For a debate between an English native speaker husband and an English-as-a-second language wife, there´s no adjudicator to weigh things out and declare who wins. Does fluency guarantee the husband´s win over every argument? Does being slower in expressing herself in English make the wife’s arguments less valid? How should an intercultural couple with language barrier come up with a resolution? What does it take to screen out all the ideas laid on the table and pick what’s best?
The Offbeat Couple
Ryan & Maggie McLaughlin live in Haikou, Hainan, China. They’ve been married for four and a half years and are blessed with a very adorable and amazing one-year-old boy, Casey, and an awesome two-year-old golden retriever, Button. Ryan Mclaughlin is as a Web designer/developer while Maggie is a Yoga Instructor and a doting Stay-at-Home Mom.
What makes your marriage offbeat?
I’m Canadian and Maggie is Chinese. Not only do we come from very different cultures, we also have very different socioeconomic backgrounds, which I feel makes for a quite unique and colourful marriage.
What made you end up in an interracial marriage? What was your motivation in deciding to marry someone of different culture?
I don’t think either of us chose to marry someone of a different culture. In fact, I would say that our different cultures were the largest hurdle in our way to marriage. Chinese culture is quite traditional and even with a new relationship there is an expectation that it will lead to marriage, whereas my North American upbringing is a lot more casual and the expectation is much the opposite — you would be viewed as rushing into things if you were talking about marriage in the early days of a relationship.
Despite those differences though, I think we worked hard, and continue to work hard, at finding a middle ground.
Tell us about the wedding. Did your different religious and cultural background affect how you planned the wedding?
Both our cultures promote huge exhaustive and expensive weddings, which may be why neither of us wanted that for our special day. We’re both quite independent and so decided to forgo tradition and do it our own way — at sunset on a beach on the southern Chinese island of Hainan. Our marriage ceremony was very small, only a few members of my family and Maggie’s mother could be there. My family flew over from Canada and we met them at the airport just before hopping on another plane south to the island. From there it was a bit of a whirlwind of introducing my family to China and also preparing the few bare essentials we needed for the wedding (music, a cake, a quiet stretch of beach, etc.) in a place where we had never been before.
The event wasn’t without hiccups, just like all weddings I suppose, but it turned out well. With my father overseeing the ceremony, we exchanged our bilingual vows as the sun went down over the sea.
What are your biggest challenges as an interracial couple and how do you solve them?
Even though Maggie is fluent in English (and I try my best with Chinese), we still come up against our fair share of communication problems. I think this is more due to different cultures and backgrounds than strictly language abilities though. I come from a rather modern/liberal culture, whereas Maggie was raised with a more traditional set of values and sometimes those differences cause friction.
However, we’ve both learned (and are still learning) to accept and respect the other’s opinion, even if we don’t always agree with it. It can be a challenge at times, but the differences also keep us on our toes and challenge us to widen our perspectives about how we see the world.
Because we live in China, most of the cultural acclimatization is on me. However, our home is much more westernized than the average Chinese home, so Maggie has also had to adapt. As a simple example, in China it’s quite common for a person of a specific region to almost exclusively eat the cuisine of that region. Because of this, Maggie was initially quite apprehensive about the more internationally-diverse selection of food I enjoyed eating. Now having lived together for more than half a decade, if we go too long without a good burger, Korean BBQ or Indian curry she starts getting cravings.
Fundamentally we both value the same things though, and I think that’s hugely important, especially now that we have our son. I believe our culture and traditions are put on us, largely not by choice, and while there are a lot of benefits and a richness that can be gleaned from those things, for me it is most important to have a solid personal foundation outside of where you were born and what your ancestors believed and did. And so despite the differences we have, on the most important things we very much see eye to eye.
Did you ever encounter people who frown upon interracial marriage? How did you deal with them?
In China a girl getting married to a foreigner has a duplicity to it in that on one hand foreigners (particularly those of European decent) are seen as affluent (even when we’re not!), but on the other are viewed as not having strong family values and generally just being too “sui bian” or “casual”. Because of this I’m sure a few of Maggie’s more distant relations were a bit apprehensive after hearing about our marriage, but her immediate family has always been extremely supportive.
Likewise my family has also been very accommodating and intrigued by Maggie’s different cultural background. I think we’re fortunate to be living in a time where interracial marriages are ever-increasingly common and so the xenophobia and ignorance behind that sort of intolerance is gradually fading. I’m sure it will always exist, but I’m happy I live in a world that is much more likely to embrace a multi-cultural/racial family than shun it.
How did your in-laws and extended families from each side react to your interracial marriage?
As I mentioned above, Maggie’s family has been wonderful in accepting me. We don’t live near either of our families though, so that’s probably minimized any cultural friction that could occur between us and our respective in-laws. I think on both sides of our families there is a bit of a novelty factor in having a daughter- or son-in-law of a different culture.
What are the benefits of an interracial marriage?
I think there are many benefits to an interracial marriage, but the biggest one is that it’s never boring. No matter how well I think I know my wife’s mind, she always sucker-punches me with a thought or idea that is just completely different than anything I would have thought of. It’s often challenging, but I can’t think of anything truly fulfilling and rewarding that wasn’t a challenge.
What compromises are required in order to make your marriage work? Did any of you have to move to your spouse’s country or learn the language? How did you find the integration process?
When we met, Maggie had already been studying English for quite a while, and because of this the language we speak around the house is English. I’m eager to learn Chinese, and have been a (rather lazy) student for quite some time. Likewise, when we got together I had already been living in China for a period of time, and so was somewhat familiar with the country and its customs. That said, communication, perhaps more so than in a non-interracial relationship requires constant cultivation and patience.
We’ve also had to make some compromises on where to live. For now the path of least resistance keeps us living in China, but as our son grows and reaches schooling age, we’ll be looking to move to Canada for its better education system. It will mark an entirely new chapter in our lives and I’m sure we’ll face a whole new set of challenges as Maggie experiences what its like to live outside of her culture. It is sure to have its difficulties, but I’m looking forward to introducing Maggie to Canada and in the process re-discovering it myself.
How do cultural differences affect the way you raise and discipline your child?
Cultural differences absolutely can play a role, but as we share a lot of the same core values, we tend to be well-aligned in how to raise our son. We also went into being parents as complete novices, neither of us having much experience with babies or small children. As such, we both consumed a stack of parenting books and very proactively discussed (and continue to discuss) the best ideas in all of them.
What’s your favorite way of spending time together?
Our son keeps us pretty busy, so these days the only time we really get to spend together just the two of us is watching some TV or a movie after he goes to bed. We’ve also just recently moved to a city on a tropical island (the same island we were married on) and so now have a standing family-day at the beach once a week.
What are your secrets in keeping the romance alive?
I don’t know if there are any secrets. Really I think it’s just about remembering who your spouse is. When we fall in love with someone we rarely know them as well as we do after several years of marriage, and yet there’s no discussion then about keeping the romance alive — it keeps itself alive. I think that’s because in those early days we are seeing them not as they are defined by their relationship to you, but as they truly are, and that’s sexy. I think remembering and respecting that fosters an everlasting sense of wonderment about the other person, which keeps things fresh and interesting.
What advice would you give to those who are planning for or are new to an interracial marriage?
Patience is needed in any relationship, but it is crucial in an interracial marriage — particularly if there are any language barriers. I also think it’s important to remember that just because you’re faster in your native language doesn’t mean you actually won the argument or that your ideas are any more valid because you can express them fluently. This is something my wife has taught me, and something that without patience I would not be able to appreciate.
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