• "Marriage is an inextricable part of adulthood for many young people of colour," writes Sonia Nair. (Supplied)
Marriage is an inextricable part of adulthood for many young people of colour, what happens when you choose to stay unmarried?
By
Sonia Nair

19 Sep 2018 - 8:57 AM  UPDATED 19 Sep 2018 - 8:57 AM

I’ve been going out with my partner for the better part of a decade, but we’re not married. It’s not an uncommon occurrence in the circles I move in, given a significant portion of my friends were only granted the right to get married late last year, while others have chosen to either delay or not partake in what is increasingly being seen as a regressive institution with a history rooted in possession and control.

For millennials like us, the goalposts of adulthood are rapidly shifting. Marriage is being exchanged for de facto living, the accumulation of life experiences and the pursuit of a meaningful career are taking precedence over children, and mortgages are being swapped for the endless treadmill of rent payment.

Yet surprisingly, the urge to revert to a way of life that defined generations before us is still very much present. Although marriage isn’t the norm in my circle of friends, the number of marriages rose in 2016 by 4,806 (4.2 per cent). Journalist Bridie Jabour examines why marriage still holds sways for millennials, and concludes that “getting married is an act of supreme optimism in what is the most anxious age to date”.

In an age where higher levels of education attainment don’t necessarily equate to a better standard of living, and where we have become the first generation to earn less than our parents, collective malaise is at an all-time high. As Briohny Doyle writes in her book Adult Fantasy: “It’s hard to beat your own path through the scrub, and seemingly ill-advised, too, when there is a well-lit road that runs straight past it. How do you structure an adult life that resists normative definition without finding yourself shut out in the cold?”

Rebelling against tradition is difficult when tradition is what cements my bond with a part of my culture that I feel increasingly divorced from

If you’re a person of colour, the danger of being shut out in the cold and the difficulty in finding alternative ways of ‘being an adult’ are even more pronounced. Doyle touches on this briefly when she interviews her South Asian friend Priya, whose Hindu wedding was a “decisive, culturally respected movement into adulthood”, far removed from many secular wedding experiences.

In Malaysia, where I grew up, millennials don’t move out of home until they get married. This is because living out of home isn’t seen to be the badge of honour it is in Australia — as in most Western countries — and it isn’t culturally acceptable to live with your partner before marriage.

But perhaps more importantly, it’s the sense of mutual responsibility between immigrant parents and children, and a distinct lack of pressure to prove one’s independence by living away from home that lead to the decision of many young Australians of minority backgrounds who choose to live at home.

Many of my relatives think I live in a sharehouse, blissfully unaware that my only housemate is my partner

Though I live in Australia, I’m not immune to the unspoken rules that bind the millennials of Malaysia. Many of my relatives think I live in a sharehouse, blissfully unaware that my only housemate is my partner. Having children before marriage is generally unheard of, and when it does happen is looked down upon. Not knowing whether I want to have children or not doesn’t change the fact that, eventually, both my parents and extended family will expect me to officiate my long-term relationship.

In that sense, marriage is an inextricable part of adulthood for many young people of colour, and is a transition marked by community rather than the decision of two individuals.

Rebelling against tradition is difficult when tradition is what cements my bond with a part of my culture that I feel increasingly divorced from.

Both my paternal and maternal grandparents come from a state in South India called Kerala, but I can neither converse with my relatives in the smooth Malayalam they use with each other, nor can I recite significant celebrations in the Hindu calendar by which they all adhere to. Having a Malayalee wedding would be a key way for me to reassert my identity and connect with a heritage that I’ve long since lost any tangible connection to.

Of course, ethnic marriage conventions are by no means devoid of their own patriarchal history. But much of what my white friends rally against when they rally against the institution of marriage is not my inherited culture. In Malaysia, it is common for married women to retain the surnames they were born with. Marriage proposals don’t involve men getting down on one knee – rather, it is a collaborative family affair where each set of in-laws bestow their blessings on a union.

And while there is an element of a father ‘giving his daughter away’ during a Malayalee wedding, the gesture isn’t as pronounced as in a Western wedding. The bride is typically brought into the wedding hall accompanied by close female relatives and friends, with each of them carrying lit lamps in their hands.

If and when I do get married, it will be on my terms and in defiance of overarching traditions we have been indoctrinated to think we have to follow. My father will not give me away. I will not adopt my husband’s surname. My ‘bridesmaids’ will not necessarily only consist of women. I will wear white, but only because my family hails from Kerala, and my Kerala sari will be gilded with gold.

Sonia is the General Manager of human rights media organisation Right Now and a critic who has been published by The Wheeler Centre, Kill Your Darlings and The Big Issue, among others. Follow Sonia on Twitter on @son_nair. 

This article was edited by Candice Chung, and is part of a series by SBS Life supporting the work of emerging young Asian-Australian writers. Want to be involved? Get in touch with Candice on Twitter @candicechung_

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