Co-Habitation

I read a few articles recently which prompted me to write about a topic that I was hesitant to post on at first… but then I figured, what the heck, I’m all about confronting taboo subjects on this blog if need be…

A few years ago my eldest cousin married an Australian man. At the wedding one of my more conservative aunts was standing with me, talking to the groom about how Australian culture was different from US culture. The groom mentioned that in Australia it was pretty common for people who are dating to live together before marriage and my aunt cut him off saying, “I’m so glad you decided to follow our culture and not do that.” Knowing full well I was standing right next to her, and knowing full well that P and I were living together. Slam. (I think the “culture” she was referring to was religious Catholic).

Even though “American culture” is supposed to be a lot more open in regards to people living together before marriage (look at the messages we receive through television and movies), in my family I think it still makes people a little uncomfortable. I’m not sure if it is a Catholic thing or what, but P and I have never had a visit from my aunts, uncles, cousins, or grandmother, even if they are relatively close by visiting others or vacationing, and I can’t help but wonder if they are uncomfortable (even after 4 years) that we are living together. When my cheeky little cousins, who are getting to an age where they can figure stuff out but aren’t afraid to blurt out the obvious, say, “Are you two roommates? Do you live together?” my aunts hush them up like it is some sort of taboo. Luckily my immediate family (sisters, mom, dad) aren’t so conservative in this regard, but it is one reason in particular that I’m excited to get married… so that people don’t have to be uncomfortable and awkward. (Although interestingly, our Nepali friends assume my family must be fine with the living situation since I’m American, and Americans “do that kind of thing”).

Meanwhile, P’s family (at least his immediate family, I’m still just a “friend” to anyone living outside of the main house), although probably not overly happy that we live together and are not married yet, have been surprisingly okay with our living situation. While P was doing his master’s degree at a school nearby to where I grew up, P made it sound like he had his own place and I was just around a lot. Perhaps it sounded a little suspicious, but it wasn’t unreasonable, my hometown was just down the road. Yet when P decided to move to a different state and I tagged along, I’m sure it all “clicked” for the family back home. Instead of outright saying, “Mamu, Daddy, C and I are living together” he said, “C is looking for a job, and while she looks she is keeping me company at my new place. We aren’t sure yet where she will be.” At that point P’s dad said, “I hope that she finds work near where you are studying, otherwise it will be really sad.” I guess that was convoluted South Asian speak for, “We know what you are trying to say, and we think it is better that you stay together and support each other.”

So they knew we were living together, but it is one thing to know something, and another to see it. I wasn’t sure how they were going to react when his family (mom, dad, aunt) came to live with us for part of the summer in 2008. P and I have a two bedroom apartment—one room we share, and one with a single bed that is more of an “office with guest space.” Before the parents arrived there was a debate about whether or not we should make it look like I lived in one room and he lived in the other. The reality is, parents aren’t stupid, they knew we weren’t “just roommates” so there was no point in putting on a charade.

I wasn’t sure what the expectation was going to be that first night when they arrived and everyone was ready to settle down for bed. We had decided to put P’s parents (on one mattress) and brother (on another) in our room and P’s aunt and her daughter in the “office” room. That left P and I outside in the living room. We pondered, should we sleep on the futon together or should he sleep on one couch and I sleep on the other? Luckily everyone was too tired from traveling to care (or perhaps practiced a “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation) and after everyone went to bed we slept on the futon. Since the older generation was up by 4am the next day, and the living room was already bustling before we got up, everyone knew where everyone slept and there was no discussion beyond that. Ice broken, moving on.

When we went to Nepal in 2009, again, I wasn’t sure what would happen. Sure, J Phupu, Mamu and P’s dad all knew the living situation, but would things be different around P’s grandfather and younger cousin? Again that first night we were exhausted from travel, and P’s dad directed us to his room. No questions asked, we were put together in the same place. Ice broken, no drama.

Actually the funny thing is… of all these various sleeping arrangements, the one that bothered P’s family the most was when a friend came over to P’s KTM house. Before our friends’ S and R’s wedding, S’s family was in Chitwan arranging wedding details, and S was alone in KTM. Rather than stay at a lonely apartment, counting down the days to the ceremony we invited him to stay a few days at P’s place. Amongst our friends in the US it is not unusual for a bunch of guests to stay overnight after a dinner party or for the weekend, and often a whole bunch of us (guys and girls alike) wind up sleeping on couches, air mattresses, futons, or on the floor, so when S stayed over all three of us slept on mattresses on the floor in the same room at P’s house. I didn’t sleep next to S, but I think P’s family found it odd that I slept in the same room on a nearby mattress with this other man there (even though the family has known S since high school).

When we were leaving Nepal and waiting at Tribhuvan Airport J Phupu was trying to tell me something in Nepali. I couldn’t really understand what she was talking about, and I figured (like usual) that I was misunderstanding the language, because why would she be saying… “Don’t… sleep with… other people…”

So I asked, “On the plane?” and she looked back at me startled, “Not on plane… not anytime.” This is now a running joke when we have guests… that I’m not allowed to sleep with other people, I should be segregated somewhere.

Anyway… here were a few articles that made me think about this—

I stumbled upon an interesting online magazine today called “South Asian Parenting” including a column called “No Sex in the City.” One article of interest in particular was… “Sex, Lies, and a Desi Take.”

Another was a posting from the same online magazine about an intercultural relationship including a conclusion on telling parents about “co-habitation” (“Out of Bounds“).

Next was a BBC article about a Tamil actress that had charges brought against her in the Supreme Court for saying it was “not fair of any educated youth to expect his wife to be a virgin.” As part of the defense judges noted that even Hindu gods Krishna and Radha were co-habituating lovers.

And lastly another BBC article about the “virginity industry” amongst some Muslim communities in the Middle East and Europe.

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5 responses to “Co-Habitation

  1. The media portray such a different way, I had no idea before I came to US, that in this culture as well, cohabitation is religiously a taboo. I always thought here it is very common and there is no problem at all. I know in India, many people who do this, it is under cover sort of, like most of the time it is not known to the family…..
    I found that Indian judge comment little funny…. Giving a God example for the case, its kind of weird…. Lord Krishna is also known as makhan chor and so stealing is not a bad habit then… i guess these are stories… I do not think this could be related to current life to this extent to say what is good or bad. There can be other ways to judge perhaps…

  2. Hi Neeti,
    I’m not sure if American culture in general would have the same feelings as my extended family, but I think it is good to note that even if the wider media displays a very open permissive culture (particularly about sex, etc), it doesn’t mean that these attitudes are pervasive in all families.

    • My family is one of those that is split. When Aditya and I were in college, if we visited my dad, we were given separate rooms. It wasn’t a religious thing… just a “father pretending his daughter isn’t growing up” thing. If we visited my mom, same room, no big deal. After college, Dad employed the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy – as did Aditya’s parents.

  3. Before my husband and I got married, we discussed living together, but I said no. I think he was really suprised that it was an issue for me, just because I’m American.

    It’s not a religious or moral thing for me, it was just that I had lived with a previous boyfriend for 8 years without ever getting married. My dad was still alive then and I never told him we lived together…it would have been a huge issue for him (yes, Irish Catholic!).

  4. sorry… i am also guilty of thinking it was ok for Americans to co-habitate. In fact your story sounds similar to my cousin’s who did the same. but all the relatives pretended like they weren’t. It was so taboo. It was kinda funny though :)

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