October 17, 2007

Was it hard to marry cross-culturally?

Yes. Though my Dad has always pointed out that every marriage is cross-cultural.

It wasn't as hard for me as for my husband. My parents didn't care about race. His parents wanted their son to marry a Korean. Every time he went home to visit they set him up on a blind date, "You'll like her, she's studying medicine at Yale." They hadn't met me at that point so I didn't take it personally.

I dragged him home within four months of us starting to date. My parents were two of my best friends, so if they didn't like him, I knew it wasn't going to work. Of course they loved him (everyone who gets to know him loves him). During that visit my 92 year old grandfather was also visiting. I completely horrified Jrex as I verbally sparred with Grandpa. In Korean culture you treat the elderly with complete deference and here I was treating him as a peer. Of course, Grandpa loved it. I had that kind of relationship with both my grandfather, my Dad and now with my husband. Ironically, how I treated Jrex totally threatened my Dad at first. See, Dad married an amazing woman who did NOT understand sarcasm. At. all. So, despite the fact that I quipped right back at Dad, he couldn't handle me quipping at my husband. A wife doesn't DO that! He's since adjusted.

One of the many tragic aspects of my mom dying 6 months into our wedding was that she LOVED Jrex. She was his biggest fan. She never let me complain about him. Sure she could whine about my Dad to me, but if I even tried to do the same she'd jump all over me in Jrex's defense. The building is burning, who do you save? I think she would have grabbed him first! ;-)

We dated two years before I finally met his parents. His parents came up to Rochester for a weekend. We met them at the hotel. The whole drive there I nervously practiced "On yong ha sey yo" over and over. At dinner his mother gave me some lovely porcelin vases. I gave them nothing. Because. No. One. Told. Me. About. Koreans. and. Gifts. No one apologized profusely as he drove me home. He'd forgotten about gift giving! I learned then that I'd study Korean culture on my own since I couldn't assume I had a cultural guide at my side...

As much as we both communicate well and analyze everything, there were aspects of how he was that I thought were just him. It wasn't until we attended a 2nd generation Korean church in Baltimore that I realized how many things were elements of Korean culture. I receive love most effectively through verbal affirmation (thus the addiction to comments on the blog...). He never thought to compliment me. I found out, that's just Korean. In fact, if he were being culturally correct, he would insult me whenever someone else complimented me. Maybe that's just a parent's job, not a spouse's, but all my Korean friends have examples of how their parents "kept them humble".

For the most part, our core values are very similar. We value family and quality time. We believe in saving money but also buying good tools ("tools" being a tent, or a cool new waterproof messenger bag made of recycled bike tires). As Jrex told his parents before they met me, "You're idealizing a Korean woman and have horrible assumptions about American women. She's more Korean than most of the second generation Korean women I know."

The biggest asset we've had, aside from our friendship and mutual respect, has been two sets of parents who (in the end) were willing to bend toward each other's culture and try to understand and accomodate the other side.


Anonymous said...

OH - the compliment thing really hits home!!! As M. says (regularly), "That's not how I was raised! It sounds fake to me!" (I do get that, but when I'm in the middle of juggling food, laundry, kid, and own work, a freaking word of appreciation would go a long way). To be fair, he doesn't *take* compliments well, either. ;)

In our case, I always thought that the disability would be the bigger adjustment; you know, he's California born-and-bred, barely speaks a word of Korean (although he occasionally comes out with something that belies his protestations of ignorance), his Dad was born in California, and he just seemed so damned American when I first met him (in Tokyo, so maybe that had something to do with it).

But it turns out that he's so much more Asian than I ever thought, and the disconnect between what I thought I'd married and who I actually married has been a bit jarring at times. Our big saving grace, IMHO, is that I've been pretty well indoctrinated in Chinese/Japanese-style elder deference since I was a kid, so I don't generally take any of his parents comments (or lack thereof) any more seriously than they mean them. And, in the end, they're good in-laws. And we don't live near them, which helps. ;)

Thanks for a great post!

Rachel said...

Love these posts.

I think culture is important sometimes, not important at other times. It sounds like you guys have navigated the challenges involved in cross-cultural marriage remarkably well.

I know what you mean about not having a cultural guide. My husband never explained anything to me, so I had to sort of figure it out as I went along, often by error.

I also agree that there were certain aspects of my husband that I thought were *him*, but turned out to be culture. In a way, that takes the pressure off the relationship a little bit, because I can just shrug and say "culture" instead of blaming him/ expecting him to change.

Snickollet said...

I think "figuring things out by error" should be my new motto. I've got a lot of experience with that.

I always got the sense from John that his lack of cultural stewardship stemmed from the culture being so ingrained for him that he just didn't think to share things with me sometimes. I had to ask a lot of questions, and it was a lot of trial by fire.

Anonymous said...

I shared your gift story with my husband and it reminded him of the first time he visited our family. It was Easter and I hadn't told him about the Easter morning script (The Lord Has Risen - He Has Risen Indeed). Dad thought he was an ignorant pagan.

I laughed that he still remembers this, but it was so normal for me that it hadn't occurred to me to warn him.

Anonymous said...

Great post, love what you're doing in the last few, filling us in on all the background, give a whole new aspect to your writings prior to this too...made me think of other posts from you and Snick about your inlaws and the gifts and the food....my family is very close, my husband's is not never was...on the first visit to his father's home, we'd been dating a few months, he didn't warn me about his single father's penchant for displaying his collection of Penthouse centerfolds, ON THE WALLS IN THE GARAGE! It was a harrowing day for me, I don't get the man at all to this day, it's been over 17 years, but you get what you get when you marry I guess...we don't live near him either so that makes it easy and he doesn't like to visit or talk much, a blessing in disguise?

Thanks for sharing!

crajee chick said...

the chinese govt has opened up blogspot for the day - wohoo!! (i usually can't access other ppl blogs, let alone my own...) anyway, loved your post, esp. the part where you talked about aspects of Jrex that were due to his Korean upbrining...

Melissa said...

Oh, I love the description of you practising "annong hasaayo"! It made me teary, honestly!

I also like your understanding of the 'compliment culture'. My mister is just now learning to compliment me. And I'm just learning to work with it. The other day, over dinner, Dong Jin looked at me and said - out of the blue - "I think your hair is fine". And *I* understood that he was referring to his mother's nasty comment (about 3 weeks prior) that I should dye my hair.

So I just calmly said "thank you". And we smiled at each other.


I like your blog a lot!~

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing! It's been fun catching up on your blog. Back to work with me...

Anonymous said...

Thank you - I enjoyed reading this post. After all this time in a cross-cultural relationship, most of the "cultural stuff" flies under my radar but it definitely resonates.

It's funny, though, because your post also made me re-frame some things my Korean stepmother does. For example, she will give compliments but they always sound a bit unnatural.

Sunny said...

GREAT post. I'll have to comment to the comments.

The compliment thing: As I said over at Lori's
"While we Westerners expect folks to say what they mean and mean what they say, Over in the Asia places (well, at least Korea) the LISTENER is supposed to hear between the lines and DIVINE what the speaker meant or felt.

Rachel, I said as much to my mom once ("takes the pressure off the relationship a little bit, because I can just shrug and say "culture" ) and she ENVIED me. Wished she had a handy reason like that for the things that went awry in her own marriage-much worse than anything Mr. Sunny and I have encountered BTW).

Thanks so much for the encouraging update on the "hair" thing. I think you and DJ have got it down.

I agree with OTRgirl's dad. We're ALL cross culturally married anyway.

Sunny said...

"In fact, if he were being culturally correct, he would insult me whenever someone else complimented me."
That's almost true. If you accept a compliment about your spouse/kids/family-in-general, (but especially the spouse, who is basically yourself-what with being zero "choons" apart and all that,) it is the same as accepting one for yourself, which is, of course, improperly immodest.

Anonymous said...

This is in response to the great comment you left over at my blog, but YES!!! I'm so, so glad to know that I'm not the only one who married this man. M. is also a "sullen" (!!) lump of nothingness when we visit his parents, and it used to drive me craaaaaazy!!

Like you, I'm pretty liberal with the compliments for him; it's good to know that there's a 10+ year curve before he may start to believe them. I got that, actually, from the therapist I saw for awhile. He doesn't believe them yet, but I've also noticed that the more I praise him for the good things, the more inclined he is to continue them.

It cracks me up a little just how similar it sounds like Jrex and M. are; so much of it seemed to be just him, but I'm beginning to learn that it's a whole lotta stuff, not the least of which is culture.

Thanks again for the thought-provoking (and comforting, since, as I say, I'm not alone!) post. :)

Beloved said...

Living in Korea gave me a definite advantage in figuring out the culture, but I still at times wonder if my husband acts a certain way because he's Korean or because he's a guy. Sometimes I think it's a little of both!

I was also very fortunate to have no opposition at all from my husband's family in his decision to marry a non-Korean. They met me from the very beginning of our dating, but I do think they figured I'd leave him and go home to the States at some point. His mom even said as much.

It's interesting, but I seem to hear so many more stories of parental opposition from women who married Korean Americans than from women who married Korean Koreans. I'm still trying to figure out why that is.

OTRgirl said...

Interesting point, Beloved. This might relate:

During the height of his parents' hissy-fit, Jrex chatted with his halmoni, who lived in Korea. It seemed like her attitude was, "Whatever, people here are marrying outside their race. No big deal." We talked about why his grandmother would care less than his parents who lived here. Our theory is that the immigrant community gets frozen in the era they left. They are so busy trying not to get swallowed up in American culture that they hold onto a version of Korean culture that is 20 years old.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. It makes me a little bit sad because I went to a Korean church for awhile and couldn't really manage it in the end. A bit more open talk about the nature of Korean culture would certainly have helped, but I don't think any of them were cultural guides, either. :(

It frustrates me that I didn't eventually just get it about the compliments instead of letting all of that frustrate me beyond imagination, but I'm glad my perception is finally approaching kinder truths for both sides.