Thursday, March 29, 2007

What's wrong with Americans? Why can't they stay married?

I had all these conversations about marriage and gender roles with my great uncle’s daughters last weekend. They are a few years older than me, married (obviously) and with children. I had the conversation with one actually, her name is Bushra. She is 28, has been married for two years last Sunday and has an adorable 7 month old son named Haroon. Her husband works in Dubai, and she’s waiting on her paperwork to go work as an accountant out there as well. She wanted to know what I wanted to do with my life, what my “career” will be. I told her that I want to be me, teach, write, make films, express, document, be a role model, and push new boundaries of myself.

She then asked me why so few people get married in America. She actually said it something like,
“Women are with so many men in America. They don’t stay with one in marriage, they leave and they go with many, many. Why?”
Aside from the fact that I’m being asked to answer for all of America’s social and cultural realities regarding the contentious and ever changing institution of marriage, I tried to explain, broaden her view and defend America all at once.

This question came after some discussion of Indian vs. American social & filial expectations of women. I was trying to express that India has some good things and America has some good stuff too. When I try to break the perception of America as a (simple, hand-out giving) land of a plenty by breaking down what it takes to make good or even decent money in the States, I often get asked why I don’t just move to India. This time I was able to segue into these differences and why I couldn’t permanently live in India (aside from the unbearable heat). Explaining the difference between expectations of women and family in America and India, I pointed out how my purpose in life is to fulfill my potential. That is my duty, completely separate from what my mother thinks fulfilling my potential looks like, or my father, or what my sister is doing in life or what Ummy Jaan thinks I should be doing. I have more choices than an average Indian girl. As much as I love my mother and value her opinion, I am not bound to follow it. I don’t have to take the extremes of running away to defy her word and being disowned. Once defying has been accomplished, life for a young renegade Indian girl is bleak. She cannot further her education (she needs large school fees for that), she has almost definitely not held a job beore and has no savings of her own. Her life is sure to be one full of abuse and hardship. No one will want to marry her, with no family to pay a dowry or sanction the match, she will be without the only safety net society provides. No wonder most girls go along with what their parents say… anyway.

Bushra pointed out that her parents are much older than her and know what is best when she is young and cannot possibly know. I challenged that, saying that her parents grew up in a completely different era. My parents, immigrants, didn’t grow up in my era and didn’t grow up in America, so who is to say they know what is best for me? Parents are adults who are very human. They do not know everything, and by extension, do not always (or ever) know what is best.

“How does your mom feel about you traveling?” I was asked. “Does she give you permission easily?”
To try and lighten to heavy load of this conversation and not make my mom look bad or me look like a rebel child, I pointed out simply that I am here. I am an adult, I lived on my own, had my own apartment, worked full time- I make my own decisions. Bushra tells me that in India they need parental permission.

“That, my dear, is the biggest difference between India and America,” inferring, of course, that I don’t.
It was an interesting exchange, and one I was glad to be able to have had.

I completely forgot that I started this story to tell you about my defense of American marriage! So I’m trying to explain the nature of American society by explaining the state of marriage today. I’m explaining that in fact, half of American marriages survive, and given the cultures, Indian marriages and families don’t have to contend with nearly the amount of issues that American ones do. Indian ideas of compromise or submission to lifelong marriage are well documented and witnessed so I didn’t need to defend that. I try to explain the fact that so many people have grown up in households with dysfunctional marriages or non existent marriages and that without successful, working examples, how can one make a marriage work?

I explain that the women’s movement has changed women’s status in society completely, and in many ways changed their perceptions and expectations of marriage while not changing male perspectives or expectations of it all that much. Women’s responsibilities have only grown, and life has gotten even more complicated. Men haven’t caught up, socially or emotionally. In most cases, they are not able to match their wives’ socialized emotional intelligence. On top of that, not knowing how to communicate or compromise makes relationships suffer and then fall apart. Her response to this is that people need to compromise, like Indians do. Her husband is loving, understanding and supportive. I congratulate her and remind her that most Indian husbands (possibly husbands everywhere) aren’t. What I fail to fully express is that Americans don’t have a ready system of support for marriage such as the Indian extended family (at least in Muslim circles, Hindu marriage is quite different) and that no one ever teaches or trains us how to make these aspects of life work. All of our siblings, friends and family will not be married, waiting to impart advice at the slightest indication of need. Neither is there a norm for successful, stable marriage in the US, many people find themselves the odd one out in their social circles when tying the knot.

Anyways- just thought I'd share that moment of cultural-translation-thru- conversation I had.
In case anyone has forgotten: I love feedback!!

1 comment:

Mariko said...

I'll agree to that. Although i have no idea what it is to grow up with an Indian mother, my Japanese family shows the same traits. My mother recently even offered to arrange a marriage for me. I think it also has to do with cultural freeze. People move out of their countries of origin and take with them the culture and cultural expectations that they left with. So, for example my mother left japan (21 years ago) and is still stuck with many of the cultural expectations of a daughter that she had then or where expected of her, back then. surprisingly though, when I go back to Japan, i am asked the same questions as you. Marriage, children, what do my parents think. Like you, i take my parents' suggestions into account but they are not law. Where would society be if parents ruled their children anyway? things would never change. That would bring society to a standstill. Not to mention that it would be really really boring.