As a Pakistani girl, daydreams about my wedding were different from other girls. I knew my wedding wouldn’t be just one day, but several days of celebration. I wouldn’t be wearing a white dress, but a heavily sequined one in traditional colours like yellow, red and green. I knew what my wedding would look like but my daydreams certainly did not include a brown haired, blue eyed, Irish-Italian bridegroom.
Everything changed the day I brought home a white boy and I decided to marry into his Canadian family.
And things changed for everyone else involved as well.
My future in-laws were eager to be in “that part of the world,” however — ready to experience a stereotyped culture that they often, innocently of course, confuse with that of Arabs.
We got married two years ago in Lahore. The wedding plans went underway in a dishevelled fashion — the way most things happen in that part of the world. Unlike in North America where weddings are planned years in advance, mine was put together in less than two months. My whole family got involved in the decision-making process: from renting a tent for one night’s celebrations to booking a banquet hall for another. There was no wedding planner, just a diligent aunt with all the right connections.
There is a saying that roughly translates to, “It’s always chaos at a house with a wedding.” And that was certainly true. Remember My Big Fat Greek Wedding? Well, imagine the Pakistani version.
I was prepared to deal with all of this however. I was prepared for the stares we would get as my mother and I led my new in-laws around in the markets. I was prepared for the chauvinistic pestering at the Pakistani Embassy, telling me they had to investigate my fiancé because it was “unusual for a Pakistani girl to be marrying a Canadian boy.” I was just happy to be marrying the love of my life.
What I was not prepared for was how to help the seven members of my husband’s family adapt to the — let’s admit it — often strange, bewildering and totally unorganized lifestyle that we live in Lahore.
My husband’s parents are divorcees, both remarried. Most of them were born and raised in Kitchener, Ont., except for three born in Ireland. They’re a loud and close-knit family and despite being open-minded, their experience with culture is similar to that of many Canadians — diverse, but lacking in practical understanding. Eating ethnic food meant ordering Chinese takeout.
My future in-laws were eager to be in “that part of the world,” however — ready to experience a stereotyped culture that they often, innocently of course, confuse with that of Arabs. To this day, my mother-in-law calls the billowy pants we traditionally wear, the shalwar, “Aladdin pants.” (Though Disney was never clear about which country Aladdin was from, he was definitely an Arab. And Pakistan is not in the Middle East.)
I found myself trying to think of what they needed to know; cultural nuances that I take for granted. If I were to write a guidebook to Pakistani culture, what would it say?
Pakistani weddings can last several days. It’s one celebration after the next: lots of food, strings of roses and jasmine, and plenty of relatives even I didn’t know existed.
My in-laws were blind to our traditions and relied on our insight to guide them. This was a chance for my father to swoop in and play innocent tricks on my naive in-laws, like telling them our hard-boiled eggs were colourful on the inside — which they earnestly believed at breakfast one morning. After that they became wary of everything he said.
Street meat is said to be great in Thailand, but not in Pakistan. My husband can attest to this fact after spending a day in the hospital from eating a delicious-but-deadly street samosa.
Punctuality is not a winning trait in Lahore, either. My in-laws were often frustrated with my family’s lack of it — not to mention the almost innate inability to stick to an appointment. Plans to get picked up from a hotel at 9 a.m. often turned into 10 a.m. instead. Traffic in Lahore can be bad, but my family’s sense of punctuality is even worse.
Another point of gloom was telling my in-laws they couldn’t wander the streets unescorted. Like any travellers, they wanted to explore the city and get lost in the markets. But unlike in India, or even in the cosmopolitan city of Karachi, you don’t see many foreigners in Lahore. It’s become relatively unsafe, even for locals. And let’s face it, Osama bin Laden was found mere hours away.
My husband’s stepfather was thoroughly amused to see a security guard armed with a rifle outside a Subway restaurant. He whipped out his camera to take a picture and was warned by police officers to stop or lose the camera. It wasn’t quite as funny anymore. He was upset he didn’t get the hilarious photo, but my in-laws were quick to adapt to the sensitive environment.
Unfortunately we don’t drink or give speeches at our weddings, but there is lots of merriment to be found in wedding food, music and gossip.
And when my side came out to sing traditional wedding songs, my in-laws took centre-stage as they belted out Pearl Jam’s Last Kiss to the awe and, I’ll admit it, confusion, of my Pakistani relatives.
The wedding ended and we all said our goodbyes, but my two families are now forever intertwined. My in-laws will often wear Pakistani clothes and proudly explain their significance to friends. My mother-in-law loves shopping at the South Asian grocery store I introduced her to. (South Asian in style, not location.)
And as for me, I realized that it was a lot harder to explain my culture to people who had never experienced it before — even little things like the fact we always put milk in our tea and drinking it any other way was odd. Or that it’s completely normal to have armed security and metal detectors outside fast food restaurants.
Now, I’ll often go over to my in-laws houses and find butter chicken for dinner or a cup of tea spiced with cardamom, and those are the moments I realize the sheer power of two cultures coming together as one.