The day my brother first introduced Linda to my Bangladeshi parents, I remember my mother anxiously jittering around the living room before their arrival, making sure every little aspect of the house was how she wanted it to appear. The table was set elegantly with her finest china. Halwas were thinly sliced in perfect geometric symmetry. The sweet scent of freshly fried jalebis, fresh off the pan, filled the living room. Traditional daal, mutton biriyani, aloo bhorta (mashed potato) and begun bhaji (fried eggplant) were kept in their hot plate pans. Fresh condensation from the recently prepared dishes slowly whited out the insides of the glass lid cover. All items were arranged closely together in a neat, close, huddle. A few cinnamon and vanilla scented candles were lit and set right next to the doorway. She was rubbing off dust with a Lysol wipe when the doorbell rang.
Pointing at me, she said, “Jao, tumi dorja khulo”. Go, you open the door. She said this because she didn’t want to be the first one to open the door. My mother always did this. It’s a Bengali thing. Although if you asked me what that thing was, I wouldn’t be able to tell you exactly why South Asian mothers prefer their children to welcome first-time guests. Maybe she thought I would be a friendlier face for Linda the first time around. Anyways, I did as I was told.
I had met Linda before. She greeted me with a hug. She entered our home with my brother in tow. When Linda saw my mother, she beamed with a huge American smile, eyebrows raised, cheeks raised, teeth in a perfect symmetrical grin. My mother also smiled, as loudly and as warmly as she could. They hugged and then she hugged my brother. It had been a year since he came back to visit us from his consulting job in Virginia. She was happy to see her son, but far more excited to see what sort of future daughter-in-law she would be dealing with.
My father, always the last one to arrive at every gathering of guests, came down the staircase and calmly greeted both my brother and Linda. When Linda went to hug him, he accepted warmly, but awkwardly too. The best way I could describe that awkwardness was when she wrapped her arms around him, he tentatively patted her on the back, and quickly backed off. Affection was never his strongest suit, but moreover, a hug from a future daughter-in-law, who was also white, was genuinely shocking to him. The dinner went smoothly. My father and mother, having lived in the US now for 15 years, were very affectionate towards Linda. Of course, my brother led the conversation, followed closely by Linda and myself. My father added a tidbit here and there. My mother was largely silent, only speaking when she saw our plates running out of food. Overall, a happy first gathering.
When my brother married the following year, the festivities were grand. We celebrated his wedding in both America and Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi wedding happened with huge fanfare. Cousins who I hadn’t met in years and extended families who I had never even met, attended the grand ceremony. On her wedding day, Linda looked absolutely beautiful in her bright red sari. Caked in traditional make-up and garnished in gold, she looked radiant and angelic. Everybody wanted to get a photo with the “shada bou (white wife)”. My parents were blushing and beaming when friends, relatives, and wedding guests came up to them and said what a fine beauty their son’s wife was. How my brother chose really well. Even though she was white, she looked like a really “bhalo mey (good girl)”. Linda enjoyed the attention. I craved the same for my wedding. Two years later when I spoke to my mother about who I was dating, the first thing she asked me was, “Where is he from?”. I told him about Alex. He was a banker who worked downtown. We met after I finished graduate school. He was originally from Oregon. He was shada (white).
My mother instantly reacted poorly. She complained about how there will be future marriage problems. “Shadader biyete onek divorce hoy”. Marriages with and between white people have a lot of divorces.
She judged that the two families will never get along. “Oder poribar khub different. Amader culture ar oder shathey milbey na.” Our families are different. Our culture won’t match theirs
She assessed that our children will never be Muslim. “Kibhabey amader dhormo palon korbey.” How will your children follow our religion?
I found that one particularly funny because throughout my young adult life, she completely neglected and/or denied the fact that her own children are completely non-religious. I couldn’t even remember the last time I prayed. The first comment didn’t bother me too much. It was an ignorant comment. Comments like these, I had gotten used to. Bangladeshi parents, and I’m sure many South Asian parents who are first-generation immigrants, make casual, discriminatory remarks about race. I won’t go into that, that’s a can of worms only Hasan Minhaj can unpack.
Other things she said partly because my brother’s marriage did not particularly go the way they had imagined it. My brother didn’t have marital problems with Linda at all. In fact, they bought a house together last year. However, my parents were never able to talk freely with my brother’s in-laws. In Bangladesh, how the parents interact with the shoshur-shashuri (in-laws) is important. If my brother had married a Bangladeshi girl, my parents could have expected fewer aloof in-laws. Not that to say that Linda’s parents didn’t like us, by any means. That was not the case at all. The issue was that when the two families met, the relationship was very cordial. Nothing like the typical union of families that my parents expected, especially my mother. So, I kind of got that. I understood where she was saying that.
What irked me most was her comment about religion. She implied that my brother, being a man, had more influence on raising his children. He had more influence than Linda, and he had enough influence to raise them as Muslims and keep them that way. This also implied that I, being a woman, had less influence on my family, and even less influence in determining their religion.
She also started down a rant where she assassinated Alex’s character based on his race, without even getting to know him.
“Shada cheley ra cheat korey.” White boys cheat.
“Ador korbey na.” He won’t take care of you.
Her rant culminated with how an interracial marriage will spoil Bangladeshi culture for my future children.
“Amader culture kichui bujhbena.” They won’t understand anything about our culture.
‘”Bangladesh pochondo korbey na.” They will hate Bangladesh.
“Tumi Khushi thaktey parba na.” You won’t be able to stay happy.
I was appalled by the number of criticisms she threw at our relationship without even trying to get to know Alex. I felt her comments were an attack on my ability to choose the right partner for my life. I spoke to my brother about how she reacted and I was equally mesmerized when he told me that she had never reacted like that about Linda before meeting her. He told me to relax, take a deep breath, and things will be fine after my parents met Alex.
Things didn’t get better. Alex and I loved each other. My mother and father both did not like him. Although he was clean-cut, worked hard, and earned a decent income, he was quiet by nature and not very talkative. My parents saw this as disinterest and really disliked his “lowkey” personality. For some odd reason, they also thought that he wouldn’t be a grand success. It’s flattering to think my Bangladeshi parents want the son of a rich business tycoon from Bangladesh to marry me. However, it’s completely spirit-crushing when no matter how hard I tried to get their approval, Alex’s race and my choice of a non-Bangladeshi, non-Muslim life partner got in the way.
Eventually Alex and I broke up. He thought my parents were too conservative and I didn’t appreciate that judgment. He was probably right, but hey, those are my parents and their approval means a lot to me. I could have been a rebel and gone against what they wanted, but it’s a romantic approach that is too typified nowadays in movies. For many of us South Asian girls, what our parents want really matter to us. In many ways, we are raised and programmed to pander for their approval.
Jackson Heights, NY