Saturday, April 4, 2015

My Intercultural Love: Karen & Rajesh

This amazing Punjabi/American couple have been together for a quarter of a century and were fated to be together from the very start...

I'm Karen, I’m from the US (Portland), my ethnic background is mixed US Caucasian (about half English and some mixed northern European). My husband Rajesh is Hindu Punjabi, but born and raised in England. We live in Japan now, with our two sons (age 15 and 20), and one dog (our “third son”!)

Three words that describe you...
Helpful, geeky, and sentimental!

Favorite childhood memory...
Staying at my grandma’s house in southern Oregon - a kind of ranch house (much of it built by my grandfather) with a large flower and vegetable garden, indoor and outdoor kitchens, three large fields, two horses, and a river. 

Where/how do you feel most inspired?
I feel most inspired when I am teaching my kids something. They become enthusiastic and interested when we are learning something, or they are teaching me something.

Where/how did you meet your spouse?
We both separately went to Japan to teach English after college, and ended up working at the same English conversation school. I had arrived in Japan two months earlier than he did, and when he arrived at the school as a new teacher, I showed him around the town on his first day. I thought he was good-looking, sweet and funny! As co-workers, we naturally spent a lot of time together exploring the town during mealtimes and after work, and we started to become more than just friends about two months later on a group holiday at the beach.

How long have you been together?
We met 24 years ago. We started dating shortly after, and married almost 21 years ago. 

What qualities do you admire in your spouse?
He is a good teacher and father, loves experiencing different cultures, is a great cook, and a hard worker.

Favorite memory together as a couple...
When I was 4 months pregnant with our older son, we had a holiday in a beautiful farming area here in Japan. We stayed in a wooden lodge and rented bicycles, riding all around and looking at the early autumn scenery. 

What did you know about your spouse's culture prior to your relationship?
I knew almost nothing. I had visited Indian restaurants maybe 2-3 times. By coincidence though, I had fallen in love with a certain Indian restaurant that happened to serve home-style cooking in the same style as my husband’s family! I was only able to visit it once, while traveling in Texas at about age 20, but I had a wonderful meal including saag and chickpeas - I never forgot about that meal! I spent the next year thinking about visiting the restaurant again on my planned second trip to Texas, but unfortunately didn't ever get to eat there again. Fast forward a few years, and I learned that this was the exact cooking style of my husband’s family!!

How did you tell your friends/family about your intercultural relationship? 
I just told them, as usual – it wasn't a big deal. My parents met Rajesh when they came to visit me in Japan, and they liked him. No-one had any particular reactions that I learned of, on either side. 

How has your relationship enlightened your life? How has it changed you & your outlook on life?
My husband is more adventurous than I am, so we have probably ended up staying on long-term in Japan thanks to him! I have also become a much neater person, and can cook a lot more different kinds of foods. 

Who proposed and how?
We did not have a surprise proposal. It just kind of came up in conversation when talking about potential visa issues for living in Japan (that ended up not being a problem). We both liked the idea of getting married, and he proposed to me soon after on a date in a restaurant. From early on in dating, I was happily surprised when he would muse about our future son's name...and we did end up using that name for our oldest son!

Describe your wedding...
We had a casual and simple, non-religious American outdoor Spring wedding in a beautiful park in Oregon. His parents, older brother and one aunty were able to fly out from England for the wedding. A few of my friends and my sister’s friends were there, and many people from my dad’s extended family (but only about 75 guests in total). I wore a white wedding dress that I made, and an Indian jewelry set given to me by my parents-in-law. Later in the reception, I put on a gold and brown sari that they brought for me, and we had a small Indian blessing. 

What does being married mean to you?
It means having a life partner to have a home with and raise children with. 

What are your dreams for your future together as a married couple?
I hope to have a happy life together in our house in Japan, happy and healthy children, and maybe grandchildren in a few years!

What positive cultural values do you bring to your relationship?
Wanting to have a casual and simple life, and an interest in exposing our children to all kinds of experiences and educational opportunities. Also, keeping track of money well. I’m not saying those things are not found in my husband and his family too, or that they are really “cultural values” even – maybe just the culture of my family of origin. 

What do you do to keep your relationship alive? What kinds of things do you do to connect with your spouse?
We have dinner and lunch dates when we are both free (and our children are busy). 

 In what ways have you adopted aspects of your spouse's culture?
I am much neater than I was before! This is more a contrast between our two “family cultures”, though, not the cultures of whole countries. Also, I am a much more hands-on and expressive parent than my mom was. I think a lot of that comes from me, anyway, but it was very instructive and heart-warming to see how loving Rajesh’s parents are with their children and grandchildren! Also, we had our children sleep in our bedroom until about age 3 or so (influence from both India and Japan). We eat a lot of Indian food, too, amongst many other foods (particularly Italian, Mexican, and of course Japanese).

Has your family adopted aspects of your spouse's culture?
No, but when my parents visit us, they love eating Indian food with us!

What aspects of your spouse's culture do you find difficult to embrace?
This may be again just family culture, but I was not able to adjust to Rajesh’s parents spoon-feeding my son when he was 3 years old! I asked them to please let him feed himself, and they did. It just freaked me out somehow...culturally. 

 Also, I found that we had different ideas about the amount of water/dirt that should be allowed on children. I grew up being rained on constantly and playing in mud in Oregon, while Rajesh was not comfortable at first with our children having water and dirt on their clothing. 

Name some cultural faux-pas that you have unknowingly committed...

Once when I was in the middle of moving and really stressed out, I accidentally ate a McDonald’s beef hamburger right in front of my mother-in-law!!! I realized later and felt really bad, but Rajesh said it would probably just make things worse to apologize after the fact. 

I also took a home-made dish to two different family Christmas gatherings in England, of Rajesh’s family, and was shocked/hurt when people did not eat my dish (ignoring it completely) or tried it and then criticized it. To me, it was unthinkable to attend a family Christmas party without contributing a dish. I heard recently that taking a dish to a gathering could be considered an insult and bad manners in India, which I didn't know at that time.

What was the most challenging time in your intercultural relationship?
For most of our marriage, we have both been foreigners in a third country (Japan), working together to live here. For five years in the middle of this time, we lived in England. This was the hardest time for me, as there seemed to be more expectation on me that I would adjust my ways to fit the surrounding (English and/or Indian) culture. After we came back to Japan about 10 years ago, things gradually became more equal again. 

What's the best and the worst part of being in an intercultural relationship?
The worst part is if one of the partners starts to think that their culture is the better of the two, or the one that should be followed more by the children or the whole family. The best part is having an interesting mix of cultural foods, words, etc., in one family. Our children have a mix of the cultures of the US, England, India, and Japan, so I often joke to them that they are “half Indian, half American, half English, and (sort of) half Japanese”! I think they have a good mix of “Asian” and “Western” influence in their lives. 

What do you think are the biggest misconceptions that people have about intercultural relationships?
Thinking that there must be big differences in culture that get in the way all the time. In actuality, People wouldn't have gotten married in the first place if they had nothing in common. Rajesh and I are very similar in all the bigger areas. We are similar in many beliefs - religion, political, lifestyle, and we have the same interest in food and travel. The “cultural differences” that I find causing the most problems are very small things that you would never think of (such as whether it’s okay for a child’s clothing to have water and/or dirt on it). And the difference in neatness between our two families has been a fairly big cause of stress for both of us (his family is really neat, and mine is messy, so I have had to learn over many years to be neater and cleaner – I am happy to do this, but it has been hard work). But I suspect that any two people living together and raising children together will have differences like this - whether the differences come from the families of origin, or are just personal preferences.

What are the biggest misconceptions about American women?
In my life abroad (in Japan and previously in England) I've run into a lot of stereotypes of Americans in general, many of which have not actually been true of me. Bigger things and also little things, such as Japanese people often trying to serve me black coffee based on the assumption that Americans always drink this. Even my own children sometimes say, “Americans …. …..”, to which I always respond, “There are all kinds of Americans! You are American, too!!!” So I would just like to say that we should be careful of making stereotypes based on nationality.

Have you come across people who disapprove of your intercultural union? If so, how do you deal with them?
No, not really. There are actually a lot of intercultural marriages in Rajesh’s family in England. One of his uncles has six children, all married to people from six different countries! No one in my family seems to mind either, and we have not met any other disapproving people. People in Japan just see us as a “nice foreign family”, without bothering about the differences between us. 

Take-away advice for other intercultural couples...
Let your spouse deal with any difficult topics or ones which could be misunderstood (when talking with his parents). If there are hurtful incidents like the one where my Christmas dishes were ignored and criticized, try to stay objective, and later ask your spouse or friends from that culture (or the internet) if there is any cultural aspect that could be coming into play. People’s cultures and certain ways of thinking are built into them from early childhood, and people have a tendency to think that their own way is the “best” or most “natural” or “common-sense” way. But someone else may feel that their own way, is the “best” and most “common-sense”. It stands to reason that this is just our own point of view, and not necessarily “true” objectively. 

Just as an example, if one partner feels strongly about children having water or dirt on them is a problem that should be fixed, but the other partner feels equally strongly that it is important for children to be able to have water on them without minding it - then a difference of opinion may occur. At that point, and in the end (whether the child’s shirt is changed or not), one of the parents will not be happy about it. BUT in the long run, the children will probably end up being a mix of the two cultures anyway, so it is not worth causing problems over these small things. And keep in mind that such differences of opinion will happen within any marriage, no matter whether intercultural or not. It is natural that the children will end up having a mix of the two cultures - so this should be understood, accepted and embraced from the start!!



  1. Beautiful couple :)

  2. Interesting story of an Intercultural couple in a third country.. I loved reading this story!

  3. they look so happy since ever. beautiful :)

  4. A very inspiring marriage, both have the same values for a long lasting marriage built on love, trust each other, equal partnership and deal with cultural or personal differences in a fair manner.
    Being in Japan (without their respective families) may have also helped in forming their own family togetherness amidst a culture that is different from theirs.
    Wonder if they have read articles/books by Pico Iyer - a Indian American writer with a Japanese wife and both live in Japan. He has a unique outlook as he grew up in California, studied in England and lived/worked in various countries.

  5. Lovely laid-back family. We also opted for co-sleeping, and funnily enough when I was researching this method, I found out it seems more popular in the USA than Europe.

    I wonder how the kids feel, it seems they identify more with their Indian origins ? (Padparadscha)


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