But after swiping, clicking and endless texting, I was exhausted by Internet dating. The amount of digital dancing you have to do before even meeting up, only to realize that you don’t have that much in common after all was taking its toll.
A trusted college friend told me about a Gujarat Samaj sponsored Indian marriage conference in Atlanta where she met her now husband. Two kids later, they enthusiastically encouraged me to give it a shot and go in with an open mind.
I went to the 1990s looking registration page where there was a basic itinerary and a link to the online form. The page looked equally as promising as a flyer for a junior high dance. But hearing my friend’s words echo in my ear to keep in mind, I both curiously and hesitantly signed up for a weekend in Atlanta where I’d meet 130 single men between the ages of 25-38. This event is limited to straight people who identify as male and female, but perhaps this will evolve over time? And though the website doesn’t declare this, it seemed like it was only for those who “identified” as Gujarati.
Per the registration form request, I submitted my photograph along with what I considered to be irrelevant details such as my parent’s names and what gaam (village) they are from. Was this to ensure that we weren’t related? *gasp*
Before arriving at the conference, I received a call from one of the hosts. Though skeptical about the whole thing, she was warm and enthusiastic. She regaled me with several stories of matrimonial success, all conceived from the conference. At the end of the call, she reviewed a few details on how to best how to best ‘optimize’ my experience there.
In a refreshingly old-fashioned way, she emphasized that kindness first and an open mind were the leading principles for this experience (basically the opposite of swiping left or right). She warned me that the conference would be exhausting, but fruitful if I simply kept an open mind.
I arrived at the conference on Friday night equipped with a slightly skeptical, but also hopeful attitude. I entered into the opening event — casino night. The event was entirely alcohol-free and was in a fully fluorescent-lit conference hall room at a hotel. There were several Indian uncles and aunties cheerfully encouraging the attendees to interact through after-prom style games. As a person who is always up for good, clean fun, I put my skepticism aside and literally rolled the dice.
The attendees eventually migrated over to the hotel bar for some liquid relief and non-chaperoned conversation. I was approached by one of the guys who I had taken notice of earlier in the night and we grabbed a hot toddy from the bar and commiserated about being at the conference. He was intelligent, smart, funny and by all indications, just by being at a marriage conference, was possibly looking for the same thing that I was.
We chatted, and I might even go as far as saying flirted, for about thirty minutes and then said our goodbyes as we had a long day ahead of us. The next morning we would all meet at the lobby at 8 am to do a four-hour roundtable where five new guys would rotate throughout our table, sectioned by age, every 10 minutes for the next four hours. So to break it down, meeting 5 new guys every 10 minutes for 4 hours. Speed dating on crack is a more simple way to describe it.
I arrived the next morning and was seated with girls who were the same age as me (grouped together intentionally) and I was handed a binder with all the attendees’ names listed in chronological order. Each page had five men and they matched each rotation so you could easily keep track of who you met and take notes accordingly. Each table had a host that was in charge of the icebreakers to ensure that everyone had a chance to speak.
The host uncle (for lack of a better description – married guy, lot of dad jokes, super nice and warm) kicked off the event by encouraging everyone to (again) keep an open mind. I wasn’t really sure where this speech was heading, but he repeatedly encouraged us to remember that despite what we think our ideal partner is, to be present and really give people in the room a fair chance.
In a room full of blissfully complacent swipers and texters, he almost poetically told us when you get a phone call or receive a letter there is an emotion that can be conveyed through voice and or in a handwritten letter, that you simply can’t get from the flat letters of the iPhone. He earnestly said in this day of texting and general impersonalization, to pick up the phone and call each other once the conference was over instead of relying on digital communication as that could more easily deepen both connection and understanding.
This speech was touching and the perfect antidote to my online dating fatigue.
Feeling inspired, I went into my first round of introductions. There were two other girls at my table, two from the Tri-State area and one from New Mexico. We were all unsure of how this process would go, but excited to meet the other single folks in the room.
After four straight hours of telling people what I do, where I live, what I like to do for fun, the one celebrity I would meet if I could (you know, standard ice breaker questions), I had met so many different people from all over the country and realized there were at least two people in the room who would also pick Freddie Mercury (it’s a Gujarati conference, after all) as their dream dinner guest. Towards the end, I rotated with the lovely gentleman that I had met the night before and our conversation flowed easily, and we were both disappointed when the time was up.
I reviewed my binder at the end of the rotations and wrote down about 10 people that I thought would be good for further exploration during the series of 10 minute 1:1s that would follow lunch, including the gentleman who I had met the night before. We took a break and casually chatted over Subway sandwiches and catered Indian food. All of us were anticipating our ‘results’ once lunch concluded (which felt very similar to wondering how you did on a high school Biology test and watching the rose ceremony on The Bachelor combined).
I received my results and to my pleasant surprise had a decent amount of mutual matches, in addition to a handful of unreciprocated matches (you get to see everything – who picked you, who didn’t, who picked each other). Fortunately, the guy I had met the night before had put me as his first match and me him (we were already each other’s numbers one – good start).
Exhausted, but intrigued how these one to one interactions would go, I headed back into the hotel ballroom for my ‘interviews’. They literally felt like interviews with the chairs lined up facing each other and only 10 minutes to chat. I got through my list and found myself enthusiastic about one person in particular – the guy I had met the night before. That is the goal, right?
Once we had our 1:1, we exchanged a few text messages later in the evening. He went to the unofficial after party while I decided to enjoy the foresty backyard of my AirBnb with a glass of wine. We decided to meet up the next day for breakfast. He was kind, easy to talk to, but also lived across the country from me. I was hopeful, optimistic, even attracted to this person, so I was curious to see how things would go after we said our good-byes and I made my way back to the airport.
We stayed in touch for a few months afterwards and per the advice of the host uncle made it a point to Facetime, to talk on the phone, but unfortunately it never made it to the point of handwritten letters. We booked a series of travel to figure out if there was a mutual match, but in the end came to the conclusion that it wasn’t a good match.
While the marriage conference didn’t end in marriage, it reminded me of how much our attitudes towards getting to know one another has changed. We casually swipe, ghost, discard without stopping to think about how it might make another person feel. While marriage itself might be becoming an antiquated concept, showing genuine respect for other people’s feelings and time shouldn’t change. And while the “search” continues, I was grateful to be reminded of the arranged marriage mindset in a modern dating world.
“Your task is is not to seek love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” -Rumi