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Matchmaker, Make Me a Match!

Devika Rao Email Devika Rao
October 2009
Matchmaker, Make Me a Match!

"Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match.” This familiar line from The Fiddler On the Roof has a special resonance for the Indian-American community, where marriage is an evergreen topic. Parents of eligible adults are hardly restrained in voicing their anxieties about their children remaining single into their late twenties, thirties, and beyond. As to the single adults themselves, many may be putting up a nonchalant front, but nevertheless appear to be concerned.

Some are not. A genuine acceptance of the single life, as a matter of choice, is also on the rise in the mainstream. And this tends to sit at odds with the social and cultural norms of the Indian community, where marriage is an ingrained institution. Not surprisingly, an environment of tension is often the backdrop in many families where old-world expectations are clashing with contemporary outlooks.

Purvi Patel, 29, from Lawrenceville, Georgia, exemplifies these dynamics when she talks about how dejected she was as she left yet another matrimonial convention in 2008. “There were 350 people there, and none (seemed promising),” Patel says, still sounding a little heartbroken. Following her family’s wishes, she had attended the New Jersey event in hopes of finding someone from their community of Leuva Patel. With most of her friends married, and familial and social pressures mounting, Patel had started to feel the void of the companion she was so keenly looking for. She describes a quintessential Indian mindset when she says, “It becomes so embedded in our heads from the time we are little, that no matter what man I met in recent years, no matter in what context, my mind would immediately think of his marriage potential!”

If it were just the seemingly gravitational push of marriage upon the new generations of Indian Americans, that would be a story by itself. But what complicates things further for them is that unlike previous generations, who took marriage in stride as an inevitable event of life, and when the family and the “village” facilitated the matchmaking, now the onus falls largely on the suitors themselves. Add to it dual careers, extreme mobility, complicated personal relationships, and higher expectations of life-partners, and you have an environment that presents one tough juggernaut for today’s nuptial-minded hearts.

This is evident in painstaking detail in the book Marrying Anita, where author Anita Jain narrates her exhaustive and maddeningly frustrating quest to find her soul mate, which eventually leads her to New Delhi. She touches upon chords that many with marriage on their mind can empathize with, such as the wide spectrum of polarities between the “Indian” and “American” aspects of today’s multidimensional youngsters. The diverse, global, and multiethnic Indian diaspora makes for a complex web of idiosyncrasies, hang-ups, peeves, preferences, dreams, and passions of an increasingly multifaceted group of contemporary young peers. How does the serious suitor maneuver through this wide spectrum? Is he (or she) too Indian for me? Too American? Will he be accepting about my thriving career? Will she be forging close ties with my family? And so on.

The age-old arranged marriage, while not entirely out the door, is nevertheless a relic for most of them. They see it as something from a time and place their parents belonged to. At the same time, dating is not an ingrained part of the socio-cultural background of many, if not most, of them. Vinod Jammalamadaka, a San Francisco Bay area software engineer, probably speaks for many of his peers when he says, “I did not have the necessary lifestyle for dating, because I still lived with my parents in a suburban area far from the city nightlife.” But more than the logistics surrounding dating, it may be the inherent reverence that the Indian ethos has for the institution of marriage, and the notion of only one romantic partner for life that may have colored Jammalamadaka’s views on dating. He elaborates: “I feel marriage is a necessary step in life, and something that you only do once. However, the western culture tends to portray marriage as optional, and something that can be done multiple times if necessary. This also shows up in the frequent breakups between boyfriends and girlfriends. This turned me off to dating. I figured there is no point of getting in a relationship unless you have intentions of getting married.”

Whether they date or not and whether they find their own mate or get help from the family, this generation is certainly different from their parents in that they do want to ensure compatibility and chemistry. They want to get to know their prospective life partner. They have a laundry list of wants, needs, and hopes from their marriage in which most are fiercely independent. Unnati Patel, 26, has been married to Jaydeep Patel for six months—thanks to an introduction by a common aunt. The traditional, “arranged” aspect of their match ended soon after the introduction. After that, it was Unnati and Jaydeep on their own, working their way to a “love marriage.” Describing the courtship, Unnati said, “We decided to pursue the relationship and meet each other after exchanging emails and talking for two months. We were both able to talk openly and basically hit it off. Overall, we became really good friends. We were able to talk openly, and enjoyed hanging out with each other. We also had common goals about life and family, and shared many of the same gujarati values and morals. I guess ultimately, it was that unexplainable gut feeling that you get that he was ‘the one’.”

Even amongst those who have no hang-ups about dating, time constraints make it harder to be out there. It is no wonder many fantasize about the serendipitous encounters—the “love marriages” where the couple meet naturally in the course of working and living. But not many of the nuptial minded are holding out for such fantasies of just running into their Prince Charming on a white stallion. Unnati Patel, for one, believes such fated encounters are rare. “You go to college and you hope to find that guy or that girl. Some do, but for the most part, it is a Hollywood fantasy.”

When Facebook groups titled “Bollywood Gave Me Unrealistic Expectations about Love” crop up, it’s a sign that many have stopped romanticizing and are ready to take proactive and practical steps.

In this regard, the Indian-American suitors are not alone. The mainstream too seems to reflect a trend that favors proactive solutions over relying on encounters of fate. A strong indicator of such a trend is a spate of reality TV shows that deal with matchmaking. The Bachelor and The Bachelorette are running up ratings on the Nielsen SoundScan, while The Millionaire Matchmaker (BravoTV) and The Confessions of a Matchmaker (A&E) are glamorizing the matchmakers. The message, it seems, is that running into your soul mate by fate is an increasingly elusive prospect. If “top-of-their-game” millionaires need the help of professional matchmakers, where does it leave the average Joes, one can cynically ask.

Cultures and methods from the mainstream and the desi worlds, too, are morphing into each other. The act of choosing one man or woman out of 20, as in shows like The Bachelor is no different from having an Indian family running down statistics on a potential life partner—minus the 10 hours of filming, of course. The arranged marriage, a quintessential Indian phenomenon, is also finding a place on American TV. Sources at the Fox Broadcasting Company shared highlights of a new reality television show centered around arranged marriages.

While America may be experimenting with arranged marriages as a novelty, it has become only one of the growing numbers of ways Indian Americans are approaching marriage. When today’s generations finally brave this decision, they face an explosion of approaches. It’s no longer a simple dilemma of choosing between arranged marriage and dating. Now there is a whole panorama of choices—online matchmaking Web sites, mainstream Web sites, desi Web sites, matrimonial conventions, speed-dating, and even career matchmakers.

Matchmaking 2.0

One definite beneficiary of the changing dynamics is the online matchmaking industry. The unprecedented success of sites such as match.com and eHarmony.com show that there are major shifts in how Americans go about finding their mates.

Described as a “wholesome marriage-oriented site” in a recent article in The Economist, eHarmony now boasts 20 million paying subscribers. Even with the current recession, “online-dating sites such as eHarmony.com and OkCupid.com have seen business look up,” according to the article. Visitors to online dating sites increased by 57 percent in 2006, outpacing the 22 percent overall growth of the Internet, as reported by Jupiter Media Metrics, a business and tech research company.

The Indian online matchmaking sites have not only grown as fast or faster than the mainstream ones, but also have a higher success rate of their matches resulting in marriages. According to Valini D’Souza, a spokesperson for the company that owns shaadi.com, their site has resulted in the marriage of over 800,000 couples. BharatMatrimony.com claims 10 million members and, in its 10 years, a million marriages!

Neil Arora, 27, is one of the many who prefer online matchmaking sites. “Dating is not a surefire bet,” he says. “I have dated, but nothing has developed towards marriage. And once the decision to marry has been made, why not be a bit more proactive? I like the autonomy (of online desi matchmaking sites) as opposed to the prospect of arranged marriage, where your family has to guess who would be right for you.” He feels even if his parents had wanted to help, they don’t have the kind of deep networks that many Patels do. He nevertheless keeps them involved, telling them about any developments from online matches. He and his parents like being able to view a potential bride’s background and even their personal views about work, family, etc.—before any meaningful entanglements.

According to shaadi.com, about 68 percent of the profiles on their site are placed by the individuals themselves, and the rest by parents, friends or family. Yet, unlike in mainstream matchmaking sites, a certain amount of involvement from family is the norm.

“Online dating and marriage services are growing rapidly and are becoming the new form of arranged marriages,” says Saunia Ahmed, a counselor at South Asian Couples Counseling, a program under York University in Toronto, Canada. “There is little stock in ‘serendipity’ alone. So, many are just pushing it along.”

Archith Narendhra Seshadri, 26, is actively involved in the Indian community and his outgoing and friendly persona make him a perfect candidate for fateful encounters. Seshadri nevertheless let his parents put his profile on Bharatmatrimony.com. He thinks of it as a blind date. “I get to know someone with a similar background and if it goes well, then marriage is an option,” he says.

Dr. Zhenchao Qian, a professor of sociology at Ohio State University, feels online dating is popular among Asian immigrant communities because, “many associate love marriages with risk-taking, and with America’s high divorce rate, the concept of arranged marriage feels more stabilizing.”

But online matchmaking is not without its pitfalls. “Online dating is a great avenue to enlarge your universe to meet someone, but there are two drawbacks: it is time-consuming and misrepresentations abound,” cautions Jasbina Ahluwalia of Intersections Matchmaking, a “national, elite, personalized service for selective South Asian singles” as she describes it. According to Ahluwalia, her firm takes over the time-consuming task of screening, so clients are able to strategically spend their limited time and energies focusing on matches with real potential. “Our service involves a highly personalized, consultative and feedback-centric process. Before a client meets any matches, I get to know our client’s needs, wants, values, priorities, lifestyle, personality and background via an extensive personal consultation.”

How does such an elite service fare in recessionary times? Ahluwalia claims a close to 300 percent growth since the downturn last year. In the process she has gained many insights about the matrimonial needs of Indian Americans. She stresses that most of them are seeking “life partners” rather than molding themselves into traditional roles of “husband” or “wife”. Not surprisingly, she affirms that gender roles are in transition. Women are looking to be treated as equals and men increasingly want to do so.

Ahluwalia also feels that despite the more visible inter-racial marriages that seem to be on the rise, there are many South Asian youngsters who seem to prefer meeting people of similar backgrounds when it comes to seeking a life partner. Not having to explain oneself from a cultural standpoint is a major reason for this, she feels.

Falling back into the fold

“I was searching everywhere, going on blind dates, meeting parents and their daughters, and this whole time, my future wife was just 2.7 miles away,” says Harris Patel, a physician’s assistant and athletic trainer who ended up marrying Purvi Patel, quoted earlier. His story, much different from his wife Purvi’s, is also a statement on the trends in the Indian dating scene. Harris Patel, 34, grew up in a more liberal household, and had some experience with dating. “I was just going to try this, what could it hurt?” Harris says. Rather than hurt him, it helped him realize that he preferred to marry someone from his own cultural background.

Qian notes that the by-product of dating various people but winding up with your own ethnicity is one of natural conclusion. “In high school, there is the idea of individualism and experimentation, and it's natural to try different things, but when it comes to marriage, things change,” Qian says.

Dr. Pawan Dhingra, a sociologist at Oberlin College in Ohio, concurs. “When the second generation was younger, they were open to marrying anyone, but as they get older, their desire falls back on their own culture,” Dhingra says.

Cupid beyond conventions

In an environment where the whole exercise of finding a life partner has changed dramatically in a single generation, those who are less bound by norms or conventions find it easier to succeed. Take the American notion about personal friends being off limits for romance or marriage prospects. This is uniquely different from the Indian trend where marriages, when not arranged, frequently happen within a circle of friends.

Strangely though, the notion of friends being off limits also contradicts another popular notion made famous by When Harry Met Sally—that men and women cannot be just friends. Shivani Agarwal, 23, took this notion and ran with it. “In the beginning there was no attraction beyond friendship towards (Kaushal Sharma), but as we became best friends, got to know each other and just really understood one another, I slowly realized that I felt more for him beyond just friendship,” says Agarwal, who has been dating her beau for six years. It’s not that Agarwal is against traditional routes and help from family. She concedes that the people who know you and love you will pick someone to your liking. But she didn’t limit herself either, when she felt sure about her feelings for Sharma.

If dating one person at a time doesn’t work for you, you can always try speed dating, which is hardly unconventional anymore. The concept is in stark contrast to the serendipitous romantic courtship stretched out over months and years, where facets of one’s personal life are revealed slowly, one after another, like layers of an onion. Participants reveal almost the entirety of their background, interests, goals and ambitions within a few minutes.

Nick Shah, a youth counselor who is also pursuing his post-graduate studies at Columbia University in New York, went to a Jain Samaj speed dating event hoping it was the perfect solution for his time-starved schedules. But he found himself a bit uncomfortable, switching from chair to chair, facing a different girl each time. He had a good time, he confessed, chatting with many of the girls. But he found it awkward to try to judge another human being, in a matter of minutes, and that too for nothing less than “spending the rest of my life with.” It bothered him that he found himself comparing one with another, as if making a consumer decision.

Shah believes that speed dating is fine if it’s not too formal and if it is not organized as a matrimonial event. Otherwise, the pressure and discomfort is not worth it. While many speed dating events are businesslike, others aren’t too rigid. Those organized by the Network of Indian Professionals (NetIP), offer busy South Asian professionals an efficient platform to engage in whatever their participants' quest may be—marriage or dating. Raj Kalli, president of NetIP-Atlanta, does stress that marriage is certainly the goal of many of their participants, but they don’t necessarily mandate that.

Nationally, NetIP speed dating events in partnership with Bharatmatrimony.com each had an attendance of about 500. A recent such event in Atlanta in partnership with Indiandating.com saw young South Asians flocking to it all the way from North Carolina and Florida. Kalli recalled one young man who flew from Dallas just to attend the event.

The ring of wedding bells

Getting married has never been a breeze, whether now or in generations past. The specific nature of problems and settings may have changed, but the underlying pressure of entering into a lifetime of commitment with another human being remains constant. Youngsters today may find the process of finding a mate and getting married a daunting task; but before they view the simplicity of their parent’s times with envy, they would do well to heed the set of challenges their parents had to endure. Would any of today’s young trade the complexities of choices and approaches with the compulsions of parents, family, and society that suitors of generations past often endured?

Pravinbhai Amin, a Gujarati senior citizen living in Lawrenceville, Georgia, who was a district judge in rural Gujarat, recalled that marriage was always a daunting task laden with issues such as heavy social expectations and norms, rigid parental impositions, dowries, and lasting stigma attached to the slightest wrong move, such as a broken engagement. Compared to that, not seeing eye-to-eye about dual careers seems tame.

Amin feels that the challenge for today’s Indian-American generations is not necessarily in finding a mate, but rather in sustaining the marriage through a lifetime. Neil Arora agrees that the current trends of matchmaking, while being more complex and nuanced compared to past generations, also offers more personal freedom, choice and satisfaction. The only reason, he feels, it may seem scarier is that the “happily ever after” part is no longer as assured as it used to be.

What may be gratifying to many parents is that despite the emphasis on personal freedom and individual choice, many of today’s suitors nevertheless respect their parents’ choices and opinions. A survey conducted by Bharatmatrimony.com found that 59 percent of women consider their parents’ decision the most important priority in finalizing a marriage decision.

Purvi Patel’s upbringing led her to make sure that her parents' wishes were respected. “As you grow up, you slowly understand that your parents are right in a lot of ways,” she says. “Religiously, culturally, what they are saying is making sense, so you try to abide by that.” Harris Patel reflects this stress on family when he says his primary concern was to make sure that his future wife would not just be his wife, but another daughter and sister to his already close-knit family.

For now, it seems that matchmaking for this generation seems to have settled into a happy blend of personal freedom and parental involvement—somewhat like the increasingly frequent “arranged love marriage.” The matchmaker may have moved to the cyber world, but her job security is as assured as it ever was.

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