To Do List
Flickr Photo by John Shultz

Congratulations, you’ve made it to opening night! You broke the news to your parents and they took it as best they could. You crushed their fears by doing your research and having a well thought-out response to all of their concerns. Their defenses are down and they are primed and ready to meet your boyfriend or girlfriend with an open mind.

It’s now your partner’s turn to step up to the plate. Your parents already know who you are, they’ve been cleaning up your mess for longer than they’d care to remember. But they don’t know your guy or gal and first impressions will make or break all your efforts faster than you can say “arranged marriage.”

Here are 7 Must Dos to follow for your significant other so you can win the mother of all battles:

  1.  Arrive on time.  Super obvious but you don’t want to take it for granted. Your first impression to showing your partner’s desi parents the utmost respect is to show up at the agreed upon time.  You’re going to be nervous beforehand, maybe you run out of shaving cream at the last minute or your hair just won’t cooperate the way you had planned. Leave yourself enough buffer time for mishaps so that you don’t end up having to send an embarassing text that you’re running late. Don’t bank on the parents running on desi time. Focus instead on making the flawless first step: be there 5 minutes early.
  2. Dress appropriately. Whatever you think would be appropriate, take it a step further. Girls: think a knee-length skirt would be a good choice? Grab the pants instead.  Guys: leaning toward a polo shirt? Swap them for a button-down.  Desi parents are great at judging people unfairly and they aren’t above using slippery slope logic.  Don’t make it easy for them to assume the worst in you. Look to your desi partner for tips or suggestions if you’re unsure.  They know best what will or won’t trigger their parents.
  3. Bring a gift. Something small but thoughtful. Definitely don’t come empty-handed, no matter what anyone tells you. It’s the polite thing to do as a guest.  People expect it, which means the desi parents will, too. It’s the easiest thing you can do to make them comfortable. Tea, coffee, chocolates are all great gifts. Alcohol is iffy, so I’d stay away from bringing wine for the meal or an after dinner liqueur.
  4. Avoid taboo subjects. Just like a first date, do not bring up religion, politics or previous relationships. Check in with your desi partner on anything else that might not be obvious taboo subjects. For example, my dad can’t stand Hummers, SUVs or anyone who drives obnoxiously large vehicles.  If you’re in my house, keep your mouth shut on the topic, at least for the first meeting.
  5. Remember your manners. Another obvious one but hard to remember if your buttons are pressed. It may not be done intentionally, but many desi parents have yet to learn the fine art of communicating in English. Sometimes how they say things can be interpreted as rude or abrasive. Be courteous and polite at all times. Even if it seems like they are intentionally being difficult (unlikely but possible), do not forget your manners. You’ll always stand above their level if you do.
  6. Be yourself. I’m not saying kick your feet up and to feel free emitting bodily gases. What I am saying is to not pretend you are anyone other than you. If you’re Muslim, don’t pretend you’re Hindu or vice versa. If you’re a car mechanic, don’t pretend you’re a dentist.  If you’re a quiet person, don’t feel like you need to fill the void in conversation with meaningless chatter. Remember that you have nothing to be ashamed of, no matter what the desi parents might say or think. Your goal is to show them the best side of you without losing your identity.
  7. Know when to leave.  So the evening has gone great, you’ve been there for several hours and are onto your second cup of coffee.  How do you know when to leave? If you’re out at a restaurant, paying the bill makes it easy. The house will want to clear your table after two hours to make room for more business. But if you’re at the desi parents’ home, making an exit is trickier.  They aren’t going to tell you to leave, that’s the ultimate in bad hosting. But you don’t want to outstay your welcome, especially if the desi parents look like they’re about to fall asleep.  Shortly after coffee or tea has been served, find a break in the conversation to make a polite exit and leave. By this time, you should have run out of things to say anyway. Don’t give them a chance to start probing into topics that are best saved for another meeting.

BONUS: Send them a thank you note.

Dinner is over, the worst is behind you. You survived the first meeting, yay! But your work isn’t over yet.

Before you even get back home, you should drop a thank you card in the post. Thank the desi parents for their hospitality and tell them what a pleasure it was to finally meet them. This is also your opportunity to do damage control in case there was any awkwardness during the dinner. Desi parents love snail mail, it’s so old school, and will remind them of their younger years when everything was just better, like fountain pens and bicycles. It’s simple and an easy way to earn major brownie (jalebi?) points.

Bottom line: treat the meeting like it was the job interview of a lifetime.

Print. Study. Execute. I’ll see you on the other side.


This post is part four of my tutorial on mastering the art of meeting the parents.

The next post in this series reveals the real secret to winning desi parents over.

To get the full series, watch for future posts on A Desi New Yorker.

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