Today’s guest blog comes from author Kristiana Kahakauwila, whose new book This is Paradise looks at the islands of Hawai’i from a completely different perspective — through relationships, culture and couples. I asked her to expand upon the relationships aspect of the book, and I am glad I did! Read on for her thoughts about making an inter-cultural relationship work.
My mom often says, “You never marry just the man, you marry his family.” For an interracial or inter-cultural couple, this adage can seem especially daunting. It’s one thing to become cozy with your partner’s parents and siblings; it’s another to have to marry a new set of traditions, beliefs, and ways of being in the world. It’s even more complicated when one culture has traditionally “dominated” the other. How do two individuals, happy and in love, account for the weight of history, for the hurt that their ancestors might have caused one another? Are we, those contemporary individuals, even responsible for what has happened between our ethnic groups in the past?
I think a lot about this question. In Hawai’i there’s a long and very difficult history between Native Hawaiians and the American “foreigners” who came to the islands as missionaries and businessmen. Feelings of resentment, anger, and hurt have built up on both sides, and in the past these feelings have led to violence.
In my story “The Road to Hana,” I decided to explore what’s not working for one interracial couple. Cameron, the male protagonist, is of Caucasian descent, but he was born and raised in Hawai’i. Becky, his girlfriend, is Native Hawaiian, but she grew up in Las Vegas.
When they begin the road trip, Cameron and Becky seem to have a lot working in their favor. He is delighted with her every habit, even the way she pours soy sauce on her eggs. She appreciates his care and gentleness. But as the drive to Hana progresses, cracks appear in their relationship. Becky is still angry about the way Hawaiians have historically been treated by a powerful foreign minority. Cameron, who belongs to that minority, can’t see why this history might bother her. She lacks forgiveness; he lacks understanding. When a stray dog steps in front of their car, the growing tension between them explodes.
I think Cameron and Becky represent one kind of relationship dynamic—and not just for interracial couples. In the end, it’s not their different worldviews that drives them apart. It’s how they choose to handle those views, and the lack of empathy they feel for their partner’s ideas and feelings.
I’m fortunate to know, in real life, a relationship that is the opposite of Becky and Cameron’s: my parents’ marriage. My mom is German-Norwegian, and her parents crossed boundaries in their small North Dakota town when my German grandfather insisted on marrying my Norwegian grandmother. As for my parents, they met in California, where my mother was raised and where my dad moved for college. He’s Native Hawaiian, born and raised on Maui. My parents came from very different worlds—geographically, culturally, ethnically, racially—yet they’ve created a solid relationship that continues to grow.
For one, they celebrate each other’s cultures. Whether attending a Norwegian church service (in Norwegian!) or a ho‘olaule‘a, my parents enjoy sharing cultural experiences with each other. And it’s not just a surface level enjoyment: my dad converted to Lutheranism (from Catholicism) when he married; she studied hula for years, beginning even before she met my dad. Their commitment to each other’s cultures is one way they commit to each other.
Second, for all the cultural differences, they have the same core values. From the big stuff (putting family first, going to church together) to the little stuff (keeping a family dog instead of a cat), my parents are on the same page. Sure, my mom had to learn to make rice for every meal—even breakfast!—and my dad knows he better boil potatoes if my maternal aunts are coming over for dinner, but adjusting to these small changes was a shared adventure because core values had already been agreed upon.
Third, they find connection with each other’s families. While my grandmothers were living, my parents addressed their mother-in-laws as “Mom.” Although a small word, it was my parents way of saying that they cared for their mother-in-laws as their own flesh and blood. These days, my mom keeps up on my dad’s side of the family by chatting often with my paternal aunts, and my dad, who is an avid cook, collects recipes from my mom’s sisters. By caring for each other’s families, they deepen their caring for each other.
Fourth and finally, my parents can talk about the past without it overturning their present. Family discussions of history range freely, covering both the noble and ignoble moments for the different cultures that make up our family tree. My parents have chosen to love each other not by denying these histories but by approaching them with honesty and openness.
Even for couples who come from the same ethnic population or culture, the emphasis on celebrating each other’s traditions, sharing core values, connecting with family, and holistically accepting one another are all worthy ways to sustain a relationship.
How do I know? Well, it’s working for me in my current relationship. But better proof are my parents, who will celebrate their 36th wedding anniversary this summer.
Author photo credit: Brandon Ng