Hi! My name is Expat Polar Bear, the proud partner of Expat Panda (no she didn’t make me write that).
Before we get on with this post, I thought it would be useful to give you info about my background, so you have an understanding of where I come from- being the ‘non-brown’ guy commenting on dating a brown girl.
Being born and raised in South Africa, I’m classified as “coloured”- a diverse race group descended from the intermarriage of white settlers, African natives, and Asian slaves who were brought to South Africa from the Dutch & British colonies of Asia in the 18th and 19th centuries. In other places in the world, the word coloured when used to describe race is considered disparaging but in South Africa, it is used to describe an important segment of the population. By the way, coloured people in South Africa can be light skinned, dark skinned, speak English , speak Afrikaans and well…there is no homogeneity to our race or culture. My family photo normally has people confused as to who is adopted just based on how we look.
When I started dating Panda, we both lived in the United Arab Emirates (and still do) having made the move from our hometown of Durban, South Africa years before. I figured this was not going to be such a challenging relationship unlike ones I have had in the past because we are from the same country, same province, same city and speak the same mother tongue of English.
HOW WRONG I WAS when I soon discovered that despite my Panda’s African identity, her Indian culture plays a MASSIVE role in her life and has also, shaped our relationship!
For those who don’t (and I didn’t know until recently either), the word ‘desi’ refers to the people, cultures, and products of the Indian subcontinent and their diaspora. NOTE to Non-Desi’s– “Desi” is pronounced a lot more like “they-see” than like “daisy” or (worst of all) “dezzy”. I base this statement on dozens of good-natured corrections from Panda. So, if you googled “dating a desi woman” here are a few things I learnt as a ‘non-brown’ guy madly in love with a brown girl:
Family is important!
When I first started dating Panda, she did warn me that dating her meant that essentially, I would also be involved with her family and friends. She made it quite clear that it wasn’t a case of just being with her but also being involved in the lives of those closest to her. She asked me if I was prepared for this and I confidently said yes (I was not). Now I look back and realize how true that statement was over the last year. I literally did know any of these people before Panda and I started dating:
In the desi culture family plays a huge and integral role, and I will say that I love it. Panda’s family is valued and involved in many aspects of our life… from what ingredients to use in a dish, to purchasing decisions and includes movie dates with her sister (Expat Pug). When her siblings (Pug, Penguin & Seal) found out that we were together, they made every effort to get to know me and include me in their lives. Some would see this as overwhelming, tedious and requiring so much effort however there are so many benefits to this. As independent as Panda is (and boy is she independent), family is actually the foundation of our relationship and if a week goes by without me hearing from Pug or getting a voice note from Penguin then I start asking questions about if they are ok or what has happened. Somehow they have this balance of being informed about each others’ lives but also minding their own business by not being too prying. Its admirable.
While I am not saying that I am not close to my family (I am), its not normal for me to ask my parents for their help and input whereas Panda considers it a norm to ask her parents for advice on her baking, car and medical ailments. Not sure how it works in other families but having the constant update on what is happening in her family- who said what, how and why- has become an enjoyable daily routine and adds so much to our nightly chats.
Through the introduction to this culture I have come to realize that family is everything. While looking back over the past year there is so much that I have learnt and value more by having to share my relationship with many more people. You gain a better understanding as to how you want your future family to be and having the close family feeling and constant advice / teasing adds a new dynamic into the relationship that I can assure you, you can’t always find in other cultures.
It’s not about you: it’s about what you represent
At the time of writing this post, I had just met Panda’s parents, an experience I was stressing about so much that I had to TAKE A WEEK OFF WORK. Why, you make ask? Well I am not of the same culture, religion, sect, background, culture or ANYTHING as Panda & her family. Apparently many desi parents struggle to accept when their children are dating someone ‘different’ and even go to the lengths of cutting those children out of their lives. This is in stark contrast to my culture where we are such a diverse group even within our race, that families are usually extremely accepting of anyone who comes home. So I was given the brief about Panda’s parents months ago (from various family members) and told that it might not be about me, but rather-what I represent. Feeling confused? Yes? that was me a few months ago!
Panda had made it very clear to me that her parents are conservative, and that our relationship might not be accepted (in their eyes). So as a non-desi guy who was raised Christian, I knew that the cards were slightly stacked against me. I personally think that sharing this with your partner is so important early on in the relationship because I could make my decision about whether I would be able to handle all of this uncertainty and possible family drama plus I had time to prepare for any outcome. As a general understanding, I knew that most brown parents are conservative, not in the way of right wing political views but in protecting the values and family name as their reputation is very important in their culture.
I think I was at an advantage as I was able to meet and interact with Panda’s younger siblings first. Meeting siblings gives perspective into the dynamics of the family and I was greeted with teasing and playful banter about my white skin to my age. I also remember having dinner with Panda’s aunt and uncle when they visited Dubai from Botswana and a true realization dawned on me about the risk and consequences Panda had put herself in to be with me as her aunt explained potentially what the repercussions were if things didn’t go smoothly. Her parents could potentially never speak to her again. This gave me a clearer understanding and motivated me to prove that no matter what, Panda and I were going to make it through any and all challenges that would be thrown at us.
Panda and I had our “differences and similarities” conversation very early in our relationship… We recognized the differences that could potentially cause issues and respected the fact that growing up we had cultural, religious and gastronomic differences; however, what was important was communicating how we- as a couple- could respectfully accept and adapt to our differences. These will lead to not only being able to combat future challenges but will also form the building blocks for how we raise our own kids. I personally think as a couple it is so important to have “the conversation” at an early stage of the relationship- discuss religion, cultural differences, potential family perceptions and even what would happen should you decide to have a family and how would you eventually decide to bring your children up. You see, as a couple, these are foundations that will allow you to conquer future challenges and allow you both to grow stronger as a unified team despite your differences.
SPOILER ALERT- Meeting the parental pandas went so effortlessly that we are all left reeling with shock and gratitude at their warmth with welcoming me into the family and their accepting attitude of my differences. They also seem to trust Panda to make her own life choices and don’t interfere in our relationship (apparently this is very rare for desi parents so we are savouring it).
What a cuisine!
When I was growing up, I would say that my family was influenced more by “white people’s’” food other than the dishes prepared by my Mauritian grandmother. We enjoyed a curry once a week with the odd Biryani for Sunday lunch. Now, I do need to point out that even as a qualified chef, my old definition of curry is any gravy based dish that had spices in… oh yes. I didn’t know that there was masala, rogan josh, tikka and many more variations… for me it was all just curry powder.
Through my relationship with my desi panda my taste buds have been blessed with experiencing and exploring deeper into the world of Indian cuisine which extends way beyond just curry. I have since learned about chana masala, pani puri, masala dosa, jalebi, dhall, tandoori chicken, rangeen pilau and so much more. I also learnt that where you come from in India determines what you eat and that different sects of people have a different way of cooking the same dishes. I am learning about Punjabi samosas, Goan prawns and Gujarati Biryani. Its all been eye-opening (and delectable) for me.
I will proudly say that I am slightly addicted to paratha (plain not flaky please) and have somewhat mastered the art of eating bread dishes with my hands… yet I am still working on eating rice with my hands however it is slightly more complicated than bread- there is an art and technique involved. I used to watch Panda and Pug eating a dish with their hands and be in awe of how it was achieved; combining the gravy, rice and vegetables together, forming lumps and artfully placing it in their mouths. Hopefully one day I too will attain this level of skill with rice.
When you’re in a relationship with a desi woman, accept that learning new cultures and cuisines takes time and practice however I would strongly recommend that you dive in deep and embrace all that is on offer. Do not be easily offended and allow for teasing and mistakes to be made, I for one have made many along the way and will probably continue to make new ones (I recently learnt that if you are eating with your hands do not eat with your left hand as it is disrespectful). Be aware that you probably know nothing of her cuisine and be ready to eat a ton! Cooking together is actually now our favourite pastime.
Bollywood – its bigger than you think!
Dating a brown girl and haven’t watched a Bollywood movie? How did you manage to go on a first date??
Even though Panda is not traditional in any sense and I actually never saw her watching a Bollywood movie, she could easily offer an opinion on the plots, actors and general discussion on Bollywood movies when others were discussing the topic. She knew her Kapoors from her Khans and had no issues distinguishing Kuch Kuch from Kabhi Khushi (I’m not actually this well informed- its called Google). This amazed me. Was she watching these movies in secret? But I soon realized that Bollywood was as crucial to desi upbringings as the cuisine was. It was in her DNA somehow. So I realized that I needed to get involved and be able to offer some opinions on this topic as well. Note: If you are dating a desi woman you may want to follow suit for extra brownie points.
I recently watched my first Bollywood movie… Kal Ho Naa Ho (Tomorrow may never come) which is an interesting romantic drama, covering issues like religious tolerance to family tribulations to dealing with death. Contrary to popular belief, all Bollywood movies aren’t just superficial romances or dancing around trees. This was a serious movie with a captivating plot and some vital life lessons. Reflecting back on a film like Kal Ho Naa Ho or even Bollywood as a whole- I like that it tries to bring the Indian community together whether you are Sikh, Muslim or Christian and wherever you are in the world… the songs, the dances, the incorporation of specific cultural references in dances or as jokes allow for the inclusion across different parts of the Indian community.
Obviously, I do not have a lot of knowledge of Bollywood movies however I have fallen in love with the musical aspect of Bollywood and as outlandish as it may be, I love it. It’s actually the soul of the movie and when I was lying on the couch watching and a song came on I would sit up and pay more attention to what was happening because I felt that the actors where more expressive in the musical scenes!
As a modern, independent Panda, I can understand now how important it is for her to watch these films as there are traditional values rooted in these movies and a pride of the desi art. I also have been interested to find out that there are different industries too like Pollywood which focuses on Punjabi films, Lollywood focusing on Urdu films, Tollywood focusing on Telegu films and many more representing the diversity of languages within the desi community.
It has been over a year that Panda and I have been dating and these are a few of the important ways my knowledge has been expanded through the influence of her culture. I would like to share with you a few tips that have helped us navigate our relationship successfully; hopefully it will help you too:
- Communicate with each other even if it means oversharing, however, this does not mean text each other all day! Talk about the differences in upbringing and attitudes toward important things like money, religion, family relationships and stereotypes. Discuss how you will handle them and how these things will shape your relationship.
2. Constant evaluation is another key element in our relationship. Every 6 months we have a scheduled date where we discuss positives and areas for development in our relationship. We use this time to also discuss the challenges we may face as individuals and its important to recognize when you are of different races and cultures, you will not always be able to understand or relate to every challenge the other person is experiencing. As a light skinned fair male, its sometimes difficult for me to comprehend the struggles that my brown, female Panda may have. But what is possible is for me to listen, learn, empathize and be supportive.
3. Be extremely flexible and open minded– any relationship that crosses cultural and racial barriers is a continuous journey of learning and respect for the other person. If you’re a person who hates being corrected, then this may not be for you. If you’re a person who hates trying new foods, then this may not be for you. If you’re a person who feels that your background is superior to others, then is definitely not for you. Sometimes Panda is telling me to add extra ‘jeera’ into the curry and I am standing looking at the spice rack very bewildered until she reaches over and hands me the cumin powder. If you’re the kind of person who is going to be angry because she has grown up knowing the names of things in a different language, then please think twice about this kind of relationship.
Despite the stares from people and the differences in our perspectives, I constantly find myself staring across the dinner table and thanking my lucky stars that I am loved back by an intelligent, cultured and passionate panda. Not everyone will understand how we don’t see our differences as barriers to our relationship and that is ok. This kind of deep, strong love is not for everyone and only those are truly blessed will experience it. Some people may judge you, be critical or even outright rude. That’s ok too. Some people will never understand that love and relationships are about connecting and bonding as people and individuals, and being different from each other shouldn’t put a restriction on any of that.
They will never understand that love and emotional connection usually happen independently of someone’s skin colour or culture.
As we sit in traffic watching the Dubai sun set into the Arabian gulf, I look over at Panda in the passenger seat and I know with certainty that when two people are connected at the heart, it doesn’t matter what you do, what you believe, what you look like or where you live; there are no boundaries or barriers if two people are destined to be together.
I hope our experiences and challenges help you with your dating journey. Feel free to share your experiences of dating across racial and cultural lines with us in the comments below.