The diary of a PhD student recalling curious past event as an immigrants’ child in Europe, now living between Italy, Sri Lanka and London.
I’ve already talked or at least hinted on the importance of liminality in my life. For those of you who might be new to this term, the state of liminality consists in “occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold”.
So you can see its relevance to what I’ve already written, the constant inner battle of being Italian, Sri Lankan and now a Londoner. However, I must admit that never have I ever experienced it so much as in the matter of womanhood and marriage.
As I’m only getting older year by year (argh, I know.. time!), this also means that the expectations that people have of me change constantly, or at least some do. I was expected a wide range of things, and not only from my immediate family: get good grades at school, behave like a “socially acceptable girl” (I’m still questioning its meaning myself, so don’t ask me), dress fashionably, slim down to fit the latest female body type, go to uni, be the first in the family to graduate, then find a job quickly etc..
Now at 25 though, I’ve reached that point in life as a woman where the only pressure I feel from others comes down to one single painful topic: marriage. People feel entitled to ask me when I’m thinking of getting married (note that I don’t even have a partner) and mostly to remind me that I’m getting older and that my ‘marriageable’ time is now expiring……..
Well, it definitely isn’t a ‘phenomenon’ that started just now as I’ve been asked for marriage proposals since I was 19 when I went back to Sri Lanka for the summer. In general as women we do grow up embedded with the idea of marriage and family through media in Disney cartoons, films, TV shows etc., anywhere in the world.
However, love, marriage and relationships are perceived completely differently in Italy and Sri Lanka. Believe me, Italy is pretty backwards in some aspects especially in the matter of womanhood, but at least women are encouraged to succeed in their work life. Or at last more than in Sri Lanka.
While I am constantly told that this is the age to ‘have fun’ (term that I’ll leave open to interpretation) at least for a little while still in Milan but especially in London where I live, when I visit Sri Lanka in the summer I am constantly reminded of my age and of my biological clock running out.
But it’s not only about me in this whole matter. It’s also how my parents manage their own liminal identities as first generation migrants in Italy. You see, they’ve always been extremely traditional and firmly clinged on to their roots regardless of the fact that they’ve lived away from Sri Lanka for most of their lives. They’ve tried to impose their culture on me since I was little (quite forcibly sometimes and with dubious results) either taking me to Sri Lankan dancing/percussion classes (to which now I’m really grateful for though) or constantly reminding me of the values that ‘we as Sri Lankans’ should hold wherever ‘we’ are. This would be a whole different blogpost but the way it all relates to the issue of marriage is my parents own incapability and ongoing questioning of the matter of womanhood. You don’t have to say it: I am my own self and my parents are a separate entity. I acknowledge that. But I would be lying if I told you that they don’t have an influence on my life and the decisions that I take, because they still do, immensely. It should be noted that they’ve never been huge fans of arranged marriages as they themselves got married for love (although we do have some relatives like my cousin whose marriage was arranged and they’re now happily wedded). So despite the fact that they don’t want me to settle for convenience, they do also feel the pressure from their Sri Lankan peers and consequently direct their worries on me… what a wonderful chain!
To be honest I don’t blame them: it is quite hard living with this constant sense of liminality, of always questioning your different life outlooks based on the various cultures you inhabit. Whom I blame are the people who, possibly without even caring for my own well-being, voice their opinions to my parents, feeling entitled to remind them what ‘our traditions’ are. I do get upset with my mom and dad for their weakness in standing up for me, I struggle with their indecisiveness in taking a firm stance on this. They fidget from one view to another by not telling others, as they do with me, that they’re proud of their daughter’s achievements in her studies and career, that they too don’t think of marriage as a priority and that they’d rather want an unmarried daughter rather than one who ended up hastily marrying the wrong person for her.
But I guess it’s bigger than my parents. It’s a social issue and not just Sri Lankan.
I know that I should give it less importance and not get riled up, but it really is so frustrating. I just find it mind-boggling that even with my little successes (okay, I know that media studies are not taken very seriously, but still I was granted a scholarship for a freaking PhD), the meter from which I’m evaluated as a person is whether or not I’ve got married/had babies and accomplished my duties ‘as a woman’, even in Europe. Womanhood isn’t defined by just that and it never should have been in the past either.
In fact, for the time being, I’m content of life to be honest. Actually more than that… I’m pretty happy with the way things are going. I’m extremely satisfied with how things have turned out in my work/study life: I’ve realised that I love teaching (except for all the paperwork that comes with it) and my PhD is progressing (well or not, I’m not sure but let’s just say that it’s coming along). I’m surrounded by beautiful, incredible, talented and all in all over the years I’ve managed to bunch up the best set of friends one could hope for, who support me and push me towards greatness. I live in a city that is perhaps difficult but open and filled with opportunities and in a household that makes me crave to come back home to my new London family.
Last year I had so many breakthroughs that I would’ve never thought possible and that still bewilder me looking back at them now.
But most importantly I’m finally beginning to actually appreciate myself, my background and my personality… in other words I’ve just started to love myself (had to include some Nati-driven cringiness).
So that said, I really can’t conceive how actively and forcibly looking for a romantic partner could improve this situation and this process of self-discovery. Of course I look forward to having a ‘partner in crime’ in the future, I’m not gonna lie. But if that means settling, then I’d rather be alone.
I don’t want to settle just to please a few people who don’t even care about me or to accommodate outdated social ideals and expectations.
I love being the woman that I am today, with all the imperfections that come with it, even though it doesn’t conform to normalized gender roles… actually especially for this! I love having the power to define my own my own womanhood.
I don’t deserve to settle.
The sculpture above is called ‘Expansion’ and was conceived by Paige Bradley. In his own words:
“From the moment we are born, the world tends to have a box already built for us to fit inside. Our umbilical cord never seems to be severed; we only find new needs to fill. If we disconnected and severed our attachments, would we shatter our confinements and expand beyond our shell? Would the world look different? Would we recognize ourselves? Are we the box that we are inside, and to be authentically ‘un-contained’ would we still be able to exist? This is the irony of containment. As long as we don’t push on the walls of our surroundings, we may never know how strong we really are.”