Tag Archives: cross-cultural marriage

How a Bearded Barbarian Won Over His Japanese Mother-In-Law

momkisstim

We were resolute but worried. After an eight-month courtship, I had finally popped the question to my Japanese girlfriend. She accepted, and with that, we were committed to tying the knot come hell or high water. But we still had to break the news to her parents. We were cautiously optimistic they wouldn’t try to stop us, but we had concerns. Mostly about dad.

Her parents had met me six months earlier, when my girlfriend decided—against my better judgement—that it was time to ease me into the family fold. It’s worth noting here that I am three years younger than my wife, so at the time she viewed me—somewhat condescendingly—like the little brother she never had, a formidable barrier in getting her to consider me as a serious suitor.  But alas, I was too in love to be deterred, so was more than willing to overlook a little condescension. Like an obedient little brother, I did what I was told. It was time to meet the parents.

When girlfriend called her parents to let them know she was bringing home a guest, she referred to me ambiguously as otoko no ko, which literally means “a young boy,” even though I was 24 years old at the time. Hilarity would ensue, although it wasn’t funny at the time.

Honorable girlfriend was a teacher by profession. I would later find out that Japanese mom and dad were half expecting their daughter’s mysterious guest to be a young student of elementary-school age. And they were half right: I was a student, in my 3rd year at International Christian University. Unfortunately, I was also an idiot, a fact bolstered by my lack of proper grooming. Think wild, disheveled hair, scruffy beard, and sloppy loose-fitting clothes that could easily be mistaken for pajamas. My heart was in the right place, but I lacked the wherewithal to dress the part. I would find out later after we left that day, that intense debate ensued within the family on whether I looked more like Jesus or Socrates.

Now try to imagine the look on Japanese mom’s face when she greeted us at the front door. The scene is still vivid in my memory even after 36 years: door opens, mom looks downward expecting to see a little kid, her eyes track upward until she stops abruptly at my unshaven mug and curly, wild hair. Normally a stoic, pokerfaced woman, she couldn’t hide her disdain. It was obvious even to common-senseless me that I’d blown my one and only chance to make a good first impression. Here’s what I looked like:

wildtim
Bearded barbarian in his pajamas.

Dad’s reaction was tougher to read. I had no clue what he was thinking, which was, in a weird way, more disturbing than knowing for certain that he disapproved. The only saving grace at the time was that neither mom nor dad knew the nature of my relationship with their daughter. To them, I was just a “friend,” albeit a barbarian friend who didn’t have the good sense to change out of his pajamas.

Fast forward six months, back to our impending engagement announcement. In retrospect, why we were more concerned about dad than mom is beyond me. Maybe it’s because we knew his approval carried more weight. Or that we overestimated mom’s tolerance for foreigners. Whatever we were thinking, they both threw us a curve ball. Here’s how it unfolded.

Girlfriend phoned home to break the news. Dad answered because mom was out and about. A straight-shooter by nature, my wife-to-be didn’t mince words:

“Dad, remember that foreigner I brought home about half a year ago?”

“You mean the guy wearing pajamas who looks like Jesus?”

“Yes, that’s him.”

“What about him?”

“We’re getting married.”

“Oh, that’s good. Anything else?”

“No that’s it. Could you let mom know?”

“Sure.”

Click.

Girlfriend was stunned. Bearded barbarian was equally stunned. Dad didn’t object! And suddenly we were hopeful. That is, until half an hour later when mom called back in a tizzy.

“You’re going to marry that hairy foreigner who looks like Socrates?

“Dad said he looks like Jesus.”

“Well I still don’t approve!”

“Dad didn’t object.”

Pregnant pause.

“Are you sure about this? Don’t you know that all foreigners get divorced?”

“They don’t all get divorced. You worry too much.”

“How will you communicate?”

“He speaks Japanese, mom, remember?”

“But he’s going to take you back to America, and I’ll never see you again!”

“No, he wants to live in Japan forever.”

“But what does his family think?”

“They are fine with it.”

<Sigh>

Then just for fun, my fiancé dropped another bombshell.

“Oh, and before we get married, we’ve decided to live together for half a year, just to see how it goes before we make it official.”

Needless to say, fireworks ensued and it wasn’t pretty. But my fiancé held firm.

We would later learn that dad put the kibosh on mom’s objections when he told her, “If I had listened to my parents, I’d have never married you. Our daughter is a grown woman, we raised her to make good decisions. We have to trust her, and let her live her own life.”

And that’s when we realized just how cool Japanese dad was.

On the other hand, it took a big adjustment to my grooming standards—not to mention help from a trusted friend—to move the needle with mom. My Japanese guarantor, a well-respected researcher with a steady job and doctorate degree from a highly respected school (Kyushu University), was kind enough to drive out to the homestead to assure mom that, despite my appearance to the contrary, I wasn’t the devil. By then my friend had already met my parents, and understood that I came from “good stock” (or so he thought). His ringing endorsement went a long way in mitigating the situation, as Japanese mom quickly went from “absolutely not,” to “grudging acceptance.” Not optimal, but it was a start.

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Newly clean-shaven me tickling wife-to-be, while honorable guarantor attempts to crack a smile. Japanese mom is on the right, looking somewhat reassured.

The following year we officially tied the knot. I buckled down on my Japanese studies, graduated from college, cut my hair, became gainfully employed, and even upped the ante a year later by producing (with some help from my wife) a grandson for my in-laws, making it virtually impossible for mom to withdraw her support, however grudging it was. The only glitch occurred when I was offered, and accepted, a job with a Japanese automotive parts supplier committed to building a new factory in America’s Deep South. This was a career-altering opportunity, a two-year stint that my wife enthusiastically supported, which means we had to break that little promise about me living in Japan forever.

yamakawa
The (re)bearded barbarian trying to fit in with the Tennessee locals.

Well, that two-year stint turned into a thirty-three-year stay in the U.S. So we didn’t just break that promise, we blew it to smithereens. As penance, we gave Japanese mom another grandchild, which compelled her and Japanese dad to come for a visit. After meeting their second grandson and a face-to-face with my parents, there was no turning back. Mom was now firmly trapped in “grudging-resignation” mode.

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The in-laws finally meet. Cross-cultural awkwardness ensued.

From that fateful day thirty-six years ago when my wife brought me home to meet the parents, winning over mom has been like turning a battleship around in the water. Four years ago during a Japan visit, mom finally came clean about her strong opposition to our union. (I didn’t have the heart to tell her I’d been privy to this all along.) Most impressive was that she openly admitted she’d been “wrong” to oppose our marriage, that she could see how happy her daughter was, and that she was genuinely glad we had gotten married. And yes, her precious grandchildren had a lot to do with it too. But she still likes to remind me how pathetic I looked the first time we met, and we laugh and laugh. Still, words can’t express how good it felt to officially win her approval, and how much respect I have for her ability to reflect, transcend her prejudices, and admit to me she was wrong.

And today we’re as thick as thieves.

timkissmom
Older barbarian delivering an unexpected kiss.

After thirty-three years in the U.S. we’ve come full circle. Sadly, Japanese dad passed on three years ago, so mom now lives alone. We are in the process of moving back to Japan permanently to care for mom in her old age.

I’ve spent my 40-year career helping Japanese and non-Japanese connect in the workplace, often going into hostile environments to defuse explosive situations with the goal of coaxing clients into “kissing and making-up,” so to speak. And yet I consider the relationship I’ve built with Japanese mom to be my ultimate cross-cultural accomplishment. If I can bridge a culture gap on this scale—further compounded by the poor judgement of my reckless youth—then I can bridge just about anything.

And here I am today, back in Japan, a cross-cultural business consultant looking for new challenges. Can’t wait to hit the ground running.

Yoroshiku onegai shimasu.

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Married to an Alien: Can Love Conquer Culture?

TimKurKids

“Do you do marriage counseling?”

Her question came out of left field. I had just wrapped up a half-day seminar at a client’s on cultural differences between Japanese and Americans in the workplace, and now the only Japanese person in the class was asking me privately to offer counsel to her American husband. I laughed but she was dead serious. “My husband really needs this training.”

I never did pursue a marriage-counseling career, but our brief encounter got me wondering, Could I do it? At the risk of offending all the capable, professionally certified cross-cultural marriage counselors in the world, I think I could, certainly when Japanese and Americans were involved. Add my Japanese wife to the mix and our complementary skills would be ideally suited for such a calling.

Our credentials aren’t from academia, but we don’t play according to Hoyle anyway. We’re both college graduates, albeit with no formal training in psychology or counseling, no Doctorates, don’t even have a wretched Masters degree between us. But here’s what we’ve got: we know each other’s cultures intimately; we’ve been happily married for thirty years; we lived in each other’s countries, speak each other’s languages, ask good questions and listen. And if that’s not enough, we’re entertaining as hell. Did I mention we live in Hawaii? All we need are some clients now and we’re good to go.

Cross-Cultural Blues

My fantasy gig aside, it’s not like there isn’t a need to be filled here. Haven’t been able to track down any statistics on cross-cultural divorce rates, but a quick google search shows that cross-cultural marriage counselors actually do exist, evidence the need is there.

And it makes perfect sense. In our dynamic global world, more and more people are venturing abroad, leading to more people tying cross-cultural knots, leading to more cross-cultural knots needing to be untangled, sometimes even cut loose.

Let’s face it, marriage between people of the same culture is tough enough. Throw in a language barrier and a muddy cultural minefield littered with hidden value differences, and things get infinitely more complicated.

Sadly we know of too many broken marriages between Japanese and American couples. Just how many could’ve been saved with the right knowledge and guidance is anyone’s guess. Admittedly some couples should never have gotten married in the first place. But armed with the right knowledge, an emotionally mature, open-minded couple from different cultures has a good shot at creating a lasting partnership. But they’d have to go into it with open eyes and open hearts. It helps to have a sense of humor too.

What Couples Fight About

Amazing the silly stuff married couples fight about. An international couple gets all that and a bag of chips: she eats stinky fermented beans for breakfast, he wants an Egg McMuffin; he married for romantic love, she’s in it for a steady homemaking gig; he’s an old-school disciplinarian, her parents spoil the kids rotten; English is her second language, he speaks English only and struggles enough with that; he thinks she understands everything he says, she understands only half; he loves a feisty debate, she nods her head to keep the peace—especially when she disagrees; he likes to playfully tease, she thinks he’s being mean; his parents are loud and judgmental, hers zing you with a passive-aggressive smile.

And this just scratches the surface. Throw in the crazy idiosyncrasies we all have, the potential fallout from religious differences, not to mention different cultural attitudes toward sex, money and rock-n-roll, and you’ve got a murky brew of marital juices to stew in.

Check Your Identity at the Border

On a heavier note, some folks living in their spouse’s homeland report “loss of personal identity.” Defining exactly what this means is a can of worms we won’t open today. For the sake of this discussion, reflect on how you might answer these questions:

Do you see yourself as an independent entity or fraction of society? Are you ranked in a pecking order or is everyone equal?

How does your culture expect you to behave? Is open debate the norm? Or is feigned agreement encouraged in the name of harmony?

Are male and female roles clearly defined in your spouse’s country? Are females expected to show deference? If you’re a woman, how would you choose to deal with that reality?

And what about self worth? Is it measured by “self-actualization”? Accumulation of money? Status? Approval by the collective? Motherhood? Fatherhood? Career? Other?

And finally, how do you tell right from wrong? Is it always good to tell the truth? Are polite lies expected and encouraged in the name of social harmony? Does the “real you” fight for that seat on the train, or offer it to an elderly lady?

The list goes on but you get the gist. It shouldn’t surprise that lonely spouses living abroad—regardless of gender–might feel a loss of identity. It’s not a stretch to imagine a strong, independent female from a Western country being thrust into a male-dominated culture and feeling smothered. Or the other way–a traditional Asian woman going West.

I was in a different situation and felt anything but smothered. Japan was liberating for me. And yet, over the course of ten years I wrestled with my own kind of identity issues, specifically, the challenge of sorting out which part of me was American, which part had taken on Japanese-like qualities, and which part was just me. It took an eventual move back to the motherland to “rediscover” myself. What I learned was that I never “lost” anything, certainly not my identity. What happened was my identity had expanded with the infusion of Japanese culture into my life. No regrets. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.

Ignorance, the Silent Killer

The most dangerous scenario in the artful dance of communication happens when both partners assume they are communicating when in fact they are not. This scenario naturally begets confusion. One symptom is the tendency of one or both parties to assign bad intentions to the other party, even when everyone’s heart is in the right place. It happens more than you think. A great example is how Japanese, who haven’t mastered the finer nuances of English, might respond to a negatively stated question such as, “Don’t you love me?”

The Japanese partner, intending to say “Yes I love you,” might respond with “no,” meaning, “No, it’s not true that I do not love you.” Conversely, a Japanese partner, intending to say “No I do NOT love you,” might respond with “yes,” meaning, “Yes that’s correct, I don’t love you.” How about that for getting your signals crossed?

Now imagine all the drama such a misunderstanding could create, and multiply it by all the other unforeseen language and culture gaps that camouflage our good intentions.

Such misunderstandings quickly escalate, and before you know it spouses are sparring—over something they may actually agree on. False perceptions define their reality, and love gets lost in the confusion.

And this really underscores the power of cross-cultural knowledge in international marriages. Only by bringing hidden differences to the surface can they be acknowledged, reflected on, and worked out. Without awareness of these differences, problems not only don’t get solved, they proliferate and fester.

Can Love Conquer Culture?

It might get you through the honeymoon stage, I’ll grant you that. But over time misunderstandings and false perceptions can sour even the sweetest love. When the honeymoon’s over, you either roll up your sleeves and start working at your marriage, or get pulled into a downward spiral fueled by mutual ignorance. We all know where that ends up.

To our credit and good fortune, my wife and I spent a lot of time talking in the courting stage. It helps that neither of us is shy, that we were willing to put in the time and effort to communicate, and that I had already lived in my wife’s country for seven years and had a good grasp of her language and culture. With that backdrop, here’s what was rolling around in my head before I popped the question.

What does “marriage” really mean in Japan versus my culture? Is love part of the deal? What roles would a married international couple assume? Would she be willing to marry me as an equal partner? Or would I have to be subservient!?

What are the positives of our respective cultures? What’s important to her? What’s important to me? Could she learn to love Egg McMuffins? Could I learn to eat smelly fermented beans for breakfast?

Where would we live? Do we both want kids? How many? How would we raise them? Would they speak one language or both? Would we indulge them or use tough-love? And what if we fail and they turn out like me?

What do we expect of ourselves and each other? What are the boundaries of trust? How to show respect? How to show affection? How to disagree? How to resolve disputes? Would I have to sleep on the couch sometimes? If so, will the couch be comfortable?

It all looks so neat and tidy when it’s written down like that. The reality is our conversations were unstructured, messy, a lot messier when we were drinking wine. But we made the time to talk, to share with each other how we had been raised, nurtured, disciplined, how our parents related to each other, and how it turned us into the confused young adults that we were…okay, that I was.

But even with thirty years of marital bliss under my belt, can’t help but think that some guidance and structured conversations would’ve prevented a couple wheels from being reinvented. If I could go back in time and counsel my young bachelor self, here’s what I’d say to me:

When you tease her she thinks you’re being mean. She’ll never get your American-guy sarcastic sense of humor so back off on the teasing.

Don’t let her do the dishes, she hates it and sucks at it. (I recently fired my wife from the dish-washing duties and reassigned them to yours truly. Had I known then how happy this would make her, I’d have done it thirty years ago.)

Read “The Anatomy of Peace” by Arbinger Group!” (The book wasn’t published until 2006 so I’d have to smuggle it into the time machine. But had I read it thirty years ago, there’s no doubt in my mind that I’d have been a better husband and father.)

And if my Japanese wife could go back in time and counsel her young single self on marrying a foreign barbarian, what advice would she give?

Sign up for our Intercultural Marriage Retreat in Hawaii and we’ll talk about it. 😉

For more on cross-cultural marriages check out Samurai Wife: The Myth About Subservient Japanese Women

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2013