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Trial by Dinner

My husband and I met in Pittsburgh while where we were both going to school. I am 22, he's 24, and we've been together for 2 years. I can say in all honesty that our relationship has suffered very little due to our racial differences. His family, on the other hand, has made some adjustments. Duc is Vietnamese and I am white, but the problems we have don't stem from that as much that his family is Asian... and mine isn't.

My family was never very close. The majority of my relatives are from Pennsylvania and for most of my life we have lived in Florida. In Duc's culture it is customary to spend generations in the same house with your parents and their parents and so on. When they came to this country neither of his grandparents were living, and that tradition died with them- much to the disappointment of his parents.

Duc and I

When we moved out on our own it was difficult for everyone. I see my family maybe once a year and we talk on the phone maybe once a month. Imagine my confusion when we were getting phone calls from his mother every other day telling us it has been "so long" (about 3 days) since the last time she had seen us. I was overwhelmed! "Why THIS weekend?" I would say... every weekend. I just didn't know how to deal with seeing them so much, it was completely foreign to me.

Other difficult instances involved his aunts and uncles who didn't speak English. Now in a few cases they were very kind towards me, but most situations started out innocently and ended with me being the subject of some hazing ritual. Generally at the beginning of my initiation I'd be served some dish which I had never seen. They'd give me the food, instruct Duc (in Vietnamese of course- using my name in English) not to tell me what it is, and they'd all stare silently to see how I react to the situation. Sometimes it would taste bad, sometimes not so bad, but ALWAYS followed by an astonished audience, amazed at the skills this white girl had using chopsticks. It didn't really matter to them how I reacted to the food, just the means at which I got it into my mouth.

After months of such incidents, I think they were finally beginning to warm up to me -- just in time for what was to come. That was when I found myself pregnant. When we told his parents, his mother wept. I was never quite sure if it was caused by disappointment in her son, that he hadn't graduated college, that we weren't married, or that he didn't settle down with some nice Vietnamese girl. I'm still not sure. We did end up getting married though.

After coming home from our honeymoon I was 5 months pregnant, and that's when the changes began. I was now officially a daughter-in-law, and in the Vietnamese chain of command I was at the bottom of the bottom. The daughter-in-law was expected to serve the mother-in-law. Cook for the entire family, be the last to eat. The daughter-in-law would basically assume all of the matriarchal grunt work Well, that's not quite what I had in mind when I married my husband. Nor, what I was capable of achieving. My cooking skills were obtained from my mother: microwave, boil, or bag. I just couldn't be as proficient as his mother in the kitchen. It was at these moments when I had to step in and draw my cultural battle lines. It was at that time when I decided that I would never step foot in her kitchen, and haven't since then. A big step considering that the kitchen is the most important room in the house. Through food they express love, disappointment, approval, joy, remorse. They rarely talk about their feelings, just eat them.

I know I have impacted his family, though we're all still under construction. After our wedding all of his mother's siblings got together and decided to shun her as punishment for our omitting the tradition of announcing all of them and their children by name at our wedding. They haven't spoken since. His parents are reluctantly living with the arrangement of seeing their grandson every few weeks instead of religiously every weekend. His mother is certain that I'll never live up to her cooking and ironing skills, although she'll never tell me that directly- only prepare me dinner with a side of hostility.

I'm sure that many of the problems I've faced with my in-laws I could've quite possibly encountered even if I married a white man. The difference is how I've handled them. I've spent my life being very stubborn and impulsive and they've forced me to take stock of the whole situation, before opening my mouth. A meeting of my western ways with an environment of eastern perseverance has been a successful match. I know I've learned a lot from them, but I can never be sure what they've learned from me. What has this woman with Polish/Italian/Welsh/American Indian/French blood offered to them? I think I've taught them to lighten up. I think.





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