Asian American Marriage Split by an Invisible Barrier
n movies the young newlyweds discover unsuspected cultural conflicts. They deny, they question, they rage, they reconcile. They learn to let go their selfish expectation of having things their way and awaken to the joys of sacrificing for love. A little give here, a little take there. Voilà -- a happy marriage.
Ironically, what brought me together with Peter in the beginning was our instantaneous rapport. We met at a college party and gravitated toward each other because we shared similar takes on growing up Asian achievers in middle-class white suburbs. We held compatible political views and shared a love of Russian novels, Japanese anime and Cantonese seafood. It hardly seemed to matter that he was third-generation Asian American while I had been born overseas. After all, I always got his cultural reference, whether to pop culture iconography or obscure TV shows in their third decade of reruns. The fact that he was raised by American-born parents while my parents had immigrated as adults hardly seemed like a dealbreaker.
It didn't take us long to learn that movie marital conflicts bear as much resemblance to real-life conflicts as movie nerds to real-life nerds. To start with, the trouble didn't begin with a series of cute post-wedding discoveries of cultural incompatibilities. What actually happened was that a dozen little things that we had known about from day one but seemed trivial while dating started burrowing under our skin after we started living as man and wife.
One of our first conflicts arose from the fact that Peter saw the removing of shoes as merely a quaint ritual whereas I saw it as a compulsory act of respect, consideration and simple hygiene. I mean, who wants dog poop dust tracked into the dining room, kitchen and bedroom?! That seemingly trivial difference somehow escalated into a silent contest of wills. A battle, even a silent one, is the last thing a busy professional couple needs upon returning home exhausted, hungry and grumpy.
Another stemmed from the fact that Peter had always enjoyed Asian food as an occasional evening-out treat while I had never been able to eat American food more than a couple times a week, usually for breakfast or lunch. He was put off by the smell of fermented kimchi and soybean paste while I got queasy at the very thought of meatloaf and spaghetti with meat balls. We quickly got tired of trying to accommodate each other's palates and began cooking and eating most dinners separately. Add to that his insistence that I brush my teeth before any kind of intimacy, and we had the makings of another grudge match.
The conflict went beyond the obvious things. Our marriage hit its first big speed bump when my parents visited a couple weeks after our honeymoon. When I heard their car turning up the driveway, I rushed out of the house only to discover that Peter had remained in the doorway. He seemed oblivious to my frantic gestures to join me beside their car. During dinner he questioned the factual correctness of some of my father's statements. Then came Peter's monologue on his dazzling prospects at the firm. To this day I cringe at the memory. The coup de grâce came as my parents were leaving. Instead of escorting them outside and holding open their car doors, he shook my father's hand at the doorway and stayed there. I felt as though my family had been collectively slapped.
That night we had our first big blowout. After that Peter made a token effort to show more respect but his courtesies toward my parents never went beyond the perfunctory. My parents' visits became increasingly infrequent. Before long I found myself making excuses for being away on the occasions of his mother's visits.
A big blow to our marriage was Peter's insistence on hashing out finances in minute detail. I had grown up seeing my father hand over his paychecks to my mother and never show any interest in second-guessing her. He implicitly trusted her to handle the family's finances. By contrast, Peter insisted on depositing his checks into his own account, then jointly going through a monthly accounting of expenses. He considered it sound fiscal practice to match each expense to a budget category. I found the practice alienating, as though we were business partners rather than people joined by a deeper spiritual bond. It was one point on which he refused to budge, arguing that it was standard practice among all his friends.
I could go down a list of grievances: weekends scheduled around spectator sports, dressing like a bum for family dinners, long phone chats with ex-girlfriends, subscriptions to girlie magazines. And Peter no doubt had his gripes about me: devoting too much time to relatives, cooking smelly foods, refusing to use credit for major purchases, dressing up for most occasions. My best friend was shocked that I could have so many cultural conflicts with an Asian American husband. "That man is worse than a lot of white guys," was her assessment.
On paper our marriage lasted almost two years but emotionally I had left Peter after the first year. I just needed a decent interval before breaking the awful news to my parents. When I did, they were more relieved than saddened. "Peter is a confused man," my mother said. My father's assessment was more damning: Peter was the product of confused parents. My own assessment? We had let our shared experiences as Asian Americans overshadow our conflicting attitudes toward Asian cultural values. Some barriers are are no less impenetrable for being invisible.
“Ironically, what brought me together with Peter in the beginning was our instantaneous rapport.”