Recently, Sheryl from Southern Life, Indian Wife got in touch with me to share her blog. I was amazed and thrilled by her remarkable story — happily married for 20 years to an Indian man in the US, and with five gorgeous children! So inspirational! I just had to find out more. Sheryl, and her husband Dharmesh, have been very honest and generous with their answers to my questions. I’m sure you’ll find what they have to say as interesting as I did. (Sheryl also says she’d be happy to give advice to anyone who needs it. Do have a read of her wonderful blog).
Where are you both from?
S: I really can’t call one place my home. My father had a goal of climbing the corporate ladder in his career, and moved us around the country frequently. By the time Dharmesh and I met in Memphis, Tennessee, I had lived in 8 states and attended 7 different schools. I was only sixteen. But, my parents were born and raised in Lousiville, Kentucky, and though we seldom visited family, I sort of feel like Kentucky is a home base. But now, we have lived in Georgia for 18 years, and have roots planted firmly in the red clay soil here.
I guess it is important to note that, wherever we lived, we always lived in exclusively white communities. In Memphis, which was a hotbed of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement, racism was extremely overt, and though my parents did not buy into that, we lived in white communities because that’s where the good schools were. I had only known one black person by the time I reached age 12. And the only Indians I knew were the twins Hardeep and Pardeep in my school. But they were so different in appearance, accent, and style, that we didn’t befriend them. This was in North Carolina, a very traditional, southern state, and it was very clear to all of us kids, that whites stick together socially. Right or wrong, this unspoken code was very real.
D: I’m from Johannesburg, South Africa. My parents were born there. My grandparents were from India. My mom’s family still has a big place in , but no one visits it anymore. My dad’s family used to own some kind of factory there, too, but sold it a few years ago.I’ve never been to India. I immigrated to Memphis in 1984 at age 14. It was during Apartheid, and we came to the US for a better life. I moved here without my parents to start school and lived with my two uncles, their wives, and my grandmother. My brother and cousins also did the same thing, and we shared a room at my uncles’ house. My community in South Africa had no whites. Just Indians, Muslims, and African servants.
Where and how did you meet? What attracted you to each other?
S: We met in Memphis in 1988. I was 16 and the new girl in town, again, and had found a job working in a local ice cream shop. It was owned by the dad of Dharmesh’s best friend. One summer night, when the crowd had died down, the girl I was working with, and I, chatted about boys for a while. I actually told her that I knew I would meet the person I would marry – that night. No one believes me when I tell the story, but it’s true. She will vouch for me. Crazy, huh?
Dharmesh came in that evening to borrow paper cups for his family’s own ice cream store (all of the ice shops in town were owned by Indians – all were friends or family from the same neighborhood outside of Johannesburg). I saw him and fireworks went off in my head. He was the most gorgeous boy I had ever laid eyes on. What attracted me to him? His huge smile, his jet black 80’s hair, his black eyes, just gorgeous. But most of all, it was his charm. Even today, he walks into a room, and charms the pants off of people. Flirty, smart, and genuine. Immediately, he made me feel special. He wasn’t like the cocky good ol’ boys I knew from school.
The more I got to know him, as we dated, the attraction deepened to a different level. I loved his commitment to his family, and his loyalty to people. He was the consummate Indian son…did everything for his parents, played with his little cousin/sisters, and took care of anyone who needed anything. I had never known anyone so selfless and he treated me with the same devotion and loyalty. I was a lonely girl with no network of family or friends in my new home, so he filled a void for me. He was hot and a family guy…what more could a girl want?
But, I have to add, that my mother always told me to be aware that, “the things that attract you to someone are the things you come to hate later.” In our case, that has been true for periods in our marriage. After we got married, his duty to his parents has been a divisive issue that we’ve worked hard to negotiate. The discussion continues to this day. It’s hard.
D: I saw her in the ice cream shop and thought she was very cute. She had a nice smile. We had chemistry right away. We had very similar drive and ambition, both came from family’s with “issues,” and both wanted the same things in life. Family, success.
How long have you been married for?
S: We’ve been married for 20 years. I was 19 and he was 22 when we tied the knot.
Who proposed and how?
S: He proposed, but it was after we talked about getting married a lot. He had inklings that the family was networking to find him a girl, and I kind of put the pressure on him to go ahead and get married, to head the matchmakers off at the pass. I was in college and he was in dental school at the time. We were so young.
D: I asked my parents for their okay first, then asked Sheryl’s dad for his blessing. He was cool. I tied the ring box to a balloon and put it in a box. Then hid in her parents’ living room. She came home and her folks told her she had a package. When she opened it, I came out and got on one knee and asked her to marry me. It was good her parents were there. Her mom cried.
How did your families react? Did they require much convincing?
S: Ha. After we got engaged, years later we found out, that family members scurried around to try to fix him up with a Gujarati girl before we could get married. They even brought one to the house to meet him. But he was clueless.
At risk of offending people, I can only say that, on the surface, his family said they accepted me. But in reality, I was treated like an interloper and often flat out ignored in many situations. He was the oldest son, and going to be a doctor. I didn’t fit in to their plan for him or for themselves. I had no place with them. At family dinners and functions, I couldn’t sit with him because I was a woman, but the women didn’t want me either. So, I was usually placed at the kids table. Humiliating. He quickly bucked the system and would just have me sit with him at meals and no one would say anything to him. However, this did not endear me to the women.
D: When I was going to propose, I sat my parents down to talk. They were very calm and supportive, and they offered to come with me. When I was around, no one ever said or did anything about Sheryl.
What kind of wedding was it?
S: We had a small Christian wedding, officiated by my preacher. We were lucky that he married us, because the fact that Dharmesh was Hindu was an issue. But, he agreed to do it in the end. His parents didn’t see the need for an Indian wedding, because his mom believes that God is God, and it didn’t matter to her if the ceremony was Hindu or Christian. I only had maybe twenty family members on my side of the church. His side was packed to the hilt. The reception was a mix of both cultures. There were about two hundred Indians, and about fifty Americans. My family was amazed at the numbers of people who he considered close family. For us, family is brothers, sisters, and we are close to first cousins sometimes. Any further out than that, we pretty much don’t claim.
His family arranged a vegetarian Indian buffet, and gave me sets of gold jewelry and saris. We also had a DJ with all kinds of music. We had a traditional tall wedding cake, and I wore my dream white wedding dress. Americans gave us the china settings and small appliances which I had registered for at department stores, while most Indians gave us cash, jewelry or watches.
You live in the “Bible Belt” in southern USA, where there are only pockets of Indians and very little intermarriage between groups. How do other people view you and react to you as a couple? What are some of the major challenges you’ve had to face?
S: We’ve had varying experiences over the years with people and situations here in the South.
We live outside Atlanta, which is quite culturally diverse, but in the outskirts we are still in an area steeped in southern values. Most people treat us like they would anyone else, but there are those who have a problem with us. At a party once, Dharmesh and I struck up a conversation with a gentlemen who seemed very nice and friendly. But when Dharmesh excused himself to get another drink, the man boldly asked me, with disdain in his voice, “Why are you with a guy like that? You’re white.” Then he laughed a little and asked, “Does he have you worshipping cows?”
I have learned not to mention religion to white people until I get to know them very well. I have a friend who is a devout Southern Baptist, which means she strives to live according to the literal word of God in the Bible. In her faith, the only way to salvation is through the acceptance of Jesus as one’s savior. Period, no exceptions. When Dharmesh’s grandmother passed away, my friend was distraught that the woman had never been baptized, and told me that it is a very sad that she would not go to heaven. She is still my friend. I can’t fault her for her beliefs and she had genuine concern. I just don’t go there with her or anyone else anymore.
As far as the pockets of Indians around us, we don’t associate with them often. They network through functions and know each other from their kids’ dance classes and going to the temple, but we are not a part of that so much either. Dharmesh’s parents have close ties, and keep us in the fold that way. It feels like participation in the Indian community here is an all-or-nothing thing. You’re either all in or your all out.
Dharmesh has faced the challenge of fitting into the good ol’ boys’ club in his profession. He is a dentist in a very rural area and has learned to relate to his patients as one of them. He has a southern accent, and talks about deer and hunting with male patients, even though he’s never done it before. I think when his patients see our family picture at the front desk, they also feel like he’s less of a foreigner.
How about your children. How do people react to them? And how to they relate and fit into two very different cultures?
My kids are awesome because they take everything in stride. Our five year old just figured out that he is half Indian and half white, but he just says it’s good because it’s easy to spot daddy after school, because he’s brown and stands out among the other parents.
There is much more diversity in schools these days than ever before, with the influx of Hispanics in our country. So kids are pretty accepting of differences now. My oldest son has dated a Hispanic girl and is now with a white girl, but he says he wants an Indian wedding. My daughter has talked about wearing a sari to her high school prom, and her white friends want to do the same. One of my 12 year old twins has said he likes telling friends stories about his Dada’s life in India, England and South Africa. He says they’re cool. I think being half Indian makes them feel unique and special.
But they are still on the fringe of Indian culture. As they get older, Dharmesh’s family is making more efforts to get them involved and feel welcome.
How much of your partner’s culture have you adopted? In what ways have you managed to blend the cultures and what have you kept separate?
S: I have tried to learn the cooking, but I’m not so good at it. I do better by adding Indian flare to dishes I already know. The biggest adaptation I have made is accepting the presence of family around us…all the time. His parents are at our house daily and that was hard for me to accept at first. We don’t live with them, but we might as well. At first I saw it as an intrusion, but now I wouldn’t have it any other way. I believe in reincarnation, and karma, but have kept my basic Christian values as well. I also feel like he is the head of the family and gladly let him take that role. The sanctity of the family has rubbed off on me.
D: I eat chicken. I was raised strict vegetarian, but when Sheryl got pregnant the first time, she told me she was going to feed him chicken. So, I figured I needed to eat chicken if I didn’t want to starve.
I was baptized. We wanted a common ground for the kids. I went to Catholic school, so I was okay with being Christian. But, I still believe in Hinduism. It’s all the same to me. No contradictions. God is God.
I keep my personal life and family business very private. That’s an Indian thing. I speak Gujarati with family. Sheryl and the kids don’t speak. I keep in touch with Indian friends and keep them separate from white friends. I will always take care of my parents. I don’t care what Americans think about that.
Can you explain one part of your partner’s culture that you found surprising?
S: There are so many! Arranged marriage and parental influence are the biggest ones. I believe in fairy tale romance, and I cannot imagine my family having anything to do with choosing my mate. Americans often marry the exact opposite of what their parents want for them. I was surprised by how much say Indian parents have in their kids’ lives. American kids spend years trying to separate from their parents! And that’s what the parents want…to see their kids grow up and make it on their own, independently.
D: Family values and money. In our families, what’s yours is mine. But Americans keep everything separate. A mom might sell her daughter a sofa, or a father might lend his son money. We just don’t do that. We give. My uncle paid for my private school, and I have helped his daughter in return. It’s family. Americans split the check to the penny at restaurants. That amuses me. And Americans talk and gossip about their families.Big no-no for us.
Which foods do you like most and least from each others’ countries?
S: I used to hate everything Indian. I was used to bland meat and potatoes. But I can’t think of any Indian food I don’t like anymore. My favorite foods are matter paneer and vegetable biryani. The hotter the better.
D: Favorite – hot wings Least- boiled anything. I do not like roasted Turkey and all the bland food at Thanksgiving.
What’s the best thing about being in a cross-cultural relationship?
S: It’s taught me to respect all people for their beliefs. And I love learning new things about his culture. The differences in our upbringing create the spice of our life – both good and bad. I earned a degree in anthropology just so I could understand cultures on a deeper level. That has helped.
D: Embracing differences, because there’s a lot of good in both cultures.
Do you have any advice for other cross-cultural couples?
S: Enjoy each other. Always remember why you came together in the first place. Sometimes you have to accept things that you don’t like when it comes to cultural differences. But, your partner and their culture are a package and you can’t change that. If you try, you change the person you love, and what’s the point in that? Never give ultimatums, and always talk to your partner in a way that they will want to listen. Sometimes professional therapy may be necessary, and that’s okay.
If you have kids, keep a united front for them. They need that security in their lives.
I write about my experiences, and that is therapeutic. Reach out to others who can relate to your feelings. That’s why I write about my life on my blog. I want to help others by sharing my journey on the bumpy road we’ve been on.
D: Always do what your wife says. (Spoken like a man!)