The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Marriage, cross-cultural style: Two veterans tell all (Part 1)

In the life of the global traveler, one of the most thrilling escapades you can have is a romantic encounter with someone you meet in a far-flung land.

But should your story involve going the further step and hitching your wagon to a person from a completely different culture — well, that’s another level of adventure altogether.

For marriage, you will need the ability to stand by the courage of your convictions.

Or, as one of our Random Nomads, Helena Halme put it in her comment on last week’s post covering this topic, cross-cultural marriage tends to be “for the mad bad and young — or foolish.”

Today and next Monday, one half of each of two cross-cultural couples have agreed to take the floor and answer my questions about what made them take the plunge:

GABRIELA SMITH has been married to Daniel for eight years. She was born in Venezuela to Spanish parents, but ended up in the UK, where she met Daniel and they currently live.

JEFFREY HUFFMAN has been married to Naoko for 19 years. They met in Nagoya, Japan, where Jeffrey, an American, had journeyed for his work. They now live in Seattle.

How did you meet your spouse-to-be?

GABRIELA: We were working for the same company in the UK; we met on my first day at work.

JEFFREY: We’re something of a cliché couple. She was a student in the summer Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) prep course I was teaching in Nagoya. She had just graduated from college and wanted to pursue a second degree at a university in the U.S. and needed to pass the TOEFL to do so.

What made you think that this is the person for me? Did culture have anything to do with it?

JEFFREY: Definitely, Naoko represented a tie to the Japanese culture that I wanted to have. Seattle has a pretty large Asian community, I had taken Japanese at university with dozens of nikkei-jin, and I had been to Japan on visits twice before. But it wasn’t until I went to live there that it all fell in place.

GABRIELA: I arrived in the UK at 23 — marriage was not even in my mind. Additionally, I had no wish to stay in the UK so wasn’t looking for an Englishman to marry. I was going to travel more. I actually had a one way ticket to Italy when I fell in love with my husband.

Did you have any reservations before deciding to tie the knot, having to do with the other person being a different nationality?

JEFFREY: No reservations on my side, probably because Naoko had lived in the States for a year as an undergrad by the time I met her, and because her English was so good.

GABRIELA: Not at all. I thought — and I still think — that culture has very little effect on the “amount of risk” in a relationship. Values are important, of course, and I considered my husband’s values as an individual — not by placing him within a category ruled by his nationality.

How long were you together before you decided to get married?

JEFFREY: A point of no small contention with my wife. We’d been together for four years, two in Japan and two in the States, before I finally got around to asking her formally. Naoko was just about to graduate from Seattle University, and I’d been accepted at Columbia for grad school when I finally woke up and realized the time had come…

GABRIELA: Exactly 12 months after the day we met for the first time. Daniel asked me.

Where were your weddings held? Did you have cross-cultural ceremonies?

GABRIELA: The civil wedding was held in England; from my side there was just me. The religious ceremony was held in Venezuela a week after; from my husband’s side there was just him. The ceremony was in Spanish, a language that he does not speak! We held the reception party three weeks later when we were back in England — again, just me from my side. I even looked for a wedding dress on my own, and was on my own at the hairdressers on my wedding day. People may have thought it was strange, but I never minded. I thought it was all very exciting.

JEFFREY: We were married in my parent’s living room by a family friend who was a county judge. He wrote the ceremony for us, and it was very nice – just family and a few friends. We did a recommitment ceremony a few years later in Hawaii. Naoko didn’t want any kind of ceremony in Japan. She comes from Aichi-ken, where weddings tend to be an extravaganza. (Of course the real reason is that she was embarrassed to be marrying me — just kidding.)

Which makes me think of another question… What was it like meeting your in-laws for the first time? Did you have any awkward moments?

GABRIELA: Of course we’ve had some communication barriers, but mainly been due to my accent. I just have to repeat several times a word, or get my husband to “translate” for me. Ah, and the fact that I never drink tea or eat Christmas pudding seems to surprise his family each time!

JEFFREY: I think her parents and older brother initially took a dim view of our relationship, because I didn’t speak Japanese very well. To this day, my wife is my conduit with her parents (their Aichi-ben still leaves me lost a lot of the time). Overall, though, I think they are comfortable with me as I’m pretty comfortable with the culture.

How much of your married life has been spent in each other’s countries? And have you also lived in countries that are foreign to both of you?

GABRIELA: I don’t exactly have a country as my parents are originally from Spain but I grew up in Venezuela. Daniel and I have yet to live in a Spanish-speaking culture. We did, however, spend six years of our married life in a country foreign to us both: France. Otherwise, we’ve been in the UK.

JEFFREY: We’ve never lived anywhere else besides our home countries, and we’ve lived much longer in the U.S. than in Japan. Our time in Japan as a married couple consisted of three years in the Greater Tokyo area in the mid-1990s.

Are you settled down where you are now, or do you think you will change countries again?

Seattle is home for the time being. That said, I know Naoko misses her family. We’ve had some very emotional send-offs by family and friends in Japan. If fortuitous circumstances presented themselves (i.e. we were both offered obscene amounts of money and guaranteed vacation time), we’d be fools to not go. Barring that Disney scenario, we fully expect to spend at least part of the year in Japan in retirement, which isn’t that far off. It’s just eight years until our youngest is in college.

GABRIELA: What attracted me the most to my husband is that he also wanted to travel and live in other countries. I think things would have been very different if he said he wanted to stay in England “forever.” Now that we’ve spent six years in France I’ve realized that the weather really influences the social life and, to some extent, how people behave. It would be easier for my career if I stayed in the UK, but I have always placed my lifestyle before my career. Thankfully, my husband is quite happy with the idea of having late dinners on a terrace, under the sun, with wine and cheese on the table! Being Spanish, I would love for us to live in Spain one day.

What language do you speak with your respective spouses?

JEFFREY: Painful as it is to admit, about 99% English.

GABRIELA: Always English.

Tell me more about your kids.

GABRIELA: We have two wonderful children — a girl, 6, and a boy, 2. They were born in France, I was five months pregnant when we moved. Communicating with the midwives during childbirth was … interesting.

JEFFREY: We also have a girl and a boy, but they are a little older. Our girl is 14, and our boy, 9. Our daughter was born in Kawasaki, and our son in Seattle.

What language do you and your partner speak with the kids?

JEFFREY: The children are just now taking formal Japanese lessons.

GABRIELA: Spanish and English with my children. Occasionally I tease them — and my husband — in French. I must say that no matter what language I speak they all reply to me in English.

We look forward to hearing more from Jeffrey and Gabriela — and their spouses — next week. Let them know any comments or questions in the meantime!

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13 responses to “Marriage, cross-cultural style: Two veterans tell all (Part 1)

  1. Rachel July 18, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    I loved this! As one half to a cross-cultural couple, it was very cool to read!

  2. Katia Novet Saint Lot July 18, 2011 at 5:07 pm

    Great! I particularly liked Gabriella’s response to whether she had second thoughts about marrying someone from another culture: “Not at all. I thought — and I still think — that culture has very little effect on the “amount of ” in a relationship. Values are important, of course, and I considered my husband’s values as an individual — not by placing him within a category ruled by his nationality.” My sentiment exactly.

  3. lifebehindthewall July 18, 2011 at 10:45 pm

    It is interesting to see other couples similar to my husband and I…. and to see how they deal with the differences and it was nice to see how their children have adapted. I thought this was really insightful… and I look forward to reading more. I am also interested to know… why the couples choose to stay in the country that they stayed in. Like in my case when I choose to stay in China with my husband instead of going back to the states. great blog.

  4. Gabriela July 19, 2011 at 2:27 am

    Hi there,

    Well, in my case I chose not to return to my homeland simply because I wanted to make my life as an adult in Europe. We are currently in the UK because of my husband’s work, but we are not staying here. We have decided that a more neutral ground is more fun, that is, neither in my homeland nor my husband’s.


    • ML Awanohara July 19, 2011 at 4:39 pm

      I find it fascinating what you say about a third country providing “neutral ground” for cross-cultural couples. I know that when I (an American) was married to a Brit, I was happiest when we lived in Japan, which wasn’t either of our places… And yet, now that I’m married to a Japanese living in the U.S., I still feel as though I’m on neutral ground. Why is that? I have a couple of theories. One is that because I lived abroad for so long, I feel just as much a stranger to this place as he does, perhaps even more so. The other is that, because he’s lived here so long, and the US is so good at assimilating people, this country belongs as much to him as it does to me. Hmmm, l’ll have to ponder this conundrum a little more…

      • Gabriela July 20, 2011 at 12:42 pm

        @ML Awanohara: I think the six years in France thought us a lesson. While in France my husband was able to ‘see with my eyes’ because he was a foreigner too, and now back to the UK he can appreciate what we left behind. My lesson: I learnt more about myself, I now understand that I have mixed cultures within me, which means I now feel as a foreigner more than ever!

  5. ML Awanohara July 19, 2011 at 9:34 am

    I have a question for both Gabriela and Jeff. I’ve been reading quite widely on women in cross-cultural marriages to prepare for this series and have stumbled across some examples of women who’ve married men of non-English-speaking cultures — but only after becoming reasonably competent in the husband’s language. They seem to take it for granted that partners have to make an effort to become somewhat fluent in each other’s native tongues — ensuring that the couple has a choice of languages to converse in. Otherwise, they say, it can’t be a relationship of “equals.”

    Jeff, do you think Naoko ever feels she can’t fully express herself because of using English — maybe not now, but when you first lived in Seattle, New York?

    And Gabriela, aren’t there still times when you have thoughts in Spanish and can’t express them in English?

    • Gabriela July 20, 2011 at 12:42 pm

      Yes, I do have many thoughts in Spanish, more since I became a mother as I speak Spanish to my children. At time I get tired of speaking in English, like it happened in France with French. But I have also realized that there are many things I can’t say in Spanish, either because I got used to say them in English or simply because I have forgotten the Spanish words!

      By the way, I lived in England for 5 years before I met my husband, so I was already bilingual. And to be fair on him, he is trying to learn Spanish.


  6. Jeffrey July 19, 2011 at 5:38 pm

    Never with me, but she sometimes wishes she were a native speaker in certain work situations. I take this with a large grain of salt. Anyone who can earn a CFP certificate and a Master’s degree in a second language can’t be having too many problems communicating. That being said, I understand it more from a cultural aspect. If you haven’t lived someplace all your life or if you don’t pay attention to pop culture, there will be gaps, insignificant or otherwise, in your “cultural IQ.”

    • ML Awanohara July 19, 2011 at 10:12 pm

      Just as there are quite a few “gaps” for us repats, who’ve missed out on a lot by living elsewhere for quite a few years!

      But I guess I’m thinking of the occasions when Naoko might want to use Japanese because it’s a more accurate way to describe her feelings — but then has to use English…

  7. Kristin Bair O'Keeffe July 20, 2011 at 8:46 am

    I’m an American married to an Irishman & we spent the first five years of our marriage in China. (We recently moved back to the U.S.) It seems that no matter where we live, we’re always missing someone so I can relate to Naoko’s longing for family.

    Thanks for sharing your stories, Jeffrey and Gabriela.

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