When I was a kid, I remember my parents telling me that it is harder to marry someone from outside of your culture. When he was a kid, Adi’s parents plainly told him he shouldn’t marry a woman who didn’t share his Indian heritage.
And yet we dated. I met Adi in undergrad. We were both transfer students from community colleges, and ended up in the same transfer student honor society and the same dormitory. Our first outing together was attending an ice-skating social the honor society had planned—but only Adi and I showed up to the rink. Adi had never skated before, and so I spent a couple hours trying to help him stay on his feet. He never really warmed up to ice skating, but over time we warmed up to each other.
Our dating relationship began post-college, and was always long-distance. (Though we both lived in the United States after undergrad, we never lived in the same state.) Our story covered a number of years and several attempts at dating. We had in common the fact that we hadn’t dated much—he because Western dating customs differ from traditional Indian practices like matchmaking, and me because, frankly, I find dating quite daunting.
As we learned more about each other, a natural cultural exchange unfolded. It was a lovely moment when Adi was comfortable enough to share a term of endearment in his first language, Malayalam. One of our few in-person dates involved each of us showing the other a film we liked. Adi’s film was in Malayalam with English subtitles, and it was a joy to hear him share why he loved the film so much. I also embarked on a trip to India during one of our breaks from dating, and this experience provided room for great conversation when we got back together. I had even ended up visiting Adi’s home state, Kerala, and seen the beautiful backwaters that were a part of his childhood. Though we didn’t take this trip together, the fact that I had visited India and been immersed, if briefly, in his cultural context created greater intimacy between us.
Stateside, I remember one of our dates involved watching the film Meet the Patels, a documentary about Indian-American Ravi Patel and his dating adventures. I wanted to watch it because at the beginning of the film Ravi makes the decision to break up with his American girlfriend and embarks on dating in a way that’s more amenable to his parents’ wishes. This film became a conversation starter about Adi’s own family’s feelings about his dating an American woman, a conversation we needed to have because Adi’s family (immediate and extended) was incredibly important to him. Watching this film gave me a context for better understanding his family’s hopes for his life, and also cultivated better understanding between us.
Our differing cultural contexts also occasionally created friction. There were times when Adi’s family asked him why he was dating a white woman, and predicted that I’d leave him. This pressure sometimes came out in frustration with me; Adi wondered where our relationship was going, because the process of dating felt a bit backwards to him. In India, it is more common to marry first, and to get to know your partner more deeply after marrying them. I would get frustrated because Adi seemed to want to take things too quickly, and I wanted to know him deeply before taking bigger steps, like deciding to move to where he was attending graduate school. We both wondered, at times, what it would be like to date someone from our own cultural contexts. These topics often made their way into our conversations, and we found there were no easy answers. But I found that the act of walking this unfamiliar terrain in our relationship together strengthened it.
I also quickly learned that my road to understanding more about Adi’s culture was going to be quite a bit longer than his. Though he grew up in India, I met him at an American college that also happened to be in my hometown. He had already done the work of learning about American culture and English, but I was lightyears away from understanding Malayalam. Thanks to uneven globalization, he knew more about Western dating than I did about relationships in his culture, so we dated in a way that was most familiar to me.
My relationship with Adi taught me that when it comes to dating a person from another culture, especially a culture you don’t know a lot about, it’s imperative to do your homework—to ask questions, to read, and most importantly, not to see your significant other as a representative of all people in his or her culture.
In her TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie relates an encounter with her first American roommate during her studies in the United States: “She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my ‘tribal music,’ and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey.”
Adichie concludes that her roommate’s reaction was the result of inexperience with Adichie’s culture: “My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.” This lack of information, Adichie goes on to relate, can lead to an incomplete vision of another human being: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
Though Adi and I did not experience struggling with a “single story” of his Indian heritage quite so dramatically as Adichie did with her roommate, I still remember the time my friend, upon meeting Adi, made a comment about having another Indian friend who also went to the same university Adi did, as if to suggest Adi might know him because they are both Indian. What my friend probably didn’t realize is that his comment inadvertently erased the beauty and complexity of Adi’s culture. Like the continent of Africa, where people can come from a variety of countries and speak a variety of languages, India is a country made up of various states and many different language groups.
Adi expressed his annoyance to me after this encounter. This led to an important conversation about race. He wondered how life might be for him in less diverse towns, where he might be the only Indian person. In those places, would he be an object of suspicion or hatred for others? Would people make assumptions about his intelligence or his character based on his physical appearance? This is something that as a white woman I had not considered deeply until dating Adi.
Though Adi and I did end up breaking up, mainly due to distance and uncertainty about what we wanted for our lives, being in a relationship with him raised my awareness of his cultural context and mine. I learned that there were aspects of Adi’s culture I liked much better than my own: for example, family is supremely important in Indian culture and serves as a support network. Though at times Adi felt his family was too deeply involved in his life, their presence was something he could always count on. Coming from a cultural context where moving for work and school is encouraged and friend or work relationships are sometimes prized over family, I found it amazing to encounter another mode in which family relationships operate. I come from a small and disconnected family, and hearing about Adi’s close relationships with his cousins, aunts, and uncles—even from afar—really moved me.
After our breakup, which though mutual was also painful, I wanted to learn more about cross-cultural relationships. I found myself attracted to reading material from diverse authors who could speak to what it was like to be from one culture and live in another. I attended a local festival featuring Indian dance, clothing, and food, and tried getting some of my own experiences visiting India down on paper. I also became more appreciative of my own students’ stories in the English classes I taught during my day job. I wanted to learn more stories because I really had so few stories about so many cultures and experiences. This attentiveness to other stories has stuck with me, and has helped me to better listen to the experiences of others.
Learning about someone is a part of any relationship, and dating someone from a different culture invites even more learning. You bring two different cultural contexts to the table, and in these differences there’s opportunity to discover the beauty of seeing the world from an unfamiliar perspective. It’s in the unfamiliar, and perhaps even the occasional uncertainty about where the other person is coming from, that I’ve found the most opportunity to grow.