ADVICE: Cross-cultural dating.

What do you do when your date's overprotective mom doesn't like you?

I went on a date with a college-aged MENA baddie with Asperger's. We got along great, and we have plans to meet up again soon.

However, she still lives with her overprotective mom, who (perhaps understandably) thinks I have bad intentions. As I said, we've only been on one date, but I can already tell this is going to be an issue. How do I nip this in the bud?

Alright, I’ve got bad news and good news.

Let’s side-step the fact you two have only gone on one date, and talk about cross-cultural dating from a more macro perspective.

The bad news is that short of cutting the child of immigrants off from their parents (cult/abusive-relationship style), you will never fully be able to remove their influence. It is just is what it is. They themselves might make the choice to put up what might be more intelligibly American boundaries, but that has to come from her, it can’t come from you.

No matter how much her personal views might diverge from her mother’s…

…when you’re the child of immigrants, your mother’s approval is a vital and precious thing. You might be flippant about it when she’s in the other room, but at the end of the day, you’ll feel deeply hurt if you violate any cultural or familial expectations.

If and when you do, it’s typically a big deal—even when it isn’t. What kind of behavior falls under this umbrella varies from person-to-person, culture-to-culture, too.

For me, personally, it’s what stops me from getting a tattoo. Intellectually, I’m not opposed to some tattoos. I think the right art, on the right person, with the right placement can be pretty cool. I have considered that maybe I’m that person—that I have the right idea and the right body. But I also know it would hurt my parents in a deep way, in a way that might seem outsized or an overreaction to outsiders. But I can’t bring myself to justify it, even if I don’t have a problem with it on the surface level.

I’ve also done plenty of things that do violate my family’s particular expectations. Things that, from the outside looking in, do feel like (and frankly probably are) “no big deal.” It’s been hard, and in some cases, has created decades-long tension. There are things I did at 14, 15 years old that will pop up in conversation with my parents. They’re things that I still can’t seem to articulate why they were offensive to them, they just were.

Every time you transgress in that way, even if it’s ultimately for the best, or it’s something you yourself want or need, it’s like taking a bullet to one of your limbs. You’ll survive being shot in the arm, the leg. But there’s a part of you that will always feel it.

This is what cultural conditioning feels like, regardless of how you “actually” feel or what you “actually” think.

What I think people sometimes struggle to understand is that this isn’t abuse; it’s collateral damage when you’re raised with one culture in your home and another outside your home, with separate values and expectations. The rules get obscured to the child, but for the parent, whose context is their own childhood in another country, and later, often a diaspora community who shares that experience of another country, the meaning remains salient.

It’s a journey that every child of immigrants goes through. Even in our globalized world, even today, in 2021.

The other thing here is that she has Asperger’s.

I don’t know the intricacies of her situation, and I don’t want to make assumptions about how her mom feels about her daughter being on the autism spectrum. I will say that my own mother was very skeptical of neurodivergence until recent history, and saw anything atypical (be it depression, anxiety, or otherwise) as either a personality flaw, a flaw in her own parenting if concerned one of her children, or a red flag about the environment that person was in.

All that to say, she might view her daughter as being somehow different, but may not conceive of it as a condition per se. It may also mean that she sees her as a little bit of a wildcard—maybe in need of extra care or guidance. This will, in turn, impact how she views you, and that means that she might see you as another externality that’s making her daughter’s life difficult, even if that doesn’t map to reality or to your relationship.

On the other hand, maybe she does understand that her daughter has autism in a more conventional way.

In this case, it’s possible (although, again, nothing is guaranteed) that she sees her daughter as more vulnerable, and in need of a heightened level of protection. It sounds like cultural differences aside, it’s likely that she’s already a protective parent. She may worry that her daughter needs more handholding. It might not be that she’s skeptical of you personally, but she’s skeptical of dating, period, and worries that her daughter isn’t strong enough to risk heartbreak on her own.

Finally, there are all sorts of cultural rules that I can’t predict, because I don’t know what her precise situation is, but I think it’s fair to assume her family has a more conservative mores around dating. It’s worth keeping in mind what that means, and how it will take shape. I say, respect your date’s boundaries, and if she says something like, “No, my mom won’t like that,” or, “My mom says I have to be home by 7 PM, and I need to follow that rule,” let her take the lead.

Disclaimers aside though, the good news is you can ingratiate yourself to her mom, and that will, over time, help ease some of the tension.

Even if you’re of a different cultural heritage, I have seen it happen. I can’t give hard and fast advice on what exactly this looks like without knowing more, but in broad strokes, it’s not impossible. Some bare bones basics are to respect her mom’s rules, especially in her home, be polite and presentable, don’t break curfew, don’t do PDA or bring her home with hickeys… Common sense stuff.

Also, be open with her mom without oversharing—make eye contact, be friendly, be clear that you’re romantically interested in her daughter without being vulgar. Show her that you have good intentions with your actions.

It’s also not a bad idea to directly ask your date what her particular cultural norms and expectations are. It might be that it’s the done thing to bring flowers or chocolates over. It might be that her mom needs to get coffee with you. I’m, of course, making these examples up, but there’s always something, and it’s usually worth doing.

Don’t confuse this with me saying that you must follow her mom’s rules “behind closed doors,” which may seem draconian or otherwise uncomfortably foreign to you. You can be yourself, just be mindful that your date may have different boundaries, or that you may need to make certain allowances so she can accommodate her mom’s expectations.

Anyway, we’re making a lot of big leaps here. Who knows if there’ll be a third or fourth date? Who knows if the second one happened? Who knows if her mom is even all that overprotective? There are a lot of unknowns, however, I still hope this provides a useful roadmap for thinking about this situation and situations like it.

Good luck.

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