Thursday, March 12, 2009

Cultural Differences: The Part That Sucks

A few years ago, I was at J. Strom Thurmond Lake on Memorial Day with a boyfriend's family, white Americans who had been here for several generations. There, because I speak Spanish, his mother asked me to talk to a Mexican family that had just arrived. They were unpacking at our tables and had a bag of coal to use the grills.

I explained as respectfully as possible (the father was my father's age) that our family had rented this space for the day. They didn't buy it at first, so I showed them the sign posted with our reservation. I said we'd be glad to share some picnic tables, but our group was so big that we really did need both grills to cook. I apologized but of course, they said it was no problem and collected their kids -already dripping from jumping in the lake- to find another picnic area. About 20 minutes later, I remembered the parking attendant had told us that all of the areas had been reserved. I felt horrible that I hadn't thought to warn that family. I imagined them going around the whole lake being asked to leave, sometimes politely, sometimes not.

I could imagine what they were thinking, because my family came to America in 1980, and we had been in similar situations before I was old enough to handle things like reservations. We were thankful for a holiday we didn't understand, often the first day in months when the whole family could be together, sometimes the first day in weeks either parent had had off. So the parents think, "What's something affordable that will be fun for our children today?" It seems so simple to go pick up some food, a bag of coal, and floaties for the kids to go to the lake, but it never turns out to be that easy. How are people who don't own boats supposed to know that public spaces at the lake need to be reserved weeks ahead of time?

But that's not the part that sucks about cultural differences. That was the part that sucks about being new immigrants.

A couple weeks later, that boyfriend and I went out to dinner with his uncle. He told us that his sister, my boyfriend's mother, had been telling the story of how "Ivy 'took care' of the Mexicans" with brio to anyone who would listen. I was horrified that she saw me as this bully (and was proud of it!), and even more horrified that her brother and my boyfriend thought it was a great story. My boyfriend thought it was good news that his mom was so fond of me. After dinner, we got into an unusually emotional argument that led nowhere. It took me days to articulate myself.

Ultimately, I was upset, because I felt that if his mother really understood that my family is like that Mexican family and that I am not at all like her, she'd want to get rid of me like she wanted to get rid of "them." That's probably the only time I've ever felt something close to shame about where I come from. We eventually broke up, not because of this situation but not for reasons completely unrelated to it either.

The part that sucks about cultural differences is that you can't entertain the fantasy of loving in a vacuum. There is no final "We made it!" or "happily ever after." Walls between all of us, rooted from the time of Babel, long before you fell in love or met or were even born, can rear up between you any day of the week. Those days, differences dwarf love, and one feels hollow inside like watching your father cry for the first time or learning about death after seeing your dog run over by a car. Love is precious, but it doesn't trump everything, so when you have the chance to root for love, please, shut up and do it.


  1. Hear, hear, Ivy...we came here when I was 4 years and we went through the same awkward thing. A perceptive child especially will pick up on these embarrassments and feel terrible about it, because they want to see their parents as the strong and able people they are in the home. I don't think anyone can truly understand the difficulties of immigration unless they've, and it seems that outside of that they have a tough time summoning up enough courage or empathy to forgive immigrants for their "shortcomings."

  2. Very good and thoughtful post.

  3. Thanks for commenting, y'all. I knew this was the big elephant in the room about intercultural relationships, but knowing didn't make it any more comfortable. :)

    Mayuri, I really believe that, despite how tough it is, we CAN -each of us- muster the courage to forgive each other (immigrants, exes, families, everyone) and accept each other as we are. Otherwise, I would have never bothered to start this blog.

  4. Ivy,

    I just had the opportunity to read your post. Your words resonated with my experience growing up and honestly, I am still trying to learn this whole love business ;). Thanks for helping in my growth.


  5. While I agree with everything you say and I think it's really admirable, you have to give people some credit. Marriage is the hardest thing most people do--even with very similar backgrounds, so for a lot of people it's not racism that drives them to marry people of the same race, but a need for as much of a similar background as possible. Coming from someone who's been married for 4 years with a baby. I love my husband dearly but we've had good times and bad and I think cultural differences would add to the stress. More power to couples who can do it with so many differences, but don't assume others are intolerant.

  6. No one here would think you were intolerant just because you and your husband are the same race. We love all love here. Hope you keep coming back!



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