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The Beauty and Challenge of a Bi-Cultural Marriage

January 12, 2010 by · 3 comments

Elayne Clift

Photo: Philms

One day when our daughter was five years old she proudly proclaimed herself bi-lingual. “I speak English and American!” she boasted to friends.

Now that I’m sixty-five, I’d like to express my own point of pride: I’ve survived three decades in a bi-cultural marriage. It hasn’t always been easy.

On the face of it, as bi’s go, our situation would seem to be unremarkable. After all, neither my husband nor I are bi-sexual. Ours is not a bi-racial marriage (although it is bi-religious). Even the bi-cultural aspect of our union – he is British, I’m American — is not as difficult as it might be if, say, I were from Bosnia and he were from Bhutan. Still, our marriage has been more challenging than many people might suppose.

The first signs of our cultural differences began appearing early in our marriage. Back then my husband worked at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. and we lived the diplomatic life that dominates that unique (and often disturbing) city. Our social scene was primarily formal and obligatory. Dinner parties were comprised of colleagues and their spouses, always carefully balanced by gender so that seating arrangements could alternate males and females.

For many years I was happy to go along with that sort of thing. About twice a month we entertained, if not lavishly at least with style. Our candlelit table was set with flowers, fine china and silver, and salad was always served after the main course. In the really early days, I actually passed around a guest book for signature although now I shudder to confess it. However, I drew the line at “hotting the plates,” a class-based tradition in England whereupon dinner plates are warmed in order that hot food is not placed upon cold dishes. (Similarly, one always heats the teapot before brewing tea, and remembers to “bring the pot to the kettle” so that not a minute of boil is lost.)

Photo: HarveyWatts

Later on, once my husband had begun to accept American informality, we often hosted picnics or barbecues. My cardinal sin during these events was to use paper plates and plastic utensils. “It’s tacky,” my beloved said. “It’s a picnic!” I responded. “You’re supposed to use disposals at a picnic! Otherwise it’s just a dinner party on grass!”

But rituals around food were not our only point of contention. There were honor codes and language issues, humor and personal habits to be reconciled. For example, my husband once nearly threatened me with divorce because from his perspective, I had tried to cheat British Rail. We were in England at the time and I’d taken a trip south to visit a friend in Devon. Back in London I gleefully waved my return ticket at him. “Look!” I said. “The conductor forgot to take my ticket coming back. We can turn it in and get the money back!” I felt like I’d just won at Ascot. His take was rather different. He was horrified. “Absolutely not!” he said, his impeccable British accent making me feel like the world’s worst miscreant. “That would be dishonest!”

As for language, I can’t count the times I’ve had to translate for our children what their father was talking about. The boot, the biscuit, and the by-pass all had to be interpreted. Bangers and mash had to be explained. “Taking the mickey” and “a piss up in a brewery” needed deconstructing. No wonder our offspring took pride in their linguistic abilities.

On the issue of humor (or humour as he would put it), suffice it to say that my husband still doubles over with mirth when he watches John Cleese reruns. He continues to find Benny Hill and Mr. Bean hilarious. I am left to wonder if all Brits are this puerile. (In his defense, however, he can quote Shakespeare line for line with all the poetry the great bard intended. I don’t know one American who can do that.)

My husband has some peculiar personal habits that I can only assume are British too. For example, he cannot sleep without a glass of water by his bed and a handkerchief tucked under his pillow. While this might be endearing in a child, those hankies-of-the-night can be unnerving when I make the bed in the morning.

Over the years, I’m happy to say, my marriage partner has come to find the American way of doing things inviting. He no longer worries when I ask guests to help themselves to seconds or to pour their own drinks. (We no longer live in Washington.) He finds potluck suppers with people we actually like spending time with a lot of fun. When I cheat the system now and again out of a sense of justice or fairness, he applauds me; I’ve actually caught him doing the same thing on rare occasions. For the most part we now speak the same lingo and laugh at the same jokes. And he’s far less formal. I haven’t seen him in a necktie since he retired and his shoes now have holes in them.

Photo: wili_hybrid

As for me, I no longer “get my knickers in a twist” over little things, and I love being called “Darling” or told that I look “absolutely smashing.” I’ve loved our regular journeys to the British Isles, finding every time something to treasure and be glad of. I take pride in our children’s dual heritage and in the seasonal rituals that have emerged within our family from our respective cultures. I wouldn’t dream of missing Sunday nights with Masterpiece Theatre or Mystery. I adore scones.

After thirty-six years of marriage, I really treasure the traditions and the life we’ve built based on the best that both sides of the Atlantic have to offer. As I look back over our years together, I am reminded of the splendid epic poem The White Cliffs written by Alice Duer Miller, an American woman married to a Brit living in England just after World War II. “I am American bred,” she wrote. “I have seen much to hate here, much to forgive. But in a world in which there is no England, I do not wish to live.”

Nor would I have wanted to live my life in a world without a certain English man, because God knows, marriage is hard enough. At least married to a Brit I got what American writer Margaret Halsey calls “the good manners of educated Englishmen.” “It’s all so heroic,” she wrote. To which I would add, and so much fun.

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Elayne Clift, a writer in Saxtons River, Vt., teaches Gender Studies and English Literature. Her latest book is ACHAN: A Year of Teaching in Thailand (Bangkok Books, 2007).

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