Broadly used, the term ‘Punjabi’ refers to the ethnic group of South Asians who speak the language Punjabi. They may be followers of various religions like Hinduism, Sikhism or Islam. Originally the term covered all the people who lived in the Punjab region of the Indian sub-continent but the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 saw the land being divided into two separate countries. In fact, modern Punjabi history and identity has been hugely shaped by the Partition, the subsequent displacement of the population to India or Pakistan and the later waves of migration to other countries like United States and Canada.
In United States, the number of native Punjabi speakers is estimated to be more than half a million. Punjabis were among the first South Asians to migrate to United States at the turn of the twentieth century. According to Lauretta Conklin Frederking’s Economic and Political Integration in Immigrant Neighborhoods: Trajectories of Virtuous and Vicious Cycles (Susquehanna University Press, 2007) the first wave of Punjabi immigrants in United States were primarily men who came without families to work as lumberers and agriculturists and settled mostly in the West Coast particularly California. The next phase of Punjabi immigration in the second half of the twentieth century saw families joining the first wave immigrants and students arriving to study and work in the US. While many among the latter population received technical and higher education in their new country, most preferred to be self-employed or work in family-owned businesses to avoid the problems of racial discrimination and intensely competitive corporate culture.
Today in United States the Punjabis are mainly concentrated in cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego on the West Coast and Seattle further north. On the East Coast, the Punjabi population is primarily to be found in cities like Boston, New York and Philadelphia and Jacksonville towards the south. Among other places with strong Punjabi presence are Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis, Memphis, New Orleans as well as Houston, Dallas, Denver, Oklahoma City and Phoenix in mid-America.
Like all Asian ethnic groups, Punjabis too follow the system of arranged marriages where marital relationships are formed by family elders in keeping with caste and economic considerations. In fact for the Punjabi Diaspora, the practice has taken on additional complexity as a signifier of loyalty to Punjabi culture. As a result, any young person marrying outside the Punjabi community is seen as betraying one’s own culture and religion. While many of the first generation West Coast Punjabi immigrants intermarried with Mexican women, many among them also came back to the country of their origin like India and Pakistan to look for grooms and brides for their children. An offshoot of this practice was the exploitation by the Punjabi-American groom and his family of the bride’s family residing in India. Huge amounts of dowry would be demanded by the groom’s family and the bride’s family would be tempted to give in, lured by the tag of an ‘NRI son-in-law’. When the practice led to instances of Indian girls getting married and deserted by the non-resident grooms and cases of immigration fraud, legal experts in both countries began to point out the hazards of entering into marital negotiations without a thorough background check. However later generations of Punjabis who were born and brought up in the United States prefer marrying young Punjabi people already residing in the country.
The family continues to play a dominant role in arranging marriages among the Punjabi-American population even though the preferences of partners are now extensively consulted. Cultural events in the Punjabi community like festivals and ritual celebrations formed the traditional venue where families of prospective grooms and brides would be on the look-out for suitable candidates. Marriages of extended family members would be ideal hunting grounds while sometimes religious celebrations in places of worship like ‘gurudwaras’ for the Sikh community would also act as a meeting place for families and young people. These community events had several advantages in acting as the desired venue for fixing marriage alliances. For one it ensured that the people congregating here were of similar caste, cultural and religious backgrounds and hence minimum likelihood of a marriage outside the community. For another it allowed families check out eligible young people and their families without entering into any formal round of negotiations.
However the constant process of acculturation of young Punjabi people into the land of their birth means that they are no longer satisfied with the limited number of candidates that their local community may have to offer. This has led to the rising popularity of matrimonial services and websites like Sikhmatrimonials.com or Punjabimatrimony.com specifically catering to the requirements of Punjabi clients. Other than these there are cultural associations of Punjabis living in the US like the Punjabi-American Heritage Society, the Punjabi American Cultural Association or websites like Sikh.net which offer matrimonial services for its young people. The primary advantage of such sites and associations is that they enable eligible Punjabi men and women from across the country to get in touch with each other, something which was beyond the scope of traditional system of match-making.
Current dating practices among Punjabis in the USA have adopted many facets of American culture. Young Punjabi men and women take the help of dating sites and mutual friends to meet partners who are mostly from the same community or at least of Indian origin. Dating by young people who have not yet graduated from high school is usually not encouraged by parents. The cultural exposure offered by educational and professional advancement has made it possible for many upwardly mobile young Punjabi people to seek out partners according to personal likes and preferences. However family approval continues to play an important role in permitting dating and marriage among young Punjabi people. This family control is stronger in case of people who are involved in family-owned businesses and continue to reside in the family home.
The Punjabis are among one of the most successful of non-Caucasian ethnic groups in the US today. This is not only because of their innate business acumen, hard work and sense of enterprise but because of their ability to adapt to new socio-cultural environments without losing a sense of their identity – a quality which is admirably reflected in their matrimonial practices and culture.