Wanted Bride For South Asian: Part Tandoori Chicken, part Apple Pie
South Asian Bride
The Urdu phrase “bus bohot hogiya hay” sends chills down Umair Khan’s spine.
Roughly translated as “enough already,” it’s something Mr. Khan, 34, a Manhattan lawyer, has heard uttered by his mother, his aunt and their Pakistani-American friends on several occasions, lately with increasing exasperation. The frustration stems from Mr. Khan’s inability to find a suitable mate.
Like many second-generation South Asian-Americans, Mr. Khan finds himself walking a fine line between paying respect to traditional matchmaking practices extolled by an older generation and embracing more contemporary methods of finding an appropriate life partner.
His search has involved, among other things, being fixed up by “Rishta aunties” suggested by a friend and a friend of his mother, meeting women at networking events and suggestions he try online dating.
“It’s exhausting,” said Mr. Khan, deputy counsel for litigation in the New York Public Advocate’s office. “When you’re set up, there’s another dimension to that meeting. You’ve got to give a report when it’s over. That’s the tricky part. How do you tell the referring authority you’re not interested without offending them?”
Within many immigrant communities, more attention seems to focus on marrying off daughters, but it is often the sons who bear the weight of family expectations when it comes to picking a mate.
Overt pressure may be lessening, and outright arranged marriages are the exception rather than the rule, but the love lives of those whose families are from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh may nevertheless be subject to a good deal of scrutiny and occasional intervention. And the men themselves are becoming more demanding.
“When it comes to men, whether they have good looks or a good degree, they all want a beautiful girl with an M.D. degree in hand,” said Afshan Qadir, who was born in Pakistan and is now a professional matchmaker in Newark, Del., who specializes in matches for South Asian Muslims living in the United States. “Then the parents weigh in, and they say, ‘We want a daughter-in-law who can make very good food for us.’ But she doesn’t have time to learn to cook if she’s getting her professional degree.”
Ms. Qadir blames the South Asian culture for these unrealistic expectations. “Men have more power,” she said. Problems also arise when the expectations of the parents don’t match the preferences of their sons, according to Ms. Qadir, who said that more than half her client base is made up of the parents rather than the offspring.
The degree of parental involvement depends on how closely a family holds to tradition.
Take Dharmesh Darji, a 20-year-old from Washington Township, N.J., who suddenly found himself married during a family trip to India this year.
The intent of the trip was to seal the marriage that had been arranged for Mr. Darji’s 21-year-old sister, Payal. But once they were there, his parents started making plans for him.
By the time they left India, papers had been signed confirming Mr. Darji’s marriage to a woman he had spoken with only briefly at his sister’s wedding ceremony.
“I was shocked when I found out,” said Mr. Darji, a junior at Rutgers University in Camden, N.J. “My dad sat me down and told me that this is what they were thinking about. I knew nothing about it.”
Though he didn’t spend much time with his new bride, a dental student who is also just 20, Mr. Darji is hoping things will work out when she joins him in the United States next year, since, as he pointed out, he doesn’t have much choice in the matter.
“It’s either the girl or the parents,” he said. “If I were to bring home my own girl, I’d lose my family.”
On the other hand, Ashwin Mathur, 21, of Great Falls, Va., said that his parents had been very relaxed about the dating choices he and his siblings have made. “They say, ‘You guys are American, you do what you want,’ ” said Mr. Mathur, a junior at New York University whose parents were acquainted before being formally united in India more than 30 years ago. In choosing a mate, Mr. Mathur said he’s looking for someone both he and his family like.
As it happens, Mr. Mathur is now dating an Indian woman from London who is also studying at N.Y.U. “It’s easier to get along with a girl of Indian descent,” he said. “It’s like, ‘I get you and you get me.’ There’s a comfort level.”
Among the earlier generation of South Asian immigrants coming to the United States, the drive to succeed, in many cases, trumped the drive to marry.
Omar Qureshi came to the United States from Pakistan after President Lyndon B. Johnson loosened immigration policiesfor students and young professionals in the 1960s.
Mr. Qureshi, a history teacher at the Brearley School in Manhattan, said he felt little marital pressure from his parents, who were more concerned that he secure a good education. “We used to joke that our mother was completely incompetent when it came to marrying her sons off,” said Mr. Qureshi, who remains single at 49, while his two younger brothers are both married.
Though he may not have felt pressure from his family to marry within his culture or religion, Mr. Qureshi, like Mr. Mathur, has internalized his own expectations.
“I find Pakistani women incredibly attractive, but I don’t really meet any,” Mr. Qureshi said. “Most of my friends are American, but I never thought of marrying someone who wasn’t Pakistani.”
Mr. Qureshi’s odds are about to change in his favor. This summer, he will leave New York and move to Pakistan to teach at a university there. Though he said meeting a woman was not a primary motivation for his move, he acknowledged “if I find someone, that would be great.”
Jamila Akhter, a mother of three grown children, has noticed that the family influence has lessened among her friends, as fewer second-generation South Asian couples are living in their parents’ homes in her community in North Brunswick, N.J.
“Traditionally, it was not about two individuals, but about two families coming together,” Ms. Akhter said. “For some families, when they first came to this country, the parents might be stricter with their oldest kids. So some of those kids didn’t get married, or got divorced, or ended up in unhappy marriages. Then the parents ended up being more lenient with the younger kids.”
That said, she couldn’t resist offering to help her son, Assad, after he reached 30 and still hadn’t settled down. She asked friends to refer possible candidates and ended up hiring a traditional Rishta auntie. In the end, her son found his future wife through a professional networking event. And how helpful was the Rishta auntie?
“Not so much,” Ms. Akhter said. “She criticized my son a lot. She’d say: ‘What is he looking for? That was such a nice girl I introduced him to.’ ”
Beyond the busybody neighborhood “auntie,” the job of professional matchmaker has become big business.
Jasbina Ahluwalia, a lawyer turned matchmaker, puts a contemporary twist on an old practice, offering online dating support, dating coaching and customized mate searches for South Asians in the United States and abroad. She charges $375 for a 90-minute personal assessment, about $4,000 for online support and $8,500 to $50,000 for matchmaking, she said.
Ms. Ahluwalia, a second-generation Indian-American, says working with today’s South Asian-American men is difficult at times. “They are so successful, and tend to be very busy,” she said. “The challenge is getting them to make time. I tell them, ‘We can find you great women, but we can’t have the relationship for you.’ ”
As with many demographic subsets, there are numerous online mating sites geared to the South Asian and Muslim communities, including salaamlove.com, singlemuslim.comand the India-based shaadi.com, which calls itself “the world’s largest matrimonial service” and claims 3.2 million successful pairings.
While embracing contemporary technology, these sites also pay homage to traditional customs. On singlemuslim.com, in addition to a vast database of participants’ profiles and photos, there is advice, with recommendations like: “Praise your wife when she pleases you and show gratitude for all she does for you.”
Though it’s been suggested by many friends, Mr. Khan has yet to turn to online dating. If he were to create a profile, he said, his headline would read something close to this: “Part Tandoori Chicken, Part Apple Pie.”
“It’s not an easy space to be in,” Mr. Khan said, “when you’re trying to bring in culture, and faith. To find someone with strong beliefs and good values, but also someone who gets it, and is smart. Maybe the checklist is too long.”
Correction: May 31, 2015
An article last Sunday about the struggles of South Asian-American men in finding a bride incorrectly characterized Umair Khan’s use of “Rishta aunties,” or matchmakers. He used two Rishta aunties, one suggested by a friend and another by a friend of his mother. His mother did not hire a Rishta auntie.