"There is no more lovely, friendly and charming relationship, communion or company than a good marriage."
--Martin Luther

Friday, 15 February 2013

On Being an In-Law: Cultural Considerations

This is a continuation of my thoughts from last week. I wrote about my struggle to feel connected with a new family, especially one so far away. My in-laws are not only on the other side of the globe, but they are of a different culture and speak another language, which adds to my stress about being a good daughter-in-law. I know that no matter what I do, I will never look or sound like part of the family, or maybe even know how to be part of it.

Eating dim sum before my wedding

Family ties are very important in Asia, as are social customs and roles. In the Chinese custom, there are specific names for everyone in the family; for example, cousins have different titles based on whether they're on your father's or mother's side, and whether they are younger or older than you; it's often considered rude to call aunts and cousins by their first names. For an outsider, these customs can be difficult to learn. Attendance at family get-togethers can be a non-negotiable. In our case, being here in Canada gets us off the hook for some of the filial responsibilities, but I sometimes feel stressed because I don't know if I'm messing up without even realizing it, missing opportunities to call and congratulate on holidays I didn't know existed.

It is said that women are the bearers of culture. Because women tend to spend more time with children, they are typically the ones that teach language and tradition to the next generation. This comes into play with my marriage because Gil doesn't really care about traditions. For the past few years, I asked him whether he wanted me to buy something or do something for Chinese New Year, but he has never cared to celebrate it. He is, to paraphrase Dr. McCoy from Star Trek, “a doctor, not an anthropologist”. He pays little attention to traditions or cultural differences, so he rarely informs me of how our own traditions differ, and what my role should be in his family. For now that's not a big issue, but it may be harder when we have children. While our kids will be a typical Canadian mishmash of backgrounds, I don't want them to feel alien to their own family and culture.

Last year I read the book Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda. Though so much of the book is thought-provoking, I was particularly impacted by a scene in which an American woman and her Indian-born husband go to India to see his parents. She goes outside for a walk and comes back with half of a sandwich, which she leaves in the fridge. She has no idea that the meat in the sandwich is defiling the whole kitchen for her in-laws. Her husband gets angry, because she should have known that as the in-laws are strict vegetarians, they can't have any meat in the house. I was really moved by the scene, as it seemed like something that could happen to us. When you're from that culture, it probably makes sense that vegetarians = no meat in the whole house. Being from Canada, I would never expect an extreme reaction like tossing out all the defiled food. I would assume that at most, the in-laws may not appreciate meat in their fridge. Should the wife have known? Maybe, but it seemed to me that the husband had not adequately prepared her for his parents' culture and expectations, and I was surprisingly offended about it. The scene captured one of my biggest fears: That I would deeply offend my new family unknowingly.

This is a bit of a rambling entry, because I really don't have any answers. The number of Canadians invoved in inter-racial and/or inter-cultural marriages is rising rapidly, so there must be many of us in this situation. (See for example this and this.)  We can be thankful that, unlike the characters in the scene above, we have access to Google and can at least read up on our spouse's traditions; this is why I'm working so hard to learn Mandarin. Sometimes the most we can do, however, is extend grace to each other and to ourselves as we navigate a new world.

Are you in an inter-cultural marriage or relationship?  How do you try to bridge the cultural gap?

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