My mother spent most of the summer in India. Upon picking her up at the airport and receiving a much-needed hug, she exclaims “You’re so dark!”
I spent one weekend outdoors the entire summer. My skin was one, maybe two shades darker. And after six weeks away, minutes after reuniting with her, I hear about my skin color.
The Indian fascination with being as fair as possible is as inexplicable as the Caucasian obsession with being tan; everyone wants what they don’t have. The fair-skinned folk want more melanin; the darker-skinned people want less.
This cultural notion traveled with our parents from India to the United States, as did the beliefs of coconut oil being the best treatment for dry hair and kajol being the best tool to line eyes.
However, our generation has a different approach to Indian beauty.
Our generation has replaced coconut oil with deep conditioning treatments. We opt for sharpened eye pencils over the traditional Indian kohl. Our application of sunscreen and proper clothing isn’t to ensure we don’t tan, but to protect our skin from the increasingly harmful UV rays.
It’s not about how fair our skin is, but taking care and making the most of it, from proper skin care to careful makeup application. While our mothers yearn for us to grow out long, glossy, thick black hair, we opt for a variety of cuts (from pixie to long locks), color (rich caramels to deep chocolates), and treatments (keratin to reduce frizz and coarseness).
Much of the second-generation Indian experience in the States has been redefining the traditions and values we learned from our parents to suit our modern lives. Beauty is no exception.
So while our mothers may bemoan about our tans lowering our loveliness, we smile and embrace our shades, and how lovely they really are.
With our parents’ generation, marriage occurred something like this:
Parents research, screen, and speak with parents of other single boys and girls until they mutually find suitable candidates for their children.
Parents set up introduction.
Boy meets girl.
Boy talks to girl.
Boy and girl decide they like each other.
Boy and girl get engaged, and married.
Boy and girl fall in love.
With our generation, growing up with the singsong phrase “first comes love, then comes marriage,” we found ourselves confused on how we would approach marriage. Would we meet someone, fall in love, and then get married like our non-Indian friends? Or would we be introduced to our spouses, walk around the sacred fire, and expect to fall in love like our parents did?
I’ve seen my South Asian friends marry people they’ve met and fallen in love with on their own. I’ve attended weddings of friends who met their spouses through the traditional arrangement, and watch them fall in love after the wedding. Lately, I’ve seen a combination of these two paths to holy matrimony merge and evolve the way arranged marriages are done:
Parents research, screen, and speak with parents of other single boys and girls until they mutually find suitable candidates for their children. (I’m convinced this will never change)
Boy and girl receive each other’s names and e-mail addresses. After Facebook and Google research, they e-mail.
If e-mails go well, they speak on the phone.
If phone conversations go well, they meet.
If the meeting goes well, they keep meeting. Meeting flows to dating.
Dating flows to engagement.
Engagement leads to a walk around the fire in the mandip and they live happily ever after.
I’ve seen three couples meet and marry through this relationship path in the past year, and their happiness is enviable. More and more of my Indian friends are open to being introduced to potentials through their parents, their friends’ parents, and well-meaning aunts and uncles.
No longer must we choose whether to find a spouse on our own or marry our parents’ choice. We can finally have the best of both paths.
As a child, I wanted nothing more than to don a black leotard, pale pink tights and slippers, wind my long hair in a bun, and plie at a barre with 15 other girls.
Instead, I spent my Saturday mornings donning a salwaar kameez, tying bells around my ankles, winding a dhupatta around my waist, and pounding a basement floor in time with my teacher hitting a wooden stick against a block.
I moved my head from side-to-side in exaggerated fashion. I twisted my hands in different positions in time with frantic footwork. I retold Hindu religious stories without saying a word, but through my hands, feet, and eyes. When performances rolled around, I fastened brightly colored pieces and heavy jewelry instead of slipping into a tutu. I lined my eyes with kohl and painted my lips red instead of sparkling my face with glitter. The bun my hair was wound up in remained the same as the ballerinas I aspired to be, but mine was encircled by paper flowers and accentuated with more sparkling jewelry. Under the bright lights of the stage, I smiled, I spun, I hit my feet in time with the drumming of the mridungam and the clang of my teacher’s small cymbals. I showed sorrow, I jumped, and from the second I stepped on stage to the final namaskar, I was in a zone where I simply danced, and nothing else.
I did this for years, the regular Saturday morning classes, the countless performances, the tears from my teacher scolding me for not practicing, the joy of learning a new item. It culminated in every dancer’s ultimate goal: the graduation performance, the arangatram.
I did mine when I was 13. And everything it took to give that 3-hour solo performance 12 years ago helped me get to where I am today, both as a dancer and a person.
I did get to wear my black leotard and pink tights. I tied the satin pointe shoes around my ankles and donned a tutu. I’ve worn sparkly costumes and soft black jazz shoes and dance in the tap, jazz and Broadway styles.
But it was the bells at my ankles, the dhupatta around my waist, and the clang of my teacher’s cymbals that first made me a dancer.
When I was 3 years old, I told my mother I wanted to be a fashion designer. She told me that I was going to be a doctor.
And like a good Indian daughter, I didn’t argue.
From the age of 3 until high school, I told everyone who asked that I wanted to be a doctor when I grew up. My punishment for misbehaving would be copying words from my father’s medical dictionary (which I later studied for my own amusement. Yes, I’m a nerd). I researched diseases and was convinced that I was suffering from a brain tumor when I had a headache, or that I had leukemia when the doctor told me my hemoglobin count was low (due to my vegetarian diet). I was so convinced that I would grow up to be a pediatric oncologist that I even announced it among my fellow SmithKline Beecham employees’ children at Take-Your-Kid-To-Work Day.
And then, I took Chem 142 my freshman year in college. And I quickly began examining other career options.
Under my father and cousin’s recommendations, I stuck with the science coursework, declaring a biochemistry major and looking at patent law as a career path. Struggling through the science coursework while flourishing in my history classes had me confused about what I really wanted to do, and the complaints and war stories I heard from friends already in law school had since put me off that path. I stumbled into a marketing internship that I adored and excelled at, and quickly changed my career plans to the business world.
After slaving through the required coursework for the biochemsitry and history dual degrees, I knew the last thing I wanted to do was more school. And that I definitely wanted to make money. Sales seemed like the best path to go, and I accepted my offer from Cisco Systems’ Sales Associates Program.
This program was no joke. Out of over 10,000 applicants, only 200 were selected to enter the year-long training program. And yet, whenever my parents’ friends asked what I was doing, they said I worked in “marketing” at Cisco. As if sales was an unacceptable job to have.
It was frustrating to listen to my mother talk about her friends’ children in medical school with a wistful voice and say, matter-of-factly “well at least you have a job.” I was confused and hurt whenever I told my Indian friends’ parents what I did, and the conversation passed over to the law student’s summer associateship applications or the engineer’s current projects. Apparently it wasn’t enough to have a job and financial independence in lieu of bankrupting my parents with a medical or legal education, but apparently that’s the Indian parents’ dream.
Things are (slightly) different now. I’m working at a pharmaceutical start-up, freelance writing, and taking business classes at Villanova, all which seem to garner pride from my parents. And I hope as we Indian-Americans make advances in fields other than medicine, engineering, and law, we encourage the future generations to take the paths less traveled as well.
And who knows? Literature, thanks to Jhumpa Lahiri, Aravind Adiga, Arundhati Roy, and Vikram Seth, may very well become the new medicine. But more on that another time…
As a teenager, as my friends got their first boyfriends and went on their first dates, my mother said only two words in response to those developments: “Focus. Study.”
I followed her advice. In high school, I focused on getting into a good college, studying hours for AP classes and the SAT. I devoted the time my friends spent on their boyfriends on the debate team, the school newspaper, volunteering, and perfecting my backhand on the tennis court. In college, I labored my way through the rigorous curriculum for my biochemistry and history majors and devoted hours to student government and internships. I certainly made time for fun, and even got my first taste of dating and relationships in college, but no one seemed to stick—I was too focused on my future.
Cue to present day. I still work hard, in both my career and writing. I traded in tennis for running half-marathons and continued to volunteer. I’ve learned how to cook a full South Indian meal and prepare chai the proper Indian way. I definitely play hard, enjoying the Philadelphia restaurant scene and nightlife. I continue to strive for my goals, both professionally and personally. And while I know my mother is proud of me, she now advises me with two new words: “Date. Marry.”
Amazing what 10 years will do to an Indian mother.
My mother, aunts, and even cousins are fixated on my getting married. This may have something to do with being the sole single cousin left in my family. It may be attributed to my being the “ideal marriageable age” of 25 years old. The marriage obsession could simply be my mother’s odd theory that my marriage will result in a less active social life. Whatever the reasons, I’m both amused and confused at my mother’s sudden change of advice.
And yes, mother, I’m trying. Dating is harder than it looks. Especially when he needs to meet your criteria (but more on that later).