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.

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…”

 

Familia

I think it is appropriate that one of my first blogs is about family since marriage is a merging of families. In my case, two VERY distinct families. I’m realizing that I was a little disillusioned about how this whole thing was going to work out. In my head, it was going to be a mix between My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights.  However, it didn’t take me long to realize that Windex isn’t a cure-all, and that not all Latino families have steamy dance parties at family get-togethers.

I’m not really sure what Albin expected life with my family to be like, but I do remember his look of despair during a hundred-person party my mom threw during his first few days in Ohio. People kept coming up to him and slowly, but loudly, greeting him (since you should obviously speak as loudly and slowly as possible when you think someone doesn’t understand you). Though he often answered them with excellent English, many quickly split from the conversation thinking he didn’t speak any English beyond the basic introduction. He was a good sport, but I remember him going to bed with a headache that night and I can’t imagine why.

Albins mom and gma = stone cold Steve Austin in all of our wedding photos

Albin’s mom and gma= stone cold Steve Austin in all of our wedding photos

The whole family transition has been hard, humbling, and hilarious. Some examples:

– It took me years to convince my suegra (mother-in-law) that North Americans can actually cook and contribute something to a family dinner other than two liters or a bag of chips. One day I brought chicken salad sandwiches and pasta salad to a picnic and it blew her mind. She’s been making it ever since. Crushed it.

– It’s taken me years to prove that I speak and understand Spanish, despite the fact that my gringo accent will never completely disappear. Speaking of language, Albin refuses to use the word “beach” in front of my family because the first time he said it, they laughed for days thinking that he said, “I love the b#$@h.” He sounds incredibly proper now when he asks, “Will we go to the sea today?”

– It’s taken my family years to learn that Costa Rica and Puerto Rico are different, and even more time to learn that Costa Rica is not an island where everyone speaks Mexican. 

– I remember when we first got married, I told a certain family member that we would have a shower when we got back to Costa Rica (referring to a wedding shower). This unnamed family member got a huge look of relief on her face and mentioned that she had worried about how I was going to stay clean in a country without showers. .

Costa Rica lives, eats, and breathes fútbol (soccer) and thinks baseball is borrriinnnggg, while my family is all baseball and thought that soccer is what you played in elementary school if you weren’t good at anything else (ouch). My dad was a professional baseball player and everyone in my family (including my grandma) has been basically able to throw and hit a ball since birth. When Albin first came to meet my extended family at a grill-out, obviously a “friendly” game of whiffle ball started up. Albin is athletic, but I think that was the first time he has ever swung a bat. While my 8 year old cousin was hitting homeruns over the barn, Albin was struggling to make contact. Then my uncle, who is a professional softball player, suggested Albin use one of those big, fat, kid whiffle ball bats. Even then, the struggle was real. After too many strikes, I finally yelled “My goodness, just let him kick it and get out of the inning!”

dadandme

Take your daughter to work day…

Despite self-esteem crushing moments like that, the family transition has been beautiful. Both of our families have had their eyes opened to a new culture and new people. It’s been fun to see my family start watching and cheering for the Costa Rican national soccer team as they did awesome (holla!) in the last world cup. I’ve loved watching my mother-in-law and mom have whole conversations speaking cave man and using gestures. It’s been wonderful to have family and friends come to explore beautiful Costa Rica. I loved finding Albin’s grandma staring at our frozen pool out back and being amazed at that much water being frozen. You should have seen her face when I took her to our park, which had a huge frozen lake.

Once again, I know this isn’t just a bicultural marriage thing. When you get married, you marry a whole family, and it can be complicated whether they speak another language or not. My guess is that every suegra from every culture gives her opinion whether it was asked for or not…I know my mom shares hers with Albin quite willingly and that Albin’s mom will give hers, with no questions asked (especially when she not only disagrees with family salsa nights, but dancing in general…tear). It’s all good though, and I’m enjoying how things have “evolved” over the last four years. It may not seem like a big deal, but hearing a baseball game on TV at our house in Costa Rica or a fútbol game on at my parent’s house in Ohio shows just how far we’ve come. And that is music to my ears.

Al and Ana