When Love Goes Undercover

“My parents think I’m staying at your house tonight, OK?”

That’s a text I get pretty often. No, not when I was sixteen. Now, when I’m twenty-three. I know what it means: my friend is staying at a guy’s place. The next time I see her, I have to make sure I remember. A blunder like “I haven’t seen you in ages” could be overheard by her parents and unravel the entire story.

“Brown girl life,” we say to each other, even though this problem is not exclusive to girls. It’s the norm in our community, among Desis (South Asian folks) and Middle Eastern people.

There’s no “Mum, Dad, this is my boyfriend” when it comes to my people. Dating is taboo and this barrier creates a vast array of secret double lives among young adults in the community. This is in constant contrast to my culture’s intense focus on marriage. Everyone expects you to get married. The thought that you may not want to never crosses any brown auntie’s mind. As soon as you hit your twenties, it’s the question everyone’s asking: “so, when are you getting married?”

But, you don’t find someone and then get married. You decide to get married and then you find someone. Or rather, a family member or family friend will try to find someone for you through an arranged marriage.

Arranged marriages have evolved. Things are more flexible now: you meet people to whom your parents introduce you, you take your pick, and your family advises you about who the most suitable match is. Parents are altering the conventional format of arranged marriage to make it more compatible with the needs and interests of the new generation. They are beginning to recognize that autonomy in seeking relationships is the future for their children, although they may have trouble articulating it due to embarrassment around topics like sex and dating.

But for people like me—immigrant kids, as we dub ourselves, or second-generation kids who are the children of immigrants—arranged marriages are starting to look less and less attractive. We meet people outside of the confines of community functions and that’s when the chaos starts: lies, sneaking around, the meticulous planning of dates so that we’ll never get caught.

In many families, like mine, you can bring a significant other home, but the catch is you can only bring them home when you actually want to marry them. That could mean years of a secret long-term relationship, coupled with constant questions from white people who love to interrogate us about how we navigate our brown lives.

“I hid a serious four-year relationship. Like, fuck, where’s my medal?” says Sana, a close friend of mine. She does deserve a medal; it’s quite a feat. I’m particularly impressed by a weekend getaway she planned with her former boyfriend. Sana conjured up an elaborate story about a camping trip with her girlfriends (I was present on this fake camping trip). She and her ex are both Pakistani and Muslim, so the option of going to each other’s houses was out of the question.

Image by Hana Shafi
Image by Hana Shafi

“…I ended up going north and having a really nice time and being terrified the whole time,” says Sana, “and having anxiety that somebody was going to catch me in my lie. But we pulled it off and then high-fived each other afterwards because that’s what you fucking do.”

For my friend Humza, the lies are a lot more complicated.

Humza’s boyfriend Ryan can easily come over to his house—to Humza’s parents, it seems like they’re just friends. “When I bring girl friends over, my parents always think that we’re dating,” says Humza. In the short term, their same-sex relationship makes lying somewhat easier. But it poses a huge challenge for their long-term future.

While someone like Sana can eventually bring a boyfriend home to meet her parents, provided they are interested in getting married, Humza’s home environment makes it unsafe for him to come out. Humza says that while his parents have never suspected Ryan of being anything more than a friend the weight of the consequences if they did find out means he and Ryan have to be careful about being discovered.

“When I’m around my house or at [the mall], we can’t hold hands or like show any kind of affection, because I’m always paranoid that someone’s going to see us,” says Humza.

For those of us in the South Asian and Middle Eastern community, the repercussions of our secret dating lives being revealed wouldn’t just impact us, but also our families.  What will people think of us? What will the community say? These are frequent concerns. Suddenly love isn’t just what happens between you and another person; it’s a potential political scandal that involves your parents, your siblings, your cousins. Everyone.

“All of our cousins and their families, they already look at us badly,” says Humza. “Could you imagine what would happen if I c[a]me out?”

Image by Hana Shafi
Image by Hana Shafi

Now try explaining all of that to someone outside of our culture.

As if the pressures and ignorance stemming from our community members aren’t enough, we’re also subjected to questions from white people who just don’t get it. To make matters worse, those questions sometimes come from the white people we are dating. As Sana hilariously puts it, issues can arise when the guy you’re dating is “more of a Zac Efron than a Shah Rukh Khan.”

Is your dad going to kill us if he finds out? Uh, no, my dad is not a murderer. Isn’t it hard to hide your relationship? Well, no shit.

While most questions make me roll my eyes, others are deeply upsetting. I remember having dinner with my close friend and her family, trying to swallow my food while her parents bombarded me with ignorant questions and relentlessly mocked me. I sat there uncomfortably chewing and fidgeting in my seat while they joked that my parents would only know I had a boyfriend after the honeymoon. I shook my head, trying to explain it really wasn’t like that. Then her dad jumped in with the worst comment of all: “how are you supposed to be a good journalist if you can’t even tell your parents you have a boyfriend?”

Tears welled up in my eyes as a result of the bullshit, racist non-sequitur her father had just thrown at me. I wanted to tell him off, tell him that he had no right to make fun of me or my culture like that, despite our flaws. But I just nervously laughed with my head down. And while those questions were coming from my friend’s parents, if I was dating a Zac Efron, it could be his parents asking me.

[My friends] and I are all in a love-hate relationship with our community and with outsiders. Why are our people so narrow about love and sex? Why can’t Western folks understand that the dynamics of dating are bound to be different in other parts of the world?

The emotional labour that goes into explaining my culture to others who are simply unwilling to understand is exhausting. It also leads to guilt. A partner from within the community has to navigate these issues regardless. But, with a partner from outside the community, I often find myself thinking: is it fair to make them manoeuver this with me? Wouldn’t their life be easier if they loved someone else?

In a movie scenario, the secret relationships and disapproval could be framed as forbidden love—something Shakespearean even. In real life, it just sucks, plain and simple. Loving gets complicated when it’s a secret you keep from those closest to you—your own family—and when it’s the topic of awkward questions, or subjected to a Western superiority complex. Sana, Humza, and I are all in a love-hate relationship with our community, and with outsiders. Why are our people so narrow about love and sex? Why can’t people outside our communities understand that the dynamics of dating are bound to be different in other parts of the world?

We usually handle these questions by simply not answering them. We navigate the secrets, the lies, and the questions whether we want to or not, because we rarely have a choice. We either cope, or we don’t date anyone. And if you meet the right person—or worse, if you fall in love—then you’re forced to just deal with it.

I see my community slowly changing, and the proof is in the marriages that have taken place in my family and in the families of friends. Our parents aren’t naïve: they know that dating is the norm in the West, and that younger generations are fusing the norms of both cultures together, steadily creating a hybrid that works for us. Eventually, we’ll be the elders of the community. And until then, we’ll continue weaving through the intricacies of our double lives, sometimes stressfully and at other times effortlessly, after years of experience.

“I was at your house last night, OK?” Cool, I’ve got you covered.