Mixed Doubles

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Intercultural marriages not only help break down social barriers but also promote understanding and acceptance, write RAJNI ANAND LUTHRA and SALONI KOBER

An anthropologist by profession, Marcus Barber of Brisbane thought he was quite well acquainted with Indian wedding customs when he headed to Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, to wed his Indian bride Neha Sen.

But the juta chhupai tradition had him completely stumped.

Neha had asked him beforehand if he wanted any notes on what to expect. No, he had replied. He knew how to wriggle into the sherwani, was prepared for the mithai (sweet-meat) onslaught, and had vaguely practised his “lightbulb” moves for the dance floor.

But he did not expect that the bridesmaids would steal his shoes as he took them off for the Hindu religious ceremony. Or that they would demand a ransom for their return. As his bride’s cousins negotiated with him, the hapless Marcus had to turn to his dad, who coughed up the agreed-upon sum of, wait for it, $3000.

Brisbane’s Marcus Barber and Neha Sen

Sydney’s Peter Kober got off more easily at his Jaipur wedding to Saloni Agarwal. “I really enjoyed the juta chhupai event,” he says. “I was prepared for it and had some cash with me. But Saloni’s cousins didn’t realise I’m very good at negotiating! I bargained hard, and in the end I walked away with my shoes in hand, having spent only half of the money I had set aside for this. I think my brand new in-laws’ regard for me went up a few notches after that!”

For Andrei Hantu, though, the strategy at his Indian wedding to Smita Aggarwal in Sydney, was to keep moving around so his footwear stayed where it belonged, on his feet. Ultimately though, he did give in.

Saloni and Peter Kober

The tradition in question is a quaint custom at Indian wedding ceremonies. Taking place immediately after the solemnity of the rituals, it is aimed at bringing an element of fun to proceedings by involving the wider clan. The bridesmaids tease the groom by hiding his shoes, and relent only after he appeases them with a gift of cash.

For Marcus, Peter and Andrei, juta chhupai may well have been the moment the realisation dawned that they had married into a culture of chaos and commotion.

Their preferred words though, would probably be the more polite and genteel “culture of high-involvement”. These men are very accepting of differences between people.

In today’s globalised world, getting into a relationship with someone from a different culture has become commonplace. And with Australia’s rich multicultural melting pot, intercultural marriages are becoming the new norm.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, marriages of people born in different countries comprised 31.3 per cent of all marriages in 2012, compared with 28 per cent in 1992. In our community across Australia, it would be no exaggeration to say that there is perhaps one intercultural marriage in every Indian family.

Gone are the times of Mississippi Masala, in which the parents so vehemently opposed their daughter’s intercultural relationship that she chose to sever relations with them.

“Well, there was a bit of a cultural shock for Smita’s mother,” Andrei Hantu admits, “But she eventually came around. We’ve been married for six years now, and Smita’s family have been very open-minded and accommodating”.

Saloni Kober’s parents took to their Polish-born German son-in-law Peter Kober instantly. The two met at university and have been married for almost three years.

Shibu Dahm and wife Jenny-Lee

Neha Sen met her husband Marcus Barber also at university, in Queensland, in 2006. Her army-background family welcomed Marcus warmly. They have been married for five years.

For Jenny-Lee and Shibu Dahm, the case is reversed, with the Australian bride marrying her Bengali groom in a fully-ledged Hindu ceremony in Adelaide. Today Shibu’s parents live with the couple, and their young son Nikhil is soaking up the benefits of a bi-cultural, multi-generational household.

There are happy memories from each of the weddings that the couples recall fondly.

“For Peter, our big traditional wedding in Jaipur was an event full of new experiences,” Saloni recounts. “Our wedding was a three-day affair and the first day was the mehendi ceremony. Peter danced all night on the mehendi not realising that the actual ceremony for dancing, the Sangeet, was the next day. On the morning of the Sangeet ceremony his feet hurt, not only from the dancing, but also from wearing the Indian juti shoes. They hurt so much that he had to have a massage just to be able to walk. At the Sangeet function though, he was pumped up with energy and ended up dancing all night again”.

Neha relates the experiences of her husband’s family at their wedding. Some thirty members of the extended family flew in from Melbourne, keen to participate in the Indian wedding Marcus wanted. “Having arrived two days before the wedding, they all decided they wanted to wear Indian clothes. Luckily, my family engaged a local boutique that they know well, who had to call in all their tailors!”

Marcus Barber and Neha Sen

So the weddings were grand celebrations, but what about the marriages since then? When a boy and a girl from different cultures meet, the road to lifelong happiness has more than a few bumps. Does love really conquer all – despite the differences in race, nationality, culture and language? How difficult can it get, when ‘difference’ is the default setting?

Marriage needs compromise from both partners, and in an intercultural marriage the understanding needs to go beyond just who cleans the dishes and who takes the rubbish out. What festivals will be celebrated? How will you bring up your mixed-race children? What religious beliefs will you inculcate in them? How will you negotiate the extended family? These are just some of the issues that need to be discussed before diving into a lifelong commitment.

The realisation can also be daunting that, not only do these core beliefs have to be managed with partners, there must also be a willingness to accommodate families, communities and wider society. This can take time and effort, and can end up fostering rootlessness and identity confusion. Mostly though, this management of core beliefs sets the agenda for a relationship that is constantly being negotiated and renegotiated. As one scholar, Carine A Cools, has suggested, this continual re-negotiation between the couple, and between them and their social networks, is what defines the intercultural relationship: all their moves are negotiated exchanges.

Peter and Saloni Kober on their wedding day

Child rearing, for instance, can be a particularly contentious issue. Family therapists have noted how couples, for whom their differences are a source of pleasure, are often shocked when they become parents and realise that they have very different perceptions of how kids should be brought up. Cultural indoctrination influences expectations of discipline, appropriate gender behaviour, choice of toys, the teaching of manners and so on.

Over and above these ‘big’ questions, stress may arise from the more mundane aspects of daily life, such as differences in styles of communication, or even how the dishes are cleaned.

“Something we still struggle with is the language barrier,” Saloni reveals. “Peter’s parents do not speak any English which makes communicating with them on my own almost impossible. Another unexpected challenge is how we both tend to switch to our native languages when we are extremely tired”.

But what the Kobers have come to realise, showing a maturity beyond their years, is that though there are differences, they fundamentally just aren’t that important.

“Our marriage is just like any other marriage,” Saloni observes. “What binds us is that, despite our different heritage and upbringing, we have the same values, the same world view”.

The shared values no doubt include a willingness to learn and accept new traditions. Peter impressed his in-laws with his knowledge of little couplets or chuns as part of the games played after the wedding ceremony. “I took some help from Saloni’s brother-in-law – and Google – and was ready with my chuns when the time came. I think everyone was enthralled with my Hindi,” Peter says.

Peter and Saloni Kober

“One of the things Peter has learned to like about the Indian culture is the importance of family and how we are always ready to help each other out,” Saloni says. “But his absolute favourite thing would have to be the variety of vegetarian dishes we have in the Indian cuisine”.

“Both Saloni and her mum are fantastic cooks,” Peter chimes in. “Their food is so mind-bogglingly yummy that I have given up meat and become a vegetarian myself, a decision I have not regretted for a second”.

Peter also loves the colour and fun of Indian festivals like Holi and Diwali. “While I may not always understand every little aspect of the Indian festivals, I enjoy celebrating all of them as I know how important they are to Saloni,” he says.

“With Peter being a Buddhist, and me being a Hindu, we make sure to respect and understand each other’s religious beliefs,” says Saloni. “We attend both Buddhist Meditation sessions as well as Kirtans together. We try and bring this understanding into the house by having a little prayer area with idols of Indian deities as well as Buddha”.

Religion was never an issue for Smita and Andrei as far as their two children, Oliver and Alina, are concerned.

Smita Agarwal and Andrei Hantu

“Even though Andrei is an Orthodox Christian, he is very open minded and accepting of my culture and traditions,” Smita says. “We go to the temple as a family and celebrate all the big Hindu festivals. Visiting my family in India, my son Oliver, who is two and a half, saw my mother praying every morning with her hands together and he learned to do the same. As parents, Andrei and I plan to make sure our children understand the importance of religion as they grow older but we do not plan to force them into it. We would like to give them the freedom to choose”.

For Jenny-Lee Dahm, the option is clear. She and her husband Shibu will keep their toddler, Nikhil, connected with Indian culture as best as they can, while he is exposed to his Australian culture from the society around him.

“It is important for us that he is proud of both his Indian and Australian heritage,” Jenny-Lee says.

Jenny-Lee and Shibu Dahm

Nikhil watches as his Bengali grandmother observes all the pujas, and is already learning from her.

“I’m keen for Nikhil to learn the language too,” Jenny-Lee says. “Shibu himself doesn’t speak the language, having lived in New Zealand for 35 years, but Nikhil is already picking it up. For instance, when he talks to me he uses the word ‘milk’, but when he talks to my mother-in-law, he comes up with dudu!”

The ease with which these couples adapt their attitudes also shows in other areas. Peter and Andrei love their kurtas, which they find very comfortable, and Marcus is waiting for the shoe-stealing cousins’ weddings so he can bring his high-fashion sherwanis out again. His Fabindia shirts, though, get a reasonably regular outing. Jenny-Lee’s wardrobe is awash with saris and salwar kameez, which she wears regularly to her meetings at the local Indian association, of which she is a proud member.

Peter and Saloni Kober on their wedding day

The Indian partners have introduced Bollywood to their other halves too, though with not as much success. Andrei will give the musicals a miss: “I prefer movies with good character development and story like Black or Lagaan”. Jenny-Lee is partial to Bengali dramas and classical music, and has “learned to appreciate the humour in Bollywood movies – even though the storylines are silly”. Marcus knows a few words in Hindi, such as paagal which he believes is a term of endearment for his wife.

Meanwhile, another intercultural couple, Vikram Harinath and Jacqueline Pinson, have adopted a completely different but equally successful pattern for managing their cultural, racial and religious differences. In a secular approach, their preferred tactic is to be minimally involved in the practice of rituals and traditions. Vikram grew up in Sydney and doesn’t consider himself and Jacqui as a unit to be “anything other than two Aussies”.

Vikram Harinath and wife Jacqueline Pinson don’t consider their marriage as “anything other than two Aussies”

It is clear from our chats with all the couples that while, as in all marriages, communication is key, in interracial marriages there is added responsibility to communicate effectively because they share less culturally. The result is that they become very good at communicating their needs.

This is just the start of the transformational opportunities that intercultural marriages offer. Merely seeing things from a new perspective can be an eye-opener. The increased sensitivity to differences and similarities, and the willingness to accept and appreciate differences, also offer avenues for personal growth.

“I feel sometimes that my marriage has made me more open-minded,” says Saloni. “I put my own judgments and opinions aside when I’m in Peter’s world. It makes me more flexible and patient. I’m always conscious that there’s more than one way of looking at the world”.

There is no doubt that the cultural differences are enhancing this particular marriage.

At the end of the day, it seems that other people outside the relationship can have a bigger problem accepting these marriages, and all they entail, rather than the couple themselves. After all, every marriage, regardless of cultural background, requires compromise and adjustment from both husband and wife.

Making an intercultural marriage work might require patience and dedication, but isn’t that true for any successful and happy marriage?