America-India Relations
February 3, 2011 8:34 PM   Subscribe

Sparks are flying between myself and a workmate/friend from India. Help me get my head around the cultural aspect of this.

The long and the short of it: I'm American, she's Indian (from India), speaks Telugu, and is in her mid-20s. We've been friends for about two years, and I've always felt some tension between us. Over the last few months I've felt my interest increase, and I've been getting some clear signals from her as well. I've held to a pretty strict policy of no dating coworkers to this point, but I feel my resistance is getting eaten away.

Several years ago, I walked naively into another intercultural relationship with a girl and got burned. If I decide to see if this situation will turn into a relationship, I want to do it with my eyes open. What should a white, American, Christian, etc guy know about relationships with Indian, Hindu, etc. girls? Dating expectations, romance, marriage, religion, parents, roles, emotional expressiveness, everything.

I know I really ought to talk with her about most of this (as she's her own unique person), but I'm unsure about what I want to do, and I don't want to upset the situation or hurt her by seeming to lead her on.
posted by dogcat to Human Relations (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
talk to her about it, generalisation could very well hurt more than help at this point. No one here knows this girl, or what her background is - India is an incredibly diverse country with many different cultures, subcultures, religions etc. Generalisations at this point are just as likely to be wrong.
posted by smoke at 8:45 PM on February 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

You already said the main point: she's her own unique person, so the majority of your questions, like dating expectations, religion, etc. will depend on her. Parents can be another issue. I will say that if her parents are also in the States, that tends to tremendously help the situation in terms of being open with them about the relationship and seeing any potential to go towards marriage. I haven't done any scientific studies, but I have noticed that more South Indians than North Indians tend to marry non-Indians/Indians from different areas due to cultural factors and the fact that there aren't as many South Indians in the States. So that's a plus for you. Also a plus is that she's Telugu speaking, which means that she is likely from an area (Bangalore or Hyderabad) that has a lot of foreigners around, so the idea of dating/marrying someone from somewhere else is making (small) strides to becoming acceptable.

Honestly, what I would do is just tell her that you would like to take her out on a date. BUT, if she's uncomfortable with the idea, you're totally okay with that. Even if it's hard not to pursue, not putting pressure on her will work to your advantage later should she ever decide to take you up on the offer. I would caution you though - the mid-20s are prime time for families to start looking for potentials in the arranged marriage department. It's not something most Indians like to talk about to non-Indians, so don't be totally shocked if she tells you that is happening for her soon. Good luck!
posted by msk1985 at 8:50 PM on February 3, 2011

Ok I'm an Indian female in my mid-twenties in the US, also from a South Indian state so maybe I'm somewhat qualified to comment on this. It's really hard to generalize about these sorts of situations but there are few things that are generally true.
1. There's usually a lot of pressure to marry early. By mid-twenties, most of her peers will be engaged or married. Some will have children. By the time she's 30 or so the "marriage market" will have dwindled quite a bit so it's likely that she's looking to settle down more than American women of a comparable age.
2. She may or may not be a virgin. Premarital sex is officially frowned upon but is quite common.
3. There's little tolerance for divorce in Indian society. People are expected to marry once in a lifetime. This is gradually changing, but bear in mind that the cost of a divorce for her socially is likely to be much more than the cost of a divorce for you.
4. Parents are likely to want to be involved in marriage decisions much more so than in American society.
5. There might be some pressure to marry a good Indian guy rather than a foreigner.
Lest you be put off completely, all these things depend on many other factors. For instance, none of these things are really true for me. But these are the stereotypes and they're probably there for a reason. Bottom line though, talk to her. If you can give me more information about her family situation (for instance, is it common for people from her family to move abroad), income level (what do her parents do?), caste I could give you a better answer.
posted by peacheater at 8:51 PM on February 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

The hardest - but smartest - thing to do would be to go up to her at a good moment and say, "X, I'd like to ask you to dinner, would you consider going out with me on Friday?" Give her enough lead time, of course. Generalizations are evil, but most girls from non-American cultures will respond better to this formal and direct approach than to any sort of "let's hang out sometime" stuff. People actually date (in the 1950's American sense) much more outside America than you'd think, and this approach would be even more appreciated (and thus more likely to elicit a positive response) by someone - like a girl from India - for whom comprehending cultural dating cues can be tough going. Take it from a non-American girl, this is the best way to handle it without leading her on or upsetting her.

But how'd you get "burned" in your other relationship with someone of a different culture? Knowing that may make answering this well much more possible.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 8:52 PM on February 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

what smoke said - believe it or not, indians (whether in india or here) are spectacularly diverse in their values and expectations, everything depends on her, her family, her situation, and you wont know anything till you talk to her and get to know those aspects of her background.
posted by jak68 at 8:54 PM on February 3, 2011

She's not from another planet. Indians are fairly cosmopolitan with a diversity of values, experience, and expectations. Ask her out, just like you would any other love interest and take it from there. Issues like marriage, family and religion can be addressed as your relationship develops. It's not something to worry about this early given that you two haven't dated at all.
posted by special-k at 9:02 PM on February 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yep, what they said above. Ask her for an official date and that should give you your first clue about any future with her (ie: she may already be engaged, she may have to sneak out if she lives with her parents, or she may live by herself and do anything she wants). Then bring up these other issues after you have gone out a few times and are more comfortable talking with her.
posted by MsKim at 9:37 PM on February 3, 2011

I think I got burned in my other intercultural relationship because of assumptions that were there (on both sides) that weren't articulated. I'm looking for clues towards things like that, any particular areas of difference with this cultural combination, and cultural reference points. I'm trying to feed the analytical side of my psyche.
posted by dogcat at 11:23 PM on February 3, 2011

I've been in an intercultural relationship for nearly a decade. You really need to learn this stuff from the person you're interested in. Remind yourself that you're learning about her and her family and her life circumstances - not about Indian girls in general. Try not to frame every discussion of her beliefs and preferences in cultural terms - like you, she will have likes and dislikes which are entirely unrelated to her country of origin. Peacheater has some great advice, but I fear any generalisations you receive beyond hers will simply clutter your head with assumptions that make it harder for you to see your love interest as an individual.

One very general piece of piece of advice I can offer is to think about how reciprocity works within your family circle, and realise that it may work very differently in hers. As adults, my family and I pretty much do our own thing and handle our own problems. We'd help each other in a crisis but generally we don't ask much of each other. In my partner's family, there's a lot more give and take - sometimes it seems like the parents ask a lot of their kids, but then they reciprocate by offering lots of practical and emotional support and being very generous with their time and money. So if she talks about having obligations to her parents, don't dismiss them - they may be part of an important network of reciprocity you don't yet understand.

Hesitant as I am to recommend anything hosted at LiveJournal, the MasalaCouples community might have some useful information for you once you're already in a relationship. Avoid it for now, though - although I haven't read it for years, I remember it being home to levels of intercultural drama which might put you off entirely.
posted by embrangled at 2:19 AM on February 4, 2011

I think I got burned in my other intercultural relationship because of assumptions that were there (on both sides) that weren't articulated. I'm looking for clues towards things like that, any particular areas of difference with this cultural combination, and cultural reference points. I'm trying to feed the analytical side of my psyche.
posted by dogcat at 2:23 AM on February 4 [+] [!]

If you're asking metafilter for advice instead of the girl herself, you're at risk of doing the exact same thing all over again because differences and assumptions are still not being articulated between yourself and the girl.

No one is going to be able to tell you more about how this girl feels than the girl, her close friends, and her parents. Same goes for you. And, because we're all humans here, communication may fail again. Or, she may have an ulterior motive that she doesn't want to communicate. Ultimately, you may get burned again; it's a risk of falling in love. Just try to communicate with her as much as possible (assuming you guys get into or think about getting into a relationship), and ask her to do the same, even though it may feel foreign and artificial to you both at first.
posted by lesli212 at 5:56 AM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

What should a white, American, Christian, etc guy know about relationships with Indian, Hindu, etc. girls? Dating expectations, romance, marriage, religion, parents, roles, emotional expressiveness, everything.
I'm on the opposite side of the spectrum here. I'm a Telugu dude with a non-desi girlfriend fiancée1, so here's my two paise:

At this stage, all you want to be is be sure about this yourself; the usual relational dynamics don't vanish just because the dating process is cross-cultural. Can't stress this enough; cultural differences aren't as karmaic as they seem. To use a Telugu expression, గాలీ వానా వస్తే కథే లేదు - what's the point in waiting for the ending, if it's unlikely that a story(-telling session) can proceed because of external factors such as rain. That is to say, if your fundamentals are faulty, what's the point of spending social capital on convincing families as well.

In other words, I'd maintain a distinction between questions on the girl (expressiveness, personal expectations etc) and those on culture (public expectations, common pitfalls etc)
I think I got burned in my other intercultural relationship because of assumptions that were there (on both sides) that weren't articulated. I'm looking for clues towards things like that, any particular areas of difference with this cultural combination, and cultural reference points.
I'll now skip past relationship-focussed questions, and assume for a moment, that you folks have become a couple and are hurtling towards the big M word. For, let's not kid ourselves here; you may date a girl, but you will marry a family. I know it's a huge cliché, but there's no way around it; it is what it is.

Now, personal expectations from relationships are changing in India as fast as the monsoon changes directions, so it's quite difficult to give a generic answer. What I can say with certainty is that the old social network is more or less gone; while the expectation at one point in Telugu society was that of being in a joint family, the reality now is that, in the three generations after Independence, Telugu society has become extremely nuclear, and has spread surprisingly far and wide.

Attitudes have changed; however, depending on a complex combination of community and region, families have become both extremely liberal and conservative. Parochial caste-based attitudes have had a surprising resurgence in the last decade or so; however, being non-desi, it's possible that you might be saved most of that discriminatory attitudes.

You might, however, find some additional cultural baggage that may be tough to escape. I usually explain caste (jati) in terms of roti (bread) and beti (daughter); huuuuuuge number of jatis countrywide, but it all essentially boils down to whether you share roti, ie, whether you can eat together (because of religious dietary restrictions), or beti, ie, whether you can inter-marry. However, given your unique case, beti is perhaps a moot point; instead, the points to think about are as follows:roti, kapdaa (clothing), and makaan (house) 2

The easiest way to smoothen the path is to ask about roti: how comfortable is the girl with the stuff that you _regularly_ eat? For example, if you guys are together and all that, and you have this sudden craving for a, I don't know, beef-based cheeseburger, how would you deal with it? How would she deal with it? Likewise, if she suddenly gets a craving for, I don't know, vEDi gaarelu with gonguura pacchaDi, how would she deal with it?

Then there's the kapdaa question: this might seem a bit silly, but how comfortable are you in wearing "auspicious" clothing? By which I mean, if you're in a situation where you'll have to, say, perform some cultural rites with the girl, how comfortable would you be? What if this has to happen in rural India, in her native village or something? You will be overwhelmed at some point when you're introduced into a huge gathering where the general language in the air is Telugu and it all feels "Indian-y"; what is your coping strategy then? How would you minimize being overwhelmed?

The other question, and admittedly something that has popped up in the last two years, is about location (makaan): does the girl have plans of returning to India? Has she ever given that a thought? Have you visited India? If, in the event that the girl starts missing India, how likely are you to follow her to the motherlode? Location is a super crucial question, and will be a hard nut to crack.

Assuming you've talked about roti, kapdaa and makaan, and have "officially" become a couple (you'll know when you are) and have reached the, say, six-month mark, then it's time to get her to start talking to her folks as well. Contrary to expectations, Indian parents, while initially rigid, are ultimately amenable; the trick is to give them enough time to get used to the concept of having a non-desi in the family. That you're presumably separated by distance adds to the difficulty; as a general hint, video-calls are less stressful than email or phone-calls.

There are strategies to mitigate all of the challenges I've mentioned here with very simple steps - skills I picked up in my day-job as a facilitator between remote teams - but I won't mention them at this point. I'm just trying to provide a framework for you to think about cross-cultural difficulties, just as you asked.

And oh, paDamaTi sandhyaa raagam (Its making)

2 - Nehruvian political slogan, immortalized in this Hindi movie
posted by the cydonian at 8:55 AM on February 4, 2011 [7 favorites]

One more thing (boy am I in a talkative / procrastinating mood today!). I missed this :

I'm unsure about what I want to do, and I don't want to upset the situation or hurt her by seeming to lead her on.

Hmmm. In that case, all that cultural stuff is really chat-filter, and might actually overwhelm you; the only relevant question here is how you want to move forward. The simple answer is, just ask her out. Don't get distracted by questions on whether you want to move forward or not; you rightfully should answer that only after a few (mutually acknowledged!) dates, otherwise it's just conjecture.

Also, for what it's worth, the most successful Indic-non-desi couples I've seen have spent at least a few months in each other's countries _before_ tying the knot, even getting attached. Trust me, it _is_ a different world out there on the other side of the globe; might seem like I'm harping on this a tad too much, but it's no longer the 1990's anymore. What happens in Asia will matter quite a bit.

Again, not an insurmountable divide - this building bridges thing can become fun after a while - but it can quickly feel daunting if you don't have the right toolkit to deal with it.
posted by the cydonian at 9:14 AM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

What kinds of signals is she sending you? Sometimes I was friendly to some men and they immediately thought I was interested in them and wanted to date.
posted by anniecat at 4:17 PM on February 4, 2011

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