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Scenes from a (bicultural) marriage: Communication and identity

Photo by steena/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Love has become increasingly color-blind, this we know, as the percentage of interracial and interethnic marriages in the United States continues to grow. And it may conquer much. But even in one of the world's most diverse cities, that doesn't necessarily make love across color or ethnic lines any easier.

This was the takeaway last Thursday night, when three bicultural couples shared the stage with me at KPCC's Crawford Family Forum to share their personal stories. The couples: Aris and and InSun Janigian, an Armenian American novelist and his Korean American wife; KPCC's Off-Ramp host John Rabe and Julian Bermudez, a producer of art exhibits; and Terry Dennis and Gabriela Lopez de Dennis, both artists, a black Texan and a Latina from Los Angeles.

All three long-term couples talked about a series of struggles and triumphs and, while they've by now made it mostly to happily-ever-after, bridges they've crossed along the way. These have included standing up to disapproving parents ("I'm marrying her, I'm not marrying you," Janigian said he once told his mother); for Bermudez, the attitudes of his conservative Mexican Catholic mother, who struggles with his same-sex marriage, continue to be a challenge.

But some of the more interesting aspects of the conversation related to subtle things, the makings of day-in, day-out interaction as filtered though different cultural lenses. For example, even for couples who both speak fluent English, communication can be tricky. And what comes of one's cultural identity after years spent with someone from a different culture?

I'll be drawing from the audio from the conversation for a few related posts this week. For this one, here are the highlights from two couples' take on communication and identity.

Communication: In a Q&A interview before the panel, Aris Janigian had mentioned that his wife "may be speaking English but thinking in Korean." Both are fluent English speakers who have been speaking it since childhood. Here, both explain what he meant.

Aris: Armenian was my first language, and Korean was her first she gained her vocabulary and became a beautiful speaker of English, and I did mine, the formative words that we learned and the formative attitudes we garnered from our parents were old-country. They go back deep, hundreds and in some cases thousands of years, and those become kind of the wiring in our brain. On top of that comes language, which is kind of like the programs, the soft wiring that adjusts and modifies and plays off that.

What I came to learn about my wife was that her thinking may be very progressive - obviously she is totally capable of knocking you dead any minute of the day with her beautiful sentences and her great thoughts - but the deep processes are old Korean processes, as mine are old Armenian processes.

InSun: When we first got married, my parents called me every day with problems, with this, with that, because they can't speak after college and after I started to work, married this guy, my parents kept calling and calling, well translate this, and translate that, and I'd say okay, okay, okay. After about a year of this, he'd had enough of it. He said, you need to start thinking about our house and our lives together, and you need to say goodbye to Mom and Dad. Husband is number one, and Mom and Dad are number two.

What I mean by that is filial piety...whatever happened, I was going to show gratitude for the rest of my life and honor them. So I married this guy, and he didn't quite understand that. So are we still working through that? Yes we are. (Laughing.)

Identity: In their Q&A, John Rabe and Julian Bermudez talked about how their cultural identity lines have blurred over the years, at least in terms of how they relate. "It wasn’t until I began dating John that I realized how 'Latino' I really was," wrote Bermudez, a Mexican American who grew up with a first-generation immigrant mother and a fourth- or fifth-generation father. Here they elaborate.

John: So, I'm German. I'm actually Irish and German, but I am German and I didn't realize just how much that affected the way I expressed emotions. I thought I had emotions, and I absolutely did have them, but I didn't express is such a minefield talking about this, because of course I am talking about racial stereotypes, and yet some of these stereotypes are true, I think, and at least Germans tend to apparently keep their emotions to themselves. And then I started dating Julian, who is Latino and is very much stereotypically Latino in the way he expresses himself and letting loose and everything, and it was too much for me at first.

Julian: Growing up, there was mixed identity, and it was just me being who I was. But it wasn't until I started dating John that I realized I was this very fiery, feisty character who just erupted at things that I thought were inane. And when I needed emotion back, what I felt was emotion, like feeling and what not, it would be very frustrating, because he was very staid. But now I guess there is a merging of the two, where we are more equalized. Where he is more emotional, and I am a little more contained. And it makes for a very happy and quiet household.

John: Sometimes Julian will assume the German role, and I will assume the Latino role.

The raw audio from the even can he downloaded here.