How to Love an Octopus Eater

· Navigating a Transcultural Marriage ·

August 30, 2016

About half the time someone meets me for the first time, they do a double take. They see “Garcia” on a piece of paper, call my name in a waiting room, or wait for me to open the front door, and find a fair, freckled lady who could pass for Irish, and hesitate for a split second, and I can see the wheels turning, wondering if they have the right person. And if they look puzzled enough, like they’re wondering whether it would be polite to ask how in the world am I a Garcia, I’ll offer up: “My husband is Filipino,” and their expression changes to “Oh! That explains everything,” even if they might still not understand how an Asian man has a Spanish name.

I don’t mind this exchange. I understand the instinct to want to place people in some kind of social framework. (This might speak more to white privilege than any real magnanimity on my part. If I had grown up as a non-white immigrant, I might feel differently.)

Having been married for seven years now, it often doesn’t occur to me when we’re together that people might be wondering, How did they get together? When we were dating (in our 30s), I realized I had never envisioned the possibility of marrying someone from another culture. And as we dated more seriously, I knew I needed to seriously consider those cultural differences. What will family life be like with someone who lived twenty-something years on the other side of the planet, speaking a different language? Would it lead to communication problems? Would there be too much intervention from the in-laws? What will our roles look like in our home?

More specifically, what expectations does he have about my role? He told me at one point that he really liked Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which prompted a viewing session and a very frank discussion halfway through in which I made it very clear that I was NOT that kind of woman, and if he had any visions of being “taken care of” in that way, he needed to find somebody else. (His hopes were not dashed, and I attributed his interest in this movie to the same thing that makes people like Grease or any other musical that perpetuates damaging expectations about women: he hadn’t really thought about it.)

And then there was the big question: Where would we live? The U.S. has far more economic opportunities, which is why his family moved here, and he soon followed after his mission—but would he always want to live here? Would I be willing to live across the globe from my family if that became an option?

Fortunately, because I’d had quite a few years to examine and re-examine what I was looking for in a spouse—what was essential, and what I couldn’t compromise on, and what I was willing to live with—I had already come to the hypothetical conclusion that wherever I lived with Mr. Right, even if it was far away from my family, it would be a temporary situation. Meaning: my family (parents and siblings) is sealed together forever. I’ll have eternity to be with them. If I really want to be married in this life and have an eternal family unit of my own, does it really matter where we are on planet earth?

Then there’s the question of FOOD. In the early stages, I thought, “It’s JUST food. It’s so inconsequential.” And later I thought, WAIT. It’s FOOD. It’s what we do 3 times a day, every day for the rest of our lives. And he could eat rice and noodles for every one of those meals and be happy!

Case in point: We go out to eat at a fancy restaurant, and he orders a salad with octopus. He eats the tentacle, leaves the beans on the plate, and tells me, “Yeah, when I heard the server say it’s a bean salad, I thought, ‘eh, no thanks,’ but then when she said it would have octopus on it, I thought, ‘ooooo, that might be gooooood.’ ”

This is who I cook for. Seriously, try cooking anything from your average ward cookbook without beans, pasta, potatoes, or “too much” cheese. Then add children, and try planning something everyone will eat, other than pancakes.

But somehow (tongue in cheek), we’ve managed to overcome this gap. I’ve cultivated a pretty varied repertoire of Asian food that I like (between Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, and Adobo), and he’s learned to be a good sport and eat what I serve, always thanking me for cooking. He might not eat the leftovers, but I’ve learned to cook reasonable amounts so that I’m not eating half a pan of lasagna all by myself.

I’ve also thought about the cultural adjustments he’s made here. When we visited his home country, I tried quite a few foods, and realized I’m not quite as adventurous and open-minded about cuisine as I thought I was. If I had to subsist on Filipino food, it would be a combination of lumpia, pancit, caldereta, fried rice, fried chicken, and macaroni salad. And of course, Ube ice cream. But don’t get me started on the weirdness that is Halo-Halo. Why would anyone ruin their perfectly good ice cream with beans and yam? (This is, ironically, the only dish he will eat with beans.)

I haven’t even mentioned communication issues yet. But since he was fluent in English (elementary schools require it), and had a Master’s Degree from an American university, it wasn’t a huge hurdle. Mastering idiomatic expressions, however, has provided an endless source of entertainment. I’ll never forget the time he told me he was concerned about being the “horse whisperer” by ratting out a coworker who was spending all his work time studying for the LSAT. (And by that, he meant “whistleblower.”) That was an easy fix though. It’s taken a few reminders to reinforce that the Homemedics massager I use for my back is NOT called a vibrator, and it should not be mentioned in public, just in case he forgets.

But the biggest communication challenges we face have nothing to do with nationality, unless you consider the Mars vs. Venus analogy to be literal (which sometimes feels that way.) We’re learning to understand how the other person’s brain works. How to find an object (pick things up and look underneath). How to put down the phone and listen. How to not freak out when he’s just thinking out loud about the idea of going to law school, and realize he hasn’t thought it through at all, like I would before bringing it up for discussion. His engineer brain and my humanities brain are far bigger differences to bridge than our physical features or semantics. He is fluent in data and java and computer speak, things I can’t wrap my brain around. And when I read him a poem I’ve written, his best effort at responding is, “That’s deep.”

And of course, there’s the challenge of nurturing a marriage while having little children who suck all the life out of you. Lately we’ve noticed how superficial our conversations are—ok I’VE noticed how superficial they are—and discussed together this article I found about how to validate better, and delve into ideas and opinions instead of just scheduling the week and what the kids ate for lunch. We recently started sending each other articles from Facebook during the week and talking about them on date night, or other times we have to spend together. It gives us something to talk about that helps us see each other’s inner being, as opposed to just the guy who takes out the trash.

These all come down to standard differences of two different people learning to communicate and understand each other, which is no different than any other marriage. We knew when we started that we had the two most important things in common: (1) the shared vision of loving the gospel, and being dedicated to serving and raising our children to have lives of faith, and (2) a commitment to marriage, hopefully to have better marriages than our parents had, and do whatever it takes to work things out. That foundation has helped us navigate everything from minor differences of opinion to major emotional turmoil. (And I do mean major turmoil; if the “challenges” I’ve brought up in this article sound fairly trivial, it’s because they are. I won’t be airing all our dirty laundry here.) But they have nothing to do with genetics or nationality, and everything to do with the same kind of psychological digging that inevitably occurs when you’re trying to parse out how to really understand someone else. Many times, you find that the dirt you’re sifting through is your own, and you have to discover what you’re made of.

3 Comments

  1. Lisa

    August 30, 2016

    Excellent! Thanks for this.

  2. Sel

    August 30, 2016

    I loved this bit: “…when you’re trying to parse out how to really understand someone else. Many times, you find that the dirt you’re sifting through is your own, and you have to discover what you’re made of.”

    As someone suffering fatigue from SA dating, this is so incredibly true. Thanks for sharing (and I hear you on the bean-in-dessert-shuddering).

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