Holidays and Religion in Intercultural Families

My husband’s religion has basically the same roots as mine. He is Orthodox (Christian, not Jewish Orthodox), so his religious traditions are somewhat similar to Catholic. I grew up Presbyterian. We are pretty flexible and accepting of each other’s beliefs. I never thought that we’d have religious differences–but it turns out there were a few surprises like these:

  • All of our holidays, including Christmas and even some New Year traditions, occur on different dates. Plus, my husband’s country celebrates a new and old New Year’s, as well as a new and old New Year. It gets confusing–but it’s always interesting! Also we have to leave the Christmas tree up for a REALLY long time (as one of the New Year’s celebrated in his country is a few weeks after January 1.)
  • We don’t know a single holiday song in each other’s languages. I listen to my favorite Christmas albums, but my husband doesn’t even know the song “Jingle Bells”! Also, I no longer sing hymns in church on Christmas Eve every year–my husband would go, but it doesn’t have the same meaning for him. It’s ok though–instead, we spend the evening as a family at home, which is also warm and wonderful!
  • I can’t baptize my children in the church I attend. He wants his children baptized in a church of his religion in his language. There is one church like that in the US! We baptized our first child there, as we lived close at the time. But now the church is far away, so 2 of our 3 children are still not baptized. I am not comfortable with that.

Even though the right answer isn’t always clear, I am so glad that my children get to grow up knowing that even deep aspects of life differ everywhere–religion, culture, and traditions.

But these are just the minor details–we LOVE learning–and teaching our children–about holiday traditions in each other’s countries. So do our children. I will never forget the pleasure on my husband’s face the first time he saw the boys and me putting cookies and milk out for Santa.

Holiday traditions are meaningful and a great bonding experience for families. My husband and I were lucky that we both felt pretty flexible about religion, and that our religious beliefs are similar. If he would have tried to force me to change, attend his church services, or force our children to attend those rather than mine, I would have refused–he would also have refused if I insisted on doing things “my way.” We have exposed our children to both, and for us, that has worked well–though it doesn’t always feel natural, logical, or easy!

Foreign Spouse and Learning English

Ugh, English almost caused our marriage to end! My husband refused to learn English for several years. This baffled my family, made it very hard for my husband to find work, and to be honest–it just really felt unfair to me–not only did I have to work full-time, plus study in the evenings, but I also had to pay all the bills. So my husband could sit around and not work? It felt like he had all the choices, but I got none. It was infuriating and unfair, but looking back, I realize it was really hard for him too. My husband refused to learn English for several reasons, which I understand now, but did not understand then:

  1. He was afraid he couldn’t learn English.
  2. He felt embarrassed trying to speak English–he didn’t know words or how to put them together.
  3. He couldn’t accept reality–he tried to hold onto hope that he didn’t NEED to learn English. (Eventually he understood that this was wrong–but only after he’d learned the language!)
  4. He hates studying, always did, always will.

So how did he learn? He learned on the job. He had very difficult jobs, and there he had to communicate in English all day. At first, he could barely do it, but each day over the course of four years, he spoke each day and learned. I also tried to speak with him–but he always answered me in Russian. (Neither of us speak Russian natively but it’s the language we use together). So I gave up…

It can feel really hopeless when a spouse can’t speak the language around you–it can be embarrassing for you and your spouse in social and professional situations. The temptation is usually to pressure the spouse to learn the language. But remember–your spouse wants to learn the language around him or her much more than you want this! It’s very difficult to be unable express oneself or understand what people are saying due to a language barrier. I’ve been there. I experienced this in both Russia and Spain–it was very stressful for me, and I LOVE language learning! I like the phrase “When in Rome…” In Italy, you need to speak the language to find Italian jobs–it’s the same here and everywhere else.

Language learning will happen as long as your spouse is exposed to English (or the native langauge of whichever country you live in). Try to be patient and encourage your spouse to be in situations where he or she can hear and speak the language. Also, examine why you have this dynamic in your marriage–I never did this because our situation changed; however, if unchanged, it could easily lead to a burdensome, unbalanced marriage even for two people who are very in love. People need time to adjust to a new culture and accept the reality that learning what they need to might be hard. If all else fails, try putting yourself in your spouse’s place. What if you suddenly had to move to Brazil, adjust to the culture, and find Portuguese jobs? It’s so hard adjusting to a new country.  However, it’s important that the patterns change at some point so that responsibilities are shared–it’s too much for one person to do everything.

Foreign Spouses and Employment (or Unemployment)

One of THE hardest times of my entire life were the first years of marriage when my husband was unemployed. He was miserable. We were so poor. Each month, I wondered how we would pay the rent! We wanted to have a normal life–a house, a car, new clothes sometimes–nothing special, just normal. But even these things were impossible!!! I was depressed, he was depressed, and as time went on, it began to seem as if life would never get easier. But thank goodness, it did. My husband trained in a new job industry–it took a few years. His English improved as well.

Now my husband has a good job. It took a long time, but eventually he learned English. He also trained in a new career. This took years. But it paid off. If you are having hard times with your spouse’s unemployment, these are my suggestions:

  1. Don’t give up hope!
  2. If your spouse needs to improve his or her English, consider private tutoring. This will do more for his or her job search than any other factor. Even if he or she can speak Spanish, to qualify for most Spanish jobs in the US, individuals need English skills too (in most cases). As a teacher who did classroom lessons and tutoring, I can say for certain that tutoring helps a lot! The most important thing is to find a tutor you like working with, and preferably one who doesn’t know your language–this way you will use English.
  3. Remember that as much as you may want your spouse to find a job, he or she probably wants this even more than you do. It is incredibly hard to find a job in a foreign country. When I have job searched in the US (my native country), it isn’t too hard for me because I know what the job interviewer expects to hear, what to wear, and of course, I know English. When I looked for a job in Russia, the process was a complete mystery to me. If your spouse is from China, rest assured he or she is probably quite good at finding Mandarin language jobs at home–but here, it’s another story. Once he or she is used to the culture and language here, finding a job will happen more quickly.
  4. Help your spouse with a resume and job searching–it is unlikely he or she knows how this is done in our culture. In many cultures, job searching is done through acquaintances and connections. Explain how it is done in the US, and help your spouse search. Some family members or friends may say “Your spouse should do that himself/herself. He/she is just being lazy.” I totally disagree with this viewpoint–I’m very hardworker and not at all lazy. I lived in two foreign countries and needed a lot of help figuring out how to get a job. Same story with my spouse in the US.
  5. Help your spouse write a GREAT resume. If it stands out as being foreign (like including a birth date or photograph as in many foreign cultures), it will be hard to get an interview. Also, no matter what the language skills of the applicant, companies expect resumes and cover letters to be completely clean and edited–no grammar, spelling, or other types of errors!
  6. In job searching, find sites with foreign language jobs. One example of a job board with foreign jobs is the one at Foreign Language Jobs. You will find everything from private tutoring in Spanish, English, and most other languages to jobs for ESL teachers in other countries. You can browse the jobs or search using a keyword (such as “Spanish” or “ESL”). If your spouse has experience in the medical field in his or her own country, search using the keyword “medical,” and you will see links to foreign language jobs in the medical field. (You can also look for specific boards for only one foreign language, such as Russian jobs.)

When Intercultural Marriage Feels Strange

When my husband and I got married, I worked at a very conservative office in the Washington DC area. That area is so multicultural and full of people from all corners of the world. When you walk down the street, you hear so many languages. I LOVED this aspect of the area.

Yet the moment I got married, I felt this strange isolation–from coworkers, family, and friends. Family started commenting constantly on how urgently my new husband needed to learn English. Coworkers and managers made really dumb comments, such as “Wow, your husband said ‘hello’ to me. HE ACTUALLY spoke English!” Some of my friends just found it really puzzling that I had actually decided to marry my husband–they thought that because he was foreign, this wouldn’t last. And I guess they figured I was crazy for taking this path! And my husband’s family and friends felt the same way–why on earth wouldn’t he just marry a NATIVE girl, rather than an American (like me)???

Then, I changed jobs. I became a teacher of ESL (English as a Second Language). I’d worked on my master’s degree in TESL for 2 years. With this job change, my coworkers changed (obviously). Plus, I had sooooo much in common with all of my fellow ESL teachers, I developed new, really strong friendships quickly. My students, all immigrants and foreigners learning English, saw nothing strange or risky about being married to a foreigner. Suddenly, I was normal again!!! WOW.

My new environment completely changed my life and made me feel totally normal again! Most of my coworkers were married to foreigners. Almost all of them, like me, had lived in at least one foreign country and spoke foreign languages in addition to English. They ALL felt very comfortable around my husband, despite that he knew no English.

Changing my environment really made a huge difference in my peace of mind. If you are feeling isolated because your spouse is foreign–OR if you are an expatriate and feeling isolated because YOU are the only foreign spouse among friends, I strongly recommend that you seek places where you can meet other couples like yourselves. This might include language classes, expat social groups, churches with diverse congregations. Seek SOME groups, because you are definitely not alone. Why feel like you are?

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Cross-Cultural Issues in Raising Children

I am not really sure how to contain all of the issues in one post. Marriages like mine–in which the wife (that’s me) is Western and the husband is from the Middle East or East–will tend to have the most conflict as far as child rearing. This is because even though men from these areas can fall deeply in love with a Western woman, but the moment he realizes she will be the MOTHER of his children–and she was not at all brought up with the mothering ideas of his country–FEAR takes over.

This is extremely frustrating, frightening, and sad for both spouses. The good news is that mothers and fathers from all countries love their precious children dearly, and eventually, this helps tear away at any mistrust caused by cultural differences, beliefs, or bias. Here are some things I have learned:

  1. Parenthood can bring out a person’s worst fears about his or her spouse. My husband dearly loved me and treated me with a great deal of respect until the day our first child was born. On that day, he began to blow off all of my opinions, ideas, and basically thought most decisions I made about our child were very stupid and needed to be changed. Basically, he suddenly became convinced that a Western woman could be as good a mother as a girl from his country.
  2. These fears can cause unexpected, odd behavior. When my husband realized that our child wasn’t being raised exactly as he was, he freaked out. He became controlling and demeaning. This nearly ended in divorce when my son was 3. But slowly my husband began to return to normal–he saw how dedicated and loving I was, despite some cultural differences in the way I cared for our child. Now, years later, all is fine and we’re very excited about our third child who will be born in a few months!
  3. Mother-in-laws can make a bad problem MUCH WORSE. My mother-in-law came to “help” me with the new baby. This is the #1 worst decision I have made in my entire life. She felt she needed to TEACH me, a dumb Western girl, how to be a GOOD mother. They have many beliefs in their country that I just couldn’t agree with, such as covering my baby even though it was 90 degrees and he was sweating. Please. But because I refused to do some of these things, she felt I was a STUPID and HORRIBLE mother. Of course, this rubbed off on my husband, as to him, she’s the child-raising master! She could have helped, but because she was so close-minded, her visit had reprecussions that lasted 3 years.
  4. Cultural differences in child-rearing theories can lead to divorce. Learn to be open-minded and respectful while there’s time! My husband and I almost divorced over child-rearing issues. I was willing to compromise. Many of the beliefs my husband and his mother (and most people from their country) held about babies seemed strange to me. But they weren’t HARMFUL, so I was okay with them. But I still wanted to do many things my way, my doctor’s way, or per the advice of my family–things like feeding schedules, routines, limits, clothing, and so on–but when I tried, my husband would treat me like I was so stupid…eventually my child began to copy him. That was the end–I could not bare for my child to grow up disrespecting me. We almost divorced, but several interesting events happened, and my husband changed. To make a very long story short, now he’s very proud of my mothering–as I always was!
  5. Here is a short list of issues you may want to discuss before you have children with a foreign spouse. Some of these were very unexpected to me, and caused many, long-term spats!
    • Giving a child medicine for pain (some countries don’t like doing this)
    • Religion in which a child will be raised, or even only baptized
    • Age when a child should go to kindergarten (many countries go sooner than in the US)
    • Age when a child should go to pre-school
    • Whether babies should have an eating or sleeping schedule
    • What types of limits to set for toddlers (some cultures believe in almost NO limits–as my husband’s)
    • Activities mothers should do with toddlers
    • Who will stay home with the child? Is it okay for the mother to go out by herself while the father watches the child and vice versa? (It seems logical that this will be fine–sometimes it’s NOT!)
    • What role the father will have–change diapers, take walks with the child, give baths, or nothing
    • What role will the mother-in-law have–will she be expected to adhere to the mother’s ideas? If she fails to do so, what course of action will the husband and wife each take?
    • What languages do you want your child to speak at home? Is it important that they are bilingual?
    • Where will the child sleep? (in some cultures it is very important that the child sleep in the parent’s room or bed, while in others, children may have their own room much sooner)
    • What will you do about dating when the child is older? (in some cultures girls are strictly forbidden to date or even go out near the evening with female friends)
    • How often will the family visit in-laws? (this will be a consideration due to finances, plus families in some cultures will expect long visits of 2 months or more, both to your home and theirs)

All in all, child-rearing causes conflict even for most spouses from the same country! In my experience, just being respectful can prevent many problems. Also, remember that each spouse will feel a very serious and deep commitment to his or her ideas about child-rearing. You may feel you can be flexible until the moment when your partner wants to do something that you feel will not benefit your child. If this is rooted in culture, it may take time to solve.

All in all, my case was pretty hard. But even mine is fine now! And my husband is SUCH a wonderful father. I would not change any decision. Our family is extremely happy–it just took work and patience.

Challenges in Intercultural Marriages

I just read an excellent article on obstacles for partners in intercultural marriages. The author is Christine Benlafquih. This article is SO true of the obstacles my husband and I had.

If you are thinking about marrying a person from a culture or country foreign to your own, I strongly recommend reading this article. I wish I had seen more information like this in the early days of our relationship!

Cross-cultural Marriage Advice: Tips for Successful Intercultural Relationships

People from any two cultures are likely to face these issues. This author focuses on the issues that form cultures and makes cultures different. It’s these differences that most excite people in the early stages of intercultural relationships, but challenge them in later stages!

Do Foreigners Need a Social Security Number to Get Married?

Please Note: I am not an attorney. This is not legal advice. Do not take this post as legal advice, as each case is unique. This post is a story about my experience with my spouse during the process of getting my husband’s marriage-based greencard in the US.

So, do foreigners need a social security number to get married? When we were married years ago, the answer was NO! We married at the Justice of the Peace near our house. (Then we married in a church later.) It was such a special day:)

BUT for a while, I was afraid we couldn’t get married! My friends had gone to apply for a marriage license and said there was a HUGE sign posted: “Parties must present a social security number to obtain a marriage license.” Well, my fiance (now husband) didn’t have a social security number… I thought, “Great, now we can’t get married because of some dumb number.”

So, I called all of these different Justice of the Peace offices in different states–Pennsylvania, Las Vegas, and so on. They all said you have to show your social security number to get married. Finally one kind lady explained: “If you HAVE a social security number, you must provide it. If you DO NOT HAVE a social security number, then you must sign a document that says you don’t have one.”

I am not sure this law applies to all states, but you can call the Office of the City Clerk where you live to find out (this may also be called the Office of the Town Clerk depending where you live). You can usually find this information on the website of your city government.

When you call, ask: “Does a person need a social security number to get a marriage license in your office?” The person will probably say “Yes.”

Then ask: “What if the person does not have a social security number?” In many places, maybe all, the person will say, “In that case, he or she will sign a document that says he or she has no social security number.”

And then, of course, after you are married, your spouse will be able to get a social security card soon–definitely after receiving the EAD. Read about this here.

Parent Reactions

My Parents Reacted…Reasonably
I learned a lot about my parents when my husband and I decided to get married.

I am sure they were nervous about his English–because they knew he would have difficulty finding a job (and he sure did). So, I am sure they felt a little panicked wondering how he and I would support ourselves.

Short-Term Reactions
Both the short-term and long-term reactions surprised me. Short-term were the opposite of what I expected. My mother totally supported our marriage and was REALLY nice to my husband (then my fiance) and thought he was the nicest man ever, which he is–almost always:) My father (whose mother is also an immigrant who came in the 1940’s) was nervous that my husband might just want a greencard. I understand that concern, as there are foreigners who scam for greencards–but I knew this wasn’t the case with my husband.

So, my parents were happy for me mostly, but both of them were very nervous about my husband’s English–I was not, but I should have been. I assumed he was going to study hard and learn quickly. NO. Instead he totally refused to study or take English classes, and to this day 9 years later, still doesn’t speak all that well. But I don’t really care because he has a good job anyway, and we don’t speak English together. He finally learned English from speaking at work (he managed to find work, very hard and low-paying). Then from there moved onto better jobs. Then really good jobs, better than mine! But it was a long, hard road.

Long-term Reactions
Anyway, the long-term reactions of my parents were the ones that really got me. Everything changed. My mother ended up HATING my husband because of the hardships I went through (financial and child-rearing mainly–that topic needs a whole different post, many of them actually). It is too bad. But we rarely see her, so it’s her problem not mine. She doesn’t treat my husband respectfully, so I refuse to go. My husband and children should always be treated with kindness, even if that means avoiding my own mother. And I have to be treated kindly even if this means avoiding his mother. Now that we avoid both of them, we are very happy. We talk to them and email, but we visit very rarely.

My father, on the other hand, became very supportive of my husband and our marriage. He learned that I chose my hardships and that I was willing to bear them because I really believed the future would be better, and that my husband was still the right man for me. Thank goodness I turned out to be right!

When my husband got really good jobs, everyone calmed down completely. I think that was a big weight lifted from their shoulders. Also, they know I am happy, which is all they wanted.

Intercultural Marriages, Doctors, and Medicine

Different Countries View Medicine and Doctors Differently–FINE

Ugh. People in different countries have different theories about medicines. In my husband’s country, many people have this WIERD idea that a person should avoid medicine because it weakens the body’s ability to heal itself.

That’s all fine though–my husband can be in pain and refuse to take Tylenol to “give his body a chance to handle it on its own.” Sure, he can claim that Airborne caused his kidneys to hurt. I’ve never heard of that happening to anyone else, but whatever…

Medicine for Children
The part that I can’t handle is when my husband refuses (i.e. tries to refuse) to let me give my children medicine. I give my children medicine in three situations: when they are in PAIN (like teething, which pain is worse than childbirth according to pediatricians), when they are COUGHING non-stop (too uncomfortable), and when the doctor prescribes something. That’s it. I probably give them medicine four or five times a year.

In the past, we got into HUGE fights about this. I finally stopped fighting and started doing things his way–sneaky. In my husband’s country, people think it’s really beneficial and intelligent when people are sneaky. So, I now just don’t listen to him about the medicine, and when he is in a different room busy with something, I give my kids the medicine they need to feel better. Hey, after 9 years of marriage to a foreigner, you learn that not every single detail needs to be discussed–same with marriage within your own culture, I’m sure.

And everyone’s happy. Oh, and if he asks me, of course, I tell him. I have no reason to lie–after all, I’m doing the right thing.

PS. Quick TIP: If you are in this situation, ask your doctor questions while your spouse is there. For example, I asked ours, “If I give my children Tylenol when they are teething, will it make them less able to handle pain?” (my husband’s exact words) It was wonderful to watch the doctor’s face contort into confusion and mild irritation as she answered “Ummmm, NO.” After this, medicine during teething was not as big an issue.