Speaking of families…

Last week I wrote about the extended iterative dialogue that it takes to co-ordinate a McKay family holiday (or a trip to town to get bread for lunch). When Mike read the post that night he laughed.

“That’s ten conversations and four emails you put out before I emailed my parents about this,” he said.

There were at least two reasons for this. The first of those is that Mike is considerably busier than I am at present. The second is something I’ve learned since getting married…

[Drum roll, please]

Not all family systems operate the same way.

I know, it’s a total revelation, isn’t it?

Mike and I met for the first time, after three months of letter writing, in Australia. He flew over from PNG while I was home for holidays and came to stay at my parents place with me for ten days so that we could figure out whether or not we were going to date.

On his first morning there, my Dad marched out onto the porch and handed him the phone.

Mike looked at him blankly.

“You can give your parents a call and let them know you’re here safely,” Dad said.

“Uh,” Mike looked confused. “I emailed them. They know where I am.”

“But don’t you think you should give them a call?” Dad asked, while I tried not to giggle.

“If I call them from here, they’re going to think something’s wrong,” Mike said.

“But they might be worried about you,” Dad said.

At that I did giggle. Mike had spent much of the last two months on remote islands in the South Pacific, and I had been in Ghana and Kenya. Neither of us had rung home during any of these trips.

I knew what Dad was doing. He wasn’t just trying to assuage any worry Mike’s parents may have been feeling about his safety. By handing Mike the phone and inviting him to use it to make a long distance call he was less trying to send the message, you should call home, than the message, our house is your house, make yourself totally comfortable.

The problem was, Mike was only picking up on the first of those messages, and he was starting to look a little hunted.

“But if I call them they will be worried about me,” Mike said.

As I recall this ended in a stalemate. Every couple of days for the first week Mike was there Dad would wave the phone in his general direction and Mike would look confused and a bit uneasy.

Now the following is offered with the disclaimer that I still have a lot to learn about Mike’s family. I may not exactly be on target with this, but here’s one thing I think I’ve learned so far: Mike’s family tends to be more direct than mine.

If Mike’s family wants to make you feel at home they say, “make yourself at home.” When his Dad wants to make me feel part of the family he gives me a hug and says, “welcome to the family.” His Mom says, “I hope my son is treating you right and, by the way, if you have any arguments I’m on your side.”

When Mike and I decided to get married I expected (in theory, anyway) to learn things about Mike’s family – ways of doing things, styles of interacting – that were different than what I’d grown up with. What I didn’t expect was that I’d learn almost as much about my family.

They warned us in marriage counseling that, when in doubt, we should rely on the spouse whose family it is to interpret what’s actually going on and what the appropriate course of action might be.

“You should each act as mediators and translators for your own family of origin,” they said. “It can take five or ten years, maybe more, to really understand the family culture your spouse comes from.”

At the time I thought that was a little extreme. Ten years? Seriously?

But now, watching my own family through two sets of eyes, I’ve seen enough operating system collisions involving them and Mike that I’m not so sure anymore.

Don’t get me wrong – these have not exactly been “two oil tankers meeting at high speed on a freeway” moments. They are usually more “two rowboats drifting past each other in the night” moments. But one thing they have taught me is that while my family can be direct, we are also, often, very indirect.

A couple of months ago Mike and I were with my parents on a ferry in Canada. It was crowded and busy, so Mike stood in line and got us both all some food while Dad went to find a table. Mum and I wandered over when they’d gotten everything sorted.

Bacon cheeseburger, as requested, and French fries. (Yes, there were many valid reasons for finding – when I weighed myself on a baggage scale in Vancouver airport the night we left for Laos – that I was five pounds heavier than I had been one month earlier).

Anyway, back to my burger. My burger that had mayonnaise on it.

When I opened it up and saw this I said, “Oh yuck,” and proceeded to scrape off the mayonnaise.

About ten seconds later, my mother leaned across the table and said to Mike, “When Lisa says ‘yuck’ she doesn’t mean, ‘you screwed up’, she just means that she doesn’t like mayonnaise.”

“But I did screw up,” Mike said, “because I knew that, and I could have asked for no mayonnaise. But what you’re saying is that I shouldn’t take it personally when Lisa’s not happy?”

“Yes,” Mum said, not even glancing in my direction.

“Oh Mike,” I said, leaning across the table beside Mum, and grinning. “That’s one of the things Mum is saying, but it’s not even the most important one. The primary message in what she just said wasn’t for you at all, it was for me, and that message was: When Mike has stood in line for twenty minutes to get you lunch don’t you open up your burger and say “yuck” you little ingrate.

Mum laughed.

“You’re very good,” she said. “That’s exactly what I was saying.”

“No!” Mike was dumbfounded. “How could you possibly get that out of what she just said???”

“How could you not get that???” I asked.

Mike took a bite of his own burger and sighed. “I don’t understand how you – an Australian – managed to grow up mainly in Africa and the US yet turn out to be so Asian in your preferred communication style. On the bright side, I guess you’re going to fit in well in Laos.”

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8 responses to “Speaking of families…

  1. I wish I could say that the difficulties of understanding family cultures was unique to the situation you and Mike find yourselves in…but it’s not. Alida and I come from similar immediate families with similar values. But Alida and I are with her family I consistently dumbfounded and when Alida is with mine she is too. And this is after nine years of dating and being married!

    So, the good news — you aren’t alone. The bad news — this experience of confusing family scenarios isn’t going away anytime soon!

  2. I love this post. It’s so funny. When Aaron and I got married he always thought that my Mom and sisters and I were always yelling at each other, when in fact we were just in passionate conversation. With three daughters and a Mom who is not averse to letting things be up for discussion, we have a lot of things we speak passionately about… home decorating, dinner, politics. I constantly had to tell him that we weren’t fighting we were talking. 🙂

    Also I loved the bit about the mayo. I knew the second you said yuck you were in for it. 🙂

    Again, great post.

    • Thanks Sally, I had a lot of fun writing this one (particularly that bit about the mayo, it was such a classic moment). And, yes, I can totally see that passionate discussion thing with what I glimpsed of your family!

  3. Oh man…. we just had our own parental translation session this morning, and didn’t fair as well as it usually does…. and this after FIFTEEN years of knowing each other! alas, sometimes the translating is as smooth as a UN session with those little headphones… and other times it’s like a bad taxi driver that uses the local dialect. 😛

  4. Annie Teshera Glass

    I sure wish someone had told me all this when I got married 23 years ago! I was born and raised in the Philippines to missionary parents and finally came back to live in the states when I was 14. At 21, I thought I understood my husband’s American culture, but no such luck. I was constantly reading between the lines and not accepting what he said at face value and he though I was totally convaluted in my thinking because I was “diplomatically” talking around the issue to save face. Now we laugh and he’ll say “What’s the matter, were you born in a foreign country or something?” We’ve learned a lot over the years and come a long way in our ability to communicate!

    • Oh Annie, that’s so funny. I totally understand. Even without cross cultural dynamics (and classic third culture kid dynamics) in there I would wager there’s always cross-family dynamics and it takes so long to really get a handle on those. And, frankly, there might be some cross-gender dynamics too. Even before Mike I was amazed at many of my US male friends propensity to just say what they meant straight out. Congratulations on 23 years by the way!!!

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