Years ago, my mother told me about a Thai man who married an American woman against the wishes of his mother. The mother refused to speak to her son because he had married outside his nationality. Only when her son and his wife had their first child did the mother acknowledge the marriage. Incredulous at this tale, I asked my Thai mother, "You would never do that, would you?" "No," she answered, then a pause, "I wouldn't speak to you for 10 years!" I laughed at her joke, but a small part of me knew that there was a grain of truth to my mother's response: She hoped that I would marry Thai, not American.
Well, I didn't marry Thai or American. I married French. Although by the time I got married, my mother was so overjoyed at the fact that I was getting married at all that I doubt it really would have mattered to her if my husband had been from outer space. But, I overstate.
I was born and raised in the United States by Thai parents. We were a Thai family growing up in America, with the requisite strains of a different country and culture. There was a time during my teen-age years that I thought of myself as 100 percent American. I'm not sure if I was seeking the unabashed freedom that being American promised or if I wanted a respite from the Asian ideal of filial piety.
I am living in the "great American melting pot" that they used to sing about on Saturday mornings on Schoolhouse Rock. I have come to appreciate the Thai facets of my personality as well as the American ones. My husband has lived for the last 25 years in the United States. He was raised in France, but chose to make his life here. We were entering into a partnership, so we prepared ourselves for some compromises on both sides to reconcile our differences. Our hearts belonged to each other, not to our respective cultures.
Since my husband and I both speak English, I felt that communication was an area that we would have little trouble negotiating. In high school, when students were clamoring to learn French, I took the ever-useful Latin instead. Who knew? My husband jokes that by late in the week, he has no more English left in him. His take on many American sayings is unintentionally hilarious. My favorites are "shop 'til you're dead" and "drop her like a bad potato." When he curses in French with gusto, though, I understand fully.
Having two different native languages in a household poses some minor communication problems that I had not anticipated. Our approaches to giving and receiving directions are very different. I automatically divide spaces into left, right; back, front; and up, down. Directions for finding items in the refrigerator are problematic. In steering him toward something, I say things like, "up, left and to the back," and my husband gives me a blank stare. We are getting more proficient at understanding each other in these situations, but I know that learning his language is an important part of communicating with my husband on a more familiar level.
The number of interethnic marriages in the United States is climbing. According to an analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau's 1998 Current Population Survey done by American Demographics magazine, the number of married couples who are of different races or ethnic groups has doubled since 1980. Mixed marriages now make up about 5 percent of the nation's married couples, up from 3 percent in 1980. Even the 2000 Census reflected this in the family-background question by allowing people to pick more than one racial or ethnic category. Not only is there a growing acceptance of interethnic couples, but racial and ethnic attitudes are surely softening as a result of these unions and vice versa. The marital constructs of the past are giving way to a new type of blended American family. Be it Thai-American-French or any other amalgam, it is family that respects and treasures the differences as well as the similarities of the other.