Guess who’s coming to dinner

March 12, 2005

The Globe and Mail


It was Diwali night, the Hindu festival of lights, and the temperature had dipped to ungodly lows. Decked in their good silk saris and satin salwar-kameezes, fingering the gold bangles on their wrists, a group of South Asian women swapped stories about their children, venting about their much too Canadian ways.

“Well, I’ve told my son that he can bring any girl to my house. Just don’t bring a BMW,” one woman remarked.

“A BMW?”

“Black. Muslim. White.”

Such stereotypical zingers are common among many South Asian parents, who prefer to have their children marry within their own culture. And, yes, there are rare cases of South Asian parents taking more severe measures against children, usually girls, who dare to defy them on what makes a suitable alliance.

Last week, a jury in New Westminister, B.C., began deliberations after the week-long trial of Rajinder Atwal, who is charged with second-degree murder in the death of his 17-year-old daughter, Amandeep, in July, 2003. The Crown alleges that Amandeep’s relationship with boyfriend Todd McIsaac, now 20, was the cause.

This case isn’t representative of the diverse range of reactions among South Asian parents, but interracial unions in many minority cultures are frowned upon.

“It’s not just South Asians and other races, it’s also about Hindus and Muslims, or Sikhs and Muslims, or Hindus and Christians,” says Soni Dasmohapatra, 29, community development co-ordinator at the Council of Agencies Serving South Asians.

“But it also depends on migration patterns and geographical locations. When I was growing up in Edmonton, there were hardly any South Asians around. It was okay if you dated other people from South Asia, it was better than dating someone white.”

While movies such as Monsoon Wedding and now Bride and Prejudice reflect some of the intergenerational tensions that arise, a more apt analogy for interracial marriages is perhaps provided by the upcoming movie Guess Who.

Starring black comedian Bernie Mac as a curmudgeonly father and white Ashton Kutcher as a potential son-in-law, Guess Who is a loose remake of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, starring Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier and Katharine Hepburn. Set in the sixties, the film dealt with the delicate situation when a black man and white woman announce their decision to marry to their parents.

Things have changed since, but not a whole lot.

Growing up in Chatham, Ont., Tripta Chandler didn’t have many Indian friends. So when she went to York University in Toronto, where she met Indian boys from suburbs with large Indian populations such as Mississauga and Brampton, she couldn’t relate to them.

“They were traditional Indian men,” says Ms. Chandler, 30, searching for words to describe them. “Mother’s boys. I couldn’t find an Indian man who could deal with what I wanted — working late, not being around to make food.”

Ms. Chandler met her husband Anthony at McGill University, where she studied law. She told her parents about him when they decided to get engaged.

“It was just a don’t-ask, don’t-tell policy,” Ms. Chandler says. “I wouldn’t have said anything unless it was serious.”

Although her parents were accepting and have adjusted well, it wasn’t an easy decision. Even now, Ms. Chandler realizes that her parents will have a better understanding with her brother-in-law, who is from India.

You never escape the guilt, of losing out on culture, language, even cooking, which will die with your parents, Ms. Chandler says.

So liberal South Asian women find themselves between a rock and a hard place. “You can marry someone North American and make your parents unhappy. Or you can follow tradition and make yourself unhappy. It’s worse for women, because they’re expected to make the home, build relations with family and in-laws, keep culture.”

The choice of a mate can depend on anything from the kind of neighbourhood you grow up in to maybe rebelling against conservative values, Ms. Dasmohapatra says.

Some second-generation Canadians grow up in ethnic neighbourhoods, others might find themselves a minority. Some decide to choose partners based on shared culture values. Others look outside the box.

“I don’t understand why you have to limit yourself,” Ms. Dasmohapatra says. “It’s stressful, wanting to please everybody. South Asian culture demands respect [from children]. It can feel like carrying the weight of world on your shoulders.”

Then, there’s the hierarchy of racial preference.

“Toronto is 43 per cent visible minority,” Ms. Dasmohapatra says. “Now you have many South Asian youth dating Caribbeans of African descent. The whole world has a big stigma with Africans, and within the South Asian culture, they are so shunned. South Asians dating blacks fight with a triple jeopardy. Besides family and society, there’s also the white man’s view.”

The pecking order sounds familiar to Irene Toye-Nakamura, 35, and her sister, Suelan Toye, 37, who trace their ancestry to the Chinese province of Taishan. From a young age, their parents tried to match-make them with boys in Chinese dancing, music and language classes.

The first time their mother laid eyes on Ms. Toye-Nakamura’s then-boyfriend, Kenji, she made her distaste clear. Japanese were at the lowest rung of preference among other visible minorities.

“My parents hated Japanese people because Japan had attacked China in the Second World War. In fact, part of the reason my family came to Canada was that Japanese soldiers had burnt down my father’s village,” Ms. Toye-Nakamura says.

The Toye-Nakamuras’s four-year courtship was very difficult. Ms. Toye-Nakamura had to hide her relationship from her parents. “I used to lie to my parents when I went out,” she says. “Kenji would hide behind a tree, and pop his head out when I came out of the door.

“One day, my dad came out and saw Kenji. He chased him down, yelling, ‘I see you.’ It was very embarrassing.”

Her parents came around when they realized that the marriage was inevitable. Still, right before she was married, her parents showed Ms. Toye-Nakamura Second World War videos where Japanese soldiers used Chinese babies for target practice.

“It was like having to choose between family and my partner,” she says. “I was fortunate because they realized they would lose me. I respect my parents, but they can’t impose their choice on me. I have an African-Canadian friend who married a white woman, and his mother hasn’t spoken to him in 10 years.”

Since Ms. Toye-Nakamura had broken the mould, it was easier for her sister to marry her Irish-Canadian husband. While her mother had softened at the prospect of her over-30 daughter getting married, there was a sense of unhappiness.

Having struggled with her identity as a child, Ms. Toye chose attributes such as a sense of humour and mutual understanding instead of culture. There’s a sense of having let her parents down, but it’s also her life to live, she says.

Marriage is the biggest hot-button topic between parents and children of immigrant families, says Usha George, associate dean of the faculty of social work and director of the Centre of Excellence for Research on Immigration and Settlement.

“It’s one of the sacred activities, it’s the most intense relationship,” she says. “It’s not like bringing a friend home after school.”

The opposition can be either explicit or implicit. The more authoritarian parents flatly tell their children that they can’t date someone outside their culture. The rational parents politely suggest that cultural differences aren’t easily wished away.

“There are some parents who just leave it up to their children, but they are rare,” Ms. George says
Sociologically, it’s about comfort zones. Ms. George points out that historically, even in the West, economic status, class and race decided suitable alliances.

It will take a long time for things to change, especially in the case of visible minorities, because interracial marriages challenge core values.

“I hate to say it, but there’s a hierarchy,” Ms. George says. “Social constructions of where you come from are still there. Immigrants who came 25 to 30 years ago changed their names; they don’t become white.

“And first-generation Canadians attribute values to colour, white being the highest. The young people may not follow it, but it’s definitely there among first generations.”

Aparita Bhandari is a Toronto writer.

Facing the folks

If you’re in a mixed-race relationship and your parents openly disapprove, it can be very painful. It can also be difficult if you sense disapproval, but your parents deny it. You want your parents to respect your choices. And it’s hard to open a dialogue with them at the time you probably need them most.

Here’s how to start:

Find support systems.

Is there someone in the family or community who is more open to listening to you than you think your parents are?

Try to have a conversation with mediators perhaps, to understand what you sense as prejudice. Is it a discriminatory attitude or genuine concerns about the monetary or employment status of your potential spouse?

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