A breakdown on what dating is like for South Asians in Western Society
Dating is confusing as it is. Dating for young Indians in America(and other western countries) is particularly confusing because of the stigma that is imposed due to preconceived notions of western ideals about dating. One example is the emphasis on casual dating and premarital sex that are put into the head of NRI (non-resident Indian) elders because of the media along with Indian patriarchal propaganda. The struggle is as hefty as it sounds.
The preconceived notion that dating and premarital sex are mutually inclusive comes from what they see on television and movies. There is this idea that the biggest achievement a NRI youth can inherit, aside from a good grades and a good college admission, is the ability to hold on to his or her roots (specifically girls). Those who assimilate with Western customs such as being unable to speak in their mother-tongue, openly participating in dating, showing apathy towards reverential respect towards Indians, etc. are seen as embarrassments to their family name. Of course, these expectations are calming down and are being done away with altogether at a slow rate. However, they are still upheld due to the large cultural gap between South Asian, immigrant parents and their first-generation South Asian-American kids.
Most young adult South Asians would describe dating as innocent, modern courtship as opposed to South Asian elders in the community seeing it as impure or even sinful. However, even though first-generation South Asians are paving the way to normalize dating among the South Asian community, they still hold many traditional principles to heart . “My ideas on premarital sex come from my upbringing. It’s always been seen as taboo, and as of recently, just being surrounded by people who engage in premarital sex, I don’t see it as such a bad thing, but for me personally, I would never want to partake in it because I would feel guilty because it’s considered a big sin in Islam… I personally believe it would really hurt me if things went bad in the relationship. I want to save it for serious relationships,” Sophia Sheikh, a rising sophomore at UNC Chapel Hill explains. Young South Asians want to date but not at the expense of hurting their family, and because of that, most South Asian millennials often resort to hiding their dating life from their family.
“In high school, I did hide my relationship from my parents only because I knew that they would not approve of the fact that I was dating. Without having met my boyfriend or knowing anything about him, I was positive that they would jump to conclusions and assume the worst and fear that my [grades] would drop because he would pose as a “distraction”. After graduation, I told my parents, and though they were against the idea at first, they quickly let go of stereotypical thoughts after realizing that I wouldn’t let the fact that I was in a relationship hurt my grades,” rising-sophomore Anjalie Salunke from East Carolina University says. Rising- senior Anupama Joy at Green Hope High School similarly talks about how her parents are the main reason she is against dating. She admits that hypothetically if she ever did, it would be in secret, and hence firmly states that she would never date. “If I date in secret, then I would feel super guilty and feel like I’m a bad child…I [would be] going against my parents rule, and they just expect more more out of me,” she elaborates. Just like it is a ubiquitously acknowledged that good parenting sometimes requires sacrificing, often times kids are expected to sacrifice their own wants as a symbol of respect for their parents. This often comes in the form of staying abstinent from dating and romance until their parents allow it so.
The media loves covering the dating culture via sitcoms, reality dating shows, celebrity gossip channels, etc. The current era of television tries its hardest in covering intersectional dating by exploring relationships like LGBTQ, interracial, and people of color, but it often gets Indian relationships wrong. They frequently rely on stereotypes like being soft-spoken, being fearful of the opposite sex, or being clueless of dating customs like Raj Koothrappali from The Big Bang Theory, or they completely ignore adhering to the character’s culture and go on with a western characterization like Alex Parrish on Quantico and Cece Parekh from New Girl in order to keep things simple. This is not to say that some individuals in the South Asian community don’t practice dating like American culture does, but the disinterest to do proper research on dating culture for South Asians parallels to the real world where the lack of understanding what dating is like for an South Asian. This leads to people considering South Asians being unappealing to date. Samika Satheesh, a rising-senior at Green Hope High School, says she doesn’t consciously avoid dating like many of her friends but just doesn’t get the opportunity. “Someone actually told me once that he thought I was pretty, but he’s not really into Indians,” Satheesh says to which Anupama vehemently agreed to adding on that she can’t imagine a scenario where a non-South Asian boy would be interested in her.
The struggle is not much different in the motherland. With globalization, the dating scene in South Asia has expanded, and teenagers are no longer meeting each other behind trees and at night to avoid their parents. With the prominence of dating being featured in movies and media making a stance to push progressiveness, young-South Asians are becoming more open and liberal with their dating customs. Nevertheless, restrictive and oppressive ideas are still imposed by the elder generation, causing subtle but prevalent cultural tension. “ You’d only find the idea of dating being acceptable in very metropolitan type cities. Society here is definitely progressing towards getting comfortable with it because at the end of the day, a young adult is very capable of choosing their life partner and looking out for themselves, and soon enough the older generations will come to realize that,” explains eleventh-grader Nikitha Zacharia, a student at Head Start Educational Academy in Bangalore, Karnataka, India. At this point, one would wonder what the alternative is to dating that is acceptable. Arranged marriage is still as common as one might assume but more nuanced than how Americans are taught about it. Arranged marriage could be compared to Tinder, Bumble, or eHarmony, except instead of an app, you have your parents, your parent’s friends, your grandparents, your grandparent’s friends, your cousin’s friends, your cousin’s neighbor, your cousin’s neighbor’s friend’s cousin, and others recommending matches. Of these options, you get the final say and would go on a dates with parental supervision or consent. Of course, this only happens in suburban and metropolitan areas. Rural areas in South Asia are as archaic and provincial as most would assume.
As Zacharia puts it, “The whole idea of dating is something that you are never sure about that this age [because] society gives you so many mixed inputs”. On one hand, there is western media that normalizes casual dating and premarital sex, and on the other hand there is strong stigma against the concept that is often connected to family name and honor (which are still prevalent in South Asian society). Some adults condemn dating while other adults have come around to it with the justification that each generation will live the way it wants to. At the end of the day, South Asian countries are developing so fast economically that it is expected that politically and socially, the same developments occur, but beliefs and customs don’t just change over a decade. Dating is just as frustrating as reading this long breakdown about dating, so the best we can all do it approach dating as an adventure, and learn as you go. Part of dating is just going with the flow and respecting other by treating them the way they wanted to be treated. For additional information, check out NPR’s break down of South Asian dating called “How Young Muslims Define ‘Halal Dating’ For Themselves”.