Sobering Advice for anyone contemplating a cross-cultural marriage

This hard-won advice is intended only for those couples who are truly considering entering into a cross-cultural marital situation. Simply marrying someone whose ancestry is different from your own is not quite the same thing. Much of who we are and what we believe is the result of what we see around us as examples during our childhood. Someone born in Japan who is brought to the United States before school age and who has lived here ever since will not benefit so much from the advice I have to give here. I’m not saying there will not be obstacles to overcome in any case. Just that my particular experience is with someone who was raised all her life in a different culture from myself and it is to those in a similar situation that I address this discourse.

You may also find that this advice is strongly biased toward the male point of view. That should not be too surprising, since I have lived all my life as a male and I have little experience looking at the situation from the other side. If you have a beef with that, then either write an equivalent article from the female perspective (I would gladly host such a page) or just quietly put up with my rants. Also, realize that I have some personal steam to vent and this may at times color the presentation.

My personal experience centers around the relationship between a Japanese female and an American male, although I’d like to think that the basic ideas could be applied to any cross-cultural situation. I’d be happy to hear about the experiences of others in this regard. The only caveat is that if the advice does not apply to your situation, then just forget it. I don’t hope to change the world with a single essay. But if I can help one would-be husband (or wife) to avoid disaster before it strikes, then it was worth the time and the disk space.

You see, there is precious little in the way of practical material available in your local bookstore on the subject of relating to someone who was not raised with the same value system as yourself. And even less so when it comes to Japanese culture. So many of the books I read contained the most blatant misunderstandings about even the simplest elements of Japanese life. And you can’t expect your partner to help you out because he/she is just as confused as you are. Those, like myself, who are actually attracted to the other culture are the most at risk. This brings me to the first rule:

Rule #1: Don’t assume that your interest in your partner’s culture will last, or that it will somehow prevent conflicts from occuring.

Never underestimate the depth of the roots of your own upbringing. Sure, it’s possible to change (given enough time and enough effort). But no matter how deep you dig, you will always be you. Your beliefs, your emotions, your priorities, in short, your whole approach to life, are shaped by the culture in which you were brought up. This leads to the obvious:

Rule #2: Don’t assume that the other person will change significantly just because of the relationship or because of your charming influence.

Some degree of cross-pollenization is bound to occur between two people who share an intimate relationship but when you start to expect change, then you start to get into big trouble. The best thing you can do for each other is to acknowledge the fact that conflicts will occur and will often occur for the simplest and most unexpected reasons.

That said, it should be quite obvious that you will want to find out as much as you possibly can about your potential partner and his or her lifestyle. You would be surprised how much is taken for granted in typical marriages, even among partners of the same background. What priority does the extended family play in the couple’s life, how are family decisions made, how much free time (time apart from each other) is considered normal for the partners, etc.

Rule #3: Don’t assume anything. Make sure you discuss with your partner every aspect of your future life together.

Also, don’t assume that when your partner says something is unimportant that it does not have to be discussed. Those areas are often the most important things to discuss. The fact that something is ‘not important’ may be a signal that one or both of you are making an assumption about the way some aspect of life will turn out based on your own past experience. Well, you might as well toss that ‘past experience’ right out the window because your partner and you, by definition, do not share the same past or the same experience. And that brings me to the next rule:

Rule #4: If your partner refuses to discuss a subject openly, treat that as a big red flag and find out why.

The beliefs people hold most dear are the ones which they are least likely to want to discuss with someone else. Unless you’re prepared to cheerfully accept whatever ideas or beliefs your partner may consider most important, I’d suggest you at least find out what those beliefs are before jumping into a permanent relationship with that person.

And I’m not talking only about religious beliefs (which may be important in their own right) but also beliefs about how life should be lived. Those things which you or your partner might call ‘common sense’. Well, the term common sense covers a lot of ground and is often based on those underlying assumptions we have been trying so hard not to look at. The only things that are actually common are things like not standing in front of a speeding truck or not walking into an empty elevator shaft.

For example, if you are very involved in a group which supports a particular cause but your partner sees this as one of your ‘hobbies’ — and if he or she has been brought up to believe that when two people marry they will give up the ‘hobbies’ of their younger days. And if you wait until after you are married to find out that all this is only ‘common sense’ to her then you may well find yourself in a difficult situation real fast. Or if you find out that it is considered ‘common sense’ that you should give up your dream of starting that business and instead work as a corporate grunt in order to provide security for the family because that’s the way everyone else from your partner’s country behaves — my friend, you’ve found out way too late.

Rule #5: Make it a point to talk about some tough topics (like money, raising children, where to live, etc.) before making those wedding arrangements.

Look, the stuff is going to come up sooner or later. Start an argument or two. Find out what it’s like to fight by your partner’s rules. No amount of love or respect is going to keep your ship from hitting the icebergs of life. You might as well know whether you will be able to work together toward a solution when the inevitable crisis comes up.

Rule #6: Make sure that, between the two of you, there is at least one language in which you are both fluent.

This is very important. As a test, try taking some very subtle feeling or belief and explain it to your potential mate. Have him or her explain it back. If there is not a substantial understanding of what you explained, watch out. If either of you are unable to explain the subtle emotions that come up in a relationship without causing some misunderstanding, then you will be in for a very hard, if not impossible, road through life. Wait a while until one or the other of you is able to achieve a good degree of fluency in the others language.

After all, would you hook up permanently with someone whose face you had never seen? Not many of us would. Then how come we will so readily hook up with a partner whose soul we have never seen?

Rule #7: Examine your own motives.

Is this someone you would hook up with even if you were safe and happy in your own country? If you are the partner who is trying to live in another culture, remember this: Culture shock can do funny things to a normally rational mind. Sure you’re lonely, sure there are things about your surroundings that you just can’t seem to figure out, sure your partner makes everything seem safe by filling you in on the subtle nuances of his or her culture. That’s the formula for a perfect couple, right? Wrong. What you have is a parent or a teacher, not a lover. And it’s all too easy to overlook the previous seven rules when it seems so obvious that this is the ‘prefect’ person for you.

If you see this happening to you, stop. Postpone any commitment. Get yourself comfortable with your surroundings. Disarm the ‘convenience’ in the relationship and then see what you think. Learn more about the subtle parts of your partner’s culture and then decide if you can tolerate, work with, and actually love that person because they are different and not despite those differences.

Rule #8: Lay the family finances out on the table and plan out your budget for at least your first couple of years together.

Why? Even in single-culture marriages, money seems to be the biggest problem in making decisions together. In my experience, money is even more important in a Japanese family. There are enough differences in family finance between Western and Japanese cultures that you should really want to know how your betrothed thinks in terms of family finance. And why not get a head start on the inevitable. After all, it’s going to be both of you in this together so you might as well start now.

Of course, you can figure that if you make it past the first couple of years (the most intense part of the learning curve when it comes to finding out about all the differences in your ideas and background), you can pretty much go back to planning things by the seats of your respective pants.

Rule #9: Don’t underestimate the importance of keeping good relations with your partner’s parents.

This is expecially true if your partner is the one from Japan (or some other non-Western culture). It seems that we in the US (and I can hardly speak for any other Western cultures) have developed a great deal of independence from our families. We hardly notice, and sometimes don’t even care, what our parents think of our choice in partners. However, the same is not true in Japan. There is still a great deal of synergy between parent and offspring, even well after they have left the nest and formed families of their own.

I have personally seen a well-functioning extended family of a mixed Japanese/American couple. I must say, I was more than a little jealous of the warmth and support my friend’s parents showed toward her American husband and I began to appreciate how important family contact and support can be when one has already, by virtue of entering an inter-racial relationship, struck out against the tide of social mediocrity.

And the worst thing that can happen is to have your partner’s parents (or your own) constantly undermining the relationship, either consciously or not. If you can’t get their active support then at least settle for passive acceptance. Anything less should be a sign of trouble ahead.

Rule #10: Be ready to help your partner through the inevitable rough spots.

Well, okay, this is sound advice for any couple. But just remember that you both will be setting out on an adventure — a full-time first-hand learning experience in the other person’s cultural labyrinth. None of us, I am convinced, ever really appreciates how many things we learn about life when we are young and that we take for granted every day. We consider many of these things just plain ‘common sense’ but they’re only common if you and your partner have common backgrounds. Expect the unexpected. Then you won’t be disappointed.

Rule #11: Forget about any rules.

If you have come this far and still intend to undertake this major life project, then may your experience be one of constant joy and wonder. And if you happen to be one of those for whom an inter-racial marriage has turned out well, I would certainly love to hear from you. Learning up-close about another person can be simultaneously the greatest adventure of your life and the greatest challenge.

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