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Culture Wars: Between Lovers

From Louella T Chapman

5 Things I’ve Learned as an Interracial & Multicultural …

“Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try
No hell below us, above us only sky
Imagine all the people, living life in peace…
Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too
Imagine all the people, living life in peace…”
“Imagine” by John Lennon

The lyrics of John Lennon’s “Imagine” offer a vision of a society in which personal differences no longer matter. As a woman in a racially-diverse marriage, I am both skeptical and hopeful. How soon before such a society blossoms? We’re still all basically clannish (whether we are aware of it or not) and evolution happens very slowly. Most of us, no matter how enlightened and bias-free we try to be, still have traditions, biases and prejudice that can creep up on us despite our best intentions. And although southern California is supposed to be one of the successful melting pots/salad bowls in the great social experiment, I have discovered that being in an obviously cross-cultural marriage still provokes unconscious reactions. For example, in restaurants I often got those quick “looks” before eyes are politely averted. Although the stares may not be meant to judge, but merely a reaction to a visual stimulus that presents with stark contrasts, they convey a meaning of “You stand out because you don’t belong with him”. As an Asian-looking woman, if I’m aware of this, how much more so for African-Americans with an Anglo spouse or lover? Black-white matches are still the most stigmatized because of the history of slavery and racism

Every committed couple must negotiate differences of background and upbringing. Mixed matches have an extra layer of difference that relationships with similar backgrounds don’t necessarily have. “Why do we spend so much time (and money!) with her family when I only see my folks once a year?”. “What do you mean, you want your own checking account?”. “Why is she being argumentative when I can still be calm talking about sensitive issues?”. “Is my boyfriend being seductive in parties or is he just being friendly?” We usually interpret behaviors through our own cultural lenses.

The motives of people for getting into mixed matches are no different from anyone else’s. This includes that intangible magic called chemistry. For us, sometimes our differences (physical, cultural) add an exotic appeal to our chemistry, but isn’t that wonderful desirability the same for everyone? We all go through the spell of infatuation or honeymoon. Then, as it fades, each one is faced with a real, 3-dimensional being they need to make a life with. One of the most challenging aspects of marriage (especially when there are children) is the everydayness, and this is where our differences show up most often, regardless of facial features, native language and custom, and values. There is no escape.

Holidays bring up all sorts of powerful cultural distinctions between partners. These can become especially provocative in mixed matches. The symbols have an external meaning that some of us want to recreate, while others of us want to escape. Love and tradition come crashing together in potentially toxic ways. Menorah vs. Christmas tree. My 200-member loud family vs. your intimate Christmas dinner. “I grew up poorer than you, so I expect you to shower me and our kids with expensive presents” (So I’ll finally obliterate all that deprivation and humiliation).

Parents, especially mothers, go through a psychological rebirth after they have children. Most become more conservative again even if just a bit. This is part of the protective instinct. As the children grow up, instilling some sort of cultural identity becomes an issue. How do you raise a bicultural child? Will he be confused? Start with naming the child! Charles or Carlos? If he’s a boy, does he get circumcised? Does he go to an ethnically-diverse school? “Why should I pay for him to go to Japanese school every weekend when I won’t even be able to converse with him in that language?” Where’s John Lennon when you need him??

Immigrants have one more layer of complexity. The immigrant experience is like living on a bridge. You’re never fully assimilated into the new culture nor do you fit in anymore to your culture-of-origin. Sometimes the feeling of belonging is at best marginal.

Ultimately, the self-esteem of each individual is essential in constructively negotiating differences. Ethnic pride is a big component of self-esteem. For members of a group who have been historically oppressed by another group, ancestors do not necessarily forget past sins. For instance, think of an Armenian grandfather who refuses to attend his granddaughter’s wedding to a Turk. Even if we say we are not marrying a family but an individual, we are forced to relate to our in-laws more often than we have imagined. Forced? Did I say “forced?” Oops, my skepticism is showing.

But I have more than skepticism going for me. The journey is exciting and creative, and this gives me hope. All those “stares” strengthened me to stand up to difference, and to find loving ways to let Utopia begin under my own roof with my husband and son. If you are in a mixed match, you have a lot more to offer all of us than the tiny fraction I’ve identified here. If you would like to explore ways to live harmoniously with your “quite-different” partner, I’m here to listen.

Let me finish John Lennon’s song:

“Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger, a brotherhood of men
Imagine all the people, sharing all the world…
You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only on
I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will be as one”.

Louella Chapman, MFT is a Marriage and Family Therapist in Torrance CA. She specializes in multicultural couples and first/second generation Americans. Her website is http://www.louellachapman.com.

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