Dating as a bi-cultural person

I wasn’t allowed to date or even talk to boys growing up. This was a cultural ethos backed up by religion and the custom of arranged marriages and no premarital sex under any circumstances.

My father was a very serious and very strict man and his number one priority was to protect his family. He had seen, I suppose, his share of awful things in the human condition and he wanted to make sure that we, his kids, weren’t blindsided by them. This meant not allowing us to have friends growing up in this new country and most certainly NOT boyfriends. If he saw me talking to a boy when he picked me up at school, you can be sure there was going to be an interrogation in the car.

Observing the sleepovers, the parties, and the multiple boyfriends my classmates had, I was rebellious and I hated my dad’s protectiveness. My older sisters tell me I got off easy and that he was much more protective of them when they lived in Africa to the point that he didn’t even let them stand on the balcony for fear that they may be seen, followed and attacked. It was a world where such things happened at a more frequent rate than any of us would like to believe.

Maybe he did go a little overboard, bringing his fears from the old world to a relatively different and (ironically) safer US. From what I’ve seen, a lot of immigrants tend to clamp down and become more socially conservative when moving to the West as a reaction to a perceived social liberality that is a threat to their values. Many times, ethnic minorities in the US are more socially conservative than their counterparts back home, who have kept evolving and progressing socially without interruption.

Fast forward to today. I’m 41 years old, single, living in San Francisco and my dad is no longer in this world. He stopped being overprotective of me relatively late in my life, maybe starting when I got married at 29. Eventually he let go and he wasn’t watching over me like he used to. Since I haven’t had my dad try to protect me from the dangers of everyday life in a long time, I’ve had to rely on myself for that.

Like right now. I’m dating and I’m having to be my own inner father, my own protector. This is not about being puritanical or chaste or any of those guilt-ridden concepts that oppress women. This is about feminism and female strength.

My family instilled in me the cultural value of a long-term, life-long relationship and it is a part of me I cherish. A lot of what I come up against in the dating world works against this value and there is no one on the scene who will stand up for my values besides me.

My reservations about having sex early in a dating situation are rooted in my Indian Muslim cultural upbringing which makes it hard for me to date, because I don’t just date Indian Muslims. In fact, I almost never date Indian Muslims, (but that’s a topic for another post). I date people who are either from the West or are very Westernized because that seems to be the best cultural fit for me believe it or not.

This means I have to navigate cultural differences very intentionally. In the past, I’ve steam- rolled over my own cultural values to make the other person feel more comfortable. For example, I pretended to be as white and as Westernized as possible when dating a white guy. But now I have a better understanding of what I want and who I am and I know that I can’t do that. I know that I need to stand up and be a vocal proponent for my culture if I want any chance at a sustainable long term relationship with someone because my cultural values are at the core of who I am. The person who I end up with is going to welcome and make room for my cultural values and be excited by them.

What I have found in dating in San Francisco, which is different than dating in other smaller cities I’ve lived in is that it’s very fast paced, people make snap decisions and it feels like a throw-away culture with too many options. What’s not different than anywhere else is that a lot of people are trying to get into each other’s pants, which makes it tricky terrain for me, cause while there is some overlap between wanting sex and wanting a life partner, they are two different things.

I’m straight forward about what I want on my dating profile to eschew the folks who just want to get lucky. (I want to clarify that I harbor no judgement towards those who have casual sex, it’s just not want I want.)

Sometimes it’s pretty easy to tell when someone doesn’t really care about getting to know you and they just want to have sex and I can have an honest conversation with them that that is not what I’m looking for and they are barking up the wrong tree.

But other times it’s harder to tell and those are the times that are most painful for me. Even more painful than just outright rejection because I go in thinking that someone wants to get to know me as a person, but the whole time they are just playing the long game to get me into bed.

This is when I’ve learned to channel my father.

Even though I pushed back strongly against his protectiveness growing up, I now see the value of it. It’s not that I want to “save myself” for getting married again or anything like that and neither do I want to be rigid, because sometimes you get carried away with someone you really like and that’s ok.

But my overall goal in dating is to explore relationships that have the potential to become a life partnership. I’m not interested in “having fun” with temporary relationships and spending time on things that I know for a fact just couldn’t work in the long term. This is not an easy position to take in today’s very transient, exchangeable, and expungable dating scene.

And so I try not to put myself in a position where I’m taken for a ride. Luckily I don’t drink and this makes it much easier for me to avoid becoming more physically intimate with someone than I intend to.

[This is where I’ll take a little liberty and suggest to women who sometimes, or often, or repeatedly, find themselves in situations they don’t want to be in to act like a designated driver on the road to their own happiness. Maybe don’t drink on your first date, or second or third or however long it takes to keep you head as clear as possible so you can make decisions you’re going to be happy with the following morning.]

Another thing I am practicing doing is setting very clear boundaries. For example, if your date invites you to his home for a third date, he may have some expectations of having sex. which, of course, is totally fine but if you’re not sure yet whether you even like him that much or if he’s just been going out with you just to get laid, this is the time to be clear about what you want. It’s the time to say something like, “hey, thanks for inviting me to come to your place, but I just wanted to get on the same page about expectations. I want to let you know that I’m not going to necessarily be ready to have sex just because I’m coming over to your place.” And this is only if you even feel safe going to this person’s place at all.

My actual father would say, no, don’t go to his place because obviously he only wants one thing and if you don’t want that, then steer clear. And I would say listen to your inner father if he manifests as a feeling of unease at the pit of your stomach. Any kind of warning signals our bodies send to us are very much worth listening to. If the guy is worth his salt, he will stick around and come up with dates that make you feel comfortable and build trust with you.

Dating as a bicultural person is not only about introducing your date to your ethnic cuisine, it’s about negotiating between two different value systems within yourself, becoming clear on your version of your cultural values, not your parents’, communicating them clearly to people you’re dating and standing by them.