- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 26, 2000

Barbara Pabotoy of Fairfax met her husband, Orlando, in the Philippines in 1972 when she was a Peace Corps volunteer. Six months later, they were married.

"When we were first married, we lived with his parents," she says. "There was a huge extended family. It was a big adjustment because I used to that big a family."

When the first of their six sons was born, differences in child rearing became obvious.

"I was taught that you let a child go to sleep by crying it out," she says. "That drove my mother-in-law and sisters-in-law absolutely nuts, so they would steal the baby to make him stop crying."

Mr. Pabotoy and the children are part of the 10 percent of the population (26.4 million) that was foreign-born in 1999, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This reflects a 30 percent increase since 1990. Washington, because of its embassies and international organizations, has many families from different cultural backgrounds.

What challenges do these families face? What advantages and disadvantages are there in a cross-cultural marriage? How do individuals keep their cultural identity alive? And what about interfaith marriages?

The biggest challenge in the beginning was the language, Mrs. Pabotoy says. She learned to speak Boholano, the native language of the Cortez Province.

"So much of your emotions are in your native language. In times of stress, you always revert back to your language of heart," Mrs. Pabotoy says. Even now, after all these years, she says, she and her husband have misunderstandings, and one of them will say, "What do you mean by that?" Even with a common language, there can still be big differences. Her children always know when she is angry, as she speaks to them in English.

In 1991, the couple moved to the Washington area when Mrs. Pabotoy was offered a position as deputy of the Office of Training with the Peace Corps.

"It made sense for a number of reasons. Things became very difficult for him because he was so in opposition to [Ferdinand] Marcos and his cronies. People were looking to him to take a greater role nationally, and his life was endangered," she explains. Mr. Pabotoy was the mayor of Cortez Province for a number of years."It's been very difficult and a big adjustment," Mr. Pabotoy says of his move to this country. "I really miss my home and sometimes that becomes hard."

Living in the Philippines was an advantage for the family, Mr. Pabotoy says. He sees his children as more balanced, with a natural curiosity and a strong sense of their identity. The couple's common religion Roman Catholic has been a major binding component for the family.

The Pabotoys decided that one of them would be home with their children at all times. For the first 14 years, Mrs. Pabotoy was home, and now the roles are reversed. Mr. Pabotoy says he struggled to find a way to help the family financially and yet be home with the children. He slowly solved the problem by becoming a craftsman, making furniture.

Challenges in a foreign country

Robin Raul of Silver Spring, whose family is Indian, concedes that after 10 years of marriage, cultural conditioning still can pose challenges in his relationship with his wife, Carmen, a Barcelona native.

"The role of women is very different in India," Mr. Raul says. "Women are supposed to be second. I try very hard not to be a male chauvinist."

Sometimes, he says, he is not aware of it, but his upbringing comes out in actions. For example, when the family sits down for dinner, he automatically presumes his wife will get up if one of the children needs something.

The Rauls met while doing post-doctoral work at the University of Maryland in College Park. After finishing her one-year program, Mrs. Raul returned to the University of Barcelona as a tenured professor. Three years later, after several trips to Barcelona, Mr. Raul knew he had to marry her.

"The moment I had the thought of Carmen marrying somebody else, that was not possible," he says.

Despite the objections of both their parents, they married, and Mrs. Raul moved to the Washington area.

"Our honeymoon was a trip to India to meet his family," she says. "It was a very stressful time. It's difficult for a Western woman to marry into an Indian family life is so different." Mrs. Raul says she feels more like a guest than a member of the family."The fact that your backgrounds are not common makes it more difficult to build a relationship or family, and without a common culture, it is hard to get close to the family of the spouse," she adds."In India, you marry the family," Mr. Raul says. "I would love to sit with her father and talk about politics," but interaction is difficult because of the language barrier, he says.

Though the couple have had challenges, they say they feel enriched by sharing two cultures. Their three children, 7-year-old Alex, 5-year-old Julian and 1-year-old Nuria, are exposed to both cultures. The family visits Spain and India frequently. Mrs. Raul talks to the children in her native tongue so they will be able to communicate with her family, and Mr. Raul is beginning to teach the boys his native language, Hindi.

She says that keeping her cultural identity alive is difficult and admits she would like to return to Barcelona to live for a time. Mr. Raul keeps his cultural connection alive through music, movies and food and by associating with Indian friends.

Cultural assimilation

Andrei Kirilenko of Friendship Heights has been in the country for a decade and has totally assimilated into the culture.

"I consider myself an American," says Mr. Kirilenko, who was born in the Ukraine.

He met his wife, Shelly, while he was an exchange student at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where she was a graduate student. Four months later, in April 1990, the couple married in an elaborate two-hour ceremony.

"It was her idea to have the ceremony in the St. Andrews Russian Orthodox Church so my culture would be represented," he says.

The couple faced a language barrier, as Mr. Kirilenko spoke very little English, and Mrs. Kirilenko did not speak Russian.

"The funny thing was that I learned how to communicate better because I had gotten into being a bit sarcastic or beating around the bush," Mrs. Kirilenko explains. "I couldn't play any games, and so we got to know each other on a level beyond language. We saw each other for who we really were."

She admits that she didn't understand some of her husband's behavior until she went to the Ukraine. Once she was there, she saw that people had to be pushy because there were shortages of goods.

"When he would go into a [U.S.] store, he would be very aggressive and pushy," she says.

"One time, we went to a movie and thought it was free. We didn't bring enough money. He went up and started talking to the cashier and ended up coaxing two [complimentary] tickets," she says.

On another occasion, on the opening night of the Philadelphia Film Festival, "We didn't get there early enough to get tickets" for the feature, "The City of Angels," Mrs. Kirilenko says. No problem; Mr. Kirilenko talked his way into the theater.

While these issues have created challenges, Mrs. Kirilenko says she feels that getting to know another culture has added depth to her life. "He has actually made me appreciate my country more," she says.

The couple celebrate all American holidays his favorite is Thanksgiving because there are no presents. Every year, they identify three things for which they are thankful, and they also volunteer at a local church.

He keeps his culture alive by visiting his family and talking to family members on the phone. He also reads Russian and Ukrainian periodicals on the Internet.

Moving to a new country

"Our daughter has been to Germany five to six times and has also been to Peru," says Constanze Schulz of Springfield. At 4 years of age, Debbie has met all her family members. Ms. Schulz and her husband, Cesar Calle La Rosa, a Peruvian Indian, met in Paris in 1993 at a Latin-American festival. The couple recently moved to Springfield, where Ms. Schulz is employed with the International Monetary Fund.

Their diverse backgrounds and the role of women in society have created challenges in their marriage.

"Sometimes there are misunderstandings. We still think differently," Ms. Schulz says. "His culture is different, but he had lived for quite some time in Europe, and he was Europeanized," she explains. She feels this made it easier for the two to adjust, although she admits, "In his being, he certainly has the culture of his country."

"What is very important also is the role that the families play," Ms. Schulz says. "I was immediately accepted into his family, and my family accepted him without a problem."

One advantage of her cross-cultural marriage has been learning to be more open and fun-loving, she says.

Her husband says, "For me, it's special. I am proud that my daughter is from Peruvian and German parents. She was born in Paris, and she will live in America."Adaptation to America has not been easy for Mr. Calle La Rosa, however, because of language barriers. Though he speaks several languages fluently, he only recently completed English language classes. He also is adjusting to living in the suburbs and not the city.

He keeps his culture alive with traditional music and dress. "I keep different values of the Inca people honesty. In modern society, that is lost, but I think it necessary to keep some culture inside."

She keeps in contact with old friends in Germany and reads German books. She also cooks both German and Peruvian food.

A German trip brought romance

A trip to Germany in 1993 and a chance meeting led Marla Hendriksson to her husband, Matti. Two years later, she was planning another trip to Germany.

"One of my best friends was German. She was working during the day, so she suggested I give him a call," Mrs. Hendriksson says. They started corresponding by e-mail, and after her trip, he invited her to Finland to meet his family. He then came here to meet her family, and the couple married in 1996 after they both finished graduate school.

Mrs. Hendriksson grew up in the Philippines and moved here at the age of 15.One of the challenges for Mr. Hendriksson was learning American culture.

"At the start, it was difficult," he says.

The couple found a way of communicating when things weren't working. "If I get frustrated, I start talking in Filipino, and he talks back in Finnish," Mrs. Henriksson says. "We found we have a lot of the same values and are both very independent and respect each other's space," she says. Mr. Hendriksson says they are equally matched both spiritually and intellectually.They have friends from around the world, and Mrs. Hendriksson says she identifies as much with the European culture as the Asian culture.

Interfaith marriage

The only issue Laura and Mike Taets have in their marriage is religion. She is Jewish, and he is Catholic, and they plan to raise their three young children a 3-year-old daughter, an 18-month-old son and a 2-month-old son in both religions. Their daughter, Jessica, attends a Hebrew preschool close to their Reston home.

"All of our children have been baptized, and the boys have been circumcised," Mrs. Taets says.

The couple celebrates both holidays and spends Christmas with Mr. Taets' family in Illinois and Jewish holidays with Mrs. Taets' family in Boston.

Their biggest challenge is figuring out how to successfully expose their children to both religions without confusing the youngsters. They have found one group, the Interfaith Family Project of Greater Washington in Takoma Park, that teaches both the Jewish and Christian religions. Though they don't have the answers to their dilemma, they give it a lot of thought and are taking it one step at a time.

"There are societal pressures that exist on a couple with different religions," says Dr. Victor De La Cancela, associate clinical professor of medical psychology at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons and a faculty member at Beth-Israel Medical Center. "In the Jewish faith, you can convert, but if the mother is Jewish, the child will be considered Jewish. That becomes a dilemma for that couple. To try to raise the children in both religions, they would have to have a very liberal temple or synagogue that would accept [their daughter] without rejection."

Dr. De La Cancela is also in a cross-cultural marriage. He is Puerto Rican, and his wife is Italian American, and they have two daughters, ages 3 and 5. He says the major test for a couple is their ability to communicate to each other using what may be different world views about things. For example, he says, couples sometimes tend to ignore what is right in front of them in terms of their cultural background.

"Understanding in and of itself isn't going to change things. It's a willingness to put yourself in that other person's shoes," Dr. De La Cancela says.

All of these couples have challenges in their marriages, but they also have in common a strong commitment to making their relationships work. "I still congratulate people for having made that commitment," Dr. De La Cancela says.

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