Handling uncomfort with grace
July 10, 2018 9:10 AM   Subscribe

I have to occasionally go to social-cultural events with my spouse but I despise it. How can I work through this?

My spouse and I live in my cultural environment in North America. My professional life is oriented toward spouse's home culture. I speak spouse's home languages at a high proficiency. I've lived in spouse's home country for years at a time.
Spouse is from a culture that has a different regard for women than most North Americans do. Women are second class citizens, are heavily controlled by male relatives, are strongly policed in their behavior (especially sexual behavior), and men and women cannot be friends. Gender segregation is real. Many women do not work. Some women barely leave the house, etc. When I used to live there, I found a circle of friends (including spouse) that do not think that this is okay. This made things more tolerable. Yet I received some form of harassment daily whenever I was there. The vast majority of people in that place believe these things deeply and I had to deal with it daily. This is my main issue with spouse's home culture.
My spouse is 100% liberated from that and their immediate family (still there) is 80% liberated from that.

But occasionally spouse wants to attend cultural or social events with the group of people from home culture that live in North America. Spouse wants to hear their language, eat their food, etc.

Whenever I go to events with spouse (half the time?) it is incredibly painful for me (female) to be treated like a second class citizen by men (like I'm not introduced, I'm not touched/no shaking hands, not looked at in the eye, basically invisible). It is painful for me to see other women being treated like second class citizens too. It is also painful for me to not be accepted by other women at the event because I do not share their values - for example, I don't care much about makeup, hair, or clothing - but this is very important for many women in that society. I hear them commenting about my lack of beauty work. I generally get gender segregated at these events, so spouse is on the other side of the building/location and I have to sit with women and prepare food and things.
Overall, it is uncomfortable for me to be the only person not of their cultural background at the event. There are certain cultural norms that are very different from my own beliefs (for example, everyone drives luxury cars even though many are on government financial assistance; children are physically reprimanded; girl children are forced to sit quietly while boy children play loudly; men eat first and women eat whatever is left) and these get my blood boiling in North America in a way that they only got my blood hot when in that country. Moreover, very few people realize that I can understand what they are saying, especially when they are talking about me. And there is a lot of talk about me.

Things I've tried:
- Pretending to be an anthropologist. My whole professional life is about this culture, so it is interesting to take in information. This sort of works until I hear too many things said about me and I lose it.
- I've tried to find some "good ones" among them to befriend, but haven't found a lot of success. I think the "good ones" tend to not go to such events if they even exist in the area.
- When I hear someone saying something bad about me, I consider my options -- confront them in their language "That is incredibly rude" versus just staying quiet as to not cause a scene. I don't want spouse to look bad for having a loud/rude wife.
- Going, but asking spouse to stay with me in the women's area. This generally works, but brings some judgement upon spouse which I feel bad about. The presence of a man also does disrupt the women's area.
- Bringing a friend who is also not from their culture, but studies/knows the culture (another non-of them spouse or whatever), so that I am not the only non-of them person. This often works, but I can't always count on someone else being there.
- Going and supervising children so that I appear busy. This generally works.
- Not going. I generally don't go, but I worry that this makes spouse look bad, so I go occasionally.

Relevant - spouse is totally supportive of me. They are willing to leave ASAP if I don't like what is going on. They don't force me to go. They listen to me complain after events.
Also relevant - spouse and I will have a child soon and spouse wants child to have exposure to home culture and part of that will likely be though attending such events. Spouse and I have had lengthy conversations for years about counterprogramming home country's gender norms in our own children.

I'd love to hear other ideas on how I could make this more tolerable for me. I am also open to the idea of never going.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
From you have written, I think not going is the best option. Have you discussed with your spouse if this does actually make him look bad, or if that is just your perception and may not be correct? And, perhaps it may make him look bad, but is he even bothered by this judgement from the community?

I do think this problem may soon get much worse due to the arrival of your child. You mentioned that you have discussed this with your spouse, but have you come to an agreement on exposure of your child to this environment? Personally I would not be comfortable with my child having frequent participation in these events; but you and your spouse need to work out an agreement that you are both comfortable with.
posted by seesom at 9:29 AM on July 10, 2018 [7 favorites]

Yes, stop going. It sort of feels like you're buying into a different but also not great sexism by taking on this work you find really painful for the benefit of your spouse, even though your spouse is supportive of you steering clear.
posted by metasarah at 9:35 AM on July 10, 2018 [12 favorites]

Another vote for not going. Literally the only reason you've presented for doing so is for your spouse's sake, and he doesn't even expect this from you. But even if your spouse did--this is not something you are obligated to take on.

Also seconding the concern about exposing your child to this environment.
posted by tiger tiger at 9:42 AM on July 10, 2018 [9 favorites]

Just don't go. Within the boundaries of his culture, your spouse already looks bad in his choice of partner so I can't see how not going will make it worse.

But you and your spouse are a family of two cultures. Your child will be a child of two cultures. You two are going to need to deal with that. Invite people to your house maybe? Look for 2nd generation Westernized adults of that culture? Give your child not two cultures that exist in isolation and opposition to one another, but a blended culture if you can.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:48 AM on July 10, 2018 [16 favorites]

Stop going. You and especially your spouse need to work on finding other social circles from his home culture that aren’t toxic, sexist, and physically abusive to children to give your coming child a safe way to engage with his family’s culture and heritage. You’re pretty sure that the progressive folks from this culture are not hanging out at these events — so your husband needs to figure out where they are hanging out, and go there, or start setting up events of his own to attract them. In any case, this clique needs to go. Letting your child be born into a social situation where they’re going to have to hear a bunch of people insulting their mother for not wearing makeup is not an OK thing for your husband to do, and he needs to step up and make sure that doesn’t happen to his family.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 9:49 AM on July 10, 2018 [26 favorites]

It seems to me that you have been both systematic and thorough in testing all your options. There's a bit of poetic justice in you taking a friend who is also an outsider along, since then both you and your husband get a bonding experience with someone "of your tribe".

Also, if you want a really great opportunity to "reveal" your fluency in their language, when you tire of listening to them speak about you and believe you are unable to understand, try this: When someone tells a joke or says something genuinely funny in their language, join in the laughter. They will slowly realize then that you've been listening all along. Delicious!
posted by DrGail at 9:50 AM on July 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

Oh gosh. Don’t go. Life is too short. And if you do go, find ways to make it a quick visit. Show up, say “Hello!” Maybe drop off a gift for the hosts and then leave. And don’t bring your kid up in that. If you have a son, won’t it be fun to teach him how this culture places him above you? And if you have a girl....oy. Maybe when they are older and beyond the rigid gender identification, you can loop them in but I wouldn’t bother once they are walking/talking toddlers and elementary.

Statistically, your husband is likely to develop more umbrage and irritation at the culture if he has a daughter but less likely to care as much if he has a son. Every culture allows for greater latitude and veneration of power and prestige for boys and few men will voluntarily “lower” the status of their sons or see it as much of a problem.
posted by amanda at 9:50 AM on July 10, 2018 [5 favorites]

Whatever you do, don't let them know that you understand them when they talk ish about you in their native language. You have the upper hand over them right now, hold onto that.

If it truly is a bad reflection on Spouse for you not to go, could you compromise and go to every other or every third event? That sounds like a dreadful, toxic thing to have to sit through, and I admire your willingness to put up with it for Spouse's sake -- and, frankly, your willingness to engage with the culture at all, personally OR professionally. The things we do for love ...
posted by mccxxiii at 9:57 AM on July 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

I deal with something similar yet I suppose diametrically opposite to your situation.

I’m south Asian (ethnically from all over the region) and moved to Europe as a teenager. My family is liberal and bordering on atheist– my sister and I have always done whatever we’ve wanted to and have always been supported and encouraged by our parents. I come from a multi-generational military family and grew up (as did my parents and grandparents) all over South Asia in tiny villages. As a result, none of us feels particularly connected to any particular place in the region and since no one in my family married anyone from the same state my sister and I are a big mix of dozens of different languages, cultures, etc.

My husband's from a tiny northern European country and I constantly deal with ridiculousness and frustrating moments when we visit his family for the holidays. How I can be so liberal/ non-religious/so educated/so opinionated/whatever as a woman from a region where "women are treated so badly"? Do I not drink alcohol because of cultural/religious reasons? (I have a connective tissue disorder so I avoid alcohol and I've explained this so many times) Every single thing I do or don't do is always because of my nationality/ethnicity. Of course.

And the odd thing? I am not unique. All my female friends, relatives and acquaintances from back home are successful, independent, and largely unconcerned by issues that people in the West think we face on a daily basis. I blame geopolitics, biased reporting, and of course, the intense focus on negative issues in the news.

I can see why you find it so frustrating to be stuck with people from very a different cultural background, like when people comment on your appearance (I get that all the time - "You're pretty for a [my nationality] because you don't look South Asia" WHY THANK YOU! We come in all shapes, sizes and colours.) and that their cultural norms are different. In my case, I have to constantly explain things to disbelieving people that I am exactly the way I am, and no my family does not oppress or control me and I can do whatever I want to. In my fifteen years of living in Europe, I have learnt that the majority of people have very outdated and incorrect perceptions of people from so-called third world countries.

My husband and I have had so many arguments over this issue: I've skipped holidays because I didn't want to deal with yet another episode of "Hey, it's the foreign third-world country girl", I've made myself ill because of anxiety. And ultimately, I've realised it's not worth it. If they want to judge me, if they have preconceived notions about people from certain areas – it's their loss.

So here's what we do now.

1. I know my husband supports me and realises - even if he doesn't quite explicitly acknowledge it – that his family aren't as progressive as they'd like to believe. And that's enough for me. We have a code word for when I can't deal with a situation (I mention their dog's name haha) and he steps in and ends the conversation.

2. I try not to take things personally. I know it's hard. I am sick of people assuming things about me all the time, but I just think of how temporary the situation is and the fact that even if I don't quite agree with his parents and siblings, they are his family and I do love him very much and in the larger scheme of things, it's not more than 1-2 weeks a year.

3. I take along a lot of books and pretend I have work deadlines and read (for pleasure).

As for you:

Your husband seems like a wonderful person. I am so happy he does not expect you to visit them – feel free to skip several visits in a row. It's your choice. And if you must, do what you said: supervise the children, remain busy. I don't think it's harmful for your children to observe their cultural norms. I can sort of guess where they are from and I think people from everywhere are so varied – essentially what I'm trying to say is that don't let their negative behaviour colour your children's perception of their father's culture. Sure, talk about the negative aspects (gender expectations etc) so they are aware but remember every culture/ethnicity/nationality has its negatives. Your children may well have to deal with the dreaded "oh you're half [insert their dad's nationality], I've heard [insert negative stuff] about the region/religion/culture" at some point, so they should understand the complexity of that side as well as yours.

In summary, please feel free to ignore them but expose your children to a more nuanced understanding of their father's side :)
posted by dostoevskygirl at 10:00 AM on July 10, 2018 [13 favorites]

If you do feel like you need to go, why not make your cultural and linguistic fluency clear from the start? Introduce yourself in $LANGUAGE, initiate some small talk if even your aren't interested in a longer conversation. Try to come across as friendly. Which isn't going to cause you to have more in common, but could help with them being polite, and at least force them to be discreet when discussing you. It's hard to imagine a situation where insisting on speaking the native language wouldn't be socially acceptable.

If you have an interest in cooking, you could focus your conversations on the meal prep going on. In my experience that's a pretty safe topic that people love to talk about.
posted by serathen at 10:10 AM on July 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

Yea I'm with everyone on stop going. Don't go. There's no reason you and husband cant start up your own social group celebrating important holidays and events together with people from his home country/cultural background who don't hold those beliefs about women.
posted by driedmango at 10:41 AM on July 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

Well you've covered almost everything I'd have suggested. And other comments have covered the "don't go" angle.

I wonder what would happen if you appealed to their humanity in a way. Like what would happen if you said "have you ever considered that I might be able to understand you?" with hurt in your voice? Maybe even leaving as if you are too hurt to stay (which honestly, is kind of the truth, no?). Or adding something like "I am very grateful for you having us to your house, and I hope we can have a better relationship in the future" and leaving? That is dramatic but not in an angry way.

Ohhhh wait. They "physically reprimand" children? Fuck that -- it's one thing to put yourself through something unpleasant -- don't bring your kid into that. Even if they don't get reprimanded, they'll be impacted by seeing it. Could you focus your efforts on finding ways to fulfill your husband's desire to connect with his culture via members of that culture who share your values?
posted by salvia at 10:54 AM on July 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

A lot of people are saying to stop going altogether. You say, going makes your husband not look bad. The question is, would he look worse if you went and minimized your schmoozing and had everyone talk poorly of you? If so, stop going.
posted by Melismata at 10:56 AM on July 10, 2018

I wouldn't go and if it's impossible to never go, always make sure you can bring a friend. I'd also be very cautious about bringing your future child to gatherings like this. Children are great reinforcers of cultural norms and developing a peer group with kids that are teaching your child things that are in direct opposition to your home values is risky. You can always expose them to cultural values/traditions that reflect your and your husband's understanding at home and wait until they're older and have better critical thinking skills and understanding of the dynamics to bring them to gatherings like this.
posted by quince at 11:04 AM on July 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

Does your spouse actually have any local friends from his country or culture, or is this the only contact you two have with people from there? Because, especially since he wants to introduce any future children to that culture, it seems like the best possibility would be if you (both) could find people from that culture but not living its values that you could hang out with, do celebrations with, etc. Basically form a smaller, alternative community. Easier said than done, but probably worth investing serious effort in (and he should be the one to do most of that work).

Also, I really disagree with the idea that you shouldn't let people know you know the language. First of all, at least some of the people there might not speak English well, so if they assume you don't speak their language then they also assume you're not accessible to them unless they're brave enough to try to make conversation in a language they're not comfortable in. Secondly, them not knowing just leads to you hearing more ugly things said about you. There's almost certainly a non-rude, pro-social way to tell people you understand and in fact have lived in their country and know (some of) their ways. (There may be, depending on the culture, ways of telling them various things about who you are and why in a way that they would look on positively or at least accept. It's not an easy thing to know how to do by any means - just something possibly with trying at some point if you do keep going to these events. You know this culture - is there any context in which frankness is admired or enjoyed?)

Anyway, if you keep going, maybe hang out with the kids if possible? It sounds like it might be more entertaining both for you and for them (at least for the girls). Also this sounds like a culture where old people would be kept company, but if you see any old women who seem neglected, it might be interesting to go and try to talk with them, specifically.
posted by trig at 12:03 PM on July 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

Stop going to these events.

Create a meet-up group to find more of the people in your husband's mold. (Idea: host a mini-film festival of 'indie' movies from that country, featuring the language you both speak and the perspective you both appreciate. Or find where one of these films is playing locally, and organize a group outing with (or without) a discussion group afterward.) I agree; if there is a great-enough demographic to populate the socio-cultural events you're attending now, there are local folks who are put off for the same reasons you describe.

Then have get-togethers with your new friends, where you'll be immersed in the language, food, and cultural mores you and your husband appreciate. At the same time, you'll be building the environment you wish to raise your children in.
posted by Iris Gambol at 12:14 PM on July 10, 2018 [4 favorites]

Stop going to these events.

And, especially since there will be a baby involved, don't put emotional labor into finding new events with your spouse's home culture. As it stands, it sounds like he is perfectly fine with the situation. He shouldn't be. If he wants to be with people from his home culture, he should be the person proactively finding alternative groups that don't suffer from the misogyny of the group that you're part of.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 4:06 PM on July 10, 2018 [7 favorites]

Wow, the events sound horrible.
How is your husband okay with the way you are treated there? Personally, I wouldn't be okay with attending events that demeaning. By attending these, he is sending a message to these folks that gender segregation and humiliation of women and girls is something he is willing to accept for the sake of "culture". Even if he goes without you. Is he okay with such behavior on some level?
I'd also be VERY uncomfortable with the idea of taking my child, or any child really, to such events.
There must be ways to participate in non-demeaning aspects of the culture. I'd look for them. Seconding the advice to seek out other non-compliants.
posted by M. at 7:34 PM on July 10, 2018 [4 favorites]

I have a slightly different take here as an asian PoC. But before that, I want to make it clear that I think misogyny and sexism is shitty, and I hear you and want to support you.

Overall, it is uncomfortable for me to be the only person not of their cultural background at the event.

Reading between the lines here, It's clear that you are a white woman — mostly because a person of color wouldn’t ever say anything like this. (Since many people of color experience this daily in North America, PoC would rarely say that this is uncomfortable since it's.. like commenting about breathing air.). I will point out that your partner probably spends most of his time being the only person not of his cultural background in your cultural environment here. No judgment here, just a comment.

It also sounds like this isn’t a family gathering of people who meet each other regularly, but a larger one, like a community group or a church setting.


Based on those two assumptions, I’d say:

1) You shouldn’t go to this particular event -- it sounds toxic for you. BUT I’d really encourage you and your partner to seek out other events or to create communities around your partner's culture. Separate your partner’s home country and the general, overall habits of a community, because not every community will be like that.

Personally, I've found that Twitter has been a surprising way to find and follow people in the US who share the same values that I do (progressive, activist, lefty) with my same cultural background; I will guarantee that there are people in your partner's home culture that feel similarly that you may gather.

2) There's a latent condescension towards his home culture that is clear in your writing as something that's being barely suppressed. I encourage that for the health of you and your partner's relationship, it would be nice for you to not frame him as being "liberated" from his cultures' practices. This smacks of a colonialist framework of "enlightened" vs "not-yet-enlightened" framework.

This doesn't mean that I think sexism is tolerable under a cultural relativist framework, etc -- it does mean that I think sexism and racism need to be tackled from within. Who are the activists / advocates / writers of his culture who are writing about the values you disagree with? Because they definitely exist; they always exist, it's just that you/we don't know about them. Can you read their writing? Follow them on twitter or social media? Meet them in person?

I'm Korean-American, and had my own experience of conflating Korean-ness with being conservative, sexist, etc. Recently, though, I've followed activists on Twitter who advocate for sex workers' rights, LGBTQ rights, progressive forms of maternity leave, etc, policies more progressive than the US -- and it's really opened my eyes to my own prejudices and assumptions around Korea, and how even I don't fully understand the diversity and layers of different viewpoints that exist within Korean political/civil society.

I suggest that you and your spouse might want to do some research and examining too!
posted by suedehead at 11:52 PM on July 10, 2018 [11 favorites]

echoing the STOP GOING here, one thing you have not mentioned is that your OH being male will always be catered to and people will actually pity him and make excuses for him 'putting-up with' a difficult wife, a non-compliant one, so he might actually benefit from your decision. But really, you will be happier.

on the children issue, no matter how you raise them they will still observe the lower status of women in this culture. This can be very powerful in the earliest years.
posted by Wilder at 2:40 AM on July 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

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