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Growing Up Brown

Srestha Mazumder writes on traditions and change in modern brown Australia

Growing up in a brown family means growing up in a household filled with rules and regulations and where your father’s word is the last word. My family is the modern brown family. Modern meaning slightly more liberal than a traditional brown family: where the first rule is finishing medical school and where socialising with a person of the opposite gender is outlawed until you’re married. At which point you are expected to have sex with him/her.

Hence, I consider myself lucky.

I can’t remember my dad ever explicitly saying “no” or stopping me from doing anything per se. There was always an “it’s implied” vibe reigning over our house. Whether it was in regards to my social life or university choices or dating, I was always given some space to make my decisions with the assistance of their ever-present guidance.

Unless your brown family has completely left behind their traditions or you sneak out of the house, your social life tends to be pretty restrictive. For me going out with my friends wasn’t that simple. It was as if I had put in an application form and was waiting for its approval. The whole process went something along the lines of: asking for permission a week or two before the date, providing them with details of friends who are going, what time I would be leaving the house, catching transport, eating food, coming home, breathing, walking, sitting, living.  Once one of the two authorities had been convinced, I was left to convince the other.

I even had to provide them with the numbers of all those who were going just in case I got lost or kidnapped and taken to a far-away land and never made it home by my 10pm sharp curfew. As if I was being stalked, I used to get phone calls every few minutes asking if I was okay and basically alive and breathing. The everyday struggles of an only brown child. I remember coming home from high school every day meant the music on my iPod being interrupted in four to five minute intervals. The walk home form the bus stop was twenty minutes and my dad and mum would both call and make sure I was okay and ask how far I was from home.

I guess now that I am in uni it has changed a bit, but not a lot. University has allowed me to gain more freedom in terms of my social life, but even then, the process of even getting into my uni degree wasn’t a smooth sail.

I remember when it was time to put in our UAC choices, a lot of compromising had to be done. Let’s make this clear, every brown kid has an option of three degrees; law, engineering or medicine. On top of this large variety given to us there are invisible gender allocations. If you are a girl, you have to do medicine. Boys are stuck with an engineering degree. If you can’t get into either, do law!

I’m studying psychology now but all my life I have, and still now as I am writing this, dream of being a diplomat or at least working as a lawyer. But my parents suggested I should invest my energies in medicine – a more ‘realistic’ and ‘achievable’ dream. But I for one have always despised the idea of studying medicine. It was and never will be for me. Although they never said “no”, it was implied. So I settled for psychology. A half way point. A compromise that we would both be relatively content with. It was fine initially until the HSC results came out for the class of 2014 and my parents started nagging me again to try for medical school. I never understood why brown parents can be so stubborn about getting their kids to do one of these three degrees. I’m guessing it’s a sign of stability, a thought ingrained into their heads by their fathers and grandfathers. A career path that would always deliver not bread and butter, but a five-course meal every single day.

People often say that you meet the love of your life in university. That one person that completes you. Many brown families are against the whole ‘falling in love’ thing. I never understood why. Arranged marriages are popular and contentious both abroad and here. I have a lot of friends who aren’t even allowed to socialise with people of the opposite gender let alone date them.

A marriage, to me, is supposed to be a union between two people, cemented and grounded by love, compassion, trust, commitment, protection and the feeling of safety. However to those who are often pushed into arranged marriages, all these feelings have to grow over a period of weeks, months and years. For those who know from the beginning that their only option is an arranged marriage I guess it is something different.

I have always wondered how they feel, knowing they will be getting married to someone they only got to know for a few weeks, months if lucky, beforehand. Personally I would not be willing to enter an arranged marriage for the fear of not knowing the person entirely. For all I know that person could be the spitting image of my worst nightmare. Bollywood seems to have an amazing take on this whole issue. Basically you fall in love, father says no, fight occurs with lots of crying and disowning, and in the end you marry your lover. But in reality, this is hardly the case.

Thankfully for me, my parents had a love marriage themselves and thus freed me from this vicious cycle of arranged marriages. It’s crazy to think the process and possible scolding’s they had to endure to allow for this love marriage to take place. After all, according to my brown community, “you must only fall in love after you are married”.

In my experience, the majority of brown families don’t look favourably upon dating, so for me dating comes with a lot of constraints. A skillful balancing act that I must perform with respect to my culture and traditions and also Western society. Although I am in full liberty to choose the man I want to spend the rest of my life with, I have a checklist I have to mark off for my future husband, given to me by my parents. The boy must be, and I quote every set of brown parents ever; “well educated, from a good family, very smart, must be a doctor, lawyer or engineer, be family orientated, accept your family as his own, dress well, look good, be over the average Indian height of 5’6”. And the list goes on from here, forming itself into more of a massive ingredient list to bake the most perfect chocolate cake. With all its layers of goodness, just stacked upon each other, bursting with your favourite flavours. A customised cake, made only for you. Only with this ingredient list everything needs to be in perfect proportions and must merge together skillfully to form the perfect husband.

And once that part is done and dusted, you must keep it a secret from the rest of your brown community for a few years in fear of getting shunned and looked down upon by them. In my opinion, marrying a total stranger should be looked down upon, not knowing and being in love with someone you have to spend the rest of your life with.

In the end, growing up brown comes down to how well you can juggle two completely opposite worlds. Trying to keep up with Western society whilst simultaneously respecting and adhering to your traditions naturally becomes a mentally exhausting and complex balancing act. There are always countless things you need to take into consideration before making any decision. In the end, you just need to find that perfect balance between the centuries-old traditions passed down to you by your fathers and forefathers and the new Western society in which you decided to integrate yourself. Will I bring up my kids the same way I was brought up? Probably. After all, growing up brown is the only way of growing I know.