On Multicultural Marriages, Burnt Potatoes and Why Life Is Beautiful

by Alice · 8 comments

By Alice Lapuerta
Photo credit: Aaron Alexander

There are days when I just feel completely overwhelmed by over-boiling cooking pots, poopy underwear (yeah we are regressing again with potty training), colicky screams, endless piles of dirty laundry and annoying household machines that just keep breaking down in the most inconvenient moment (like our washing machine and oven. I think our TV is up next.)

When Isabella has decided for the Xth time to wash her entire wardrobe in the bug-infested garden pool outside, and when Dominik just won’t settle down for a nap, doesn’t want to eat, doesn’t want to sleep, doesn’t want to play, doesn’t want anything …. this is when I have to tell myself to take a break.  Time-out.  Everything freezes in time.

Why let all this stress me out so much? These are paltry problems. Remember not so long ago the problems we had then.  And how we mastered them.

I remember our time in Ecuador and the challenges I encountered there. Now, those were real problems! Language barriers, culture clash, homesickness, missing family and friends, missing the quality of life that I was used to.

On top of that I was a newly married, first-time mother trying to re-adjust from the life of a busy University student to that of a stay-at-home-mom. Somehow I never expected to be so completely isolated day in and day out while hubby was gone from dawn to dusk to slave away for a meagre salary. And worst of all was the feeling of not knowing how this all was going to continue.

I think of my parents with admiration, then. How did they manage to bridge East and West when they married? How did my mom manage to adapt so well to Korean life and culture? Where did my parents get it from, this seemingly unending pool of tolerance, patience and flexibility to cope with language, cultural and mentality differences?

Where does one get the ability to stretch oneself further and further to the extreme, until, indeed, entire continents are bridged. Moving to a still impoverished Korea in the late 70’s with two toddlers in tow and one on the way can’t have been easy.Back then they didn’t have internet, e-mail and msn messenger to stay in touch with friends and families, either.

And here I was in Ecuador, thinking fiercely that if my mom could do it, so could I.

Yet I was nearly despairing over all the paltry things that were so important to me and that I missed so tremendously that it hurt. Like the taste of fresh black bread. Like the smell of fir trees after the rain, the sound of church bells echoing over the meadows, the taste of a good, strong Melange and Guglhupf.

Diapers and milk formula in Ecuador were expensive, and so was the bread and cheese I craved. Shopping at Megamaxi supermarket cost us a small fortune. I wistfully touched and smelled all the European imported products that we were not able to afford.

I suddenly realized that my definition of “living quality” was enormously high, and that it was not so easy to change one’s comfort habits from one day to the next. I knew I was spoiled by the living conditions and the nature of my home in Austria. I knew I could not pack off my baby into a stroller and take long meandering walks into the lush forests and fields nearby, like I did at home.

But I tried anyway.

I couldn’t advance further than a block from where we lived. For there, the hole-studded sidewalk ended abruptly. As I stood there, with Isabella covered from head to toe in dust, the cars zoomed by dangerously close, swathing us in gray clouds of carbon monoxide, it hit me hard: homesickness.

How the hell was this going to continue, I wondered.

How to keep up a multicultural relationship without one party having to sacrifice so darn much. How to counter the homesickness, how to break through the isolation established by the language and cultural barrier that surrounded me. And, most importantly, how to make sure that our young family wasn’t going to break apart under this strain.

On looking back now, I think we came darn close to the breaking point.  I think we were really favored by fate, God, the mysterious forces in life, whatever you want to call it. We took the risk and plunged into the cold water, leaving behind everything that we had in Ecuador (car, apartment, job, hubby’s family and friends) – and moved to Europe.

When we arrived here I was happy … but now hubby had to struggle with exactly the same issues as I: dealing with the isolation of being a foreigner in a not too foreigner-friendly country, language and cultural barriers, missing family and friends.  The balance has shifted – to the other side.  It’s not fair, is it?

It seems as though someone always has to sacrifice if we want cross-cultural relationships to work. Someone is always going to miss family and friends. That is what just seems to come with the package of a cross-cultural marriage. The question is whether it is possible to find a middle path in which both can be reasonably content.

Yet how does one find that middle path? How does one find a compromise?

I dare to believe we have found our compromise, despite – or rather because of – the sacrifices hubby has to make. I regret I cannot, in Harry Potter terms, magically “apparate” my in-laws here. But we can make sure that it is a priority for us to buy plane tickets to Ecuador, instead of investing the money in fancy cars or other luxurious items.

We live a good life here. Defying all statistics, hubby got the job. That in itself was a miracle. Soon after we could afford the car, and now our very own apartment. No more landlords! Our kids will grow up in a beautiful and safe environment, in a politically & economically stable country. We have been truly blessed that things worked out so beautifully for us.

So when I am engulfed by the madness of everyday life, when the potatoes on the stove transform to hard, black pieces of charcoal while Isabella and Dominik shake our apartment walls as they compete in who can throw the louder and more persistent tantrum, I sit down, remember our past problems and our blessings and smile.

Above all this, life is beautiful, really.

Alice Lapuerta, the Editor of Multilingual Living Magazine, is a regular contributor at Multilingual Living. She grew up in a trilingual household of German, Korean and English. She and her husband from Ecuador live in Austria where they are raising their three children trilingually in German, Spanish and English.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Barbara September 15, 2010 at 3:02 pm

Yes, bicultural life is full of compromises. It does help, though, if both have lived in (not just visited) the other’s country to better understand the other’s culture, what the other is missing and how it feels to live in a foreign country. And after all these compromises also make life interesting! It does help to have Internet, improving communication and improving access to TV, music, books, food and other goodies from the homeland!


2 Jennifer Planeta November 10, 2010 at 1:56 pm

Thanks for that wonderful article. I, too, am in a multi-cultural marriage. Being in a out-of-the-norm marriage can be very lonely at times. Your article made me feel a little less alone in our situation.


3 Melissa November 15, 2010 at 9:12 pm

What a wonderful article. I am currently in a similar situation, back in my own country after having lived in my husband’s for several years. Having been through it myself, I am more sympathetic to the cultural and language adjustments he is now facing. We’ve been through some tough times together, but we made it through, so it is important to remember those times when I feel overwhelmed with potty training and a crying baby.


4 Marcela May 12, 2011 at 12:31 pm

I absolutely loved your article. It reminded me of my experience when I came here. I did it backwards… I left everything back in Colombia. My good life, a very comfortable one.

I stayed here because I found the love of my life here…Yes a “gringo.” The first year of marriage my husband offered me to put me on a plane so I could end my pain of starting all over again in a huge city with nobody I knew, different customs, language, home, and none of my family!

I have always been a happy person, but during those days things were pretty strange. It was all the novelty I loved about being in New York, and the incredible advanced society we live in. I love that. On the other hand, it was the nostalgic feeling of all I left behind and sacrificed for being here.

I had to start all over again in corporate world here, I had to learn and perfect a new language, I had to adapt and fast. There was no choice, I had made my decision.

Now looking back, I simply laugh. I don’t want to leave the U.S., even though my hubby talks about retiring in South America. I have to confess…I am a total U.S. lover.

As time passes we learn to take the best of every situation and enjoy it. At least that is how I did it. We go back and forth to my native country, but I have to confess…I love being in the U.S. and having a mixed culture in our home!


5 Karin May 13, 2011 at 12:41 am

Superbe article! I can completely relate. I have spent the last 20 years outside of my home country but it seems the older I get the more I get homesick – maybe the novelty of living abroad etc. wears down and one starts to appreciate all the things that the home country has to over. We make sure that we visit my home country every year and I am hoping one day we will live there for a few years. That will be definitely then an adjustment for my husband. I sometimes wonder if it is best to live in a third country which has a different language altogether so that both people are ‘foreign’ as then nobody is disadvantaged or advantaged.
I also never realized that even for our young kids it is already hard as they always have to leave someone behind. Once we finish our summer visit they know they won’t see all their relatives in my home country again for another year and while they are there they miss seeing their other set of grandparents.


6 Tania May 13, 2011 at 9:23 am

Great article! It really resonated with my experience in a multicultural relationship. The difference with my husband and I is that we met in a third country, where we both had to get used to a new language, culture, way of living…and as Karin commented above, we were both ‘foreigns’! Now, after almost 4 yrs of marriage, we are going back to his country, but it was a joint decision made after visiting both of our countries several times and getting to know them a little better. I want to think the transition is going to be easier [for me] b/c I’ve had a chance to make an informed-decision, but I guess I’ll have to wait until we’re living there permanently to know. Thank you Alice for sharing your story!


7 Beth Ortuno September 22, 2011 at 5:58 am

I love the way you put this: “Where did my parents get it from, this seemingly unending pool of tolerance, patience and flexibility…”
In our case, we’re not “staying together for the children”. We are happy. But sometimes I think the importance of our kids to us (knowing our stability is important to them) is what helps us remember to compromise.


8 Jackson February 22, 2012 at 6:26 pm

I think that sometimes, also, a couple needs to take into account personalities and family. I have lived away from my home country for 9 years. I’m not sure if my wife could do that–I’m the more adventurous of the two of us. It doesn’t always work tit-for-tat as it did in your case. Also, we live in a small country now, with her family close by. If we moved back (to the U.S.), we would end up living a plane flight or two away from my family. Also, the job market is such that we are both more employable and valuable with us in my wife’s home country. So it only really makes sense for us to live here.

When I considered marrying my wife, I thought “I won’t marry her until we have a chance to see what the relationship is like when the shoe is on the other foot–when we live in a different country together.” But it just isn’t practical to think that way. Our relationship is built on the way it started–with her in the center of her culture and me on its periphery, lost and minimally communicative. I’ve improved, but I’m still the outsider. While I think my idea was good–what would my spouse be like given a more balanced situation?–the practicality of seeing it through was restrictive. We’re still in her home country, 8 years later, with 2 small kids.

I really do get homesick for things about the U.S., though, like mountain forests and natural areas near my home for my children. For me, that moment you mentioned of cars whizzing by is a very familiar scene, too. And the same despondency for me. But cities are the same all over, and living in a city may be more the culprit than the country itself.


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