Secrets of an intercultural supermom
How many people get to spend Thanksgiving weekend at an Indian wedding in Florida? Dressing up in a sari is all part of the fun in Sheryl’s intercultural marriage.
Sheryl and her husband Dharmesh have been married for twenty years and have five children. Read on to find out how they made it work.
Where are you from? Where is your husband from?
I have lived in nine states in my life, so I never know what to say when people ask me where I am originally from. My father climbed the corporate ladder during my childhood, and we moved a lot for his work. My entire family is rooted in Kentucky, so I was raised with very southern values. I have lived in southern states since I was 9, and have called Georgia my home for the last 18 years.
My husband was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Indian and lived in an exclusively South Asian community there. When he immigrated to the U.S., he settled in Memphis, Tennessee to study. Memphis is where me met.
How did you meet?
I was 16 and he was 19 when we met. I worked in the ice cream shop that was owned by his best friend’s family. He walked into the shop one night to borrow cups and bowls for his own family’s ice cream shop, and I melted when I laid eyes on him. Over the next couple of days, his best friend played matchmaker and got us together on a date. But it was all hush hush. Dharmesh was part of an Indian community that frowned upon intercultural dating. Actually, they frowned on dating at all. Back then, arranged marriages were still common for the young people in his community, so we dated on the “down low” for a long time.
Do you live near your extended families? How much time do you spend with them?
When he graduated from dental school, and I graduated from college, we had been married for three years. During those first three years, our life was difficult because his family and Indian community resisted accepting me and our marriage. So, we decided to start our new life far away from Memphis. We moved immediately to Georgia and established our life separately from family tensions. However, as the years passed, his parents and several of his extended family moved to our area. My parents and brothers moved here as well for work and to be close to us.
While I resisted spending time with so much family at first because of past tensions, our children served to break down walls between us and his family. We have five children, and as each one was born, we quickly realized that we couldn’t keep up with life without help from grandparents. So, now we have a very close relationship with both sides of our families. His parents and brother live 10 minutes away from us in a neighborhood that is right next to my mother’s neighborhood. We spend at least two to three days a week with all of them, and have them, as well as my brother and his family, over all the time. I enjoy watching the joy that my children bring to all of the grandparents and want to make sure that the children cherish the times they have with their grandparents.
What language do you speak at home?
We only speak English at home. Because I do not speak Gujarati like Dharmesh, he and I have only spoken English to each other, therefore that is the language my children have been exposed to. However, when they were very small, Dharmesh’s mom spoke Gujarati to them and they understood it quite well. But, unfortunately, as they’ve grown, they’ve lost it. Our oldest son has tried to learn Gujarati through books and language lessons with his grandmother, but I think it’s too late for him to truly get it anymore.
What kind of food do you eat at home?
We eat anything and everything here! My mother in law cooks vegetarian Indian food for us at least two or three times a week and brings us dinner. She often brings vegetable biryani, matter paneer, mixed vegetables and rice with curry. She keeps us stocked in papadums, Indian snacks, and roti as well. I, on the other hand, cook Italian and Mexican dishes, as well as southern foods like chicken pot pie, biscuits, and grits. On Friday nights, we usually order Thai take out. Love that masaman curry and spicy rice.
What are your children’s favourite dishes?
Each child has different tastes. My oldest son’s favorite food is rotli (flat bread), slathered in hot, spicy, homemade mango pickles and masala. The youngest loves his Indian grandmother’s breakfast foods, idara and gora no lot. The other three children eat anything put in front of them. But, I think the most popular food in our house is pizza. Typical American kids here.
Did you ever find you had to compromise between different approaches or traditions when raising your children?
Our marriage has been all about compromise! The most significant compromise we made was to decide to join the Catholic Church and raise the children Catholic. He was raised Hindu, and I was raised in a very unusual Christian denomination, so we decided on a faith we could both feel good about.
Another big issue of compromise is the issue of social freedom versus academic rigor for the children. When Dharmesh was young, he was not allowed to have much of a social life. He spent most of his time studying so he could achieve the high academic goals set for him by his family. I, on the other hand, had a more relaxed childhood. I was lucky enough to do well in school without much studying, and enjoyed plenty of opportunities to hang out with friends. So, when it comes to our own children, he and I often have to discuss just how to help them keep a good balance between work and play. I am much more lenient and he can be very regimented, so communication is very key to keeping the peace between us.
Can you explain one part of your partner’s culture that you found surprising or difficult to relate to?
All of it! At first, I felt like I was on another planet when I was around his family. But, I mostly found the idea of arranged marriage very difficult to relate to. Most of his friends had marriages where their families had a big say in who they married, and it seemed to me that sometimes the parents’ wishes superseded the importance of love between the married couple. Coming from a culture where romantic love is the basis of marriage, I had a very difficult time relating to that. My parents fell in love, married despite their parents’ protests, and made their own life. That’s what I knew and that’s what Dharmesh and I did. So, I had a hard time relating to people who married based on family obligations. Our worldviews were so different.
Do you feel you have been changed by your husband’s culture?
I have changed in a big way. Before we met, family to me meant only mom, dad, and siblings. We did our own things and I aspired to be independent of them. In Indian culture, the family is sacred. Dharmesh is the most dedicated and generous person to his family that I have ever met, and that has rubbed off on me. I want family around me all the time, and I would give the shirt off my back for any of them. I consider family now to be grandparents, children, siblings, cousins, second cousins, and close friends. I help him take care of everyone we love, instead of trying to be on my own. I want my children to learn by example that family is sacred.
What’s the best thing about being in a cross-cultural relationship?
The best thing about being in a cross-cultural relationship is that we learn something new from each other every day, and that can be exciting. We may not see eye to eye on everything, but out of necessity, we have had to learn to really communicate with each other to keep our relationship alive. Because we have had to work so hard to understand each other over the past 20 years, we have a really solid marriage.
And the coolest thing is that I get to dress up in beautiful saris for Indian events, like weddings. I feel like a princess dressed in the colorful and ornate outfits. They are much more fun to wear than the little black dress I wear to American events.
Read more about Sheryl’s intercultural marriage and family on her blog Southern Life, Indian Wife.