Russian-American intercultural marriage – how to stay happily married beyond 20 years

in Couple Profile, Intercultural Marriage

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Russian-American couple withFirstBaby
Vladimir and Ami Chopine with their first baby

An intercultural marriage follows the same general stages of marital adjustment and development as a same-culture marriage, but only with a set of more unique issues and challenges such as language and communication, cultural differences and lots of overwhelming compromises.

The key point to remember in overcoming those challenges might be as simple as “being ready”. But what if yours is interfaith?  Would your clashing beliefs only add strain on your already well-stretched patience?  How would you achieve happiness in spite of differences?

The Offbeat Couple

Vladimir and Ami Chopine are from South Jordan, Utah, US. Vladimir is a UI Developer by day and a Graphics Guru by night. He has some incredible artwork. Ami is a science fiction and fantasy writer, though she does some technical writing on the side and has a couple of books published on 3D computer graphics. Together, they own Geekatplay Studio. They’re blessed with three girls, one boy, two cats, a dog, and a rat. They’ve been married for 20 years. You can read about Ami’s geeky take on life, mothering, writing and knitting at Over the Dither and Through the Words.

What makes your marriage offbeat?

I was born and raised in America around Utah and Idaho. Vladimir comes from Moscow, Russia. It was still the USSR when he left.

What made you end up in an interracial/interfaith marriage?

Well, we fell in love. J It was fun to be around each other because there were a lot of similar interests. We are both geeks, though that wasn’t as fashionable a term 20 years ago as it is now. No internet, long distance meeting kind of thing back then in the “olden days”. <laugh>

What was your motivation in deciding to marry someone of different culture or faith?

Once again, the whole love thing was a very strong motivator. But importantly, he was of the same faith as me. He moved to America before we met and was converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints before we met, though God led us to meet each other in time for me to see him be baptized. So we are both LDS, otherwise known as Mormon. For our religion, both of us have to be active and worthy members to have our marriage sealed for time and all eternity in the temple.

Tell us about the wedding. Did your different religious and cultural background affect how you planned the wedding?

Russian-American intercultural marriage

Vladimir and Ami Chopine on their wedding

Our wedding reflected the lack of understanding we both had of each other. Because Vladimir hadn’t been a member long enough (one year) we couldn’t be married in the temple. And we don’t use the chapel to marry people, but there are other rooms in the church building we can use to get married. I told him that, but because of language troubles he thought that meant we couldn’t be married in the church at all. I didn’t realized his misunderstanding, and thought he just really wanted to be married at his friend’s house, which he said was nice and which I didn’t see until like the day before. It was decorated in seventies browns (in 1991), so I was a bit unhappy about that. Our wedding was small but still crowded because of being in the house and not the church. But you know what, none of that really mattered, because pomp and circumstance aren’t what make a marriage work. Anyway, the Bishop (leader of our local congregation) performed the ceremony. But that was just for time – until death do we part.

One year later (the waiting time for such a marriage unless law requires a civil ceremony before the religious one) we were sealed in the Portland, Oregon temple so that our marriage could last beyond death.

What are your biggest challenges as an interracial couple and how do you solve them?

This depends on what stage of the marriage you are talking about. Some of our earliest difficulties stemmed from language barriers. Vladimir learned English when he moved to the US. He’d had little warning about this life change. He’d been here eight months when I met him. So sometimes we misunderstood each other beyond the normal miscommunications a couple might have.

But that’s an easy one to overcome, really. Just be ready for it. Now here is the interesting thing: because we were both so geared up to overcome miscommunication from the language barrier I think it helped us be more aware of and more tolerant of normal miscommunications. So this may have been more of a boon.

Same with cultural differences. We were both so aware that we would have lots of differences coming into it that we practiced tolerance and understanding before coming to bad conclusions. I think this also helped with some of the stuff that even typical same culture couples are newly faced with. Expect differences and try to integrate them together, don’t try to just change them to your way.

Are there any marital issues that come up due to different religious background? How do you address them?

Well now, Vladimir may be LDS now but he was raised Russian Orthodox under an Atheist regime until his mid-twenties. So he didn’t have much practice going to church. I shush him at church as much as I do the children!

portland-mormon-temple

Portland Mormon Temple where Vladimir and Ami had their church wedding

But this brings us to his mother now, too, who was still Russian Orthodox. One time, she thought she saw someone give the evil eye to my daughter so when we got home there was this whole ritual she did to protect our house and daughter. Neither Vladimir nor I believed in it, but we let her do it because it helped her feel better. I also have this kitchen charm my mother in law gave me, a broom with several items symbolizing the needs of a home.  I don’t believe in it as a charm, but it is part of the Russian heritage so it is hanging by my sink. But we don’t hang icons out, as is seen in a good Russian Orthodox home.

Did you ever encounter people who frown upon interracial marriage? How did you deal with them?

We are both Caucasian, though on the extremes. I’m very pale Anglican and he’s quite dark, with a fair amount of Asian ancestry.  So we get no strange stares in the grocery store or anything. And our circle of friends, our church family, and both our families just think it is cool now. But early on, Vladimir’s Russian friends thought he was crazy for marrying an American because American women were loud and demanding. And on my side, the counsel was to be careful because Russian men could be abusive. There is probably something to both of those stereotypes. And both of them stem from selfishness. I’ll talk about that later.

How did your in-laws and extended families from each side react to your interracial marriage? 

I was raised by parents who believed in individuality and diversity of cultures. This was something to be celebrated. I lived through the Cold War, the tensions between the US and the USSR that almost led to a Nuclear war. The Russians were the enemy. But my parents emphasized to me that it was their government, not their people that was an enemy. The people there were just as good and loving in their families as we were in ours. But cultures do have their weakness, and the one in the Russian culture was the second class attitudes towards women and the tolerance of abuse and the prevalence of alcoholism there. They’d just watched a documentary about that when I told them I’d met a Russian man. So they were worried. But once they met him, their worries were quickly put to rest. Vladimir isn’t part of that typical culture.

As far as Vladimir’s mom is concerned, I’m not as good a housekeeper as she is and this bothers her. But that isn’t cultural, is it? And yet, Vladimir’s friends early on in our marriage told him that he had to be harsher to me so I would obey him more and keep house better. He told them he hadn’t married me to get a maid but to get an intellectual companion. And if they didn’t like it, they could get lost.

More towards cultural, I think it bothers her that I don’t drink coffee. Not so much alcohol because Vladimir didn’t drink it even when he lived in Russia. Coffee and Alcohol are prohibited by the Word of Wisdom in our LDS beliefs.

What are the benefits of an interracial marriage?

Genetics! A good mix of very different ancestries can be good for the progeny. The kids also get two interesting cultural backgrounds that can enrich their understanding of the world. A handful of these kinds of marriages in a community can really help it grow towards tolerance.

Intercultural family WithExchangeStudent

The young intercultural family with an exchange student

And like I said before, we came into this with a stronger commitment to working through our differences because we were so aware of them. Having been in this marriage for two decades, I think that some people even from the same country, language, race, and religion can have such a very different family life that the culture shock can be hard to overcome because they didn’t expect it and weren’t prepared for it. Expecting differences and being willing to live with them is something every couple should do no matter their backgrounds.

What compromises are required in order to make your interracial marriage work?

If you are talking only about compromises resulting from cultural differences then an obvious one is the food. Some of the food I grew up with my husband hates. So I don’t get to make my comfort foods as much as I’d like. Of course, he has comfort foods too that he likes to make. He’s a better cook than me. He happens to be formally trained as a chef. So we both sometimes eat food we aren’t very excited about because the other really wants it that day.

I give him more leeway than I would an American raised man, in regards to the kinds of jokes I’ll allow. He is progressive for where he grew up, but he still grew up in a place where women are second class, and he had no good male role model.  He also grew up where jobs were very separated between women’s work and men’s work. At the same time, he is far more actively involved in me being “fulfilled” than a man who might not speak such rude jokes or who might help with the dishes. He never did the dishes or the laundry (he does fold) if I’m there. He rarely changed a diaper – only if I had to deal with a crisis with another child. Yet, he will pay for me to leave for a week to learn writing – and then he does all the stuff and often the house is cleaner when I get back. He’s very supportive.

He also had to compromise with me raising our children in a very different way than is customary, even in my own country. We used attachment parenting and the family bed, nursed for a longer than typical time (in the US).

Did any of you have to move to your spouse’s country or learn the language? How did you find the integration process?

Vladimir had already moved here and was learning to speak English when we met. He had to deal with cultural shock. This is a very real thing that lasts a few years. At first it is just trying to figure out where things are and what things are. That gets better fairly quickly. But the other problem is not having friends you can easily talk and joke with. You can’t easily meet people. Once language is better, then there are still things that are different. Things like the sense of humor and stories, cartoons, movies, music, etc. that you grew up with as well as other common cultural touchstones that the person who left their homeland misses. This is why there are ethnic communities in areas with large enough populations to accommodate them.

Depression is a stage of cultural shock that the native spouse needs to look out for. To help alleviate this it is really important to help your spouse connect to their cultural community. If you know they are stressed out from a bad day, try to make a favorite homeland food or pick some up from a restaurant if you can’t. It is equally important to help your spouse learn the native language, even if you know theirs, because part of getting over cultural shock is being able to make friends in the new country and enjoy them. A lot of that takes language.

Does cultural difference affect how you raise and discipline your child/ren? In what way?

Vladimir leaned towards spanking; I leaned towards putting them in the corner. At the age they are now, it’s more taking away privileges like internet time, games, TV, phone etc. On the other hand, he’s the more “fun” of us both. We both agree on what it takes to be a good human being. We won’t tolerate dishonesty, hitting, unkindness, disobedience, etc. We expect the kids to work hard at their school work. They have chores, too.

Bicultural kids

Russian-American bicultural kids

Discipline is important to talk about this beforehand. It is important to think about regardless of cultures being the same or different. Children fare best with strong boundaries (clear rules, consistent consequences) and lots of love and positive praise for what they get right. Though Vladimir and I had slightly different approaches, we both agreed on this. If parents don’t agree about rules, then parenting won’t be consistent and children will become confused or learn to manipulate the parents.  Establish a rule that if one parent says no, it is no whatever the other parent says. And check on it! Kids often run to the other parent when they don’t get the answer they want. They aren’t being evil manipulative or anything when they first try this, so it’s important to show that it doesn’t work from the very first time. No matter what kids think in the short term, in the long term strong boundaries and consistent parenting lead them to have a sense of safety, good self-confidence, and self-control. Don’t forget the praise when they do things right.

As for culture, they naturally grow up in the culture they are living in. The primary caretaker, the mom usually, has a heavy influence too. So my children have more than the average American’s knowledge about Russian culture and they love their heritage, but other than liking Discotheque and Technopop much more than I do, they’re pretty much American.

What’s your favorite way of spending time together?

We like to do lots of things together. We have a lot of similarities with the kinds of movies we like, music. We like good food, both cooking ourselves and finding a good restaurant. We make sure we eat together as a family at the table often. We enjoy the conversation we have with each other and with our kids. We play games together sometimes. We both like books, so sometimes we’re both in bed together reading. Back to conversation. We do love to talk to each other, and we still do often late into the night.  Our home office space is in the same room, so we often work together too.  But since we like to talk, that reduces our productivity!

What are your secrets in keeping the romance alive?

Let me tell you the truth. Some of the young feelings, the giddiness, the blushing, that goes away once we become familiar. The rush of a new romance is exciting, and once the romance is old it isn’t quite as exciting anymore. But people are mistaken, that romance = true love.

True love comes from putting our spouse first. We cannot be selfish. We must always think of our spouse, what they need, want, and what they’re experiencing. If a spouse has a bad day, we should be their sanctuary. Bad day at work, bad day at home… doesn’t matter husband or wife. And if BOTH have a bad day, just give each other a long hug and order in takeout or microwave a frozen dinner. (Speaking of which, always have an emergency dinner on hand that can be quickly warmed up. We can’t predict bad days.) If a spouse tried to do something nice, but messed up, still understand it as an act of love from them.

Intercultural kiss

True love comes from putting our spouse first

Talk. Be interested together about the little stuff, the news, and the quirky things that happened that day.

At work, we often ask “how are you?” and not really mean it. At home, we should ALWAYS mean it, and ask it often.

And don’t part ways at the beginning of the day without a kiss and an expression of love.

In a lifetime marriage you will experience financial difficulties, work troubles, health problems, challenges raising children, large appliances breaking down, natural disasters, etc. In all of these, no matter how hard life gets, a married couple is the team that helps each other through it all. Do what needs to be done, and do it with love and friendship.  Because there will days when you will both find you go to bed without a spark of sexual desire, or maybe just one of you. But that doesn’t mean the love is over (unless there is something else terribly wrong). It just means you are tired or sick or overstressed. So just show love and interest in your spouse’s feelings and experiences and it will come back. That’s the good thing about marriage. A bad day here and there is okay, because we always have tomorrow.

What advice would you give to those who are planning for or are new to an interracial/interfaith marriage?

I think I’ve already given a ton of advice. Enjoy the cultural differences that add beauty and diversity. Make your home a place that celebrates both cultures. Aspects of the culture with are just irritating, learn to tolerate. The parts of the culture which are destructive, try to change.  But figure out before marriage if there are personality or cultural differences which would be harmful to you or your future children, and then don’t marry the person if you find they keep to those harmful ideas or traditions! If harmful things were learned in childhood and accepted by the population, it is almost impossible for them to change.

I’m going to go against the grain of your website and recommend against inter-religious marriage. What religion do you raise them in? How do you have family prayer? Enjoy reading scripture together? Enjoy any other important ritual together. If God is important to you, then it will become emotionally painful for you to not share in your experiences with your spouse. I have seen this in other, long term couples. Perhaps an atheist, if they aren’t a strong and evangelical atheist – just a soft one who doesn’t care about religion – could make an okay inter-religious partner, since they wouldn’t have teachings that contradict. Except for this: what if you are trying to teach your children about a religious doctrine and your spouse decides to chime in about no God? This is really difficult for both parents and the children involved and pretty much negate the “consistent parenting” advice.  If you have an inter-religious marriage I suggest either one converts, or promises to go totally mute about the subject, (both shaky ground) or you don’t have children.

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