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Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2000

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Proposal primer: winning over the in-laws


I never truly asked for my wife's hand in marriage, primarily because I was interested more in the whole than individual parts.

However, the day did come when I cowered before my future mother-in-law (my bride-to-be's father was ill) and bumbled into the time-honored "May I marry your daughter?" talk. My brain wiggled in my head like Jello. Not surprisingly, I can't recall a single word I said. Nor can I remember my mother-in-law's answer. Still, as my wife and I have been married now for 21 years, I assume I received a "Yes" response.

Yet . . . considering my lack of success with Japanese . . . wouldn't it be something if my entire marriage was a misunderstanding!?

To avoid such an error, and with my own bloopy courtship as my resume, I offer now this primer for all stuttering foreign males about to pop the question, not to their Japanese girlfriends, but rather to those other important partners in matrimony, the in-laws.

Greeting: Getting off to a swift start is crucial when visiting Mom-and-Pop-to-be. Here are the points on which the bright marital candidate will excel.

He will bow politely and offer the correct Japanese salutation. Once invited in, he will remove his shoes and step up into the house, where he will bow again and express humble regret at any inconvenience he may be causing. This sort of start scores big time.

Scoring less will be the boyfriend who forgets to remove his shoes. Or who removes them while still out on the road. Or who forsakes the bow for bear hugs and smooches, an approach that is bound to go poorly, especially with the dad.

The gift: To further show one's sensitivity to Japanese culture, it is advisable to offer the parents a simple gift. A fruit basket or tin of cookies will do fine.

Overdoing this gift can create the wrong impression. Do not hand out fat bundles of cash. Do not offer a photo of yourself posing with a boa constrictor, no matter how nice the frame. With most parents it is also prudent to avoid the "3 Vs": video games, vacuum cleaners and Viagra.

Under-achieving on the gift is also -- in a word -- bad. Few parents, I have found, are wowed by sticks of gum. Nor by an edition of the morning paper. And packets of tissues dazzle no one, even if unopened.

The meal: Deftly handling chopsticks, while politely sampling a moderate portion of each delicacy served is part and parcel of the cultural repertoire of any potential son-in-law.

Perusing the spread and then gagging, however, is considered a faux pas. So is dropping kelp down your girlfriend's bosom. You will also raise eyebrows if you clobber the raw fish with your fist, even if you do see it move.

While adding a drop of ketchup here and there may be OK on occasion, raising the tube and squirting the stuff straight into your mouth counts as a boo-boo. At least at the first encounter.

Keep the words "moderate portion" in mind. Remember too the leafy thing in with the sushi is plastic. If still hungry, don't start licking your lips and cracking hints like: "Hey! What's in the fridge? Anything edible?" Also, don't flash pizza brochures at the table.

Conversation: When speaking with prospective in-laws, one crucial rule of thumb is to keep quiet. Let them talk. Answer all questions with brief replies and smiles. Strive patiently to follow the conversation.

Ten-minute monologues are not considered brief. Even if spiced with bawdy jokes. Even if you further take time to explain the jokes with drawings and pantomime.

If you can't keep pace with Japanese and need a translation, it may not be wise to make faces while you wait. Unless, of course, the parents are doing the same.

If your girlfriend is translating, softly poke her when she messes up. You will know she is messing up if her parents begin to throw things. If the objects are pointy and both mom and dad are screaming, feel free to poke a bit harder.

When all else fails, laugh. Laughter is the one surefire international medicine, a salve to soothe all ills.

Of course, if the parents ask, "How will you support our daughter?" and you toss back your head and hoot like a loon, don't be surprised if they don't laugh back. In fact, here's where those tissues may come in handy.

It may behoove you to practice a more subdued laugh, perhaps a sort of "Heh-heh-heh," while shifting your eyes from side to side. Or a kind of goosey gurgle, where your tongue flops freely about your face like a loose rope.

These laughs will either win their hearts or win you an escort to the door. Either way, the awkward meeting will be over.

If neither laughter, nor language skills, nor eating etiquette, nor gifts, nor first impressions, nor their daughter's dreams serve to endear you to your future in-laws, remember there remains yet one proven means of success: Time. In 20 years no one will care what you said or did.

At least they haven't in my case. At least not yet.



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