Marrying a Family

There is a saying out there that says something to the effect of “you don’t just marry an individual, you marry a family.” In my case, I feel like I married a country. At any rate, I’m going to go ahead and assume that I’m not the only one who felt a little out of place with my new tribe.

First off, the sheer number of this new clan was devastatingly intimidating. I didn’t take me long to realize that a family get-together included my mother-in-law’s eight siblings plus their children and grandchildren. I kept confusing Uncle Dagoberto with Uncle Rigoberto and couldn’t remember if I’d already talked to Aunt Eda or if that was actually Aunt Nidia … or wait? Second, I was still speaking three year old (or worse) equivalent Spanish when we got married. Very few people speak English in Al’s family, so I had to prove how cool I was while speaking toddler. Most of them would just stare at me … probably because I was a hot mess. Speaking so much Spanish would give me shaky hands and sweaty everything else.

I guess I assumed that I would seamlessly slip right into the family because I’m generally comfortable in new social situations. The difference with this situation, however, was that I married these people and we didn’t understand each other at all. As I’m typing this, I am asking my mother-in-law (who is here playing with my daughter so I can write and clean the house, bless her) what the hardest part of me becoming part of the family was for her. Here were her top 4 (and I think she could have thought of more but she had mercifully stopped after the overarching statement “your way of life”):

  1.      Language: She said the language was hard because “they had no idea if I could understand anything they were saying.” I thought that they knew I could understand because I would answer their questions, but apparently I was wrong. I remember on two separate occasions my suegra showed up with preschool level books and tried to get me to repeat the most basic Spanish verbs because my accent was bad. Shot to the heart.
  2.      Food: She said that they didn’t know what to offer me or feed me because I was from a different culture. Valid, but I will generally eat anything that isn’t still moving, so I had no idea this was a concern of theirs.
  3.      Physical touch: They love to greet each other with a kiss and they are very touchy. They weren’t sure I wanted them to touch me. I can handle the fake kiss on the cheek when greeting, but I guess they were afraid to go further than that?
  4.      My way of life: She said I did a lot of different things and they didn’t understand. I’m not going to elaborate because that one definitely goes both ways; basically, they thought I was a weirdo whenever I did anything.

Okay, so being the only white girl in the family was challenging and still is at times. For a while, I tried SO HARD to just become one of them, which made me feel like a wanna-be imposter in Costa Rica and a dirty cheater on my beloved ‘Merican heritage. I had a minor identity crisis. I finally realized that no matter how hard I tried, I was always going to be really tall (almost 6 feet, which is like a foot taller than most Costa Ricans), really white (no matter how much I tanned), and really loud (my whisper voice is basically non-existent). I finally swallowed the fact that while I could improve my pronunciation, my accent was permanent because I didn’t learn Spanish as a kid.  I stopped trying to impress them with my Costa Rican cuisine expertise and made them gringo delicacies like Thanksgiving stuffing, zucchini bread, and all things pumpkin. It’s just now setting in that I can go around and kiss everyone when I enter the room, but also that they understand not to be offended if I do just a general “hola” addressed to all. In short, once I got over myself and my insecurities of feeling like I needed to fit in, everyone got a lot more comfortable.

Now that we have almost four years under our belts and my Latino family is used to me being tall, loud, white, and weird, I am finally myself (well, I try to be). I listen to the opinions they have (Oh, and do they have them. Especially about my daughter :-/), I respect their customs, and I embrace the parts of their culture that I love. It’s also okay that I’m my own person and bring my opinions, customs, and culture to the family as well.

These past few months I’ve been working hard to acknowledge Albin’s family as “my family” instead of me always referring to them as “Albin’s family.” Does that make sense? Because it’s not “my family” or “Albin’s family” anymore. It’s our family. That clan of Latinos that think my accent sucks is my family. That big white wave of gringos that can’t say Albin’s last name correctly is his family. It’s become our family and we love the madness that comes from our cultural collision.

Albin's gma, mom, and me. I'm leaning, but I'm still giant.

Albin’s gma, mom, and me. I’m leaning, but I’m still giant.

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What If I Married the Wrong Person?

What if I marry (or married) the wrong person? Is there one perfect soulmate out there for everyone?

Those questions seems to resurface all the time and I’ve always wondered lost sleep over them. I mean, that is a whole lot of pressure. You have to find that one perfect man out of the 3 billion(ish) on the planet? What if I make a mistake? Does that mess up the whole order of perfect soulmates because I married someone else’s perfect mate and now they’re endlessly wandering the earth trying to find someone that’s already taken? And if I do make a mistake and I don’t believe divorce is an option, am I just stuck with the wrong person till death do us part? Thinking about how I could be miserably mistaken my whole life or about how I could possibly screw up the arranged order of the perfect soulmates of the world is enough to give me an ulcer.

I’m pretty sure I did almost get an ulcer early on in our marriage because there was a small part of me that wondered if Albin was really the one for me. It was terrifying. If you’ve read any of my other posts, you know we had a rough start, but apart from all that, I felt like he didn’t even know me. Like didn’t know what really made me tick. I assumed that if we truly were soulmates, he would just “get” me. He would understand what I needed and it wouldn’t require me spelling out everything. He would always make me laugh, he would understand all my vague comments, and anticipate my needs. Basically, he just needed to be a mind-reader because “happy wife, happy life” … right?

Wrong. Painfully wrong.

Not only did I find myself feeling misunderstood and lonely, I found myself with a husband who was frustrated because he couldn’t make me happy. I had no idea what was going through his mind and that frustrated me as well. I had an illusion that we would always be on the same wavelength and when that bubble was burst, I started to question whether we were right for one another. Some of it was selfishness (like the hope that he would anticipate my every need, bahh), some of it was an expectation that we would naturally be interested in the same things (like… where to go out for dinner), and some of it was just our deep-down desire to know and be known. As we’ve worked through these things, we’ve had a big breakthrough: truly becoming “soulmates” takes time, effort and practice.

It’s finally sinking in that we have to work hard to be soulmates. We have to put in some effort to learn what makes our spouse “tick.” We literally have to practice being the right person for our spouse. It’s all about being intentional. I’ll be sincere and admit that being intentional isn’t necessarily my forte. Being intentional requires effort, forethought and selflessness. It requires me putting myself aside and choosing to do something that doesn’t necessarily appeal to me like it does to him. It requires him to ask me if I want to talk about something even if he’s tired and has no desire to open that can of worms. It requires both of us to be interested (or at least try to be) in what gets the other person excited.

The problem is that it’s so much easier to think about how my needs aren’t being met. It’s far simpler to sit and lament our differences than it is to surrender our will and actively pursue a compromise. It is so much easier to sit around and think about what Albin doesn’t do for me or how he doesn’t “get me” than it is to flip it around and think about what I can do for him or how I can engage him more fully so that he feels fully known.

For example, discussing politics doesn’t appeal to me and I usually avoid political conversations at all costs. Albin, however, loves getting into a good political debate. For years, I’ve literally blown him off every time he tried to start a conversation about politics. Basically, it would go like this:

Albin: What is your opinion about [insert current issue]?

Me: I don’t know, maybe [insert quick generic answer].

Albin (silently waiting for me to return the question, which doesn’t come because I’m avoiding the conversation): Well, I’m not sure I agree.

Me: Okay. What do you want for dinner? [End of conversation.]

Rude, I know. I’m a slow learner, but almost four years into this, I’m realizing that Albin gets some sort of intellectual satisfaction from hashing out a political topic. If that’s something that he is interested in, why do I have to be a jerk change the subject? Is it really that hard for me to ask him what his opinion of the topic is and (heaven forbid) actually listen to his rationale? He listens to me spout unimportant crap all day and doesn’t blow me off. So, I’ve tried to be intentional and engage in a conversation that interests him. Maybe a little effort on my part makes him feel like he has a partner that values his opinion and with whom he has an intellectual connection. If that’s the case, me taking five minutes out of my day to debate about the government is worth it. Believe it or not, I actually enjoy these conversations now because he gets me thinking about current events and things in the government that I actually should be pondering.

An example for me would be something that Albin did recently. Playing games is one of my love languages and something that I associated with family. I love to play games, specifically Nerts. Albin will play games, but it’s not something that satisfies some deep inner need of his, and plus I think he hated Nerts for a long time because I may or may not go overboard and get too intense when I play. Anyway, it really bothered me that he never wanted to play games with me. It was like pulling teeth. Like how hard was it to sit down a play a few games of Yahtzee for goodness sake? It’s silly, but I actually wondered why I hadn’t considered this game drama before we had married. Would I have married this guy had I known he wouldn’t always be up for a game of Scrabble? Does he even know me at all?

Finally, several months ago, Albin suggested we started having game nights once a week. He said he wanted to get better at Nerts and he thought it would be something for us to look forward to on Thursday nights. I ripped his clothes off right there. Just kidding, but his offer spoke to me on some deep level. He’s gotten really good at all games since then and now we really do love game night. He was intentional and sought to engage me in something that was important to me and that I associated with the concept of family…which made me feel like we were more of a family in a way. Like maybe we weren’t on two completely different wavelengths after all.

Albin and I definitely are not experts and clearly Albin is the deeper of the two of us (deep theoretical conversations vs. my board game needs), but we’re learning and I like our progress. As we become more intentional, we get along so much better, agree on so much more and feel more fully known. Even silly things like (finally!) agreeing on a restaurant, conversing about legislation and keeping a running Yahtzee tally going forms a connection and creates room for us to become soulmates for one another.

En fin, I’m trying to learn from my own lesson today and think about what other areas I can put myself aside to be intentional with Albin. What ways can you be intentional and engage your spouse today?

“I have found the one whom my soul loves.” Song of Solomon 3:4

                                                                                                                                   

 

Top 10 Hardest Things About Bicultural Marriage

Last week I posted about my top ten favorite things about being in a bicultural marriage. To be fair, here are my top ten least favorite things in no particular order. If you’re considering marriage to a foreigner, I hope this list is helpful!

  1. Vacations will almost always be to see family. Unless you’re loaded and/or unemployed, most of your money and vacation time will be dedicated to seeing family. We usually go home to Ohio about once a year. It can be hard to justify spending money to go see a new place when you haven’t seen your parents and sister for a year. Another thorn is my flesh is that in our case, we have to spend a considerable amount of money to go on vacation to Cincinnati, Ohio. I love to visit my family, but Ohio isn’t exactly an exciting travel destination. If we lived in Ohio and went on vacation to see family in Costa Rica, however, I might be singing a different tune.
  1.  Difficulty with jokes and cultural references. In my honest opinion, my family is pretty witty and we joke around about 75 percent of the time. Albin had a hard time keeping up and inserting his own comments for a long time which made him feel outed. I’ve felt the same way with his friends/family so we’ve spent a lot of time educating one another on the millions of puns, sayings, and jokes that exist in each culture. For example, once my sister used the term “throw you under the bus” with Albin. As we were all laughing about how he had just been thrown under the bus, he was still considering why we were talking about him being run over by a bus.
  1.  Truly expressing yourself. Albin speaks English really well and I like to think that I speak Spanish equally as well; however, sometimes it is hard to truly express yourself and have your spouse understand. Expressing your deepest thoughts usually require you using more extensive vocabulary and that can create some misunderstanding or at least not a complete understanding of what you’re trying to get across.
  1.  Being far away for funerals, sicknesses, holidays, etc. Most likely one spouse will be living far away from their family. That part is hard, but Skype is a huge help (My parents skype me every day to watch my daughter do interesting things like smack her lips or roll over). It is almost unbearable, however, to be so far when there are funerals that you can’t get to, extensive illnesses that you can’t help out with, or holidays that you would otherwise enjoy being with your family for. Thanksgiving is always a killer for me because it’s not a thing in CR and my whole extended family gets on Skype while they stuff deep-fried turkey and pumpkin pie into their mouths. Sure I do a Thanksgiving dinner here, but it’s not exactly the same.
  1.  Missing family in general. This has become increasingly harder since the birth of  our daughter. It hurts my heart a little bit to know that my daughter only gets to see my family in person once or twice a year because I want them to be a big part of her life and they want to be a big part of hers. Knowing that you have to get on a long plane ride if you wanted to see them is a bummer most of the time.
  1.  Cultural norms. This is the everyday stuff that you just don’t agree on because you grew up not knowing there were other options (like whether you should eat big lunches or big dinners). One that has been hard for me is a cuota, which is a fee you pay to go to a party, shower, or even a wedding. Oftentimes you are required to pay this fee on top of buying a gift in order to help the host throw the party or finance the wedding. Not only is it hard for me swallow paying to go to someone else’s party, but it is nearly impossible for me to charge a fee for people to come to my parties. Can’t we just do a potluck? No.
  1.  Feeling lonely if you don’t have a community. This has definitely improved for us, but it can be challenging. It can be extremely lonely to not have any friends doing the bicultural marriage thing. Having community in any stage of life is of utmost importance, but this unique circumstance requires it.
  1.  Residency processes and paperwork. Have I mentioned that I hate it? Residency in any country is usually complicated, expensive, and requires a lot of patience. There is a lot of extra paperwork to fill out for every step you take when you’re married to a foreigner. Almost always, there you are required to pay a fee to file the never ending pile of paperwork. Buying a house, paying taxes, getting immigration visas, obtaining permanent residency, proving our child can receive dual citizenship, and obtaining employment are just a few of the processes that have emptied our bank account of thousands of dollars dedicated solely to filing.
  1.  Not having access to certain things (or they’re really expensive). This one doesn’t necessarily require you to be in a bicultural marriage, because this happens when you live almost anywhere overseas. Most likely, however, you or your spouse will be living in a different culture and will miss things you can’t have (probably more than you ever even wanted them when you were living in your own country). For example, Target. Oh how I miss Target. Another example, cheese is expensive here and I love cheese. When I’m in the U.S., I binge on cheese and when I’m in Costa Rica, I agonize in the dairy aisle about whether I should spend $12 on a small block of cheddar. One more: I absolutely love ice cream and I think I shed of tear of joy when a Dairy Queen opened here last year.
  1.  Negative comments. I previously posted a blog about this. People can be very critical of bicultural marriages and relationships. Whether it’s racism, ignorance, concern for your well-being, or just a case of social ineptness, people can say very hurtful things when you decide to do something out of the ordinary. Once you decide to marry a foreigner, be confident in your decision and don’t let negative comments affect your relationship.

If you’re considering a bicultural marriage and have questions or doubts, please hit me up. I’ll try to be as honest (and encouraging) as I can be!

 

Top 10 Favorite Things About Bicultural Marriage

I receive a lot messages from people in bicultural relationships that are considering marriage. Just as in any marriage, a lot of great things can come out of two people doing life together. In this list, however, I’m trying to focus on things that are mostly unique to those marrying a foreigner. In light of that, here are my top ten favorite things about being in a bicultural marriage.

  1.  Kids are bilingual and have an understanding of the world. I love this. I have enjoyed becoming bilingual and I’m even more excited that our children will speak two languages naturally. This will give them many opportunities and will also make learning a third language (if they so desire) much easier. I also love that they will have a broader view of the world and be more culturally aware.
  1.  It’s an adventure; you try new things, eat new foods, etc. Whether you live in your spouse’s country or not, you’re bound to have an adventure. You’ll be exposed to new ways of thinking and doing things, new foods, new customs, and new traditions. You’ll probably get to know his/her country and have fun exploring together. It can be exciting, crazy, overwhelming, and difficult; it will be a lot of things, but I guarantee  boring will not be one of them.
  1.  Two languages/cultures cover over a multitude of sins. This one might just be in my head, but I feel like Albin and I overlook a lot of harsh comments by attributing them to the language differences. If he says something to me in English that seems harsh, I blame it on the fact that he may not know how to say it any other way. If I have a ridiculous personality quirk, he will tend to think it’s just a cultural issue rather than just me being a weirdo. Score.
  1.  You can choose the best parts from each culture to create your own family’s culture. I love this one, too. We’ve been able to integrate both of our cultures into our family culture and choose what we like best. In my mind, our family is getting the best of both worlds when we do it like this.
  1.  I have become Amazon woman. This one might just be from living in a different country or maybe it’s because I wasn’t exposed to this in the U.S., but I have learned so much. As I made Greek yogurt, a week’s worth of baby food, and soaked beans, lentils, and chickpeas to make dinner from scratch the other day, I realized that marrying Albin has forced me to learn how to do things I may not have ever learned living in Cincinnati.
  1.  Your friend group is diverse and fun. Since we are a bicultural family, we naturally tend to hook up with other multicultural families. This opens your mind to a lot of different ways of doing things and you have a lot of opportunities to grow and learn. You meet so many new and different people and become a different (and better) person as a result.
  1.  There is always an excuse to travel. So maybe you’re just going to see family (again) every time you fly anywhere, but at least you’re breaking up the monotony. While traveling for pleasure might not be in the budget, you can always justify going to see family; therefore, you end up getting a vacation without the guilt.
  1.   The thought that God brought together two continents. I just love the thought that God had to rearrange all of our roads and cross borders to bring us together. It reminds me that He has an amazing purpose for us being together whenever things get tough.
  1.  It’s challenging and humbling, but you grow. I’ve been pretty honest about how bicultural marriage can be a challenge, but I’ve also talked about how beauty comes out of struggle. Facing the odds and working hard to make your marriage work creates a love that is steadfast. We have been stretched and as a result, have become more open-minded, mature (I hope), and strong.
  1.  You have to work hard to get to know one another. With language barriers and different cultural norms, you have to work twice as hard to really know each other and understand the other person. This is a positive for me because I see how our marriage has become very transparent as a result. You have to over-communicate and over-explain everything, and that sets a foundation of honesty and directness from the very start.
  1.   I love when my man speaks to me in Spanish. This is the bonus one. No matter how superficial it sounds, having my man speak to me in his love language gets me all hot and bothered lol. Shakira wasn’t messing around when she said, “Oh baby when you talk like that, you make a woman go mad…”

 

Things to Consider Before Marrying a Foreigner

This one goes out to all couples out there who are contemplating taking the plunge into marriage. I’ve received several messages from women who are dating or engaged to a foreigner and many have wondered if I had any advice (bahaha) for them or if I had any suggestions for things they could discuss to make the transition into bicultural marriage easier. I’m not really a bicultural marriage expert (at all), but I do have some suggestions for things to consider and talk about before you get married. If you had asked me three years ago, I simply would have said, “RUN. Far and fast in the other direction.”

Thankfully you’re asking me now when I’m a little more mature and a lot more rational.

These days I would say that if you love each other, you both love God, and you’re both willing to work for it, you should go for it. If you find an amazing man (or woman), don’t let the fact that you’re from different countries get in the way. It’s not every day you find someone amazing enough that you consider marrying them. That being said, here are some questions that I think are worth asking and discussing before you get married:

  1. The obvious one: Are you both committed to God? Obviously your commitment to God in marriage is going to make a huge difference no matter whom you marry. Specifically in bicultural marriage, there can be some loneliness and misunderstanding due to language/culture differences. You NEED a commitment to God because He will sustain both you and your spouse through those times and remind you that He knows you, understands you, and is with you.
  2. Has God confirmed this relationship to you? This one has been particularly helpful to me when things have gotten difficult. Whenever I started having doubts and questioning if we made the right decision to get married, I’ve thought back to God’s clear confirmation and hand within our relationship. It gives so much security knowing this was of God, is from God, and is done through God.
  3. How would each of you define the roles of men/women in marriage? It’s always good to discuss what each person expects/desires from the other. This is important because there are many cultural expectations or customs that can be complicated. If in your husband’s culture the women always stay home with the children and always do the cooking, but you want to work and hate cooking, obviously you’re going to want to talk about that. That one is easy, but things can get sticky if you haven’t talked about areas like this before you get married. Watch how each other’s families interact and discuss how you like/don’t like what happens. Better now than later. Honesty is key here.
  4. Are both of you willing to live in either country? It is highly likely that at some point or another you’ll live in your country or the other’s country. Make sure that both of you are comfortable with this. Even if you plan to live in the U.S., you never know what could happen in the future. Maybe you’ll have to go back and live to take care of his parents, etc. Are you willing to live in a foreign country?
  5. Are you willing to work through the various processes that are inevitable when you marry a foreigner (such a paperwork, immigration/residency, etc.)? These things cost money and require a lot of time and patience. It’s a good idea to do a lot of research and ask a lot of questions before you get married because you’ll be able to save yourself time and money if you do the process right the first time.  Recognize that if you someday want your man to move to the U.S. with you, smuggling him in isn’t the best option. You have to follow the process and that can be frustrating. (P.S. Never give the original copies of documents like your marriage certificate to immigration officials of foreign countries. You may never see them again. You can thank me later for this priceless piece of advice.)
  6. Are you willing to wait a few years for you to fully understand one another? I’m assuming that you both speak English or at least share one language and can communicate somehow, but even with a husband who is  fluent in English, I have a hard time fully expressing myself sometimes so that he can understand and vice versa. Something good to do before you get married and while you’re married is to be OVERLY direct. If you’re a lady that is easily offended, gets quiet and doesn’t explain why you are mad–that needs to change. You have to explain everything in detail and in a way the man can understand…especially since he is probably going to compare your behavior to what he has seen in women in his culture and possibly not understand the problem. It took us a few years to truly know each other and communicate well. As always, communication is everything. Start now. 🙂
  7. Sex. This is a must. Different cultures have different expectations, different presuppositions, and different ideas for how your sex life is going to play out. Save yourself the trouble of an awkward wedding night, honeymoon, and possibly the frustration in the first several years of marriage by discussing this a little in advance.
  8. Money. Albin and I come from very different socioeconomic statuses, and on top of that our countries deal with various aspects of handling money differently. You and your future spouse should talk about who will keep the budget, whether or not both of you will have access to your joint money (I’ve heard horror stories about this one), tithing, debts, etc. Money is such a touchy subject as it is, and when you add cultural differences, it can cause some serious dissension. You may also want to talk about whether or not you will be supporting anyone else outside of your immediate family. It is very common for foreigners living in the U.S. especially to send money home to help support extended family. Albin and I haven’t dealt with this too often since we live in CR, but many of my friends have needed to have this discussion. Get it out in the open now to avoid conflict later.
  9. Kids. Talk about which cultural customs you plan to uphold when raising your kids. Spanking is illegal in Costa Rica, but I grew up with a paddle at home and one in every car in case we were on the road and someone got crazy. Being on the same page about discipline, language, customs, etc. when raising your kids will save you from a lot of heartache in the future.

I hope this list is helpful and at least gives you some ideas of things to discuss. I know a lot of the items are rather obvious, but it can be easy to overlook areas when you’re lovestruck and swooning over that sexy foreign accent. Most people will talk about these topic before any marriage in general, but try to think through how cultural norms will play into each one.  In the next few weeks I’ll be posting my top ten favorite things about bicultural marriage and top ten not-so-favorite things to give you some more food for thought. As always, if you want to discuss something more specific or have questions, please feel free to hit me up!