- The white concept of “family” is fundamentally different from the rest of the world.
Early on in our marriage, about a year in, we kept running into this crazy conflict over family events. My wife (who is Chinese) was getting last-minute invites from her parents to come over for family dinner, lunch, breakfast, brunch, or some combination of those. We were generally expected, I learned later, to drop what we were doing and come over. It didn’t matter what our plans were. It was a matter of honor and respect to receive the invite and automatically say yes. In my world (American, with high identification with our Irish roots; more on that later) it is not expected at all. I didn’t know it was strange that my father chose not to go to his parents’ funerals until later. That’s not Irish, white, or American, that’s just weird. But if my parents invited us to something, it is okay to say no. If we have other plans, it is assumed that we would keep those plans. The opposite is the case in Chinese culture. That, the invitation and expectations piece, is just one example of a larger picture of what “family” is in Chinese culture. I didn’t know this going in, and it made it very hard on my marriage. I didn’t know that saying “no” was a big deal, and frankly I didn’t care. What kept happening was, I would tell my wife no, which put her in a horrible position with her family. The next time we would show up to a family event, there would be the guilt tripping and questions about why we weren’t at some cousin’s birthday party or something. I wasn’t sensitive to the guilt, but my wife was. She internalized the guilt and ended up resenting me.In a proper Chinese family (this is the white, American interpretation of it, having experienced it in a mixed-culture marriage) there is full integration of the new spouse with the larger family. In my white family, the newlyweds move away, they are a family unit unto themselves. This isn’t the case in most cultures – apparently much of the Western world is unique in this. My in-laws would be happy if we were to move in to their house with our son, the three of us joining their larger family. They would be happy if we had every meal with them, every day, forever. They would be overjoyed if we ran every decision through them, and went to their church, and became integrated with every aspect of their community, faith, family, culture (all of which are one and the same, by the way; more on that later). My parents would find that obnoxious and oppressive. My parents would say to that, and those ideas, “when are you going to grow up?” My parents would put a deadline on that level of involvement, hard boundaries, and eventually ask us to scale back our time together. My sisters would guilt trip us the other way. They would pressure us to move further away so that we could be our own family, stop being so dependent on mom and dad, etc.The point being, in our American culture, my wife and I are “family.” In my wife’s culture of origin, the church, community, faith, culture, and everyone interconnected in that is “family.” That is the family unit, the entire thing – and here, my wife and I live in this strange combination of both.
- Irish-American culture is perfectly designed to escalate conflict with Chinese-American culture.I know this second-hand, so give me grace. My father is Irish, and strongly identifies with the Irish culture and Irish way. It took until my cross-cultural ministry started to take over my life that I started to study culture in earnest, and found my father’s Irish roots were very strong. It should have been obvious, with his learning the Irish language and obsession with Irish culture that it wasn’t a small thing to him. Deeper than that, his way of being with people, his thought patterns, his family history were all Irish to their core. As such, in my own self-examination, I found myself struggling to identify where I was “normal” and where I wasn’t. This was a fool’s errand in many ways, exacerbated by marriage.I found early on that my wife would say and do anything she could to end conflict as fast as possible. She would give in, apologize, apologize some more, cave in to whatever demands or perceived demands I was making and try to end it as fast as possible. Conflict was somehow terrifying to her. With her family the way it is, “rocking the boat” is a dangerous thing in so many ways. It could upset the larger community in unforeseen ways. It would bring on guilt, shame, and unimaginable social pressure to conform. My wife was often times, in the midst of conflict, perceiving me as a source of social power and guilt – when we disagreed, she was in trouble with me. It frustrated me to no end. When there was an insult in my family, something offensive said, it was answered and identified immediately. “I did not like what you just said.” I somewhat softened that when I entered the work world, but not as much as my co-workers and supervisors would like. To me, “playing games” is dancing around a conflict or disagreement, with the better way being a more direct, eye-to-eye discussion. “You are wrong about X, we can’t do X because of A, B, C reasons.” All the more reason to say if it’s a matter of opinion. If someone disagrees with me, it’s not personal, it’s my opinion versus yours, and I just need you to hear my opinion before we move forward.
In my wife’s world, that is unheard of. What ended up happening is, what I would do to de-escalate the situation was escalating it for my wife. What my wife was doing to de-escalate was escalating the situation for me. We had some pretty huge fights in our first year of marriage. I would try to end the conflict by saying, “Yes, I am mad that you did X, but it’s okay,” and she would completely lose her mind. She would try to end the conflict by saying sorry a hundred times, demanding that I stop being mad at her, she doesn’t want to be in trouble anymore, and I would get so frustrated I would leave. What she wanted out of the conflict and what I wanted her opposites. I just wanted her to say what she meant, what she did, what I did to frustrate her, and we could talk about that. She wanted to avoid it, run away from it, just say “sorry” and move on. There’s just no “forcing the issue” in her family.
There is in ours, now. She has learned to be in conflict and be comfortable. I have learned to give her a steady dose of affirmation (“you aren’t in trouble, we’re not breaking up our marriage, I just don’t want to go to your cousin’s baby’s birthday party”). We’ve got this really cool blend of both, and a level of trust where we can step into each other’s cultures and worlds and be for each other in the midst of that.
- Attitudes about money will make or break your marriage.This one is a little more straight forward. I think money is meant to be spent, used, etc. My wife believes money is meant to be saved. She has a savings account where the money, in her mind, is effectively untouchable and figuratively “gone.” I see a savings account with $20,000 in it and I think, let’s buy another house. Skipping to the end of the story, I recognize that her way of dealing with money is better than mine, so I trust her with it. We determined our budget together, and we are living well below our means because of her attitude about money. That was painful when we were dating. I would go to the store with her, and she would criticize my choices because there was a similar item for pennies less next to the one I put in my cart. I did not give a damn about a few pennies. In her world, it’s the principle of it. Those pennies multiply out in other, bigger decisions. I think she’s cheap, but she’s right. We have the freedom and flexibility to travel, change jobs, we’ve bought a great house at a great price in a community we love. This is one we haven’t really learned from each other on, it’s just me learning from her. She was right about this one.I understand that there is a whole spectrum of savers versus spenders, even in the Chinese community, and probably more among the first- and second-generation immigrant population here. It seems to be unique in the American and Western cultures to not save much money, and live way beyond one’s means. The rest of the world does the opposite. I imagine our economy would take a nose dive if everyone started saving half their paychecks like our good Eastern neighbors do.
- White people have a lot of power. A lot.When I was courting my wife, I went through the step of going through my father-in-law, who told me “no” to dating his daughter, to our being in love, and eventually to us being married. There were literally three and four hour meetings where he would attack my character, my faith in God, my ability to provide, basically everything and anything he could. It was a tough time, and our relationship has been strained since – I don’t know if he had a grand strategy in mind, where he at some point considered that I might stick around and actually marry his daughter. I forced the issue, where other white men in his extended family did not, and confronted him on whether this was actually a matter of my race and culture. He got mad, yelled, and eventually admitted that, yes, this was because I was white. He laid out his plan for his daughter, that she would move to a city with a larger Asian population, that she would go to a college with the same, and she would find a good Christian, Calvinist, Cantonese-Chinese man who was a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. I wasn’t many of those things, but even if I somehow was a white-collar billionaire Calvinist, I still wouldn’t measure up because I was white. That’s all water under the bridge now. My advice to any prospective person trying to earn the respect of their in-laws, I would suggest you don’t bother. Behave respectfully, honor them, understand that they will be in your life forever, so maintain that relationship and don’t do anything to jeopardize that, and … if you have children someday, you will be fine. They’ll suddenly treat you great when you give them grandchildren.Here’s what I took away from that. When I have encountered the rare businessman, or friend, or teacher who treated me negatively because of my race, I was always, always, always able to go to any of the other million people in the world who would treat me fairly. I was never in a position where I was mistreated for my race, but I didn’t have the power to do anything about it. Up to that experience with my prospective father-in-law, I did not recognize the power dynamic. I had never had someone with power over me who was treating me poorly because of my race. Never. Not once. I don’t think I could have imagined it if I hadn’t experienced it first-hand. Imagining, for instance, I had a black boss who was abusing me for my race, my mind immediately goes to, I would just quit and get another job. One where I wasn’t treated that way. With the love of my life, there was no quitting and going somewhere else, there was no “taking my business elsewhere.” I had this man in a position of power who I couldn’t move, and who I couldn’t avoid. It was the hardest thing I have ever done, is take all this shit from him, and recognize that I was basically stuck with him, and it was because of something I couldn’t change about myself. Even if I wanted to conform to his expectations, I couldn’t. It was this brutal realization of what racism does to people. You can’t just quit, or find another school, or another political system, you are stuck with the one who is treating you this way forever, and you have to keep dealing with it, and you are constantly trying to rise above it. I wouldn’t even say I experienced “racism” on a real level, because I got the girl anyway. I got the better end of that situation. But damn, I got a small taste of it. That I had never, before that point, been in a situation where someone had power over me and was abusing me for my race tells me something: white people have a ton of power in this world.
- There’s a soft racism towards “model minorities” that is still oppressive.My wife is Chinese, which is a different minority candidate from the others. Asians are seen as these sleepless, workaholic, brilliant, hard-working type of people. They rebel by marrying outside their race. My wife isn’t afraid of the police like other minorities are, and probably should be. She isn’t worried about not getting hired because of her name, or her skin color, it’s probably the opposite really. I think the categorization of a group of people is useful in the shorthand communication way, that we can identify a way, style, culture, group as “this” or “that.” It’s obviously problematic when it labels people as less. We all do it to each other, there’s a whole vocabulary for putting people in their place. I didn’t know what “uppity” was until a few years ago, and before that I was surrounded by some uppity people. As it relates to the model minority, it becomes a problem when the social pressure moves people away from who they are. I don’t know that eliminating all stereotypes or generalizations is possible or even the right solution. But there’s no social pressure for Asians to be artists, politicians, actors, models, salesmen, athletes, or so many other jobs. There’s a lot of social pressure for young black men to be athletes, which carries with it a lot of problems. I see all these exploitative careers out there, and so many of them are killing grounds for people of color. And I see so many soul sucking, money driven careers that are the same for the “model minority,” so that they can finally please their parents or something. There’s so few Asians in the clergy, politics, in creative roles, or really in any up-front roles in so many industries because there’s this wide expectation that they don’t do that. I’m not saying we need to whip the social pressure the other direction, but rather, let’s identify in individuals and communities who they were designed to be and encourage that. How many voices out there are encouraging young Asians to pursue teaching? How many Asian teachers have you had in your life? It wouldn’t be settling for less, it would be a fulfilling and much needed career, one where an Asian man or woman could change the world. To do otherwise, I think, is basically doing more of the same, putting people in their place, keeping the invisible walls up to minorities who want to do more with their lives.