News & Politics

When Harris met Seema

He's American, She's Indian. Here's How They and Other International Couples Face the Hurdles--From Meeting the Parents to Getting a Green Card to Learning Each Other's Ways.

Harris Adams went to India to seek his fortune and found the love of his life.

In 1993, he was a budget analyst for the Defense Department in Corona, California. Two of his friends from India decided to move back to New Delhi to start an import company, and they asked Adams to join them. He had his bags packed faster than you could say "tandoori chicken."

A few months after the company started, Seema Kalia graduated from a computer college in New Delhi and answered an ad from "an American company looking for a secretary." It wasn't what she was after, but she liked the energy of the new venture, so she took the job.

Soon afterward, Harris saw Seema walking through the office. "It was love at first sight," he says.

He knew he couldn't just buzz by her desk and ask her out; in India, arranged marriages are still the norm. "I didn't say anything to her for about six months," he recalls.

He finally indicated his interest. "I told him it was not a good idea," Seema says, "even though I really liked him."

Adams was not about to give up. "The best sales job I ever did," he says, "was convincing Seema I was serious."

Harris Adams and Seema Kalia were married in New Delhi on February 23, 1995. Five months later, he brought her to his hometown of Washington.


International marriages used to be rare. There were waves of "war brides" after World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, but in between it was unlikely an American would meet someone from another country and fall in love.

Cheap air travel in the 1960s began to change that. In the '70s and '80s, the number of study-abroad programs grew. The expansion of international business increased jobs for Americans overseas and for foreign nationals in the United States. In the '90s, the Internet provided instant access across borders. The Web has become a worldwide singles party.

According to the Institute of International Education, there are 3,030 students from other countries on the University of Maryland's College Park campus. George Washington has 2,306, Georgetown 1,368, Howard 1,194, and George Mason 1,384.

One hundred fifty-seven nations have embassies or representatives here. Global institutions such as the World Bank and research facilities such as the National Institutes of Health draw foreign nationals. Foreign corporations also have a strong presence.

As a result, the Washington area has become a center of international romance. What does it take for two people to bridge a cultural divide? Is love enough?


The Bride Wore Red

Like all lovers since the beginning of time, international couples tend to believe that their love can leap over barriers of culture, language, and religion.

In this global era, they say, such differences have become obsolete. But although many young people all over the world wear the same jeans and dance to the same music, differences remain.

Harris Adams's courtship of Seema Kalia was nothing like dating rituals here.

First, the couple began talking on the phone every night. Through these conversations Seema realized how much Harris cared about her. "Then I fell in love," she says.

The Adams family, 7,500 miles away in Bethesda, knew about the couple before the Kalia family did in New Delhi. His mother was fine with the idea, Adams recalls. His dad had hoped his son would marry in the Jewish faith.

Adams told them: "Once you meet her, any negative feelings will disappear."

It was harder for Seema to tell her mother about Harris. She got the expected response: "You can't do that."

Mrs. Kalia already had started looking for a husband for her daughter. She had alerted relatives in New Jersey to be on the lookout for a good catch. Harris Adams, a nice Jewish boy from Bethesda, wasn't on the list.

With three friends in tow to translate, Harris paid a visit to Seema's mother.

"I give you my solemn promise that I will make your daughter happy," he said. "If you don't believe me, you can hold my passport as an act of faith. You can call the American Embassy to check me out. I will do whatever you say to prove my sincerity."

Adams had another factor in his favor: After meeting several traditional families in New Delhi, he concluded that Indian husbands make American men look good. "Indian husbands think a wife's only job is to bear children and cook meals."

Adams won not only Mrs. Kalia's support but that of the entire Kalia clan. When he got sick, the family went to his hotel to bring him soup. After the wedding, when the couple decided to come to the States, Seema's Uncle Raj helped her get a visa.

The first Hindu wedding Harris Adams attended was his own. It began with the ring ceremony, a rite conducted by the couple in the presence of family and friends. Seema wore a white-and-red sari. Her hands were decorated with Mehndi, intricate patterns drawn on the skin with henna. Harris wore a business suit.

After the couple exchanged rings, more than 200 guests joined them for dinner. Then all but close family and friends went home, and a Hindu priest arrived for the religious ceremony. Seema changed into a red silk suit–red, not white, is the color for weddings in many Asian cultures.

The priest instructed the couple to build a fire. They walked around it seven times, making seven commitments to each other. "No matter what my husband says or does," Seema vowed, "I'll stick with him."

Your Country or Mine?

Seema Kalia Adams had expected to live in New Delhi after she married. She was surprised when, on a vacation in Jaipur, Harris announced that he wanted to return to the United States. The import business he'd been working for hadn't gone as well as hoped. He believed he'd have a better shot at success back home.

The couple lived with the Kalia family for five months while they waited for Seema's marriage visa and work permit. In July 1995 they flew to Washington and moved into Harris's old bedroom in his parents' house. "We didn't even have our own spoon," Seema remembers.

At 29, Harris felt he had to find not just a job but the right job. It took a year for the couple to put their life together.

Today Harris has a job he loves with John Hancock. They bought a house in Bethesda that they're decorating in a modern style; the only sign of India is a statue of the Hindu god Shiva.

Mrs. Kalia has been here to visit.

"Harris is the best son-in-law," Seema declares. "He is a wonderful husband."

A generation ago, there was no question about where an international couple would live: The husband was the breadwinner, and the wife went where he wanted to go.

Now that many couples have two incomes, the decision is not so clear. Meghan Witt and her Swedish husband, Odd Stalebrink, met at George Mason University. They married and now hope to split their time between Sweden and the United States to give their future offspring a taste of both cultures.

The most common considerations are language and job opportunities. That's why DC native Marlo Young and her German husband, Andreas Trageser, chose to live here. His English was better than her German. Young's job at the World Bank also seemed more stable than Trageser's position at a Frankfurt chemical company. Young felt that as an African-American she would have a harder time assimilating in Frankfurt.

Another motivation for living here is that American parents often seem more accepting of their children's choices. Dr. Spock-era parents fed their children permissiveness along with strained peaches. If these parents are uncomfortable with the consequences, they hate to admit it. "We offered our daughter the world," one father says, "but we didn't think she'd take it."

Speaking about her son's Asian bride, a Northern Virginia mother confides that she felt rejected: "It's clear he didn't want a girl just like the girl who married dear old Dad."


On the surface, Seema Adams is living the American dream. But she doesn't feel American. She has become accustomed to the stares of strangers. At the same time, she is surprised at many Americans' hostility toward immigrants. This country isn't what movies and TV led her to expect.

The preponderance of American culture worldwide often creates a false impression. Foreign students get off the plane in Minnesota and think California is around the corner, explains the former head of an international student-exchange program. Like Seema Adams, they are often bothered by Americans' seeming lack of interest in any culture but their own.

Most Americans not only are unfamiliar with other cultures; they also feel no compulsion to learn, according to a European who recently moved to Washington with his American wife. He theorizes that geography feeds American ignorance. "You are an island," he says of his adopted country.

Because the United States is separated from other continents by oceans, Americans aren't forced to bump elbows with people of other countries, as is common elsewhere. It's easy for Americans to think of the world as an international theme park where people and places look different on the outside but underneath everyone speaks English, eats at McDonald's, and longs to live here.

"Everywhere I go, people say, 'Oh, you're not American,' " says Brazilian Lizmara Kirchner. "Nobody says, 'Great–you speak another language.' "


Three Months of Hell

Married four years, Lizmara Kirchner and her husband, Rob Cantu, call themselves the couple most likely to be kissing on the couch at a party. But, says Kirchner, "the first three months of our marriage were pure hell."

Cantu and Kirchner met around Christmas 1993. He was in the Air Force at Bolling Air Force Base and working nights as a DJ at Quigley's, a bar near American University. Her father had just come to work at the Brazilian Embassy and moved the family to Washington. She had been here for about six months when she stopped into Quigley's with some Brazilian friends.

"She came over to request a song," Cantu remembers. "I said I would only play it if she would dance with me."

Cantu could dance. He had been an Arthur Murray instructor and had danced in competitions. Cantu impressed Kirchner's friends with his skill–an American who could actually do the lambada.

He called Kirchner the next day. Although she didn't speak much English, they talked for more than four hours.

The couple hadn't been dating long when Kirchner realized that Cantu was getting serious. She told him she was only 18, would be going back to Brazil in a year, and didn't want to lead him on. They agreed to stop seeing each other. He called her after a week.

Kirchner's parents were concerned about the attention Cantu showered on their daughter. Sometimes he would come by and leave a rose on her car.

"They never said he doesn't love me," Kirchner recalls. They did say, 'He bites his nails; he must have a nervous problem.' "

After 16 months, Cantu proposed. Kirchner said yes but was afraid to tell her parents.

The couple went together to tell them. Kirchner's mother started crying and shouting in Portuguese. Her father said he would agree on one condition: She had to return to Brazil with her family for at least six months. If their love was real, it would survive.

After a year apart, Cantu and Kirchner were married in Brazil on July 26, 1996. Her family was happy for her but not ecstatic, says Kirchner. Her mother was still asking, "How are you going to live there with no maid?"


After the honeymoon, Cantu brought Kirchner back to Washington. She was horrified to discover that her new home was a mess and her husband in debt.

Cantu had reenlisted in the Air Force shortly after he met Kirchner. He received permission to move into civilian housing only days before leaving for his wedding in Brazil. He rented an apartment and threw everything he owned into it. His bride walked into a home crowded with so many boxes that she couldn't see the floor.

What's more, Cantu had gone into debt to pay for their Brazilian honeymoon and an "official" wedding in Gary, Indiana, his hometown. Many international couples have two weddings–one for themselves and one to fulfill requirements of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Kirchner panicked. Debt may be commonplace in the country that invented the credit card, but in Brazil owing money is shameful.

Cantu and Kirchner were unprepared for her culture shock. "I was very depressed, crying," Kirchner says. Although they'd met in the United States, Kirchner hadn't been away from her family before. She missed her family, her friends, and Brazilian food; she couldn't cook.

"I didn't know for sure if this was what I wanted," Kirchner says. "I asked myself, 'Why am I not in an airplane going back to Brazil?' "

Dr. William Nordling, clinical director of the National Institute of Relationship Enhancement and the Center for Couples and Families in Bethesda, sees many couples who don't address critical differences in the early stages of their relationship. Nordling believes it is essential that the foreign partner realize how he or she will feel living far from family and homeland.

"Most couples assume that if they are happy when they are together, that is enough," he says. "The fact is that you are not together most of the time."


What helped Lizmara Kirchner and Rob Cantu make it past their disastrous start? Cantu was flexible and understanding, Kirchner says; she notes that Brazilian men feel they have to be macho all the time.

In addition, Kirchner started working at the World Bank, so she didn't have to rely only on her husband for human contact. She has Brazilian friends here, and they chatter in Portuguese about the crazy Americans who sell you something for $240 with a $50 rebate but won't lower the price.

Cantu left the Air Force and joined Mitre Corporation. Both have graduated from the University of Maryland, and they bought a house in Germantown. They're comfortable with their differences. For example, Kirchner grew up on Brazilian beaches, where wearing more than a thong bikini is considered overdressed. She refuses to wear an American bathing suit.


What Color Is Your Shower Curtain?

Several years ago, French actor Gérard Depardieu starred in the movie Green Card, the story of a Frenchman who marries an American to stay in the United States. The movie was fictional, but the premise was anything but. In 1996, the INS caught more than 3,700 foreigners in phony marriages. That number has gone up every year.

It isn't as easy to marry for a green card as it used to be. The INS has added more investigators; there are more forms to file.

It's faster to bring an intended spouse here than to marry abroad and then come to the United States. Processing a fiancé visa takes only "several months," according to the INS Web site, whereas a couple can wait "6 to 12 months depending on individual circumstances" for an alien-spouse visa. Anyone coming into the United States with a fiancé visa must get married within 90 days.

When an American applies for a marriage visa, the couple must prove that their relationship is longstanding. For a fiancé visa, they must also prove they've seen each other at least once in the past two years.

Lizmara Kirchner and Rob Cantu took pictures of themselves holding the front pages of newspapers to show that they'd been together. Other couples save love letters, telephone bills, or plane-ticket stubs.

After the couple is married and living in the United States, the American can apply for permanent-resident status and the all-important green card for the foreign spouse. The process requires two documents: an I-130 to petition for the alien spouse to become a permanent resident and an I-485 to adjust the spouse's status from fiancé to permanent resident.


Marlo Young, 27, married Andreas Trageser, 33, last October. Since then, the preoccupation of their lives has been getting Trageser a green card.

In the winter of 1996, Young went to Orange County, California, to visit friends. There was a science-fiction convention there, and she decided to check it out.

Andreas Trageser was also visiting in Orange County. He found out about the convention and went to it. They met the first day and became friends.

Young returned to Washington, and Trageser went home to his chemical job in Germany. After a year of e-mails and phone calls, they decided to meet again in California at the same convention. Says Young: "We realized this could be more than a friendship."

Considering their racial differences– Young is African-American, Trageser white–as well as their nationalities, the two were cautious about telling their families until they had something to tell.

Trageser's decision to marry Young and move to the United States was "the toughest decision of my life." First he made a short visit to DC to meet Young's family. "I wanted to see how they would react to me," he explains. "They adopted me so quickly that even my wife was surprised."

Trageser considers July 7, 1998, their real wedding day. That was the day he called Young and they decided to marry. The engagement was kept secret until October, when Young flew to Frankfurt. During her ten-day visit, they bought wedding rings.

After their wedding, Young filed the I-130 and the I-485 forms for Trageser's permanent-resident status, but she mailed them to the wrong office. Four months later, the couple received a letter from the Arlington INS office, which handles Virginia and the District; their application had been rerouted there. The letter explained that the office had a two-year backlog. They would have to wait up to 20 months before an investigator could call them for an interview.

During their previous four-month wait, Trageser might have applied for a temporary work permit, which in most cases takes 90 days to process. However, the attorney they'd consulted had advised them to simplify matters by skipping the temporary permit. When they took this advice, Young and Trageser never dreamed it could take this long for a green card.

They're luckier than many other couples in immigration purgatory–Young has a good job with the World Bank. But as with any couple setting up a household, money is tight, and each INS application means another check to write to Uncle Sam.

INS spokesperson Elaine Komis explains that Congress appropriates funds for the INS primarily for law enforcement. The agency is required to charge fees to process work permits and permanent-residency applications. Young and Trageser have paid more than $400 in fees to the INS so far.

While he waits for his interview, Trageser keeps busy learning English, making contacts for his future job search, and volunteering for Young's church.


Many people from other countries fear any government. The INS is particularly suspect. This can lead to misinformation about the way the INS handles green-card cases.

Some foreigners leave the country while waiting for permanent status, according to Elaine Komis. Unless they apply to their INS office for "advance parole," they won't be allowed back into the United States, and the INS will assume that they have "abandoned their application."

Many people also believe that INS inspectors make home visits before permanent-resident status is granted. There are tales of agents looking into medicine chests and bedrooms to see if a couple really lives together.

These are myths, says DC immigration lawyer Elizabeth Calderon. Applicants and spouses are asked to come to their local INS office for interviews.

Calderon suggests that the couple bring their wedding pictures and documents to show they have lived together as husband and wife–lease agreements, mortgage-insurance forms, utility bills, income-tax returns, or bank statements.

The husband and wife are interviewed separately. Calderon, who has sat in on many of these interviews, says each spouse is asked the same questions, and their answered are compared. Typical questions:

What color sheets were on your bed this morning?

What color is your shower curtain?

When was the last time you visited his mother?

If the answers generally agree, the INS grants permanent-resident status and a green card good for two years. At the end of that period, the INS calls them in again to make sure they're still together. Then the alien spouse can get a permanent green card.


Is Love Enough?

There's a page on the immigration issues Web site headlined SOBERING ADVICE. It was written by an anonymous American male whose relationship with a Japanese female had turned into sticky rice. The author begs readers to learn from his experience–to find out more about the way their intended thinks and feels, without making assumptions.

He wanted to start his own business. She thought a married man had an obligation to provide security for his family by working for a large corporation. She had grown up in a world of "salary men" in Japan. He didn't want to be a corporate grunt.

"If your partner refuses to discuss a subject openly," the Internet author warned, "treat that as a big red flag and find out why."

The number of books, seminars, and talk shows designed to teach men and women how to talk to each other illustrates that communication isn't easy for couples who speak the same language. It's harder when one of them has to speak a foreign language and may come from a culture that frowns on discussing feelings.

For Thea Joselow and Mikhail Zhurkin, who recently moved in together, language is less of a problem than background. Zhurkin came to Washington from the Soviet Union nine years ago. He planned a short visit to see his parents–his father is a researcher at NIH. Then came the 1991 revolution. Rather than return to Russia to be drafted into the army, he stayed here.

"I tend to blow small problems out of proportion," Joselow says of her personality. Zhurkin, who grew up waiting in lines for bread or soap, thinks there's no reason to get upset "as long as you have a roof over your head and the fridge is full."

Sometimes their differences are an advantage, Joselow jokes. When Zhurkin says or does something outrageous, "I blame it on the fact that he's Russian."

Minor misunderstandings can be comical. When Brazilian Lizmara Kirchner first came here, she tried to tell her husband, Rob Cantu, that she had hurt one of her "foot fingers." Cantu had no idea what she was talking about until she pointed to the aching digit: There is no separate word for "toe" in Portuguese.


When cross-cultural couples can't communicate well, Dr. William Nordling says, "it is easy to avoid differences or to assume that this person wouldn't expect me to do things normally expected in their culture." He suggests couples make a list of questions for each other:

How do you relate to your family?

How supportive of this relationship will your family be?

How do you want to raise your children?

How important is religion in your life?

There are also questions partners have to ask themselves:

Is this person interested in hearing about my cares and concerns?

Will he or she take my wishes seriously?

Do we have a process for working out conflicts?

Knowing your partner is critical in international marriages. If the union fails, divorce can be harder because it isn't always clear which country's laws apply on issues such as child custody.

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in Alexandria estimates that of the 165,000 American children abducted by parents each year, more than 10 percent are taken abroad. Many will never be seen again by the parent they leave behind.

Catherine Meyer, wife of British Ambassador Christopher Meyer, recently spoke at a meeting on high-conflict divorce sponsored by the Montgomery County Divorce Roundtable. She told the group about her fight to see her sons from a previous marriage to a German physician.

A Hague treaty requires signatory nations to honor legal custody arrangements. Some nations, like Japan, have never signed it. And, Meyer told the group, not all signatory nations enforce it. The worst offenders are Germany, Austria, Mexico, and Sweden.

The treaty has a major loophole: A child need not be returned to the custodial parent if the child objects and is old enough to have the objections taken into account or if a local judge decides that the child would suffer "psychological harm."

"There is an incentive to run out the clock," says Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. "Your kids are growing up. When they reach a certain age, the game is over."


Patience, Chemistry, Perseverance

Tsunemi and Gary Kansteiner of Burke, Virginia, have been married 30 years. They were 18 and 21 when they met in a Tokyo hat store and not much older when they married. But neither of them had any doubts that they could bridge the cultural divide.

"I always felt, 'I can do it,' " Tsunemi says.

"I knew from the beginning," Gary says. "I understood that I was making a commitment."

What has mattered most in their marriage, they say, has been personality, not nationality. She is outgoing and adaptable; he is calm and patient.

"We have different personalities, but on the basic things, like how to raise children, we think alike," Tsunemi says.

Tsunemi Nakagawa grew up in Tokyo. She was going to business school and studying English when she met Kansteiner in 1968. He was in the Marines and had come to Tokyo for R&R.

Neither remembers buying a hat the day they met. They do remember that Tsunemi and her friends heard Gary and his buddy struggling to communicate with the store clerk, who didn't speak English. The Marines asked for help, Tsunemi and her friends obliged, and before the day was out they all went dancing.

Tsunemi wasn't impressed with Gary. "His friends were more talkative," she recalls. "He was kind of quiet."

The group got together a few times before Gary's leave was over. When he left, he sent Tsunemi a thank-you note.

A month or two later, the Marine Corps assigned Kansteiner to Japan, and the two began dating. "I thought he was serious," Tsunemi says. "He was."

Gary was reassigned to Vietnam three or four months later. After Vietnam, the Marines sent Kansteiner to California. Gary and Tsunemi hadn't seen each other for a year and a half when he asked her to come to California for a visit.

Tsunemi was nervous; 18 months is a long time between dates. But she had a friend in California she wanted to visit, so she agreed.

"I wasn't sure how it was going to work out," Tsunemi recalls. "When I saw him, things hadn't changed." They were married in Costa Mesa, California.

The Kansteiners attribute much of their success as a couple to support from their families.

Japanese society has never fully accepted gaijin–foreigners. Compared with their compatriots, Tsunemi's parents were progressive. "In my family, dating was not that bad, but getting married is a different story," Tsunemi says. "But once I decided, they wanted me to be happy."

Gary's parents had retired to Florida before the couple took their vows. As soon as Gary got out of the service, he and Tsunemi arrived on their doorstep. The couple stayed for a year while Gary started college.

Florida was like another planet to Tsunemi Kansteiner. After the crowds of Tokyo, the place looked empty. She had never written a check, driven a car, or cooked with American ingredients.

Tsunemi was determined to adapt to her new surroundings. Her mother-in-law taught her to cook; her husband taught her to drive. After 18 months, their daughter, Dena, was born.

Florida was in an economic slump. The space program was cutting back, and Gary's military experience wasn't in demand. Kansteiner applied to the federal government and took a job in a TV-repair shop while he waited. After a year, he went to work for the Navy in Jacksonville. Their son, Lee, was born there.

Thirteen years ago, the Kansteiners moved to Washington. He works for the Defense Department, and she works for the Japan Technical Information Center in Arlington. Dena, 29, teaches elementary school in Greensboro, North Carolina. Lee, 25, works for Anheuser-Busch in Northern Virginia.

Tsunemi never tried to create a corner of Japan in the United States. The family has always celebrated American holidays and speaks English at home.

But Tsunemi instilled in her children love and pride in their Japanese heritage. A few years ago, Dena Kansteiner went to Japan to teach English. She lived with her Japanese grandparents for a year. East met West, and a good time was had by all.

When Tsunemi and Gary Kansteiner talk about their long life together, cultural differences seem irrelevant. They talk about courtesy and commitment.

The couple had ups and downs, but Tsunemi never felt she wanted to go back to Japan. "Even in the down times, we never say bad things to each other, always try to be nice to each other," she says.

"Patience is key," Gary adds. "Besides that, you need chemistry and perseverance. The longer we're married, the better it is."