One of the hardest parts of a bi-cultural marriage is determining if a conflict is rooted in culture or character.
Culture is simply one variable among others that make up a person’s behavior, beliefs, and personality; and yet, it’s the part of our identity that informs to a very large extent how we see the world. The cultural seas that we swam in in our formative years taught us what it meant to be a Good Spouse, a Good Parent, and an upstanding member of the community. For all of the multi-cultural training we may have had as part of our education, many of us still didn’t truly understand that there were other grasshoppers in other fields. It was only after we went out into the world that we learned the hard way that our way is just one of many ways of being all those things.
Or we can learn this when the grasshopper comes down the stairs in the morning and pours us a cup of coffee. Some bi-cultural couples are hyperconscious of cultural difference and are quick to pull the culture card to explain just about every conflict. It’s because he’s French or she’s Japanese and that’s just what they’re like. In others there is a deliberate attempt at indifference: a refusal to see the person as anything other than a unique individual whose cultural origins are simply irrelevant in the context of the marriage.
Both of these strategies are dangerous. Treating a spouse as if he or she were an Exotic Beast is to turn that person into a caricature of Frenchness or Japaneseness and makes him both a stereotype and a second-class citizen in his own home. But going to the other extreme, treating differences as irrelevant and unimportant, is not necessarily the neutral, egalitarian act it is purported to be. On the contrary, it can be an insidious indirect way of imposing the one spouse’s culture (usually the native citizen’s) in the family and keeping one spouse comfortable at the expense of the other. It can mean never allowing the other culture to be alive and present in a person in the very place (home) where both spouses should have an equal right to express who they are.
Avoiding both extremes is very difficult, especially when there is a serious conflict over something that matters so much that it provokes strong emotions and visceral judgements. How could you do that? What’s wrong with you? That’s not the way a Good Spouse or a Good Parent behaves.
A very good portrait of a bi-cultural couple in conflict can be found in the novel Native Speaker by Chang Rae Mae. In the book Henry (Korean/American) and Lelia (American) come very close to divorce, and one reason is cultural difference.
In the book there is one particular conflict that illustrates these strategies for dealing with cultural difference in a marriage. It begins when Lelia asks Henry to tell her about the Korean housekeeper who raised him. Lelia is very upset to find out that her spouse knows nothing whatsoever about this woman; not even her name.
Listen to Henry’s interior monologue: “I don’t blame her. Americans live on a first-name basis. She didn’t understand that there weren’t moments in our language – the rigorous regimental one of family and servants-when the woman’s name could have naturally come out. Or why it wasn’t important.”
Henry excuses his wife’s reaction by generalizing about her culture and turning her into a living stereotype. It’s not her fault – it’s is her culture and her ignorance which explain her behavior and feelings. Both of these things may be true to some extent, and yet the generalization - It’s because she is an American - is condescending. Furthermore, Henry has an explanation which he does not share with her.
Lelia tries to express why it bothers her, and it is not at all what Henry thinks it is.
“I just wonder, that’s all. This woman has given twenty years of her life to you and your father and it still seems like she could be anyone to you. It doesn’t seem to matter who she is. Right?”
“And it scares me,” she said. “I just think about you and me. What I am…”
On her side, Lelia is oblivious to her spouse’s home culture. Even though she has met his father and the housekeeper, and knows that Henry is bi-lingual/bi-cultural, it does not occur to her at all that culture may have something to do with why Henry doesn’t know the housekeeper’s name. Instead, the issue is one of individual character - the kind of man her husband is. And a man who does not know the name of the woman who cared for him as a child is not a Good Person, and is potentially not a Good Spouse.
Is there a middle road a bi-cultural couple can take that avoids being hyperconscious of culture on one hand and dismissing it as irrelevant on the other? I’ve thought about this for years and I haven’t come up with a satisfactory solution for myself, much less one I can offer to you. Something tells me that we have all been “culture is everything/culture is nothing” at one time or another in our bi-cultural marriages. Especially those of us who have been living with our grasshoppers for many years and assume that, through years of trial and error, we’ve got them – their characters, cultures and languages - all figured out.
Maybe an answer, or at least another strategy, can be found in examining more attentively our assumptions about ourselves and the men and women with whom we share our lives. Why do I think doing this makes me a Good Parent or a Good Spouse? Why do I get so angry or disturbed when my spouse says or does something that does not conform to my standards for what is Good?
We could do worse, and learn something at the same time, if we stopped assuming and started asking. Even after 20 years of marriage, we might be genuinely surprised by the answers.