Parents Talk Back

A wedding to bridge cultures

February 17, 2014 

The confusion about wedding customs began before Robert even had a chance to propose to my sister.

He had arrived at my parents’ home in a suit, after trying a case in court, wanting to make his intentions clear. They had already met a few times to discuss their concerns about the possible union. After all, Robert was a black man raised in Mississippi, and my sister had been raised in a Pakistani family in Houston. But Robert and my sister, Rabeea, who had known each other for seven years since law school, were pretty sure they had cleared those hurdles by now.

This meeting would just be a formality.

Robert sat on the sofa, and my father sat across the room in a chair. My mother, called ammi in Urdu, sat in a different corner. There was some polite small talk, and then the room became silent.

“I could hear the tick-tock from the clock,” Robert said. “It seemed like you could hear a pin drop.”

Finally, Robert said: “I would like to marry your daughter.”

“In our culture, we have to talk to the family,” my father started. “You have to meet the family; they have to get comfortable with you. Then they’ll tell me what they think about you. Then we’ll let you know.”

My mother looked at my father. This was not going as she expected.

Robert said it sounded like a good idea, and got up to leave.

Early the next morning, he got a call at work.

It was my father. My mother had told him to call and fix the situation he created.

“I just wanted to let you know that you did OK,” my dad said. “Welcome to the family. We’re so happy you’re going to be our son.”

Robert was a little confused, and called my sister, to whom he still had not proposed.

“Once you talk to the parents, you’re engaged,” she explained.

“Why didn’t you tell me that?” he said. (He still had a ring and asked her privately, later.)

Now that they finally had everyone’s blessing, they had a wedding to plan. Given the size of our immediate family, the date that worked for everyone was four short months away.

My mother hopped on a flight to Pakistan and set off to get nearly 50 outfits custom-made for the wedding, of which 23 were for the wedding party.

Robert’s sisters and niece started researching traditional Pakistani wedding decorations and taught themselves a Bollywood dance for the party before the wedding.

Rabeea wanted the ceremony to reflect both cultures. There was a center aisle and a wedding party – things familiar to Americans but not typically a part of South Asian weddings. The music ranged from R&B to Indian film songs. And she fought my parents about the menu at the reception: It was going to be pan-seared snapper with blackened chicken and etouffee sauce, rather than the traditional Pakistani cuisine familiar to them and our relatives.

There were compromises on both ends.

The imam who performed the wedding told my sister he remembers looking into the crowd and seeing that one side of the aisle was African-American and the other Pakistani-American. The couple at the center united the room.

Looking back, there isn’t a detail that either of them would change about their wedding, or the celebrations leading up to it.

“I was very, very happy that my family loved Robert, and his family loved me, and everyone was having a good time. I was happy and in love and excited,” my sister said.

Robert remembers that phone call that started the ball rolling, from the man he had worked so hard to win over. My mom took the phone after my father and offered her congratulations.

Robert had asked: Can I call you ammi now?

Of course he could.

He was family.

Aisha Sultan is a St. Louis-based journalist who studies parenting in the digital age. Find her on Twitter: @AishaS.

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