I've always been a bit headstrong. Once, as a kid, when I used the word "snot" in a restaurant, my parents warned me how much trouble I'd be in if I used it again. Unable to resist, I replied "Don't worry, it snot a problem." As a teenager, I was a walking, annoying embodiment of those "Question Authority" stickers. Everything was to be challenged, no request too simple to be disobeyed.
Luckily my parents didn't murder me, and I mellowed out with age, replacing rebelliousness with a gleeful enjoyment of being the family wild card. I loved calling home to tell them about my new lesbian roommate, navigating New York City, and working with schizophrenics. My open-minded Southern family seems to begrudgingly revel in my joie de vivre
, and I love them with my whole heart.
So imagine how much fun it was for me to call and inform them that I had fallen for a Pakistani Muslim. They were, of course, full of questions about him. "Muslim? But wait, can he even date you? Does he make you cover your head?"
His parents were not full of questions about me, however, because he'd decided not to tell them about me.The Cover-Up
This was my first experience with a guy from a South Asian family, and it didn't take long to realize that there are some real cultural differences. Here in America, individuality is accepted and expected -- rebellion is part of your development.
There, the expectation is to continually make choices to please your parents, even if it means compromising your own needs. Both behaviors are generalizations, I realize, and both have merits and downsides.
Naturally, I passed empathy and went straight to American arrogance with my boyfriend. "Why can't you just be yourself, don't they want you to be happy?" I'd ask, straight out of some terrible movie. He sighed, because he'd heard it all before.
Leaving the house when they visited, staying quiet while he was on the phone with them, hearing him deflect all the good Muslim women his mother wanted him to marry: These were things I endured quietly, when all I wanted was for him to be out and proud.
The Big Reveal
Eventually, things got serious enough that my boyfriend, taking an enormous risk, told his parents about me. That's when I got nervous. Though I wanted to go in and just be myself, something about being automatically disappointing just by existing knocked me into submission.
We met, and sat rigidly in the formal sitting room, the conversation stilted. They were very nice, but I was afraid I'd start telling dirty jokes if I spoke too much.
On the way home from that first meeting, my boyfriend, knowing that his parents would start Googling me immediately, asked if I'd consider taking down some "Muslim unfriendly" pictures down from my Facebook profile. I balked, arguing with him about how I could do what I wanted, and he said "You're right, totally, but if there's something small that can be done to make their lives easier, why not do it?"
That gave me something to chew on.
Compromises Without Compromising
By the time we got home, I had made my decision. I looked at my Facebook pictures and realized how immature I was being. These pictures weren't that great. Taking them down was a tiny thing, an act of consideration that wouldn't hurt me in the slightest.
Over the next few months I discovered that I could be myself around his parents, because being myself didn't just mean being headstrong. My boyfriend and I taught each other about respect and rebellion, and everyone got more comfortable.
Experiencing two different families from wildly different cultures has taught me a lot, but maybe one of the best things it's done is bring me a little bit closer to center.
My mom was shocked recently when I didn't protest as she held up a dress she thought I'd like at a local department store. But I've learned that part of being a good kid is picking your battles, and sometimes, it's about just shutting the heck up.
Emily Gordon is a Lemondrop contributor, blogger and journalist who lives in New York.