Passing on our family cultures in interracial marriages is a challenge. There are words that I use to try to sum up the differences between my and my husband’s families growing up. They are categorical identities such as Jewish and Christian, Chinese and Caucasian, immigrant and American. They are quick reference words that might explain a bit about the nature of our differences to a passerby. They provide some context, yes, but past small talk, the words are deeply unsatisfying to me.
As simple as this sounds, sometimes I think that what captures our cultural differences most accurately is our noses. No, not the shape of our noses, though perhaps that’s worth writing about in a different column someday. I’m talking about smells, fragrances, aromas, and the associated feelings.
Have you walked into a Chinese market lately? What does your face do the moment the smells hit your nostrils? In that moment, I think that the crinkled nose on my husband’s face might be the greatest signal of our difference. He is kind in his reaction. He tries to mask the shock, but I can tell he’s breathing through his mouth and hoping that our visit will be mercifully brief. That crinkle-nose, that I’ve seen on most non-Asian faces, makes me feel like I’m odd and foreign and out of place in our marriage. It makes me wonder whether he can really understand my family culture.He tries to mask the shock, but I can tell he’s breathing through his mouth. Read more. Click To Tweet
My husband has visited many Chinese markets in his adult life. He lived for a year in China. So while the smells have become familiar to him, they are not the smells of his childhood memories. When I walk into a Chinese market, I am 8 years old again, running up and down the aisles with my younger sister and brother. We’re prodding packages of dried salty squid and plums, looking for the super sour lemon candy with Japanese writing on the package, and candy with the picture of a white rabbit and the paper wrapper that melts in your mouth. We’re imitating the faces of dead pigs behind butcher glass, tapping on the tanks of lobsters and crabs, and loading frozen fish balls into our cart.
When I enter a Chinese market, I’m immediately transported back to being on a road trip with my family, in a Chinatown in a major city somewhere within a day’s drive of Detroit. I can remember that excitement to eat way too many rice crackers, peel open a mah tsang (sticky rice wrapped in leaves), and crack open a can of guava juice once we’re back in the car again. I do smell what my husband is smelling… it’s a mixture of stale ocean water and fermented food, and dried salted meat and herbs. I recognize them as pungent, and I can perceive their undesirable quality. But those market smells make me feel good, and despite the challenges and conflicts that have come with being in my family, I am always wrapped in warmth and good feelings when I smell them.
[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]But those market smells make me feel good, and despite the challenges and conflicts that have come with being in my family, I am always wrapped in warmth and good feelings when I smell them.[/perfectpullquote]
My husband gets those feelings for his family when he smells chocolate desserts. When we were in high school, I shared a music stand with his girlfriend, and she’d show up with a large, perfectly baked, no-hard-edges brownie, Saran-wrapped and large enough to share. Uh, your brownies are amazing, I told him when I saw him later in the day, you made them yourself? It was a secret family recipe, he’d said.
Sometime during the summer between sophomore and junior year, I went over to his house to “make the family brownies” and watch a movie. When I arrived, the batter had been mixed in the bowl already. You know, because the recipe is a secret, he said. It was nearly a decade later, when we were engaged to be married, that he revealed to me that his “family recipe” was expertly following the directions on the back of a Duncan Hines brownie mix.
The smell makes him think of after-school brownies and cookies, going with his grandma to Sanders for sundaes, birthday gatherings at Bill Knapp’s, and ordering the log cake from Baskin Robbins. Despite all the challenges and conflicts that come with being in his family, when there are brownies in the oven, my husband is wrapped in warmth and good feelings for his family.There’s a fear that our kids will miss out, that some tradition will be lost, that our culture will die. Click To Tweet
Sometimes, I feel the pressure to create these smells for my kids’ childhood experiences. I’m tempted to drag them into a Chinese market, to recreate the excitement that it gave me as a kid. Or I tell myself I need to bake more chocolate cake, to make the smells that were important to my husband important to them. I think that this pressure comes in the form of fear for many parents. There’s a fear that our kids will miss out, that some tradition will be lost, that our culture will die, or get watered down if we don’t pass it on. Maybe it seems like I’m not talking about smells anymore.
Are you familiar with these scenarios? A Jewish mother fears that her son will give up Jewish holidays and celebrate Christmas, or worse, Easter? An immigrant parent fears his child will not know the language of his parents. A religious parent fears her child will not believe in God. If you’re a person who’s chosen someone from another faith, culture, race, ethnicity, language with whom to create a family, you, like me, have probably prioritized something else above recreating the culture of your own family growing up.
[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]If you’re a person who’s chosen someone from another faith, culture, race, ethnicity, language with whom to create a family, you, like me, have probably prioritized something else above recreating the culture of your own family growing up. [/perfectpullquote]
But knowing that my family will not look like either my or my husband’s family growing up doesn’t always relieve the pressure to pass on our culture to our kids. In fact, sometimes I feel like the pressure is greater, to make our kids really know and understand their cultures. But that’s not how this works. For all of our intentional ‘passing on’ of culture, I don’t think we have much or any control over what ends up being meaningful to our children.
If they crinkle their noses in Asian markets or decide they don’t like chocolate, we will not have failed. If they don’t make dumplings on the Lunar New Year, or light candles each night of Chanukah, we will not have failed. If they adopt an unfamiliar religious practice, or even if they don’t identify as Chinese or Jewish, we will not have failed.Our cultural memories do not have to be their cultural memories. Click To Tweet
Our cultural memories do not have to be their cultural memories. I suspect that enjoying a rich family culture comes not from following a prescribed list of cultural practices, but from being grown-ups who have genuine love for the things we like to do. It comes from being parents who are passionate about creating current moments of meaning, rather than living in fear of losing past moments that meant something to someone else.
[perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]It comes from being parents who are passionate about creating current moments of meaning, rather than living in fear of losing past moments that meant something to someone else.[/perfectpullquote]
Someday, when my kids are grown, they will smell something, and despite all the challenges and conflict that come from being in our family, they will be filled with warm feelings and brought back to some sweet childhood memory. And if I could set a goal for what being successful in parenting looks like to me, it would be that in that moment when that smell hits their noses, one child will call (or text, or send a drone to) the other, just to say hello. But whose nose will they have? No one nose.