“That guy from chemistry asked you out and you turned him down? I don’t understand… it’s just a movie!” I told my roommate whilst following her around the apartment, dazed and confused. “And I remember you telling me the other day that you thought he was cute!”
Jasminda and I reached the kitchen where she threw a collapsed bag of popcorn into the microwave. She turned and smiled at me. “And I also remember telling you that my marriage is already arranged back home,” she quipped. “I will be getting married in 2 years after we all receive that much coveted piece of paper that our parents have paid oh-so dearly for — and supposedly the key to our futures.”
I rolled my eyes. “Oh you meant the guy that you’ve met twice? Including the first time during your eighth birthday party?” I asked.
“Well, think of it as an early blind date,” she smiled triumphantly.
That was a good five years ago. My ex-roommate is now back in India where she is living happily with her husband — that’s what Friendster tells me at least. She has about four thousand pictures of her traditional Indian wedding on there and about another thousand of her with family and friends. And I can’t help but feel a twinge of jealousy as to how happy she looks. I have to admit, she and her husband do look good together. It was as if she won the lotto. I should talk to my parents about this whole arranged marriage thing.
Arranged marriages — why do we frown upon them as much as we do? Guilty as charged! I do not deny the fact that I crinkled my nose once upon a time whenever someone told me that his/her marriage is already set (yes, Jasminda included). I had this unsolicited sympathy for them because I felt that they will never find true love in their lives anymore. Sort of like they were heading towards the path of doom or something. My judgment had been terribly misguided by too much television and glossy magazines.
One fundamental thing that I have learned: arranged marriage is one thing, forced marriage is another. True, arranged marriages can sometimes be synonymous to forced marriages but it isn’t always the case. Forced marriages are those horrible things that we see on Indian Bollywood films where poor little rich girl runs away with her one true love (the gardener) on the eve of her fanciful wedding; both to escape her future life of grief and misery, and also the tumultuous wrath of her parents — who have incidentally promised their daughter to the eligible son of the wealthiest and most powerful family in their village. That way, her parents can finally pay off the debts that they incurred through years of social climbing and trying to rub elbows with the cream of the crop.
Get it now? It’s a movie! And guess what? The plot sells no matter how many times over this stereotype has gotten recycled. It will always pluck a chord in any girl’s heart — the Cinderella or the poor little rich girl story. And I have to admit, I’m a sucker for these. And it is because of these vexed movies that has tainted our views of arranged marriages. Or at least mine.
So, back to real life. Arranged marriages aren’t necessarily bad. The way i think about it — it is simply a highly influenced suggestion or even a strong recommendation. Its aim is to introduce some options to a single gal or guy with regards to potential life partners. Take the Japanese culture, for instance. They have this concept called Omiai. Consulting our best friend, Wikipedia, we will learn that it is “an old Japanese custom whereby unattached individuals are introduced to each other to consider the possibility of marriage.” Zoom to year 2007. Can you say singles party? Or maybe even speed dating? Is there a fundamental difference between the two? Well, perhaps the latter one requires an entrance fee and an advanced booking. I would, however, have to double check if the former option needs those, too — or maybe a MySpace profile as well?
Sure, we all hate it when parents set us up with other people. After all, what do they know about us, right? They might pair us up with that horrid-looking guy living next door who thinks that wearing bow-ties and using hair pomade are in permanent fashion. Or they may hook us up with one of their friend’s sons who happen to think that bringing his pet hamster everywhere with him is a mighty good idea — because he doesn’t believe in caging animals. And he also believes in letting the hamster eat out of the same plate as his during dinner. But before you completely brush this thought aside, humor me for a bit and consider something. And yes, I promise not to say “because Mummy knows best.”
Think about it. Parents will never pick anyone bad for us. Not deliberately anyway. If their thought process is in line with most psychologists, they will actually choose someone of the same demographic as us, thus giving us more ground to work with in terms of getting along with the potential partner. They may not be the ideal cupid — but they can be good cupids nonetheless. And that’s because they will always mean well. They will never choose the neighborhood junkie who snorts cocaine at three in the afternoon for their precious little prince or princess. They will most probably lean more towards the Harvard Law School graduate, or the successful neurosurgeon, or the budding artist whose work has just been bought by a commendable gallery in town. They may only see people who look good on paper and tend to disregard other elements such as attitude and personalities (ie. the important stuff) — but face it, they only think of what may be good for you. They do try their best to take a stab at your criteria for Mr/Ms. Right — no matter how the selection process can be clumsily and sweepingly done.
And parents aren’t the only ones guilty of doing these. Friends too! Hel-lo, blind dates! Those blasted little things. Ever been stuck in that awkward situation where your best friend springs a “surprise” on you? Instead of spending Friday night out with her in the hippest club in the city, you find yourself sitting across this strange guy during dinner — only because your best friend had to cancel at the last minute (ie. five minutes after the time you were supposed to meet her) but it’s okay, a friend of her friend’s is conveniently in a restaurant one block away needing a dinner companion. Going on blind dates is vaguely similar to being ushered into an arranged marriage in a sense that both concepts involve positive reinforcements towards the possibility of a partnership.
You may be thinking: “But blind dates are not meant to end in marriage vows.” Surely not, but isn’t it that blind dates are mostly done out of hope that the two people would get along? And maybe start liking each other? And maybe end up in a relationship? And maybe stay in a long one? And maybe… ooh, what do you know? They might even end up getting married! Arranged marriages are the same. Parents have the same hopes for their children. They pray hard that the eligible bachelors (or bachelorettes?) that they introduce to their child will eventually end up being “the one.” Of course, don’t underestimate parents. Even though they can sometimes be the most annoyingly persistent people, they will still be open to the fact that it might not work out between the two. It can be safe to assume that many parents still consider the opinions and inputs of their children. Scroll a couple of paragraphs up: parents will never pick anyone bad for us — and that includes people we are incompatible with.
Okay, let’s think more outside the box. Arranged marriages can also happen purely for convenience purposes. “My desperate daughter is single, your agoraphobic son is too — why don’t they meet up?” Okay, maybe a little to the extreme, but you get the point. Some people get together or get set up because there seemingly isn’t any reason not to. Or because both parties involved can get something out of being together. Surely that argument is flawed, but it happens nonetheless. There are instances as such. In a more contemporary setting, it can also be achieved in the form of mail to order brides or paper marriages for visa purposes. As much as I would love to retain a pure and unjaded concept of marriage in my head, I am aware of the fact that marriage is also an escape for some people. In many instances, it is a one-way ticket out of poverty and a hard life. Arranged marriages don’t always involve true love, you say? Well, neither do any of the abovementioned. They’re all still considered marriage though — only with the absence of love and emotions (at least initially). It’s a contract in its simplest form.
Arranged marriages in the modern world just have different names. It sounds a bit more glamorous, too — blind dates, singles mixers, speed dating, Internet dating, etc. Some people have also made quite significant fortunes out of it by setting up dating agencies. They don’t carry the same exact essence of a marriage but a few quick steps forward can lead you there. The dynamics may be a tad different from what we know it as traditionally, but the basics are there. It always involves the reinforcers (traditionally the parents, but now they could be anyone), the reinforcee (either the victim or the one pulling a favor, depending on how you look at it), and the potential match(es). The only misconception we have is that arranged marriages from the traditional sense are inconsiderate and heartless (no thanks to the media for blowing it out of proportion). The connotation of arranged marriages is that it’s forced and that it involves too much family politics. Yes, that can be the case for many… but not all. Surely there are arranged marriages that have actually worked — plenty as a matter of fact. If they were so wrong, then why is it still condoned in many other cultures?
I’m not saying that arranged marriages are always a good thing. Neither am I saying that it’s the ideal position to take. It can be bad, of course, if several other factors don’t come into play like the degree of the reinforcer’s pushiness or the reinforcee’s self-esteem. I believe that conditioning is also a key word to this — where the person readies himself/herself for the destiny picked out for him/her. This concept can flirt dangerously close to settling. And it can pose many potential problems such as “What if you fall in love with someone else when you’re already promised to someone?” Just like several other concepts, arranged marriage is not an exact science. It works for some, it doesn’t for others. And it involves a good deal of drama. It is a subject that attracts quite a good amount of debate. Many people have different sides — and I simply present one of the unpopular sides. We always hear about the negative light of arranged marriages. Isn’t it about time we see the positive spin?
When it comes to scrutinizing controversial subjects, do as Robert Frost says: take the road less travelled. You’d never know where it will take you. Hey, it might even lead you to “the one.”
Lia Santos is based in Singapore. She was born and raised in the Philippines and was sent to Boston for 6 to 7 years for college (and ended up working there for a couple of years). Lia eventually ended up going back to Singapore (last year) to work in a financial research house doing research on the economic markets with no plans of leaving, YET. /blog/princesslia