Lessons from a 20-year cross-cultural marriage
By Ronald Pratt
Wow! Twenty years married to my lovely wife, Sharon. How can time go by so fast? I look back and see how God led me to a wonderful human being and also gave me the opportunity to take in a fantastic culture and language and make it my own. How does a joining of cultures affect a marriage relationship? Not much, at least not in the long run.
A cross-cultural marriage is good for quite a few laughs, different kinds of foods and countless rich experiences. But a marriage will stand or fall independent of these things. I hope my account of how a loving God seeks to break barriers and bless his people will encourage you in your relationships.
I met Sharon in 1987 while finishing two years of language school in Dalian, northeast China in preparation to begin graduate studies in China. She was studying English in the nearby coal mining town of Fu-xin, and her teacher was a member of our small Youth With A Mission team. When I finished language school, I moved to Fu-xin to begin graduate school. I “popped the question” in the fall of 1989, shortly after the Tian An Men upheaval. We were married in June 1990 in a precious wedding ceremony in Fu-xin.
When people see us, they certainly notice our different racial features. I get stared at in China as though I am some kind of space creature. More than once I created a pileup of bicycles as people were watching me instead of the road. Similarly, when we were in Sweden locating remote ancestral villages on my side of the family, people and children looked at Sharon and totally ignored me. I dropped a few yards behind and stared at her too. What a dear opportunity to turn the tables!
God’s beauty is revealed in the different races and so is his sense of humor. If Sharon and I were the same race, we would have had to forgo a lot of fun. When Western people see Asian people, they most likely notice their “oriental” eyes. When Asian people see Westerners, they primarily see a huge nose and a body covered with hair. In fact, one of the more complimentary epithets Chinese have for Westerners is “Da Bi Zi” or “Big Nose.”
Soon after marriage, Sharon and I had an ongoing debate for months on whether foreigners (what Chinese call all Westerners) really do have larger noses. My argument was that a nose is a nose, and they all serve the same purpose. So maybe my nose is higher than hers, but it certainly isn’t as wide. Overall, I argued, noses must be the same size. We settled the matter by placing pieces of string on our noses and measuring the string from left bulb of nose to right. I lost the bet. Foreigners do have big noses.
An ear full of differences
We also discovered our ears are different. My ears get a waxy goo inside. Sharon’s ears, however, periodically shed flakes of dried skin, a little like a snake. We discovered this fascinating bit of trivia many years ago, and it was heartening to come across the results of a research study many years later that concluded there is in fact a gene which controls this. Most Chinese and other East Asians are of the flakey variety and most foreigners are of the gooey kind. Doesn’t God have a sense of humor?
People, both in the U.S. and in China, often ask us if we encounter any racial prejudice. We can honestly answer no. Not a bit. Not in either country. However, there are certain realities. Due to historical differences in our two nations, I can never be Chinese to the extent Sharon can be American. I will never be accepted as a Chinese. I can only be “Chinesey.” And boy, do I love being Chinesey. Sharon, however, is fully accepted as an American because she is an American.
We do encounter some amusing commentary. While visiting a zoo in Malaysia, a loose monkey was running around. For some reason the monkey took a particular liking to me and would cling to my leg. My mother-in-law jokingly remarked it was because I am closer to the monkey on the evolutionary scale, so it regarded me as an equal.
In Denver, my mother earnestly remarked to Sharon that her Chinese friends would regard her more highly because she gets to be with us white people. But I don’t call this prejudice. It’s quirky; it’s funny. Both of our mothers’ hearts are good as gold, and we love them dearly. Chinese people often tell me as a compliment that I am an egg: white on the outside, yellow on the inside. I am honored.
Of more significance than race is culture. Racial stuff is literally skin deep, but culture penetrates a lot deeper. The Chinese name for China is “Central Kingdom.” This idea pervades the hearts and minds of nearly all Chinese. There are two kinds of people in their eyes, Chinese on the inside and foreigners (aka barbarians) on the outside.
For example, in our Chinese church, non-Chinese churches are often referred to as “Wai Guo Jiao Hui” or foreign (literally outside) churches. Chinese, even those living in America and having U.S. citizenship, call non-Chinese Americans “foreigners.” When I am speaking Chinese, I do it too. It is just natural. It’s the way things are.
Our marriage requires that we embrace each other’s cultures. This adds a wonderful dimension to our lives; you might call it a bonus. I believe an important achievement for us has been holding onto our own cultures while fully embracing the other. Our home is a pleasing combination of Chinese paintings, bottles unearthed at Colorado ghost towns, Chinese Cultural Revolution memorabilia, ancient Chinese coins and American architectural salvage. Our DVD collection includes Chinese dance, Peking opera, Chinese regional opera, M*A*S*H, Dennis the Menace and Prince Planet. We enjoy our own cultures and we enjoy each other’s. Sharon enjoys listening to Celtic Women while I peruse my Chinese stamp collection. We are each doubly blessed.
Sadly, I have seen situations where the cultural aspects have doomed a marriage or romantic relationship. There are potential pitfalls in every cross-cultural marriage.
In some marriage relationships one or both spouses refuse to learn the language or learn about or become familiar with the other’s culture. You get the person—you get the culture. It’s a package deal. If you reject the other’s culture, you are ultimately rejecting an important part of that person, and I would predict the marriage relationship to be wobbly at best.
Another difficulty is when one or both individuals want to fully take on the other’s culture and “go native.” I call this “two ships passing in the night.” It often occurs in China between foreign students and their Chinese classmates. The former have visions of a live-in language teacher, China residence visa and the perfect opportunity to be fully immersed in the Chinese culture. The latter has visions of leaving China, studying abroad, getting a high-paying job, etc. The two are initially drawn to each other as magnets, but later on they begin to repel each other as each seems to hold the other back.
Social class realities
An even more potentially sensitive issue than culture is social class, especially when the in-laws come into the picture. We Americans like to pretend social class is nonexistent or of no importance. But like it or not, this issue can rear its ugly head.
Social class has not been an issue for Sharon and me. Our parents are very conservative, patriotic, hardworking, monolingual and have used education to establish comfortable lives for themselves and their families. Each has two children for a grand total of three engineers and one accountant. The WWII veteran met the card-carrying Communist Party member and each knew he could trust the other with his child. Our marriage has not involved cutting across any social class boundaries.
Who we really are
All these issues are only a veneer that quickly rubs off of a marriage as years pile up. What endures is who we really are as human beings. Early in our marriage we took the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI) test. I tested INTP and Sharon tested ISTJ. That means I am somewhat of an abstract thinker, fairly introverted and like things open and unplanned. Sharon is also quite introverted, but more practical and “down to earth” and prefers things more planned and structured.
This has helped us to see each other as unique individuals, and when one of us finds the other acting “crazy” or “having a weird sense of priorities,” it never has anything to do with culture or race. The peculiarity can be attributed to our different personalities and is usually predictable behavior in light of our personality types. It is our God-given personalities that really make us different from each other.
In order of importance, I have reflected on racial differences, differences of culture, differences of social class and finally, personality. Above all of this, the ultimate glue that holds us together is being one in Christ.
All cultures have their strong and weak points, and these cultural weaknesses can work together and steal the joy and wreak havoc on a cross-cultural marriage. The whole thing works when both of us are continually being conformed to Christ. His Spirit unites us and works within us so we may yield his fruits: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). I close with Malachi 2:10, “Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us?”
Ronald Pratt is program director for the Applied Mathematics program at Fresno Pacific University in Fresno, Calif. His wife, Sharon, works as a Transportation Engineer for the California Transportation Department. They are active members of Fresno Chinese Gospel Church and frequently travel to China.
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