Navigating Friendships in an Interracial Marriage
By Sheryl Parbhoo
Managing Friends in an Interracial Marriage
I’m a pretty average Southern woman. I have fair skin, a bit of a Southern twang, and have always blended easily into a crowd. I am also the wife of an Indian-American man who emigrated from a tight-knit Gujarati community in South Africa to a tight-knit Gujarati community in Tennessee.
When we got married twenty-three years ago, I not only married him, but also his family, and the huge group of buddies he had grown up with! Talk about a hard nut to crack – but, I had to try to fit in somehow; I loved my husband and these people were a part of him.
I was in a tight spot though. Although I was raised that I could be friends with whomever I chose, this very traditional community still separated the sexes in most social situations, so I had no place in this mix. I often felt disapproving eyes on me from the kitchen while chatting with the guys. While his female cousins were always lovely and welcoming, I had no female Indian friends outside of the family. None rushed to befriend me. We simply had nothing in common.
They didn’t date, so my having dated and married – gasp- one of their guys, automatically set me apart from them. Also, most of them had either known each other since birth, or their parents or grandparents had grown up together. I was just an unknown white girl from Tennessee and though the women were often courteous to me, there were no invitations to go shopping or have lunch together either.
So I hung with my husband and the rowdy guys, and made some very good friends in the process. I got to know Indian music and could recite lyrics from popular songs, and, to the amusement of some, I learned how to curse in Gujarati. I joked along with them about Indian Standard Time, idiosyncratic Indian mother-in-laws, and good-naturedly poked fun at the quirks in Indian culture. Over a few years, a few women joined our circle, and one sweet woman took the leap to ignore our differences and became my friend.
That all changed one day when she called me up to confront me.
“Sheryl, there are people in our group who don’t want you around anymore.”
I felt punched in the gut and asked why.
“Because you say things about our culture. They’re offended because it’s our culture, not yours. Like, we can joke about Indian Standard Time, but you can’t. You’re not one of us.”
All I could think was “Wow.” These people who were friendly to me at dinners and over drinks, preferred if I wasn’t even there.
I felt betrayed, but, I realized they were absolutely right.
I am white. I am a Southerner. I am also the wife of a really amazing guy who is Indian, but I shouldn’t have tried to be Indian-ish to fit in with his friends. I shouldn’t have to.
Take me the way I am, or not at all.
As it turned out, some of them chose not at all. That’s okay with me though, because some of the best friends I still have today did choose my friendship.
Soon after the rift, my husband and I moved to Atlanta. Like us, our Indian friends were getting married, starting careers, and settling down across the country. We all became busy with jobs, babies, school activities and homework. We lost touch.
My husband and I now live in a suburb that has exactly one Indian citizen – and he is it. I’ve stopped trying to be someone I wasn’t, because the pressure was off. When we get together with his family, I love spending time with his cousins and sisters-in-law, and am proud to be their bhabhi. But, our daily friend circle has morphed into the parents of our kids’ friends.
Our ethnicities have nothing to do with our friendships. We can talk about politics, religion, kids, our parents…and honour our differences.
Today, our dearest friends are Jewish, Italian, Catholic, Southern, and Yankee – young and old. We can poke fun at each other’s quirks, and take what we give. We loyally look out for each other. Have you heard the joke about a Jew, a Catholic, a Hindu and a Mormon walking into a bar? Have a drink with us one Friday, and you’ll see it for yourself.
As for those Indian friends of our younger years…time heals many wounds. Over fifty percent of my Facebook friends are now Indian, some of whom were the ones that shunned me long ago. We are all grown up now, a little frayed around the edges, and a little worn down from life. I love connecting with many of them, seeing pictures of their families, and reading stories of their successes. I’ve had profound conversations on Messenger with some of the Indian women who snubbed me, and to my shock, have even been thanked by one of them for my frank discussions on my cross-cultural blog, Southern Life, Indian Wife. Times have changed, we have changed.
I no longer feel like the white thumb sticking out in the crowd. Whether spending time with our local friends on a Friday night over pizza, spending time with relatives, or meeting up occasionally with long-lost friends, I am grateful that we all see each other for who we are now. Who cares if I’m white, or they’re Indian or Jewish.
We are friends.
About the Author
Sheryl Parbhoo is a freelance writer, blogger, author, and mother of five. She is a native southerner living in Georgia, and has been happily married to her Indian husband for 23 years. When she is not writing, you’ll find her chauffeuring kids, hanging with friends, and watching movies with her family.
With a degree in anthropology and a lifetime of cross-cultural family experience, Sheryl writes from the inside-out about cross cultural issues. She believes that there is humour in our differences, beauty in our commonalities, and that a good laugh at oneself is a great step towards tolerance. Her novel, The Unexpected Daughter, a story of the tumultuous blurring of cultural lines in the lives of three people, is due to be released in August 2015.
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