Christmas season, for better or for worse, brings families together. This is a season of sharing with those you love in conditions of constant ambivalence. Yes, January, the month immediately following holiday season, is the busiest time for psychotherapists working in private practice. If this time is hard for most Americans, it is a bit harder for those of us who are in thriving cross-cultural intimate relationships.
I want to be careful here with the use of ‘cross-cultural,’ because the term evokes the encounter of cultural selves at an equal level. At this level, it is assumed that there is space for both cultural systems to be equally validated. However, in conditions of immigration, where one of the family members must thrive in a dominant culture that is very different than their own, immigrants are susceptible to be colonized in the intimate realm. No person in their right mind means to colonize their spouse, their sister-in-law or their son-in-law. However, it is in the subtle conversations, those in which family members tend to forget you are foreign, where colonization happens.
I come from South America–the land of cynism, sassiness, monumental rants, in-your-face passive-aggressive humor, and where one is supposed to entertain an audience through good, dark-humored storytelling. I am, however, married to a White, Christian, adorable man from the Midwest–the land of kindness, politeness, encouragement and curiosity. Here, listening is more important than telling a funny story. Asking questions is the way to lead a conversation. One is not supposed to take over by talking about oneself, which I deeply appreciate but how different it is from where I grew up! We are now visiting his family; the most kind, generous, welcoming and amazing people I have ever met. We have been married for almost 5 years, and we live in the Pacific Northwest; that place where ‘this sucks, I’m out of here’ is replaced by expressions like ‘this is interesting; I’m curious.’ Yes, it has been a rocky road to fit in. But if I want to be a successful immigrant in the US, if I want to have a family, fulfilling relationships with friends, if I want to truly ‘make it’ professionally, I must strive to fit in. This is not a choice between being South American or ‘Gringa.’ No. There is no choice–I MUST fit in. The US has been built upon the foundations of social darwinism–the survival of the ‘fittest.’ I must fit in.
I fit, therefore I am.
For the most part, I have succeeded. I have learned to be more curious, kinder, softer. I have learned to tone down my opinions, to be careful about not ranting too much. I have learned to play the part–to blend in as a Gringa. However, I find myself stuck in the in-between. My strong accent is a constant reminder of my origins, I am still ‘rough-around-the-edges.’ Sometimes, I can’t help to spout a good rant about Delta Airline’s horrible customer service or how Regence Blue Shield is just a bunch of thieves! (Did I say that out loud?)
This in-betweenness has turned out to be confusing not only to myself but also to those around me. Where I succeed to blend in, they forget I am not from here, and in forgetting, they misinterpret the instances where I can’t help to be South American. As a result, I have this constant feeling of inadequacy. Being misinterpreted has been the most common experience of inter-subjectivity for me. And it is painful; it is getting old.
Fast conversations around the table can also be hard. My English is good enough for people to forget it is my second language, and they may read my silence as snobby detachment; my out-of-sync questions as social awkwardness. I have to get over myself, keep trying, maybe we’ll all get it someday.
I know that I am not the only one struggling with this. I am posting this not in a self-indulgent, whiny effort to evoke sympathy but in the hopes that this comforts anyone else encountering the same experience, whether you are an immigrant or a caring and curious in-law.
At any rate, have yourself a merry Christmas… gotta go be with family now.