Love in Two Worlds

When people of different cultures or faiths marry, there are lots of challenges—from family expectations to how the kids are raised to what to have for dinner.

By: Brooke Lea Foster

On the morning of the party, I woke up with the same kind of panic I’d felt when I had overslept for a college final. It was 6:30 am.

“Do you think we’re going to have enough food?” I asked John, my husband.

We recently had bought a bungalow in DC. It was a fixer-upper, and we’d spent the winter painting walls, refinishing floors, renovating the kitchen. With the first hint of spring, we decided it was time to let his family see the inside of our house. We’d give his father a party for his 66th birthday.

I’d never thrown a party for 20 people. Giving one for my Filipino in-laws made it even more daunting. What if the lasagna ran out and John’s “aunties” cast their eyes down, ashamed that kuya John—a title of honor reserved for the eldest brother—had married such an incompetent American?

The morning of the birthday party, I baked two lasagnas. I put chicken into the slow cooker to make his mom’s tangy chicken adobo. I arranged platters of vegetables, rolled salami and provolone for an antipasto plate, and blended black-bean dip.

The party was to start at 3. At quarter to 4, John called his parents to see where they were. He often says they’re on “Filipino time.” On our wedding day, he told his family the ceremony started an hour earlier so they’d arrive on time.

At 4, a caravan pulled up. When I went to greet his auntie Rezel, she handed me a pot of beef stew. Her son carried in a rice cooker. Every person was armed—a picnic cooler with five dozen cans of soda, crates of shrimp, egg rolls, quiches, Boca burgers, sandwiches. Next came cakes, more rice, platters of fried bananas, stuffed potatoes.

As I heated the oven, I remembered reading in an etiquette book that it was considered impolite to bring a host anything that created more work—if you brought flowers, you should bring them in a vase. Obviously, the author hadn’t married into a Filipino family.

Intermarrying can be a rom- antic notion. The idea that you and your soul mate fall in love despite your differences is as timeless as Romeo and Juliet.

Washington’s couples are part of an international city. The dating pool comes from many countries and comprises nearly every race and religion.

According to Stanford University sociologist Michael Rosenfeld, 7 percent of US married couples are interracial, up from 2 percent in 1970. In the Washington area, the number seems higher. Just about everyone I know knows someone in a mixed marriage—and the mixing doesn’t end with race. Washingtonians are marrying interculturally and interreligiously.

“When we got married, we were told, ‘Your kids are going to have a hard time,’ ” says Soraya El-Baz, daughter of an Egyptian father and Irish-American mother. El-Baz married an African-American from South Carolina in 1993. They live in DC with their four kids. “But we don’t feel any weirdness here. It’s so diverse.”

If there’s disapproval for today’s mixed couples, it’s often from immigrant communities with strong ethnic identities. Many Korean parents are touchy about intermarriage. Some Muslims are more accepting if a man intermarries than if a woman does, because religion is passed down through the father.

With the exception of a few stares from Asian women, John and I never had anyone question our courtship. His father told me stories of how General Douglas MacArthur saved the Philippines in World War II, which is why he loves America. Early on, John’s mother took us shopping. The mother of three sons, she liked following me around the women’s department. “Pick something,” she said. “I always wanted a daughter.”

Backgrounds blend in myriad ways. Some conflicts come to light long after a couple has walked down the aisle.

Brianna, an African-American, married Jesús, a Salvadoran-American, two years ago. She learned soon after that his mother—who had moved into their DC rowhouse—cooked him breakfast every morning, packed his lunch, did his laundry. In Latin America, women believe it’s their responsibility to take care of the man of the house. It drives Brianna crazy. But she also envies the relationship her husband has with his mother: “I love how he treats her. He respects her so much.”

When Mary Taliaferro Stiles, a Christian, got engaged to a Jewish man, her mother said, “Marriage is hard enough. Why stack the odds against you?”

Things seldom get boring between the couples featured here. Says Vladan Stankovic, a Serbian who married an Antiguan: “You’re always learning something new—an expression, a piece of their culture’s backstory. The differences keep it interesting.”

“Who Will Our Son Be?”

Asmae Otmani and Ben Nickels were living in Boulogne, a Paris suburb, when she got pregnant in 2004, a year after they were married. Discussions about the baby’s identity started almost immediately. “We wanted him to be a symbol of both cultures,” says Asmae, an editor at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in DC. The question was how.

Since then, their marriage has taken them to three continents—Africa, Europe, and most recently North America; they live in Silver Spring.

They met in Provence in 1993. Asmae, a Moroccan, and Ben, a University of Wisconsin–Madison undergrad, were studying abroad. They became friends but didn’t keep in touch.

Four years later, while working on his PhD in history about the French-Algerian war, Ben traveled to Morocco to learn Arabic. He ran into a friend in Fez. Ben mentioned that he couldn’t stop thinking about one of their former classmates—a woman named Asmae, who lived there.

“I know Asmae,” his friend said. “I’m visiting her tonight.”

As soon as Asmae saw Ben, she pulled her mother aside: “That is my husband.”

After a year of transatlantic dating—Ben had returned to the States—he came to live with Asmae’s family in Morocco. Her parents liked him, even though they were nervous about sending their daughter off to America.

He proposed twice. Once in the American tradition—he bought a ring, packed a picnic, and proposed among the Chellah ruins outside of Rabat. Then they were engaged in the Moroccan tradition—an announcement was made at a formal dinner with Asmae’s extended family.

She didn’t think twice about marrying a man outside of her culture—until she got pregnant. The couple had agreed to raise their son in the United States because there was more opportunity, but Asmae, 33, worried: “What if he doesn’t feel Arab? What if he doesn’t speak Moroccan?”

She grew more emotional as they thought about a name. Ben wanted to name his son after his own father, Thomas. Asmae wanted an Arabic name. As they discussed it, Ben saw Asmae’s point of view. She wanted the child to feel equally at home in Morocco—not like an American with little appreciation for his mother’s homeland.

Ben, 33, says the question became “What is it going to be about him outside of his skin color that suggests he’s half Arab?”

They named him Nabil, Arabic for “noble.”

At age two, Nabil speaks more Moroccan than English. “He loves Arab music,” his mother says. “It makes me very happy.”

Ben laughs: “I never thought growing up that I’d have a son named Nabil.”

Says Asmae: “We were in line at immigration in France, and I heard an Arab man say, ‘Wow—an American gave his son an Arabic name!’ ”

Hot Dogs and Hummus

Saba Moritz used to feel guilty when her husband, Tom, washed the dishes in their Connecticut Avenue condo. If he vacuumed, she’d apologize.

In Iranian culture, women run the household. Saba’s mother believed that if her daughter made her husband do housework, he might leave her. Saba, 36, laughed it off, but her mother’s voice sometimes haunted her: “The man of the house should not be washing the dishes.”

Tom, a Commerce Department lawyer seven years younger than Saba, was raised by hippie parents in southwestern Nebraska. His dad cooked every night; the kids cleaned.

“The notion that there were men’s and women’s jobs didn’t occur to me,” Tom says. “It was hard because Saba was doing a lot of the stuff I was supposed to do, and then she’d resent me for it.”

Tom and Saba sat down every Saturday to talk their differences out. “It helped us understand each other’s approach,” Saba says.

Tom thought it was wasteful when Saba cooked twice the food needed when they hosted friends. Saba told him, “In Iran, if there are no leftovers, it’s considered rude.”

She wanted to know why Tom spent hours on the phone with his family. “They’d talk about nonsense—TV shows or what’s going on at work. Iranians use the phone to relay a message and hang up.”

They almost didn’t marry in 2004. After meeting at a party, they had a whirlwind romance and got engaged after four months. Then Saba found out about Tom’s educational debts; he’d paid for his undergraduate and graduate degrees with loans. Iranians don’t buy a house unless they have cash—only irresponsible people borrow money.

“I almost broke up with him,” she says. “I wondered if he was going to live irresponsibly for the rest of his life.”

Tom had to explain that most Americans depend on student loans. If he hadn’t taken them out, he wouldn’t be successful. Saba understood but was irked: “I saw it as a burden.”

She recently gave birth to their first baby. They’ve deconstructed so many of their differences that they’re nearly always on the same page. Unless you get them talking about food.

“We eat a lot of rice,” Saba says, “but Tom eats it with bread. That bothers me. It’s like putting honey on a hamburger. If I make a Persian dish, Tom will pour salsa on it.”

“For me, it’s innovation,” he says. “To her, I’m corrupting the flavors.”

Saba rolls her eyes: “A couple of months ago, Tom decided that in any Western household there should be a jar of relish and a bottle of ketchup in the refrigerator. We haven’t even used them—”

Tom interrupts: “There have been times when we get sausages, and I’d prefer to eat one on a bun with condiments. Left to her own devices, Saba would cut it up, fry it, and serve it over rice.”

“The last time we went to Moby Dick’s for kebabs,” Saba says, “he put ketchup on his. I couldn’t even look at him.”


The Serbian and the Island Girl

Vladan Stankovic planned to leave Washington and return to Serbia. Then he won a green card in the lottery. Soon after, he met Charissa Benjamin. Charissa had come from the Caribbean island of Antigua to attend American University.

Vladan, a marketing analyst, spotted her at a party and cracked a joke only another immigrant could appreciate: “You know, if you marry me, you can get a green card, too.” Charissa laughed. Soon after, she fell in love.

Serbians don’t typically marry out of their culture, but Vladan’s family is liberal. No one in Charissa’s family blinked at the engagement. Both families already spanned the globe. Charissa’s younger sister had married a Trinidadian of Indian descent; Vladan’s brother had walked down the aisle with a Portuguese woman. Still, Charissa and Vladan eloped.

“My family is strict Catholic, and I didn’t want a big wedding,” says Charissa, 27, who works in public relations. “My parents were disappointed, but in true Caribbean style we still got to have a party when we returned.”

Vladan, 36, appreciated Charissa’s light-hearted island upbringing—she had spent her childhood chasing jellyfish and playing on the beach—but was uncomfortable with her family’s housekeepers. In communist nations, there is no servant class. “I was raised to think that having one was a sin,” he says.

Because Antigua is so small, Charissa says gossip is a way of life and “you recycle through the same people.” On one visit, Vladan realized: “Wow—we’ve been here for a day and I’ve already seen all of your ex-boyfriends.”

There were stares when Charissa visited Serbia. Vladan says the only dark-skinned people Serbians see are athletes and rappers on TV: “She’s a novelty. She catches the eye, but it’s because she’s so beautiful.”

On their first Christmas in their Dupont Circle apartment, Charissa wanted to put up a Christmas tree. Vladan didn’t see the point. He joked that he wanted to put a statue of Joseph Stalin in a Santa Claus costume in the window.

“That’s his line,” Charissa says, laughing. “ ‘I grew up in a poor communist country . . . .’ ”

Vladan says he’s most fascinated by how similar their values are despite their backgrounds: “We came from opposite sides of the globe, but we both came from working-class families who did the same 9-to-5 and had many of the same conversations in the house. We think the same.”

“I Don’t See Difference as a Bad Thing”

When Meghan Powell was in high school, her best friend described her view of interracial dating: “The bluebirds go with the bluebirds, and the robins go with the robins.”

The predominantly white Massachusetts town where she grew up wasn’t without racial tension; a few kids in her high school were arrested during her senior year for burning a cross in a black man’s yard. But Meghan was always attracted to African-American men. She grew up with pictures of Michael Jordan on her walls. Throughout high school and the University of Maryland, she dated only black athletes. She also married one.

“I think that’s crazy,” says her husband, Dennis, 42, who came with his mother to DC from Jamaica when he was seven. “It makes me feel like an object when I hear that. What happens when I’m old and fat?”

“That’s just the initial attraction,” Meghan, 28, says. “You could be 500 pounds, and it wouldn’t change how I feel about you.”

Before she met Dennis, Meghan, an engineer, assumed she’d have a red-haired, freckled child who mirrored her Irish roots. Dennis, an athletic trainer, pictured his child’s skin to be as dark as his own. Twenty-month-old Bryce is neither. He has dark hair and eyes and fair skin.

Meghan feared that her grandmother would write her out of her will. Dennis’s mother had wanted him to marry a Jamaican. But both families accepted them.

Their match stirs more reaction in the black community. Dennis’s friends will ask how he could marry a white girl. He laughs the questions off but often feels sad for the people who ask.

“I think they’re forced to date someone of their own race,” he says. “Their parents just wouldn’t accept it.”

Dennis feels the same about Meghan’s cousins. None of them would date a black man, and that bothers him. He’s open with Meghan about this—and everything else. They talk about race and learn from each other. Says Dennis: “I don’t have to worry I’m going to offend her.”

Meghan is reminded of how different they are every time she sees a picture of them hanging in their Silver Spring apartment.

“But I don’t see difference as a bad thing,” she says. “Our relationship is already different from most—if something breaks, I fix it; he cooks and cleans. It works for us.”

Marriage, Love, and War

When infantry officer Adriaen Morse left for Kuwait to fight in the first Gulf War in 1990, Maha couldn’t bite her tongue. She’d immigrated from Iraq to escape Saddam Hussein’s regime and was worried about her homeland. “Please don’t kill anyone,” she told him.

Tension between the United States and Iraq is wallpaper in Adriaen and Maha’s life. “I don’t think we anticipated that the United States would invade Iraq when we got married,” says Adriaen, a partner at the DC law firm Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw.

With Maha’s homeland in the news for the last four years, children Sara, 11, and Sami, 9, are sometimes emotional about a place they’ve known only through family stories, network news, and Arabic satellite channels.

Sami couldn’t sleep when he heard about some of the bombings on television. He was worried about his uncle in Iraq. When kids at school said nasty things about Iraqis, Sara told them Iraqis were good people.

“What do you know?” one asked.

“My mother is Iraqi,” Sara said, “and she’s a good mother.”

On the day Saddam was hanged, Maha and her parents cheered in their Falls Church home. Sami was confused.

“I thought it was bad to kill people,” he said to Adriaen. “Are you happy that Saddam is dead?”

Adriaen had to explain that it’s bad to kill people, but Saddam had done so many bad things.

Maha—who is the Flint Hill School’s registrar—began hiding newspapers and turning off NPR or other news if it spoke of the war.

“There were no bombs when you were growing up?” Sami asked.

“We grew up just as you are growing up here,” she said. “There was a time when things weren’t as bad.”

Maha’s father didn’t speak to her for a year after she married Adriaen 15 years ago. He had wanted her to marry another Muslim.

“I couldn’t find an Arab man who was as open-minded,” she says. “I’m more into women’s rights, human rights. With Adriaen, I always felt comfortable.”

Today her mom and dad scold her if she isn’t a good wife to their American son-in-law.

If she and Adriaen talk about Middle East politics, Maha says she dissociates herself from her US citizenship. She becomes the spokesperson for the Arab world, and Adriaen is the American president. In a conversation about the Iraq invasion, Adriaen said America likes to help the underdog.

“You are not there for the sake of the people!” she told him.

Maha and Adriaen laugh thinking about those conversations. “The Arab blood flows in me,” she says, “and suddenly I’m not American anymore.”

It may be their differences that have kept their marriage strong. There’s never the assumption that either one should understand where the other is coming from.

Says Adriaen: “My parents taught me that you can look at things in a very rigid way, or you can choose to accept that other people have a different way of looking at things.”

“Let’s Just Try It”

On their first date, Jared Max Handler kissed Mary Taliaferro Stiles in her room at the Sofitel Lafayette Square hotel.

“That’s fantastic,” Mary told him. “But we’re not going to date because I’m Christian and you’re Jewish.”

Mary was a Southern “cradle Episcopalian.” Jared took his Jewish identity seriously; his grandparents had survived the Holocaust.

“Let’s just try it,” he pleaded. “If we don’t, we’ll always wonder.”

A year later, they were in love—and uncertain about how they’d make their religious differences work. It was important to both that their children have a strong religious faith, but neither would compromise on which religion they’d raise them in.

“If you marry a Christian,” Jared’s grandmother told him, “you will regret it. It will eat you up.”

That night, Jared broke up with Mary. She skipped work the next day and went to see her priest, who was married to a Jewish man. Mary admitted her fears, the foremost being that raising Jewish children would make her a bad Christian.

“The important thing is to instill a religious base and teach your child he’s a son of God,” the priest told her. The two religions have more similarities than differences, she said.

A couple of weeks later, Jared flew his plane to Martha’s Vineyard with Mary. They sat on a deserted beach with pens and a notebook negotiating 25 sticking points.

Some were big: Even though the children would be Jewish, Mary would remain Christian. She’d attend temple with Jared, and he’d attend church with her. Smaller worries were also hammered out—could there be crosses in the house? Yes, but they’d be in a designated space.

“We wanted to make sure we found a balance,” Jared says, “so one person wouldn’t be giving up too much.”

They flew home intending to marry. But before they parted, Jared encouraged Mary to talk to her mother and grandmother: “If you resent me after a month or a year, it will destroy our marriage.”

Until the night before the wedding, Jared gave her an “exit button,” saying it was fine if she walked away. But Mary knew she was making the right decision.

The couple, now 30, were married by a priest and a rabbi on Georgia’s Jekyll Island in February.

They settled in Arlington because they saw the Washington area as neutral ground. Mary, a private banker with JP Morgan, could find a temple she’d feel comfortable attending as a Christian. Jared, an investment adviser, wouldn’t feel the pressure to convert to Christianity; Mary’s Southern relatives had tried more than once.

“My biggest fear,” Jared says, “is that when Mary has a baby growing inside her, she’ll either regret her decision or change her mind.”

“But I spent so much time thinking and praying about this,” Mary says. “We’ve looked at it frontward and backward. Nothing could poke holes in our logic.”

Searching for Words

Yuniko Rogers’s friends in Tokyo were envious when they heard she was marrying an American in 1989. John Rogers, a Foreign Service officer working in Indonesia, had grown up on a Florida orange farm. He was tall and good-looking—the kind of tourist Japanese women fawn over.

“International marriages are very special in Japan,” says Yuniko, 48, a piano teacher. “My friends said, ‘Oh, Yuniko! You’re going to speak English all the time. You’re going to have such beautiful children.’ ”

The couple was so in love that they didn’t think their differences stretched farther than his blue passport and her red, his pointy nose and her round one. A few years—and cultural clashes—later, it dawned on them. “Holy cow!” John thought. “I married a foreigner and didn’t even know it.”

Yuniko says that language barriers account for 99 percent of their struggles.

“She’s approached the language like a musical piece,” says John, 50, a vice president at the Urban Institute. “She has the accent under control and the inflection. Everyone assumes she’s fluent.”

But she doesn’t always understand. Talking about complex subjects is hard for nonnative speakers. Even everyday phrases can be challenging without context. One night, John said, “It rained.” Yuniko knew what rain was, but she wasn’t sure if it had rained, was raining, or was going to rain. She was hurt when John seemed annoyed that he had to repeat himself.

Sometimes when they’re arguing, she’ll tell John to stop talking. Then she’ll get her English dictionary. “Did you mean that?” she once asked him after looking up what he’d said.

There are days when Yuniko longs to express sarcasm—or whisper to her husband before bed.

“My English ability goes down late at night,” she says. “That’s when my dear husband wants to say something in a quiet way. I’ll have to say: ‘What did you say?’ And it ruins everything.”

Each spring, Yuniko leaves John, Claire, 13, and Chloe, 9, at home in Arlington and travels to Japan. She uses the time “to recover from the stress of speaking English.” If John came along, she’d have to translate, which is work.

She’s raising her girls to speak Japanese as well as English. She takes them to her parents’ Tokyo apartment for several weeks most summers. As soon as the plane lands, they switch languages.

John remembers greeting his daughter in the airport when she was four. “Hey, Claire!” he said.

She couldn’t remember the English word for “hello.” She smiled at her father and said, “Konnichiwa.”