.  Dharmesh did stand up for me to sit and eat with him after he saw how isolating it was for me.  And I relaxed a lot, as I became a mother and felt like more a part of the family. I know that women in his community are not second class citizens, and many work hard to preserve their family workings.  I think of the American housewife in the 1950s in much the same vain.  The women took care of the home and the kids and that was that.  Some were happy with it, some not so much.  The Women’s Liberation Movement changed all of that, and there have been good and bad changes in American society as a result.  Who am I to change another culture’s way of life?  My husband is from that culture, but allows me to be who I am with him.

My spiral-permed hair has morphed to a mom-bob, and his jet black hair is more salt than pepper now.  But, whether we are chatting in same-sex groups across the room from each other at a family gathering, or holding hands in front of our kids, I know where I stand with him, by his side at the bottom of the rabbit hole.

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10 thoughts on “Culture-Schmulture, I’m Sitting With the Guys

  1. Wow, how difficult it must have been for you. I should be thankful my Indian parents and their friends are so Americanized. My mom worked outside the home, parents always helped each other in the kitchen, the three of us in the kitchen till it was clean. I never had to serve my dad first, we always ate together. And in social functions, the women and men did split up but I thought it was just because they enjoyed freely chatting. It actually bothers me that my husband doesn’t help out in the kitchen when we are done eating because he grew up in a Hispanic household where his mom served everyone and there is much more of the woman in the kitchen serving her family lifestyle and she is treated in ways other than I would like.

  2. You and your husband make a beautiful couple. Congrats on enduring a happy marriage all these years. We had a tough time when we wanted to get married too but I think it was a good test of the strength of our relationship. If we made it through that, we can make it through anything. 🙂 we’ve been married 16 years and together on and off for almost 20, and yea that makes me feel old too!!

  3. What an excellent post. This really hits close to home for me. Before marriage, as the token Firangi, I often ate first with the men of the family and was shoo-shoo’ed out of the kitchen by the women. (In very traditional households, non-Brahmins are not allowed inside the kitchen). I felt uncomfortable to dine with the men because all their boys-only talk was so boring. I wanted my ladies’ gossip!
    After marriage and after children, my FIL often says that I should wake up at 5 am to cook for everyone – it is little sexism things like that which bother me. Luckily my hubby is not like that, he is very much a modern dad, but he has no role model of what that is because he had never seen that growing up in India.
    You are right – we can’t change them or the culture – many of which are generational issues too.

  4. I wonder if this is an Indian thing, a generational thing, a 1960s-1970s immigrant thing, or a Gujarati thing? As a 1990s era immigrant I am always startled by how mind-numbingly conservative the older generation of Indian immigrants is compared to mine.Even the older generation in India is less stuck in the past than this. I guess it’s because we aren’t hung up on being connected to the old country since travel, communication and groceries are all available more easily now. We are very attached to the culture but don’t suffer identity issues as much. I don’t try to change the older immigrants I meet since their behavior doesn’t affect me or my life and I see it all as a bizarrely fascinating museum of a bygone era. I can see though that if I was married into this culture, I would feel suffocated.

  5. Loved your blog post. I live in Memphis…married an Indian and have three nearly grown kids. We have a lot in common. Would love to hear from you!

    • Thanks! It’s good to hear from a fellow Memphian. Who knows, maybe our paths have crossed before…it’s not THAT big of a city. 🙂

  6. Great post! Love hearing this story. I am from NC but reside in India with my husband. It is NOT our place to change an entire culture and we couldn’t even if we tried. We have beautiful things from both cultures, the challenge is to find those things and apply them to our family of 5. I enjoyed hearing your story. Thanks for sharing.
    As far as the conservative Indians, I have grown to love them deeply. their respect for each other, especially between the younger generation and their elders, is a beautiful thing that we have lost in the west. I am blessed to raise m,y children in this culture where they are so loved and treated with mutual respect by a community of people.

    • I’m glad you liked the post. It’s great to hear from a fellow southerner that has found “beautiful things from both cultures.” And I agree that the way Indians care for the elders is a beautiful thing that we’ve lost here, and hope my kids follow the Indian side when we get old.
      Sounds like you’ve made it work in your family, too. Thanks for sharing!

  7. It certainly isn’t part of my family’s culture to be shunted to the kitchen and made to eat last! I know that that tradition is there in a number of families – to keep women ‘in their place’- but I don’t see any reason to give it the excuse of ‘culture’!

    It’s very generous and nice of you to be so understanding about it and adjust, and your husband definitely seems so very supportive!

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