Culturally Welcoming Visit Guidelines: Bringing your non-Asian partner home

As a couple’s therapist who primarily works with interracial couples, my couples are often Asian-mixed couple pairings, where one person has an Asian heritage and the other is not. Asian partner often asks how to introduce her/his non-Asian partner to her/his Asian parents. It is common to hear an Asian partner says, “My parents would not approve of him/her,” or “They would disown me.” These are heavy and culturally charged questions requiring more than one visit or blog. However, I attempt to help Asian-mixed couples’ first visit culturally responsive where Asian-mixed couples and Asian parents feel welcomed. 

It is common to hear from interracial couples that their challenges are from cultural differences and language barriers. Research also supports these challenges. I want to share culturally respectful visiting guidelines for dating Asian-mixed couples from cultural and linguistic perspectives. Asian group is not a monolithic group; thus, this writing is geared toward Asian ethnic groups generally influenced by Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism.  

Cultural Sensitivity

One of the most essential aspects of collectivistic Asian culture centers around hierarchy. As I previously discussed, order exists both horizontally and vertically. Marring into a non-Asian family violates horizontal relationships with ancestors and vertical relationships with family groups, especially parent-child relationships. Thus, be mindful of the family’s protection showing up as a defense when first meeting with your Asian parents. To soften up their defenses, do the following:

  • The spiritual practice of gift-giving: Gift-giving is one way to express your acknowledgment and appreciation of your partner’s sacred space. Gift-giving is more than choosing something that fits the family. In group culture, having another member in the group could be a threat. Thus, bringing a small heart-felt gift shows that you surrender and bring peace to the group. Be wise to choose your gift.
  • Past-Orientation: Unlike present-oriented Western culture, Asian culture orients around the past. This is why history is essential, and you will hear Asian parents ask you about your parents and grandparents. For instance, your family lineage shows in your last name and by the order of your first name. By saying your full name, you are halfway “evaluated.” My last name, Kim, originates from one of the kings in the Choseon dynasty (vertical hierarchy). In fact, one of the Korean presidents comes from the same Kim family lineage. Therefore, older Korean would expect me from a higher standard of manners and personhood. My name, Chun-Shin implies no family order (horizontal hierarchy) because I am a girl. My oldest brother’s first name, Jin, implies his horizontal order among my cousins. Therefore, expect to hear many questions about your family and your past. However, in my experience working with many Asian immigrants, the time orientation seemed to focus more on the future. The burden of present immigrants shifts Asian parents’ attention to a better future. Therefore, you could emphasize more about your plan when meeting with your Asian partner’s parents.  
  • Food Centered: One of the most expressed issues among married Asian-mixed couples is food. You would agree that gathering around food is significant because you are with your family. However, food serves a larger and more complex function in a collectivistic culture. One function I want to highlight here is its structure, implying hierarchy maintenance. If there are more than your Asian partner’s parents, identify the senior when there are many older figures. Wait until the senior initiates. For instance, please wait until the senior picks up their spoon and eats. Drinking manner is also significant. You wait until the senior offers and then move your head and body slightly away from the senior to show respect. Don’t let the senior’s glass empty; you offer to refill his/her glass. When cheering, your glass needs to be lower than the senior. Again, it’s a sign of hierarchy and a display of your respect.
  • Identify family advocate: Before your visit, knowing the unique family culture is a good idea. Identify a possible advocate for you and your Asian partner and have that advocate mediate when tension rises.
  • Familiarize yourself with indirect communication: Direct communication is a sign of a healthy relationship in an individualistic culture. However, indirect communication is often used to maintain harmony and seek group cohesion. It’s like the concept of “read between the lines.” In Korea, it’s called Nun Chi (눈치). This will take some time to develop; thus, practice with your Asian partner how to behave with Nunchi.

Language Barrier

One major struggle identified by Asian-mixed married and dating couples is the language barrier. When bringing your non-Asian partner, remember that communication problems happen even with people speaking the same language. Also, non-verbal language plays an important role way more than verbal language. Thus, try to focus on helping Asian partners to know more about non-verbal language. Further, do the following:

  • Know addressing terms in advance: Here, in the US, people often ask me how I should be addressed. When you meet your Asian parents, you must know how to address them first. There are much more complicated levels of terms among family members. These terms show their vertical and hierarchical ranks and gender within the family. Learn the best fitting term to address your future in-laws. In Korean, you can address your partner’s father as Abunym. Your partner’s father would correct you if he does not like to be called Abunym, which implies your intention to marry his daughter. If he corrects you, he could imply that he does not approve of you yet.  
  • Know the basic native language: When I lived in Japan, I admired the Japanese’s pride, which showed up in their attitude toward foreign visitors. They expect visitors to know Japanese, whereas English is often treated as a standard universal language. As a sign of your dedication to knowing more about Asian family’s culture, learn the basic native language for the first meeting, such as thank you, you’re welcome, and it’s delicious.
  • Avoid direct eye contact: Look slightly down and make your eye contact briefly. Making direct eye contact long time with authority figures considers being rude. I hope you already know about this well-known cultural fact.
  • Use stories and images: Asian language are poetic, especially Chinese characters. Korea and Japan use Chinese characters as a part of their national language. English is a string or sentence-based language. In other words, English is a uni-directional sentence string (e.g., subject + verb) based on linear analytic logic. However, the Chinese character is pictographic. It is multidimensional and multisensory impressions and ideas. Chinese characters are symbols and universal graphic images of humans and the environment. In other words, there is a story and meaning behind each letter. Thus, storytelling is a familiar way of connecting with others. Therefore, using a simple English language, share your love with your Asian partner using a story or image. 

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