Following on from my piece “Skin Colour – why does the world still care” I thought I would share some of my own experiences from my marriage and my integration into my husband’s family during our first year of marriage.
Having converted only a little while before my first visit to Sri Lanka, I was still very unaware of the traditional family systems and procedures that they would have as Muslims, and I was even more unprepared for the overload of attention that I would receive given that we are the first mixed nationality couple to ever be married in his home town. I had never before been in a situation where I was considered the “local celebrity” and I found myself thrown in at the deep end and struggling to swim. I have never been comfortable in the spotlight but I had spent many years travelling and working with lots of different nationalities so I suppose I thought I was prepared. I was wrong.
I was chastised by aunties for not saying Bismillah (I didn’t even know what that meant at this point), questioned over my mahr (again, no idea I even had to receive anything, I just wanted to get married), received shocked looks at the lack of gold I had (I have never liked gold, either real or fake, and I thought it looked cheap on me), and lastly I was promptly told that I was one or all of the following by numerous ladies – old (I was 27),burnt, chubby,badly dressed, hair like sweetcorn and shockingly enough – that my English wasn’t good. I had neighbours walking into our family home literally standing staring at me and children would run down the street screaming ‘white lady white lady”. I became so uncomfortable that I cried every day for the first few days. My new family were, and still are, very good to me and did their utmost to ensure I wasn’t upset or uncomfortable, but even they couldn’t control the whole neighborhood!
I couldn’t get my head around it. Why was I such a commodity simply because of my skin colour?
The fact that skin colour was such a big deal made me very uncomfortable and I tried to fade into the background. That didn’t work. I had to visit neighbours out of formality so I was forced to deal with it. After a few days I managed to laugh it off and I became slightly more adjusted to being gawped at everywhere I went. I also adjusted to the brutal questioning regarding my background and financial situation. I have never once as an adult discussed my salary with my parents and they would never ask, and now suddenly I had strangers questioning my financial status and plans for my savings. It was automatically assumed that I was “rich” because I am white. When my husband casually mentioned that I had worked as a house maid during my teenage years, he was met with looks of disbelief, as thought this wasn’t even feasibly possible.
However, as the days went on, I adjusted to the warmth of the family unit in this new culture. I started to like the 3 hour breakfasts with the whole family; the fact that they all knew everything about each others pasts; the deep rooted sense of “doing the right thing” and the overwhelming sense of community. I gradually realised that I was being smothered only because they didn’t know any other way to help me fit in. I realised that the problem wasn’t with them as such, it was also with me because I felt embarrassed by the attention I was given. I noticed that when I relaxed and let them fuss and take care of me as they would have for any new bride, everyone was much happier.
On my last day I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness that I was leaving, and even though the staring and questioning still irritated me I also appreciated many things about this community. I admired the strict family hierarchy and the respect that the children showed their elders, something which I rarely see in the western world, at least not to such an extreme. I liked the fact that there were always people around and that there was always a hot meal for anyone who came to the home, at any time. I enjoyed the fact that I saw a new side to my husband as he made sure to visit every possible family member or friend in his town so as to ensure that no-one felt offended.
I have visited Sri Lanka 3 times now , and while the country as a whole is booming with tourism, my husbands town is still relatively undeveloped and I am still a commodity. I have however made some progress with not being waited on hand and foot – on my last trip I made tea for the family (tea is a big deal in Sri Lanka. A very big deal) and I firmly insisted on being allowed to clear up after dinner as I would do in my own home. This may sound like a very small thing but I consider it a triumph!
So while skin colour might not be relevant or important to me, sadly it is, and will continue to be, in many parts of the world. I for one will keep fighting my own battle against this (and making my own tea) one step at a time.