The Marriage Market: Choosing a Suitable Boy
For Rati, a defining moment in her search for an Indian-American Hindu husband was when her white boyfriend accused her of “being racist.” Rati had just re- turned from her first trip to India since she was a child. She stayed in the houses of various relatives, family with whom she “picked up from when we last met without skipping a beat.” Often she was meeting extended family for the first time and was impressed by the open-armed welcomes. Upon returning from her trip to her home in New York, Rati’s interests in Indian culture re-ignited. She revived her love for vegetarian dishes and began taking yoga. Along with continuing her bharatanatyam (classical Indian dance) classes and watching Bollywood films, she began attending the local temple with some international Indian students she met at the local arty theater’s showing of Lagan, a popular Bollywood film.
Paul, Rati’s boyfriend at the time, quietly grew more and more impatient with Rati’s love for anything Indian and finally burst out in frustration when he saw her zealotry showed no signs of subsiding. Boarding a local train a few moments before the departure time, Rati made a motion to sit next to an Indian male pas- senger before Paul intercepted and took the last empty seat himself. Rati was left to stand, but she caught Paul’s look of self-satisfied smugness at having success- fully kept Rati from making another Indian acquaintance, a man who might serve as a further threat to their relationship. Later, when Rati confronted Paul about his sneakiness as well as his lack of confidence in their relationship, Paul admitted that after dating her he “could never date another Asian again” for fear that he would not be taken seriously since he was not Asian. When pressed further, Paul accused Rati of preferring Indians to whites and of “being a racist.”
Rati’s anecdote about dating Paul, a white man, is interesting because it high- lights the second generation’s enthusiasm for and the significance they place on “being Indian” and relying on activities like practicing yoga to express Indian- ness. Watching Bollywood movies, eating vegetarian, practicing yoga, learning Indian classical dance and other activities are significant in describing the second generation’s understanding of India, their own ethnic-American identity and the characteristics they seek in a marriage partner. After the incident described above, Rati dumped Paul and relinquished the American notion of falling in love and pursuing a “love marriage.” Shortly thereafter, she posted an online matrimonial ad in shaadi.com. Therein began her adventures and misadventures that would eventually lead her to meet and marry her Indian-American husband, Shiv.
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For second-generation Indian-American Hindus, there are two models for marriage: the arranged marriage and the love marriage. These models are diamet- rically opposed. The love marriage usually involves a whimsical and incidental meeting followed by months and often years of dating. The arranged marriage ex- cludes dating altogether and in fact rarely allows for more than one meeting before the wedding day. When the “boy” and “girl,” words used to describe prospective marriage candidates despite their age, profession, or education, meet for the first time, it is usually in a highly-regulated environment where both sets of parents sit in the same room accompanied by supportive extended family members. A wed- ding follows shortly thereafter, making it the second time the “couple” is allowed to see each other and after which the husband and wife embark on years of “dat- ing” or getting to know one another without the nagging possibility of rejection.
So, how do second-generation Indian-American Hindus negotiate these two opposed models of marriage? How do they reconcile love marriage with arranged marriage? In this chapter I examine courtships among three second-generation Indian-American Hindu couples. This examination led me to discover a middle path, which I call “arranged meetings.” “Arranged meetings” is an already ne- gotiated and well-established third model for marrying among second-generation Indian-American Hindus. The second generation uses this method to filter out prospective marital candidates who do not have the “right” ethnic, religious, lin- guistic, and regional traits desired by their parents. For example, a family active in the Gujurati Hindu community can seek only fellow Gujurati Hindus to intro- duce to the eligible son or daughter. Any marital candidate left standing is fair game for something akin to dating. The second generation feels free to deter- mine whether the meaningful candidates have sexual chemistry and compatible personalities, characteristically American criteria contemplated in making a “love marriage” decision.
In this way, neither arranged nor love marriage are excluded and the needs and desires of both generations are respected. The first generation is still involved in finding a suitable partner for their child, whether through introductions by family and friends, or placing an ad on-line or in a newspaper. Additionally, candidates who do not come from the same religious sect, speak the desired dialect, or origi- nate from the same region of India (and thus possibly eat dissimilar food), are cast away before a set of eligible prospects are considered. Then second-generation Americans embark in all the activities associated with pursuing an American “love marriage.” They date for months and sometimes even years, determining whether she and her partner share common likes and dislikes. They also determine, and not just by holding hands, whether there is enough sexual attraction to keep their mutual attentions “’til death do we part.” Along with their immigrant parents, most of the second-generation Indian-American Hindus I met prefer to marry a partner of Indian heritage and Hindu faith because marriage is seen as a definitive way for the second generation to express its identity as ethnic and religious Amer- icans. They are American, yes. But they are also Indian and Hindu. Additionally, pleasing the first generation’s wish to see their children marry a Hindu Indian is itself an expression of ethnicity, of one’s Indianness, in this case with respect for the traditional value of deference to one’s elders.
THE MARRIAGE MARKET: CHOOSING A SUITABLE BOY 3
This idea provides additional ammunition against the “melting pot” metaphor. Within the second-generation Indian-American Hindu ethnic minority, men and women of marriageable age who have high economic and social standing prefer to marry within their community rather than engage in an exogenous marriage. Rather than participate in a “melting pot” as early ethnic scholars described the trajectory of ethnic Americans, participants chose to marry people from within their community despite the New York area’s diverse population.
As I described earlier in my discussion of “arranged meetings,” rather than debating values and characteristics second-generation Indian-American Hindus should seek in a partner, the first and second generations have already negotiated a compromise whereby the second generation engages in various methods for meeting a partner that meet all or most of the immigrant generation’s religious, ethnic, regional, and linguistic cultural criteria. At the same time, the prospects who make it through this sieve of criteria are then free to engage in dating rela- tionships that look typically American. For instance, Shiv and Rati were attracted to each other’s profiles because they shared the same regional and religious Indian identity; however, they dated for two years before marrying. Their mutual love for Indian performance was what bonded them together in terms of sharing common interests.
The Indian-Hindu community has evolved enough in the last forty years that mechanisms are already in place for the second generation to search for poten- tial marriage partnersmechanisms that respect both traditional Indian as well as modern American criteria. “Arranged meetings” provide a group of candidates acceptable for a member of the second generation to fall in love with after having satisfied the first generation’s ethnic and religious requirements.
Second-generation Indian-American Hindus seek marriage partners who have what I describe as “symbolic ethnic capital.” This finding sheds light on how the second generation envisions and understands Hindu India. The men and women in my study scrutinize characteristics in the opposite sex in order to confirm if that marital prospect is “Indian” enough for marriage. Like Rati obsessed over get- ting better-acquainted with her Indian heritage through practicing yoga, learning Indian classical dance, and watching Bollywood movies, other participants used similar activities as markers for Indian ethnicity among marriage prospects. Being ethnically Indian and from a Hindu family was often not enough. Especially “ex- pressive” Indian-American Hindus desired a marriage partner who could further confirm their identity as Indian-American Hindus.
A number of factors are important in the Indian-Hindu American commu- nity when it comes to finding a mate in a limited and dispersed pool of partners. Processes such as placing matrimonial ads in ethnic newspapers and online allow second-generation Indian-American Hindus to meet fellow Americans as well as Indian Hindus in England, Canada, India, and Singapore. These mechanisms are important because they allow second-generation Indian-American Hindus to meet partners that satisfy the first generation’s religious and ethnic criteria as well as the community’s desire to find a partner with symbolic ethnic Indian and America capital.
Finding a potential partner through newspaper and on-line matrimonial ads
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was followed by typically American patterns of dating which included a long courtship designed to ferret out similar hobbies and the quality of sexual chem- istry. By meeting a potential spouse through a family network or other family- sanctioned modes of pursuing marriage such as on-line matrimonials, second- generation Indian-American Hindus accrued symbolic ethnic Indian capital they later spent when in long-term relationships and premarital sex. Mainstream Amer- ican dating was encouraged by my participants’ immigrant parents to ensure that romance and love, two values that express Americanness, were as much a part of their children’s decision to marry as religious compatibility and regional identity.
Second-generation Indian-American Hindus select future spouses who ex- hibit Indianness as a way to integrate into America rather than as a way to opt out. The fact that Indianness confirms Americanness helps to explain the dearth of conversation in scholarship and in my interviews regarding issues such as racism and ethnocentrism. The only times my participants ever mentioned racism was in describing their community’s reactions against marrying an African American or Muslim. Discussions of racism towards ethnic Indians never surfaced. For the middle-to-upper class Indians I met, status anxieties were relatively low and their lofty socio-economic status enabled obstacles such as racism to recede from their view.
Rati, whose mother is a white Lutheran woman from Canada and whose father is a Hindu raised in Uttra Pradesh, India, literally chose to “be Indian.” The story of how Rati decided to utilize shaadi.com, an on-line Internet matri- monial website popular among South-Asian Hindus, supports my notion that, for second-generation Indian-American Hindus interested in expressing their ethnic- American identity, marrying a fellow Indian-ethnic Hindu is the most effective way. Coming from a bi-cultural family, Rati was not exposed to Indian-Hindu culture until her twenties, when she made conscious efforts to adopt Indian-Hindu religion and customs. Rati is both a career-minded professional dancer and an Indian-American woman seeking to establish a family to uphold the Indian and American sides of her identity.
Although Rati’s father’s family members in Uttar Pradesh were strict Hin- dus and her mother’s family religious Lutherans (Rati’s grandfather is a Lutheran pastor), neither Rati nor her younger brother and sister were raised with religion. Rati explains that her father, being the eldest son, “got a lot of western educa- tion: British boarding schools” and as an engineer thought “more scientifically and logically than religiously.” Since he was fluent in English, none of Rati and her siblings knew Hindi. Rati reasons that her father resisted teaching his children Hindi out of fear of isolating them from their community since in the mid-70s there were few Indians in the Midwestern city in which they lived. Both he and his wife had a cavalier attitude towards providing a religious education to their children. Rati reports that her parents’ attitude was: “When you want [religion] in your life, you’ll go find what works for you.” But Rati’s father’s decision not to teach his children Hindi or Hinduism goes against the grain of how most Indian immigrants raise their children.
People who are given lots of freedom and choice as children often “rebel” by becoming conservative, embracing traditions their parents have left behind. Rati
THE MARRIAGE MARKET: CHOOSING A SUITABLE BOY 5
and her father’s contrasting marriage decision-making processes support this the- ory. Rati’s father’s marriage was definitely uncommon in a time when returning to India to marry was the prevalent custom. When it comes to educational level, however, both of Rati’s parents have backgrounds similar to that of Rati’s peers. After graduating from the Indian Institute of Technology, the MIT of India, her father moved to Wisconsin to pursue his second B.S. Imitating her father’s thick Indian accent, she recites his immigration story as he tells it: “I had one suitcase, one briefcase, and $1,000; I did not need material things.” Upon returning from a summer internship in Florida, he was introduced to Rati’s mother by friends. Rati’s mother was an Asian Studies major educated in Hindi and Mandarin Chi- nese who taught English in Asia while completing her M.A. Although at first she did not give him “the time of day,” she eventually agreed to one date. They were married within a year.
Rati’s grandparents were not overjoyed when Rati’s father called them about his intentions to marry a Caucasian Lutheran, but they quietly accepted his mar- riage decision. His uncle had migrated a few years earlier and married a white woman so there was already a precedent. Although Rati’s uncle and aunt lived in Maryland and visited a few times while she was growing up, her relationship with them wasn’t solidified until later in life when she took it upon herself to make ties with her Indian relatives. While growing up, she was never conscious of the fact that her parents or aunt and uncle were bi-ethnic: “It just was,” she says. Only after she left the diverse and cosmopolitan environment her university hometown provided her and her family did that consciousness emerge.
Much of Rati’s adoption of an Indian identity and Hinduism later in life stems, she theorizes, from being the eldest child in her family and having visited India when she was two years old. “I don’t remember that trip, but we had lots of pictures from it and I had mementos so I always asked questions about India and wanted to visit again,” she explains. Her younger siblings, by contrast, lacked curiosity about their father’s homeland. Rati’s father, she says, was “more of a F.O.B. [than later when her younger siblings were born] so it rubbed off on me” (F.O.B. stands for “Fresh Off the Boat”; it is a derogatory term used to describe recent immigrants). Rati, unlike her siblings, knew the names and approximate times Hindu holidays fell in the year although her family celebrated only Easter and Christmas. “It’s as if I was raised somewhere else [from my siblings] in a lot of ways,” she concludes.
Rati describes her exposure to Indian culture while growing up as both ex- citing and interesting. She loved listening to her father’s old Indian records and would play them in the basement. She looked forward to the rare instances when her father cooked pakoras and dosas, popular potato-based South Indian dishes, for his family. She “lived for” these surfacings of Indian identity “because it was something different.” However, aside from a few Mughal-style paintings and heavily beaded pillow covers, there was no regular presence of Indian culture in her childhood home. Why? Because her father was deeply ambivalent about his roots, and there weren’t other Indians in their community “to help perpetuate In- dian culture.”
Although Rati and her siblings had a mostly generic American upbringing
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(collecting Cabbage Patch Kids, watching The Cosby Show), when it came to dating, they were subject to strict rules. Rati, like other women and men I in- terviewed, dated behind her parents’ backs. Her parents would often butt heads when Rati’s mother defended Rati’s decision to go out late at night with a mixed crowd of boys and girls. Behind his back, Rati and her siblings called their father “The Warden.” He was “fearful of [dating] and disliked anything that made him feel uncomfortable,” she says. “He was really strict back then.”
Upon graduating from college in Texas where she studied acoustics and au- dio, Rati worked in post-production and talent booking in Austin, Atlanta and Urbana-Champaign. Then, as she describes it, she “came back around full circle.” For years she had been exchanging Christmas cards with her aunt and uncle in Maryland. They had visited India two years prior and showed her the video they made there; instantly her interest in India was kindled. “It occurred to me that I was independent and making money and I didn’t have to ask anybody permission to visit India,” she says. So she started planning a trip.
Rati lived in various relatives’ houses during the course of her month-long stay in India. As she puts it, “It was as if I had been there the whole time. It was as if I hadn’t been gone for twenty-five years. It suddenly came together.” She describes herself as religious “only for the cultural aspect not so much for the religious reasons,” but, along with her extended family, she attended temple on numerous occasions during the month. She now has religious objects in her housemini-statues of the goddess Lakshmi and prints of the god Ganesh, but to her these images mostly signify her ties to India rather than to Hinduism.
Rati’s trip to India was a catalyst in a series of events that resulted in her meeting her husband through Indian personal ads and marrying him only a few months after their first meeting. Immediately prior to her trip her parents divorced. Rati describes the divorce as “not pretty” and “uglier than it had to be.” The divorce and the trip to India “changed everything for me.” Perhaps more than she is willing to admit, her parents’ divorce lent a hand in instigating her “return” to India in search of a more stable family to replace her newly fractured nuclear family. As she met extended family members in India and as she searched for an Indian-Hindu husband, Rati was looking for a new family.
Rati broke up with Paul, her white boyfriend, shortly after returning from her trip to India. She then began her mission to find a husband through “arranged meetings” via a matrimonial website exclusively for Indians. Culturally invigo- rated by her trip, Rati describes how “all this knowledge about India was some- thing new to me and I wanted to learn more about it.” Newly single and adamant that she not waste any more time dating white American men who might mistake her love of Indian culture for racism, Rati drew up a “mile-long list” of criteria she sought in a marital candidate. She then proceeded to go on-line and research various Internet matrimonial websites before posting her profile on shaadi.com.
Rati concedes that she does not think pre-modern, traditional arranged mar- riage is “as barbaric as Americans think it is” although she understands how the “American belief in free will” contradicts the institution of arranged marriage. She describes how when she was younger she was “more interested in whether [a date] was cool or not rather than does he have a job. When you’re young you don’t see
THE MARRIAGE MARKET: CHOOSING A SUITABLE BOY 7
in the long term; you are not necessarily the best at picking a life partner. Family involvement and advice of elders makes marriage better.” When I asked her what kinds of qualities she looked for in a potential partner she describes how she was looking for someone who could provide the strong Indian cultural background that she lacked. She wanted to marry someone with a solid knowledge of Indian culture so she could learn from him and make her somewhat shaky foundation more solid. She sought a mate who could further educate her about Indian culture even as he reinforced her own ethnic-American identity.
After outlining these criteria in her matrimonial advertisement, and admitting that she drinks occasionally and has modern parents, Rati also posted a photograph of herself in a sari. She tells me how she received a response from a man in Thailand who was fluent in six languages and planning to move to the United States. She thought he was promising until, a few long-distance phone calls into their courtship, he called her “ji,” a suffix meant as a formal sign of respect. She promptly dissolved that “relationship.”
As if applying for a job, Shiv, Rati’s future husband, sent a competitive bio- data, or resume, to Rati in response to her picture and profile on shaadi.com. Bio-datas are less popular now than they were fifteen years ago, but they remain an important component in matchmaking among conservative Indians. A typical bio-data states educational background, professional experience and even salary details not only for the candidate but also for close family members such as the parents and siblings. After first talking on the phone for three and a half hours, Rati and Shiv began having regular phone conversations before she visited him in New York. After her first visit, they began seeing each other every other weekend for three months before getting engaged.
Rati describes meeting Shiv on the matrimonial website as making their re- lationship more honest and open than if they had they met in a bar or through a friend. She tells me how “all the questions you want to ask on the first date” about marriage, family, education, and salaries “you can’t ask” when meeting through conventional methods but that by the time six months roll by and “you’ve figured out what a guy is all about, that’s six months of your life wasted.” As she puts it, “On shaadi.com no one is there for a booty call no one wants to date for fun or pass time.” Plus, all the uncomfortable questions regarding money and salaries are already answered in the bio-data, leaving the boy and girl more time and energy to focus on discovering whether the two have chemistry and are compatible for mar- riage. Rati and Shiv’s families were from the same region in India and belonged to the same caste, two criteria that lead Shiv to Rati’s advertisement through the click of a few scroll-down menus. Having pre-determined that they were compat- ible in terms of region and caste, the two were free to pursue an American-style romance. But, as Rati describes it, “The elders could not have done a better job putting the two of us together.”
Rati engaged in two models of marriage, the arranged one as well as the love one, in her arranged meeting. Rather than reject either the traditional Indian or modern American models for marriage, she embraced elements from both tradi- tions in choosing a spouse. It took her parents’ divorce and her trip to India to move Rati to express her Indianness and thereby her Americanness. Rati claimed
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her Indian heritage upon returning from India and married Shiv to reinforce her ethnic-American identity.
Whereas Shiv and Rati’s courtship began with Shiv’s response to Rati’s on- line matrimonial advertisement, Hamsa and Nalin met through friends while stu- dents at the University of Wisconsin. Nonetheless, Hamsa and Nalin’s story (like Shiv and Rati’s) emphasizes the significance among second-generation Indian- American Hindus of finding not only a co-ethnic marriage partner but also a spouse who carries a certain level of knowledge of Indian culture and Hinduism.
Like Rati and Shiv’s home which contains numerous images of such gods as Krishna and Lakshmi, Hamsa’s bedroom has a distinctly South-Asian aesthetic. The walls are painted a deep maroon, the dresser and night tables are made of a heavy, dark wood, and a golden statue of Ganesh sits on the windowsill over- looking the Hudson River and Manhattan’s skyline. A vividly-painted image of what seems like a Moghul emperor sits framed on the dresser. The massive bed is covered with an intricately gold-bordered red comforter and five matching pillows of various sizes. Whereas the interior design is reminiscent of a maharaja’s inner sanctuary, Hamsa and Nalin’s wedding photographs lend the room a Bollywood feel.
Mounted above the bed are two wooden-framed photographs of the couple in traditional Indian garb. The heaviness of Hamsa’s sari betrays that they are the couple’s wedding portraits. However, rather than pose in traditional Indian wedding postures, which would typically feature the bride and groom standing solemnly side by side without holding hands, the poses Hamsa and Nalin strike are of a new India: modernized and westernized Bollywood. In one photograph, Hamsa sits with her chin in one palm while Nalin stands behind her hugging his hands around her neck. In another the two playfully hold hands and stand across from one another as if they are about to whirl in circles. Rather than look demure, as Indian tradition would dictate, Hamsa smiles like a love struck Bollywood ac- tress and Nalin looks like a young Amitabh Bachan (one of Bollywood’s most famous actors).
Hamsa is embarrassed when I comment on how much I enjoy looking at her wedding portraits. “Yes, well we did whatever our Indian wedding photographer told us,” she says. “Those poses aren’t natural to us, but they’re typical Indian wedding poses.” What intrigues me in my conversations with Hamsa and Nalin is their inability to distinguish modernized India from the India they have configured for themselves in their imaginations. To them, India is one homogenous country with one homogenous tradition. This confession is even more striking for me because Hamsa and Nalin are a regionally mixed couple. Nalin’s family is from Gujarat in Western India, and Hamsa from Andhra Pradesh in South India yet they consistently ignore the diversity of cultures within the country and remain ignorant that their own “traditional South Indian” wedding was a hybrid one.
Ironically, Hamsa and Nalin’s “pure Indian-Hindu” wedding reveals how there is no pure “India.” As the couple’s wedding attests, India is made up of many different regional cultures and a myriad of religious faiths and languages.
Nalin was not the first Gujarati North Indian man Hamsa dated either. She tells me that although she had many friends in her ethnically diverse high school,
THE MARRIAGE MARKET: CHOOSING A SUITABLE BOY 9
she did not date until she arrived at college. “I had one two-month long relation- ship with a Gujarati Indian guy before I met Nalin,” she tells me. But apparently he wasn’t Indian enough:
He was very different from Nalin. My ex-boyfriend wasn’t very knowl- edgeable of his background, and he didn’t have an Indian community growing up in West Virginia; he wasn’t familiar with the religion and didn’t know the language. He’d never been to India. That’s why I didn’t connect with that guy. He was very apathetic about being Indian.
Knowing about India was something Hamsa actively looked for in a partner. Like Nalin, she wanted to find a partner she could love but who could also assert his “Indianness,” thereby reinforcing her own symbolic ethnic Indian capital, and in the process her own Americanness. She wanted to marry a man knowledgeable of his Indian-Hindu background to reflect her own cultural and religious ties with India. While outsiders might posit that Hamsa’s wish to exclusively date Indians depletes her American symbolic ethnic capital, I argue that it instead makes her more American.
Nalin reports he was very intentional about exclusively dating and marrying Indian women:
From the very beginning I always knew I would meet all types of people, but in terms of marriage I wanted to marry someone with the same cul- tural values. It would be easier and we would get along better. Around high school I made that choice when I started seriously thinking about dating and figuring out what I was looking for.
When asked what values are specific to Indian Hindus, he recognizes that “values” are found across cultures and re-formulates his thoughts. “It was more cultural, going to temple. Growing up, I think Indian culture brought about family closeness; family came first. In college I never thought about dating a non-Indian.” When asked whether his parents were upset that he married a non-Gujarati girl, he responds, “In a perfect world I would have married a Gujarati girl, but they are educated enough to know that compatibility is more important.”
During their two-year courtship at the University of Wisconsin, Hamsa and Nalin moved to San Diego for a summer where they interned and took classes. In San Diego, they tell me, they fell in love. “I didn’t think I couldn’t live without him,” Hamsa tells me, “but I thought I would be sad if he ever left.” Hamsa presses her two index fingers into her fluffy comforter and they travel, making an upside down V, until they meet at the same point. “That’s how we were; we started off in different places and spent enough time together dating that we pulled each other in the same direction,” she explains. For her, love for her husband was not love at first sight, but still conformed in a way to the traditional Indian view of love where one marries first and later grows to love one’s spouse. For Hamsa, a couple dates and then grows to love one another.
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When asked whether Hamsa’s parents expected her to partake in widespread Indian-American dating rituals such as advertising in the matrimonial section of India Abroad or meeting eligible bachelors through an extensive family network, she responds that her parents had always wanted her to find her own partner. She describes how during their first two years of dating, her parents referred to Nalin as “her friend” when he called. Hamsa thought it was best that “through casual conversation they would find out about him. Gradually, I let them know about him little by little.”
As is often the case in Indian households, Hamsa and her parents communi- cated their own feelings toward finding an appropriate marriage partner by indi- rectly talking about other people. “I had a cousin who was a little bit older than me who was having a hard time getting married,” Hamsa tells me. “They were afraid that that would happen to me as well. It was more in discussions about my older cousins that my parents would express their views on dating and marrying. They would say things like, ‘She never dated, she never looked and all of a sudden she’s twenty-eight and picky about whom she wants to marry.”’ Through conversations about their nieces and nephews, Hamsa’s parents conveyed to Hamsa that “you can’t start too late, but don’t want to start too early, and it’s important to start to look on your own.” Likewise, Nalin had decided that he “wanted to do it myself. I knew that if I didn’t do it myself that I would have to use other means to meet someone, and I firmly believe that meeting people through your friends is the best way because they know you two the best.”
Neither Hamsa nor Nalin resorted to publishing a matrimonial ad, but they purposefully sought to date Hindu Indians. Hamsa’s Gujarati ex-boyfriend was not Indian enough; he was not as curious about Indian culture as Nalin, nor did he place as much emphasis on what Nalin describes as “Indian cultural values.” While still in high school, Nalin decided to marry an Indian. And their collective pride for their ethnic heritage is demonstrated in Nalin and Hamsa’s wedding day festivities.
Intent on having as Indian a wedding as possible and on distancing them- selves from the mainstream white American weddings they associated with white Christians and Jews, both of the featured couples in this chapter, Rati and Shiv and Hamsa and Nalin, demonstrate ethnic American identities, their Americanness as well as their Indianness. In the following sections of “The Marriage Market,” I focus on themes that resonate in the stories of how Rati and Shiv and Hamsa and Nalin met. These themes dominated my interviews with other couples and be- tray the delicate balance of disclosure and secrecy immigrant parents and second- generation Indian-American Hindus face when negotiating the marriage market.
Factors in Marrying a Co-Ethnic
The couples whom I met and interviewed were eager to share with me their stories. But so were extended family members, friends of friends, first-generation Indian immigrant parents, and perfect strangers who learned I was researching weddings among second-generation Indian-American Hindus. Clearly, marriage is a sig-
THE MARRIAGE MARKET: CHOOSING A SUITABLE BOY 11
nificant topic of discussion among first- and second-generation Indian-American Hindus.
Given the emphasis on endogamy, on marrying inside their community, I wondered why or whether this approach sparked any concerns that the second- generation Americans might be viewed as separatist or racist by the larger com- munity in which they live. Unfortuantely, a dearth of scholarship regarding Amer- ican attitudes toward South Asians mirrors the lack of dialogue around this dif- ficult subject in my interviews with second-generation Indian-American Hindus. Second-generation Indian-American Hindus do not engage in conversations re- garding their racial and ethnographic status. This may be because of their socio- economically elevated status in mainstream American society. Perhaps my partic- ipants’ advantaged backgrounds shield them from discussions about race. Vi- jay Prashad’s The Karma of Brown Folk (2000) analyzes Indians’ lack of po- litical and racial awareness. It also describes the first and second generations’ distance from minorities such as blacks and Hispanics, making it one of the few full works on racism towards and among Indian Americans. Prashad posits that Indian-Americans and their immigrants distance themselves from issues of race because they see themselves as “exempt” of such concerns since Indians are widely respected in mainstream America as a “model minority.” In The Karma of Brown Folk, Prashad suggests the Indian-immigrant and second-generation Indian-American communities need to engage more deeply with minority groups such as blacks and Hispanics and confront issues of race in American politics.
Although religion works as a method to indoctrinate Indian-American Hindus into developing an ethnic-American identity, it does not differentiate themselves significantly from their peers or even consciously connect them to like-minded Hindus. Instead, religion works more subversively. Rather than worshipping the same deities or subscribing to the same religious stories, it is everyday worship (e.g., doing aarti, or offering homage to a deity, and offering prasad, sweet kernels of sugar) that serves as a connecting force between second-generation Indian- American Hindus.
More than Hindu beliefs, Hindu practices and the intimacies associated with them are what distinguish Indian-American Hindus who have symbolic ethnic In- dian capital from those who do not. Knowing the story of how Ganesh got his elephant head is not as important as knowing how to place fruit in front of a de- ity or knowing to bring one’s forehead and hands to the base of a statue when in prayer. This physical intimacy, a central feature of Hindu religious rituals, contributes to one’s value on the marriage market far more than an encyclopedic knowledge “outsiders” may gain from studying Hinduism in America. Moreover, this practical, ritual knowledge becomes especially valuable at the wedding cere- mony.
For the second generation, “being Indian” does not just require having im- migrant Hindu parents from India; it also includes having an Indian-American identity. Activities such as attending temple or having Indian “weekend friends” are essential in nurturing an Indian-American identity. Despite the fact that Hin- duism does not have much of a presence in the daily lives of the second-generation Indian-Hindu Americans I met, attending temple and performing religious rituals
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create shared experiences that link second-generation Americans to one another and distinguish those who have symbolic ethnic Indian capital from those who do not.1 Intimacy with the simple rituals associated with Rakhi, a Hindu holiday that celebrates the bond between female and male siblings, is valued in part because it distinguishes those who have been consciously raised as Indian-American Hin- dus from those who have not. Marrying someone who has this knowledge also ensures that these rituals and practices will live in the next generation.
Belonging to a Hindu religious or Indian cultural organization was another important shared experience among the second-generation Indian-American Hin- dus I interviewed. Many of the men and women I met participated in religious or cultural clubs in college, but none of them found these organizations useful in meeting a potential spouse and all of them outgrew these associations after grad- uation. However, while students at university, nearly all the second-generation Indian-American Hindus I met belonged to organizations such as New York Uni- versity’s Shruti, a secular cultural group for students of South Asian ethnic her- itage. Many of the men and women I met were members of the Network of Indian Professionals, a national organization sociologist Nazli Kibria describes “as im- portant to the maintenance and expression of Indianness, or ethnic identity as Indian American.”2
Indian-American Hindus were for the most part attracted to fellow Indians who could symbolically express their Indianness via membership in a cultural or religious organization. Belonging to a religious or cultural organization does not directly lead to finding a marriage partner yet membership to one increases one’s chance of marrying an Indian-American Hindu.
Negative qualities of Indian culture such as its patriarchal culture were for the most part ignored in my conversations with second-generation Indian-American Hindus who selectively integrated “positive” aspects of the culture (yoga, bhangra dance, Bollywood films and Indian food) into their lives. Just like Vijay Prashad notes how Indian Americans don’t generally engage in socially-conscious political debates because they are members of a “model minority,” they do not openly discuss the gender division or misogyny in Indian families. Perhaps in an effort to protect their reputation as members of a model minority, first-generation Indian- American Hindus refrain from critically examining their society and culture.
www.Shaadi.com: Where Buds of Romance Bloom on the Internet
Far more than cultural and religious groups, the Internet played a big matchmak- ing role among the men and women I interviewed. In fact, twenty-five percent of my study’s participants met via Internet matrimonial ads or dabbled in online dating prior to meeting their spouse. Second-generation Americans and their im- migrant parents appreciate websites such as shaadi.com where one can search for prospective Hindu Indians and Indian Americans with compatible personality traits and lifestyles. The drop-down menus on shaadi.com require that the “boy” or “girl” choose the Indian dialect their family speaks, the region in India their
THE MARRIAGE MARKET: CHOOSING A SUITABLE BOY 13
family originates from, and the religious sect their family belongs to. Although parents and extended family members usually lead the search when using news- paper matrimonial ads, the technology behind the Internet has intimidated many of these meddling family members to rely on their sons and daughters to search for a spouse on their own. Unmarried Indian-American men and women are of- ten described as “boys” and “girls,” indicating their infantilization despite their age, maturity, level of education and professional success. On the Internet, those seeking a match can filter out candidates right away based on these drop-down menus, ensuring that they only meet candidates with the same linguistic, ethnic and religious background, which is to say the sort of background that would meet the approval of parents and grandparents.
At this point the “American” portion of the spousal selection process begins. The web surfer reads the mandatory “describe yourself” text box that includes a list of hobbies, a physical description, and an outline of what one is looking for in a soul mate. The search for a potential marriage partner shifts at this key point from traditionally Indian to traditionally American, supporting my overarching thesis that the Indian-Hindu community’s desire for second-generation Indian-American Hindus to marry peers who express both an ethnic and an American identity is reflected in both the arranged meeting model for dating and the wedding day.
Rati’s story describes a second-generation American’s search for a spouse whose ethnic identity would reinforce her own. It also illustrates the signifi- cance of the Internet in allowing Indian-American Hindus to play matchmaker for themselves and create relationships that span the globe. Jennifer Egan’s New York Times article about Internet dating, “Love in the Time of No Time,” does not specifically refer to ethnic websites such as shaadi.com, but it does discuss the sig- nificance that financial stability and affluence, two significant criteria in the search for a spouse in the Indian-American Hindu community, have in meeting potential partners. One of Rati’s reasons for using shaadi.com was so she could have the financial and practical information she needed upfront. Egan argues, “There is nothing new about the idea of marriage as a business transaction. Online dating is not the opposite of this [romantic] approach to love, but its radical extension.”3 In some ways, online dating among mainstream Americans looking for a spouse on match.com is no different from online dating among people like Rati and Shiv who meet on shaadi.com: significant practical details such as faith, occupation and lifestyle are disclosed upfront on one’s profile so that potential partners can determine if they are compatible or not. Although Rati did not have specific ideas about how money much her ideal spouse should ideally earn, she was focused on finding a man with a stable job with earning potential.
Three characteristics immediately present themselves on shaadi.com. First, shaadi.com personal ads are almost always submitted by the marital candidates themselves rather than by family members. In creating a profile, the spouse seeker has to answer if she is designing her own profile. She is then asked to write two paragraphs of one hundred words or more describing her family and what she is looking for in a partner. So while family has by no means disappeared in this high-tech view, singles are searching for a marital partner on their own; they are (relatively) free agents in their own search for a spouse.
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A second characteristic is the preponderance of personal ads that focus on in- terests, hobbies, and activities. In creating one’s profile on shaadi.com, a marital candidate can quickly chose from a drop-down menu the religions, sects, geo- graphic areas and ranges of complexion they are looking for in a spouse (com- plexions range from fair to wheatish to dark). These drop-downs leave room in the text box to get creative and distinguish one’s ads from the thousands of others.
One New York resident, Neelu1107, writes,
Nutty. Mostly smooth with a few rough spots. Seemingly malleable, but harder to shake about than suspected. Kind of like ̇ . . peanut butter. To be more specific, I’m a 2nd year law student trapped in a 25 year old body. Mentally, I’m about 12:). On the hunt for a fellow pre-teen trapped in adult form to share a never-ending adolescence with:).
Hopefully You Are: Vibrant. Sweet with a little sour zing. Mostly got it together, yet able to break it down. Kind of like. . . jelly.
P. S. This may come off as rather ̇ . .female dog like ̇ . . but ̇ . . if you’re still confused about the direction of your life, if you feel like you need to explore the world alone, if you feel like there is so much more you need to accomplish/wrap up in your life before you get into something serious, if you feel like you need to casually date for months and months on end, I am NOT the person for you. I guess my profile is deceiving in that sense ̇ . . seems very ̇ . . casual. For all those who weren’t totally scared off by the last few sentences, I look forward to getting to know you 🙂
Neelu1107 takes a risky approach for finding a serious life partner by writing in commonplace metaphors such as “peanut butter” and “jelly.” But she makes it plain that she is on a search for a serious relationship. Like Rati, she says she does not want to “casually date for months and months on end.”
Finally, shaadi.com’s personal ads epitomize the diasporic reality Indian Hin- dus now inhabit. Rather than limit themselves to meeting like-minded locals, pro- files on shaadi.com more often than not indicate that the men and women using this site are open to meeting people in Southeast Asia, India, the United States, Canada, and England. For example, Rati’s first serious beau on shaadi.com lived in Singapore. There is something of a U.S. bias on the site, however. Often, sin- gles looking for a partner on shaadi.com indicate their preference for a spouse with permanent residency in the United States. Frequently, non-U.S. citizens use the transnational Indian-Hindu marriage market to fulfill their more self-centered goals such as moving to America. A common story concerns the foreigner who marries an American for a green card.
Before the advent of the Internet and websites like shaadi.com, the most widespread method of organizing an arranged meeting was by placing a matrimonial adver-
THE MARRIAGE MARKET: CHOOSING A SUITABLE BOY 15
tisement in the nationally read newspaper India Abroad. Sociologist Madhulika Khandelwal describes India Abroad as founded in 1970 in New York City by professionals who immigrated from India post-1965 and whose main goal was to cultivate a network for fellow NRIs (non-resident Indians). Over the years the space provided for matrimonial advertisements has expanded, making it the oldest resource for matchmaking among Indians in India and abroad.
Publishing a matrimonial ad in newspapers like India Abroad was perceived by my participants as an outdated method for making an arranged meeting. In fact, none of the couples I met posted ads in India Abroad or other old-fashioned paper periodicals. The second generation relies on the Internet more than print periodicals for their news which is one reason why the Internet is a popular venue for matchmaking. Another financially practical reason is that the cost per word to publish an ad in the newspaper makes it more expensive than registering for free on an Internet website where advertisers pay for the website’s maintenance through the publishing of ads. Additionally, on the Internet a spouse-seeker can quickly use drop-down menus to describe in detail one’s ethnic and religious back- ground, and few employ the text box as a space to make the ad more personal. The fee per word for publishing a matrimonial ad in a newspaper leaves little if any room to describe the prospective marriage candidate beyond describing his or her regional, religious and education background.
Although the Internet is replacing the matrimonial ads of India Abroad, look- ing at the newspaper may shed some light on the seemingly contradictory yet successfully compromised values both Indian immigrants and second-generation Indian-American Hindus look for in a spouse. For the vast majority of the partici- pants, early memories of reading the matrimonial advertisements in India Abroad served as their first exposure to the Indian marriage market. Even as early as thirteen or fourteen years of age, participants found themselves engrossed in the descriptive profiles in the concluding pages of the newspaper. This was the first time many of my participants were aware of the marriage market they would one day consider as a means to meet their future spouse.
Newspaper matrimonial ads in India Abroad demonstrate how selection cri- teria have evolved over time. Whereas being a Hindu and ethnically Indian remain important to the first generation, sharing the same language and originating from the same region of India have lost much of their significance in the last five to ten years. First-generation Indian Americans are now more open to marrying their daughters and sons to people whose families come from different regions of India and speak a different language. Reportedly less tied to these traditional criteria, Indian parents are more focused on finding a son- or daughter-in-law with equal or better educational and/or professional qualifications than themselves.
The immigrant generation is most concerned with their son or daughter mar- rying someone with financial security and education. This is especially evident in newspaper advertisements placed by families who rank high on the socio- economic ladder. Class, in other words, plays not only a definitive role in de- termining how much importance a family placed on regional background, but also an obvious one.
Although second-generation Americans normally utilize the Internet rather
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than printed periodicals in seeking a mate, the second-generation Indian-American Hindus who do submit ads to newspapers such as India Abroad are revolutioniz- ing these traditionally conservative advertisements. These newspaper personal ads read more and more like the profiles on shaadi.com.
A typical ad in India Abroad is terse, to the point, and usually written by a “boy” or “girl” in India seeking a marriage partner. In short, these ads are very businesslike, sounding less like a match.com profile and more like a mail- order bride advertisement. One reason for this stiffness may be that English is not always the spouse seeker’s first language. A typical India Abroad matrimonial ad reads like Raj Kumar’s:
There are five members in my family. Two brothers and one sister. Sister married. I like true friends. My interest is watching cricket, listening news and watching/reading Science and technology.
Because a large percentage of newspaper matrimonial ads are placed by In- dian residents, it should not be surprising that none of the couples I met advertised in India Abroad. Whereas ten years ago immigrant parents often resorted to plac- ing ads on behalf of their sons and daughters in India Abroad, parents do not place ads on matrimonial websites. However, all the second-generation Indian- American Hindus I met described the pressure imposed on them by parents eager to see their children married to someone “suitable.”
Playing Marriage Broker: Parents’ Involvement in their Child’s Marriage
Not a single participant in my study had a parent directly involved in introduc- ing a child to potential spouses. The first and second generation’s compromise, the arranged meeting system, which embraces both traditional Indian and modern American models for marriage, is partly a result of the cross-generational realiza- tion that only through implementing both philosophies will all their destinies as Hindus be fulfilled. Fully rejecting the American model for a love marriage would only incite friction between the two generations. While most Indian-American Hindus I interviewed complained to some degree of the emphasis their parents had placed on their marrying in a timely manner, few understand the pressures on parents to marry off their children, and to marry them “well.” Socially there is tremendous pressure among one’s first-generation peers to have one’s children married in a timely manner, but there also exists a religious mandate that parents take responsibility for marrying their sons and daughters. A parent’s final duty is ensuring that his or her children marry suitably. Thereby only after that duty is fulfilled are parents free to see to their own spiritual lives and devote themselves more fully to their faith.
While marrying off one’s children propels Hindu parents from the household stage of life into a stage dedicated to the pursuit of spiritual realization, marriage is also an important rite of passage for the husband and wife, who will no longer
THE MARRIAGE MARKET: CHOOSING A SUITABLE BOY 17
be referred as a “boy” and “girl.” Marrying off one’s American-Hindu child places a parent in Hinduism’s third stage of life, vanprastha (retiree), in addition to per- mitting the second-generation newly married Hindu American to enter the second stage, grahastha (householder).
The friction between the American value of individual autonomy and the Indian value of respecting parental authority often presents itself in the Indian- American context, but discussion around marriage also brings to surface the immi- grant and second-generation Indian-Hindu Americans’ disparate views of adult- hood. In America, mainstream ideas surrounding adulthood see marriage as a rite of passage but not a prerequisite to becoming an adult. In short, one can be an adult without being married. Becoming an adult in America hinges on turning eighteen and being considered an adult by the American legal system. Ameri- can ideas concerning adulthood are closely associated with the value American culture places on both individualism and self-reliance. Whereas the law and so- ciety establish Americans as adults by eighteen years of age, notions about the significance of marriage and its role in the Hindu community suggest Hindu no- tions of entering adulthood are very different. The most obvious example of this difference appears repeatedly in language surrounding the Indian-Hindu marriage market when prospective marital candidates are referred to as “girls and boys” despite their age, level of education, income and profession.
However, the degree to which parents play matchmaker depends heavily on the family’s socio-economic standing. In a blue-collar Indian-American commu- nity in Jackson Heights, New York, marriages are sometimes arranged, but the well-educated upper-class Indian Americans who participated in this study were agents in choosing their spouses. The higher up in the socio-economic hierarchy, the less involved parents tend to be in their child’s marriage decision-making pro- cess. Only in one instance did I meet a young man whose parents were secretly seeking a match for him. He learned about this when he randomly Googled his name and found his bio-data posted on-line.
Secret Pleasure: Dating as Subversive
Although immigrant parents are eager to see their children married, dating re- mains a charged topic in the Indian-American community. In fact, it is rarely tolerated until the second-generation participants are of marriageable age. Hes- itantly, immigrant parents promote dating following an arranged meeting as a pre-requisite to marriage. But a set of strict rules surround dating in the Indian- American Hindu community. Of the twenty couples I interviewed, none of the Indian-American men and women were allowed to date in high school. Sachi, a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at University of Pennsylvania, describes the “don’t ask, don’t tell” unspoken agreement between parents and their children regard- ing dating. Without their parents telling them that dating is forbidden, second- generation Americans somehow know better than to think dating is allowed.
Even though dating in high school and even college is a no-no among almost all Indian-American Hindus, all but one family supported dating with the intent of
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marriage. However, another unspoken understanding exists. While the immigrant population supports its children in dating with the intent to marry, the second gen- eration is not allowed to incorporate a boyfriend or girlfriend into the family circle until the relationship is official. Like Hamsa, many participants told me how they did not even introduce a boyfriend or girlfriend to their parents until a formal en- gagement could be announced. Only two couples in my sample introduced their boyfriends or girlfriends to parents without intending to marry them in the im- mediate to near future. More often than not, second-generation Indian-American Hindus date secretly for months or even years before introducing a boyfriend or girlfriend to each other’s parents.
First-generation Indians, most of them unfamiliar with the phenomenon of dating for extended periods of time, have come to an unspoken agreement with their daughters and sons whereby boyfriends and girlfriends are “just friends” until an engagement is formalized. Hamsa described her boyfriend as simply a “friend” who called often. All too often, Indian parents read any introduction to a child’s boyfriend or girlfriend as a fairly formal step immediately prior to engagement.
Another reason why American-style disclosure is problematic for second- generation Indian Americans is that to admit to dating is to admit that one is a sexual being. Rather than flaunting one’s blooming sexuality, Indians generally hide it. Adult sexuality is only acceptable when one is married. While a “boy” or a “girl,” sexuality is considered dangerous and threatens the notion that unmar- ried Indian-American Hindus are in fact children until they marry. While dating is more openly acceptable in India’s cosmopolitan cities, in most of the country this practice remains secret. Second-generation Indian-Americans Hindu prefer hiding their path to adulthood over presenting themselves to parents and grand- parents as autonomous and independent sexual adults. But sexuality cannot be ignored forever. Tensions regarding the display of sexuality often arise on the wedding day, not least with the bride’s choice of wedding apparel, which in the American context is typically a telling symbol of sexuality on display.
Just as the mediating model for arranged meetings has been negotiated ahead of time, a commonly agreed upon method for discussing (and not discussing) marriage also exists. All my participants were acquainted with the marriage dis- cussions Hamsa had with her parents. Rather than speaking in a straightforward manner about what Hamsa should look for in a marriage partner, Hamsa’s par- ents tiptoed around the subject by discussing Hamsa’s cousin. Rather than warn Hamsa against waiting too long to marry, her parents discussed her older cousin who was struggling to marry well. As a way of giving Hamsa “permission” to date and find a partner on her own, they told Hamsa how her cousin was alone at twenty-eight because she “never dated.” Observing Hamsa’s cousin’s parents futile attempts to introduce their daughter to eligible young men, Hamsa’s parents opted out of helping Hamsa find a spouse and instead told her to start looking on her own time. But even Hamsa’s parents did not want dating details. Even they observed the “don’t ask, don’t tell” compromise.
This “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach is standard during dating. But indirect- ness yields to directness on the wedding day. Unabashedly and proudly, Nalin and
THE MARRIAGE MARKET: CHOOSING A SUITABLE BOY 19
Hamsa announced their long courtship to their extended families and friends at their wedding reception by showing a slide show of photographs from their years of dating at the University of Wisconsin. Whereas some guests were probably sur- prised, most guests were acquainted with the fact that many long relationships do not surface until the day of the wedding. A recurring theme was how few people knew their niece or nephew, cousin or family friend is involved in a longstanding relationship before the wedding. At the wedding, however, the secret is revealed and all is forgiven. A college friend or colleague from work recounts an anecdote from the couple’s courtship or a sibling shows a slide show of the happy cou- ple. Rather than expressing anger at being kept in the dark, older family members and friends are usually pleased with the fact that the couple has remained dis- creet. Moreover, keeping this secret is typically understood as a sign of respect, not of dissembling. In the end, everyone is happy: the young couple revels in the companionship that comes from a long dating relationship and their parents are secretly relieved that they have been spared both the responsibility of finding a spouse for their son or daughter and the details of their premarital sexual lives.
Prejudice in the Indian-American Hindu Community
The second-generation Indian-American Hindus I met were, across the board, sensitive and embarrassed by their parents’ prejudices, both racial and religious. Unlike the first generation’s relatively hands-off policy towards dating, immigrant parents have no qualms about voicing their disapproval of marrying an African American or Muslim. Whereas many of the women and men I met confessed to dating in secret, all but two women admitted that, although they were open to engaging in serious relationships with Indians and whites, they were not open to such relationships with Muslims or blacks. According to Sapna, when two of her Indian-American friends married white Americans her friends’ families were initially upset but eventually “adjusted.” However, Sapna adds, “there were some things my parents were not okay with,” including one friend’s brother’s decision to marry an African-American woman. Although Sapna’s mother said it was okay for their family friends, it was “not okay for us.” Sapna continues: “Clearly nobody has married a Muslim. Even though our views our different, our parents’ views are like their parents.”
The women and men I met unanimously agreed that marrying a Muslim was out of the question based on their parents’ ingrained biases against Muslims. Of- ten the men and women I met described a strong “Hindu-Muslim divide.” While Hindu Americans disapprove of marrying Muslims because it would incur their parents’ wrath, they may also distance themselves from Muslim Americans as a way of avoiding Muslim stigmatization in the United States post 9/11.
Many participants recall listening as children to their parents’ fury with Mira Nair’s film Mississippi Masala (1991), which depicts a relationship between a Uganda-raised Indian woman and her African-American boyfriend, played by Denzel Washington. The immigrant population in America criticized Nair’s movie for depicting Indians as racist. But many of my second-generation participants
20 CHAPTER 1
also recall their parents’ queasiness towards a movie about an Indian woman in love with a black man. Nair’s heroine, Mina, is interesting in that she is not an Indian American struggling to establish her Indianness or Americanness. Instead, she is “masala,” a term commonly used to describe a mix of spices for Indian dishes. More specifically, she is an Indian woman whose family lived in Africa for generations before moving to the American South where she meets Denzel Washington’s character.
The second generation justified what might be interpreted as its racism by in- terpreting dating or marrying an African American as a rejection of Indian family values and a purposeful dismissal of Indian culture. Engaging in a relationship with a Muslim is also thought of as relinquishing all ties with the Indian-Hindu community. The participants in this study spent much time discussing the impos- sibility of marrying a Muslim despite the fact that they met Muslim Americans in their graduate programs as well as in the workplace. A black man or woman’s skin color immediately distinguishes him or herself whereas Muslim Southeast Asians blend into the Southeast Asian community. There are no physically defin- ing characteristics that distinguish a Hindu from a Muslim except for a kufi skull cap. However, in reverence to their parents’ wishes (and in fear of their wrath), none of the Indian-Hindu Americans I spoke with were willing at any point to pursue a relationship with a Muslim.
“Returning” to the Home Land to Marry
Another common theme in conversations Indian-American Hindu women had with their parents was caution towards marrying an Indian national. In fact, the women I met were often reproached by their parents for dating an Indian national. Whereas the musical band Apache Indians in their song “Arranged Marriage” ad- mit how they want to return to India to find a prototypical Indian wife who will properly cook them roti (Indian bread), only three out of the twenty women I inter- viewed for this book married men from India, and none of the men I interviewed married women from India. The common stereotype is for a second-generation Indian-American Hindu man to “return” to India to find a wife after years of serial dating and premarital sex with white and Indian-American women alike. How- ever, my research indicates that Indian-American Hindu women are more likely to marry an Indian.
Much debate exists among second-generation Indian-American Hindus re- garding whether they should marry people from India as opposed to America. Sociologist Johanna Lessinger writes that:
Women, with their American-bred sense of independence, tend to pre- fer young men raised, like themselves, in the U.S. They know that men from India will demand a kind of service and subservience they are not prepared to give. Many also complain that Indian men are shy, poorly dressed, awkward and unsure in American social situations. 4
THE MARRIAGE MARKET: CHOOSING A SUITABLE BOY 21
In my study, however, whereas none of the men I met married a woman In- dian born and raised, fifteen percent of the women I met married a man from the subcontinent. Whereas Lessinger’s subjects, blue-collar women who live in Jack- son Heights, feared marrying traditional, lower-class Indian men from India, the women I met were considering (and in some cases marrying) progressive, sophis- ticated men from the subcontinent. However, none of the men I met admitted to seeking a docile Indian wife, and none visited India to find a spouse.
Sapna’s mother rejected the idea of her American-born-and-raised daughter marrying Satish, Sapna’s Indian-born-and raised boyfriend. “For a few months I kept dropping hints to my mom about how I was talking to a guy at work,” Sapna says. “She knew he was Indian from India and kept blowing it off because she was worried that he might be too conservative; she hoped that it would go away.” Sapna’s mother had heard about unhappy marriages between American- raised women and Indian-raised men and knew her daughter would never make a typical Indian wife. Household chores and cooking were not Sapna’s top priorities or talents, and her mother was afraid that a culture clash might arise if her daughter married an Indian man. After months of ignoring the seriousness of her daughter’s relationship with Satish, Sapna put her foot down and told her parents that they would have to meet him. “It took some time for them to get used to each other,” Sapna recalls. “It took four or five months. They didn’t click right away.” Sapna cited Satish’s fluency with Hindi and his comfort level with traveling through India as reasons why she felt herself attracted to him. She also valued his intimate knowledge of Indian history and his ability to cook Indian food, since both skills compensated for her own ignorance and would come in handy when it was time to have a family.
Although the Indian-American women in this study who married men from India did so willingly, sometimes marriage to an Indian man from India served as a threat. Saijala describes how she and her father butted heads on a regular basis in her adolescent and young adulthood years. During an angry fight, Sachi’s father threatened to “marry me off to someone from India who could keep me in line.” The only instance in Saijala’s life where arranged marriage was suggested was in a fit of anger and served as a threat to subdue her stubborn ways. This threat is indicative of the larger Indian American community’s stereotype of Indian-born men and American-born women and the incompatibility of the two in marriage.
Second-generation Indian-American Hindus, in keeping with their parents’ wishes, prefer to marry a fellow Hindu who shared their Indian heritage. But this genera- tion differs from their parents’ generation in one important way. Among second- generation Indian-American Hindus, a third model for marriage holds sway. Ar- ranged meetings, as I call this model, is a compromise already reached by the immigrant and second generations whereby young Indian-American Hindus com- bine traditional Indian and modern American models of marriage. Rather than choosing between the love marriage and arranged marriage, the second genera-
22 CHAPTER 1
tion dates and chooses its spouses. It does so, however, by selectively screening out candidates who would not be acceptable to the prior generation.
On-line matrimonial sites and networks are the most popular methods for making an arranged meeting; placing an ad in a newspaper is now considered old school. Five couples in this study met through their networks of family and friends while another five met through matrimonial websites on the Internet or dabbled in dating via on-line matrimonial ads prior to meeting their spouses.
The search for a spouse was often complicated by the desire to find an Indian- American Hindu who is well educated, earns a respectable salary, and acts, thinks, and speaks in ways that other Indians perceive as Indian. Symbolic ethnic Indian and American capital are not traits one can highlight in a drop-down menu on shaadi.com, but evidence of these criteria are everywhere. In this study, claiming to love Bollywood films and owning an apartment in Manhattan, inserting Hindi metaphors in every day conversation and starting a hedge fund, are combinations of characteristics that attract second-generation Hindus and their immigrant par- ents.
One surprising finding of this study is that second-generation Indian-American Hindus articulate their Americanness when they articulate their Indianness. Be- ing Indian, in other words, is not incompatible with being an American. Choosing an Indian spouse reinforces one’s ethnicity while simultaneously expressing one’s Americanness. In short, my participants embraced their ethnic heritage as a way to assert their Americanness rather than detract from it. Indianness, like Hinduness, is socially acceptable in the United States. More than that, however, it is actually desirable. Second-generation Indian Americans select future spouses who exhibit Indianness as a way to integrate into America rather than as a way to opt out.
Finally, it is important to note that the point in which the participants in my study got engaged was in itself a ritual that set the tone for both families’ involve- ment in planning the wedding. Examining the various ways in which second- generation Indian-American Hindus come to the decision to marry and the meth- ods they choose for getting engaged sheds light on how they negotiate values (such as obeying parental authority) handed down by their Indian immigrant par- ents. Respecting both Indian and American tradition becomes tricky during the engagement stage when second-generation Indian Americans embrace both the mainstream American engagement ritual of proposing privately with a diamond ring and the far more public Hindu engagement tradition.
1. Fiction writer Jhumpa Lahiri chronicles the childhood of Gogol Ganguli, the second-generation Indian-American hero in the novel The Namesake, whose immigrant parents create a distinctly Indian home life despite living in a culturally and ethnically homogeneous Massachusetts suburb.
2. Nazli Kibria, “South Asian Americans,” in Asian Americans: Contem- porary Trends and Issues, ed. Pyong Gap Min (CA: Sage Publications, 2005), 218.
THE MARRIAGE MARKET: CHOOSING A SUITABLE BOY 23
3. Jennifer Egan, “Love in the Time of No Time,” New York Times, 23 November 2003, 68.
4. Johanna Lessinger, From the Ganges to the Hudson: Indian Immigrants in New York City (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1995), 123.