Cultural Differences

How fictional portrayals of intermarriage haven't quite caught up

Jennifer Acker
Louie Bellson lighting Pearl Bailey's cigarette
Pearl Bailey and Louie Bellson, 1952. Courtesy Corbis-Bettmann.

IN DUBAI, I WAS TAKEN FOR A PROSTITUTE. It was late, maybe midnight, far away from the city center in a bizarre hotel—a sprawling, deserted complex next to the largest horseracing track in the world. No races were scheduled that weekend, and the place was empty. Luxury hotels in the United Arab Emirates are overstaffed, so we weren’t surprised that one porter opened the taxi door, a second held the door of the hotel, and a third greeted us in the lobby and followed us down the hall toward the elevators, chatting. But there was something off, something too attentive. The first time he said it, his words were muted. Only after he’d repeated himself, urgently and pleading, Sir, you must register your guest, did we understand, did the man at my side stop, point to me, and say, That’s my wife.

At the end of a tour of Fatehpur Sikri, the remains of a Mughal royal city outside Agra, India, our guide asked us, “You are … friends?” It was fine, we laughed it off; we corrected ticket takers who separated us in entrance lines. No, he’s with me; I’m with her.

We lived nearly a year in the UAE and visited, for the first time, both of our ostensible homelands—India and Israel. We’d been told we’d feel it, an ancestral sense of belonging. But we were as baffled and alienated as any stranger in a strange land. We’d miss a joke or a phrase and one of us would whisper, What just happened? The other would shrug and smile and say, Don’t ask me, they’re your people.

Our marriage was suspicious, and he—was he really American? Did he really not speak any Hindi, or even Gujarati? My husband finally lost patience with the Israelis in Jerusalem who doggedly believed he’d grown up in India, asking, Which city? Hindu or Muslim? We weren’t in the provinces; didn’t anyone know what contemporary America looked like?

Now that we’ve been around the world as a couple and have been repeatedly asked to explain ourselves in places that are modern but far from heterogeneous when it comes to relationships, we’ve become more aware not just of our individual ethnicities but, in particular, of our relative rareness in joining them. But what about in America: Are we odd here, too?

When interracial relationships fail in these novels, they do so, all too often, because of "cultural differences."

Yes and no. Of all American marriages, 10 percent are interracial, as of 2015, up from 8 percent just five years earlier. In 1967, the year the Supreme Court legalized marriage across racial lines in Loving v. Virginia, the percentage of intermarriages among newlyweds was 3, a number that increased fivefold to 17 by 2015. These numbers continue to rise. And objections among family members and adults in general continue to fall. Thirty-nine percent of Americans now say that marrying someone of a different race is good for society, compared to 24 percent in 2010.

But just when we think we’re beginning to understand how America is changing, the picture fragments. Fascinatingly, rates and incidence of intermarriage vary hugely by gender, race, education, age, and geography. For example, in 2010, as counted by that year’s U.S. Census, the majority (68 percent) of intermarriages had one white spouse (probably because whites are still the largest racial group in America), even though the percentage of whites who “married out” was relatively low—9 percent, compared with 17 percent of blacks, 26 percent of Hispanics, and 28 percent of Asians. Asian women were twice as likely as Asian men to marry out, while the opposite was true among blacks. (Thirty-six percent of Asian women married out, compared to 17 percent of men; 24 percent of black male newlyweds married outside their race, while only 9 percent of black women did.) The American West had double the mixed newlyweds of the Midwest (22 percent to 11 percent), and far more than the South (14 percent) and even the socially liberal Northeast (13 percent).

Data clearly report that traditional divisions are fading, but not why and how. The numbers only reinforce how little broad trends tell us about individual people, about people in love, about people struggling to be and stay together.

So how do we dig in? Where do we find the nuanced portraits that make up the percentages? Fortunately, the number of American novels starring intermarriages is growing. But has art caught up with life? Yes and no. Many impactful, and otherwise insightful, literary novels by high-profile writers published in the first two decades of the new millennium struggle, in key moments, to transcend simplistic tropes. When interracial relationships fail in these novels, they do so, all too often, because of “cultural differences.”

When Jhumpa Lahiri’s now classic The Namesake was published in 2004, my husband and I took notice. For the first time, he felt thrillingly visible to mainstream America. But for all the novel superbly reveals about a certain tightly knit social class of Indian immigrants and their first-generation children, the break-up between protagonist Nikhil (named Gogol in his early years) and his white girlfriend Maxine has always struck us as poorly motivated, relying too heavily on superficial cultural distinctions. It’s the book’s most significant failing.

Soon after they meet, Nikhil moves in with white, upper-middle-class Maxine and her parents in their enormous home in Manhattan. He’s entranced by their easy, luxe life, their independence, and most of all by how comfortable Maxine is in her own skin. Nikhil is embarrassed by his parents’ foreignness and frustrated by their dim view of interracial relationships. It’s therefore understandable that Nikhil hides his family from Maxine for a long time. But when he finally tells her how thoroughly Bengali his childhood was, that his mother wears a sari and a bindi every day, Nikhil doesn’t think Maxine’s surprise is natural, despite his secrecy: “He doesn’t feel insulted, but he is aware of the line that has been drawn all the same.” What is this line and how does it cleave this couple apart?

Then Nikhil’s father dies suddenly. At the funeral, Nikhil finds Maxine’s presence shocking. He ignores her, refusing to translate Bengali conversations. He decides to mourn his father traditionally—by shaving his head and eating a plain, meatless diet. He refuses to bring Maxine into his grief. Yet Nikhil comes to believe it is she who does not understand him. Maxine is excluded from Nikhil’s family trip to Calcutta to scatter the father’s ashes in the Ganges, and in two sentences their relationship is over: “Quickly they began to argue about this… . Maxine going so far one day as to say that she felt jealous of his mother and sister, an accusation that struck [Nikhil] as so absurd that he had no energy to argue anymore. And so, a few months after his father’s death, he stepped out of Maxine’s life for good.”

Why would being with Maxine suddenly feel impossible? Were they never right for each other, but the wealth and sexual freedom of the Ratliff household masked incompatibilities? Nikhil’s family doesn’t push Maxine away; he does so himself. When I read the break-up lines, I thought Nikhil was a jerk. But the novel doesn’t allow for this explanation, for this character flaw. It relies instead on a supposedly unbridgeable cultural chasm. In the absence of any other explanation, Nikhil’s decision to leave rests solely on the couple’s cultural differences.

Jump forward a decade—one sparsely populated with intermarriage novels—to Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men, a book that grabbed my husband’s and my attention for its ambition, linguistic flair, and relationship with parallels to our own. The novel’s wide scope encompasses Native American folklore, hippie communes, and colonial conquest, but the backbone and real-time story is the marriage of Lisa, whose white Jewish family is from Phoenix, and Jaz, the American-born son of immigrants from Jalandhar. In the book’s first pages, their young autistic son disappears in the desert. In the traumatic aftermath, Jaz and Lisa cannot reconcile.

When Jaz and Lisa first meet, years before at MIT, the sex is amazing, and we’re told there’s intellectual attraction, too. Jaz’s parents don’t approve, but Jaz doesn’t care. He cut his hair years ago, and he’s slept with a string of white girls already. Yet there’s racial trouble from the start. Early on Lisa “probed for signs that [Jaz] was about to tear off his genial mask and reveal an Oriental Bluebeard who’d keep her cooped up in the kitchen and beat her for showing her ankles to other men.” Once she accuses him of simply stringing her along for the sex, when all he really wants is a Punjabi girl “who can make samosas with your mom.”

While some such initial misgivings may be normal, especially when we’re encountering difference for the first time, what doesn’t make sense is that the comments identifying racial difference as a fundamental problem persist years into their marriage. When Lisa goes AWOL for twenty-four hours just before their son Raj disappears, she fends off her husband’s concern and jealousy by saying, “I got drunk and talked to men. Now chop off my head with your curly sword for staining the family honor.” Later, when Lisa complains about Jaz’s family’s unscientific ideas about healing autism with string that wards off evil, Jaz accuses her of dismissing his parents as “just poor brown-skinned immigrants who don’t understand your big modern American world.” Jaz and Lisa’s courtship and fraught marriage are the most simplistic and clichéd aspects of this otherwise innovative and cerebral novel.

When we are young, the only cultures we know are family and school. But Jaz and Lisa have gone to a diverse, elite, urban university, they’ve worked and dated and previously rebelled. So for their stumbling blocks to be, amorphously, his and her Punjabi and Jewish origins, is confusing and underserves the characters. How can they have internalized their parents’ prejudices so deeply while simultaneously choosing to act squarely against parental prohibitions? We are all contradictory creatures, but Jaz and Lisa’s fights too often push aside their particular contradictions and flaws, letting their upbringings carry all the weight. Jaz reflects, “Of course Lisa understood something of the ‘cultural differences’ (that glib dinner-party phrase) between her upbringing and his own, but she had no idea, not really, of the vast territories he had to straddle to keep both her and his family in his life.” What, exactly, of Jaz’s culture is important to him? Where is the love, the support, the simple feeling of belonging between Jaz and his people? The feelings and bonds that Lisa doesn’t understand? Kunzru doesn’t show us. Instead he uses “cultural differences” ironically, to keep us at arm’s length.

I find a similar alienating distance in Nell Freudenberger’s The Newlyweds (2012), in which Bangladeshi Amina, whose family is tradition-bound and financially precarious, marries a provincial American she met online. At first I had high hopes for Amina. I wanted her to build on this wry and astute realization: “She and George didn’t disagree very often, but when they did it was always because of ‘cultural differences’—a phrase so useful in forestalling arguments that she felt sorry for those couples who couldn’t employ it.” There is a deep-seated cultural conflict in Amina’s wish for her parents to immigrate and move in with them, which George emphatically opposes. But I was ultimately disappointed by the explanation of Amina and George’s acrimony. While one can make sense of Amina’s feeling of divided self along national and linguistic divisions—the sheltered yet secure and smart person she was back in Desh/Bangla and the less adept but older, more worldly person she is in Rochester/English—she and George remain strangers not because of their different countries of origin but due to power differentials and his inflexibility. Instead of signaling the first of many skeptical inquiries into the nonspecific phrase “cultural differences,” Amina’s provocations end early on. She has unwittingly summed up what’s so maddening about most intermarriage novels: the personal is equated with the cultural.

It’s not that the characters in these books are flat or stereotypical. It’s that the falling apart of these couples is blandly and reductively blamed on the other’s culture, rather than character flaws. Novels must do crisis better than this. They must be deftly intimate, persuasively revealing of particular people who exist in a world as real and complex as our own.

“Every couple is its own vaudeville act,”
says Kiki Belsey in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. Kiki, a black Floridian, lives with her white, British, academic husband, Howard, and their three biracial children in a wealthy (white) Boston suburb. Here, as elsewhere, Smith nimbly describes the distance between a couple’s interior life and their public presentation. And unlike many novelists portraying interracial relationships, Smith does not neglect comedy as a way of airing spousal grievances.

I especially loved the above line because my husband and I have friends who say that for the first year of knowing us, they were not convinced we truly liked each other. They took seriously our occasionally acerbic jokes. Perhaps these exchanges were not the best way to treat each other in public—and we’re softer now—but it was just one aspect of our relationship. We hadn’t spent enough time with these friends for them to see our loving, complex whole. This is how so many interracial marriage novels read to me: portrayed from too few angles, without sufficient intimacy. Now these friends know us better; they see more than one pattern carried out over time.

Smith shows us her people from all sides. As a result, the Belsey family is utterly compelling and convincing. They realistically share common judgments—a stiffly worded greeting card is “an ideal object of ridicule over a Belsey breakfast table”—while remaining explicit individuals. The discrete attitudes of the kids, especially, are pitch perfect, even when they’re insufferable. Zora, an ambitious young undergraduate, accuses her teenage brother, who wears hoodies and hangs out with politically minded Haitian immigrants, of thinking that “if you are a Negro you have some kind of mysterious holy communion with sidewalks and corners.” The oldest son, Jerome, is wispy, quiet, and Christian, a fierce contrast to his family’s outspokenness and secularism.

When the family is threatened by Howard’s affair, race plays a role, but a small one. Only once does Kiki point out that Howard’s mistress is white. And even this conversation turns quickly to another difference between the two women, that Kiki is more than one hundred pounds heavier. As they continue to sort out their mess, their fights target character flaws, rather than cultural differences. Kiki points out the multiple ways in which Howard is self-pitying, and Howard stews over her attacks on the arch, academic style of his speech: “She could always say—and often did—‘we’re not in your class now’ and that would always be true, but he would never, never concede the point that Kiki’s language was any more emotionally expressive than his own.”

Humor and irreverence are key to showing the influences of race and culture in this family, as is Smith’s refusal to derive behavior from ethnicity. In contrast, Marilyn and James Lee in Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You exhibit an extreme, rigid sensitivity to possible slurs. When the Lees’ oldest daughter dies mysteriously, not only does their conservative northern Ohio town blame the unnaturalness of the mixed marriage; the couple feels easily racially insulted by each other. Marilyn blames her husband for “kowtowing” to the police, which leads James to think that his wife of sixteen years sees him as some kind of silent, obsequious Chinese laborer: “Squinty and servile. Bowing and belittled. He has long suspected that everyone sees him this way… . But he had not thought that everyone included Marilyn.”

Novels rely on trouble, of course, and sensitivities run high in desperate times. But most couples formed by a modicum of love, respect, and a few years of trials know each other well enough not to fundamentally misunderstand each other the way Marilyn and James do. The English language is full of racial connotations. How is it possible the Lees have not confronted words like kowtow years before? When you talk with someone day after day, watch the news together, send your kids to school, you come across crassness and ignorance. Don’t you think about these things out loud with your partner? Don’t you make your own vernacular from your own unique reality? If my husband teasingly tells me not to “Jew” him out of the cash he wants to buy expensive cookies with at the farmers market, do I accuse him of anti-Semitism? If I say he smells like stale curry and needs to shower, does he think I’m insulting the cuisine of his people? Obviously not. Perhaps we push it farther than some, but most couples don’t treat each other with the politeness of strangers. And if one of us does slip or go too far, the other corrects, explains.

Zora Belsey’s irreverence, and the whole family’s skewering, witty barbs show that humor is one real way to identify and understand differences. Most couples want to make each other laugh, for the pleasure of it and also because poking fun is useful; it helps us become more aware of ourselves and our places in the world. Why should fictional mixed-race couples so rarely laugh at each other?

An odd romance like Lenny and Eunice’s in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, though simplistic in some ways, shows an interracial couple realistically tender, rough, and funny with each other. Eunice nicknames Lenny “Kokiri,” which means “elephant” in Korean, because of his long Jewish nose. She says sweetly, “I heart your nose so much. I wish I had a nose.” While Lenny is explicitly attracted to Eunice because she is “a small Korean … with her hair up in a provocative bun so that she resembled vaguely a very young Asian Audrey Hepburn,” the more sustaining reason for her appeal is her wounded past and need for protection from her rageful father. Eunice’s mother warns in an online chat, “Stay away from meeguk boy. They all have bad intent, even christian ones.” But Eunice, being from a different generation, has different concerns—that Lenny is too old, too weird, too dorky, too ugly. When her sister writes, “It’s easier to date a Korean guy. For the families and everything,” Eunice pushes back: “Yeah, maybe I’ll date Korean guy like Dad. That’s called ‘a pattern.’” Eunice identifies strongly as Korean and points to “a very Korean saying” or “this American white guy thing,” but these differences, and any conflicts they give rise to, don’t prevent her from embracing or skewering Lenny’s virtues and vices that have little to do with race or culture. Their overlapping experiences as children of immigrants with ailing parents gives them a shared, humorous perspective that invites subtle play with immigrant stereotypes.

Like a lot of people, my husband and I have turned to television and stand-up comedy for frank observations about relationships and race. Aziz Ansari blasts blinkered attitudes by encouraging his packed audiences: “Next time you have sex with someone of another race, think about that for a moment. Because nothing feels better than orgasming while thinking about all the progress we’ve made in civil rights in this country.” Crude, but that’s stand-up. Ansari clearly recognizes how useful comedy is for interrogating trends and hypocrisies, how we hit against both barriers and progress at the same time. How, most often, we make decisions as individuals, rather than as products of ancestral cultures.

A few years ago, we tried to move my husband’s parents into a retirement community in Florida created by Indians for Indians. It turned out that most residents were, like my in-laws, retired professionals originally from East Africa. Many even spoke Gujarati. The first evening we went to dinner in the communal dining area, where I was the only white person in the room. After observing us for a few minutes, one of the residents walked purposefully over to me, put her hand on my arm and introduced herself. She told me her son also had married “an American” who, by the sound of her name, was also apparently Jewish. Perfect, I thought, my in-laws have found their home. But it turned out that being among people like them was not enough for a comfortable life. My in-laws are avid bridge players, and they needed good competition more than a common native language. (They also wanted access to a mall. After forty years in Midwestern suburbs, there was a kind of shopping they couldn’t do without.)

The day before our wedding, my mother-in-law gave me a 22-carat gold necklace, a piece of family jewelry of some significance. Previously, in private, she had expressed to my mother her condolences that I was marrying her son instead of a Jewish man. “You must be disappointed,” she’d said, sympathetically.

It was my mother-in-law who was disappointed, that was clear. But does she remain so, seventeen years later? She certainly hasn’t said so, not to me, my mother, or her son. I do think she still sees me as an outsider—or an idiot with a terrible memory—as she still introduces and explains foods I’ve eaten in her house for years. But her treatment of me isn’t unique. She flounders to ask the right questions of everyone. She’s often at war with her own siblings. Our lack of closeness isn’t cultural—it’s personal. If I were Indian, I’d likely be more attuned to rituals and niceties that would please her, but she’s long ceased to suggest that her son’s life would be similarly improved by my being one of them. My mother-in-law’s obtuseness has become something that my husband and I comically appreciate, not something that drives us apart.

Because each family forms its own culture,
“interracial” is a tricky category. Race alone may not mean much, and “cultural difference” can be extreme even when race is the same. Back in 1973, and in some circles even now, my parents’ marriage was considered “mixed”: Jewish girl raised in suburban New York, very liberal, well-traveled; boy raised on a Depression-era subsistence farm in Colorado by fiercely Republican, Methodist parents. Because they’re both of European extraction, does that mean they have an easier go of it than my husband and I do? Not only in getting approval from parents but in surviving differences enough to stay married for forty-six years? The lack of God in my parents’ lives was a much greater offense to my fundamentalist grandmother than my mother’s Jewish heritage.

One of my intermarried friends says about her husband, “On paper, C. is whiter that I am. NYC prep schools and all those Harvard degrees.” Another girlfriend, whose parents are Indian and Filipina, married a white Englishman. When I ask about her parents’ bicultural marriage, and how she thinks it compares to hers, the first thing she says is how difficult it is to take a marriage “out of time.” Her mother has been a traditional wife—cooking, cleaning, raising kids—while her father devoted his time to building a profitable software company. How could there have been cultural conflict when she took care of his every need?

I learned from my parents to eat every last scrap out of the fridge before buying more food, while my husband overbuys and would rather throw away than scrape off mold. Does this reflect an ethnic distinction, or the difference between rural and suburban upbringings, or values developed some other way? Cultural differences in America are real, but they’re shaped by multiple categories—race, yes, but also class, education, geography, religion, gender, and historical context. The relationship between personality and culture is therefore complex. The novels that I’m criticizing gloss over this complexity by treating personality and culture as identical in critical moments. Ethnicity is not destiny, and we should refuse those fictional scenes that imply we are helpless to see the world in ways other than those mapped out by our ancestors.

As we near the next American census, working to exclude questions on citizenship status, the number of fictions, literary and on TV, that rely less and less on rigid cultural differences is hearteningly increasing. Dinaw Mengestu’s elegiac All Our Names (2014) gets deeply inside the unexpected love story between an African refugee and his white Midwestern social worker. The first time she sees him, two of her assumptions about Africans—that they are short and malnourished—are upended; she feels her “little Midwestern world tremble just a bit under the weight of them.” What burdens them, as a couple, is his being severed from his past and now dependent on her. In a recent story by Akhil Sharma, Indian immigrant Gopal reads women’s magazines to gain insight into how to treat his white American lover. In some way he succeeds in pleasing her, namely by asking personal questions. The story does not deny the discomfort surrounding mixed couples, who are treated in Gopal’s Indian circles “with the deference usually reserved for cripples.” And yet this relationship nosedives not due to insurmountable ethnic differences but because Gopal is, at first, too needy, too insistent on rescuing Mrs. Shaw from a perceived vulnerability. His own neediness is not fundamentally Indian (whatever that would mean), but derived from the shame he feels from being left by his wife and daughter. At the end of the story, Gopal shows more resilience, and one thinks he and Mrs. Shaw might have a chance the second time around.

For the sake of high-stakes narratives and sufficiently troubled characters, too many intermarriage novels create and rely on a grim, enduring opacity. These are novels published in an era in which many families enjoy more independence and mobility than ever, written by authors who certainly have nuanced experiences of difference in their own lives. And yet, in these books, no matter how surprising and well-rounded the characters are elsewhere, the outcome of scenes detailing racial and cultural differences is estrangement. These scenes say, We may tolerate, we may refute, we may try to change others, but we can never truly know. They say, When it comes to divergence shaped by race and culture, we are opaque to each other. We know this doesn’t reflect reality. Differences exist, of course, but they are not intractable. Couples create their own cultures when they meet and marry or move in together. When they love each other.

So we must look closer.

When my mother visited us in Abu Dhabi,
we took her to an art biennial in the emirate of Sharjah, then strolled through Bur Dubai (Old Dubai) along the creek and through the souk. The souk is not actually old, but it’s made to look so: one-story, mud-colored buildings with wooden supports, nothing metal or shiny. My husband was tired, grumpy, eager to get back to our mellow guesthouse and some alone time on his laptop (it was the NBA playoffs), and he was walking fast. It was hot, my mother and I dragged, which only encouraged the Southeast Asian vendors to thrust toward us even more emphatically their fistfuls of pashminas and Arabian trinkets made in China.

Over the years, living mostly in New England but also long stretches in New York, I admit I’ve grown used to spotting my husband in a crowd by a few physical traits: wide shoulders; slouchy walk; short, thick, coal-black hair; and dark coppery skin. On this day, a Friday when Muslim men were in the mosques, an Indian man of medium build in a white shirt was impossible to track. This was a shock—a panic. It was strange to have to direct myself: Look closer. I’ve been looking closely for most of my adult life. It’s how we fell in love. It’s why we make each other so joyful and furious—because we know each other so well. But perhaps I hadn’t been looking closely enough, hadn’t yet seen all I could. So I look hard at these men trying to make a paying guest out of me, men from Kerala and Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, who look, at first, as if they could be my husband, or his cousin or uncle. They’re faintly familiar, but they’re not family. My husband is ten yards ahead, waiting, wearing an expression I instantly recognize. A face unlike any other, full of love and impatience and meant just for me.

Jennifer Acker is founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Common. Her first novel, The Limits of the World, was published in 2019. Her short stories, translations, and essays have appeared in The Washington Post, Guernica, n+1, Ploughshares, Harper’s, and others. She teaches literature, creative writing, and editing at Amherst College.
Originally published:
April 1, 2019


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