My in-laws and I had a contentious beginning. For weeks after my husband and I announced our engagement, Varghese’s family resisted. They refused to meet me (What was the point? I wouldn’t last), gathering instead with an array of uncles to discuss the obstacles. They had expected that their son would consult them about any potential match. For him to go off and find someone – someone who seemed to them entirely random – it just wasn’t the way it was done. They had no guarantees of my propriety, my suitability for marriage, or the solidity of my family. Also, I’m White, of European descent.
His rogue action also seemingly confirmed their concerns that he was distancing himself from their tight-knit community. “I’ve seen him moving away from you for some years now. If he does this, you’ll lose him forever,” a family member observed to his parents.
Since my husband’s family’s move to the U.S., friends in the church had become surrogate family, with four or five close couples standing in for all the milestones at which blood relatives could not be present. If the next generation chose non-Indian partners, what chance would they have at preserving this community? “All your children will know of their heritage is Bollywood and the Taj Mahal,” one friend warned. There was a political viewpoint, too: that our marriage would perpetuate a colonial dynamic that subjugated him to me.
The discussions were heated, and if my fiancé was present, they inevitably became so painful that he had to leave. At one point, one of his family members called me at work, trying for a cooler atmosphere, some woman-to-woman sense. Even she couldn’t help building to a declarative climax: “Don’t you understand? You will never be accepted!”
I can’t say whether I’d been accepted, but by the time we decided to travel to India together six years later, it was clear I was there to stay.
Finding common ground over food
Our children were not-quite-two and not-quite-four. My own mother thought us crazy to undertake such an adventure with kids that age, but my husband’s grandmother – his only remaining grandparent – was 93. I wanted us to meet her, and I had recently lost a grandparent myself. We couldn’t risk waiting. In March of 2013, we arranged to accompany my parents-in-law, Aleyamma and Sunny, to their hometowns of Chengannur and Perumbavoor in the Ernakulum region of Kerala.
By this time, we were already on a better path. For starters, we had found common ground in the kitchen. The first time we went to eat at his parents’ house, Varghese advised me well. “Try a little of everything first, but don’t fill up,” he told me. “You want to be able to go back for seconds.”
While not universal, if culturally appropriate and resources allow, second helpings often demonstrate appreciation for the food and compliment the cook. Taking a little of everything and then reloading my plate with my favorites, I delivered. The gusto with which I enjoyed her food pleased Aleyamma and amused Sunny.
I wasn’t acting. I’m enthusiastic about all things food-related; for cooking and eating and learning essential phrases such as “Have you eaten?” and “Yes, I would like more” in Malayalam. Aleyamma and I began to enjoy cooking together, trading recipes and garden produce, sneaking an extra cup of coffee when no one else was around.
Our babies weren’t good sleepers, and anxiety trolled me, especially with our first. Like my own mother, my mother-in-law had swept in when they were born, cooking for us, helping us bathe them, soothing our nerves and praying for us. I was deeply grateful for this care: for her reassurance, her restorative soups, and her quiet, off-key singing.
But I didn’t yet feel comfortable or at ease with my in-laws. I saw our trip as a kind of duty, and traveling with my in-laws as a challenge to endure. I didn’t anticipate that the chance to experience their home, with them as my guides, would become an inflection point for deepening our relationship.
From unease to understanding
Immediately upon our arrival in Kochi, I understood that I had underestimated the value of local expertise. It would have been a terrible idea for us to drive ourselves, for example, as the Indian style is at once more freewheeling, more synthesized, and more interdependent than the way I learned. They organized all the transportation.
When I longed to visit a tea stand in the wee hours of a jet-lagged morning, Sunny gently explained that it would be inappropriate for me to go alone. They played with the kids, too little to understand the jet lag but plenty old enough to experience it, at any hour. They procured a stash of plastic bags for the car, for upset stomachs. My dependence on my in-laws abroad bonded me to them. That bond, born out of necessity, prodded me toward greater appreciation for all the ways they support us in our regular lives, too.
Because I got to see where and how they had grown up, I developed a more rounded sense of my in-laws. Their families provided us with endless curry dishes and places to sleep – but that was a basic expectation. They also entertained the girls, showing them chickens and goats and painting their nails; they offered impromptu Malayalam tutorials and tours to local waterfalls.
We visited the Parumala Church, a pilgrimage site of the Malankara Orthodox Church, where Sunny and Aleyamma had been married. As we talked about their wedding, I began to grasp what our marriage meant to them: not just the joining of two people, but of two families into one. Their desired involvement aimed to guide and protect the interests of the family for future generations. They longed for knowledge of the family to whom they would be yoked. Seen in this light, I didn’t fault them for viewing our union as terribly risky.
I saw what my husband’s parents had left behind to create a new life in the States: the many siblings, the lush landscape, the easy familiarity. Retreating to the shade in the steamy midday, we discovered a shared interest in yoga. I dusted off the gin rummy I had learned as a teenager and brought it to their (semi-) cutthroat table, placing bets with spare change. I began to see them as a full people – not just people with whom to try to maintain civil conversation at holidays, but people who a great deal to offer.
Detaching and Diagnosing
Face-to-face with some of our cultural differences, I grew more accommodating. I am what someone once called “culturally attached to schedules.” One morning Sunny told us, in no uncertain terms, that he would pick us up for church in 30 minutes. By the time we had toddled some 25 times around the surrounding chicken coops in our church garb, I was worked up, antsy, and confused.
But when he pulled up a few hours later – relaxed, unhurried, and unapologetic – I began to appreciate the way a “half an hour” could mean anything from 20 minutes to three hours. No one was going to scold you if you were late, if plans unfolded differently or things took longer than you expected? This suddenly struck me as a great relief.
The integration of this concept in our travels, I admit, was uneven. As grateful as I was for guidance, it’s hard to relinquish all say in the itinerary. Veegaland (now Wonderla Kochi), they promised, had a waterpark; the kids would enjoy it and we could all cool off. An hour into the winding drive, on the edge from the perpetual heat and the motion sickness and the flexible approach to time, I growled to my husband through gritted teeth, “If this place doesn’t actually have swimming, I am going to FREAK OUT.”
I set my jaw, closed my eyes, breathed deeply. I tried to let go of control, of attachment to outcomes. Veegaland had a waterpark. We cooled off. They took my tantrum in stride.
I learned to listen to their wisdom – not to keep the peace, but because they’re usually right. About halfway into the trip, a young cousin became ill. Aleyamma and another auntie agreed: “When they are young, vomiting can be a sign of throat infection.” Oh, come on, I thought. I’d had a childhood filled with strep and never heard this before. Plus, throwing up in the car had been standard operating procedure all week.
We diverted our route to a health clinic, and sure enough, the youngster’s throat was infected. I’m grateful for the lesson, having since discovered that strep presents this same way in our daughter. (Since then, I’ve noticed that much of Aleyamma’s advice has a way of becoming new-age vogue. Coconut oil or turmeric milk, anyone?).
And we created some special memories together. Near the end of our trip, I learned that my mother-in-law had never had a massage. With Sunny’s encouragement, I signed us up for one at Vasundhara Sarovar Premiere. For our travel-weary bodies, I selected the “detoxifying treatment.”
I realized with horror, and past the point of no return, that this particular detox meant being slapped for nearly an hour with hot tea bags. From my separate room, I fretted about how Aleyamma was managing. She is shy, unassuming; I pictured her suffering in silence.
She loved it. We still laugh about that element of surprise, and reminisce about the cup of green tea we enjoyed under rattan fans afterward.
With my father-in-law, a breakthrough moment occurred when ticket sellers tried to charge me the “tourist price” to ride an elephant. “Go to hell!” Sunny shouted. “She’s not a tourist! She’s my daughter-in-law!”
Of course I was a tourist. Who else would pay money to participate in such a scheme? But I smiled to myself, tickled by his reaction. (I realize now that his impulse for saving money probably weighed heavier than the emotional connection – but we also laugh to recognize each other as kindred spirits in this way.) It was remarkable, I thought, the distance we had come.
We’re family and friends
My in-laws and I have travelled a great distance together, both literally and figuratively. We have done better than to overcome the tension that defined our early meetings; we have become friends.
When Aleyamma visits now, she’ll stay for weeks at a time — and I look forward to it. She cooks like crazy, scrubs stubborn stains out of our clothing, punishes our poison ivy with hot cooking oil, and plants ginger.
Stateside, in less tropical climates, she has become my go-to hot yoga buddy. Though she has never mentioned it herself, practicing with her has increased my discomfort with the predominant whiteness of yoga in the West. I’m grateful for this awareness and the learning it’s prompted around “decolonizing the practice.”
We walk and swim and Zumba and drink tea together. When she’s here, we make the effort to go to church.
Twelve years later, I wonder if this friendship thrives not in spite of those early challenges, but because of them. Varghese’s early eating advice has come to stand for my general philosophy of in-law relationships. You’re not going to like everything that’s served. Identify a couple dishes you like and enjoy the heck out of them. I think I got lucky, and that my husband’s parents are actually awesome people. But also, I’ve learned to embrace what they bring, rather than harping on perceived shortcomings. Focus on the positive. (This tip has the added benefit of applying to other human relationships, as well, and just about everything in life.)
Finally, a few reflections about multicultural relationships specifically. I offer these humbly, with knowledge that they are far from comprehensive and I am far from having all the answers.
1. Cultivate curiosity. Taking their objections personally didn’t move anything forward. With my partner’s help, I learned instead to consider our differences with an almost intellectual detachment. Curiosity gave me the desire and humility to explore their viewpoints, with the goal of understanding.
2. If one of you is a member of the dominant culture, educate yourself about what it means to live in the minority. Learn about code-switching (we recommend Why Are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum), about microaggressions and their accumulated impact. Embrace chances to be “the only” in a room or at an event. Observe how the opportunity to develop a broader view of the human experience enriches your life.
3. If you want your family or partnership to reflect your cultures, commit to overcompensating. The family members who warned that our kids might only know Bollywood and the Taj Mahal were right: if we want our children to know and celebrate their Indian heritage, we have to counterbalance the all-encompassing whiteness that otherwise surrounds them. For us, making the effort to visit my husband’s family members in India is part of this commitment.
Aleyamma’s mother died about eight months after our trip. Without her, family connections have thinned, but recent flooding in Kerala convinced us that we’re due for another visit. Moreover, we have realized that our time to travel with our own parents is finite.
And so we will return to Ernakalum this spring. We will eat green mangoes and seek the shade, drive winding roads to enjoy fruitcake and tea with relatives, say a prayer at Parumala. When we started planning our first trip, I was apprehensive about going together. This time, I wouldn’t think of going without them.
All photos were taken by the author’s husband, Varghese Alexander.