Couples bridging cultures

Couples bridging cultures

by Tetsuo Nakahara
Stripes Okinawa

Editor’s note: As every couple knows, nothing says “I love you” quite like committing to go the extra mile to make things work with that special someone. While every marriage presents ample opportunity to express such undying devotion, international marriages – often spanning language barriers and merging cultural differences – can offer more. Since the U.S. military community is no stranger to such marriages, we invited international couples across the Pacific to share their experience – and send out a special Valentine’s Day message.

How and where did you meet your spouse?

Waylon Reed: We met at Lake Issyk-Kul (in Kyrgyzstan). ... I was working in Afghanistan at the time and was going back to the U.S. for Rest and Relaxation. When I left Afghanistan, my next stop was Manas Air Force Base in Kyrgyzstan. There were no scheduled flights leaving Manas for a couple of days, so a friend and I decided to take a trip into Bishkek, a nearby city and the capital of Kyrgyzstan (I’m sure we were not supposed to leave). With a few twists and turns, our adventures landed us at Lake Issyk-Kul which is about a 3 hours taxi ride from Bishkek. This chilly lake with beautiful snow capped mountains in the background is where Guzialia and her two friends were spending their vacations.

One friend was Guzialia’s roommate and one friend, who worked in the same company, was visiting her from the England office. Because her friend was from England and did not speak Russian, they were speaking English. They were probably the only people at the resort speaking a different language. So, when my friend and I tried to check into the resort, nobody could understand us.  The security guard, who earlier heard these ladies speaking a different language, motioned for us to have a seat and he would be right back. He went out to the court yard where Guzialia and her friends were setting and told them, “I have two guys out there speaking perfect French, I heard you three speaking French, can you can come help us?”

Happy Valentine's Day. Thanks for being a great wife and mother.
We love you.

- Quintin

Guzialia told him, “We are not speaking French we’re speaking English, but we will try and help anyway.” So when her and her friends arrived at the check-in counter they were surprised (amused) to see two American guys talking to each other in English.  I was relieved to see somebody else who spoke English, but most of all I was delighted to see how beautiful one of the translators was.  About three years later, we were married.

Cmdr. Randy Vavra: Gina was the in-court translator during a court martial being held at Naval Air Station Sigonella, Sicily. I was assigned as the Trial Counsel (prosecutor) for the case. She says I looked dazzling in my whites (Ok, she doesn’t really say that, but I’m telling the story, not her!)

Tech Sgt. Robert A. Goodman: I meet UnSon at a dance club, however, she said she noticed me for a while. We meet before but I didn’t recognize because she drastically changed her hair.

Senior Airman Edward Chase Rand: Through friends and at a restaurant.

Tech Sgt. Quintin Robinson: I met my wife at Misawa (Air Base), she was the Enlisted Club catering manager at the time. 

MSgt (Ret) Ray Savoy: I met my wife through a mutual friend (blind date) while I was stationed at Misawa, AB.            

What is the best part about an international marriage? 

Waylon: Sharing and learning about different cultures, particularly traveling to the other culture(’s home country), along with learning about their traditional food.
Guzialia: The best part of international marriage is the knowledge you obtain through the culture of your spouse – traditions, holidays, food (my favorite part). And now being a mom, I think it is very cool that my kids are going to be bilingual. I also hope they will be more open-minded then we are.  

Vavra: The yummy, yummy Italian cooking!

Goodman: Able to understand and experience a different culture.

Rand: The best about having an international marriage is learning their customs and traditions.

Robinson: My kids will learn both cultures and languages.

Savoy: The best part of being in an international marriage is learning another culture and still being able to love one another regardless of different perspectives.

Thank you, for being such a great friend and husband all this time.
I really enjoyed every day of our life together and I'm sure that there is going to be many more happy years.
- Guzialia

I love you and I cannot wait to see what the future has in store for us and our family.
Thank you for being a wonderful wife, mom and person.
- Waylon

What are the challenges in an international marriage?

Waylon: Communication, especially in the beginning. My wife is a native Russian speaker and sometimes words are not translated exactly how you want them to be. 

Guzialia: The best parts could be the worst part as well. I guess it all depends on how ready you are to accept a different culture, traditions and rules. I am very thankful for my husband’s patience, as well. There were some moments in the beginning of our marriage when it was hard for me to live in a foreign country, but his love and support helped a lot for me to overcome my fears and frustration.

Vavra: One of the hardest things is being away from her family. Being married in the military means lots of moves, and in the 12 years we have been married we have not been able to get back to being stationed in Europe to be close to her family and friends.

(Goodman): Sometimes language barrier is the most challenging. When talking and trying to explain any situation. Most words are not comprehensible.

Rand: There are many challenges associated with an international marriage. Getting accustomed to their customs and traditions for one. Language barrier with the spouse or relatives and getting citizenship for your spouse is by far a very lengthy process.

Robinson: International marriages are the same as any other. In order to have a good one you need faith, love, trust and dedication.

Savoy: One of the challenges to being in an international marriage can be miscommunication due to language barriers.

Thank you for leaving all you left behind in Italy to join me on this journey.
I love you, and it will all be worth it in the end!
- Randy

Can you give an example of a cultural difference that you and your spouse have made the best of? 

Waylon: In my wife’s country, people are not polite to strangers. Well, they are not what my culture would consider polite. There, you do not hold the door open for someday when they are coming in right after you. Additionally, it is perfectly acceptable to toss money down on the counter when paying for something at the store, instead of handing it directly to the cashier. Subtle culture differences such as these were a minor snag when my wife first came to the United States. She did not realize that some of her actions maybe regard as impolite or inconsiderate. However, as soon as I made known my observations, she was more than happy to comply with her new cultural ideals. Conversely, if it had been me making the adjustment of living in her culture, I’m sure the differences would have been much more challenging. 

Guzialia: Even though I thought that English wasn’t my weakest point when I moved to the U.S., it was a lot of trouble for me to understand common American phrases and slang words. My husband helped me to enroll in school, and I think it was the best investment for my personal and professional life.

This will be our 19th Valentine's Day together. 
You are my love, my heart and my joy.
Thank you so much for being a loving wife and mother. 
Happy Valentine's Day Baby!


Vavra: When I went and got Gina a military ID, I assumed (wrongly) that she had changed her last name to mine. It turns out that Italians don’t normally change their last name. I got her listed in DEERS and the military ID under the last name “Vavra.” When we got her a green card they used her military ID last name. So now her last name on her green card and military ID are Vavra, but her last name on her Italian passport is Cultrona (her maiden name). International travel is interesting, especially when we PCS as they always issue her tickets to Gina Vavra, and her passport says she is Gina Cultrona. One of these days she may get left behind!

Goodman: Hmmm… raising our kids. My wife/family has a different approach on how to raise a kid compared to my family. The only approach we could make the best of was to find a common ground … which she won 80 percent of.

Rand: Religion, I am Christian and she is Buddhist. Or having to get used to bowing to her relatives and praying at their families’ “butsudan” (Buddhist altar).

Robinson: I think we sometime have cultural differences with raising our kids. But at the end of the day, we always agree upon the best choice for the kids. 

Savoy: We've experienced a range of cultural differences at the beginning of our relationship, but after being married for 18 years we've become accustomed to American and Japanese culture.  Surprisingly, I can't think of an example to share.  All I can say is that we make the best of our marriage because we love and respect one another.

Life has become more meaningful because of you.
I can't imagine my life without you.

Loving you is my mission. Being with you is my reason.
I love you! Happy Valentine's Day!
- Robert

What advice do you have for anyone considering, or entering an international marriage? 

Waylon: I would say, keep an open mind. Your relationship is not going to be the same as having a relationship with somebody from the same culture. Embrace these differences and enjoy learning new ways of thinking and doing things.  

Guzialia: I think you have to be sure you really want to spend the rest of your life with “this” person. Real love always can overcome all troubles and issues, but you have to be ready for that. 

Vavra: Things are a little bit harder, but oh so much more fun!  Different cultures make for more interesting interaction, but they also lead to misunderstandings, which take work to manage.

Goodman: Take time in learning your spouse culture and experience it with her family. This will make you and your spouse’s life easy when bridging two cultures.

Chase: I would highly consider looking at what it takes to make her a U.S. Citizen. Just because you are married doesn’t mean that she is a citizen and can come with you anywhere. I highly recommend looking into this before marriage and plan accordingly.

Robinson: If you’re in love and happy with the person, go for it! I would tell them love has no international boundaries.

Savoy: My advice would be that you know enough about him/her before you get married and that you should also learn more about their family. Have you met or spoken to each other's families and found out how they view your relationship?  Realize that you need to be flexible, open-minded and patient with your soon to be spouse and family members.

Since we met, there has never been a dull moment between us.
I cherish the time that we spend together and I am grateful to have you every day in my life.

- Love Chase

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