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Friday, Sept. 6, 2002

The cultural compromise tango

Special to The Japan Times

Our family is cosmopolitan. My marriage is a union of Britain and Japan; my brother's wife is from Colombia; and my sister-in-law's husband is Italian. When cultures come together, life is never boring. But international marriages also need skillful dancers to master the steps of the "cultural compromise" tango. I'm still learning -- and my in-laws are picking up a few of the steps, too.

I had a tough introduction to married life. I became not just a wife, but a yome (daughter-in-law) with a shutome (mother-in-law). I got my first taste of nisetai-gekito, two families living -- and fighting -- under one roof.

Living with your in-laws is not just an issue for foreign wives in Japan. Every month, more than 100,000 copies of the popular "Yome vs. Shutome" are bought by Japanese wives who identify with their manga heroine's in-law problems.

Japanese women know, in part at least, what they're getting into when they marry a Japanese man. But for foreign wives, it's a case of sink or swim once they've been thrown in at the marital deep end. You get a rude introduction to Japanese expectations when they clash with your own.

For those foreign women who've settled with their in-laws in rural areas, playing traditional wifely roles to perfection can be a mission impossible. A Canadian wife relates to me what a day in the life of a dutiful daughter-in-law is really like. Rising at dawn to prepare a full Japanese breakfast for the family, spending hours banging futon with wooden poles and plying guests at family gatherings with food and drinks leaves little room for her own personality. For several women in my group, moving out with their husbands and re-establishing the relationship with their in-laws from a distance has proved to be the better option.

Living in metropolitan Tokyo, I did not have to learn the family recipes, nor did I have to wait on my new relatives. But living next door to my in-laws, I found myself the third person on a bicycle meant for two: my husband and his mother. This is, after all, the land of maza-con (mother complex), where mother-son apron strings are firmly tied.

At mealtimes, there was an unconscious culinary competition between Western and Japanese food. In the early days, many meals were shared with my in-laws and as my Japanese skills were lacking, I'd often eat silently. One of the first changes I made was to establish mealtimes as a private affair for my husband and me. But there were constant intrusions on the intimate space I was trying to create. I'd slave all day to produce some culinary wonder, then the doorbell would ring, and a steaming dish lovingly prepared by my mother-in-law would be brought in. So I made a dinner rule: My dishes would be enjoyed first. Clearing the table twice over was never a problem for my husband thanks to his 193-cm frame.

The other problem was my reluctance to conform to the traditional family pattern. My mother-in-law wanted assurance that I was taking good enough care of her son. One weekend morning, my husband and I were accompanying her to a local summer fete. I was waiting by the gate with her, when my husband came out holding our daughter and her stroller. In his hurry to leave, he had forgotten her shoes and went back in to get them. My mother-in-law turned to me and said that she felt he was working too hard at home after a long week at the office.

I didn't want my husband caught in the crossfire because the two women in his life couldn't find cultural common ground. There was little space for our own lifestyle, but I decided to make some. We began to spend more time as a couple. Not all family invitations were accepted; instead we spent more time in our own social circle of both foreign and Japanese friends.

With my husband and my friends, I used English to establish my own sense of freedom. On the other hand, I used the vagueness of the Japanese language to safeguard my privacy at home. When my in-laws asked where I was going, I would reply "dekakemasu (going out)" and "kaimono (shopping)." Language aided the separation of my family and private life.

The real cultural compromise was accepting that I am part of a Japanese family. I learned to pick my battles carefully: Surrendering over the little things makes the bigger picture more livable. One time, my husband and I were shopping for a dining table and he mentioned that my mother-in-law should join us. I resented the suggestion at the time. But in hindsight, it wasn't such a bad idea -- she had been involved with the decoration of our home and gave us some valuable tips.

So I learned to dance that tango, but only because I had willing dance partners. Not everyone is that fortunate. Another foreign wife I know finds that her best efforts to pamper her mother-in-law are in vain. After her mother-in-law announced that she did not like her and refused to accept her as part of the family, my friend found that nothing she did was right. She still lives under the shadow of daily disapproval.

Mutual respect is needed to establish relationships that transcend our cultural differences. I alter my dance moves from day to day -- and picked up some whole new steps after the birth of my daughter. But that's another story.

Tracy Okuma lives in Tokyo with her Japanese husband and their daughter. She heads Married in Japan, an online community for foreign women in relationships with Japanese men. The group's home page is at www.foreignwives.homestead.com/MIJ.html

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