Web sites cash in on South Asian marriage desires

By Naomi Grossman
Marriage is serious business in the South Asian community, whether in India or in the United States. A premium is placed upon marrying well and within the community and it is often up to family members — most often the parents — to ensure that this happens. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the pages upon pages of personal classifieds placed by parents on behalf of their children in nearly every newspaper that caters to the community.

But in the United States, not surprisingly, things are a little more complicated. For one thing, South Asians are spread throughout the country. Even more significantly, many second and third generation South Asians don’t necessarily want to follow the traditional paths — such as arranged marriages — to the altar that was so effective with previous generations.

So what is a single young South Asian man or woman to do? Apparently they can do what their peers are doing: Look on the Internet for a spouse. But in a modern twist on a very old idea, these young South Asians are increasingly using online dating and matrimonial sites that cater to members of their community effectively allowing the Web to be the matchmaker they need.

“It’s important to me to meet someone from a similar culture,” said Aman Gupta, 30, an IT project manager, who came to the United States from Chennai in 1998. “I couldn’t see anyone else fitting into my family. Since I was in the United States I wanted a source where I could meet a South Asian woman.”

Gupta turned to two of the most popular South Asian sites, Shaadi.com and BharatMatrimony.com for help, but after a year in which he got in touch with a few women by e-mail nothing clicked. In the end, he married a woman from India whom his mother, who still lives there, found for him.
But Gupta still believes that online dating can be a “good mechanism” to see if a couple is a possible match, most especially because the sites offer users the ability to detail their ethnicity down to the region they’re from, the form of religion they practice and the language that was spoken in their home. “In the South Asian community these things do matter a lot,” said Gupta. “Cultural variation within the country is extensive.”
“One advantage of these (ethnic online dating) sites is that you can easily find the exact person you would like to find; so these sites are not less successful when they cater to specific ethnicities; on the contrary, they may be even more successful, as they help finding unique people,” said Aaron Ben-Ze’ev, president of University of Haifa and the author of Love Online: Emotions on the Internet. “These will also be the case with the second and third generation who would like to keep their identit and marry people from their own type.”

Interestingly, the South Asian dating sites that cater to the younger crowd, such as Desimatch.com or Merapyar.com, offer the option of less detail in the initial profile than their seemingly more marriage-minded sister sites.

DesiMatch.com, has about 25,000 members in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and the Gulf countries.

Shaadi.com also recognized the gulf between the younger, more casual South Asian dater and the more matrimonial minded older one by recently launching in the United States Fropper.com, a South Asian dating site that is similar to the popular Friendster. “We are getting second and third generation South Asians who are still interested in meeting (South Asian) people,” said Maansi Kashyap, a marketing executive with Shaadi.com.

SuitableMatch.com was also started in 1997. “at the time the South Asian community within the United States wasn’t being serviced,” said Bharat Manglani, who runs the site now. “Newspapers are hard to use in the United States. Searching is hard and it’s a slow process that is tiring.”

The company merged with another South Asian dating site, AsianMatches.com in 2000 and now has about 45,000 subscribers in the United States, according to Manglani.

Manglani also sees a more casual approach to dating among younger South Asians in the United States but, he noted that the “kids are still interested in dating within their culture. They are a bit confused, but would like to find someone to mesh with their lifestyle. People would be shocked that their first preference is Indian. They are pulled by traditional ties.”

The kids might be pulled but it is their parents who want the deal done. On many sites, it is the parents, who are putting up profiles of their children.
“It definitely makes matchmaking easier,” said Kashyap, of online dating sites. “Parents are using this as a different way to help their kids find a mate. The kids are using this as an added service.”

Andrew Fiore, a graduate student researcher in the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, who has focused his research on online dating, said that in the South Asian dating sites, the sites are being used “as brokers for arranged marriages. I heard this with respect to (the South Asian) community that mothers are signing up their children.”

Because arranged marriages start off with practical concerns, said Fiore, online dating “almost makes more sense. It enlarges the pool. You’re not throwing away people based on love. The fact that it’s a large market of people makes the system more efficient.”

That’s what the mother of “Ajay,” whose name has been changed to protect his privacy, thought when she signed up her son on BharatMatrimony.com. “This was one of the ways for my mom to be a matchmaker,” said Ajay, who is 32 and works in the financial industry. Ajay came to the United States about five years ago.

With his mother doing the screening process of looking through the profiles and reading the e-mails, Ajay has met a few South Asian women over the past year but nothing serious has developed yet.  Ajay, who claimed he is dating for marriage, said that the site compliments the existing ways of going through arranged marriages. “It’s another way to do it,” he said. “People don’t live close to each other. This can help. But at the end of the day it’s a database.”

But for many it’s a database that provides a dating lifeline. “These sites are bridging the geographic distance for the ethnic community,” said Lindsay Shaw, a graduate student in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, who has also  focused her research on online dating sites. “It’s a major advantage because there is no way for many of them to meet coincidentally.” That is why “Priya,” 29, whose name has also been changed, went online. As a young South Asian professional, who was born in the United States, Bala said she wasn’t meeting the “right people. I come from a culture of arranged marriages so the mentality is let me do what I can to find my mate.”

Cultural expectations also played a role in Bala’s foray into the online dating world. “Indian people tend to be more pressured to find the ideal match and get married,” she said. “Parents have high expectations for us.”

Bala’s parents tried to get involved in her social life but Bala didn’t want to go that route. It was her friend, who convinced her to give online dating a shot. Bala decided to go on the more general dating site, Match.com, because she said she didn’t want to limit her choices.

Still, nearly 10 months later Bala ended up in what she terms the “perfect situation,” — with an Indian boyfriend, who was also born in the United States. “He contacted me because he saw I was Indian,” she said. “It’s important to keep in touch with my Indian side and be part of my culture.”

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