Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Our Unique Bond #6

I'm not even going to pretend like I have any decent advice to give concerning raising children in a cross cultural marriage. I have two kids, at the time of writing, seven and four. There is a long way to go before anyone can make judgments of our parenting skills. So without offering any solutions to people seeking advice on how to raise bi (tri, multi) cultural kids let me offer you the challenges of cross cultural parenting. (I know, you're welcome.)

If culture shock is an issue for you before your pregnancy, having a baby is going to kick it into high gear. Because, with that final contraction and push, you've birthed an entity outside of yourself which has your entire heart wrapped around it, your culture bound expectations of life attached to her, and an innate instinct to protect and defend him no matter the cost. This is a precarious position to be in while encountering culture shock because you're confronting something that is attacking not just your cultural values, but also attacking the little being through whom you naturally want to preserve the values you hold to be true. Many times, this very dilemma has kept us from embracing Chinese culture while we lived in China, because we simply didn't have the courage to subject our children to the cultural differences they will inevitably confront. For example, we decided to pull our daughter out of the Chinese preschool system because we sensed the teachers using tactics like shame, which is very sensible within Chinese culture, to teach our very free-spirited daughter. For more on my experiences with my kids in Chinese school system, see here and here.

Every cross cultural couple, or expats, who think about having children anticipate raising their children bilingual. No one can deny the benefits of the gift of bilingualism. But it is never as easy as you imagine, and although I have seen, or heard about, people doing it successfully, they are few and far between. The best advice I can give to people is to set realistic expectations. For me, it means grappling with the reality that my kids are never going to be as bilingually fluent as I am. My bilingual abilities are a product of my environment which my kids do not have. Of course, being bilingual may mean different things to people. I am bilingual in that I can speak and understand both languages and be comfortable developing meaningful relationships with people of both Chinese and American culture. For some, being bilingual may mean being able to read, speak, write, and get PHD's in both tongues, for others it's being able to simply speak "market language". The best outcome I have seen of people raising bilingual children are instances where the mother and the father have a different dominant language. Jason and I both have dominant languages in English so it was an uphill battle to raise our kids in Chinese. If you are committed to raising bilingual children, there are certainly some quality resources out there to help you.

Language is only one aspect, though certainly a significant aspect, of culture. I grew up with lots of missionary children and some of them can speak Chinese fluently but very few of them embodied Chinese culture. And that's because their Western families were the primary influence in the formation of their worldview. With parents coming from two cultures, the challenge is to decide, hopefully together, what worldview and values to pass on to your child. Note some of these will be conscious decisions that you and your spouse discuss, but I think many of these are simply passed on subconsciously because of our unquestioned assumptions. These decisions range from material things such as food, clothing, routine (no sensible Chinese family puts their child to sleep anytime before 9:00), to the way you treat your parents, people in your community, etc. Sometimes I see the way my children behave and am astounded by how American they are. Those are the moments of disconnect for a Chinese Mom raising children with an American husband. Just the other day I was in tears to J, grieving that some of my favorite things to do (okay eat, I'm Chinese!!) when I was a little girl are not things my kids love. But I know we are giving them countless invaluable experiences by exposing them to the best and worst of both cultures. I also know, from deep personal experience, that it is not the easiest life journey. My prayers are they will learn at a young age, sometimes being uncomfortable is the path to treasured blessings.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Our Unique Bond #5

There are infinite number of scenarios that mark cross cultural marriages in relation to in laws that it seems a daunting task to pull any overarching themes together. You could have parents who supported your marriage, those who grew to support it, those who opposed, those whom you live down the block from, under the same roof, across the world, divorced parents, dysfunctional parents, etc. But I'm going to try. And I'm going to use my old friend Alliteration to help me.

R-edefine your idea of family. This is poignant between American and Chinese marriages like us. Simply because the definition of family differs so drastically between the two cultures. Generally, Chinese culture places stronger emphasis on the joining of two entire families when two single individuals choose to marry. What sort of model your marriage will adopt is something the couple will have to work out together. I know my American friend chose to live with her Chinese mother in law after they had their first child. J and I most likely will never find ourselves in that situation, ahem, by choice. Whatever ends up being characteristic of your marriage in your relationship with your spouse's family, it's not a bad idea to begin by recognizing some of your assumptions of what that picture might look like is not universal, and to be open-minded and humble enough to stretch the definition of family to accommodate your new family of another culture. This will not be a comfortable process, but again, the reward is there. All cultures supply solutions to society's problems differently, and you will be enlightened by some of those solutions which you never considered within your own culture. (Of course you will discover problems you never knew but let's stay positive, shall we?)

R-emember your families didn't choose to marry you into another culture (unless they did so through arranged marriages which would be subject for an entirely different sort of blog post as this particular one), so you can't expect them to make the effort to reach cross culturally as you did. It takes a lot of work to engage another culture. Your parents have their own lives, and yes ideally they would be the type of people who make that effort, but if they're not, you can't really blame them. J and I try, not very hard to be frank, to explain to our own parents why our spouse acts the way they do, and meet with blank stares. Both our parents have grown up in a very monocultural world without too much meaningful encounter of other cultures, it is sometimes too far of a stretch to get them to see from our perspective. And it is unfair because they don't live in close proximity with someone of another culture daily as we do. Perhaps lowering expectations in this area will improve life with in laws in a cross cultural context.

R-espect your parents/in laws. It's common courtesy, it's civil, it's Christian, it's filial piety, whatever you call it, just do it. Perhaps it's the Chinese part of me, but as a parent myself, I know firsthand the kind of unconditional love you have for your children, and it's important to respond in respect. And I believe doing so goes a long way in displaying respect for your spouse. The problem with being in a cross cultural marriage is respect is shown differently in each culture. My advice is to take cues from the local, ie., your spouse. For example: Chinese people generally only make a big deal of birthdays when you are a young kid, but I've learned acknowledging birthdays is a very meaningful event in my American family and try to adapt to that custom.

And by popular demand (okay 2 people suggested it), raising children up next.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Our Unique Bond #4

Culture shock is the pruning process. It's the Good Friday before Easter Sunday. It's the dark night before the dawn. It's the pain before the gain. But let me be clear on one thing: though culture shock is inevitably painful, it is not inevitable. We experience culture shock only if and when we actually desire to engage with another culture in a meaningful way. I personally know couples who marry cross culturally who don't make an effort to engage in their spouse's culture and I suspect they don't have culture shock issues in their marriage. Just as an expat can live in another culture and exist purely in an expat bubble without engaging local culture, they too, won't encounter culture shock issues.

And here I break the bad news to people considering cross culture marriages. Gulp. In my humble opinion, you WILL have to make sacrifices and be ready to lose aspects of your culture if you want to make your marriage work. And if you, as I did, decide being married to your man/woman, was worth those sacrifices, it doesn't mean you won't later on in your marriage miss and grieve those losses. There are parts of my Chinese self, that I can never fully share and relate, with J. Though I try with every effort throughout our marriage. I believe it is ultimately healthy for the relationship to recognize and come to accept this. If you find yourself in a cross cultural relationship, you will have to decide the things you value in your relationship is worth the cost. In my case, I saw a character I admired, a common vision for life, and a deep friendship that bonded us even despite cultural differences.

The problem is you can never fully discover everything about your significant other until after you've married and when those losses are experienced later on in marriage, that's when we come face to face with culture shock. J and I practically minored in cross cultural issues during seminary so we kind of have an advantage in dealing with culture issues in our marriage. On the other hand, we also chose to move to China, where we both had to encounter culture shock in addition to our own issues - that's the down side. I can give some specific examples of how to deal with culture shock, but my very private husband might object to me hanging out our dirty laundry (ahem, Americans value privacy). But here are some general principles that have helped us:

1) Listen. Culture conflict occur because we can't get past our own culture bound assumptions of reality. It is really difficult to understand something that you have never questioned in your life. But you love your man/woman, so listen and try your best to understand.

2) AFTER you've listened, explain your perspective. Sometimes what you know to be matter of fact isn't matter of fact at all to a person of another culture. J and I have had to explain some very basic things about our own culture to each other.

3) Talk using very specific terms. Avoid saying, "I am frustrated Americans do this.....", when what you want to say is, "when you did that, I felt hurt." Very often, it is because of our culture that we behave a certain way to hurt our spouse of another culture, but it's not helpful to point that out, it's much better to focus on the specific incident.

4) Allow your spouse time to ride through the waves of culture shock without taking it personally. When J would get frustrated with certain aspects of Chinese culture, I would take it so personally, as if he was frustrated with me. I've learned that it is normal and healthy for him to vent and cope in his time.

5) Some things are better left unsaid. It takes time to struggle with culture shock and to get to the end stage of total engagement and acceptance. During the phase, if you do feel tremendous frustration with your spouse's culture, refrain from expressing those frustrations with too much liberty to each other. Find another outlet, preferably someone else who can understand your frustrations. And once the emotions ride out, you can find a more peaceful way of communicating what you've experienced to your spouse.

Easier said than done. But it is worth doing. Please don't be the kind of couple who just is content with living life according to one spouse's culture. You are robbing yourself of the gift of being in a cross cultural marriage. J and I have learned so much about each other, and it has provided us with the invaluable skill of being able to encounter people who are very different from us with respect. And we hope to pass this on to our children to help them navigate themselves in our increasingly diverse yet interconnected world.

Shall I touch on in-law issues next? yikes.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Our Unique Bond #3

Preconceptions or assumptions of husband/wife roles is an issue even in mono cultural marriages because we are all shaped by the individual families we were raised in. In cross cultural marriages, those role perceptions are even more diverse. Esepecially the joining of two people from such a vastly different culture as Western and Chinese. Let me quickly highlight a few (please remember, as always in my blog posts about cross cultural issues, there's no right and wrong, just different!):

1) Chinese culture views the wife as marrying into the husband's family and are obligated to xiao shun (filial piety) the husband's parents. It is not uncommon for the wife to move into a home with the husband's family. Western culture defines family as the nuclear unit, once man and wife marry they form their individual family. (Just a sub note, Christian subculture in the West seems to me have deemed this nuclear unit model as the designated Biblical model, which is untrue, and is a subject for another post. I recommend Rodney Clapp's book "Families at the Crossroads" for a more detailed examination of the topic.)

2) Chinese culture takes a pragmatic approach to marriage - seeing it as a unit of society of which people belong to in order to better chances for economic prosperity and increase social standing. Westerners place a higher emphasis on romance and the pleasure of companionship in marriage.

3) The specific household division of chores (who brings in the cash, who does housework, who raise children, etc.) has morphed so much and is so varied in modern China (also between Taiwanese traditional culture and China's communist influences) that it's hard to find a clear distinction between Western and Chinese culture. Although, the cultural assumptions attached to spousal role definitions clearly impact a cross cultural marriage.

So what did it mean for J to be the American husband to his Chinese wife and vice versa? The short answer: we had no idea. And like all other young married couples, we stumbled along and slowly figured out what worked for us. And the result is to be expected: we came up with our own unconventional definitions of husband/wife roles. And therin lies another gem of being a cross cultural couple, we get to come up with our own ideas and chalk it up to our unique position. We decided to go to seminary together (which was quite unheard of, we were the rare couple at Fuller attending at the same time), and because of being equally educated, we were able to serve in ministry, work, and share our housework and child rearing responsibilities almost equally. This defied the models of both of our original families, but no one seems to question it, and I believe it is because we have made the unconventional decision to marry in the first place.

to be continued: dealing with culture shock in marriage

Monday, October 11, 2010

Our Unique Bond #2

I don't think there's a magical number of months that is appropriate for an engagement period. I think what matters more is the quality of that time spent preparing for marriage, rather than the quantity of time. For J and I, we dated in our senior year of college. Which meant, we were mentally checking out of school, we weren't working yet, and we lived on the same campus in adjacent apartments. Even though we dated for a short year, it was a pretty intensive block of time together. However, the number one best thing we did for our engagement period was for him to pack up his bags and move to Taiwan for six months (the longest time the visa situation would allow).

We all behave differently in different contexts. You don't act the same way with your peers as you do with older people or with young kids. Factor into this our cultural environment. One certainly does not act the same in a Chinese context as you would in a Western context unless one did not care for, or are ignorant of, any sort of social conventions. Needless to say Jason was in for a MAJOR shock when he encountered the Chinese me. Somehow, he still managed to get that ring out of his bag and propose as we entered this adventure of our intercultural marriage. During our time in Taiwan, he caught a glimpse of what it meant to be part of a Chinese family, how I behaved when I spoke Chinese and every other aspect of living life in a Chinese context. What was confirming for us that our relationship was headed in the right direction was that he saw a whole new part of me he didn't know before but continued to love and embrace that person. My friend Shannon (American), after spending time with her Chinese fiance in his home town, decided she loved him even more.

With all of my cultural identity issues with the complex background I had, there was no better way to begin my marriage than to have the rock solid belief that my husband has seen all sides of me and can love and appreciate who I was in every context. This anchored me through all kinds of cultural issues after we were married - whether I was rebelling against the Americanized aspects of me or feeling depressed over my lack of engagement in Mandarin, and trying to come to terms with all of this in my faith in Christ.

Next up: differing cultural perceptions of husband/wife roles.

Our unique bond #1

When I think of my marriage I can think of very few books that have helped me. There are no lack of marriage books on the market, it's just that there aren't many who speak to a bicultural girl married to a white guy who felt called to China. You don't find tips for my American girlfriend who lives with her Chinese mother in law on their way to adopting Ethiopian child. Who can give advice to my recently married friends (Chinese/American) who are moving to study in the US? Each marriage is unique. My marriage (and those described above) are very unique.

I'm back from vacation with my in laws and spending time with my American family always disorients me as the stark differences between my upbringing and my husband's are magnified. I found myself pondering, "wow, how did we work?" So here I am, inspired to write and share some thoughts on how we've managed to be married, going on almost ten strong years. Hope it is helpful to some of you out there who may be considering an intercultural marriage. You know who you are.

First of all, I'm a firm believer that culture is all encompassing. I remember intense debates in our Anthropology class about whether faith supersedes culture with absolute truth or is even faith in Christ passed down to us within a particular context. I hold the latter position which leads me to believe every fiber of our being is colored by the culture we are raised in. J, in small town America, and me, well, that's complicated, suffice it to say I am bicultural. The longer J and I have been married, the more we discover those cultural differences surfacing, from managing a household to raising the kids (that's a biggie). Tackling these difference in our marriages have been a beast. Try defending the very core value of what you have always believed to be true to the person you consider the most intimate person in your life. There is much pain in the process, but so much to be gained. To understand your husband more deeply and appreciate the culture which made him the way he is; to turn towards the beauty of your own culture seen in a different light and knowing your children have the privilege of encountering both is the precious gift our amazing Creator gives to us intercultural marrieds.

Stay tuned for the next post: how we prepared for our marriage.