From India, With Love

Among the many things that Simeran has given up for love—or for just the prospect of love—are several centuries of Sikh tradition, handpicked men to date and a room in her family's home. An Anglo-Indian immigrant as a toddler, she's now, at age 19, a real American teen. "Bring a girl to America, I'm going to act Americanized," says Simeran. "You want to treat me like an Indian girl, leave me in India."

Not unlike a lot of other Long Island girls, Simeran no longer goes to temple on Friday nights. In her case, it's the Guru Govind Singh Sikh Center in Plainview, a place of meditation where, on a recent Friday, about 100 people sat on the floor in the main sanctuary, segregated by gender. Underneath the peaceful scene, however, is the turbulence of social change among a growing group of Long Island immigrants.

Dating is a touchy topic among many of Long Island's Sikh teens, whether they were born here or came over at an early age from India or England. Current estimates are that 10,000 to 15,000 Sikhs now live on Long Island. One of them at the temple, a high school girl, mumbles that she has a boyfriend her parents don't know about. A 27-year-old married woman averts her eyes while admitting she has considered other men besides her husband. And Simeran says she left home because her parents were arranging a traditional date with a Sikh man. She already has a boyfriend, a 20-year-old El Salvadoran, whom she kept secret from her family.

Last spring Simeran put away her traditional salwar-kameez suit and moved out of her family's house in Greenlawn to live in Bay Shore, leaving behind more than her Indian clothing. She used to prepare meals with her mother. For years she read her homework to her father. No more.

"Dating is considered a fearful thing for the Indians, because they see dating as licensed sex," says Dr. Jovita Crasta, assistant director of psychiatry at South Nassau Communities Hospital. "Premarital sex is very strongly frowned on, especially for girls." Crasta, born in India and a counselor to many Indian women, says the families resist traditional therapy, but by being active in group activities she became an "auntie," an informal counselor and mentor. It's a difficult task to reconcile the old and new, because she says that although Sikhs are "fairly big party animals" and "the young girls are very seductive," women aren't supposed to cross the line even into casual dating.

Yet, some step right over the line. Divya, a 21-year-old from Westbury who's using a pseudonym to talk about her situation, says she knows very few women of her age and religious background who aren't dating behind their parents' backs. She's one of them. For two years at school, she has had a Muslim boyfriend. Although he comes over to her parents' house to do things and is known as her friend, it isn't quite the same. "You just have to be careful you don't call him 'honey' or 'baby,' " she says. And it's not only the parents you have to watch out for. "You have a feeling you're going to get caught any minute," says Divya. Many young women say they don't share their secret dating life even with other Indian friends. "I feel like the rumor mill is always on the run," says a 19-year-old from Merrick.

It was more than gossip that led to a collision between Simeran's world and her parents' world. "My father was planning on having me meet some guy, some Indian guy," she says. "I didn't want to cheat on my boyfriend." After a heated argument with her parents, she packed a bag and left home, without a place to go. When her boyfriend learned that she'd left home, he asked her, "Do you know what you're doing?" As Simeran recalls, she replied, "No, I have no idea."

But, in a familiar teen lament, she says her parents were constantly suspicious about whom she was hanging out with in school. "The thing is," she says, "I had my own ideas. I had my own opinions, and they didn't like that."

Dr. Crasta says there really isn't much difference between what's going on in Sikh households and traditional families of other faiths and cultures. But the timing of arrival in the U.S. can make a difference. Simeran was a little more than 2 years old when her family moved from London to Long Island. As she grew up, she says, she felt like a foreigner—within her family.

"I felt like an outsider looking in," she says. "I still don't think I belong in that family. I think God made a mistake or something.

 
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