Bridging Cultures / Islam

Meeting the In-Laws – bridging the cultural divide

meeting your in-lawsIt’s no surprise that the first time I traveled to Edinburgh to visit K’s parents I was incredibly nervous. No-one would deny that meeting their in-laws for the first time is stressful; they’re probably the only other set of parents that you’ll hope to impress and please as much as your own. Now up the ante and throw in a language barrier, completely different cultural background and a pre-conceived dislike to overcome and you’ll have some idea of what I faced. I was entering a house where I was not entirely welcome. Despite meeting K’s mother and siblings before, I had yet to meet his father and grandfather – they had refused to attend our wedding. K had gone against his father’s wishes in marrying me, a white girl, depriving him of the possibility of forming an alliance of his choice with another Pakistani family. I was a walking advertisement of how his eldest child had disobeyed his wishes and succumbed to the temptations of the West. This wasn’t going to be easy.

A few months after the wedding, K and I planned a visit to Edinburgh, determined to try and build bridges. We had already sent gifts of kurta shalwar and lenghas to everyone in the family before the wedding, from his grandfather down to his youngest brother.
Kurta shalwaar wedding lengha

We hoped the passing of time had helped a little. As the trip drew nearer I enlisted K’s help in compiling a list of Do’s & Don’ts, to help me navigate the cultural minefield and minimise the risk of (further) offending anyone. I genuinely wanted to make a good impression. I knew to eat with my right hand only, keep my hair covered, to address my parents-in-law using ji, a term of respect, and to keep my gaze lowered. I knew not to fidget, crack my fingers or do anything that would single me out for ridicule or disapproval and to say as little as possible about my past and my family. None of it would paint me in a good light (this was partly due to the gulf of cultural differences and partly the difficult relationship I had with my parents; plus mental illness in the family is never a good spousal selling point).

I had never done anything this difficult before, I felt like the biblical Daniel entering the lion’s den. I was terrified of slipping up. There seemed to be so many potential pitfalls. I was convinced I would offend everyone without even trying, such was the power of my malignant, maleficent influence! For the entire six-hour journey I  pestered K, “Is there anything you’ve forgotten to tell me about? Can you think of anything else I need to be careful of?” until, in sheer desperation, he switched the CD player on. My palms were sweaty, my mouth was dry. It was a long drive.

When we finally arrived in Edinburgh, it was late at night. I was wearing shalwaar kameez and as we drew nearer to the house I pulled my duputta over my hair and secured it by throwing the ends over each shoulder. It was a silky material and I fretted about it slipping off without my knowledge. Self-consciously, I tugged at it every few minutes, making minor adjustments. Right then, I envied women who had worn this all their lives, and whose movements seemed unrestricted by the fear of dislodging it. I could already feel my shoulder muscles starting to protest from being constantly tensed.

The moment I had dreaded arrived as we pulled up outside the house. I ignored the overwhelming urge to run, very fast, in the opposite direction and followed K to the door. His mother answered and with a murmured “Assalaamu aleikum”, she greeted us both in the customary way; a hug, cheek-to-cheek first on one side, then the other, and back to the original side. Then we followed her through to the lounge.

Five pairs of eyes turned to assess me and the room seemed to shrink, its walls closing in around me. I suddenly felt huge and ungainly – uncomfortable as the centre of attention. Following K’s lead, I waited meekly while he greeted his father with a handclasp and a “man-hug”, then murmured “Assalaamu aleikum” and briefly met my father-in-law’s gaze before returning my attention to the carpet. With no knowledge of the language, K had assured me I had the easy ride. I was required only to appear modest, polite and demure. Although there’s nothing wrong in being seen as a strong woman, it’s quiet strength that is desirable in South Asian circles. An aggressive and confrontational woman will struggle to earn male respect. Anyway, it was my first meeting with my father-in-law and I didn’t want to appear forward so I ignored my western inclination to present a strong and confident image, forgot about the younger pairs of eyes silently watching and weighing up and continued with my study of the carpet pattern while I listened to the Punjabi exchanges and tried to gauge their tone.

As with most highly anticipated moments of extreme awkwardness or anxiety, the reality turned out to be banal and unremarkable. Of course K’s father wasn’t going to rant and rave and throw us out. There were social conventions to be observed. Most South Asians are skilled in using words to wound and wouldn’t chose to lose face by being so openly inhospitable. The weight of cultural expectations would be brought to bear later, probably without my knowledge, as I didn’t yet speak the lingo. For now, I could see, everyone was as curious about me as I was nervous about them.

Later, when K and I were alone, I asked him how he thought it went. Apparently his father thought I was nicely dressed and was impressed with my knowledge of Islam. But suspicion is hard to shift. He had asked me, in halting English, a question that he would repeat again and again in the future… “Aisha…. why you…er.. . marry my son?” I’m not sure my honest but clumsily worded Urdu reply, “Woh bohut achchaa aadmi hai” (He’s a good man) did much to allay his concerns.

20 thoughts on “Meeting the In-Laws – bridging the cultural divide

  1. Crikey, what a thing to prepare for and go through.

    I met my future in-laws on a surprise trip to Australia. The joys of dating a girl from the other side of the world meant that I had been ‘going out’ with her for 9 months before I met her parents. In fact, we even owned a house together by then (we moved fast!).

    We turned up at her parents’ house on Christmas Eve and surprised them on the doorstep. It was very awkward, the atmosphere remained tense for several days, and her father kept reminding me what a nice guy her ex-boyfriend had been. Suffice it to say, we survived this experience and we celebrated our 5 year wedding anniversary last month. But, like I said, this experience was nothing compared to what I’ve just read in your post! Congrats on making it to the other side.

    • Oooooh, a surprise husband-to-be unveiling! You two were brave! Well done Russ for winning them over – sounds like you had your own “Meet The Parents” going on there. Are you in the “circle of trust” yet?
      We’ll be celebrating our 10 year anniversary this year, so any doubts my in-laws might have had MUST be fading by now, or maybe they’re of the opinion there’s always hope… 😮

  2. Great story…hang in there and they’ll grow to love you or at least respect you.
    My in-laws were Norwegian and couldn’t speak a word of English and I certainly couldn’t talk Norwegian. It took time, but we got close.

  3. I was nervous to meet my future mother in law due to her high (and sometimes thoroughly unrealistic) expectations, but it was nothing as dramatic as this. With us, being from the same culture (and we not only had Christianity in common but also the same denomination) made it far easier. I can’t imagine meeting in laws of another culture who were less than enamored of their son’s choice of spouse. I’m sure you’ve changed their minds since then.

  4. You probably beat me hands down on the knowledge of Islam. I’ll admit mine is sketchy. I have read some, merely to gain a better understanding, but as I have do desire to follow any religion, I don’t go too far. I do try to cover my hair at prayer times, but invariably I never know exactly when that is as Mr O is quite flexible!

    Luckily for me, my husband comes from a family where there had laready been much marrying across religious lines, so I was simply another variation, really. I’m not sure I’d have handled your situation quite as well as you did!

  5. I would not have lasted five seconds, you have far more strength than I do. I agree, though meeting inlaws is not an easy task for anyone. My mother-in-law did not like me at all, my crime, I married her son and was going to take all his money (which is funny, since I had a higher income than him). It was over twenty years later that she finally accepted me, and this was only because her eldest daughter had divorced her husband. Go figure.

    • The thing is, joining another family is always going to be tough. Every family is like a different country – with their own customs, methods of communication, brand of humour and levels of tolerance. Even when they live on the same street! They’re like separate little eco-systems, existing side-by-side. Joining one from a different country or cultural background is like Culture-shock X2!

  6. Very entertaining! I felt your anxiety as I read about your preparations for a nerve-racking situation. It’s funny how the things we worry most about end up being anti-climaxes in a way, and never usually half as bad as we feared. I just wish I could stop worrying myself silly about stuff that doesn’t happen.

    • I know what you mean. I’m always imaging my nearest and dearest meeting with terrible accidents. Funny how you grow more fearful as you get older. I remember getting on a swing when I took the kids to the park, and swinging as high as I could, like I used to as a kid, “Blimey!” I thought, “This doesn’t feel very safe…”

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