We went back to Australia and eastern and western cultural differences were more obvious than ever before. I found out that the playbook of life had changed, but I didn’t understand the rules to the game.
The helplessly ignorant Asian daughter and son-in-law
I always knew that he was white. I always knew that there would be cultural differences. So what changed, you ask? Well, between the time I left Australia nearly two years ago to the time I returned, I got married. To a Scandinavian who knows a lot about Chinese culture politically, socially and culturally, but little to nothing about what to do when you marry an Australian-Malaysian-Chinese girl brought up with much more conservative values. I also found myself woefully ignorant of the cultural expectations required of a returning Asian daughter to the homeland.
A balancing act
It was a wonderful holiday and also waaaaaaaay too short, don’t get me wrong. I’m so grateful for the time I had with everyone and in the sunshine (Nuuk has about 5 hours of daylight right now, and today is minus 19 degrees, but feels like minus 35 with the wind). However I have to admit that trying to balance my husband’s expectations of having a fun holiday and still be a good daughter and friend was challenging. When things didn’t go right I just felt so helpless. Now looking back, I would have liked to spend even more quality time with my family and less time trying to meet so many friends. I also realised that there were a few Asian customs that stuck despite the move to Australia.
Here are some of my family customs I learnt that we should uphold:
When you arrive in a city where you have relatives, you have to call them to check-in.
You have to call every older person in the Asian community auntie and uncle, especially if they are your real auntie and uncle. It is disrespectful if you don’t. Your white husband does too.
Your new husband/wife is now in the family, meaning that they should call your own parents mum and dad.
The important of cultural traditions
I knew some of these traditions as culture, but sadly did not realise how important they were to my parents. Upon considering them more deeply, snippets of memories trickled back to me, echoing the importance of these cultural acts. My mum telling me about how a friend of hers was so frustrated because her daughter-in-law refused to ‘call’ elders auntie and uncle each time they met. Speeches that my Singaporean cousin-in-law Clara and friend Tanya made at their respective wedding receptions, where they each thanked their new mum and dad (aka in-laws) for letting her into the family. I remember thinking that was weird to say mum and dad. My cousins Hooi, Zhe Wei and uncle Khay Ti calling my parents when they were in Sydney, just to say that they were in town for business and didn’t have time to meet up. I recall thinking that it was a nice gesture even if it was a bit pointless.
My culture is calling me to remember and act upon what I inherently knew or had experienced before. The problem is that I couldn’t really prepare my white husband about the importance of some of my family values. Heck, I didn’t know them myself. That’s one disadvantage of having a global family who live in different countries: there’s no older cousin in Sydney to learn from.
Mum, mor and ‘svigermor’
There’s always going to be conflicts no matter who is in the relationship but it’s just easier to imagine clashes when cultures are as different as Asian and Scandinavian. We have both learnt a lot from our trip, and I think as part of any relationship it is partly about compromising, and very much about realising what’s important for the other person and their family. For example, my white husband will from now call two wonderful mothers by way of ‘mum’ (he should not call her by her name) and ‘mor’, while I will just continue to have one mum and a ‘svigermor’ who I call Marianne.
I know we’re not the only ones who’ve been in cross-cultural challenges, so if you have any advice I’d love to hear more. =)