Getting Along With Family
May 21, 2008 10:49 AM   Subscribe

How do I reconcile cultural differences with my in-laws?

My fiance is Pacific Islander/Af Am. He was raised by his mother on the island. We now live in GA and as fate has it there are a lot of his relatives nearby. I want to be respectful to their culture, but I'm finding it difficult to merge our two cultures.

These are wonderful and kind people. They are welcoming and warm to everyone. BUT some things kind of weird me out and other things outright offend me.

Here we go . . .

Food - they have the worst diet I've seen. Everything is either fried, coated in soy sauce or from a can. They fry frozen meat to thaw it. They store food in the microwave (not packaged food, but cooked food). They eat with their fingers. One of the favorite meals is fried pork chops covered in Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup (undiluted). They leave rice cookers full of rice on the counter for a day or two (eating the rice a bit at a time). I am watching my weight and try to eat low fat, fresh veggies and fruit. My fiance does all of the cooking and I'm to the point that I can't eat the food he prepares because it's so unhealthy and frankly I don't like it. I've tried cooking for him, but he will not eat a meal w/out rice, doesn't like curry or pasta and doesn't care about fresh anything.

General Relations - They call each other throughout the day and see each other at least once per day. I may have fallen out of favor because I've been lacking on the calling. I don't really know what to talk about with his brother and sister in law as they are 19 and 18 and I'm 45. We don't have a lot in common. I'd like to be on good terms, but I don't like having to struggle to come up with general topics. They also habitually make and change plans without telling us, yet expect us to accomodate the change with no notice. Example, we drove to FL this weekend for my job and started getting calls en route demanding to know where we were as they had all gone to an uncle's house that happened to be on our way and were waiting to eat until we got there. We had no idea they were making these plans and we had not planned to make that stop. But we did and could tell they were a bit irratated by the time we got there. Last week they made reservations at popular restaurant and started calling us non-stop from two cell phones 40 mins before the reservation to know where we were. I think they believe that cell phones have magical qualities that manipulate the time/space continium. I turned my phone off.

Children - They are very indulgent, yet loving parents. Our niece is 2.5 y.o. and has no bedtime. She has just been taken off the bottle and is now given a giant blue candy sucker shaped like a bottle to replace it. It is not acceptable to correct or scold her. I found that out when she was jumping on my glass coffee table and I told her to get down. Yes, I said it gently and softly. You are supposed to give children whatever they want anytime they want it. I grew up with the standard: I'm the parent - you're the child and will do what I say parenting model.

Race Relations - My fiance looks Af Am. His relatives look like Pacific Islanders. They make constant cracks about his race, which he takes in stride as he grew up with it, but I find extremely offensive (I'm latin/caucasion). Example his mother (she's visiting) disclosed the other day that she had twins before him that were also "brownies." They're constantantly asking him if he was stationed in Africa (he went for work) to find his motherland, followed by ha ha'ing. His brother came over the other night and told us he went to Walmart but was scared by "all the black people" in the parking lot. When I asked why he was scared he said "because black people get in groups they're going to cause trouble." My fiance simply nodded his head and agreed that the sis-in-law should not be allowed to go to Walmart alone anymore. Oddly, anytime they perceive a slight aimed toward them, the person is a racist.

I really want to have good relationships with the family. I feel like I must be looking at the situation with the wrong perspective. I believe I need better coping skills/tactics so that I don't concede my own values or entirely retreat from relationships with the family.
posted by Juicylicious to Human Relations (32 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Perhaps you're being too nice. Sound like a bunch of sweet, but incredibly misguided individuals. Also, nuts.

Then there's the racist thing. I've got racists in my family, (including a cousin who's *married* to a black woman, but around the rest of us, says the usual scared-of-black-people nonsense) and I've just let them know that is unacceptable. We have a detente going - they don't say racist, sexist crap, and I don't remind them that their Republican president is a dirty rotten weasel.

You seem to have the patience of a saint (of course, you're telling the story). I would keep on, keepin' on - cook your own healthy stuff. Turn your phone off. Give the kid intelligent gifts.
posted by notsnot at 10:59 AM on May 21, 2008

Shut your mouth a lot about the things that are unchangeable and and immutable- like the food issue.

Manipulate the situation a lot- visit them, don't let them visit you, so you're not put in a position to correct other people's children, for example; turn off your cell phone and shrug off their irritation that you aren't calling/going wherever at the last minute. "Oh, I'm sorry, my phone was off." Say it often.

And speak up about the important issues, "There's no universal for black people anymore than there's a universal for you. Please don't talk like that in front of me/in front of my children."

It will annoy them, but since you have your phone off, and you've already made an effort to visit on your terms, not theirs, they'll either get the idea so they can see the grandkids, or mutter bitterly out of earshot.
posted by headspace at 11:03 AM on May 21, 2008

After you get married, can you move away?

You might need to consider whether this is something you can really live with the rest of your (married) life. Like it or not, the family is part of the package, and they're likely not going to change.

Have you sat down with your fiance and told him how you feel about all this? He might be able to help bridge the gap between you and his family - if he's open to hearing you out, and his family is also open to hearing this and trying to accommodate you.
posted by at 11:05 AM on May 21, 2008

The food issue is important. You guys should address it as important, rather than just whenever it occurs to you. Plan not just "a talk", but maybe a series of talks. You've got a whole series of points to make and/or work out with him which you hope will culminate in nothing less than a change of culinary paradigm. It'll take a serious, planned approach.

Good luck! If you're patient and smart, you might be able to work it out.
posted by amtho at 11:10 AM on May 21, 2008

The color issue: People of color, include those in my own family, are completely f#%@@ up about the color thing. That's not going to change. Not even if you call them on it. Not even if Barack Obama becomes president. It is what is and has been that way for a long, long time. You can try to say things like, "I disagree with your comments" or "Not all black people are the same." You'll likely not change their minds any more than I can tell my aunt, who on learning that I've dated white men said, "You know they kill their wives." Yup. Can't make that up. It doesn't mean you should be silent. You shouldn't and you should let them know it makes you upset.

The diet thing: You might have to make two meals each day. One for him and a healthy one for you. Perhaps once he see your success (and the dent two meals a day can make in your budget) he'll come around to your thinking.

There's a short piece in this Po Bronson book about a white guy who married into a family of Pacific Islanders. You might find that helpful.

Finally, did you not notice these things about him and his family before you married him? That's not a judgment, just a question.
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 11:18 AM on May 21, 2008

Oh sorry..I didn't read the question properly. You're engaged. In that case, I agree with You need to put some distance between the two of you and the family.
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 11:19 AM on May 21, 2008

And I forgot the link to the book....Sheesh...It's here.
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 11:21 AM on May 21, 2008

How do you reconcile cultural differences? You can't.

What you can do is walk that fine line that makes them aware that you're trying your best to accommodate them, with the expectation that they make at least some effort to accommodate you. This will not be easy, and it will not be fair. If you do this badly, or even if you do it perfectly and they're completely unwilling or unable to meet you at least partway, then there will be some strife.

In truth, some strife is probably called for, as they're kind of walking all over you right now. Next time, don't turn your phone off right away. Answer the call, once, and clearly set the expectation that you won't be coming because you had other plans. Sorry we missed it, give us more notice next time, etc. etc. All subsequent calls can go straight to voicemail.

My family is similarly nuts, and likely from the same set of Pacific Islands. Major family events like weddings or funerals most often feel like someone sprayed laughing gas on a bunch of easily excitable, mentally unbalanced chickens. I solved the problem (mostly) by moving halfway across the country. I still see them quite often, but when I do, my wife and I are constantly setting the bar for acceptable behavior to something higher than my extended family's typical default. They think we're a couple of stiffs, we think they're a bunch of savages, but we're mostly ok.

Best of luck.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 11:21 AM on May 21, 2008 [3 favorites]

First, you need to really pay attention to the food issue between you and your fiancee. Hopefully the two of you will be sharing meals for a long time - you should talk with him about how to find a workable solution (before you get married). he may also be to help you negotiate the food issue with the rest of his family.

In terms of his family, I think you are right that this is a cultural issue - their behavior seems normal and right to them (and has some attractive features). The good news is that they are including you in their plans and treating you like family (for better or worse).

For the phone calls and even planning, buy a copy of Don't Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor and learn how to reward the behavior that you like and ignore the behavior that you don't like.

Decide where your values are important to you and gently let them know where you stand. Don't try to change them but don't compromise yourself if it matters. They will probably write it off as one of those quirks of that mainland girl but it will reinforce your sense of personal integrity.

Every time you get together with them, spend some time afterwards thinking about what you enjoyed about the visit. Try to remember at least 3-5 specific interactions or details that went well. Our brains are wired to focus on the negative because that is what could harm us. It takes an effort to give equal attention to what went well. As you get to know and care about them better as people, the other stuff will become less annoying. Look for ways that you can offer to help - was it Ben Franklin or Lincoln who observed that when you help others, you tend to like them more. Ask them to help you (same principle) but only if you are willing to let them help in their own way.
posted by metahawk at 11:25 AM on May 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

They are allowed to eat whatever they want. They can eat Twinkies nonstop. That is not your business at all. You can encourage your fiance to have a healthier diet, but if he doesn't want to, it will be of no use. You, yourself, can eat whatever you want. If you don't like what is being served, bring/make your own, just as if you were vegan and you were invited to a meat-eating household.

Re: phone calls - they clearly have different expectations than do you. They will probably think you are rude, but you can still set boundaries. Don't pick up the phone every time they call. Have a distinct ringtone for them so you know you can ignore the call.

Re: parenting - it's absolutely none of your business unless they're your kids, or they're in your house.

Re: racism - your fiance has to learn to stand up for himself. If it doesn't bother him, then it's none of your business unless it's in your presence, in which case you can ask them to not say such things while you're around. Forget trying to change their minds. Write off their remarks as the crazy, ignorant mutterings that they are.

You may never be best friends with his family. But there doesn't have to be a false dichotomy of "best friends or nothing at all." You can learn to accept them as they are and realize that you can't change them (and conversely, they can't change you without your permission).
posted by desjardins at 11:28 AM on May 21, 2008 [2 favorites]

I come from a big Hawaiian family. Growing up, I had cousins who were Hawaiian/Samoan, and cousins who were Hawaiian/Puerto Rican, cousins who were Hawaiian/something else. The /Samoan cousins got teased about being dumb and slow, which I guess is/was a stereotype of Samoans (Hawaiians too, for that matter). The /Puerto Rican cousins got teased about being criminals (I have no idea where that stereotype comes from - it's not like there were a lot of Puerto Ricans in Hawaii).

But this was all in-family. If anyone outside the family had called /Samoan cousin David dumb, his even larger brothers would have made paste of the person.

There's stuff in someone else's family that, even if you're married to him/her, you're never going to change, and it's not your business to. They got along fine before you came along; what they do works for them, as dysfunctional as it may seem (or actually be) to you. Your best bet is to change your relation to it - learn to ignore it, or put up with it, or even kind of enjoy it. Change the stuff you can change, like what happens in your own house. Even people who marry into not-crazy families have to learn to set boundaries.
posted by rtha at 11:39 AM on May 21, 2008

Best answer: Two of your problems are inter-related: the phone calls and the poor planning. Notice that if you were talking to them as often as they talk to each other they would certainly keep you up to date on all of these plans and changes. That is, perhaps, you don't hear about the plans that they make because you don't speak to them often enough. So, it seems that the simplest solutions to the scheduling problem is to talk to them more often.

Now, this leaves the problem of what to talk about, but there is a simple solution to this too. Don't talk about anything. That is, you seem to expect that a conversation should be about some topic that you both find interesting, but this isn't necessary. You can simply talk about each other. Ask them how their day has gone; tell them how your day has gone; ask them if there are any family plans in the works, then tell them you have to go and hang-up. These conversations will probably last no more than 15 minutes, and the will help you feel more connected to the family!

The simple fact that you care enough to call them and keep them "in the loop" with respect to your life will likely mean a lot to them. As a result they will very likely make an effort to keep you more informed and make you feel more like family and not just a tolerable in-law.
posted by oddman at 11:45 AM on May 21, 2008 [2 favorites]

Major family events like weddings or funerals most often feel[s] like someone sprayed laughing gas on a bunch of easily excitable, mentally unbalanced chickens.

The truth and beauty of this phrase makes my insides quiver.
posted by cometwendy at 11:55 AM on May 21, 2008 [5 favorites]

Here's the thing. In America, we grow up hyper-sensitive to racism because well, it's a Big Issue. In most other areas of the world, no one cares, and it's not something they're wired to pick up on. Someone says "black" and immediately our brains are flagged for picking up racism. I'm not saying it's right to think that just because there are a lot of black people at Wal-Mart that it's dangerous, but I know that my parents would think the exact same thing (Eastern Asian). For years I had trouble figuring out why my mom would caution me against black men and have no problem introducing me to some of her coworkers... who are black men.

This is where we have to understand that we mean different things even if we use the same word. Worry about racism if they hate all black people without ever giving them a chance or getting to know them. Attribute being scared of guys at Wal-mart to socioeconomic barriers, not racism. Observe their actions, not their words.

As for the rest of the issues... I think that since there's a lot of them and one of you, you could think about practicing "when in Rome..." because this is a battle that's hard to win, and you might just alienate everyone by winning. In the American culture, we don't expect to have a lot of interaction with our in-laws, but in other cultures, it's not only an expectation, it will be perceived as a rejection if you don't. You're not marrying a person, you're marrying into a family, and you need to be okay with how they do things, if you want to be a part of it. If not... well, it's an issue you need to work out with your fiancee, because if you want him, just him, and not the family that raised him, then you're asking him to turn his back on his family for you.
posted by reebear at 12:13 PM on May 21, 2008 [2 favorites]

i think very little of those differences are cultural--i have those issues with my rural cousins in mississippi, and we're all pretty much from the same background.

make your own food for yourself. or, just make enough rice for him, and skip it yourself. keep soy sauce on the table, but don't put it on your food. marinate and grill some low-fat meat or fish for your shared protein and make a salad for yourself.

you can't change their diet. don't even try. if you're going to be hanging out over there, bring your own snacks. if they are insulted, tell them you're watching your weight, so you're going to stick to carrots and green beans.

i don't think the racism issue is as evil as you think it is. families often joke about uncomfortable things to defuse them.

you have the right to restrain children in your home. go ahead and be the mean aunt. you can't discipline them, especially if their parents are around, but you can tell the kid to get off the coffee table. if the parents object, just say, "look, i love you and the kid, but my rules are different."
posted by thinkingwoman at 12:18 PM on May 21, 2008

One good way that I've gotten around the issue of being served food I would prefer not to eat by people who mean well is to find something that they regularly make that I will eat. I then compliment the heck out of it, and make sure that they know it's my FAVORITE FOOD! The next thing you know, that's all you will be served.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 12:26 PM on May 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm a white girl from Georgia who married an Asian (Chinese-Japanese) boy from Hawaii. So let's talk family blending.

I absolutely understand your desire to appear respectful of their culture. You want to fit in to this family, but you're feeling very alien. Here's the thing: you'd be feeling alien even if they were of the same race and culture as you, because this is not your family. You are from a different family, one that does things differently. You are the new kid. Race and culture are complicating factors, sure, but they are not the main event. Anytime two families (of any race/culture) merge, there are going to be issues like this that need to be negotiated.

What I've noticed in myself and in other interracial/intercultural couples is a tendency to see every difference or conflict as a cultural difference. And it's just not the case. They're bad at making plans because some families are bad at making plans. They call each other all the time because some families call each other all the time. They don't discipline their kid because some families don't discipline their kids.

And while I don't have any magic bullets to offer you in dealing with those specific issues, I can tell you from experience that if you'll take off the OMGINTERCULTURAL blinders when you look at these problems, you'll automatically reduce the pressure/stress you're feeling, because you'll be able to have an honest disagreement about toddlers jumping on the furniture without it being an affront to their entire culture. These are people, future family members (whom you profess to like), so just treat them with the same respect, honesty, love, and kindness that you would want to receive in return.

So reevaluate these things that are bugging you, and be careful not to let the things that are justifiably annoying (like their incessant plan-changing and cellphone-calling, or the expectation that their toddler should be allowed to play trampoline on your glass coffee table) turn every little thing into a MAJOR CULTURAL DIVIDE. So they like to eat rice. At every meal. Honestly, rice is not so bad. As my husband once observed during the Atkins craze, "Very skinny Japanese people have lived to be 120 years old eating rice." So maybe let that one go. As a side note, I cook all kinds of Southern food that my husband never experienced before he met me, and sometimes, he will fire up the rice cooker so that he can have some rice in addition to whatever I'm serving. But why should that bother me?

As for the race relations issue, I can tell you that in Hawaii, everyone of every race makes racial jokes about every race (including jokes about their own race, and about haoles --whites). Basically, it's Equal Opportunity Teasing -- a complete lack of the painfully excessive political correctness found on the mainland, but underneath it's not a bigoted or hateful thing at all. I don't know if this is what you're witnessing, but it's a phenomenon that catches a lot of Mainlanders off guard (including me the first time I encountered it), so I thought I'd mention it in case it was relevant.

Sorry so long. I hope it's helpful in some way. I understand that this is challenging and frustrating.
posted by somanyamys at 12:28 PM on May 21, 2008 [14 favorites]

I'm sure 23skidoo is the one to really answer this, but I get the sense that when you marry your fiance, you're going to marry into his family. They're probably very close knit. I get the sense that you are going to be pretty miserable in the long-run. It doesn't sound like he would actually want a traditional American nuclear family.

I just get the sense it's going to be really hard for you and it will be hard on your marriage.
posted by onepapertiger at 12:41 PM on May 21, 2008

Also, you absolutely have to read that story that Po Bronson has about the Filipino family. They do exactly what you said that your fiance's family does! The calling fifty times a day, etc! Uncanny!
posted by onepapertiger at 12:44 PM on May 21, 2008

You have as much right to expect them to respect your culture as they have to expect you to respect theirs. It sounds like you're giving them everything and getting nothing.

On the food thing: make separate meals, you don't need to eat together to have a fulfulling relationship. Up until recently, I was vegetarian which meant making my own meals (even when I lived at home). Its Ok to not like the food he makes or not want to eat it because you're on a diet.

On the parenting thing: your house, your rules. They can spoil their kid as much as they like at home and that is none of your business but when the kid is jumping on your possessions, you have every right to tell the kid to stop. If they can't respect your wishes in your home, you have every right to ask them to leave/not bring the child again. In your own home, you deserve to not have your stuff ruined by by bratty children.

On the race thing: why does that offend you? It clearly doesn't bother your partner. Families can be cruel (much like children in the playground) if he wasn't the 'black' thing, it would be something else. Presumably its a family joke because he isn't 'Af Am', he just looks it.
posted by missmagenta at 1:20 PM on May 21, 2008

Okay, as someone from a (what people from the Unites States call) a poor, white trash background, forget the race issue and think of it as an educational issue.

BUT, it is NOT your job to educate your in-laws, and only tangentially your job to educate your future Mr.

There is so much scientific evidence on the correlation between carb and fat rich diets (especially among Pacific Islanders!) and heart disease/obesity/type 11 diabetes, that the simply admonition, "Dearest I want you around for a long, long, time!!!" may help with your individual problems.

I can only say from personal experience that once kids become part of the equation avoid the in-laws for as long as possible, preferably until your kids can vote. This does not mean you BOTH avoid the in-laws, just you.

My survival tactic (my kids only have a bedtime during school time, I'm from an uneducated background but the first generation to go to Uni, right now we're having a DVD night because my daughter is going away from home soon and we want to crash in front of the TV and eat crap, ya know that kind of night)) is to absent myself from the few family gatherings that last longer than my Valium perscription (oh sorry, I meant 2 days) simply to avoid the criticisms, both implicit and explicit ( My husband's family is from a "Von" and "Burg von" background, Junkers, basically) So for them the fact that I allow my 10 year old boy MacDonalds on the weekend ONCE is a huge problem and reflects badly on my parenting skills.

So, you will always be that snooty, posh (insert the trope of your choice here) oh yeah, "uppity" person who looks down you nose at their friendly, loving wonderful and ultimately life-threatening dietary choices.

Whatever. Just restict the situation as far as you can, WITHOUT alienating your loved one. Accept that your husband and children will be in their (loving, physically unhealthy but emotionally warm) company for part of their life.

You only need to work this out with him as desjardins says above. Hey we all have a junk-food day, hour, minute, whatever human frailty you admit to. Just view the family interactions as a large one of those and limit them as you both see fit.

One thing I would add, children need some spoilin' and while I agree you BOTH have to watch their overall health, the emotional spoilin' from family cannot be beat!
posted by Wilder at 1:31 PM on May 21, 2008

somanyamys: Here's the thing: you'd be feeling alien even if they were of the same race and culture as you, because this is not your family.

This is most definitely the truth. My fiancé and I are both white, middle-class midwesterners, and I am convinced his family is from a different planet.
posted by desjardins at 1:53 PM on May 21, 2008

Of course you realize that you and your fiance' are going to have to deal with your own issues regarding diet, etc. before you get married, so as far as the other stuff goes:

Food stuff: When you go visit for a family dinner, you can offer to bring a "side dish" that is something healthy you will eat. Do not try to correct them. You may change your fiance's eating habits because he loves you and will listen to you, but to them you are the oddball.

Disciplining kids: Tricky. Let it be known that in your house, they are expected to obey your rules. Make sure your fiance also steps in to side with you on this. Head it off at the pass if you have to: if your new family wants to come over, tell them warmly they are welcome. Then add that you are concerned because you have rules in your household their kids might not be used to, and you don't want their kids to feel uncomfortable there. You are concerned soon-to-be-family, not Stern Bitch. You can even say, "Of course I know your kids always behave (white lie), I just wanted to let you know because I've had some issues come up with others and so I'm very sensitive to this issue." If they get offended, suggest to meet in a neutral place or their homes instead.

In their homes, I'm afraid you will have to hold your tongue about bedtimes, pacifiers and whatever else unless your advice is specifically requested. Accord them the same respect you want them to show you.

Phone calls and meetings: If you can't be somewhere in time to see the family, have your fiance firmly tell them so. If they then change their plans and expect you to show up, he can say, "We would have loved to be with you, but you didn't give us enough notice! Maybe next time."

Honestly, most of this seems like issues you should be able to talk to your fiance' about. The two of you are a team, and should put forth a united front.
posted by misha at 2:21 PM on May 21, 2008

I am a palagi but I come from a country with a big Pasifika minority. I also have experienced some Jewish-Gentile culture clash that is pretty parallel. The behaviour you are describing is pretty typical for the culture; it's not unique to the family; and you're just to have to learn to cope. Your issues are pretty typical for mixed relationships. If you really can't cope, leave before you get married and especially before you have children.

In a culture with a big emphasis on extended family, when you marry someone, you are marrying that family. If you don't like them, your married life is going to be miserable. I know you're asking for ways to cope, I just want to remind you that "I can't cope, so I'm not doing this" is a strategy too. That said:

One strategy that has helped me in this kind of situation is to remind myself how weird and stupid my behaviour must seem. Think about this from their point of view: you're aloof, picky about food, unresponsive to family, attached to material possessions like furniture, cruel to children, and with no sense of humour. Maybe this is how your fiance feels about your family, eh? How does he deal with that?

Another thing is to try and pick your battles about what is really important. Eg, your fiance has turned out fine, and you say the parents are lovely people, so clearly, while the child-rearing practise may upset you, it isn't really doing any harm. On the other hand, food hygiene IS important - salmonella kills people - and it wouldn't hurt to just quietly cover things.

(I might be able dig up some food hygiene resources from the NZ health authorities in Samoan, Tongan, Niuean, Cook Island Maori or Tokelau languages if that might help - food poisoning at family gatherings is a big problem here).

You will be pushing shit uphill changing the family diet unless you can find an ally in the family. Who are you to criticise? You look like you could do with a sandwich...

Which brings me to another point - there will be a woman in the family, maybe an auntie, or an older sister of your fiance, whoeever - who likes you and who can help mediate some of these problems. Try to identify that person and make friends with her.

As far as the teasing about race goes, the cultural style for humour is built around insult and taking people down a peg, and anything is fair game. It seems vicious to you, but it doesn't bother him because he's used to it. I don't see a lot of benefit for either of you in raising his consciousness about it.

"you have the right to restrain children in your home"

Sure, but the consequence is severe family friction, which is not an insignificant problem. Being the mean auntie who hates kids is not fun.

- distract. Look over here!
- don't say anything, just pick the kid up and move it.
- get another coffee table.
- frame it that you're worried about the table breaking and the glass hurting the kid.

(See, if you make friends with someone in the family, you can ask what the right thing to do is...)

Good luck and congratulations on your engagement.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:44 PM on May 21, 2008 [4 favorites]

PS: as far as getting some perspective goes, consider this. Before colonialism, life in the Islands was NOT paradise. There are frequent shortages of food and drinking water. Fish come, fish go. There are hurricanes and all the plants die and all shelter disappears. Food is not for storage, because it can't be stored; food is for eating NOW before it disappears. There is bugger-all tillable land. Co-operation, looking after your kin, the prevention of social conflict and ostentatious sharing of lavish food are all essential for survival.

The cultural traits you find so difficult are absolutely ideal for the place they originated in. In many ways, they are STILL ideal. Try and see how they are good for the group, even if they're annoying for you as an individual. Learn about the culture and its values. And then, once you've got your anthropologist goggles on, turn them on your own family.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:03 PM on May 21, 2008 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I'm pretty much completely with Joe'sSpleen on this one.

One strategy that has helped me in this kind of situation is to remind myself how weird and stupid my behaviour must seem.

I'm in a different (and yet, surprisingly familiar) cross-cultural situation, and this is what I try to remind myself when something is making me really irate. I also try really hard to figure out which things are "just the way things are" and are not at all intended to irk me, and which things are done specifically to get my goat, either for fun (because once in a while it is fun to tease the funny outsider) or out of meanspiritedness (because even the nicest family has a couple of jerks in it). It also really helped when I noticed how much effort some people in the family were taking to adjust to my weird behavior, and how much stress that was causing at times -- things I thought were just neutral were being read as strong criticism, etc. So the stress goes both ways, and the efforts at adaptation do, too. (Have you seen that film My Big Fat Greek Wedding? There's a dinner scene with the white family that is really funny, but in comparison to the large and lively family dinners you get with his family, might come close to how it feels from their perspective.)

So kids jumping on the coffee table is a "just the way things are" issue, and can be solved in ten minutes by buying a sturdy coffee table -- it simply isn't worth the battle it would take to assert your control over a space (your living room) that his extended family sees as partly theirs (since he, and now you, are part of that family, and you are welcome to relax and act freely in their living rooms).

Your guy's diet at home is a battle worth having, at least in some ways, if his health is being harmed. Rice isn't unhealthy, but if all he eats is grease fried in lard ladled on top of fried rice, then there is a problem. Is there a culturally-appropriate doctor or nutritionist who can work with you on this issue?

The diet at family gatherings is a battle not worth having, although you do need to find ways to eat there that work for you. Sometimes I play the white guy card in this situation, and use excuses like "oh, my stomach is so much more sensitive than yours is" to get out of some things that I just don't want to be eating. That lets everyone laugh and give me a hard time, without the cook being insulted that I just said no to the food they spent so much time making. But unless you are eating with the family every day, a few fat- and starch-heavy meals aren't the end of the world. The food being left out isn't great; all I can say is that if it hasn't killed them yet and it doesn't smell "off," I tend to shrug and eat it and hope for the best.

I know the direct racial comments and teasing are hard to take for someone in your shoes, but this is where you have to try to figure out the difference between something meant in a friendly way and something meant in a nasty way. And, if that teasing is in front of you or maybe even includes you, that is a big sign of "hey, we think you are ok" which is nice to get. There are certainly problems with how his family is dealing with race -- but there are also lots of problems about the common practice of not talking about race, too. Sort of a six of one, half-dozen of the other kind of problem.

Phone calls -- again, I hear you. My partner and her family call all the time. For a long time I thought I was being an awesome, culturally-aware guy by giving her the space and time to make these calls, and staying out of the way. Then I was told that I was being seen as really rude because I never wanted to be on the phone and talk with anyone. So now I make sure to take a few minutes to say hi and ask about the kids and everyone's health and what the minor family soap opera updates are since we last spoke yesterday. My taking that kind of minimal interest has improved our relationship a million times, and doesn't take all that much effort from me. I don't know what his family is looking for from you on the phone calls, but I've found that my extended in-laws were basically looking for me to care about the things important to them, and to be willing to remember the basic details from one conversation to the next, and to be willing to mention a few things important to my life that they can then ask me about every time we talk. It's really, really different than my hyper-private family who call rarely and release few details, but it doesn't do me any harm and makes everyone happy, so why not?

I guess my overall point here is that you are emphatically not only marrying him; you are getting the entire family in the deal. You can see all the problems right now, but there are some really good things, too -- there are times when having a large, tight-knit group to have your back is really important. And even many of the things that are bothering you are coming out of love rather than maliciousness, like the too-much food, and the too-frequent phone calls. Find ways to signal your appreciation of that love, minimize battles over unimportant things (like kids on the coffee table), and ask your guy to help buffer when you need help. And like was mentioned, if you can find someone in his family (often an older woman, but hardly always) who likes you and can help you negotiate things, and can explain what is going on, you will be light years ahead of trying to figure it all out on your own.
posted by Forktine at 5:04 PM on May 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all of the thoughtful replies.

I actually employed oddman's suggested tactic of calling my SIL just to check in this afternoon. Because I did this, I learned that a dinner out that was previously scheduled tonight for 6:30 had been moved up to 6:00. Had I not called we would have been late (again). I promised my SIL that we would be on time and if late it would only be by a minute or two. She was happy with this. I could hear it in her voice. Big relief to me and probable crisis averted. Thank you oddman!

Just to clarify, I don't care what they eat. I just don't want to eat it and am trying to find ways to avoid doing so. I'm also trying to convince myself that using a microwave as a food storage container is not unhealthy. And it must not be as they are still alive, right?

My fiance and I talked tonight. We agreed that he would try to prepare his food in healthier ways, i.e. substitute turkey bacon for real bacon. And he wouldn't mind if I ate a spinach salad at dinner. I think with him behind me, we'll be able to overcome problems at family meals too.

I know that I have no right to tell people how to raise their kids. I keep holding onto the fact that all these people a nice and they were raised the same way, so it can't really hurt the children. Except for the fact that a large percentage of this island has holes in their teeth because they've sucked bottles until 1st grade.

Thanks again.
posted by Juicylicious at 6:28 PM on May 21, 2008

I'm also trying to convince myself that using a microwave as a food storage container is not unhealthy. And it must not be as they are still alive, right?

On that score, I think it is unhealthy, and you're right to be concerned. They might find it insulting if they're not fresh off the boat, but then again maybe not.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 9:34 PM on May 21, 2008

They leave rice cookers full of rice on the counter for a day or two (eating the rice a bit at a time).

I don't see what's wrong with that. I do that. If it's a japanese-style cooker that keeps the rice hot after it's finished cooking and is kept closed between feedings, the risk of food poisoning is minimal.

As for the phone thing, my partner's family are similar. I hate talking on the phone but also hate when things change and I'm not in the loop. So now they text me which means they're limited to pertinent information only and it works out.

Their diet is strange to me, I'm a healthy vegetarian and they like everything fried, gravied, and with a side of boiled potatoes. Your description of the pork-and-soup combination made me laugh... my partner's mother makes the same thing but with chicken! So I bring enough of my own food to share and usually end up eating most of it myself. His mother is finally getting used to not putting a gallon of starches on my plate and sometimes even tries my food.

With the race issue it seems your fiance is much better at rolling with things than you are. When it comes to a man's family there are some things you can't change, and being in their face about it may force him into a position where he has to choose you over them (hint: he'll choose them, that's the way men are. I learned this lesson the hard way).

My partner's family, especially his father, have some interesting views about immigrants... of which I am one! With some understanding and work I have found many subjects we can talk about that don't involve immigration policy. Sometimes I am even able to subtly sneak my viewpoint in and get them into a position where they agree. Only last night my partner said that if it hadn't been for me, he would not have been able to understand the basic unfairness of the (UK) system. But it's taken years to get there. If the way they are really bothers you, consider moving, but work on acceptance as well.
posted by methylsalicylate at 2:58 AM on May 22, 2008

Also, you could always lie and say you have food allergies so you don't have to eat their food.
posted by onepapertiger at 2:05 PM on May 22, 2008

I can only comment about the food. I know exactly the people you're fiance is like.. my family's from Hawaii and I live in Cali now, where I see lots of asian/pacific islanders/samoan/mix black/ etc etc.

You can't change the food thing, that's how it's gonna be. You either like it and be happy, or don't. BTW, fried pork chops w/ cream of mushroom YUMMMMM lol. I love that stuff.

Just gotta eat your own food. If they feel offended at your differences, maybe you need to take a bigger look at things.
posted by 0217174 at 3:46 PM on May 22, 2008

Regarding the rice thing, it is extremely common in many Asian/island cultures to keep rice warm in a cooker for up to several days. It's perfectly safe. I personally think it tastes pretty stale after about 18 hours, but even after that it's not a health hazard, and it's awfully convenient to have rice always ready to go. I'm a total convert. Besides, bread is just as ubiquitous in middle class white America as rice is in other cultures. Try going a week without eating any kind of bread and you'll see what I mean. Unless you are cooking every meal yourself, it's just about impossible.

I love metahawk's suggestion of Karen Pryor's Don't Shoot the Dog. Seriously, that book is fantastic and I think you are going to need it in the years to come!
posted by HotToddy at 4:10 PM on May 22, 2008

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