The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Marriage, cross-cultural style: Two veterans tell all (Part 2)

A week is a long time in blogging, and since Part 1 of this post went up last Monday, horrifying events in Norway have delivered a chilling reminder of the venom that can be unleashed when cultures mix and values clash.

Thus I am full of renewed admiration for our two married couples — Gabriela & Daniel Smith, Jeffrey & Naoko Huffman — who have tested themselves more than most on cultural tolerance and openness.

Last week, we heard from Gabriela and Jeffrey, the nomadic halves of each partnership. Let’s introduce them again — along with their better halves, who this week have kindly agreed to “come in” and answer a few of my questions.


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


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

Naoko and Daniel, I’d like ask you both a question I posed to your respective spouses last week: did you ever think you would marry someone from another culture?


NAOKO: My parents expected that I would agree to an arranged marriage, and when growing up, I thought I would do as they told me. But then I attended an English as a Second Language (ESL) program in San Francisco. After meeting lots of people from different countries, I became more open to the idea of an international marriage. But I don’t think I chose Jeff as my husband because he is a foreigner. I just wanted to be with him and spend the rest of our lives together.


DANIEL: I was drawn by Gabriela’s Latin charm, but what attracted me to her primarily was her personality and way of looking at life. I never experienced any inhibitions about asking her to marry me. I assume that whatever the background of your partner, if you make the decision you love someone and want to be with that person forever, there will always be a considerable amount of risk — as in not knowing how each person will change and how their values and perceptions will evolve. In reality could the “girl next door” be a higher risk? For example, I now know what it feels like to be an expat from having worked for six years in France, but I had no way of predicting my life would take that path.

How did you find your new in-laws?


NAOKO: Jeff’s parents were nice to me from the beginning, even though my English wasn’t good enough to communicate with them on a deep level. But while they treated me with respect, I think they were also wondering how Jeff’s two grandmothers would feel about me.


DANIEL: On our first visit to my new parents-in-law, the only true reservation I had was based on what type of food I would be offered and if there was a different etiquette I would be expected to follow. Navigating the new culture proved relatively straightforward, although I did discover that calamares — whether fried, baked or stewed — isn’t fit for human consumption.

Let’s bring in all the partners now and talk a little more about family life. As mentioned in Part 1, each of you has two kids, a girl and a boy. What’s been the biggest challenge in bringing up kids from two different cultural backgrounds? Have they adopted one of your cultures more than the other?


JEFFREY: At 9, I think our son is too young to have much “cultural consciousness.” He has Asian American, African American, and Muslim American classmates. He’s aware of the general differences, but none of it seems to matter at this point — although he was rooting for Japan, not the U.S., to win the women’s World Cup.

Our daughter, on the other hand, is quite proud of her Japanese heritage — while not being particularly well versed in the culture. She has at least four other haffu classmates and lots of Korean American and Chinese American classmates. Of her best friends, one is African American, and another is a half-Phillipina girl whose adoptive mother is a lesbian. Her cohort gives me hope for America’s future as an open and tolerant society.

Neither Naoko nor I is religious, so that’s never been much of an issue — less so, however, with my mother, who is Christian and probably believes we’re all going to hell.


NAOKO: I had a concern about how our kids would feel about being Japanese when they learned about WWII. But they just accepted as a fact and were okay with it. I was impressed. I do wish we’d started them on Japanese language training earlier, though. Our daughter was only 18 months old when we moved back to the U.S. After that, I stopped using Japanese at home and soon returned to work full time. They are just now beginning formal Japanese-language instruction.


GABRIELA: I was born in Venezuela to Spanish parents and have never been able to choose between my two — Spanish and Venezuelan — heritages. Perhaps our children will just take the best from each of these cultures, and from English culture. No doubt their choices will be influenced by where they live, the type of people they meet, and how they position themselves in the world. I don’t know if they will feel more one or the other, especially if we live in a neutral third country, which as I mentioned last week is our goal. Right now, for example, my daughter says she is French because she was born in France. I’m happy with that.


DANIEL: I don’t find it challenging at all to bring up children who are a mix of cultures. Of course I’m always noticing their Spanish looks and ways, inherited from Gabriela.

How about for meals? Do you try to blend your cultures in the foods you prepare for the family? Who cooks?


JEFFREY: We eat as much if not more Asian/Japanese food as we do Western. Our son would eat soba and shumai seven days a week. We both cook.


GABRIELA: I cook for our children and my husband cook for the two of us. Since I’m not much of a cook, my kids have to eat my invented meals (bless them!), and as for my husband, well, I let him decide what he wants to make. I just enjoy it and do the washing up afterwards! He occasionally makes Venezuelan and Spanish meals, perhaps as often as he does English ones.

Jeff and Naoko, do you think you’ll ever move back to Japan? Last time, Jeff hinted that you might like to one day.


JEFFREY: The longer we’ve been back in the U.S., the harder it’s become for us to return to Japan. That being said, even in today’s economy, Naoko would have little difficulty finding work in Japan — she’s in finance. Whereas I’m pretty much unsuited to anything in Japan that would pay all that well. The kids, particularly our daughter who is just entering high school, would probably mutiny as well if we uprooted them at this point. Maybe after retirement?


NAOKO: Jeff keeps telling me to get posted to London, so perhaps we could give that a try?

Gabriela, how often do you get back to Venezuela to see family and friends?


GABRIELA: The last time I visited was three years ago. After that, I decided not to go back due to the political situation and have been relying on telephone calls and the Internet to keep in touch. But, to be honest, I don’t communicate with my family all that often. I have been away 14 years, so am used to the distance.

How about your kids? Actually, that’s a question for Naoko, too, since both of you are living away from the countries where you grew up.


GABRIELA: Only some of my family come to the UK and visit, usually just once a year for a few days. Those are the only times my children see them.


NAOKO: We haven’t been able to go back to Japan as often as we would wish since it’s so expensive for a family of four to fly there. Over the last five years, we’ve gone back every other year. But from now we’ll be making more of an effort to visit my parents since my father is not doing so well. My family always talks about coming to see us in Seattle, but they haven’t done it yet. Only my mother has been here — for my wedding, 19 years ago.

Finally, we are honoring Pocahontas this month at The Displaced Nation for her expertise in cross-cultural relations. I’m wondering if each of you could offer some advice to other couples in cross-cultural relationships — preferably in the form of a Native American proverb.


GABRIELA & DANIEL:

Cultural barriers are in the eye of the beholder.


JEFFREY & NAOKO:

For cross-cultural marriage to work, there can be no shortcuts. Each partner must accept the other’s culture.

Warm thanks to both of our couples for allowing their marriages to be put under The Displaced Nation’s microscope for two weeks running. Readers, do you have any more questions or comments?

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, Part 2 of the travel yarn “How foreign is Fez?” — by guest blogger Joy Richards.

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