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Mixed Marriages

Why Expats Marry Foreigners and Then What Happens

It seems that every few years my colleagues and I celebrate the marriage of one of our former students to a foreign national they met while studying abroad. Timing and common interests seem to be the primary factors that bring these couples together.

A U.S. Foreign Service officer once told me that meeting his wife while in training in Taiwan made perfect sense. He was in his late 20s, dating, and ready to find a lifetime partner. Being part of a community in which intercultural marriage is seen as perfectly logical and “going home to settle down” at odds with his career plans, courting his wife in Taiwan seemed to present no complications or impediments.

Common interests also play an important part in the decision to marry abroad, especially for expatriates who have spent years learning the culture and language. How many of us have returned home to realize that friends and family are unable to understand how we have been changed by our experiences and by the cultures in which we have been living?

Finding a community of people with similar experiences is not always easy. Most of us end up adjusting to or accepting our circumstances (sometimes with great difficulty) or seeking other chances to go abroad. Living with someone who has some understanding of these experiences may create a port in the storm for those of us who have been changed by our lives abroad.

Expatriates Naturally Bond

Expatriates are brought together by the common experience of being foreigners. In the international community in which I lived for many years in northeast China, American students and teachers dated Japanese, Korean, French, and Russian students and teachers. Every year we celebrated at least one engagement.

People living abroad are often themselves the products of intercultural marriages. (I know of one couple in which the African American man’s mother was an immigrant from Haiti while his girlfriend was ethnic Chinese from Vietnam whose family had immigrated to Switzerland. Another American student who dated a student from Japan was the granddaughter of a Chinese doctor who had married an American missionary.) As borders become easier to cross, intercultural marriages become much more common and acceptable than they once were.

Of course, many more relationships in our international community ended once the realization of the realities of returning home and trying to maintain long-distance relationships set in. Often the couple is not ready to make a long-term commitment when the challenges of trying to get back together somewhere in the world appear to be too great.

I know of at least two Japanese women whose parents threatened to disown them if they married American men. In one case, the couple married anyway. In the other, the woman returned to Japan. Her boyfriend received a letter from her uncle saying that she had been bitten by a poisonous snake and died.

The Practical Matters

Couples who find each other abroad often come down to earth when they start considering the reality of building lives together under complex circumstances. Working through the details of what the relatives will think, where they will live, and how they will arrange the paperwork becomes a test of fortitude and staying power.

In my own case, the Chinese marriage license was fairly easy to arrange, but U.S. officials kept pushing back our departure date with the piles of paperwork, fingerprinting, and other documentation required for an immigrant visa application. Some people have said that the process is designed to be slow to discourage shotgun weddings.

Deciding where to live can also be difficult. Flexibility and the willingness of at least one spouse to live as a foreigner or immigrant abroad can make things easier. My husband has experienced the convenience, privacy, and mobility of American life as well as the frustrations of open discrimination. At this point the benefits of living in the U.S. outweigh the disadvantages, but we often discuss returning to Asia where I am the foreigner or moving to a third country where we both would be foreigners. Living in an area where diversity is common can make the move easier. Building a community of international friends also helps tremendously. If it’s financially feasible, yearly visits home can also help your spouse feel more in touch with family. Again, compromise and flexibility are key.

What to Watch Out For

When considering marriage abroad, think about the circumstances in which you met and fell in love and give yourself lots of time to see if it can last. Many vacation flings seem perfect at first but turn out to be impractical. I dated men whom I later discovered were more interested in a visa than a serious relationship. I know of many American men who imposed stereotypes of Asian female docility on their Asian girlfriends, then were shocked to realize that their wives expected to call the shots at home after marriage.

Even if family and friends on both sides of the marriage are accepting and supportive, you are bound to encounter naysayers who are sure your relationship will fail. An American friend of mine was told by her boss that “intercultural marriages just cannot work.” When she pointed out that her own marriage to her Chinese husband was happily in its third year, the boss said that she was in the “honeymoon stage.” Later she found out that his American son and German wife were struggling with their own marriage.

Statistically, intercultural and interracial marriages have a high rate of failure. But many succeed. When we look to older generations who dealt with a climate of greater disapproval and discrimination than we do today, we find keys to how to make these marriages work for a lifetime.

Further Reading

The Bride Wore Red: A Novel in Stories by Robbie Clipper Sethi (Picador, 1997). The stories of three Indian men and their European American wives, written by an American woman professor of English whose husband is from India.

Child of War, Woman of Peace by Le Ly Hayslip (Doubleday, 1993). The sequel to her When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman’s Journey from War to Peace, Hayslip’s second book of memoirs describes her marriages to American men and her struggle to build a new life in America.

Intercultural Marriage: Promises and Pitfalls by Dugan Romano (2nd ed., Intercultural Press, 1997) is a practical guide that presents important considerations for those considering or already engaged in an intercultural marriage.

Lost in Translation by Nicole Mones (Delacorte Press, 1998) is a wonderfully engaging novel about an American woman interpreter in China who falls in love with a Chinese archaeologist while working to find the long-lost bones of Peking Man.

On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family by Lisa See (Vintage Books, 1996) is the history of the author’s mixed Euro-American and Chinese heritage.

Patpong Sisters: An American Woman’s View of the Bangkok Sex World by Cleo Odzer (Arcade Publishing, 1994). Odzer writes about the time she spent in Thailand working on her PhD dissertation on Bangkok prostitutes. She writes frankly of both her own relationship with a Thai man and the often highly manipulative relationships between Westerners and Thais.

Son of the Revolution by Judith Shapiro and Liang Heng (Random House, 1984). While somewhat dated, this memoir describes Liang Heng’s life in China during the Cultural Revolution as well as the courtship and marriage to his American wife in the 1980s.

Swaying: Essays on Intercultural Love edited by Jessie Carroll Grearson and Lauren B. Smith (Univ. of Iowa Press, 1995). A wonderful collection of essays by women in intercultural marriages.

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