Culture Shock, Why I Started this Blog

When my husband and I got married, we had been dating for years and I knew and liked his family.  Shortly after the wedding, his father’s health took a turn for the worse so we decided to move into my in-law’s home to care for them.  At the time I had not realized how very different our worlds could be.  I realize now that most of our dating relationship took place in my world, then I was plunged into a society with very different norms and expectations.  Navigating the first years of marriage while living immersed in the old school Mexican-American culture changed the course of our relationship in both positive and negative ways.  I kept being surprised by what seemed normal to everyone around me.  Eventually I was able to feel comfortable in this world, helped enormously by my mother-in-law who was very accepting of me and my foibles.

The thing is, I can inhabit the Mexican-American society, I can be loved and accepted, but at the same time I am always other.  I am always “la huera” (the white girl).  As an aside, another difference was the use of nicknames, when I was growing up, nicknames weren’t really a thing.  In my husband’s circle, nearly everyone goes through life with a nickname, some of them not very flattering at all.  Others are used as honorifics, for instance, my mother-in-law was “La Abuelita” (grandma) to everyone in town.

I have been nervous to put my perspective out there because I am aware of how much privilege I come from.  I am aware that Mexican-American and every other minority ethnic group are so tightly knit because they must be to survive in the larger society.  In the larger society, I am a white, middle class, educated, privileged person.   In the larger society I don’t ever encounter obstacles that are an every day occurrence for someone who is not privileged.  However, as an outsider who has been immersed in another culture, I think I have a valuable perspective.  I hope I can foster a conversation between people with widely differing experiences so that maybe, just maybe, there can be more understanding of the other during this tense time in our society.  And it is our society, all of us own part of the problems of today.

I have also encountered resentment, a feeling that I am somehow separating myself from the society in which I grew up, and still live most of the time.  That some of the habits that have rubbed off onto me after nearly thirteen years of marriage make me neither fish nor fowl.  (Perhaps it’s fourteen, neither of us can remember if we got married in 2002 or 2003.  🙂

I am now a person who inhabits both spaces, and so some things are important to me that are different from what is important in white society.  I have changed, my core values have changed in some ways, in other ways they have not.  It was really eye-opening to me when I had a misunderstanding with a dear friend, and when we got down to explaining our thinking to each other, it was when I was able to explain my actions and priorities through my family history that my friend was able to accept my choices.  My friend had thought I was acting through an imposed social system from the other culture and had a deep resentment that I was making choices through a foreign lens that affected my friend .  It didn’t even occur to me until much later to question why it would not have been OK to have different priorities because of all of my experiences.  It was one of those rare moments in our friendship where we truly did not understand each other.

There is an implied superiority in cultural choices.  Each culture believes, so deeply that it is often unacknowledged, that the choices that they make as a culture are better than those made by any other culture.  When white society is lampooned by comedians of color, we laugh, sometimes ruefully acknowledging the truth and silliness of our habits.  However, deep down, we know that our habits, however silly from the outside, really are the right way to do things.  The same is true for every other culture I have encountered.

So the question becomes, how do we overcome this so that we can truly communicate across cultural boundaries.  So often I see people talking past each other, with neither side really hearing what the other is trying to say.   My fervent hope is that this space becomes a forum where people from many cultural perspectives can candidly, but respectfully, work on figuring this all out.  I also want to find others who are neither fish nor fowl and share experiences and ways of coping with our unusual situation.

How have you encountered a cultural disconnect?  How have you dealt with it?  What have been successful strategies, and how about some less stellar moments?  How do you process the different expectations of those around you?

Parenting when styles are completely different

All of a sudden, when we knew it was real and we really were going to have a baby, all of the deep seated assumptions and cultural biases came out with a vengeance.  We had been married for years, had developed calluses over any sore spots and were rubbing along fairly well.  Then we got pregnant and all of that went away.  Now, five years later, we are still working and negotiating through it all.  I think it will be a never ending process as our deepest beliefs and upbringing show up when it’s time to make decisions, big or small.

My husband’s parents were loving authoritarians and mine were hippies.  He was raised to respect authority and always use titles of respect.  As a grown man, when his mother called his name, he would respond with “Mande Mama” (literal translation: “Command me mom”).  Now, don’t get me wrong, there was a deep love there which is why he does his best to raise his son in a way that his mother would approve.

I was raised with what I will call talk therapy.  My parents got through the ‘why’ stage by actually explaining, in sometimes excruciating detail, the hows and whys of whatever we asked.  Later, we spent a lot of time looking things up in the dictionary.  An actual big Meriam Websters dictionary with a place of honor in the home.  My husband could ask why, but only after he had completed whatever was asked of him.  My family would talk it through, and still does.  I am sometimes frustrated at how long it takes to come to a decision about anything, but decisions, once taken, are well thought out and not often regretted.  We do sometimes suffer from analysis paralysis.

There are pros and cons of each approach and we have decided to take a middle road.  We encourage the use of honorifics for adults and are teaching our son to say “Mande Usted” when we call his name.  On the other hand, we do explain why we are changing plans or asking him to do something.  We also invite his input when appropriate and let him make decisions (like wearing all of his clothing backwards, which has been a thing for months now) as often as possible.

We are constantly looking for the sweet spot between the approaches of our parents.  Luckily we are both able to see the value of the other approach and that helps a lot.  We also back each other up even when we disagree and hash it out later.  My husband has softened his manner immensely and I am constantly trying to find a balance.

Each day presents new challenges because, of course, there are some commands that must be obeyed without question for safety reasons.  Also, without some control over behavior, each and every thing that you try to do would become a constant negotiation.  I am not willing to do that.  On the other hand, I committed to treating him as a person from day one.  Part of that commitment includes explaining why I ask him to do what I ask him to do and not do.  Sometimes he gets it and sometimes he does not, but he always knows that there is a reason, even if it is that I am tired and just need things to be easier that day.  Most of the time he responds very well.

Most of the time I allow him to make choices, and most of the time I say yes when he asks for something.  However I also fully own my prerogative as his parent to say no or that he must do something.  He knows that when that happens, it is not negotiable and complies.

My husband, I think, will always tend more toward the authoritarian model and I more toward mentorship parenting where I act as a guide in his quest to learn about the world and who he will become.  I find that having both in the household is striking a balance and our son is learning how to behave in different situations.  When we are with his father’s side of the family there are certain expectations of behavior, which are different from the expectations of behavior with my family and at school.  For example, hugs are expected every time you say hello and goodbye to anyone on the Mexican side of the family.  This includes if you are at a party with thirty people, you must seek out each person to acknowledge them when you arrive and when you are about to depart.  It is a beautiful custom, but it did take me a while to get used to it.  One effect of learning this custom is that I hug my parents more often than I ever did before.  My son is easily able to follow that custom when he is with his father’s family, and the more casual greetings for mine.  It works for us.

For now, we will just keep muddling through, enjoying our bright, beautiful boy.  How do you decide on the type of parenting or customs to follow, especially if you come into parenthood with very different backgrounds?