Saturday, May 30, 2009

Adventures in Marriage

One of the things Mom and I bonded with before she died was our marriages to men who were from other cultures. Besides our green eyes and fair skin, this was one of the few things we had in common. My Hawaiian father has a few eccentricities that can only be explained by his Hawaiian-ness. My mom had a few stories as they both had to make some compromises in their early years of marriage as they not only dealt with their divergent backgrounds, but also the cross cultural communication. When I got old enough to notice this theme in our family, it was no longer a big deal to them, but they settled into a oneness that transcended their differences.

When I married Dennis, who had originated in Quebec, Canada, I took the cultural difference factor for granted during our engagement. Dennis is a naturalized citizen and lived in the states as a young boy before his father settled in New Richmond, a village on the Gaspe Peninsula at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, where generations of LeBlancs flourished since the late 1600's. After living with his mom for one year in Maine and graduating from an American high school, my husband went into U.S. military service and graduated with two American bachelors degrees (in four years).I looked up relating cross culturally in our old marriage preparation books and notes. It never came up. And no one who mentored us or counseled us during our engagement ever broached the subject.

Soon after marriage, though, I noticed that Dennis was weird. He didn't know some things that I took for granted about the history and culture of the United States. And some things I grew up learning from my mom, seemed to be new to Dennis. A visit to his parents' home in Quebec a few months after we married explained every thing. Due to lack of funds and time, I didn't get to meet his family during our engagement and they weren't able to cross the country to Washington state for our wedding, so this vital information about his background was regulated to the phone up till then. The only thing I observed was they had thick French accents, and his beautiful step-mom, who was English and learned French later, sounded like Maureen O'Hara. During this visit, I realized that my husband was more French Canadian than he let on, and even though he didn't have brown skin and come from an island off the North American continent, he was just as culturally different to me as Dad was to Mom's German American midwestern background. As I walked around New Richmond and went to family gatherings, I stuck out as much as my white mother did on the backroads of the island of Maui in '60's before the tourists took over.

I had to make some adjustments to Dennis that were bigger than I realized. I took french classes at the local community college. I broadened my reading to include Canadian history and politics. I learned about the sessionist movement in Quebec, which echoed the one in Hawaii. And Mom helped me by advising me to embrace Dennis in his French Canadian heritage and ways that were so different than he and I both knew. Hearing her stories about trying to relate to Dad's family helped me in trying to relate to my in-law's. And the fact that my father only had one or two family members attend the wedding assauged my grief that I didn't get to see Den's family at ours.

And as I think about this, I appreciate my mother all the more as I remember that her parents were both German American first generation citizens born in the states as my great-grandparents on both sides immigrated roughly in the same decade around the turn of the century and settled and farmed in the Dakotas. There was no one there to comfort Mom with stories about resolving conflicts that arise from being raised in two dissimiliar worlds, or teach her how to appreciate a totally different perspective that arises from a another culture, like she comforted me.

When we first married, our pastor in California was fond of making the comment that marriage was hard enough without making it harder by marrying someone from a different culture or race. He even said this in front of our congregation at farewell for an elder and his wife from South America (as a college student, they met in Argentina because his parents were missionaries and he was raised there all his life--like all missionary kids, he was more Argentinian than American and spoke Spanish fluently). Although he was right about that, he missed the bigger picture. I think that over time, the rough edges of the differences smooth out, and a oneness occurs that would be unimaginable at the beginning. The oil and vinegar does eventually blend into something much better than if tasted separately, albeit there is much shaking involved. For Dennis and me, as well as the elder and his wife, we have an emulsifier like lecithin (food science alert) that keeps salad dressings from separating. Our emulsifier is our Lord Jesus Christ. In Him, we have much in common. When we learned that in our relationship, it spills over into other areas of our lives.

While on our Memorial weekend experience with the Korean students, I overheard my husband share with a young man that his approach to something he isn't used to in another culture is that it isn't wrong or bad, just different. And different is actually quite nice sometimes. Hmmm, how did he learn that?

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