Friday, April 9, 2010

Race, Culture, and In-laws: What I've learned in the first 10 years

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!


Dugi said...

Susie, great post. I've been reading your blog for a long time.I've commented once (i think).
I feel that thought my husband and I are from different races and grew up eating different food and doing different things, he was brought up to NOT eat with his hands while I was etc - since we are both practicing Christians, share the same values and call ourselves Australian - we feel that there is no hard divide. Basically doesn't matter that we look different to each other - at home we are the same. There is no cultural divide.
I mean I even grew up here so I have the same accent, watched the same tv and lived in the same city.

Most mothers think about the kind of girl their son will one day marry, and I don't think in million years my mother in law thought that her blond, blue eyed, quiet, conservative son would marry a dark, "ethnic", outspoken, liberal woman (who uses a fork and knife when eating in public - thank goodness!).
It's not that they are racist, they seem to love people of different cultures. It's that they feared that I would change their son...that if they couldn't see a future with me...if they wouldn't have picked a person like me to marry them...then how could he? He after all their son...who shares the same values and culture as them...It was a fear that it wasn't going to last or work out and they were scared.

on the other side, though my mother was OK with my choice of husband, my Curry community were not. They feared that I had turned "white" / "wild", that I was abandoning my culture and that "white people get divorced a lot", or "if you marry a white person they will get bored and leave you - there is no loyalty" etc etc. Plus here I was a Christian they were al Hindus. What kinda person changes religions (obviously someone like me!).I've heard it all - and those who didnt say it were thinking it. Even if they've lived in Aus for 25 years+ some Curry people sense that their culture is superior, more moral and true happiness in family can only be achieved through marrying in ones own race
(+religion+caste+state etc).

At end of the day on both sides it's just a fear of the unknown. It's that they are set in their ways.It's that we are programmed from birth in our families and communities that the way we doings is the only way to do things. The world our children will grow up in will be vastly different than us as they will be able to see more and experience more of what people of all races and cultures do and how they live and what they are like.

I for one don't care if I don't like the woman my son will one day love and marry. Whoever she may be I will make myself like her - becos at the end of the day as long as he is happy - I'm OK. :)

oh and I don't think I have to love my in-laws or they have to love me. There is no such requirement. As long as both them and I love MO and act Civil to each other. That is enough. May be one day we may love each other.

(sorry for the essay,i got a bit carried away )

Rachael said...

I really got a lot out of this post - thank you for the honesty. I know I've thought and felt those things over the years, as much as I wish that I didn't.

I learned an important lesson in regards to race and culture: We're all the same, we just come in different colors.

Very true to my experience too (no surprise since we grew up in basically the same environment).

I want it to be different for my kids. I hope that living as a minority in our current city and neighborhood helps them not be as ignorant as I was. I hope that talking about cultural differences early and often helps them have a less myopic view of the world.

But deep down I still hope that my future daughter in law will be just like me so that it can be easy...

Anonymous said...

BRILLIANTLY written, Susie! We all could learn alot from an experience like that ... and your perspective was great to read!

Big, Bad, Blonde Bahu said...

Hi Suzie. I loved reading this post. I met my mother-in-law for the first time four years ago, and it has not been a walk in the park. I hope that in a few years I will be able to look back at the relationship as a learning experience.

If nothing else, it has made me realize what aspects of my own upbringing are the most important to me. I have a very hard time dealing with the the things you mention here--especially the differing ideas about space, privacy, politeness,and individuality. I have to take a deep breath every time my mother-in-law pushes me, shoves me, or barges into a room without knocking. In her mind, she is not being rude at all, and she can't even begin to understand the concept of claustrophobia, but I can't help but feel like they are affronts when they happen in my own house. I don't know if time will help me get over these these things.

Anonymous said...

I came to your blog via the Gori Wife's blog. Forgive my puzzlement, why are you experiencing culture shock? From what I read of your posts, aren't both you and your husband the same religion? I'm assuming that his parents are the same faith too. Wouldn't the shared faith be a much bigger commonality than the differences in national origin? Isn't that what Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions teach, that the worldwide community of believers overrides national boundaries and is superior to national differences? This is what one is given to believe in the public discourse, anyway, so as a non-Christian, I find very puzzling these conflicts in your particular context. Or are these personality clashes rather than cultural differences per se?


KK said...

Hii, Susie...It is my first visit in your website and I am sure I will be back many times. Your post made me feel your feelings and also learning a bit from it. I don't have problems with skn color either but all those other things also freak me out...I still don't know whether our story will be successful like yours... but I do hope God will bless us and give us perseverance to cross all the hurdles ahead. God bless you and your family. :)