Ten years ago I met my (then future) in-laws for the first time. Have I told those stories yet? Wow, lots of tears as I came face to face with my future forever and how different everything would be for me. Not bad, just really, really different.
Forgive me if I'm repeating myself, but here's the gist of it. I grew up in a very white community in the midwest. Close enough to Chicago where there should have been more diversity in my life, but there wasn't. I was raised on church, Christian School and the Cosby Show. Every Thursday night on tv, I learned an important lesson in regards to race and culture: We're all the same, we just come in different colors.
And then I met Ben's parents, and my world came crashing down as I realized that everything the Huxtables taught me had been wrong - we were NOT the same. We weren't even close to the same. In fact, other than the fact that we were all fond of Ben, I don't think think there was anything between us that resembled sameness.
We spoke different languages, ate different food, wore different clothes, had very different ideas about what it means to be polite, what it means to be modest, where one should sit, whether or not it's acceptable to kick your husband in public, etc.
So, ten years ago, I met Ben's parents and decided that the Cosby show didn't do me a whole lot of good. I won't bore you with the details, but let's just say that Easter weekend 2000 involved my future mother-in-law trying to make me kill a duck, say "fart" in Malayalam to my future father-in-law, and bringing up each of Ben's former girlfriends who were "so nice" and "so pretty."
It's been a journey. A journey on which I've mostly been arrogant, selfish and insecure when confronted with people very unlike me. But, I've been seeing it little by little - the ugliness in my heart that bubbles up when everything I know to be "right" doesn't apply.
Do you like all the "quotation marks" in this post? It's important, because I'm learning that we all use similar words, but often don't all mean the same thing.
Here's the thing about Ben's parents: Despite the whole duck-killing and other mean-spirited tricks that weekend, they are great people. Ben's mom was just trying to make sure I knew who was in charge, I think. I have a son now, who isn't allowed to marry someone I don't like, so I know things now I didn't know then.
Ben was recently giving a talk to a large group of people, and he used some stories from his upbringing as illustration. He did great - painting the picture of his parents as new immigrants sacrificing everything to help others in their community gain a foothold in the New World. He described how even though the four of them lived in a one-bedroom apartment, they always made room for relatives who needed a place to live.
It was beautiful. People ooohed and ahhhhed at all the right places. Concepts like that are completely foreign to us Americans. We hail from the Land of Boundaries. We say things like, "We'll just get a hotel room so we don't overcrowd you," and no one gets offended.
Afterwards, I was chatting with a friend about the story. She knew a little of my adjustment to my new culture, my new family. I remarked that Ben's story was a perfect example. Yes, they are AMAZING people. But, you try marrying into a family where it's perfectly acceptable, expected and assumed that you would share a one-bedroom apartment with all your relatives.
I don't even like sharing my bedroom with my baby boy.
So, it's been a (tricky, stretching, gratifying) journey. It's shaped me and given me perspective. It's stripped the polish and veneer off my efforts to convince the world and myself that I'm not prejudiced towards other cultures.* I am. We are. All of us to a certain degree, probably, but I'll go ahead and put myself in front of the bus first.
I prefer to be around people who make me comfortable. I prefer to love people who communicate love the same way I do. I prefer to go to a church where I am fully familiar with all social "rules", eat food that reminds me of home, and when people speak my language easily and clearly, I assume they are smarter than I would if they didn't.
And just so I don't keep sugar-coating things, it's not just that I feel uncomfortable. It's that I get fiercely defensive of my way, which is of course the right way. It's that somewhere in my heart I believe that I'm right and so people like me are also right, or at least more right than people not like me.
I am learning. It's been ten years and I'm still learning. It's hard for Ben to believe that it can take this long. It's exasperating for me that it's taking this long. I'm a slow learner, I guess.
But like all journeys, it is one rich with reward. Hopefully my slow learning will teach my kids important lessons about race and culture, and about sin and grace. Hopefully walking the long distance that lies between my right and their right (or your right) will mark the difference between real relationship and convenient relationship.
I have a lot to learn from my husband's family, so my future daughters-in-law better watch out - I've got some new tricks up my sleeve!
*After a lot of thought, I edited this statement. Originally, I used the term "racist," and I don't think that's an accurate description of the issue at hand. Skin color doesn't scare me. Differences in cultures, values, upbringings, and communication freak me out and can bring out some ugly sides of me. Thanks for your patience and understanding!