Manners & Misdemeanors
Foreign Factors: What Cross-Cultural Marriage Is Really Like
The Filipina in a cross-cultural marriage must contend with issues arising from cultural differences-from the trivial to the sensitive.
IMAGE COLLAGE Yzabella Cruz
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I myself never came close to even the mere possibility of becoming a foreigner’s wife, in spite of the two years I spent with three cousins in Spain and our whole summer in Paris as interns. Being neither exotic-looking nor anything like the absolute stunner that Isabel Preysler was, I suppose I didn’t qualify as a prospect.

At 85 pounds in a five-foot-two frame, I looked underfed. Besides, I was, at 15 and just out of high school, too young and ignorant. Romance was only in the movies and in books; the closest it came to becoming a part of my life was as a rumored Pier Angeli (the authentic one would die early and leave me a haunting memory for a while) in the James Dean fantasies of the local boys of my neighborhood in Quezon City. In the eyes of my grandmother, we were all chichimecos—meaning, I think, young and still full of mucus, a description not at all inaccurate.

Among us four cousins, Bea was evidently the most suitably attractive. She had regularly dated a Spanish medical student, although when word about him reached her mom, she was summoned home before things got irremediably serious.

In fact, the romance seemed serious enough, for when 20-year-old Bea revisited Spain with her mother, she rang the man and they promised to keep in touch and make plans for a life together. But her mother, determined to keep her only daughter from being taken so far away, hijacked his letters and never mailed hers, killing the prospect of marriage decisively. Bea, who might have made an excellent wife to her Spanish doctor, ended up marrying well and happily, taking for a husband a nice banker and economist. And her mother took for herself a nice, local son-in-law.

My tall and dusky friend Lulu, on the other hand, ended up with her Spaniard, handsome, dapper, mustached Pepe. They had met in Spain when she went there for art studies. A former journalist and now a cultural diplomat, Pepe has a wide and varied circle of friends and associates, while, Lulu, a sought-after portrait painter, works at home and thus lives a more private life. But they have got along nicely indeed, she says, the sparkle in her eyes even after all these many years providing genuine affirmation. She compliments him for being “easy to please.” The kitchen not being her own favorite place, she just makes sure she keeps someone who can cook Pepe’s favorite dishes from his hometown, Galicia.

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Still, in spite of beating the odds herself, Lulu was anxious about the prospect of her two children marrying foreigners. It’s not only the idea itself of her children living in another country, she says, but the effort that the whole arrangement entails of having to learn another language.

Her daughter, for whom the prospect of marriage was more imminent, “learned German to be able to communicate with her in-laws,” says Lulu. Actually, it is an anticipated problem of her own that she tends to extend to her daughter. She says that when she and Pepe met their daughter’s future parents-in-law, she had to resort to improvised sign language and, in moments when that didn’t work, could only offer embarrassed laughter.

Lulu admits to a general lack of aptitude for languages and a particular discomfort with her husband’s own. Having lived in the Philippines all his married life, except for short assignments in Spain, Pepe seems to speak better Tagalog than Lulu does Spanish. Her biggest frustration, she says, comes in expressing violent emotions to Pepe: “Ay, ang hirap. Galit na galit ka na, mangangastila ka pa!” In such situations, she says, she usually chooses to keep silent, probably a blessing in itself, considering the potentially great damage one ill-chosen word can do to an interracial union.

In contrast, languages are the particular strength of my favorite niece, Suzie, also my goddaughter. She, in fact, has a degree in the discipline and can do simultaneous interpretations in Spanish, French, and English. She has now become fluent in Thai, too. She lives in Bangkok with her French husband Paul and their children, works in his business, and is a match to him wit for wit in his own language.

She is funny, smart and vivacious, petite and voluptuous like her grandmother, with slit eyes fringed by long lashes. Her romance with Paul can itself be activated by language: she still melts, she confesses, when he says her name, his lips pursing into a pout—Zoozee.

They have daughters as beautiful as Eurasians come, absolute head-turners. Paul, who initially didn’t think children could add to his happiness, is now shameless in his display of worship of his daughters. “I adore them–after Zoozee, of course,” he qualifies. Susie’s situation is not without its setbacks, however. “Ang ganda ng mga alaga mo!” She only had to hear that once in Bangkok from an OFW to be conscious from then on of always being well-dressed so as to look the part of the girls’ mother.

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Vacations had been the sensitive issue, for Susie came from a close-knit family and the proximity of Bangkok to Manila easily allowed her to be on hand for family occasions. Paul, who runs his own business, has few opportunities to take time off and even fewer to join Susie on home leaves; besides, he has always had a low tolerance for Manila with its traffic, pollution, and overpopulation, and usually drops by only on the way to Boracay or other out-of-town resorts.

His own bargain in the compromise allows him to spend long holidays with his folks in Brittany, France, after depositing his family in Manila. Summer vacation, however, is non-negotiable: Everybody takes it in France. A vacation in the Philippines was the occasion that also set Teresina’s own older, Danish husband straight about his expectations when he married her. Though sympathetic, he could not comprehend why, even with a helper dispatched by her mother to their home in Hong Kong, she still couldn’t seem to cope with housekeeping and the occasional entertaining required of a banker’s wife. Now he knows, and he truly appreciates her valiant efforts.

The very morning after they arrived at her family home in Makati, they woke up to a breakfast waiting to be served, and when they had gone back to their room, the bed had been made, the bathroom tidied up and freshened, and their laundry taken away.

My sister Ana’s own efforts have gone beyond her relationship with her Dutch husband John, also older. Having lived in Amsterdam for 28 years, she has become Dutch in many ways, speaking like a native and fitting well into the culture and the affluent position to which she and John have risen. Her struggle lay in her being a typical Filipina mother, especially in being overprotective of her son, but she has more or less let him be, partly perforce, her motherly attention now coveted by a married daughter living in the United States with her oil executive husband and their two boys.

John used to argue with her about what seemed to him “suffocating mothering.” She has eased up on her son and so has John on her. Still, she believes that it is to her credit that her son is now doing well in his studies and has kept himself out of trouble despite the wide freedom Dutch boys enjoy. In a sense, she has succeeded in making him less Dutch than he is (in fact, native-born) and she has no apologies to make.

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Isabel Preysler, the absolute stunner that I absolutely was not, is held up as the standard. She has kept her native identity in every positive way, conquering in her own style the highest reaches of international society. Not only does her image remain depreciated by latter-day Filipinas who look at foreigners as their ticket out of poverty, who in their desperate determination break all rules of love and war to get their men, and who in fact do more often than not; her image has actually appreciated in the comparison.

The wives featured here doubtless come up to standard, finding their own foreign romance and marriage in their sweet, natural course. But while their experiences may be inspiring, they are by no means typical. And it is surely prudent to at least consider the opinion of my daughter’s friend and business partner Ciara, even if she is herself married to a Pinoy and speaks only theoretically, at best instinctively: “A foreign husband? It must be like having a permanent houseguest.”

This story originally appeared on the Town&Country January-February 2011 issue.

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