My mother only knew my father for 4 days before she decided to marry him. A month after their wedding she was in a foreign country giving thanks in honor of a harvest between the earliest colonials and “Indians of the New World.” I was born two years later in a country far different than the one my mother grew up in.
Marriage is an important life event for all cultures and historically, arranged marriages were commonplace even in western cultures. Today, arranged marriages are typically held in Eastern countries with skepticism towards the agency of the bride. In some ways, my mother’s arranged marriage may appear to confirm binary gender roles, but her celebration of arranged marriage also serves to criticize neo-liberal discontent. Her attitude towards marriage and struggle as a first generation immigrant have shaped my own belief towards marriage.
Arranged marriages are often portrayed as a detriment to free choice, but the act of willingly choosing to arrange your marriage can queer neoliberal ideals. Neoliberalism suggests the necessity of individual choice and hard work to bring about success, but largely ignores the structural barriers that prevent these ideals from being realized (Lecture 11/7/16). Furthermore, the belief does not acknowledge alternate methods of pursuing success subsequently criticizing any deviation from this norm. American media has exaggerated the “backward” practice of obstinate traditional parents forcing their children to marry against their will. The Asian American movie Saving Face hints towards the pressures of abiding by a parents expectations through the interactions between a mother who wants her lesbian daughter to find a husband and the mother almost arranged marriage. (Wu, Saving Face) The two woman do not marry their arranged partners insinuating it is an outdated practice. Globalization has even instilled this idea into Indian media where its recirculation to US audiences only re-enforces the idea that women are beholden to men, like in the Bollywood classic Devdas.
In South India, women are given a wedding necklace made of gold instead of a ring to wear lifelong. Along with the hopes of a prosperous marriage, wearing the necklace signifies the many obligations brought by marriage including raising healthy children. For the longest time, I thought my mother, despite her education and background, had sacrificed her freedom to appease a restrictive culture. She had given up her career to raise us an act that aligned with heteronormative ideals.
“I wanted to be a mother first. I was lucky because I could be a stay at home mom. Other people do not have that luxury. If I wanted to, I could have found a job, but its very difficult to do that. But now I’m working and I love my work! ” – Mom
From my mother’s view these concerns about independence were non-existent. On the other hand, I had been subscribing to the neo-liberalist views that centered discourse of marriage around the white heteronormative woman. (Lecture, 10/24/16) Along with this perspective was the belief that women should search and choose their own partner with their own criteria and my mother’s circumstance was a deviation. However, I failed to recognize my mother’s own agency in making that life choice.
Living under western heteronormative and neoliberal ideals, I had grown up conflicted by my traditional Indian parents. Asian American parents in reality discuss very little in regards to relationships with their children (Chou, Chapter 5) An observation that was very true with my family. My mother did not discuss her marriage with me; she hardly spoke about relationships, dating, sex or love unless asked. These inactions were what I believed to be the epitome of what was wrong with arranged marriages. How could she accept a gaudy gold necklace knowing that it was given without love?
“Arranged marriages aren’t bad. [We] just have different values. I wasn’t forced into it, I chose to get married. I didn’t have to think about dating or love… I knew that would come later.” – Mom
Indian Americans valued the trust and dependence of a close family and my mother had made the decision to marry in accordance to these values. She did not discuss love or dating because they were not crucial to taking the first steps toward her goal of a happy family. To some extent my own denouncement of arranged marriages and my insistence on finding my own boyfriend were a betrayal to my cultural heritage. By doing so, I had delegitimized the diaspora of Asian American experiences, particularly those Indian Americans who had had arranged marriages (Gopinath, Queer Diasporic Critique). These unique experiences, like my mother’s own, were indicative of the falsehood of white heteronormativity in dictating what marriage should be. My parents relationship despite its perceived heteronormativity was queer from the start. My own embarrassment of supporting a practice that had been associated with misogyny prevented me from acknowledging the family oriented values that guided and celebrated arranged marriages. I had wanted a ring instead of my mother’s necklace. However, I knew that my mother had made a conscious decision to marry. The proof was in her willingness to answer all of my questions about love, dating and relationships.
As we approach the holidays, I can’t help but remember my mother who first came to this country on Thanksgiving. Her marriage was an act so different from that encouraged by white American culture and yet it was one of defiance rather than deviation. As with thousands of first generation Asian Americans, my mother has struggled to find a balance between honoring her ethnic roots, while maintaining an appreciation for the cultural differences that arise in the United States. It is still a work in progress, and I admire her for it. If I am lucky enough to get a necklace like my mother’s, I will wear it will pride. ❤