Have you ever had a moment when you take a step back and really “see” the fascinating ways in which your Tamil heritage and your Western upbringing mix? For me, this fusion has always been most evident in wedding proposals. The films and series from my youth showcased proposals as grand, unexpected gestures — a sudden pivot from casual to commitment. But for many, the reality is very different; proposals I have seen over the last several years often come after wedding plans are made or families have met. Popping the question after the wedding hall has already been booked has been a fascinating insight into how the old meets the new, how first-generation immigrants tie traditional customs with the wishes we grow up with, and how traditions can be influenced, blend with others, and evolve over time.
The presentations of marriage proposals and engagements I used to see in movies looked like the only true way to get engaged. But, once I got older and saw proposals within my family and later friends, it became more and more obvious that getting down on one knee was very different in the Tamil community than among the mostly White people I would see in movies and TV. On screen, the engagement can’t be predicted. Dating for years, meeting each other’s parents, or having both sets of parents meet one another is, while important milestones, never shown as being of particularly high significance or an expression that you’re ready to settle down.
As a Tamil, having your parents meet your partner’s parents is pretty much a guarantee that a wedding is inevitable. For some, simply telling your parents about your girlfriend or boyfriend means the same. Most of us were raised with the notion that while dating isn't outright discouraged, it isn't particularly championed either; you don’t bring dates home to the family casually, and you don’t introduce them or launch them onto your Instagram page until you have a year or two down and have an idea of where it’s going. By the time the parents meet, both parties generally recognize that marriage is on the horizon; in some cases, your parents will actively begin making preparations, talk wedding dates, or look at venues.
In such a situation, where does the proposal fit in? Some would say the proposal might lose its charm in such circumstances, questioning the meaning of the gesture when dates and times have already been decided. There are those who argue that the “magic” is diluted, making the proposal more of a formality than a gesture of commitment and love. Others believe that while proposals are beautiful affirmations of love and can be done after the wedding process has been set in motion, their significance is heightened if done before finalising wedding dates. Some see proposals as fine, but don’t see it as being meaningful in the context of an arranged marriage. Others dismiss the debate altogether, suggesting that individuals should simply follow their heart's desire.
Every successive generation of immigrants faces a clash of cultures. Many people born into one and raised in another try to find some blend of the two, and proposals are just one of the many expressions of that blend. So, it’s really up to you. Whether it’s to give your partner something they have wanted, create a special memory together, or express your love and care, nothing should stop you from expressing that wish in a way that means the most to you. I’ve seen proposals for arranged marriages, for weddings that are already booked, and planned proposals where both guy and girl get dressed up and find that perfect spot. Maybe it seems performative, but it can also be a couple’s genuine effort to create a special moment that has meaning to them. It’s hard enough to balance traditional expectations with personal wishes. Let’s just allow everyone to create their own story.
-Graphic by Sobica Vinayagamoorthy