A Lesson Initiated By Young Love: Cultural and Religious Tolerance

(Picture taken by Jonathan Gibson Photography in Cincinnati)

I was a young girl living in a predominately Caucasian suburb in Cincinnati, Ohio. I am half Puerto Rican and half "white". Despite being half Puerto Rican, I feel "100%" since I was raised by my Puerto Rican mom. During my adolescence in Cincinnati there weren't many other Puerto Ricans, but when I was about 17 years old I realized I gravitated towards "other" ethnic men. Honestly, I'll own up to it and say point blank I developed a fetish.

One of my earliest relationships was with a Pakistani guy named Saif. I remember my mother didn't approve when she saw the caller ID with an obvious Muslim last name across the screen. This was circa 2004 too, when Islamophobia was at its peak in the media and everyone thought brown guys with beards were exploding everywhere. In all fairness, my mom's reaction would have been the same for any foreign culture. I'm sure his family didn't approve either when this young Western girl would call his house. Regardless, being involved to the level a high school aged teenager was able wasn't an issue, and I assume it was because both of our families in their infinite wisdom predicted this puppy love relationship would fail; they were right. However, despite us not having a "happily ever after", he indirectly opened my eyes to something that forever impacted me: Eastern Cultures; specifically Desi and Arab cultures, but I generalized for simplicity sake.

If I flashback to almost twelve years ago I can clearly recall that Saif was the first guy that sincerely acted like a boyfriend. He actually took me out on frequent dates, paid every single time, and never complained or asked for money; in fact, he insisted (which was different for me). I remember a couple months he even paid for my cell phone bills when I went over the minutes from talking to him. He took me to see movies every 17 year old girl at that time wanted to see like Mean Girls and The Notebook. He even took me to my prom despite him being a sophomore in college, and not only did he bring the corsage, he brought a dozen roses for me, which impressed even my mom. He was attentive and always communicated throughout the day without coming across as obsessive. Most importantly, he was the first guy I can remember being there for me emotionally. All of this was rather impressive considering Saif was only 19 years old.

I think we bonded because we both came from homes that were rather straitlaced as they were dictated by our specific cultures and religions. For him it was Pakistani culture and Islam, and for me it was Latin culture and Catholicism. We had one foot in each door like many 1st generation and/or mixed children do; we connected because we both were conflicted and culturally confused teenagers.

After we broke up, I was involved with traditional American guys for the next few years, and as a whole I never really connected with any of them. I'm sure this was because I never truly opened up because it wasn't what I wanted in my heart. All this was during my 5 year enlistment in the military, so perhaps that explains this phase, because there weren't many Eastern descent men in the American military. Regardless, within one year after getting out of the military I went back to my old ways-- having a fascination with Eastern men and their cultures. I even enrolled in some classes in college and studied various Eastern religions. I also went to guest lectures by diplomats that discussed Eastern and Western relations in regards to foreign diplomacy and politics. It was more than an attraction because I wanted to learn too.

Many of us ethnic children come from homes where our parents may not be fully assimilated to the mainstream secular culture, therefore we struggle with two identities and/or juggle with our parents' happiness and ours. For me, finding a religious and cultural match wasn't happiness, because in reality I wasn't religious enough to make it a priority, and culturally I was attracted to something different. I eventually found a balance (it probably really isn't a balance to an outsider's perspective). I met Jagath, who is now my husband. Jagath is Hindu and Indian. For me this worked out perfectly and is a balance because there was no pressure from him or his family about religion. We were able to have both a Hindu and Catholic wedding, which made my mom and me (most importantly) happy. I think in the end she ended up bending the rules for me because she accepted an intercultural/interfaith marriage was the type of marriage I wanted, and she fell for my husband too, which opened up her heart.

My marriage with my husband is a beautiful mixture. I think it helps that we both take an interest in each other's culture and religion. We celebrate Hindu and Christian holidays, but to be fair we are both more spiritual than religious. I cook both Indian and Puerto Rican food. We love dancing to both Indian and Latin music in the kitchen. Every holiday is an excuse for me to wear an anarkali (Indian type of dress) and Indian jewelry. Religion and/or culture are never an issue in our home and I think it's because of mutual priorities and tolerance. I assume my husband's tolerance came from my sweet mother-in-law. When I reflect back on my life, I am fairly certain my tolerance originates from young love; at 17, I was introduced to something that awakened my intellect and desire to know & love something beyond anything I was accustomed to. To me, this is happiness and I wouldn't have it any other way--perhaps there really are some absolute truths in regards to attraction at 17.