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An Extended Love

January 4, 2012

Cultural and religious differences were not a prominent concern of mine when I married my husband six years ago. As a new bride brimming with love, floating on hope, and overflowing with pride, I thought that we only needed love and that everything else would take care of itself. But the truth is, no matter how much I wish love answered all questions and easily solved all problems, bridging cultural and religious gaps takes strength, courage, communication, effort, dedication, patience, understanding, and empathy.

As a partner in an interfaith and intercultural marriage, I have to continually ask myself if I can open myself up to living in a way that's different from how I am used to living and if I am non-judgmental enough to adapt to change. On the surface, I would like to believe it's easy to change, but adjusting to a communal culture has made me realize that I'm not as flexible in my way of thinking as I had once thought.

The adjustment comes in the form of extended visits. My husband's parents come to California from their native Nepal for long stretches of time. They typically stay with us in our apartment for six months or more. Showing hospitality remains a central priority in Nepali culture. In spite of social and economic means, Nepali families always stay together whether visiting family members or friends. For me, communal living falls to extremes; it is both an amazing blessing and a great personal and cultural challenge.

To navigate the complexities of our differences, we are always trying to find the balance between what works best for each of us.

One challenge relates to food during holidays. When I hosted a recent Hanukkah party with a variety of guests, I struggled between preparing latkes, a lox platter, and noodle kugel or making rice, vegetables, and dal (a bean soup). The truth is that either way would not have suited our family and guests. If I gave up the Jewish foods, I would not have honored my own tradition and I would not have passed on my culture to my young son, but if I neglected my in-laws' preferences, I would have forsaken their needs. Ultimately, I made the latkes, lox platter, and kugel at my husband's urging and my mother-in-law made the Nepali food. Similarly, on Thanksgiving, we did not make the typical American dishes due to taste preferences and we served mainly Nepali food. These seem like trivial episodes, but constantly negotiating how to fulfill everyone's preferences requires adaptability, understanding, and willingness to compromise.

Another adjustment with communal living pertains to comfort. I know not all parents can completely give up their own lives to devote themselves to their children and grandchildren and I appreciate my in-laws' dedication to us. Yet as much as I do not like to acknowledge the limits of my openness, I feel that communal living requires sacrifice. Since I am not accustomed to living communally, I find myself having to change the way that I behave in my house. Simple things that I typically take for granted are what I miss the most when my in-laws stay with us. It's harder for me to lie on the couch and watch an hour of television when the space is communal and everyone has a different idea of what to watch. I can't just walk around in certain comfortable clothing. I always have to be aware that other people are in my home and I have to continually monitor what I say and how I act.

Senses and interactions change when my in-laws are present. Nepali food typically includes many spices and our home takes on a strong aromatic scent due to daily food preparation. While I feel relatively neutral about the smell, it signifies a change. When I come home from work, a new spicy aroma permeates the apartment, which is a subtle difference that requires adjustment.

In addition to new aromas, sounds are different in our house. Code switching between English and Nepali is fairly typical and because I don't speak or understand Nepali well, I have to continually ask for translations.

Each person also adapts differently to an extended family. My toddler delights in spreading his time across more people, but as his mother I need to adapt my interaction with him so that he gets quality time with everyone. My husband tends to devote himself to his work and solitary projects as he feels that more help affords him more time. I find myself drifting between having more free time due to extra help and more confusion about how to fill the time I used to spend cooking, cleaning, and doing the laundry. While I've gradually come to immensely appreciate extra help, it has been a big adaptation for me to let go of the control I had over the daily shared responsibilities in our home.

While we often have to work at daily living adjustments, there are rewards, too. My in-laws are very curious about Judaism and Jewish culture. Along with my friends who practice different religions, they ask a lot of questions that I have to research and they have encouraged me to develop a new appreciation for being Jewish. My in-laws' embrace of who I am and where I come from greatly eases our cultural differences.

Living in a communal way has made me a much better person. I have had to stretch myself to think and change in ways that I wouldn't have had to if I did not marry outside my culture and faith. I have had to wrestle with my own weaknesses and insecurities. I have had to learn to break down my personal walls and build a deeper relationship with my in-laws. In the worst of times, I miss my space — but this seems relatively minor compared to the best of times when I know that our families are everything that is meaningful in life. Not every family looks or acts the same, but if we try really hard, we are no less of a family and there is no barrier we cannot overcome.

Getting to know and love my in-laws has been a gift. I feel blessed to not only have two supportive and caring parents, but to also have my husband's parents who continually show great concern, support, and love for our family's well being. My in-laws' presence makes our family feel more loved and it is a huge joy to watch my son become enveloped in the adoration of two generations.

I have often heard that when you get married, you marry not only that person but their family as well. In my case, I married my husband's family and I also married a way of life in a country that is foreign to me. I could fight against changing, but I made the choice to marry outside of what was comfortable to me. Part of that choice involves accepting the wonderful aspects of differences and learning how to make the most of the challenging issues. I have lost some of my independence, but I have also gained a unique belonging in a new culture and family.

Reflecting on myself six years ago, I realize how much I have matured from my marriage and benefited from having an incredible partner who helps me find my way in the tangle of cultures, religions, and traditions. Love has not solved all of our problems, but it has paved the way for us to find one another in the midst of busy lives, help one another through struggles, and push one another when times seem bleak. The love I had for my husband when we married has carried us through our differences and this love is so much stronger and deeper for each challenge we have had to face. I can open myself up to living in a way that's different from how I am used to living and I can be non-judgmental enough to adapt to change. I can because I am inspired and motivated by a deep love and faith that is present not only in our religious beliefs but in the foundation of strong and courageous marriages.

Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. Yiddish word for a potato pancake, traditionally eaten during Hanukkah. Yiddish word for a savory or sweet pudding made from either noodles, potatoes or matzah.
Heather Subba

Heather Subba lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two children. She works in the field of educational publishing.

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