I get a lot of messages from people regarding the “language barrier” in my marriage. Some people are simply curious; others are also dating or married to someone with a different native language and are wondering how Ryosuke and I were able to “work through our problems.”
Believe me, Ryosuke and I have plenty of problems… but they don’t come from a language barrier. They come from the fact that we are different people – something that every couple has to deal with (regardless of whether they were raised in different countries or in the same small-town neighborhood).
Language comes up, of course, but not nearly as often as you might think.
I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while, ever since I wrote this guest post on my friend Jocelyn’s blog (Speaking of China) about the benefits of being married to a non-native English speaker and publishing the author, Tracy’s, guest post about the 10 surprises about marrying someone who speaks a different language.
I think I just wanted to get this post out on the internet, it hopes that it can help someone else (or at least provide a bit of insight into the fun, interesting, and sometimes awkward aspects of marrying someone with a different native tongue).
1. I get the chance to learn a new language
And I’m going to be honest here, if it wasn’t for Ryosuke, I would have quit learning Japanese a long time ago.
The burning desire to be able to communicate with his family better is the only thing keeping me going through the hundreds of hours of self-study. I’m bad at learning languages; I always have been (something I talked about quite a bit in this post). Some people are good at art, math, business – some are good at learning languages.
2. Misunderstandings and miscommunication is normal
Do you know what takes pressure off the relationship? Knowing that the default mode for everything is different. When we disagree about something, that’s not a sign that we’re incompatible as a couple, it is the sign of two people who were raised in radically different environments.
This takes a lot of the pressure off of the relationship.
3. We’re much more honest with each other and take things at face value.
If I ask my husband “does this dress make me look fat?” I expect an honest answer. He doesn’t know that certain English phrases have hidden meanings (or, in this case, socially acceptable answers). So he gives me an honest answer… regardless of whether that’s what I want to hear or not.
A good example of this was several years ago, when we first started dating. Around our one month anniversary, Ryosuke sent me a text that said “Don’t plan anything tonight, I want to talk to you about something.”
Needless to say, I freaked out. Hard.
I ran back to the dorm after my last class finished and asked him what was wrong. I thought he wanted to break up with me. Or we were about to have a huge fight.
He was confused. When he sent that message, he meant “I don’t want to hang out with any friends tonight, I just want to chat with you about anything – like that movie we saw last week or where we should go for Spring Break.”
Whereas I took it as “Don’t plan anything tonight because I have something serious that I need to talk to you about… and we’re probably going to fight. Or break up.”
Ryosuke occasionally says loaded statements or asks loaded questions in English. I probably do the same in Japanese. We’ve learned to take what the other person says at face value.
If he asks “Are you ok?”
And I answer “I’m fine,” then it means I really am fine. I’m not mad. If I was mad, I would tell him I was mad. It’s not fair expecting him to be able to read into what I’m saying. He doesn’t have the same upbringing or cultural expectations. Weirdly enough, this makes life quite a bit easier.
4. Arguing is much easier – neither of us is trying to “out-talk” the other person (or trick them into saying the wrong thing).
I don’t like arguing. Or at least the arguing I usually see. I think it’s stupid.
I think it’s important to have a respectful conversation with someone if their behavior is somehow bothering you. I think that you should chat with your significant other if specific needs aren’t being met in your relationship – or if the gap between expectations and reality is causing your problems.
But when both sides are trying to “win” the argument, everyone loses.
When Ryosuke and I argue, we are careful to stay away from name calling, dragging up past mistakes, taking cheap shots, or trying to trick them into saying the wrong thing.
When we argue in English, I have an unfair advantage. And when we argue in Japanese (much more rare, but it happens), he has an unfair advantage.
So when we fight, we make sure to fight fair.
5. Ryosuke doesn’t make fun of the fact that I don’t know very many big words
And thank you dear reader for not making fun of that either.
6. We have a connection that goes beyond words.
We have fun together. We have a lot of fun together.
It’s not about the words. Neither of us fell in love with a tale the other was spinning. We fell in love with each other’s personalities.
You need more than pretty words to build a relationship. And without those pretty words, we made sure build our relationship with a strong foundation of humor, adventure, mutual respect, and love.
1. One of us will always be dependent on the other
I did all the planning for our wedding in Texas (with plenty of help from my mother, aunt, and grandmother). I also planned the majority of our honeymoon (again, in America). And when we lived in America, I was in charge of planning our vacations, booking hotels, organizing transportation, and doing all the other “technical” stuff.
Now that we live in Japan, Ryosuke is the one who compares flights, finds hotels, and plans our vacations. We moved back in March and he was stuck doing the vast majority of the technical stuff – finding a new place to live, getting all our documents in order, figuring out moving companies, etc (all the while, dealing with his last couple weeks at his old job). It was really overwhelming for him. I tried to help out when I could, but over-all, I felt pretty useless.
I can able to open a bank account by myself in Japan but I still needed Ryosuke to accompany me to the tax office during tax season. He can go to the doctors office by himself in America, but still needs me to take care of any English-speaking phone calls.
That’s going to be the rest of our life.
When one of us is in our element, the other one will feel like a fish out of water.
2. I’m always going to feel more comfortable talking in English; he will always feel more comfortable talking in Japanese
When we’re alone, I talk to him in English. He responds in Japanese. It works for us… most of the time.
No matter how much we study the other person’s language, the fact of the matter is that both of us spent the first 20 years of our life only knowing one language. Japanese is never going to come as easily for me and English is never going to come as easily for him.
We can try to shorten the gap… but that’s all it is. Shortening the gap.
3. Which makes finding “couple friends” hard
In a perfect world, everyone would be able to speak every language. Actually, that would be really awesome. Think about it.
Sadly, we don’t live in a perfect world.
Instead we live in a world that makes it really difficult to find good “couple friends” because of language problems. Most of the “couple friends” I find speak English fluently… but can’t hold a conversation in Japanese. Or have one partner who is foreign (like me) and one partner who is Japanese (like Ryosuke).
Most of the “couple friends” Ryosuke find don’t speak English. At all.
Of course, I prefer hanging out with native English speakers. They get my humor. I’m in my element. It’s easy.
Of course, Ryosuke prefers hanging out with native Japanese speakers. He can keep up with the conversation – even lead it (if he wants). Everyone always thinks he’s hilarious, clever, and cool.
See the problem?
These days, we have a nice assortment of “couple friends” with various language abilities. You know, to keep things fair.
4. Not to mention talking to family members about difficult subjects
Back in late February, Ryosuke quit his job. It was a good company but a bad fit.
Breaking the news to his parents was… hard (my parents didn’t particularly care, because the American mind-set isn’t set towards lifetime employment).
I sat by Ryosuke holding his hand while he explained our decision to his parents. One of the first things his father did was turn to me and ask “And how do you feel about this decision?”
It’s hard to convey my (true) feelings in Japanese. I knew how to say that Ryosuke’s happiness matters more than money, how we had plenty of money saved up, and that I honestly believe he should quit and look for a more fulfilling job. But it was hard to convey how I supported Ryosuke’s decision 100% (and wasn’t just saying that to make him happy). And I knew I couldn’t say that I thought times are changing and the Japanese lifetime employment system is stupid (especially to a family full of people who thrived in the lifetime employment system).
When it comes to tense situations, I don’t know what to say. I don’t want to say the wrong thing. I don’t want to accidentally say a loaded sentence and inadvertently offend everyone at the table.
So I stay silent and trust my husband to speak for me.
And when it comes to tense situations in English, he trusts me to convey his feelings to my family.
He knows me; I know him. It’s frustrating having to trust someone to speak for you – but he’s never let me down (so far).
1. Our personalities often change depending on what language we’re speaking
Sarcasm does not exist in Japanese. Which sucks because literally every fourth thing I say in English is sarcastic.
Ryosuke thinks it’s hilarious (and a little disturbing) how much more polite I am in Japanese. And I don’t understand half the jokes he tries to make in English.
There are several articles online about this change of personality. This is one of my favorites.
2. I sometimes switch into speaking Japanese without realizing it, especially when I’m talking to a close friend or family
I can’t help it if English doesn’t have a word to describe exactly how I’m feeling. I’m so used to switching between English and Japanese when I talk. Most of my non-Japanese friends here in Tokyo speak Japanese at the same level as me (if not higher). We all do it.
I was chatting with my parents a while back and was describing the weekend Ryosuke and I spent babysitting his brother’s kids. “They’re cute and I love them to death, but they’re so freaking genki and I just can’t handle it.”
“Grace, you keep using that word. We don’t know what it means.”
Recently a friend came to visit me in Tokyo. We were stuck on a crowded train and our stop was coming up. The announcement (in Japanese) said the doors on the left side were opening. Luckily we were standing near the left side.
When the train started slowing down, my friend started panicking. “What side do the doors open up? How do we get to the other side?”
I just gave her the look. “Left side. It just said that like 10 seconds ago. Weren’t you listening?”
It wasn’t until we were off the train that I realized the announcement had been in Japanese. She didn’t speak a word of it – and had absolutely no way of knowing what was being said. I apologized. She laughed it off.
3. Always fielding the “so what language do you speak to each other?” and “what about the (future) children?” questions
There are lots of questions. I don’t have the answers to them.
4. People stare at my like I grew three heads when I talk in Japanese, especially out in the rural countryside (only applies if you live in a country where you are the ethnic minority)
Because apparently white people can’t speak Japanese. Or something like that.
I can’t count the number of times someone has talked about me (in front of me) in Japanese, assuming I didn’t know what was going on. Or a cashier trying to tell me how much money is due in very broken English (two… uh… thousand… and… six hundreds… and, uh, … twenty seven yens) instead of the much quicker Japanese (二千六百二十七円).
It’s understandable (Japan has a large number of annual tourists who don’t speak a word of Japanese), albeit annoying.
In any case, those are my thoughts on the matter. Does anyone else have anything interesting to add?