Monday, January 7, 2013

How Should a Desi Act With His American In-Laws

America can be a hostile place for a brown man. We don't forgive easily and it's not uncommon for a pardesi woman to be questioned by her family about her desi spouse or soon-to-be spouse. Some common questions you will hear:
  • What religion is he?
  • Does he wear a turban?
  • Does he expect you to stay home and not work?
  • Will he want you to move to India?
Of course these questions seem fair in writing but sometimes the emotion, tone of voice and attitude behind them is not. Even after the pardesi addresses these questions to her family, that doesn't mean the desi partner is readily accepted. Many pardesi in-laws will still be skeptical. It's possible the pardesi will have to sever ties with some family members or they may stop communicating with her.

While it's important for the desi partner to be himself while in the presence of her family, there are a few behaviors that should be limited or refrained from, especially until you've gained the families acceptance.

Your Pardesi MIL and FIL
Most pardesi's are not used to feet/knee touching and many not favorably respond to it. Unless you're determined this is a commitment you must keep, I would recommend not doing it at all.

Don't call them mom, dad, uncle or aunty ji. Mom and Dad are terms reserved for children. Some parents don't want to be called mom and dad even by their own children. Discuss this with your pardesi spouse before you address her parents.

It's very likely that her dad will ask you difficult and potentially scary questions. It's okay, this is normal and you should try not to be too nervous. While your answers matter, they don't matter nearly as much as your reactions. The father uses these questions to determine whether or not you really love and care for his child. American dad's are a lot tougher than Indian dads and they don't accept you simply because you're married or if you have good parents.

Some typical American dad type questions might be about your job, your education, your plans for the marriage. Because you're Indian you may also be asked about your green card status and where you plan to live. It's also likely that he will ask if you intend to take his daughter to India. Try to be prepared for these questions ahead of time so you won't be nervous when he asks them. Your pardesi spouse will be able to give you an idea of what may be asked and how to answer. 

Other Family Members
Siblings, uncles and aunts are typically called by their first names. Sometimes it's Uncle (insert name here) or Aunt (insert name here). We don't define them any differently so there is no distinction between the mother's eldest brother and the father's youngest sister. They are all uncles and aunts. Cousins are cousins, not sisters and brothers and siblings are known only by their name.

Use formal manners regardless of who you are meeting.
Wash your hands before every meal.
Say "please," "thank you," and "sorry" as they are needed.

In some communities in the US, you should say "sir" to men and "ma'am" to women. Appropriate use of the terms is determined by the setting you are in. For example, if her mom asks you do you want something to drink then you would say "yes ma'am."

It's not expected that you will turn down food and drinks when offered the first time. If you are thirsty or want to try some of the food or snacks, say yes the first time. Most Americans want you to be decisive. So when you're offered Sprite or sweet tea, pick one.

Honesty is critical when meeting your American in-laws. It is not acceptable to say what you think they want to hear or what will make them happy at the moment. Most Americans have good memories and if you say today that you have Masters' Degree in Engineering then next week you say that you are still in college they will remember that and won't respect you as much afterward. Yes, that is a small and seemingly insignificant lie but it will not be dismissed or forgiven easily. This will make you look bad to her parents. So make sure you speak accurately and honestly.

Be prepared to answer questions about your culture and heritage and family. Her family will be interested in finding out more about you. Meeting in-laws in the US is their way of getting to know you better. Answer them to the best of your ability and don't feel bad about saying "I don't know" when you don't have an answer. Ask your pardesi spouse to help you if you don't understand some of the questions.

Ask what kind of meat you're eating before you put it on your plate. There may be some kinds of meat in the foods you're not familiar with and don't want. It is not considered offensive to ask this and then decline based on your religious beliefs. If you don't eat cow or pig, it's okay to say so and make sure it's not in your food. You should not be expected to compromise your moral or religious values.

For those of you who have taken your desi spouse home to meet your family, what are some tips and experiences you would like to share?
Desi's who've met your in-laws, what worked for you? How did your in-laws receive you?


  1. This is so true and hilarious. I'm a desi-American married to a Jewish-American so I totally can relate. I was lucky because my in-laws received me very well and I never got the third degree from them (maybe because I'm a girl?). I also just try to be honest and my husband gave me a list of things his dad likes to talk about and a list of things his mom likes to talk about. He also said avoid talking about religion and politics, which is sort of common sense as topics to avoid when meeting anyone new.

    I love the part where you say, "Americans expect you to be direct." When someone offers me something to eat, I'm still in the habit of saying, "No, I'm fine." I expect them to ask again and insist.

    It was really hard for me to meet my husband's parents and not call them aunty or uncle.

    I think the best piece of advice I can give is to sort of be an anthropologist, or a journalist. My philosophy is that people love talking about themselves. So show that you are interested in them. Ask questions about the artwork in their house or the books on their shelves or the flowers in their garden. Ask them about where they grew up. Basically find what their interests are and ask good questions. Be Terry Gross from NPR. And that's not just for meeting your in-laws but for meeting people in general. Remember, you aren't being interviewed for a job, so don't just sit there and be quiet. You are interviewing them too!

  2. This is great advice. Thank you for sharing your story. It's always great to see how these events happen for others and I know many of my readers will benefit from you sharing.

  3. I just wanted to add a little emphasis on the honesty part! My husband, a desi, who I have been with for 3+ years still struggles with this. Unfortunately, we don't spend that much time with my family, I don't know if that adds to the pressure, but he still says things that are a not true in order to please or impress them. I know my husband is not a liar, but he has kind of given that impression to people and he feels really bad about it. Something he has been working on is letting his words pass through 3 filters- "Is it true?" "Is it necessary?" "Is it kind?" You don't always have to have something to say!

  4. Yes!! That is hard to learn. Even I sometimes feel like I need to have something to say. Sometimes silence is awkward. I'm glad he found a way that works for him so he can try to correct his behavior. Thanks for your comment!

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