Lessons in intercultural living

About a month and a half ago, my husband and I moved into a house with my Korean mother-in-law. This is not so unusual for us; we lived with my in-laws twice before (once to save money for graduate school, once during family health problems). Yet, this time is different: my European American father-in-law is sadly no longer with us, and unlike previous times, we are not cohabitating as part of some other project. Instead, we are entering a new chapter. My mother-in-law is getting older, and since my husband is not just the only son, but the only child, we feel an obligation to take care of her.

As you’d expect, this fits awkwardly with my mainstream American values. I have to find a modus operandi with someone whose culture tells her that she deserves obedience when I am from a culture where adult relationships with parents don’t work this way. I have to resolve issues with someone who needs to save face when I am from a culture where it is better to say what you need to say. I have to carve out personal space with someone who views me as part of her collective unit. And I have to juggle her belief that there is a right way to do things with my need to march to the beat of my own drummer.

Yet, if it brings cultural challenges, it also brings an opportunity to “do” intercultural relations on a daily basis. So, what am I learning?

  1. Crossing cultures is fun in theory, but complicated in practice. A good attitude goes a long way, as does cultural knowledge. Still, it is not as easy as saying anyonghaseyo and leaving my shoes at the door.
  2. Context matters: It’s one thing to travel to another culture with the expectation that you will return home to your own afterward. It’s quite another to live in my culture and her culture simultaneously, every day.
  3. It’s not just national culture. The most obvious difference is that I’m American and she’s Korean, but it goes way beyond this. I was raised Protestant and she was raised Catholic. I grew up in the middle class, but she grew up in the deprivation of the Korean War. Whereas I was born here, she is an immigrant. My family and friends are mostly in white collar work, while her circles are in blue collar, service, and military work. And whereas I was born in the 1980s, to Baby Boomer parents, much of her cultural knowledge about America comes from the Silent Generation. This means we have very few frames of reference or cultural touchstones to fall back on.
  4. It’s also personality. I’m an introverted writer and thinker who can play the extrovert game but is happiest by myself. She’s an extrovert and a girl’s girl who loves to be in a big circle of people talking, laughing, and line dancing. My peace feels like isolation and stagnation to her; her activity feels like a swarm of bees to me. This means that even outside of culture, we want and need different things.
  5. And language. I can recognize the letters in Hangul and speak just enough Korean to impress shopkeepers. Her English is much better, but strongest at a surface and transactional level. This means that conversations wear us out – and particularly when my husband is at the table, we all default to our levels of fluency.
  6. It’s okay to be uncomfortable. Some days have so many awkward moments that it’s a shame we can’t bottle and sell them. And that’s okay. It’s hard to be in our own skin when we are reading from completely different scripts and interpreting them in different languages. Rather than seeing this as proof that all is doomed, I see it as a sign that we are committed to trying, despite the sometimes intimidating obstacles.
  7. It’s okay to retreat. There are moments when I don’t want to try her homemade onion juice or hear that our plant is dying because it is has too much air. When I sense that I am becoming a Marx brother with steam coming out of my ears, I have to give myself permission to egress instead of forcing engagement.
  8. It’s important to build the account. Every deposit in the bank account of goodwill adds up, whether it is me offering to help her decipher her mail or her inviting me on a walk. These random acts of kindness are like little threads that help us weave a relationship through and despite our differences. They also provide a cushion when one of us makes an (inevitable) unauthorized withdrawal.
  9. Crossing cultures is as much about me as it is about the other party. Intercultural relations is concerned with what happens at the intersections where different cultures come together. So, while I may be attuned to things I find perplexing in her culture, it’s important to remember that I have a culture, too. I can’t control everything, but I can be responsible for my half of the exchange.
  10. Crossing cultures is worthwhile. Some days I feel like a poster girl for cultural competence, other days less so. It’s fascinating and fatiguing because it turns what I know on its head and requires constant metacognition, empathy, mindfulness, and emotional intelligence. Still, I never doubt that it is rewarding. From eating homemade kimchijeon to repeatedly relearning that my perspective is not universal, my life is immeasurably enriched by this experience.


Intercultural relations aren’t always easy, especially in the close quarters of family life. The key is learning how to ride the waves of culture* and remembering that if we fall off the board, we can always get back on.

Are you curious about what it’s like to live in a multicultural family? Or are you struggling with some aspect of this in your own life and would like to chat? Feel free to say hello!

*Note: Riding the Waves of Culture is the title of one of the preeminent books on intercultural relations.




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