New England and China: A family’s Unexpected Connections

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Ray and Mary Chin and their dog, Plato, at their home in Thetford, Vt., on March 7, 2014.
Valley News – Sarah Priestap

By Elizabeth Kelsey

For the Valley News

Friday, March 14, 2014
(Published in print: Saturday, March 15, 2014)

When Mary and Ray Chin of Thetford met in an art class at the University of Delaware in 1969, they had no idea how many connections they shared. After all, Mary was the daughter of academic New Englanders while Ray’s parents had emigrated from China and owned the laundry in town.

Mary’s mother was involved in the civil rights movement, but she expressed concern when she heard her daughter was dating a Chinese-American man. “Think of all the potential problems — he’ll just be so different from you,” she advised. “Lots of mothers are skeptical of a boy their daughter brings home. My mother was extra skeptical,” Mary says.

For several weeks, the family’s beloved housekeeper kept telling Mary’s mother, a teacher who valued education, about a wonderful young man who had been tutoring her son.

Mary: “One day Mrs. Saunders looked out the window and said to my mother ‘Mrs. Mitchel, that’s the young man I’ve been telling you about!’ And I’m sitting there, looking at my mother’s face, and she is totally blown away because here she’s been hearing these glowing reports about this awesome young man, who turns out to be Ray.”

Things smoothed over once Mary’s mother realized Ray was the prized tutor: “From then on my mother always thought Ray could do no wrong,” Mary says with a laugh.

Ray began coming over for dinner, and at the table new stories about Mary’s father’s experience in World War II surfaced. “I knew he had been a Flying Tiger (a member of the 1st American Volunteer Group of the Chinese Air Force), but I never learned the complete story of how he was shot down, rescued, and cared for by Chinese villagers, until Ray showed up for dinner,” Mary says.

Mary and Ray 1973_VN

Ray and Mary Chin, in 1973, just after they were married.

“My father told us how he’d looked around and realized the people in the village were just like the people in his hometown in New Hampshire: good people, hardworking farmers just trying to get by on what they had, like him.”

While Mary’s father flew fighter planes to open China’s Burma Road, Ray’s mother was surviving the war in Guandong, one of the provinces that hadn’t been taken by Japanese forces.

“The Flying Tigers’ exploits are legendary in China, so it’s interesting it was in fact Mary’s father who protected my mother during the war,” Ray says.

When the Chins married in 1972 they had two celebrations: For the lofan (those who are not Chinese), they had a church wedding in Newark, Del., where the bride wore a white dress and the menu included green beans with cream of mushroom soup. A week later, for Ray’s side of the family, the couple had a Chinese ceremony at a cousin’s restaurant in the Bronx. “It was truly a banquet with a minimum 10 courses,” Mary says. “And at the Chinese wedding the bride wears a red dress, which has a totally different color symbolism. White in Chinese is death, and red in America is the scarlet letter.”

The couple moved to the Upper Valley in 1986 after Ray earned his doctorate in child psychology. He accepted a position at Dartmouth’s behavioral medicine clinic, and Mary began her career as an art teacher at Oxbow High School.

By that time, they had two small boys, aged 1 and 6, and they chose the Upper Valley because of the region’s clean air and safe environment. They settled in Lyme, where in an area with few other Asian-American children, they raised their sons to consider themselves not half Chinese or half Caucasian, but as “doubles” able to see life from the perspectives of two cultures.

As they adjusted to their new community, Ray recalls thinking: “a funny thing has happened: there aren’t that many minorities. But I’ve been treated exceedingly kind, kind of like an endangered species,” he says, laughing. “The attitude seemed to be ‘let’s take care of this fellow.’ ”

As a child psychologist, Ray provides assessment of children in schools throughout the Upper Valley, and says he has been able to bring elements of his culture into his work. Since his specialty involves mindfulness training, he teaches children tai chi and meditation. “It’s very interesting because I haven’t felt like I had to fit in,” Ray says. “And this didn’t happen right away, but it happened over time that people wanted diversity. That’s what I mean by ‘endangered species’: people really wanted to know more.”

This became clear with the University of Vermont’s Asian Studies Outreach Program, whose launch coincided with the Chins’ arrival in the Upper Valley. Mary and Ray visited China twice as part of the program’s effort to inform Vermont educators and schoolchildren about the country.

On one trip to the city of Kunming, they met a veteran, a Chinese helicopter pilot interested in the history of the Flying Tigers. The Chins told him of the time Mary’s father’s plane had engine trouble and he had been ordered to drop unused bombs on a Chinese village before he landed. Mary’s father had refused, and to prevent casualties, made a risky landing.

“And before we could finish, the man finished the story for us,” Mary says. He knew about her father’s heroism as a Flying Tiger, and even told the Chins about a Chinese film on the subject (which the Chins have not seen), The American Pilot Who Wouldn’t Drop His Bombs.

Then, the pilot’s family gave a banquet for the Chins, opening the door to their home, to their culture, and to yet another connection.

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Nice Guy Turns Out to Be “The One”

Minoru (Toby) and Millie Wakana walk down the hall at Valley Terrace in Wilder, Vt., on Feb. 20, 2014. Toby lives at Valley Terrace, and Millie in Lebanon, N.H. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

Minoru (Toby) and Millie Wakana walk down the hall at Valley Terrace in Wilder, Vt., on Feb. 20, 2014. Toby lives at Valley Terrace, and Millie in Lebanon, N.H.
Valley News – Jennifer Hauck

By Elizabeth Kelsey

For the Valley News

Friday, February 21, 2014
(Published in print: Saturday, February 22, 2014)

Sunlight streams through the window on a winter afternoon, and a Brahms sonata plays on the radio as I have coffee with Millie Wakana in the Lebanon home she shares with her daughter Janet and grandson Tyler. Millie, 85, has lived here since her husband Minoru, also known as Toby, 88, developed dementia four years ago and moved to Valley Terrace Assisted Living in Wilder.

Millie tells me how she met Toby in 1954 when he arrived in the U.S. from Japan on a Fulbright scholarship to study medicine.

“He was an intern, and my sister — we’re identical twins — was a resident at a hospital in Harlem,” Millie says. “She had a car and she used to take a lot of the foreign doctors for rides since they didn’t have cars. I’d join them sometimes.”

One afternoon, Toby asked Millie’s twin if she would go with him to Washington, D.C. for the weekend. “She couldn’t make it, so she told him to ask me — so that’s when we really got going,” Millie says, biting into a brownie and giggling like a young girl.

Millie has a boisterous, infectious laugh and a sweet tooth. When talking to her, it seems hard to believe she was part of the Madmen era of the ’50s and ’60s. She seems so modern. Her perspective certainly does.

“Wasn’t it daring of you to run off to Washington, D.C. with a guy in those days?” I ask her.

“I wasn’t living with my parents, so that helped,” she says. Her eyes get wide behind her bifocals.

“Well, I shocked my kids when I told them this part,” she says, “but we got engaged a week later.”

To Millie, there was no need to wait any longer — the answer was simple:

“I was 27 and had dated a lot of guys,” she says, “and he was just much nicer than anyone else I’d gone out with.”

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Millie and Toby at their wedding in 1955

 

Millie and Toby got married in a time when there was residual rancor against the Japanese from World War II. She says that while she never experienced anything “really nasty,” the pair faced some discrimination — at first, from her own mother.

“I never got along too well with my mother and she was the type that worried what people thought, and she was horrified that Toby was of another race,” she says. “My father was kind of a weak person so he didn’t say much. He probably didn’t mind, but he probably didn’t want to say anything.”

Still, Millie invited them to the wedding, a small event in a Japanese Methodist Church on West 108th Street on a day when torrential rain soaked Manhattan.

“I was kind of hoping they wouldn’t come,” she says, chuckling. But her parents did show up, and Toby went right up to his new mother-in-law and shook her hand, winning her over with his graciousness.

Millie and Toby went on to have two children, and lived in New York, Virginia, Maine and New Hampshire during Toby’s career as a physician before they retired in Hartland. Millie had been a bookkeeper but became a homemaker once she had a family.

She met her in-laws nearly 10 years after her wedding when she and her family traveled to Japan for the first time. “They were lovely,” she says. “His father was just like him. He would go down the slide with my son. He had a good sense of humor. And his stepmother was very nice, but they couldn’t speak English.”

Although Millie always tried to learn Japanese through books and tapes, she struggled. “Languages were always my worst subject in school, so it was hard for me,” she says. The Wakanas would continue to visit Japan over the years, even living on the island of Shikoko in ’88-’89 when Toby accepted a job there. The first month they arrived, “I never knew what was going on,” she says, since few of the islanders spoke English.

Eventually, she discovered the English station on the TV, found international newspapers and met a Canadian teacher who introduced her to her English class. “They treated me like a queen because they wanted to speak English,” Millie says. “They took me out to eat, gave me a front seat in the car. I kept in touch with them for 15 years.”

In terms of challenges in her marriage, only one incident stands out in her mind:

“My son’s a good kid, but he’s not studious, and my husband wanted him to be a doctor. I think that was a cultural thing,” she says. “It would have been hard for my son to be a doctor, and I knew that. Finally, he decided he was going to go into teaching, and my husband wasn’t happy, even though it’s a noble profession. We argued. And it took a while, but now my husband realizes our son is a happy person and he has a good family. I heard Toby tell someone the other day, ‘You know who a happy person is? My son.’ I felt so good to hear him say that.”

To Millie, it’s her compatibility with Toby that stands out in her mind more than any differences. She and her husband both enjoy baseball and classical music. “And we agree on a lot of things,” she says, “including social issues, even though he’s a Republican and I’m a Democrat.”

Although they now live apart, Milly and Toby see each several times a week. Despite his dementia, Millie says, Toby still remembers her and the rest of his family, “but he’s not the same person, and I miss the person he was.” For the first time in our conversation, she sounds wistful, but her mood seems to shift when she adds: “I’m lucky I live with my daughter because my daughter takes after him a lot — she’s got his same sense of humor.”

I ask her what that humor was like and she tells me, “Well, one time I was in a restaurant with him and his stepmother, and they were laughing so hard at something, I was embarrassed. I mean, I almost got up and left.” As she’s telling me this, her own laughter spills into the next room, and I imagine how she and Toby together must have been able to fill their house with mirth.

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Lebanese Cuisine

Mickey Alafat in the home he shared with Barbara Alafat and his stepchildren on Lebanon's Povery Lane in 1979. (Family photograph)

Mickey Alafat in the home he shared with Barbara Alafat and his stepchildren on Lebanon’s Poverty Lane in 1979. (Family photograph)

 

When Odile and Brian discussed their different dining styles in my last column, I couldn’t help but reflect on the culinary contrasts in my own relationship. While I’m  a food snob who who won’t eat anything that isn’t certified USDA organic, Maroun has a penchant for meals of Tuna Helper and Great Value brand Spam—tastes he acquired when he first arrived in the States as a grad student. It is his comfort food.

Maroun's American comfort food

Maroun’s American comfort food

But he has another favored cuisine that is easier for me to accept: I look forward to “mezza night” at home, when he sets out the delicious hummus, tabbouleh, and baba ganouj he learned to make from his mother. In fact, people who’ve tasted Maroun’s delicacies tell him he should open a Lebanese restaurant, since our area isn’t exactly known for its “ethnic cuisine.”

The Upper Valley is a gourmet’s paradise in some respects (we have wonderful farms, decent diners, sharp cheese makers, and a renowned producer of ciders, for example), but it’s true that Lebanon, New Hampshire doesn’t have any Lebanese restaurants.

But I was fascinated to discover this wasn’t always the case.  Last Monday, The Valley News ran a remembrance of Mickey Alafat, who died at age 80 in January. A photo of Mickey, taken in the ’70s, ran with the story. I spotted something familiar in the man’s name, and his thick dark hair, and learned that he, the son of Lebanese immigrants, once co-owned a popular restaurant called Landers along Rt. 120, on which I now drive to work every day.  According to the news story, the restaurant had  “an oriental feel” to its interior design, and was known for its Lebanese cuisine.

I read on and learned that Alafat’s parents had owned a Lebanese-style diner that burned down in the city fire of 1964. It was located near the pedestrian mall where I take my afternoon walk.

A popular Lebanese restaurant and diner—all well before our time.

mezza

My mother in-law’s mezza

The thought struck me that Lebanon, New Hampshire may have been open to multiculturalism long ago. And I wondered what sort of experiences this Lebanese-American family may have had in our New Hampshire town. Did the Alafats expertly crack pumpkin seeds between their teeth, as Maroun (and just about every other Lebanese I know) does? Did they sprinkle sumac on their hummus? Eat tabbouleh “the right way” (not with utensils, but stuffed into romaine leaves)? Did they also enjoy the confusing irony of our town’s name?

In my imagination, I overhear pretend-conversations Maroun and I would have had with Mickey over a plate of stuffed grape leaves. And in reading his remembrance, I felt nostalgia for places and people I had never actually known. Food I would have liked to have tasted. People I would have liked to have met.

Maroun and I raise a glass of arek to Mr. Alafat, take a bit of pita, and acknowledge that Lebanese tradition is still being carried out in Lebanon, even if only at our own dinner table.

Allah yerhamak. Rest in peace, Mr. Alafat.

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The French-American Connection

french_connection

Brian Hampton, his wife Odile Clavier, and their children, from left, Eloise Hampton, 10, Juliette Hampton, 8, and Cecilia Hampton, 13, pose at their home in Plainfield, N.H., on February 5, 2014. (Valley News – Will Parson)

By Elizabeth Kelsey

For the Valley News

Saturday, February 8, 2014
(Published in print: Saturday, February 8, 2014)

Lunching on burgers at Lebanon’s Salt hill Pub, Odile Clavier and Brian Hampton of Plainfield discuss how they first met: It was at a New Year’s party in 1988 in Miami when she was an exchange student from Paris. The two teenagers liked each other, had friends in common, but realized they were interested in a relationship only a few weeks before Odile returned to France.

“At the time, I thought that was it,” Odile says of the budding romance, speaking with a barely discernible French accent. At 42 years old, she is tall with a confident demeanor, and hair so dark it brings to mind her black swan namesake in Swan Lake.

As she dips a carrot stick into some hummus, she tells me that she and Brian did stay in touch. A year after she went home, he visited her at her parents’ house in Paris. They attended a Pink Floyd concert together and roamed the streets of Paris. When Brian returned to the States, they corresponded. Or rather, Odile did.

“I wrote him 300 letters and he wrote me maybe one total,” she says, turning to him with a smile.

“That was before email,” Brian, 44, answers, chuckling. He has gentle eyes and speaks in an easygoing manner.

It wasn’t until Odile returned to the States on a trip for her 18th birthday that the two became serious. From then on, they made transatlantic visits to see each other until Odile came to the U.S. two years later to finish college.

Brian_Odile_n

Odile and Brian at their wedding in France in 1995 (family photo)

They lived in Florida for a couple of years, then moved to California to study engineering (he at Berkeley; she at Stanford). They married in southwest France in 1995 and settled in Plainfield in 2003 when Odile accepted a job at the engineering firm Creare. They have three girls, ages 8, 10, and 13. The entire family still travels to France for vacation every summer.

When I ask them about their cultural differences, Brian says he was initially struck by how different Odile’s large, stable family was from his own: he was raised by a single mother, had step-siblings and had lived with his grandmother for a while.

“But Odile had three brothers that were really her brothers and three sisters that were really her sisters,” he says, setting down his burger. “I always like to see a different perspective on life.”

Getting to know Odile’s family appealed to Brian because “it looked like it was built to last.” He adds that his relationship with his French in-laws is positive, but notes the media in France and the U.S. cover topics, such as war, differently: “We don’t see the U.S. the same, so talking to them can be interesting,” he says.

Odile notices this disconnect too: “I think there’s some sort of competition between France and the U.S.,” she says. “People here make jokes about the French, and I wonder where they’re coming from because I feel like ‘I’m not like that and I’m French,’ and then, French people don’t understand I’m American, too.”

Because Odile has spent decades in the States, for her, there isn’t much of a language barrier. Early in their relationship, Brian took French classes at a community college. The couple would have a “French-speaking Wednesday” to practice.

“But it would get frustrating,” he notes.

“A one-sided conversation,” Odile says.

Now, when they travel to her country, Brian tries to stick to the few key phrases he has learned. It is difficult for the children, too, to master a language without constant exposure: Odile spoke French to all three of them until they started speaking English back to her by the time they were in preschool. “They couldn’t really have conversations with me that made sense once it got a little more abstract than a ‘brush your teeth,’ ‘pajamas,’ ‘go to sleep’ kind-of-thing,” she says.

If any barriers exist, they are of the culinary variety.

“A few times when I went to see Odile, with her big family coming together, they would sit at the dining table from 2 in the afternoon till 10:30 at night,” Brian says. “The food would keep coming, and I couldn’t deal with it. In my house, my mom will be having dinner in her room, and my brother will be having dinner in his room, and my sister will be having dinner in her room, and they’ll all be watching the same show on a different TV.”

But Brian sees the benefits of a French-style meal: “I’m no longer opposed to a dinner and talking, and I think it’s real valuable for our kids as they grow and try to make sense of the world.”

“And it doesn’t have to take forever,” Odile concedes, placing her napkin on the table.

And as we finish this meal, I consider maybe it is that attitude — their openness, their flexibility — that led to a happy union. More remarkable than hailing from opposite sides of the Atlantic, they’ve been together since they were teenagers. Twenty six years of amour éternel.

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A Chat Leads to a Very Long Conversation

Nick and Nawal at their wedding in Morocco in 1989

 

By Elizabeth Kelsey

For the Valley News

Friday, January 24, 2014
(Published in print: Saturday, January 25, 2014)

Nawal Lamghari and Nick Porcello met in Lille, France in 1984. They were both en route to Brussels, where she studied English and he was making a stop on a European tour. Nawal grew up in Marrakech, Morocco, and Nick in Orford. They married in Morocco in 1989 and settled in White River Junction in 1991, where they live with their teenage son, Jusef. Here, they discuss their chance meeting on the train after exchanging glances moments before on the platform — and how their different religious backgrounds played a role in their relationship then and now.

Nawal: All the seats were taken, and I was nervous because that was my first time coming to Brussels. I wanted to make sure I was on the right train. I didn’t want to end up in some other city in Europe. I looked down the aisle and saw there was an empty seat, so I dropped my bag. I looked up — and who’s sitting right in front of me? Nick. So I was like “Huh. Interesting.” He and his brother were speaking English, and I thought, “Wow, this is exciting,” because I was learning English. I could read it better than I could speak it. I thought, “Oh, I’m just going to listen to how much I can understand from what they’re saying.”

Nick: My brother and I were involved in this crazy little conversation about the significance of shoes in Western civilization. We were both suffering from lack of sleep from the trip from London. Embarrassed that this pretty girl I’d seen on the platform would hear this, I said to him, “I hope she doesn’t understand English,” and she must have thought I said, “Do you speak English?” So she said, “Oh, yes, I speak English.” I was interested, but she was very intimidating because she was beautiful.

Very quickly we began talking about religion. That’s something I really loved to talk about. Before my mother got involved in fundamentalist Christianity, she was checking out other things, the Paramahansa Yogananda — things like that. So I had a great background in ideas.

Nawal: I was raised in a very devout Muslim family. Not rigid — they were moderate, but definitely, religion is important to my family. I’m not devout. And that to me was a huge journey.

Nick: We weren’t agreeing at all. Our conversation about the weight of Islam versus fundamentalist Christianity was heavy. I didn’t believe in fundamentalist Christianity, but I knew the arguments, and there was a prejudice against Islam, in particular. I felt the prejudice, I guess. My point of view was that Muslims were misguided, and I didn’t understand them to the extent I thought I did. But I was open. We got right into it. She asked me why I needed Jesus in order to worship God, and my answer was that Jesus is the word and the light.

Nawal: Thinking about it now, I never — even when I lived back home — liked the exclusivity of any religion. That always bothered me — how could one religion be right and everybody else wrong? How could I just be right because I belonged to a certain club? That’s how I think about it: religion is a club. And you have the membership to it, and everybody else is excluded from it — that never made any sense to me.

Nick: I’d never met a Muslim before. I’d never been able to talk about that kind of thing before. It was just easy to talk with her, even though her accent was pretty thick. The only thing that was difficult for me was trying to stop myself from kissing her in the middle of that conversation. I was drawn in. I was in love. That was a very powerful conversation for sure. It was part of the attraction. Someone who had a similar interest in those ideas, even though she came from what I thought was the wrong vantage point at that stage of the game.

Nawal: Even early in our relationship, we always respected each other’s opinion. It was like a continuous debate: trying to win each other to their side of how to interpret religion. But it was not really winning, it was opening up my mind — this is how I think about it, and it was an ongoing discussion.

Nick: The more we talked about it over the years, the more I thought there were more similarities than differences, and we were both onto a universal idea.

Nawal: I feel like it is a spiritual journey, this whole thing — even my relationship with Nick.

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The Best I Can Do

Sacred Heart Church, Lebanon, New Hampshire

When I was single, it was easy to dismiss religion. To attack it. To see only the bad: the endless wars it has caused, the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. Not to mention its stance against homosexuality (why would God create people a certain way only to condemn them?). I’m troubled, too, by an institution that won’t let women ascend to the highest level (unlike Groucho Marx and Woody Allen, I want to be part of a club that would accept people like me as a member.)

Before Maroun, I surrounded myself with like-minded people and never had to think hard about spiritual issues in the way that happens when the person you sleep next to claims to have a direct line to Jesus.

Maroun had grown up in Mount Lebanon, his country’s Maronite Catholic region, where the community had a common faith. The truth is, I’m envious—of Catholics, of any religious people, for that matter. Religion, after all, is a way to make sense of life, and to me, life makes no sense at all. And just as religion can be misused, it can also be  powerful. I know people who have overcome addiction, grief, cancer—through God, prayer, and their religious communities. If I could flick a switch and become a believer, I would.

Occasionally, I attend church with Maroun. His religious conviction was a major difference between us, at first, but it’s always been one of the things I love about him. I find it comforting that he thinks a greater being watches over us; that by praying, he can relinquish a desire for control; that he believes he and I will one day reunite in heaven. I still don’t share his certainty in a spiritual world, but I love the possibilities spirituality offers.

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Love Without Borders: From Lebanon to Lebanon, N.H.

 

My first trip to Lebanon (the country) with Maroun in early 2009.

My first trip to Lebanon (the country) with Maroun in early 2009.

This is the first of a biweekly series on intercultural couples in the Upper Valley of New Hampshire/Vermont.

Today, there are more intercultural couples in the U.S. than ever before. Even our current president was born from an intercultural union. According to the Pew Research Center, the share of new marriages between spouses of a different race or ethnicity rose 15.1 percent in 2010, and the share of all current marriages that are either interracial or interethnic had reached an all-time high of 8.4 percent—that makes 26 million Americans in intercultural marriages, not to mention the millions who are dating, engaged, or cohabitating as intercultural couples.

By Elizabeth Kelsey For the Valley News
Friday, January 10, 2014
(Published in print: Saturday, January 11, 2014)

I had just expressed my fear of flying to my husband.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” he asked.

“The plane could crash. I could die,” I said.

“Aren’t there some dead people you’d like to see? Just think of all the catching up you could do.”

Coming from different cultures, Maroun, from a village just north of Beirut, and I, a military brat who grew up on American bases from sea to shining sea — are accustomed to differing perspectives.

Maroun lived in civil war while the only battles I knew were with bullies in my suburban Florida middle school. Maroun was devout in his Maronite Catholicism, while I was agnostic from an early age. And while he came to the States to pursue a Ph.D., fulfilling responsibilities as an only son, I followed my destiny as prodigal youngest daughter by spending my 20s as a vagabond in Europe.

Despite our different backgrounds, or perhaps because of them, we were drawn to each other when we met at a 5K road race in Tallahassee, Fla., six years ago when we both reached for the last beer in the refreshment cooler.

It was love at first sight, although it took some adjustment for our families. When my father heard I was involved with a Middle Eastern man, he gave me a DVD of “Not Without My Daughter,” the true story of an American woman who had to flee from her Middle Eastern husband, as a warning.

When Maroun sent his mother photos of me as an introduction, she phoned from her village of Nahr Ibrahim with the verdict, “She’s too blonde.”

But our families came around quickly: Maroun’s mom loved me for my hearty appetite; my dad sat for hours, enraptured by Maroun’s take on U.S. politics (my husband thought Obama and Palin should have run on the same ticket). And our siblings were our champions from day one.

When we got engaged in 2008, I joined Maroun in New Hampshire, where he’d landed a job and, where, to the confusion of my family, immigration officers and ticketing agents, we settled in the city of Lebanon.

Maroun and I traveled to his homeland for the first time a few months later. I gazed out the airplane’s window in a Valium haze at Beirut’s coastline, clutched his hand as we descended into my unlikely vacation destination, and knew I’d do anything for him. Once we arrived, I learned to belly dance, rode through treacherous traffic and ate my way through Maroun’s village. Oddly enough, I felt at home.

But just as I was getting comfortable in Lebanon, the country, it was time to return to Lebanon, N.H. The reality of cold, reserved New England was as bracing as the snow that showed no sign of stopping for months on end.

I settled into my new life and considered what marriage meant to me. I looked at other couples in the Upper Valley — they seemed to have so much in common: some went to church together, for example, and didn’t disobey U.S. State Department guidelines to visit in-laws. These other couples seemed alike and shared traditions.

Gradually, as New Hampshire began to thaw, I realized I wasn’t as alone as I had thought. Our state is statistically one of the least diverse in the nation, so finding fellowship was a challenge, at first. But gradually, while training with my swim team, attending a Fourth of July celebration and meeting people at work, I realized we weren’t the only intercultural couple in our area.

As I listened to my international friends’ stories, I found their tales so different, and yet so similar to my own. I met couples who reconciled Christianity and Islam. Who married despite a family’s opposition to someone from a different race.

There was one couple that struggled with a language barrier, and another in which an American wife didn’t understand the pressure her Japanese husband put on their son’s studies (in both cases, they found solutions). Differences in religion, dining, communication, educational styles … the intercultural couples I know have overcome universal obstacles.

Some of these couples will tell their stories in this column, which returns in two weeks.

…………………….
Elizabeth Kelsey is working on a memoir, “From Lebanon to Lebanon (New Hampshire)” and blogs about the topic of intercultural relationships.

If you are in a bicultural relationship and would like to share your story as part of her project, contact her.

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