Growing up, my dad would repeat his house rule almost every week: When you get married, marry a Sikh.
He couldn’t fathom that after moving to America for more opportunities for his family, one of his kids would make the mistake of losing touch with her roots. Through my mid-20s, my parents were still holding out hope that I would end up with a Sikh man.
Sikhism is the fifth-largest religion in the world, originating in Punjab, India. Its central values include the devotion to one God, service, equality, fighting for justice and truthful living. My parents are strict followers of the religion and made sure my siblings and I grew up going to Sikh camps over the summer, learning the Punjabi language and attending our version of Sunday school to learn hymns and history lessons.
I’ve always identified as a Sikh, but it’s been hard to reconcile my identity in my dating life. Before I met my husband, Sam, I dated both Sikh and non-Sikh men. Honestly, I often struggled when I went on dates with Sikh men. In some cases, I either felt too American and like I couldn’t relate or match their cultural experiences, or I was forcing myself to overlook a lack of chemistry or connection to make it work just because they were Sikh. In other cases, conversations about relational and marital expectations laid bare an underlying double standard of how it was only OK for men to grow up in this country and become liberal, opinionated, career-driven people.
When I met Sam on a dating site in 2016, I wasn’t making a conscious decision to be with someone who wasn’t Indian or Sikh. After years of heartbreak and a series of terrible dating experiences, I just wanted to meet a kind, respectful generous man. Sam’s emotional intelligence immediately blew me away, and I learned quickly that he was very different from the men I had dated before.
Marriage is the ultimate success for Indian daughters, and my parents had been worried about me for years. So, at 27, I decided to tell them I had met someone. It was supposed to be positive news. I was happy.
My parents couldn’t really wrap their heads around me dating a non-Sikh man at first. They couldn’t understand why I would make a relationship and potential marriage even harder by choosing someone so different from me. They were worried for my future, and they pretty much banked on it being something that would pass. Months later, my dad continued to hint at potential Sikh suitors he knew about in the community. No matter how hard it was to actively fight for my happiness, I knew I’d have to ride it out and prove to them this wasn’t short-lived.
This was new for Sam, too. He also had never been with someone of a different race or culture. Someone whose religion is the thread that ties together their values, world views and beliefs. Someone whose culture emphasized family involvement even on personal matters. And while his family only cared that he was happy, Sam waited patiently and respectfully for mine to get on board.
“I know that by choosing each other, Sam and I may have chosen a tougher path to go down, but also by choosing each other, we have been able to grow together and so have our families.”
We had only been dating for three months when Donald Trump got elected in 2016, and it was the moment I knew Sam and I would either be able to see this through or would have to break up. We had to talk about the elephant in the room: his privilege as a white man. Sam listened intently as I talked through my fears for the turban-wearing men in my family who live in the South, and my own identity crisis. He also owned his place in these ongoing issues, learning to be an ally who knows when to stand by and listen and when to stand up and speak out.
I know if I were with a Sikh man, I wouldn’t necessarily need to have emotionally laborious conversations about race, religion and politics. These differences are a part of what makes my relationship with Sam beautiful, though. All relationships require work and effort, patience and respect and healthy communication. But because Sam and I were forced to address our differences very early on, we’ve also been able to address other big needs and desires out of a partnership ― from money and family involvement to future religious involvement in our relationship to cultural traditions and potential children.
In fact, much of what made me fall for Sam were his values that are foundational in the Sikh religion and of great importance to my family: his generosity to the less fortunate, his respect and desire for community building, his kindness, his nonjudgmental nature and ability to treat everyone as equals.
I know that by choosing each other, Sam and I may have chosen a tougher path to go down, but we have also been able to grow together and so have our families. There’s been a steep learning curve for all of us. Sam and his loving, open-minded and open-hearted family have been able to break the stereotypes my family unfortunately had of white Americans. And I’ve been able to reconnect with where I come from and who I am by teaching my husband and in-laws about Sikhism and being an Indian in this country.
In May 2017, six months after I told my parents about Sam, I asked them to meet him. If they didn’t approve, I would hear them out and consider ending it. Even though I wouldn’t be able to pursue a partnership with someone my family didn’t approve of, I’ve always known in my heart that my parents want the best for me and truly want me to be happy. I also knew that Sam was special and that when they met him, they’d slowly come around.
And thankfully, they did. But after Sam proposed in March 2018, everything seemed to get more complicated. Nothing prepared us for how tough wedding planning was going to be over the last year. There are very specific things a groom or a groom’s family are expected to do in a Sikh wedding and it was hard at first for my parents to compromise on certain traditions to make room for Sam’s comfort and our American expectations of what our wedding should feel like ― that our wedding is for us, not just for our community.
Eventually, we were able to create a wedding weekend that upheld the important Sikh wedding traditions with added twists to make it intercultural (i.e., we had a Sikh ceremony followed by a reception in a brewery where Sam played the drums with his band). However, leading up to it, I had massive anxiety wondering if my Sikh community was going to potentially judge my in-laws or not accept them. I was also nervous about how overwhelmed Sam’s family might be by the culture shock of this elaborately planned weekend.
The truth is, I underestimated everyone. In getting so caught up in what it means to marry outside my race and religion, I didn’t give credit to the love that was flowing around our relationship. My family and family’s friends were loving, patient and kind, embracing my in-laws as new members of the community. And my in-laws were enthusiastic, flexible and willing to learn, embracing my culture and tradition with open minds and hearts. I truly couldn’t have asked for any more love or acceptance.
I always have taken my ability to “choose” my life and partner for granted, when in reality, it’s a privilege. During my Sikh wedding, my dad read the laavan from the scripture from the Guru Granth Sahib (our holy book), which meant he sat in front of us through the entire traditional ceremony. I couldn’t make eye contact with him because I knew we were both processing a series of emotions and it felt like a breach of his privacy.
After the fourth laav, or walk around the Guru Granth Sahib, Sam and I were officially husband and wife. I looked up and locked eyes with my dad, and immediately started bawling.
It was in that moment that I got so overwhelmed by his love for me, a love so much stronger than his own religious beliefs or expectations or needs. I was able to see clearly the weight of the sacrifices and compromises my dad has made through his life to get me to where I was ― sitting next to a man I was privileged enough to choose as my life partner ― with the support of the hundreds of people sitting behind us. Him leaving his family over 30 years ago is the reason I’ve been able to choose Sam as my own.
As such, I think I’ll always feel a slight sense of guilt for not ending up with a Sikh man. I feel a sense of guilt for not fitting into the role of “obedient, good Indian girl” — for doing whatever it took to make my parents’ lives easier after all they’ve done for me. I went against the grain and chose my happiness over my parents’ expectations.
I know my parents initially wanted me to marry a Sikh, but I also know they truly love and consider Sam like a son. Their acceptance of my partnership and effort to meet me where I am has relieved some of my guilt. I’ve gotten a happy ending, but I know not everyone is as lucky or as supported as I have been.
I don’t know what to expect from my marriage to Sam. I know that this is a journey we will venture on together, but I also know that there will always be personal challenges I have to face alone. I am constantly re-evaluating my identities and relearning what they mean for me.
Sam knows how important it is for me to stay connected to my roots. He doesn’t stand by idly while I navigate my identity crises alone. Instead, he looks up gurdwaras, or Sikh temples, in places near where we are going to live. He takes Bhangra dance lessons. He throws in Punjabi words with my nephews where he can. He educates himself.
My partner’s race and religious beliefs don’t affect my autonomy to explore my own. I am not betraying my family or culture by committing to a partnership that nurtures who I am, supports my experiences and urges my exploration in and out of it.
Even though it’s been almost two months since the wedding, I have yet to take off my choora — my bridal bracelets and a sign of being a newlywed — and I am starting to realize it may be out of defiance for what a Sikh, Punjabi wife is supposed to look like. I’m figuring it out as I go, and I’m on a path that hasn’t been taken by anyone in my family before, but I know I’m not alone.
I just hope my parents know their move to America didn’t cause their daughter to forget who she is. If anything, it’s given her the privilege of choice. This consciousness has allowed me even greater agency and accountability to choose who I am and how I can live in my hyphenated identity as a Sikh Indian-American married to a white American.
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