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.