Letters from A Broad: When Harry Met Su Li

For much of my married life, I have lived in Asia. When I’m alone I’m one of the dark haired masses until I open my mouth and opportunist that he is, the watermelon guy increases his price by half. But when I’m with my husband; an American from the heartland of Ohio, broad shoulders, pale complexion and all, not only do the prices triple but sometimes I get the stink-eye by others, Chinese and Caucasian.

 Seeing an interracial couple, there is a general assumption that the female is less accomplished, sophisticated, and economically weaker than the foreigner, as well as the possible holder of questionable morals and revenue stream. Ironically, the majority of these women are more open-minded and educated than their counterparts, not to mention bi-lingual.

The truth is, in an interracial marriage; the couple and their families are thrown into different cultures, values, morals, societal judgments and uncertainties over their lineage, willingly or not.

My great grandfather George Keeble, hailed from Scotland. He came to Shanghai in the late 1800’s and “married” my great grandmother. He was the customs master of the port and over the years, built up a sizable nest egg only to leave it to his wife and children and return back to Scotland alone, never to set foot in China again. Even with all the considerable funds he held and the power that came with it, he couldn’t overcome the prejudices of the local gentry and bring back a Chinese wife.

It wasn’t until 1967, long after John Glen had orbited the moon, Martin Luther King had delivered his “I have a dream” speech and John F. Kennedy was president of the United States that the law banning interracial marriage in America was struck down as unconstitutional. Other nations, with the exception of South Africa, did not outright ban interracial marriages but society rules were such that couples daring to do so risked being ostracized at work, with friends, neighbors and family.

In China, it’s hard not to blame Chinese parents for their objections over their children dating foreigners. Language is the most obvious problem; talking with your hands and nodding has a shelf life of about 50 minutes before it goes bad. What the neighbors, co-workers, cousins, uncles, aunts, and grandparents think and talk about is another matter. Unlike being betrothed to a prince or duke, marrying a foreigner doesn’t raise one’s status; in fact, it often has the opposite effect especially when he moves into her apartment. Being a foreign spouse is like a woman trying to break the corporate glass ceiling; you need to be smarter, more successful and better than the other guy to get any face from the community.

For Chinese parents though, the real issues are the ones often left unsaid. “What if he/she doesn’t believe that my child should take care of us when we’re old?” they wonder. “What are we to do if they move overseas?” In today’s one-child families, the stakes are higher and continue long after the honeymoon. Having their adult child marry a foreigner can be a real threat to their livelihood.

The Chinese are proud of their legacy. Families, clans; generations of their lineage are recorded through the centuries, an unbroken, homogenous, racially pure line. Will the marriage bring an end to their family name? Will the next generation know their traditions and heritage much less speak the mother tongue? Who will the grandchildren look like? It’s probably not what they imagined or the future they hoped for when their child was little and took her first steps.

I admit, sometimes I can’t help myself and will flash the stink-eye when I see an Asian woman with a Caucasian man. Heck, I even tried to pass off my husband as Chinese to my parents (I sent them a photo; he dyed his hair black, long story…). The thing is, I don’t notice any racial difference between my husband and myself. Cultural – yes. Gender – definitely. Marital – all the time. Hairy chest aside (his not mine), I forget that I’m married to a modern version of John Wayne, and my hope is next time you see us, you will too.




Photo courtesy of xedos4 at www.freedigitalphotos.net