Q: Thank you for a very interesting and informative article on interracial couples (IC, September 2003). My boyfriend is Chinese-Vietnamese and I am Mexican-American. His mother is Vietnamese and she dislikes me because I am not Asian. Although his father and his older brother like me very much and have often come to my defense, I have yet to meet and speak to the mother. We have been together for 10 months and she has neglected to acknowledge or meet me. I am sad because I know that my relationship with my boyfriend is strong and healthy, yet I have to try to make amends with her since we are seriously discussing marriage. Your advice would be helpful.
A: Your dilemma is not uncommon and very challenging. You sound concerned, focused, and respectful. I wonder if you are feeling angry or hurt since she is shutting you out. Know that it is her fear, cultural background, attachment, disappointment, anger, or need to control that are preventing her from meeting you. She believes that by not acknowledging you, you will somehow disappear and she won’t have to deal with you and her own biases.
Certain parents feel betrayed when their children date and marry a partner outside their culture. They have hopes and wishes about how their children’s lives should be. In Asia, for centuries children have married within their own familial-racial heritage. Mothers are usually more comfortable with such an arrangement.
Your choice of partner is motivated by your personal connection and compatibility, not necessarily by the needs of parents and extended family. Thus, the well-known clash of family, culture, religion, and class ensues.
First, recognize that your boyfriend’s mother’s reaction is not about you personally, rather towards a way of life. Second, the mother may need her feelings fully acknowledged by her own family. She may believe that she can only be close to her daughter-in-law if she comes from a similar culture or has resembling features and skin color. This may be superficial to you, but for her sameness engenders familiarity, comfort, and closeness. If she is the dominating mother, then she may resent that she cannot dominate you, given your background and independent personality.
It’s your boyfriend’s role to discover the details of his mother’s disapproval. Then he and the family can more directly address the issue. She may need to grieve the loss of her image of her son and his new family, or accept that she cannot control her son’s future or you. The family needs to give her ample time to share her concerns and process. Then your boyfriend, his father, and older brother can share their feelings and thoughts. This dialog may facilitate her expanding her viewpoints and being open to meeting you and getting to know you.
There is a possibility that she may not accept you until you are married and part of the family. When she knows she can’t exert any more power, she may come around. Often, much of the resistance and disapproval dissolves. In some cases there will always be a wall, which will create discomfort and conflict. Be prepared for any of these possibilities.
When we push out of societal and cultural patterns we pay a price. The more aware, honest, and respectful each person is in attempting to create this new family, the greater the possibility for truth, healing, and happiness for all of you.
Alzak Amlani, Ph.D. is a counseling psychologist in Palo Alto and San Francisco. (415) 205-4666. www.wholenesstherapy.com