I sat on my bed in the little bedroom I rented in Melbourne’s inner north. My laptop was open to a browser, where I was putting the finishing touches on a blog. I selected a photo of Indian actor Amrish Puri, whose stern expression was what I considered to be the epitome of a strict father’s face. I typed in the heading: “How to deal with disappointing your parents”.
I was 22. I was in the midst of the greatest emotional turmoil I had ever experienced, and I didn’t know that it was going to get much, much worse before it could get better.
My story isn’t unlike those of other South Asian young people across the diaspora. In fact, after I made that blog post live, I heard from young men and women living in Canada, America, the UK, even Brazil – all from Indian backgrounds, all grappling with the same issue. We were trapped between our parents’ expectations and the cultures we lived in. Our own goals and aspirations sat somewhere between the two, in a no-man’s-land of uncertainty and contradictions.
“The expectation that I would have an arranged marriage was something I understood from as early as I can remember.”
For me, the tipping point came when I met my partner, Chris. I knew from the moment I laid eyes on him that he was someone special. But I also knew that we were doomed from the beginning, because in my family there were strict rules against dating, sex before marriage and, crucially, being with anyone other than a suitable Indian Muslim match approved by my parents.
The expectation that I would have an arranged marriage was something I understood from as early as I can remember. It’s the norm for many Indian people, and my family’s Muslim faith further sealed the restrictions. Growing up, the ban on dating wasn’t much of an issue. I was an awkward teenager, more interested in Harry Potter and indie music. The anxieties I had about my cultural background were related more to the clash I saw between it and the future I imagined for myself.
Regardless of a relationship, I knew that I wanted to live in a way that was outside the bounds of my family’s experiences. I wanted to live alone, but in my culture children live with their parents until they’re married. I wanted to go to gigs, to travel the world, and maybe never settle down or have children. All of these things felt impossible to me, because I didn’t see any other Indian-Muslim young people doing them – especially not girls.
But my parents have always encouraged us to embrace as much of Australian life as possible, and even though they had their misgivings, as I got older they allowed me to push some of their boundaries. Little by little, I started carving out my independence – first with concerts and weekend trips, then by moving out of home and making it clear that I didn’t want to have an arranged marriage. They accepted this, but it was with the implicit understanding that no arranged marriage meant no dating: a life alone was acceptable, but a life of sin was not.
Even though these concessions were made, I know that it was incredibly hard for my parents to let me drift away from our family’s close circle. We came to Australia in the ’90s and lived in a country town in NSW, with no other family to lean on. Our little unit of six has always been very close, and my parents celebrated our individuality while also connecting us to our culture. Fijian-Indian traditions, language and Islamic faith were woven into the fabric of our daily lives, and as much as I wanted something different for myself, I also mourned the loss of those connections to my family.
To say it was confusing would be an understatement, and I didn’t have many examples of other people like me, trying to juggle these competing influences. So when Chris came into the picture, I knew that I would be facing a difficult battle if we were to be together. It’s not that I had never seen interracial relationships in our community – but they all followed a particular path that went straight to an Islamic marriage and conversion of the non-Muslim partner. Once that occurred, our community was actually very welcoming.
But I knew that this process wouldn’t fit Chris and me. For a start, one of the things we share is our atheism – my own faith had changed a lot over the years, and my parents knew that Islam didn’t fit me any more. I do still have a connection to the teachings of Islam, but organised religion doesn’t align with my values, and Chris is the same.
So having an Islamic marriage was not something I felt I could ask him to do, especially because it felt like lying and disrespecting my family when neither of us really believed. Whatever way I looked at it, someone was going to get hurt.
I agonised for months over how or when to tell my parents that I had met Chris, and that we wanted to live together. In that time, I struggled to eat and sleep, was incredibly anxious, and felt completely adrift.
I found myself Googling for hours, trying to find some advice that fit my circumstances: “non-Indian partner story”; “how to tell Indian parents about white partner” etc. There were a few responses that I practically memorised, but little else to guide me.
In the end, I did the Millennial thing and emailed my parents to tell them about Chris. I laboured over the content, and then sent it with my heart in my throat, texting them to tell them to check their inbox. Then I turned off my phone, and burst into tears. The thing that all of my Googling couldn’t tell me was that there was never going to be a linear pathway forward.
“Having an Islamic marriage was not something I felt I could ask him to do. It felt like lying when neither of us really believed.”
Over the following year, we were swept along on a wave of emotions – acceptance, disappointment, love, anxiety, anger, fear, grief, loss. I had to understand that my parents weren’t just bringing their culture and religion to their processing of my decisions, but also their love of me, and their fears for my future.
Equally, Chris and I were each bringing our own baggage to the table, and it took years for us to fully work through it all. But the end result is that it’s now been 11 years, and on weekends I watch Chris play basketball with my nieces and nephew in the park, surrounded by our big, multicultural family, and I am still in disbelief that we managed to get to this point.
Back in that Melbourne bedroom, I chronicled my experiences on my blog, thinking that maybe one or two people would read it and find the solace I’d been looking for and never achieved.
I was surprised, then, at the number of emails I got over the years from people like me, who told me they’d found me by Googling “disappointing parents”. It amused me that I had somehow become the poster girl for disappointing your parents, but I was also glad to have made these fellow-migrant young people feel they were less alone.
Years later, I found myself circling these same issues while toiling away at my first novel, Once a Stranger. In the book, the characters are grappling with a similar situation to the one I went through, but the story isn’t about me. In a way, I see it as a sort of extension of the hope I had when I wrote my blogs. I wanted to offer a window into an experience that is so common in the diaspora of Indian communities but barely exists in the stories we can access in pop culture.
I dedicated the novel to Chris, and even doing that felt like a revelation. I remembered who I was, 11 years ago, typing with shaking fingers to tell my parents that Chris was in my life. I couldn’t have imagined getting to a point where I would openly name him in a dedication, and give copies of the book to my parents knowing that they love him and accept him as part of our family.
But that’s the thing I’ve learnt about parental disappointment. It is actually an expression of the impossible combination of love and fear parents have for their children. And to be loved that fiercely is a blessing, even when it feels like a curse.
Zoya Patel is the author of Once a Stranger (Hachette Australia), out now.
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