An East-West Conversation

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“So – your parents chose your husband for you.” 

The women speaking to me was not posing a question; she was making a statement. I took a breath, not sure of how to respond. No, my parents did not choose my husband. Cliff and I met in Chicago and realized after a short time that we wanted to share our lives together. We traveled to Pakistan where he could meet my parents and ask my father for his blessing. He did this on his first night in Pakistan, a country he had never visited, after going into the crowded bazaar with my father. I didn’t think anything of it at the time. After all, I was fully at home in Pakistan and it was deeply satisfying to be back in the country introducing the one who I loved to my parents.

As I think back on the trip and the engagement, I realize how brave Cliff was; how willing he was to move into unknown territory and conquer it. Just days later we celebrated our munganee (engagement) in my parents’ yard in Shikarpur, Pakistan with Sunni, Shia, and Ahmediyya Muslims, Hindus, and Christians. There we served hot, spicy samosas and pakoras and sweet gulab jamuns and barfi. Fragrant garlands of roses and sparkly garlands of money were placed around our necks as we celebrated with a community that had hospitably welcomed my family and the entire missionary community.  It was a celebration to remember.

But I didn’t know how to relay all this to the conservative Muslim woman with whom I was speaking. We shared many similarities – but in this area, our experiences were different.

For as long as I can remember, I have analyzed and thought about both eastern and western traditions as they relate to love, marriage, and friendship. I have often felt the West displays a cultural imperialism and ethnocentric attitude toward some of the values and views of the East, namely arranged marriages and the concepts of extended family and their involvement in one’s life.

An Uncommon Correspondence is a book that is described as an “East-West Conversation on Friendship, Intimacy, and Love”. Anyone who has friendships that span cultural boundaries would not only appreciate, but also inhale this book. I found myself grabbing a pen so I could underline those phrases and paragraphs that put words together in perfect packages, like presents to be unwrapped by my heart and mind.

The book is series of letters written between Ivy George, a professor who is Indian by birth but living and working in the United States and Margaret Masson, an adult third culture kid, also a professor, who lives and works in England. The correspondence spans one year — from 1989 to 1990. While the book is primarily about love and relationships, more specifically a look at romantic love versus arranged marriages, it brings up the many cultural trappings that surround those two areas; values, expectations, and cultural views integral to how they play out. The result is a unique and readable discourse on the dynamics of love and relationships both sides of the globe.

“How deeply we are written by our culture” exclaims Margaret at one point, as she recognizes that just because she can analyze her reaction to her experiences with romantic love doesn’t mean she is free from falling into the cultural “pitfalls” that are part of the package. And later in the same letter: “It seems that neither of our cultures has got it quite right. But I’m sure that each could learn something from the other. Even if it is simply the acknowledgement, the realization that ours is not the only way, that there are alternatives to what our cultures seem to conspire to convince us is the ‘inevitable’ the ‘natural’.”

Ivy left India to study in the United States, partly to escape the pressure and path to an arranged marriage. But as she observes her peers and others in the United States, the concept of romantic love, carefully cultivated in her life through novels and myth, is shattered. She sees the broken pieces scattered through stories and on faces of those she meets. In an early letter to Margaret, Ivy says “While I was horrified at my prospects as a married woman in India, I was disappointed at my prospects as a single woman in the U.S” Ivy’s observations of “dating and mating” as she describes it fill her with anxiety and fear. “Alone as I feel” she says “I am still trying to understand ‘loving and losing’ and the worth of it all. The anxieties are deep, the stakes too high. While I came to the West believing in ‘choice’ for one’s life, I am struck by the absence of it. What’s so different from India? Thinking about it as a Christian sheds little further light on this. I can see the workings of God’s grace perhaps, but little perception of God’s will in these matters. There’s far too much human manipulation….”

As far as opinions on physical contact and touch between the sexes, Ivy learns to greatly appreciate some of the traditions she grew up with in India that stressed no touch until after marriage. “After living in the west so long I can see the importance of this value in my tradition when I see how many hands, lips, bodies, and beds have been shared before one chooses to marry. Surely such serial giving of oneself has an impact on so much of one’s present and future being!”

An area that comes up in the correspondence is close same-sex friendships. Friendships that are not sexual but intimate and life-giving. Both women are concerned that the west has not given enough credence to the importance of intimacy in these friendships. They fear there is no longer any vocabulary for friendships like these in the west; that “all of our longing for intimacy must be focused on a sexual partner”. This is contrasted with the deep and intimate female friendships that Ivy experienced growing up in India.

This book was freeing and I found myself nodding and speaking to it as I would to a person.  It gives words to so much of what I have thought, seen, and felt.

When my friend asked me about who chose my husband, I hadn’t yet read this book. In retrospect I see many similarities between her experience with an arranged marriage and mine. Though I chose my husband, it was critical to us that family be apart of the journey, that Cliff ask for my parents’ blessing, and that we recognize family as central to surviving and thriving in a marriage. It was also important to recognize that part of the way we show love is through commitment and sticking with a person through the awful and the beautiful.

But since that time, I’ve continued to ask these questions: Can we find a better way? Can we develop an approach to love, marriage, and intimacy that transcends both cultures? Because though my heart bends East, I think we can learn from each other.

The book  and my many conversations through the years challenge me to think deeper and wider about love and friendship across oceans and cultures. As Margaret says in the introduction, hearing a different perspective can be disturbing, but it can also be profoundly liberating.

8 thoughts on “An East-West Conversation

  1. Marilyn, thanks for sharing your experience! I will definitely add this book to my list to read. What important revelations these are to discover when we try to cross cultures respectfully. I love the idea of finding common ground in what seem like vastly different cultural practices. So much to think about!

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  2. I love this post! Makes the book very intriguing too. I have gotten many good suggestions from you Marilyn! Do you remember a dear devout Muslim woman from Pakistan who lived in Maadi. Her name is Niget Sufi and her husband is Arshad. We had a beautiful conversation at her house over lunch about the cultural differences in how we met our husbands, early marriage years and more. I lost touch with her, tried to find her but I doubt she would ever be on social media. She was a beautiful woman inside and out.

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  3. Marilyn, this is a great topic, and one I have thought about as a single woman both in Pakistan and the USA. But what I want to comment on is a typo in the third from the last paragraph that totally changes the meaning of what you wanted to say! “Though I chose my husband, it was critical to us that family be apart of the journey…” If your family is APART, that means they are separated from your journey! What you meant, I know, is A_PART, two words, meaning your family is included and joined in to your journey. I just want to point this out in case you ever want to reprint this elsewhere and those not as conversant with the vagaries of the English language get the wrong idea reading that sentence! If this seems too picky, please forgive me, I tend to notice typos, though I am certainly not above making them myself!

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  4. I am interested in reading that book now. So much to think about. (But oh please, fix that opening line! It is “your” not “you’re”!!!)

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  5. Marilyn, I love that book. I don’t have it, but I know I read it some time back, maybe from the library? this is a great blog post. I hope it sparks some good conversations. In Pakistan, when your brothers and then you were getting engaged and then married, I had many such conversations with Muslim and Christian friends. I finally figured out an answer that seemed to satisfy. I would talk about customs, theirs in Pakistan and ours in the west, because Pakistanis are very much bound within their customs whether it is marriage or other things. And it would come down to the fact that in our customs, we can’t arrange our children’s marriages. “So,” I would say, “What can I do? I have to pray for all my children that God will provide the best marriage partner for each one. And God really is the best One for arranging marriages!”

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  6. Marilyn, Glad you tackled this subject. I’d love more conversation with you! Arranged marriages can’t be all bad. I met too many couples in Pakistan who were committed and “in love” to totally discount the viability of that custom. And in the west I’ve met too many couples whose “love marriage” didn’t last. Yes, different perspectives can be disturbing and liberating and cause for lively conversations.

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