When I first told my mother that I was seeing someone, the first thing she asked me was if the girl was Bangali. I said no. She asked me where she was from. I said Korea. I couldn’t tell how she reacted over the phone, but I imagine she was either grimacing or looking down at the floor, downcast. At least that was what I imagined when I heard an awkward silence that lasted for about ten seconds. She replied tenuously with a reluctant oh accha (oh right). This happened while I was in my final year of grad school. I had this conversation with my mother in February. By then, I had already been with Min-Seo (not her real name) for a year and a half and we were planning to get married.
My parents were supposed to come to visit that year in March. They changed their plans and came two weeks earlier. My mother called me the night before her flight and told me they were leaving for the airport. They would arrive in the US in two days. When I asked why they were coming so early, they said because they had some free time. Of course, she didn’t want to blurt out that this was a crisis; her son liked a woman who was not Bengali. Moreover, he chose a bocha (a derogatory term that literally means flat nose).
I went to pick them up from the airport. I saw them both coming out of customs, gave them a hug, and grabbed the trolley. In the car, my mother started her convincing process. She inquired lightly as to how we met but moved the conversation quickly into why we were a bad match. She will never understand our culture. There will always be a language barrier. Our kids would be confused about their culture. Our kids would be non-religious. Bocha people don’t get along well with Bengalis. There would never be any relationship with the in-laws. I knew this was coming, but I paid no heed to her backward rhetoric.
When they met Min-Seo, my mother wasn’t sold. Whereas my father was more accepting and talkative with her, my mother barely spoke to her. For the whole month, they were there, we only met with Min-Seo twice, once in the first week for lunch, and once in the last week for dinner. During our conversations, Min-Seo and my father spoke about life in America, what she studied, what her future plans were, and if she would like to live in Bangladesh. It was a bit of an interview, but one I thought my future wife was handling rather well. My mother barely spoke.
After my parents left the US, Min-Seo could tell my parents didn’t like her. She was upset, but this was something she expected. Even though I hadn’t met her parents, Min-Seo expected that her parents would also react similarly. Turns out Korean parents aren’t too fond of interracial marriages either.
Before the month of our wedding, we went to Bangladesh to plan the myriad of festivities. Although my parents invited Min-Seo to our home on multiple occasions and even asked her to stay at our place at my request, Min-Seo kindly denied, telling me she felt more comfortable at a hotel.
In many parts of South Asia, including Bangladesh, it is not uncommon to address people by their physical appearances. Fat kids are endearingly called motu (meaning fat). Skinny kids are endearingly called chikna (meaning skinny). Aunties and uncles are often quick to point out physical changes in a person’s weight, height, skin color, etc directly to their face with no actual thought about how that person might feel. This is especially exacerbated when addressing people of other nationalities, ethnicities, and of different skin colors. When those people are not around, stereotypes that those people might find insulting, simply turn into words they refer to those people by. Hence, the term bocha became a casual term my immediate and extended family members used to refer to Min-Seo when she wasn’t around.
I spent some idle time playing video games in my room. My room was right next to the drawing-room. My parents invited many guests over, handing decorated envelopes containing our wedding invitations. The walls in our house were thin. During conversations with guests over tea, on more than one occasion, I heard extended family members saying, bocha biye kortesey? (He’s marrying a flat nose?) with tones of disbelief.
After we married, Min-Seo and I went back to the US. We would visit Bangladesh once every two years. During those trips, I loved catching up with old friends. Min-Seo had a great time meeting old high-school friends and their wives. We had many conversations devoid of even a hint of casual racism. It was when I was with aunties and uncles that Min-Seo’s race became a conversation topic. It didn’t irk her as much as it irked me. She didn’t understand Bangla. I did, and no matter how much I tried to hide my feelings, I saw Min-Seo see through me. She could tell I was deeply embarrassed by my family’s ignorance.
Min Seo and I have been married for seven years now. Granted, there were many differences between Min-Seo and me that came to light only after we were married. One small example is that Min-Seo hates it when I wear shoes into the house. She’s a self-proclaimed germophobe, but she also admits that this insecurity comes from her Korean upbringing, wherein it is very common for guests to leave their shoes outside before entering a home. I complied with this rule during the first few months after our marriage, but over time, I found it very annoying, and I stopped listening to her. I hated walking barefoot on our cold tiled floor. As you might have already guessed, this small insignificant thing became a heated argument. I decided to give her this one and now I wear socks in the house. There were more instances of cultural disagreements, but overall we have managed to look past those and have managed to keep our marriage going strong.
My mother is more comfortable around Min-Seo, but she still feels like I made a mistake by marrying someone, as she puts it, outside our culture. I do understand why she would feel this way. Min-Seo and I sometimes argue about which religion we should push our kids towards. Even though I am not a practicing Muslim, I would like my children to know more about Islam. Min-Seo is Catholic. She doesn’t practice either but she feels that her connection with Jesus should be something she passes on. My mother stresses that my children, should be Muslim, and because of Min-Seo’s views on religion, she has developed a soft resentment towards her.
I care about what my mother thinks. I totally do not care about what extended family members think. However, I do know that those distant aunties and uncles are in her ear and influence how she thinks. In fact, this is probably a greater reflection of how Bengali parents think, especially those who had the 80s and 90s babies. It’s unfortunate that they feel angst towards my Korean wife, a feeling bred through a long-overlooked societal ignorance towards East Asians.