I met my boyfriend on an online dating website about a year ago.
What attracted me to him first was his love of Mary Roach and "The Simpsons." I was slightly intimidated by how handsome he was, and he seemed to be fitter than me. He was cute, intelligent, and could quote Ralph Wiggum with the best of them. The fact that he was Asian was never an issue.
We also discovered quickly that we share a love of bubble gum ice cream.
Our first date was over coffee -- and over the next couple of weeks we went on beach trips, movie dates, picnics, and to a county fair. About a month in we decided to become exclusive, and we have been ever since. It was around this time that I would start experiencing some of the difficulties of an interracial relationship.
I grew up in a very small town in Northern California. My family had no problem with my new boyfriend's ethnicity, and were very happy to meet him and include him in the family. There were moments that were slightly uncomfortable -- like when a check-out girl at a grocery store back home asked him if he was a foreign exchange student, or when my younger brother asked if he would teach him karate. Those things aside, he fit in with my family quickly and very well.
The opposite was not true. The first meeting with my boyfriend's parents was slightly rough, as English is not their first language. They suggested I learn Vietnamese for my boyfriend (and them). A few days later, when I asked him what his parents thought of me, he said, "They said you seemed nice, but asked me why I wouldn't rather date a Vietnamese girl from our church." This devastated me.
After about six months of dating, I had trouble with my living situation. To keep my roommate and I from having to move, my boyfriend moved into our house. I was excited about this -- but shocked and sad when he told me he'd have to keep it a secret from his parents.
His parents are Catholic, so to them this was a complete no-no. I HATED having to keep the truth from them -- I don't lie well, and knowing that he was being dishonest with them about his living situation really bothered me. To me it was a big statement on how he felt about me and this relationship. I wondered if he was ashamed of me and that's why he wouldn't tell them.
We talked about this topic time and time again, as well as the fact that he would attend church with them regularly, although he did not identify or believe in any religion. The dishonesty really bothered me, but he assured me that telling his parents the truth would devastate them and hurt their relationship.
This frustrated me to no end and caused some bumps in our relationship. Meanwhile, we were invited to several family gatherings a week. I work full time and do pet sitting on the side, but I tried to make time to go to what I thought were the most important events. I even attended Church services many times, even though I'm non-religious and they were in a language that I do not speak at all.
However, I began to receive some complaints from the family that I wasn't present often enough. There were also complaints about my behavior -- I needed to greet this person a certain way, I needed to do this that or the other thing because it was customary in their culture. The problem was he wasn't telling me their customs -- he just nitpicked me when I didn't know to perform them.
Fast forward several months, and we got the chance to live in a three-bedroom house owned by my family, and take part in its reconstruction. My only criteria was that he tell his parents that we were doing this. Reluctantly, he agreed to do so. He said it was because he wanted to finally be honest with them, but I'm certain that it was because I was such a nag about it.
The night he went to tell them, I waited at the house anxiously. Three hours went by and I was nearly climbing the walls by the time he got home. He was overwhelmed and couldn't talk much about it, but he did express that Catholicism and morality were the main topics of their three-hour conversation.
After that, a month went by of them disowning him, forgiving him, refusing to talk to him, and so forth. It was heartbreaking for him, and I began to feel like complete shit for pushing my values on him and on his family. Yes honesty was important, but it killed me to see how much pain he and his family were going through. I felt sad and guilty that at my insistence he had told the truth, and it was ending super poorly.
I thought that when we received an invite to a family party a couple weeks ago that maybe things had gotten better. I was surprised when his parents pulled us into a bedroom, and lectured me on Catholicism, sin, and how wrong it was for us to live together. I remained quiet and respectful, and told Dad (the primary speaker) that I really wanted to understand and respect their culture, as well as be able to express my own.
He listened, but then made me "compromise" with him and make me promise not to have sex with his son. I was mortified, frozen, and just nodded absently. I held my composure up until this point, which is right when mom chimed in that she thought I "didn't really love her son because I never show up to family gatherings." It was then I began to cry, and they exited the room and continued the family party, and I had to walk out puffy eyed with my silent boyfriend -- the whole family knowing what had just happened.
I was pretty certain at that point I was done. I was mad at my boyfriend for not sticking up for me, and I was mad at having been put in that situation in the first place. I’ve lived on my own since I was seventeen and over 11 years later I'm still working hard as an independent woman. And they wanted to tell me how to live my life? I was absolutely livid.
But a funny thing happened. After several days, and conversations with other people, I began to find out that my situation was not an isolated one. In fact, from what a lot of my friends and family were telling me, it was fairly common. It seemed like lots of couples experienced something like this to varying degrees.
For some reason, hearing that other people went through things like this made the incident seem like less of a personal attack. I was beginning to really understand that his parents were genuinely concerned about their son, and about both of our souls. They really believed we'd be thrown into hell fire for living together -- and who am I to tell them differently?
These are their beliefs and their viewpoints -- and as much as I feel like I was trying to get to know them, I wasn't being tolerant of them. Yes they live here now, but their culture is rich, and I am lucky to learn about it.
Catholicism has become a huge part of my life.
The best way I can describe what I am thinking is a quote that I found online, which is "Tolerance goes both ways."
My boyfriend is American, but also Vietnamese, and his culture and his family is important to him. I was talking a big talk about being tolerant and understanding, but when it came down to it I was really immovable to a culture that was so different than mine. Yes, he needed to tell me more of the ins and outs so I quit making faux pas at social gatherings, but I also need to accept the advice more willingly, have good humor and grace about it, and enjoy the chance to learn about something new.
I also am just learning how important these family get-togethers are -- in my family we are lucky to see each other once a month, but his family likes to get together several times a week. I am making more time for his family because it is so important to them and to him. He is also getting better at reading my cues when I am feeling overwhelmed, as well as supporting me when I'm feeling culture shocked.
We recently had a dinner with his folks, and it was very nice. To my surprise, his father casually talked about the house that the boyfriend and I are living in, and inquired about his son's eating habits. It was at this moment that I realized that by speaking about our living arrangement so casually, that they were making great strides in understanding me too. Tolerance really does go both ways.