My Interracial Marriage

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Every marriage is an intercultural marriage.

Think about it: the person you marry is bound to be from a different culture than the one you grew up in. His family likes barbecues and hydroplane races; yours goes to museums and book signings. Her mother cooks dinner every night; your mom always brought home take-out. His family hikes and runs marathons, they sail and ski and play Frisbee; your family doesn’t even watch sports on TV. Her family shops for fun and runs up huge credit card bills; you grew up in a frugal family that believes in saving and investments. I could go on and on—noisy families and quiet ones, Democrats and Republicans, Catholics, Baptists, Jews and atheists, small families and large, parents who are single, divorced or re-married.

So with all these differences, how much could race matter? And I mean only race, boiled down to that one essential difference.

Not much. At least not in our marriage.

I’ve been trying to think of problems related to race that Eugene my Chinese husband of 31 years and I had, and the only thing I can come up with is food.

        Not 5:00 in the morning

Not 5:00 in the morning

Now don’t get me wrong. I love Chinese food. And my husband loved steak and fried chicken.  But (and I think I’m not exaggerating here) food is simply more important to the Chinese. The Chinese women I knew in Manila went to the market at 5am to buy the freshest produce. They made steamed dumplings from scratch. They served eight or ten delicious courses at their dinner parties. I couldn’t keep up; nor did I want to. Still, their examples left me feeling pressured to be more enthusiastic about cooking than I was.

On the plus side, Eugene was an excellent cook, who also took pride in choosing great restaurants—high-brow and low, Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, Filipino, Vietnamese … Yum!

(Now that I think of it, even attitudes toward food are not a racial but a cultural difference.)

It’s not your partner; it’s other people.

In an interracial marriage, the problem often comes from the attitudes of other people. I suppose there were some who disapproved of us. But if they did, I didn’t notice. I tend to be oblivious to lots of things. In fact, until fairly recently, I had no idea that interracial marriage was against the law in many US states until 1967. Coincidentally, that was the very year Eugene and I were married.

In ancient China they also had rules against intermarriage. But during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), they tried the opposite tack, requiring West and Central Asian males to intermarry with native Chinese women. Assimilation. Swallow them up.

In the early years of our marriage, Eugene was the only Asian in town (Sedro-Woolley, WA). Consequently, he may have been the target of discrimination and a number of dirty looks. Who knows? He never complained. He was proud of being Chinese. And if he wasn’t welcome, for example, in the local tavern favored by the town’s tar heels, it didn’t matter.

Until one day it did.Skagit Corp 001

He was supervising a shock test for shipboard equipment for the Navy. His team, composed of several North Carolina transplants, had strapped the equipment to a barge on a small lake owned by the boss. They lit the dynamite. But something went wrong. In a flash, Eugene jumped in and saved his men’s lives. When everything was over, they bandaged up his thumb and dragged him off to their favorite tavern. Guess which one. The bartender, true to form, refused to serve him. But the men insisted. “He’s an honorary tar heel,” they insisted. “Give him a beer.” And the bartender did.

If the topic of interracial marriage interests you, check out Jocelyn Eichenburg’s blog, Speaking of China. Her most popular post is “On the Rarity of Foreign Women and Chinese Boyfriends/Chinese Husbands.” In the past four years, 440 people have commented on the story.

And if you have a story to tell about your own interracial (or intercultural) marriage, I’d love to hear it.

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Next week’s post: Chinese Food Love

About Nicki Chen

About Nicki Chen Nicki Chen is a writer living in Edmonds, WA. Her first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, is set in China during the Japanese invasion and occupation, 1937-1945. She's working on a second novel set in Vanuatu, a South Pacific nation where she and her late husband lived in the early '90s.
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  1. Gretchen Houser

    What a fascinating life you’ve led, Nicki! To say I would have liked Eugene is a testament to your ability to bring him to life in such a vivid way. Your stories are a wonderful gift for your children and grandchildren, a fabulous gift that truly honors their father and grandfather.

    • Yes, Gretchen. I’m sure you would have liked Eugene. He was infinitely more complex and fascinating in real life than I can remember or conjure up–just as you are more fascinating in person. (You’re not so bad either in long-distance communication.)

  2. anemarie and ted

    we were there in 67

  3. Oh Nicki,

    Wow! You haven’t changed! What a stunning picture!

    Shopping early — I remember now my mum used to do that too, especially before the Chinese New Year.

    For certain food, you really need to get to the wet market early, such as pig’s liver. It’s so fresh that we just needed to gently soaked it with some boiled water and eat it.

    We used to call this kind of market a ‘wet’ market, as lots of water from all stalls would be on the ground and got our feet wet, and we also would be covered with smell (smell of fish and raw meats). Lots of activities in the market. We don’t get that kind of lively conversations and haggling in the modern supermarket.

    • Although I didn’t go to the “wet market” as early as some people, I did go before breakfast. It was actually fun. You could touch the fish to see if they were still slimy-fresh and lift up their gills to look for fresh blood. If you went to the same vendor often enough, you would be “sukis.” He would welcome you like an old friend, save your favorite things for you and give you a good price.

  4. Nicki, what a great post!! I can relate to it immensely. Being from a small town in Canada, I remember bringing my Taiwanese boyfriend (now, husband) home for the first time. To my delight, he was welcomed with opened arms and my family and friends and the entire community were (and still are) so nice to him!!! And my 2 year Asia teaching/travel experience has turned into the most amazing 14 (nearly 15) year adventure!!

  5. In where I live, interracial marriage is a VERY complicated thing. I do not think I can explain it in one comment or one blog post! I have to admit though, it is a very hot topic to be discussed in any situation. Seriously, people talk about it in a wedding party or even a funeral ceremony.

    The local folk’s perception about it depends on the societies to which the interracial couple belong to. It also depends on geographic, demographic and cultural factors.

    Generally speaking, the Chinese folks here are divided into several common groups when it comes to interracial marriage:

    1. The “Open-minded folks” who allow it openly. They are mostly rich people who send their kids to study abroad and have adapted “Western free ways of living”. Many interracial marriages in this group are said to be “political”.

    2. The “Little town folks” who frowned upon such marriage. One little whisper about interracial couple can burn the whole town with scandalous gossips for months.

    3. The “Rural folks” who have been doing it for many generations that we are not sure if we should call them Chinese or what. They are, sadly, often perceived to be the second class citizen by the first and the second groups. If I may be so bold to use these words, they are often called as the “wild-lings” or “barbarians among our (Chinese) folks”.

    I live in a small town so I guess most of the Chinese folks here are in group number 2.

    I hope you understand what I typed above. LOL.
    I wanted to explain further but it is going to even longer than this post! Ha ha ha ha ha

    • Hari, I’m glad you added some complication to the topic because it definitely is a complicated subject depending on who the people are and where they live. Interracial marriage has been making the news in the United States the past couple of days because of an opinion piece by Richard Cohen of the Washington Post who said “people with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children.” (See the Huffington Post for a recap of the controversy.)

      • I don’t think a person’s ability to manage a city or a country has to do with his or her interracial marriage.
        When the US government did the shutdown, I am very sure that it had nothing to do with Obama being a biracial person! 😀

        I’m going to check out the link. You have invoked my curiosity! 😀

  6. Fabulous post! I’ve been married twice and have learned that you can’t judge a person by what he is, but who he is. When I married my former husband, who was born and raised in China, I couldn’t imagine our marriage would have problems because I love Chinese culture and felt more comfortable in Asia than in the US. But ultimately personality is what makes or breaks a relationship. With my new husband, he had never left the US when we met, but we get along so well and have the same priorities in life. So you never know!

    • You’re right: Personality and shared priorities are far more important to a relationship than race. I’m looking forward to hearing more about your experiences in your upcoming book.

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  8. Grocery shopping at 5:00 a.m…yikes! I wasn’t aware of the law against interracial marriage either. I’m surprised to hear it was so recent. Great post!

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  10. I’m in a similar relationship, though with a Japanese man, and we’re not married.

    But I’ve gotta say, I’m surprised you didn’t notice any subtle racism other than the bar when you were dating him! I experience subtle things sometimes and I wish I was more oblivious to it.

    • You’re right; it’s surprising that I didn’t notice any subtle racism while we were dating. Everyone that I cared about was supportive. The only incident I remember was in a night club in Vancouver. We were given a table far from the stage. Eugene was angry. He thought it was racism. I was unhappy with his anger. I thought it was because he didn’t give a big tip (a bribe) to the person who seated us. Eventually he paid what we considered an unreasonable tip and got moved up. Other than that, I can’t remember (or didn’t notice) anything.

      • I’m glad you had such a supportive environment!

        Maybe it was because you were in Vancouver, but I’ve frankly been shocked by some of the questions people think it’s okay to ask (I’ve had multiple men ask if it’s ‘true what they say about the size of Asian men). And sometimes, there’s this hint that I’m dating ‘below me’ or that the only reason I’m dating him is to improve my Japanese skills…it’s really disheartening sometimes, where I feel I have to qualify that he’s smart and funny and thinks about things, but I know I shouldn’t have to do any of that.

        Of course it doesn’t help that he’s in Japan and I’m in America, so most people don’t get to meet him and change their stereotypes.

        • I’m so sorry you’ve had to put up with rude, unkind comments. My husband and I got married a long time ago (1967). You’d think the world would have become more tolerant since then. I suppose it depends on where you are and who you’re with. When my husband moved to our small town in Washington State, the parish priest and the man who owned the largest company in town befriended him. That must have helped. For many years, my husband worked in Manila for a large international organization, so the people we knew were from all over the world, many of them in interracial marriages. The International School where our children studied was so mixed that the largest group was only 20% of the total. So, as you can see, our circumstances were good for an interracial marriage.

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  12. Hi! An article that came to mind reading this post begins with an overview of ethnicity and race. I couldn’t stop reading! It’s so interesting because it clarified and confused some of my beliefs. 🙂 Have you seen it or something similar?

    My Japanese hubby and I have been together for 7.5 years. I agree with you that all mariages are intercultural. Before we married, we had a frank talk about everything from religion to divorce, kids to money, and language to politics. I don’t think this would be an odd discussion had I married someone from my hometown in Canada. Enjoy your day!

    • Thank you, Hilary, for sharing the excellent article. I hadn’t seen it before.

      It was smart for you and your husband to have a frank talk before you married. But when my late husband and I got married, it was a different time, and I was only 24 years old. I didn’t have the foresight to discuss all the topics you and your husband considered. Eugene and I were both Catholics, so that was easy. Divorce wasn’t as common in the sixties, so we assumed we’d stay together. We did talk about politics and a little bit about kids. We thought we would stay in the US, so I didn’t worry about language. And I just trusted that we would have enough money. Somehow, it all worked out the 30 years we were together.


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