The Journey

Intermarriage: an Asian American Struggle Between Freedom and Culture
By Chelsie Moyer

Ariella Chi wants to marry the man she loves.

Her parents have other ideas.

Chi is an American-born Chinese woman who wants to live a purpose-driven life, a Christian woman's American dream. She wants to get a good education, have fun doing it, and hopefully meet her perfect Mr. Right along the way. Her parents want her to live the Chinese dream, which varies slightly.

As a young Chinese woman, Chi is strongly encouraged to find her Mr. Right, as long as he is Chinese.

As an Asian American, Chi is statistically more likely to get married. Sixty percent o f Asian Americans over the age of 15 are currently married, and the Asian American divorce rate is less than half of that of the general populous, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. However, Chi says marrying outside of one's ethnicity is just not norm.

"My parents really want me to marry a full Chinese person. Both sides of my family are completely Chinese. There is nothing else. Not Japanese, not Korean, just Chinese," Chi said.

When one fifth of the world is Chinese, finding another Chinese person to marry does not seem like a difficult endeavor. Unfortunately for Chi, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that only 2 percent of Spokane is ethnically Chinese.

Roughly 3 percent of The United States as a whole is Asian. When the fraction of the population that is part Asian is added to that number, it brings it up to just over 4 percent. Over 50 percent of the small fraction of Asian Americans in the United States lives in either California or New York, resulting in the lack of marital options Chi has found in Spokane.

Asian Americans from every ethnic background face intense pressure to marry within their respective cultural groups despite the small percentage of Americans who are ethnically Asian.

A lack of familiarity with Western culture may be to blame for some of this pressure, said Psychology Professor Dong Xie from the University of Central Arkansas.

"China is a country that only within the last 30 years has opened its doors to Western cultural knowledge. As a result, many Asian parents do not know much of the Western cultures, and even if they know, their knowledge of Western cultures are often biased and involve perceived conflicts between the two," Xie said. "It's an issue of acculturation."

The pressure is less for those whose family has been in America for several generations. In the four generations since Bob Bowen's family immigrated to America, they've come to respect the diverse culture of the United States.

Bowen was not under as great pressure to marry within the Chinese ethnicity. His great-grandparents and grandparents preferred that he marry someone who was at least Asian, but he received little pressure from his parents.

"My parents were hopeful, but in the end, they have been very pleased and happy with my wife, who happens to be not Asian, but of English-Welch decent," Bowen said.

Seeking family approval

Marisa Billington was born in Cambodia. Her mother is Taiwanese and her father is Caucasian American. She saw as a child the strains placed on her parent's interracial marriage. They struggled to find harmony between their two cultures and were forced to do so under the watchful eyes of disapproving parents.

"It took my mother many years to finally earn her mother's approval of my Caucasian dad. But it used to be much more close-minded in that generation. As for my parents, it really didn't matter who I married, with respect to descent, as I'm half and half," Billington said.

Billington got her U.S. citizenship from her American father and came to the Spokane area to attend Whitworth University. Her husband, Juman, was born in Korea. Their marriage was less difficult due to the tolerance of their parents.

"I'm pretty much a Westerner," Billington said, "So this marriage would've been hard for him had his parents been the normal, mainstream Korean parents."

Asian parents whose perspective on marriage allowed for tolerance find themselves as examples in the cultural tug-of-war. Xie sees even in his own family the difference between the perception of a parent's role in Chinese and American culture. Chinese culture, having collectivist origins, includes parents in its definition immediate family, even for married couples.

"Children, particularly sons, are expected to live with, or close to, their parents. A son marrying a wife from Western culture, from his parents' perspective, will bring conflicts not only between the couple, but also between the parents and the daughter-in-law. Chinese culture is oriented to harmony and perhaps the simplest way to avoid conflicts in marriage brought by these culture differences is not to marry someone from a culture background different from you," Xie said.

The first son's duty

First-born sons face the most severe pressure to marry within their own ethnicity, as they are the eldest, a traditional status symbol, and will carry on their family's name. Sons in general are under great pressure, for many of the same reasons.

Chi has only one brother, which lessens his chance of marrying outside the Chinese ethnicity and preserving family ties.

"My parents would literally collapse if my brother married someone else; he carries on the family name." Chi Said.

Jiman Lee knows the strains his heritage and gender places on his future marriage potentials. As a Korean who has lived in the U.S. since he was a toddler, he is faced with the reality that less than half a percent of the American population is of Korean descent. In Korean culture, interracial marriage is not encouraged for anyone, especially first-born sons. Which means don't do it, Jiman Lee said.

"My parents would probably not let me marry a Chinese or a Japanese," Jiman Lee said. "They don't hope I marry a Korean; I must marry another Korean who is not only of Korean descent but must also be pretty proficient in Korean and know the Korean culture."

Overcoming cultural barriers

Acculturation to and correct understanding of of another culture plays alarge part an Asian parent's willingness for his or her child to marry within a different culture, Xie said. Looking forward to his son's eventual marriage, Xie isn't worried about his son's choice. He understands the pros and cons of both cultures and the possible conflicts they may bring, but his approach is an open minded stance and

he trusts his son and his future spouse to deal with the conflicts. Others don't share his view.

"I know for sure that my parents spanked me into keeping my cultural values enough that I would also pass along the same values to my children, when I have them," Jiman Lee said. "I would definitely want my children to marry a Korean and would teach them the values of our culture so that they would pass that desire along to their children and their children and so on."

Jiman Lee's linage is the deciding factor for him, as his family is in the line of several notable figures in Korean history. He wants his name and the pride associated with it to be passed on for many more generations.

"It may sound weird or even racist but I would like to keep the culture within a homogenous family," Jiman Lee said.

The displeasure for interracial marriage can also come from the Caucasian side. Josephine Nativivad emigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines after WWII. She had met her Mr. Right, a handsome young Welch-Irish American soldier who promised after meeting her during the war that he would save enough money and send for her. Two years later, he did.

Her daughter Sheila Corcoran remembers the stories her mother told about coming to America. Josephine's reception by her husband's family was devastating to the young bride who had never stepped on U.S. soil before. Having lived in their Missouri sod-house for generations, they were intolerant of her taking a place on their family farm.

"They asked him why he had to hop over the pond to bring back a black wife," Corcoran said.

Corcoran, who later married an Irish man herself, never felt pressure to marry within the Filipino ethnic group. During the time of her mother's arrival to the US, assimilation was still the mindset among immigrants. Her mother tried to help them become more fully American so that they would be more accepted than she was.

"I heard my mother speaking Tagalong on the phone to other Filipinos, but she never taught us any of it," Corcoran said. "Now that she's gone I often wished she had, it's one of my sincerest regrets."

The language barrier

Kyung Lee knew that language would be a large factor in his marriage. As a Korean who came to Spokane to attend Whitworth, he knew his family wanted him to find a wife who spoke Korean. They feared that someone who was unable to speak Korean would bring discord to their family, Kyung Lee said. Only nine percent of all US college students study a foreign language, and less than half a percent of that group studies Korean, a 2007 study by the Institutions of Higher Education shows.

"Prior to coming to the U.S. my parents always wanted me to marry a full Korean or Korean who was born in the U.S.," Kyung Lee said. "Quite frankly, my parents do not speak English, so I think it is one reason they do not want me to marry someone who is from different culture."

Asian Americans are faced with the decision of holding on to individual will or harming their family through their independence. In either decision, they lose face. In the latter decision, they would spend roughly fifty years with a spouse their parent approved of but knowing they never really had the full opportunity to find that one right person.

"I grew up in America all my life, it's so diverse. I don't think it's realistic now to have to marry within your own culture," Chi said. "My heritage is Chinese, but who I am is American."