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?