Originally published July, 2006. Republished June 23, 2011.
My girlfriend and I each had very valid reasons for wanting to keep our relationship "private" as long as possible. Rachel had recently gotten out of a long relationship. I had never dated a woman.
It was a new relationship—why jinx it? We were second semester seniors in college—why rile everyone up? It was winter —what was the point of casting the big bisexual signal up into the sky to let our nearest and dearest know that we'd gone gay for each other? Who would notice with all the sleet and snow anyhow?
Yet as springtime and graduation rolled around, Rachel and I found that the only people we hadn't told were our families. This was unfortunate. We love our crazy families—Rachel comes from a classic brand of liberal, big city, Jewish crazy, and I hale from a not quite as classic, suburban, hybrid-Hindu-Roman-Catholic clan of crazy. By not telling our families, we looked sneaky. And besides hemorrhoids, there is nothing more aggravating than a pair of sneaky bisexual lesbians.
Rachel had it easy. This is obviously an egregiously subjective viewpoint; however, contextually speaking it's true. Rachel and her sisters grew up with their parents talking about a future when the girls and their husbands or "partners" could continue the family tradition of summering at at the family's beach home. I am not trying to diminish her genuine anxieties, but really, it doesn't get much better than parents who seamlessly incorporate gender-neutral terminology into the discussions they have with their fourth grader.
Rachel's family's overwhelming level of tolerance and love for all choices could make even Mister Rogers look like a neo-con. My family looks good on paper. An interfaith, multicultural circus that gives the impression of such coherence and cult-like commitment that growing up, friends used to call us the Brown Brady Bunch. Did I really want to bring that beautiful illusion down? Nobody wants to be the one with the undercover bigoted parents.
I ended up telling my Italian mother about my new relationship in our kitchen; that way the surge of emotion would be immediately deflected into cooking. If she started preparing some sort of meat, it would mean she was launching an unsubtle campaign to turn me straight. She ended up running the ole' Fallen Roman Catholic Mother Gauntlet of Guilt play. There were sad eyes, tight-lipped smiles and passive aggressive outbursts where feelings of guilt and disappointment were projected in the name of every dead Italian relative, ever.
I had hoped to get to my dad before my mom but circumstance would have it that the old lady was quick. When I finally got the chance to descend into my dad's basement office, he had already been prepped with, "Your daughter has something she wants to tell you."
That line is officially the worst lead-in a child could ask for. The thought flashed through my mind to confess to a bevy of faux vices just to make the whole, "so I'm dating a Jewish girl" thing less dramatic. As I told my dad, I watched as my father slowly let go of the last shred of hope he had of seeing me ride off into the sunset with a rich, Indian prince. Yes I was dark, but my Ivy League education certainly offset my complexion. But now with Rachel, that dream was over.
After a few weeks everything settled down and life in the hybrid-Hindu household returned to its baseline level of abnormalcy. Rachel and I soon came to realize that no matter how educated, accepting or well-adjusted parents seem, they lose all logic when it comes to an anthropological clash of cultures.
During my first dinner with Rachel's family they ordered take-out. Across the table her father slowly and quietly explained to me what "kosher" means. He whispered to me as if he were helping me cheat on a Hebrew school quiz.
"This is why we are using plastic utensils for the food, because in the house we keep kosher," he concluded.
I wondered if he realized that when I said suburbs, I meant the suburb just outside his big city. The super Jewish suburb that practically shuts down on Jewish holidays.
"Me and Jews," I wanted to tell him, "like apples and honey!"
And my family is no better. When I relate the "kosher story" my mother hesitates and then tries her best not to make it sound as bad as I know it is going to be.
"Oh" she says with a level of forced offhandedness, "so they are really Jewish."
I roll my eyes as I think of at least four different family friends who are all, apparently, "really Jewish." My father now has a level of fascination that makes me question if he really has been living in this country for the last thirty-five years.
"Had they ever eaten mangos before?" he wants to know excitedly. "Or did you introduce her family to mangos?" I gently remind him that that Rachel is a Jew from the the neighboring big city, not another planet.
In terms of our Jewish-Hindu pairing, I tell my parents to take comfort that the tide of popular culture is in our favor.
"Look," I point out "these days anybody who is anybody eats challah and does yoga."
Now that Rachel and I have won over each other's families, we have far bigger problems to address — like finding jobs.