Travelling to meet my in-laws for the first time, I passed the six-hour drive memorising the Dos and Don'ts I'd listed to help me make the best impression: eat with my right hand, keep my hair covered, my gaze lowered and address my parents-in-law with "ji" (to show my respect). Don't fidget, crack my fingers or do anything that could single me out for ridicule or disapproval.
I wore shalwaar kameez and as we drew up to the house I pulled my dupatta over my hair. I fretted about the silky material slipping off without my knowledge and tugged at it self-consciously. Right then, I envied women who had worn this all their lives, their movements unrestricted by the fear of dislodging it. Swallowing my rising panic, I followed my husband, Imran, to the door. My mother-in-law answered and with a murmured "assalaamu aleikum" and greeted us both in the customary way: a hug, cheek-to-cheek on one side, then the other, then back to the first. The moment had arrived – I was entering a house where I wasn't entirely welcome. The father and grandfather had refused to attend our wedding. As I closed the door behind us with a shaking hand, fighting my instinct to run through it.
Life's toughest choices are the ones no one can help you with, like my husband's decision to marry a ghori (someone with fair skin). I still remember how the seriousness of our situation hit me like a physical blow, when he explained our relationship could cost him his family. Growing up in Britain, the eldest son in a Pakistani household, his choices were dictated by custom and family honour. Many Asians of his parents' generation saw Western women as disrespectful, slutty and irresponsible. On top of this, our relationship unfolded in a raw and reeling, post 9/11 world where Muslims were the enemy. Although I too was Muslim, having researched and embraced Islam in a previous personal journey, my white skin shielded me from the wrath heaped upon Asians as paranoia bloomed with a fervency unseen since the 1960s and 1970s.
Not for us the heady, early relationship delirium of getting to know one another; we had to be sure from the start – and the pressure was immense. We asked ourselves questions most couples never consider. Could we cope with being vilified by one another's cultures, or our own? Would the differences be too great to overcome? Society seemed to think so. How would we handle society? It would make some people's skin crawl just to see us holding hands. How would our children be treated? In lieu of answers, we went with instinct.
My family responded with muted acquiescence to our news. Neither parent questioned my decision, or asked if I was aware of the difficulties ahead. There was no pre-nuptial passing on of parental advice, or enthusiastic discussion of wedding arrangements. All the usual elements of an engagement were absent. Mine is the kind of family that pointedly ignores the elephant in the room. With no one admitting to a problem, it was impossible to address it. An invisible gulf lay between us, no doubt filled with the questions they couldn't bring themselves to ask. My siblings also kept their distance; once married it was as though I ceased to exist. Ultimately, even gaining two nieces and a nephew didn't penetrate their detachment. When I moved to Canada, my eldest was five. Of my three sisters, one never met my children and the remaining two saw them for the first time at the farewell meal I arranged.
In contrast to this inertia, Imran's family was, as he predicted, more… vocal. Torrents of angry Punjabi rained down. Having disgraced them in the worst way imaginable and denied them a marriage they approved of, the sinful boy had succumbed to the temptations of the West. Passionate condemnation gave way to absolute disapproval, threats and, finally, the silence of rejection.
I pushed these memories from my mind as five pairs of eyes swivelled towards me. We were here to make peace. The room seemed to shrink and I felt huge and ungainly, uncomfortable in the spotlight of attention. I waited while Imran greeted his father with a handclasp and a "man-hug", then murmured "assalaamu aleikum", my eyes briefly meeting my father-in-law's before sliding back to the carpet. I knew no Punjabi and my parents-in-law knew little English. This, Imran had assured me, meant I had the easy ride; I need only appear modest, polite and demure. Supressing my Western inclination to present a strong, confident image, I continued my study of the carpet pattern, straining to gauge the tone of the percussive Punjabi exchanges, ignoring the younger pairs of eyes silently watching.
Of course, Imran's father didn't turn us away; there were social conventions to observe. He wouldn't lose face by being openly inhospitable; the weight of cultural expectation was brought to bear later, following a grudging acceptance of the new bahu (daughter-in-law).
Years passed and it seemed we'd bridged the divide. I learnt Urdu, mastered Punjabi cooking and immersed myself in Asian culture. During our regular visits, as wife of the eldest son, I helped to cook, clean and care for my new family. When my brother-in-law left with his parents to marry in Pakistan, I moved in to look after my husband's ailing grandfather and younger siblings for a month. But barbed comments still surfaced, usually at my most vulnerable moments: the miscarriage of my second child, the result of my not being a "good enough Muslim", the scornful noting of my inability to look after my own family, never mind my in-laws, when I was days from giving birth and crippled by SPD, a hideously painful nerve condition. Stoically or stupidly, I took the rough with the smooth.
Undeniable proof that it wasn't working came when my husband left to work in Canada, with the children and I set to follow in a month. Within days my brother-in-law threatened me over the phone and my sister-in-law was calling me a racist. My mother-in-law stood over me, oblivious to her grandchild I was soothing to sleep, and angrily shouted that I wasn't a Pakistani girl, with all the indignation of one who has been duped. Perhaps she had a point. In my efforts to reach across the cultural divide, with no one meeting me in the middle, I'd crossed the entire bridge myself. While I willingly embraced new experiences and perspectives, my in-laws managed only tolerance, never acceptance. Nothing could change the fact that my skin was the wrong colour.
Two families – two very different reactions. But the result for us was the same; in marrying into another culture, we forfeited full membership of our own. Ten years on, our relationship has stood the test of time, but nothing has changed. We have a foot in each camp, but we belong in neither, and whenever terrorist attacks cause people to close ranks, or during times of national pride, that's when we find ourselves on the outside looking in. We've learnt to carve out our own identity, to make our own traditions and infuse them with the enthusiasm that should have come from a shared family experience. Inter-race relationships, now more common than ever before, still face a fight for societal and cultural acceptance. Racism is rife in Britain. Don't kid yourselves – times haven't changed that much since the 1960s.
The author is using a pseudonym and names in this article have been changed
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