“What would you like to drink?” the bartender asked me.
“Two introspective whiskeys, please.”
“Sorry. Two Jack Honeys on the rocks.”
We come to this bar so often that I forget the bartenders are not privy to our thoughts, including what we have dubbed as our “introspective whiskey” spot. Every Friday is like a West Village version of This American Life. Behind our fancy whiskey glasses, we have discussed A to Z topics about what it means to be who we are. A few months ago, our introspective whiskeys stopped in the middle of the alphabet on the heavy letter M, the letter that stands for marriage.
Any desi can tell you that from a very young age, the word marriage is tossed around like the well-seasoned potatoes of masala dosa. Whether it’s this weekend’s activities, or the reason why your family has to go back to India this summer, or the prospects of the most popular children in local desi community, the words marriage and wedding are likely to persist in conversation from the age of…well, birth.
The role that marriage plays in desi households is complicated and requires generations to fully contextualize. In fact, I wrote an entire novel about this very subject — The Paths of Marriage. As I explained in my novel, for most desis, marriage is a way to group resources together to move forward. Marriage is a way to advance one’s social status, wealth, or both. What this idea of arranged marriage means for evolving social norms is difficult to grasp in an environment that does not stress the practice, as in growing up in the States.
My friend partaking in the marriage’s week’s edition of This Introspective Whiskey could easily relate having been raised by Asian immigrant parents. Though the terms for the practices are different for Taiwanese-Americans, she understood the South Asian American concept of arranged marriage at a cultural level.
Was there an expectation you’d have an arranged marriage?” I asked my friend.
“Not at all. What about you?”
“No, my mom said she didn’t want her same fate for her daughter.”
“What if she had?”
I stared into the amber depths of my glass while mulling over a hypothetical question I was so grateful had never become a reality. My novel drew on my real life — my mother really had shielded me from the expectation of having an arranged marriage, or even a marriage that involved being set up with an Indian man.
“To be honest, I never thought marriage was an option.”
“Yeah, me neither,” my friend replied.
I knew we both found the thought ironic given the central role marriage played in both of our cultural upbringings.
“Another round?” the bartender asked me.
“Yes, two more,” I replied for my friend and me.
My friend and I took the break in conversation as an excuse to people watch. In front of us stood a fine, diverse selection of NYC’s queers in the bar in which we host This Introspective Whiskey. In the corner of my eye, I spotted a lesbian couple holding hands, clearly in love. They embodied the essence of New York City style in their clothes, body language and demeanor. They were the definition of a new age of queer — a perfect symbiosis of no apologies and complete confidence in who they are. A man leaned in and asked what they were thinking, to which one of two girls replied, “I can’t wait to marry this woman.”
I smiled to myself at the thought these young women of perhaps 22 or 23 so easily associated marriage with their futures. In the past few years, American marriage equality for LGBTQ people has become an increasing reality. Slowly but surely, individual states are striking down clauses in their constitutions prohibiting adults of the same sex from getting married.
Yet as I stared at that young couple, I was once again reminded that one characteristic has been muddling with my embrace of same-sex marriage — my age. I grew up in a place and time in which society taught me marriage is meant for a man and a woman. Same-sex couples were forced to deal with a marital classification that was separate and very unequal. The persistent conversation topic of marriage in the desi community in the States thus clashed to form a constant reminder that same-sex couples were by legal definition less legitimate than their straight counterparts.
Growing up, somewhere in the background of “Any Desi Marriage X”, my friends and I would hear our parents discussing how they started putting money away for our engagement and marriage when we were 6-months old. Some of us would silently sigh and walk to the other side of the room in frustration, knowing that mini fortune our parents had amassed would really be used to buy a beach house. LGBTQ South Asian Americans (DesiQ’s) who grew up before the mainstream movement to accept LGBTQ equality know that the word marriage takes on a very different meaning than for them than it does for their straight desi peers.
Truly comprehending the idea that legal and societal rights of marriage can now be between any two consenting adults — regardless of sex — will not happen overnight. How then does marriage equality change the conversation when generations of DesiQ people (indeed all queer people) have spent their lives resigning themselves to a less than-than-equal marital status? How does marriage equality apply to DesiQ people who are facing an arranged marriage — a marriage that was not based on sexual, emotional or mental attraction in the first place? Even though DesiQ people have the legal option to marry their same-sex partner, the shift in desi communities in the States to place these marriages on equal footing will take much longer.
“So what do we do?” my friend asked.
Truth be told, I don’t know the answer. Marriage has been on my mind since I was a little child, but not in the sense of something that truly applied to me. After writing an entire book on the topic of marriage, I have so much more reflection left to do. Now as legal same-sex marriage becomes a reality for DesiQ people, we must start talking about how South Asian American societal standards apply to same-sex marriages. Perhaps one day, the fortunes our parents have amassed for their DesiQ child’s wedding will indeed go to a same-sex wedding. Until then, find me reflecting on the topic in the West Village for the next edition of This Introspective Whiskey.
* * *
Mala Kumar is an international development and ICT4D practitioner based out of New York City. Mala is excited to use her global network and The Paths of Marriage to connect people as part of a growing community and dialogue on building a more compassionate, open, and empathetic world. When not immersed in work or writing, you can find Mala exploring NYC’s culinary adventures, in an intense workout at the gym (often to mitigate the effects of said culinary adventure), planning her next international excursion, or blocking out subtitles on the latest French film. Contact her at [email protected].