Sun, 05 Nov 2000

Opposites attract in mixed marriages

The world is shrinking, and Cupid's arrow is crossing geographic borders to bring people together. Problems occur when cross-cultural marriages become battlefields mined with societal condemnation, prejudice and misunderstandings. The Jakarta Post's Rita A. Widiadana and Bruce Emond examine if love really does conquer all.

JAKARTA (JP): A visit to a shopping mall always has the potential to become ugly for "Bill" and his wife, "Sita".

There are the stares, the double-takes and, frequently, the hurtful comments, spoken in a stage whisper so the American and his younger Indonesian wife will be sure to hear.

"It gets very tiresome when you go out with your wife and she is continually badly spoken about, called a loose woman and a prostitute," Bill said. "Most of the time people just give disapproving looks, but some of the younger ones want to show off to their friends by saying things outloud."

Yet how they choose to react to the name calling shows their different cultural backgrounds: Bill sometimes confronts the people. His wife avoids confrontation at all costs.

Cross-cultural marriages are in the public eye after several celebrities, most of them women, tied the knot with foreigners. They include singer Atiek CB, actress Ayu Azhari and, more recently, comedian Ulfa and TV sports show presenter Tamara Geraldine, who married a Vietnamese businessman.

Such marriages were frowned upon during Indonesia's colonial past; although Dutchmen occasionally took Indonesian women as wives, it was virtually unknown for Indonesian men to marry Dutchwomen until there were greater opportunities for study in the Netherlands in the 1900s.

Interracial and cross-cultural unions continued to raise eyebrows in the years after the country's independence in 1945, particularly for Indonesian women marrying outside close-knit communities.

Suspicions persist among the public that motives other than love are involved in some of the unions, such as seeking better economic security or even to have good-looking children.

Irma Schwartze, who has been married to a German for more than 30 years, remembers being heckled on the street. "Or people would ask me, why did you marry a foreigner, couldn't you find someone from here?'"

Prejudice is found among both locals and expatriates, said Ries Woodhouse, who is married to former Unicef Indonesia and Malaysia representative Stephen Woodhouse.

"The negative image that still exists within the foreign community in Indonesia is that these women are men snatchers ... some close-minded foreign men view Indonesian women as subservient, submissive creatures," Ries said.

"From the Indonesian community, the image is that they live in the lap of luxury and they are more or less foreigners themselves."


Ries said the only way to overcome the prejudice was "by getting on with one's life".

A marriage and family consultant at women's magazine Femina, Monty P. Satiadarma, said the generalizations and stereotyping about cross-cultural couples were an inevitable part of the territory for them in deciding to marry.

"It is their choice in life and therefore they must fairly take into account all the societal risks."

The 41-year-old lecturer from the University of Indonesia and dean of Tarumanagara University's School of Psychology knows from experience -- he married Osaka-born Shinobu Fukui four years ago.

He said it was a cliche but true that people needed to be emotionally mature to get married. Love, understanding and tolerance are significant factors in making relationships last.

"Every couple has its own problems, but in cross-cultural marriages the problems will be much more complicated. You'll need a deeper emotional range to cope with them."

Minor cultural clashes over matters like eating habits and personal hygiene, to more serious issues of child-rearing, can change married bliss into hell, Monty said. The problems are compounded because the two people involved are from different cultural and social backgrounds which have shaped their values, habits, hopes, expectations and perceptions of life and marriage.

Monty said his Japanese wife would become irate if garbage was left to pile up in the house, or even if a slice of onion accidentally fell on the floor.

He said it was due to the Japanese emphasis on kirey, the rigidly defined concepts of cleanliness and hygiene.

"My wife was used to living in a clean and hygienic environment, while an Indonesian like me doesn't really bother about this."

Problems inevitably crop up in a marriage, Monty said, but they can be overcome if there was a strong foundation of mature personalities and mutual love. Otherwise, the marriage would likely end up on the rocks.


The decision to marry across cultures, particularly to someone of another race and religion, may also stir opposition from family members.

Robby Rahardjo, 38, an architect married to a Canadian interior designer, said marriage was a complex proposition. "When you get married, you not only marry the girl or the man you love, but also the entire family."

From a Javanese ningrat (noble) family, Robby's mother wanted her eldest son to marry a Javanese blueblood; instead, he wed the blue-eyed and charming Carolyn.

"At first, my parents, especially my mother, strongly opposed my marriage plan, but I convinced them that Carolyn was the girl I wanted to share the rest of my life with."

Carolyn, he said, was a fast-learner and adjusted well to Indonesia and its people.

"Now, my family is very supportive."

Family matters have created difficulties in the cross-cultural marriage of Anita.

"I was the only girl of seven children. I was treated like a princess."

However, her close-knit family and their continued presence in the marriage are upsetting to her English husband Michael.

"My parents and elder brothers keep an eye on me and still want to be involved in any decision we make. Michael is often annoyed with their 'intervention' in our marital life," Anita said.

Even though a cross-cultural marriage may bring its own unique set of problems, including uncertainty about legal and immigration status, couples who stick together say they gain valuable experience and a better understanding of human relationships.

Atty Meigh said it never crossed her mind that she would marry a foreigner.

She met and married David, from northern England, in 1982, and said she was pleased she made the decision.

"What I've found from my husband is partnership, respect and freedom. I don't think I could get them all together with an Indonesian man."

Monty agreed that as the world becomes smaller, it was time for people to get to know each other better across cultures and celebrate their differences.

"Cross-cultural marriage could become the fertile ground to enhance greater understanding among people of different backgrounds and to honor people as distinct individuals," Monty said.