Cross-Cultural Dating Rules


A couple of years ago, I fell hard for a dark-haired Swedish drummer who was in a metal band called Obligatory Torture. (In its native form, Obligatorisk Tortyr, it sounded kind of sexy.) He had a tattoo, nose and tongue piercings, and pronounced "yogurt" like it began with a "j."As a first-generation Indian-American, I had a very different background from the Swede, which made us endlessly exotic to each other. He was deeply interested in my culture—and I was deeply interested in the fact that he was about as far away from being Indian as I could get. But we had little in common; in fact, our shared interests stopped at a love of the Rolling Stones (which, I quickly discovered, is not the key to lasting love). There were others before the Swede—a blue-eyed Southern boy; a freckled art-school student; a half-Jewish guitarist. But each of those relationships was missing something, and one by one, they dissolved and I was single again.

Growing up, I always assumed that I lacked the gene that made Indians of the opposite sex appealing to me. They seemed immature, unexciting, and too close to home to be attractive. It was hard to understand how I could be connected to my culture, but disconnected from the guys who populated it. I now know that when it comes to dating, the desire for the novel and exotic—for me, anyone who wasn't Indian—can compete with the need for familiarity. But in the end, which impulse should win out?

My mother, for one, would have been thrilled if my older sister or I had brought home a brown-skinned beau. She would have swooned as he ate with his right hand—the way we do—and cracked jokes in Hinglish (a Hindi-English hybrid) while deftly peeling a mango. She would have pronounced his name properly—probably better—than I could. He would have fit right in.

Instead, I scandalized my parents by inviting my unruly, willowy Swede home for the winter holidays. When my mother glimpsed the shiny metal knob attached to his tongue, she nearly choked on her rice and pickle. Their conversations in English-as-a-second-language were pileups of misunderstandings, awkward and lacking depth. It was no better when they traded gifts: traditional Swedish cookie-cutters for my parents, a fancy shaving razor for him. (Too bad Indians don't bake cookies and Swedish rockers adore their stubble.) But the drummer and I loved each other too fiercely to care, and dismissed the cultural dissonance as a casualty of romance. About a year later, though, I had to face the fact that the Swede was frustratingly deficient in the ambition department—he could barely commit to part-time work, while I was hungry for a career—and we ultimately parted ways.

Eventually, and to my surprise, the missing gene kicked in when I met a gainfully employed Indian-American guy. He was also a DJ of underground music, which satisfied my taste for subculture. And as a bonus, he had a tuft of chest hair (a common Indian trait) poking out from the top of his T-shirt—that, so help me, I actually thought was hot. We shared a strong, immediate attraction and a common identity. This made him novel, precious, and overwhelmingly intriguing despite my inner protest: But he's not my type—he's just like me!

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