How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Love, L.A. style: A Korean-Armenian couple dishes on romance, food, in-laws and 'the dowry'

Photo by qthomasbower/Flickr (Creative Commons)


We’ve all seen the statistics and the stories by now: Interracial and interethnic relationships and families are on the rise, the product of an increasingly multicultural United States. A Pew Research Center report last February charted a growing number of interracial marriages, with 15.1 percent of new marriages in 2010 being between spouses of different races or ethnicities.

But what is life in these relationships like behind closed doors, as couples navigate the challenges of work, children, in-laws, communication - even when English is their first language - as viewed through the lenses of different cultural backgrounds?

This coming Thursday, May 31, I’ll be moderating a community forum at KPCC in which several couples will share their own experiences. Until then, I'll be offering some sneak peeks on this site, as couples who are participating share a bit about themselves in mini-Q&A interviews.

Today's couple: Aris and InSun Janigian, married 15 years, the parents of two children. Aris, a novelist whose recently published This Angelic Land relates the story of the 1992 L.A. riots through an Armenian American protagonist, was born in the U.S. of Armenian parents; InSun, a homemaker and former jack of all trades, is Korean American and arrived in the U.S. at age four.

M-A: What are the most important things you’ve  learned from one another, in the context of your different backgrounds?

Aris: That there are ways of being "affectionate" that have nothing to do with smothering hugs and kisses, what I was used to. I've also learned that breakfast, lunch, and dinner can look exactly alike and still be considered distinct meals.

InSun: From my husband, who is Armenian, I learned the power of being loved for just being. What I mean by this is that, in my own Korean family structure, there was the expectation of each individual understanding and conforming to a certain code of behavior based upon one's position (not only in the family structure), but also in the wider societal structure.

In the Korean language, the word "love" does not exist in the platonic, or non-romantic sense that exists in America, there is "love" only in the romantic sense. "Love" is better substituted by such words as"respect" or "honor,"... one enters the world already situated by her circumstances, and much of her movements is dictated by that station.

When I met my husband, who is the essence of being by virtue of his emotions, I didn't quite know what it was that I was attracted to, but I knew I liked his energy; the lack of embarrassment, or shame, or excuse for being who he is.

M-A: What have the biggest challenges been?  

Aris: Learning how to communicate with my in-laws when they speak hardly any English. Learning that my wife may be speaking English but still thinking in Korean.

InSun: To be honest, I can't say that we've had much cultural challenges, at least, not on my end... since I believe I'm the beneficiary of inheriting a lovely group of people since I met my husband.

But, for my husband, I think he will have more to say, I will leave it at that.

M-A: Can you share an amusing/enlightening/etc. cross-cultural moment?

Aris: My mother-in-law, an old country girl, with very little English at her disposal, asked me when I was going to marry her daughter. It was probably only the second time I met her, and we'd been barely dating a couple of months. I looked her straight in the eye, and upped the old country ante: "That depends," I told her, "on the dowry."

InSun: You can always tell you are at a Korean church by the length of prayers one must endure throughout the service. They are a minimum of 5-10 minutes long each time, and there are so many prayers throughout the service, that the services usually last more than two hours long. This is also true of Korean weddings, where the ceremony is not so much a joining of two with a few words of wisdom from the pew, but rather, a lengthy sermon from the pulpit, followed by hymnals and prayers that last eons.

On the other hand, we were just at a wedding in an Armenian Orthodox church where the service lasted only 30 minutes, with a hymnal and a prayer; nice, short, sweet, and reverent (certain rituals, such as the laying of the cross on the two joined heads were observed).

The receptions also underline the differences in the culture. While the Armenians will party till they drop, drinking, dancing, and toasting all night long, most Korean receptions I've been to have been limited to a nice dinner, and then everyone leaves.

Quick and efficient, but not the most celebratory of parties.


Check back this week for more from other couples participating in the panel. And to attend Thursday night, check the event listing here. Admission is free, but reservations are required.
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