At our church recently, a pastor had all of us turn to each other and say, “I see the image of God in you.” As congregants followed instructions and repeated the tender words, I did the same to my husband. He chose not to respond.
He faced a slight language issue, as well as discomfort proclaiming love to me in public, which is partly cultural.
In the split second he had to decide, his heart responded, “yikes.” In the same second, I understood, and yet my heart still responded, “ouch.”
After ten years, we are still learning what it means to have married and settled outside of our cultures. I am American, and he is Japanese, and we live in Thailand, in a polyglot expat burg—four worlds. In many ways our life delights us: “pretty good, some problems,” to quote Anne Lamott’s son Sam, at age seven, in Traveling Mercies. We support each other and share languages, passions, plans, and above all, awe of our children. This month, our older daughter plans a Rainbow Magic-themed birthday party while noting differences between US and UK versions of the books. The other daughter sings “Let It Snow” as I cycle her to preschool, past food stands and soi dogs and bemused guards clicking tap-clad heels.
Both girls know the hiragana phonetic alphabet and dive for cards in games at Japanese class each week. They also wai in ways that make Thai neighbors melt (bringing palms together, sometimes with a curtsy) and lobby shrewdly for play time with friends from Ireland, India, New Zealand. With so many cultures close by, the girls live the social studies lessons my husband and I found only in books at their age. Their growth brings endless wonder.
Yet the girls remind us that combining worlds brings inconsistencies and gaps. Mommy prays with them at bedtime though Daddy doesn’t. Daddy insists on washing hands upon arriving home (and ideally gargling) while Mommy doesn’t. One set of our children’s relatives handles mealtimes and manners and medicine altogether differently from relatives on the other side. The girls’ passport countries—my husband’s and mine—sit so far apart that a visit to either brings homesickness for the other, or for Thailand, or both.
We have made a situation like in Grandfather’s Journey by Allen Say, in which a man reaches one beloved country only to miss another, repeatedly. (I loaned Say’s book to a mother whose family moved here from Japan, and her nine-year-old son shed tears of recognition.)
Indeed, no one place on Earth has all that our children hold dear. Our household may hold many things, but not all of its parts come together seamlessly. Sometimes our life feels like a jigsaw puzzle that gets pressed together with pieces from different sets, or a network of computers operating with different systems. I agree with how some social scientists describe culture as humans’ software. No matter how alike my husband and I seem—with even our clothing and mannerisms similar by now—we were written with different code. So were our neighbors. Our family, then, is trying to run multiple programs simultaneously or draft a new program that combines functions of its predecessors. Inevitably in this process, some operations get dropped, broken, or lost.
Engaged as we are with this compatibility project, I sometimes feel a gulf between my husband and me, on one hand, and our friends and siblings who married within their cultures, on the other. They seem to face far fewer gaps in background as they build households and rear children. So I turn to other women with names like mine—given name from one world, married name from another—who, through email, chats, and publications, swap stories and exchange wisdom and encouragement. We remind each other that we are not alone in minding gaps less visible to others.
I believe that our children, too, will seek companions among intercultural folk as they grow. The book Third Culture Kids, by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken, describes this pattern among children from expatriate and international households. It also shows that such children often choose careers that involve bridging between cultures. The choices my husband and I made in our twenties, it seems, will affect not only every life stage of ours—up to retirement and death—but also the relationships and work of our daughters.
As I considered what to write for this, the final column of Four Worlds, I thought at first of stressing how bicultural marriage plus life in a third country, in an international neighborhood, sometimes seems a crazy mix. As an undergraduate I perceived the flight from America to Japan as lengthy; now, when my family travels to expat Thailand, the Pacific flight is just one leg.
Yet if our life here is crazy—and if, to paraphrase Kathleen Norris in Acedia & Me, choosing it was more radical than we knew—it is also the new normal in our world. Globalization means intercultural children are the prototype citizens of the future.
I suspect my husband and I will keep discovering challenges of intercultural life every time we face transitions at work, children’s growth milestones, and smaller moments down to awkwardness in church. Will the girls be glad of the path we chose? We can only trust and try. To know our gaps, discuss them, and attend to them with as much presence as possible.
I know this is why, this Advent, I am glad my husband is in church as always. I’m thrilled that he wants to know a story from which I draw strength, even if he did not pray at bedtime growing up. I am glad, too, that he explores my culture and faith his own way, shows me where he is on his path (even if his revelations challenge me), and accepts discussion of our differences even in a forum as public as this.
As I close this column, I would like to thank him for his support, his hours babysitting and listening to 26 column drafts, and above all his presence in our marriage. Through the angst, stress, fallouts, joys, recoveries, and discoveries, he has been there. I am grateful. I am grateful also to those who love us both despite our flaws. You know who you are. Thank you.
Finally, I wish to thank Literary Mama’s editorial team, especially Alissa McElreath, and Literary Mama’s vibrant community. Thank you for finding the project of parenthood, in all its forms, worthy of your time as writer and reader. And thank you for exploring our intercultural home.