I’ll never forget the day I met my husband’s grandmother because it required my first formal bow. This was no polite curtsy. We’re talking full on kneel-to-the-ground reverential bow.
My husband is Korean-American, I’m caucasian. Even though we both grew up in the Midwest and met at the same school, it dawned on me in that moment that I’d married into this culture and we were now family.
It dawned on me in that moment that I’d married into this culture and we were now family.
Given our recent, increased focus on diversity, intermarriages are on the steady incline. According to the Pew Research Center, 39% of adults believe interracial marriage is beneficial to society, a decent jump since the early 1990s. This means lots of new marriages are navigating new cultural dynamics on top of all the personal differences we bring into relationships. While it can be a challenge, it’s totally worth it.
Here are some lessons I’ve learned along the way of navigating cultural differences in an interracial marriage:
Curiosity is our friend.
During new experiences, we tend to compare what we don’t understand. Lay aside what feels comfortable for curiosity. Find what’s interesting or beautiful about your spouse’s culture, food and art. Let’s remind ourselves that it’s a gift to see the world from another person’s perspective. Who knows? We might even enjoy it.
It’s a gift to see the world from another person’s perspective.
In Korea, my husband spoke on my behalf most of the time because of the language barrier. Talk about a serious trust-building exercise! The silver lining: We learned to read non-verbal cues or body language. What we say and what we feel can be totally different so learning how to read these cues can help us reconnect when we feel stuck. Another way to deepen your connection by is setting aside time during the week to touch base, problem-solve and dream together. It’s even more productive when snacks are involved.
Find your common ground.
My husband and I were raised with different values. Western culture prioritizes individualism; Eastern culture prioritizes unity. Differences aren’t bad, but when they’re the focus, conflict comes easily.
Differences aren’t bad, but when they’re the focus, conflict comes easily.
Remind yourselves what you both love to enjoy together. Game nights, road trips, Thai food, bubble baths, beach days—find a shared interest and plan a date around it. Remember his traits and values that made you squeal “Yes!!” when he popped the question. Some days will be hard and you’ll need a reminder that love is worth every compromise because it totally is.
Family is important.
Every household has its own rules of engagement. Take your time getting to know new people. Give others the benefit of the doubt and resist people-pleasing, especially when others share their (unsolicited) opinions.
Money, family planning, education, gender roles and religion can be sensitive topics. This is especially true if there’s a cultural gap. Find solutions together. Remember: you’re building a home with your spouse, not his entire family.
Be an advocate.
In light of the recent attacks against the Asian American community, this could not be more timely. I’ll never forget when my husband shared some feelings about being Korean American in today’s climate, and I made it about me.
Immediately, I was filled with deep conviction. That day, I promised to advocate for him and make space for his experience. A few ways to advocate for someone you care about are to listen with compassion and give them your full attention. Ask questions: How are you feeling? How can I support you? Educate yourself about their culture and history.
After three adventurous (and crazy) months in Korea as newlyweds, which I don’t recommend but we survived, it was our time to go home. Before leaving, my grandmother-in-law showed me a beautiful heirloom. I asked if it was real, and she replied in Korean, “jinjja.”
“’Jinjja’ means real, authentic,” my mother-in-law explained.
Authentic is one of my favorite words. It is a word that I use frequently to describe myself. Since the very first bow, I’d felt like an outsider for most of our trip. However, at this moment, I saw an invitation to be a part of the family. Recognizing her attempt to connect with me by showing the heirloom, I asked if she would consider giving jinjja to me as a nickname.
“Jinjja?” she asked. With raised eyebrows, she studied me as if she was looking through me. Her face softened to a smile, and with warm nod of approval, she said, “Jinjja.”
In marriage, no matter where we’re from, we can all be jinjja. We can bring our full, authentic selves to the table. We can trust that two real people with real differences can become one powerful, vibrant source of love in our communities and families. Eventually, we can make space for the next generation of marriages to come and sit alongside us.