Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

'The real and profound differences are between people, not between peoples'

Photo by Anz-i/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Several posts lately have dealt with relationships between partners of different races and ethnicities, the subject of a popular public event late last month at KPCC's Crawford Family Forum. During the live event, three couples shared their personal experiences; in the run-up, I published Q&A interviews with all three in which they talked about everything from communication to dealing with in-laws to raising and passing along traditions to their bicultural children.

But every relationship is different. Some people might be from vastly different cultures, but have life experiences that make them not so dissimilar after all. Others of the same or similar ethnic backgrounds may be very different, the product of disparate lives and families.

One reader, Garth, wrote a thoughtful mini-essay about this over the weekend in the comments section of one interview. He placed it in the context of his more than 20-year marriage to his wife, who is Russian. He's from Southern California. And it's the Russian city of St. Petersburg that they call home, a different twist on the couples' stories presented so far. He wrote:

I married a Russian woman in 1991 when it was still the Soviet Union. My wife and I have lived in Leningrad-St. Petersburg through the whole of our marriage, with only short visits back to the States. I would make only one comment - with, however, many details.

I have come to reject the notion of cultural difference as a significant factor in understand(ing) between people. In my experience, nearly all of the problems which I had attributed to cultural differences disappeared as I became fluent in Russian, the language we speak at home - except that I speak English with my two children.

However, our problems did not disappear, they became different, rooted in our differences as people. Had I married the same type of woman in the States as my wife, I would have had the same problems as now. I suspect that my wife could say the same if she had married a Russian.

I have come to think that there is a common human culture with variations that are often hidden by a common language. I grew up in Southern California, and discovered by experience that New York and Louisiana are two separate cultures, as different from Southern California as is St. Petersburg, Russia. Those differences presented no particular problems in adapting.

My impression is that the real and profound differences are between people, not between peoples. People, taken as a whole, are not very different from from each other.

Russians prefer soup or open face sandwiches to snack on, Americans prefer sandwiches or munchy food. That sort of thing makes no problem at all. My wife's tendency to destroy my work environment with understanding of proper order is far more serious. But that is not a Russian thing. I had the same problem with my mother.

My wife could list out some of my habits that provoke the same discontent in her - with me, and with other Russians. The problem is not that I am not Russian, the problem is that I tend to be messy, with high tolerance for things scattered around the room.

To restate my conclusion: Individuals differ from each other, but not cultures.

Thoughts, anyone? Feel free to post them below.