Saturday, December 19, 2015

My Intercultural Love: Sarah & Billy

Sarah writes an amazing blog called A Life with Subtitles and she lives in Atlanta with her Guatemalan husband and 2 kids!

Hi! I'm Sarah. I grew up in Tennessee and Kentucky, but I met my husband Billy while living in Los Angeles. He is from Guatemala City. Now, we live in Atlanta, Georgia with our daughter (5) and son (2). I write a blog about our multicultural life called A Life with Subtitles.

Favorite childhood memory...
Most of my best childhood memories involve hanging out with my younger sister: riding waves at the beach, bicycling up and down the street, or other adventures. One of my favorites is that I used to hook up my walkie talkie to my boom box and host a radio show for her. I'd play songs through the walkie talkie and then I'd DJ as my alter ego "Sarah Syncopation" with one-person banter and call-in shows where I was all the callers. 

Where/how do you feel most inspired?
I love bookstores. I feel overwhelming inspiration surrounded by so many words and stories and ideas. It's my happy place. Also, I get a lot of inspiration when I'm driving longer distances. Something about that space where I can't really do much but think lets the ideas start to flow. I am a big fan of the Voxer app, and I use the "Note to Self" feature a lot when I'm driving. 

Where/how did you meet your spouse?
This is one of those stories that may always be up for debate. We definitely met at church in Los Angeles, but the details are a little fuzzy. The time I first remember meeting Billy, he for sure already knew me. He knew my name, and he claims it was actually our third introduction. I'm not exactly sure where I was the first two times we met. Thankfully, the third time's a charm!

How long have you been together?
We met (for the third time) in February 2007, and we were married that same November. As I'm writing this, we just recently celebrated our 8th anniversary!

What qualities do you admire in your spouse?
Oh man. There are so many things I love about Billy. He is adventurous and hard-working. He is committed to the people in his life. And he is super funny, which I have enjoyed since the very beginning of our relationship.

What did you know about your spouse's culture prior to your relationship?
I didn't know a great deal about Guatemala specifically, though I had several friends from Latin American countries. I was, however, planning a trip to Guatemala when I met Billy. In my job, I worked with several Latino families, and I was planning to attend Language School in Guatemala to work on my Spanish. As it turned out, by the time I made that trip, Billy and I were already dating, so his parents actually picked me up when I landed at the airport. I met them very early in our relationship and without Billy there. It was a gift to meet them, but a little nerve-wracking to do so alone!

How did you tell your friends/family about your intercultural relationship?
I don't recall the exact conversation with my parents or friends. I had been living a very multicultural life, so I don't think dating someone from another culture was a very big surprise. However, I think we were all a little nervous about Billy's undocumented immigration status. None of us knew much about that process, but I know I thought it was much simpler than it turned out to be. Billy couldn't travel due to his status, but my parents talked with him on the phone, and I think they trusted us both. Billy and my parents didn't meet in person until after we were engaged. 

How has your relationship enlightened your life? How has it changed you & your outlook on life?
Being married outside my culture has definitely broadened my world view. Probably one of the areas that has affected me most is Billy's perspective on work. I had a lot of dreams to "follow my passion" and "change the world." Those are, of course, good things. But being married to someone from a third world country has helped me to appreciate the value of a good job, of a stable income, and of a boss who treats you well. It can be easy to overlook these important qualities if you're too focused on finding your "dream job."

Describe your wedding...
We were only engaged ten weeks, so our wedding was simple, which was exactly what I wanted. We got married in L.A., so nearly all of my family and friends flew out to join us. Unfortunately, due to visa restrictions from Guatemala, Billy's parents were not able to attend, though they applied a couple of times to come for the wedding. We got married in church, and our reception was at a nearby retirement home, which was so funny to me. We opted for many different kinds of cakes instead of one, multi-tiered cake, and for years people would comment on the deliciousness of those cakes. We incorporated the Guatemalan tradition of toasting. So instead of two or three people giving public toasts, we wandered from table to table and someone at each table would toast us. It was a fun way to visit with everyone at our reception.

What does being married mean to you?
We are family. We're stuck with each other for life - the good and the bad, the funny and the heart-breaking. 

What are your dreams for your future together as a married couple?
Oh, I imagine us growing old together and laughing at our own private jokes at the retirement village. 

What do you do to keep your relationship alive? What kinds of things do you do to connect with your spouse?
With two young kids, this season of our life is a little harder to find time to connect. We do go out together once or twice a month. We've also found that getting up early gives us some time to chat when we're not tired from the day yet. And a year after our son was born, we took a vacation just the two of us that was really a valuable time to connect and dream about our future together.

In what ways have you adopted aspects of your spouse's culture?
I think being married to a Guatemalan has helped me to grow in the area of hospitality. I'm now much more likely to bring way too much food to a gathering, and I've become more likely to offer my house or food or anything to others. I may have always been willing, but I didn't always think to offer. I think I assumed if someone needed something, they'd let me know! Now I am learning to be more proactive and welcoming. 

Has your family adopted aspects of your spouse's culture?
We want to raise our kids to be bicultural, so we are intentional about including both culture's traditions and language in our home. For the holidays, for example, we celebrate Guatemalan Noche Buena on Christmas Eve, and we do more of my traditions on Christmas morning. In our broader family, my parents actually got their very first passports to come meet my in-laws. I think Guatemalan culture has a more inclusive perspective on family, so when we got married, Billy's family assumed they would not only welcome me, but also my parents and sister's family. It's been fun to watch them all develop a relationship, even though they live in different countries. 

 What aspects of your spouse's culture do you find difficult to embrace?
It's a running joke in our family that I am bad at greeting people, especially when a kiss is involved. I used to be supremely awkward, but I would say I'm getting better. I don't know if Billy would whole-heartedly agree!

Name some cultural faux-pas that you have unknowingly committed...
It's not a cultural faux-pas per se, but my Spanish is quite limited. When I try to speak in my second language, it's likely I will not make total sense. Though my mother-in-law speaks good English, I do occasionally try to speak to her in Spanish. I was talking to her, and she was nodding along, even though her expression suggested I was not totally clear. Then, a couple hours later, my brain replayed my Spanish and re-heard what I said. I rushed to Billy and was like "Um... I think I told your mom that I wished my grandfather was dead." (No idea how I got there as that was certainly not what I was trying to say.) "Please fix this." Thankfully, he followed up with his mom, who had given me the benefit of the doubt all along. Ha!

What was the most challenging time in your intercultural relationship?
I think the holidays can be challenging for all couples. There's lots of memories and expectations. When you come from two different cultures, though, you may have really different ideas about what's "traditional." Even as we approach our 9th holiday season together, I find we're still figuring out what works for us, especially after having kids. 

What's the best and the worst part of being in an intercultural relationship?
The best is the expansiveness. There's often new things to learn, new perspectives on the world, or new adventures to be had. I think the hardest part is often feeling like an intercultural island in the world. Over time, we have come to learn how much we need friends from both cultures in our lives, but also how much we also need other mixed couples (regardless of their specific mash up) because there is a unique community of couples who are living this intercultural story. 

What do you think are the biggest misconceptions that people have about intercultural relationships?
I feel sometimes that people can swing either way. Either it's destined to end in divorce. Or it's a mystical, exotic relationship fantasy. In reality, intercultural relationships are relationships first with their unique set of joys, challenges, and day-to-day life. There is an added layer of cultural differences that can create laughter, tears, and the need for additional communication. There are strong intercultural relationships and struggling ones, like any marriage. 

What are the biggest misconceptions about American women?
I was pretty shocked to learn that American girls are stereotyped abroad as being very "easy," or promiscuous. I guess the "Girls Gone Wild" videos have done us no favors as American women. I have also found that we have a reputation as not being able to cook - that we only know how to microwave things. Ha! I'm actually not a great cook, but when I found out Billy's Latino co-workers were stunned when he'd bring home-made food to work, I tried to start cooking a bit more.

Have you come across people who disapprove of your intercultural union? If so, how do you deal with them?
Thankfully, no one in our life has ever shown disapproval or lack of support. The only times we have experienced uncomfortable encounters has been with immigration agents when we have traveled abroad and try to return to the States. There, agents have been disrespectful to Billy on multiple occasions, and the circumstance is such where they have all the power. So we tend to just be quiet because really, who cares what they think?

Take-away advice for other intercultural couples...
I think it's important to recognize that our partner may more easily recognize our cultural behaviors than we will. After all, we're so used to our way of doing things that it just seems "normal." But it's important to keep an open mind when your spouse is pointing out something you do that's not universal. And we try to avoid the temptation to think that the way one culture does something is simply "wrong." In reality, it's different. And as a couple, you have to figure out which times you will choose one person's way over the other's or where you will forge your own path.

(All pictures courtesy of A Life with Subtitles)


  1. Congratulations on the 8th anniversary!

    F1-OPT-H1B-Labor Clearance-I140-I485-Permananet Resident-Citizen. This is a typical process for someone who comes to US as legal immigrant to study at one of the universities here. The process for me has taken 17-years (while it could take longer for some).

    To be delicately polite, I consider, there is no such thing as "undocumented immigrant". Either one is "legal" or "illegal" in the court of law. Politicians made up that word as they erased the word "illegal immigrant".

  2. Lovely couple. Beautiful kids. Wish you all the best.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. I enjoyed reading your story! Wish you the best.

    I'm Becky and I live in San Franciso with my Indian husband. He went threw a grueling immigration process which took more than a decade. It does make me uneasy that couple is violating the law of the land. And, they would rather not have the husband (Billy) leave the US and migrate legally through proper channels.

  5. Lovely post and couple ! <3 - Pad

  6. Love story apart, I agree with Becky. As a taxpayer, I find it difficult to look past the illegal presence in US.

    How did they get marriage certificate? Or even married in US? The county/township requires a proof of legal residence to register the marriage.

    - Lauren

  7. Lovely story and beautiful family.

    On another note, I find off putting the fact that some of you commenters are questioning his immigration status and the like. He may have come here illegally but if you bother to read her blog you will notice that he got his green card in 2008. The fact that they got a marriage license and that he was allowed to enter the country after visiting Guatemala should have given you a clue.

    The lady just wanted to share her love story with us and I am pretty sure the last thing she imagined would happen was getting the third degree from some of you!

    Millie B

  8. Millie B - considering that the information you provided is factual. It would appear so that he cut the line while some of us are legally waiting in line for many many many many years now.

    Even if you overlook everything. It doesn't make it right to illegally enter a country.

    - Gopal Venkyatesh

  9. Thanks so much for sharing this story Sarah. I just read the extended versions of your love story and immigration experience on your blog. After months of reading these love stories every Saturday morning I have never found another blog to regularly read. This has changed, I'm definitely going to continue checking for new posts from you.



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