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Saturday, May 17, 2003

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Family links are relative for third-culture kids


Here's a challenge for you:

You're faced with an elderly woman with beach-ball breasts that shake like jelly. She also smells sourly similar to your dog.

Her arms are thrown wide, her lips are puckered and she has just called you "sweetie."

You have never seen her before. Yet there is no escape. You have to kiss and hug this woman in front of a large room of smiling people, and you even have to pretend to like it.

My son swallows and whispers, "Who is she?" But it's too late. The woman is on him.

I couldn't have answered anyway. She's either a great aunt or a cousin or somebody's in-law. I'm not sure which.

To me and everyone else is the room, she is just this: a relative.

But to my son, she is a third-culture kid's worst nightmare: an odd stranger from another planet with whom he is expected to go smoochy-face at once.

"Count your blessings," I tell him.

"What? That she's not carrying Ebola?"

"No. She's a relative. She loves you with no questions asked."

Or almost no questions asked.

"Now tell me, sweetie," the woman has her arm around him, an arm as thick as a boa constrictor. "How do you like it over there in -- where was it? -- Japan? And . . . Oh! . . . first come over here and meet Gertrude and Mable. They'll want a hug too!"

Growing up in a small rural community, I always took my relatives for granted. I had lots of them and -- with new births, marriages, divorces, more marriages, step-kids and so on -- the list never got shorter.

But on return visits, my children find this endless legion of kin daunting.

"Who are all these people? They're dropping out of the trees! And they all look sort of the same. It's like the attack of the hayseed clones!"

Clones that are always excited to find fellow clones from faraway Japan. Everyone is eager to greet the exotic Orientals. My wife and kids thus get shuffled from one clumsy hug and kiss to another. They are stars.

"We are a freak show," says my son.

A sentiment perhaps born from receiving a spotlight he feels he hasn't earned -- from people he doesn't know.

Like most international couples, my wife and I live our lives in the cracks between cultures. My family -- and her family too -- can only be reached by a full day on a jet or a shinkansen.

My wife's folks we see even less often than mine. Yet, occasional trips to the States have familiarized our children with only my core connections: my parents and siblings.

Behind them, however, the rest of the clan always lines up for their handshakes and hugs -- with some of these relatives big enough to be two relatives.

After hearty greetings, they then pursue toothy conversations on TV sitcoms and pick-up trucks and prom dates and softball leagues -- a cultural milieu about as far from my sons as the Yamanote Line is from Mars.

The other side never seems to notice that my kids cannot relate . . . a gap that to my sons seems enormous.

Thus the term third-culture kids. Add two cultures and you do not always get double the pleasure. You get a true Third World, one with not many lifelines to anywhere.

World travelers typically keep those lines loose. If I had ever felt duty-bound to my army of relatives, I would have never ventured far from home to begin with.

However, that same family seen from many years and miles away is now a source of comfort. In the churnings and turnings of the years and the comings and goings of multitudes of faces, there is one place I can call home, where people appreciate and accept me instantly -- just for being family.

I try to impress that same link upon my children, even though they cannot feel the bond.

My older boy, for example, is now in college in California, still a full day's trip from my hometown.

"If you ever get in trouble," I tell him over the phone, "if you ever need any help whatsoever, call your cousin. He lives only an hour away."

"But I've never even met him!"

"Sure you have . . . when you were 4."

"Oh, and like I remember. He could be standing next to me now and I wouldn't know it."

I remind him that we all sort of look alike, but he cuts me off.

"I will not call a stranger for help."

"He's not a stranger. He's your cousin. He'll come no matter what. He's family."

My wife has always been more bemused than benumbed by my chorus line of relatives. Having chosen a foreign husband, she expected things to be different and thus has never been disappointed.

Nothing, however, disappoints easier than a child, even when they become young adults.

"Embrace your relatives," I tell my boy. "All 80 zillion of them. They're one of the best things I can give you."

He says what he really needs is socks. I say he is facetious and I worry he will never have a true home. He replies, "Home is where the heart is."

But where is the heart for a third-culture kid?

"Do you know how hard it is," he says, speaking of my family gatherings, "to be the only outsider in a room full of insiders?"

"Well . . . yeah. I'm a foreigner in Japan. I live with that every day."

"OK," he relents, "but you have to admit one thing.

"At least the Japanese don't line up for hugs."

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com


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