I remember learning about Monarch butterflies in college as a Biology Major. Birds and other predators refused to eat Monarchs because they tasted bad from their consumption of milkweed plants. Because of the low predation rates, other butterflies took advantage of this and learned to mimic Monarch’s coloration and design. The most famous of these impersonators of a Monarch is the Viceroy butterfly. To the untrained eye they look identical but today, we know today they are a different species.
This type of mimicry where an edible animal is protected due to its resemblance to another species avoided by predators is called Batesian mimicry. Only in the human species do we find the reversal of Batesian mimicry where the species are the same but the culture, logic, thinking, and behavior is totally different. This is what occurs when an adoptee marries or partners long term with a person from the same birth country.
I am a Korean adoptee and I was raised on a dairy farm in the heart of a little Scandinavia town located in north-central Minnesota. I met my wife when I was stationed in South Korea as a young lieutenant in the US Army. I lived in South Korea for nearly 8 years and I remember having conversations with other servicemembers who had Korean brides and were involved in interracial marriages and I thought to myself, “Wow, I can really relate to the issues that they have.” The men whom I had shared conversations with assumed my marriage was easier because my wife and I are ethnically the same. Yet, I had many of the same issues and problems these men talked about.
These men assumed the relationship between my wife and I was easier than theirs because we looked similar, as does the Monarch and Viceroy. However, as we know, these two butterflies were different species, biologically diverse from one another. My wife and I also look the same racially, but our culture, logic, thinking, and behaviors are totally different. This is why I classify my marriage as an interracial marriage even though we are technically both from Korean descent.
Here is a sample of some of the issues we face as an interracial couple:
Children: My wife is that classic Tiger mom. She is fierce when it comes to my children’s studies. She hovers over them as they do their French, piano, and math lessons. She runs them to karate, boy scouts, girl scouts and numerous other extracurricular activities. I have to navigate our family trips around the school and planned school activities. I see my kids sitting at the table for hours on end and I have to step in as the voice of reason and allow them to have breaks and go to bed. It’s different to the way I was raised and we have to make compromises on how they are to be raised.
Holidays: It was March and my wife was happy with excitement and she asked me to come to the dinner table. I sat down and excitedly uncovered the lid to see what was inside and to my horror, there was a pot of hot slimy green and viscous sludge. She proceeds to tell me it’s Myong-gook, or traditional Korean seaweed soup, which was served after women gave birth and on special occasions. It just so happened to be my birthday and I was fed this special meal whereas, at the time, I much preferred to go out and eat KFC or Thai. There are duplicate holidays that we celebrate such as Choo-suk, also known as Korean Thanksgiving, and there are changes to the traditional menu. It’s not unusual for us to serve the smelly fermented, spicy cabbage called Kimchi along with the mashed potatoes and gravy.
Values: I feel my wife is obsessed with saving money. In the past, she has returned gifts that I bought for her on her birthday, Christmas and special occasions. She tells me not to buy flowers, chocolates, jewelry or anything else because she believes spending money on lavish items is a waste. She would rather see the money pile up in our retirement accounts and do with less. On the other hand, I believe life is about balance. Live a little and enjoy the fruits of our labor as we age. We often have these money talks and come to a compromise. I show her the statements of our retirement account before I ask her about planning a family trip.
Crossed wires: Often communication can end up in a conflict. I’ll be talking to my wife about something at work and she will cut me off to talk about something with the kids. To her, that is more important. She had no idea that she cut me off mid sentence.
Another example is when she asks me if I there is anything she can grab for me while she is at the grocery store, I may pause a few seconds to ponder and return to her with my list. I may respond a half a minute later and ask her to get me my favorite snack and she looks at me with a lost look in her eyes. I have to coax her back into the conversation that we had previously. In her mind, I wanted nothing and was already thinking about something else.
The communication patterns are different and I have learnt to repeat myself over and over again. She also misplaces words by mistake as she translates things inside her head.
“Hey, remember to take the cat to the veterinarian” when she really meant to say to say, “Hey, get some cat food when you’re out”. The crossed wires happens inside her head as she translates and the same happens in other normal conversations.
Name Change: I get a lot of questions and quizzical looks when I introduce myself as Mr Hansen. My name doesn’t match my looks and I’m expecting someone on the US Airlines to pull me off my flight one of these days for impersonating an American. My wife has a similar issue and many people assume she is married to a Caucasian because of the name she took after we were married. We thought about changing our name to my Korean family name but to change all my documents over to a new name seemed exhaustive and we have decided to keep the name for now.
Other Couples: I hate going to another Korean couple’s home when they have a hard time communicating in English. I run out of things to talk about after 5 minutes of conversation which also exhausts all 7 words I can speak in Korean. Many Koreans keep me at an arm’s length away because I’m not a “real” Korean. I feel as though I am the outsider looking in. This also holds true for my wife. She hates attending large groups and intellectually stimulating lectures. She feels as if the whole world is focused on her and when she accidentally slips with the wrong English word – people will make fun of her. I re-charge my batteries being around people and I love to dive into deep conversations.
Life can be extremely stressful, complex, and exhausting at times when married to someone from a different culture. What I found is, it is both rewarding and difficult, just like any other thing worth pursuing. In my education pursuits, for example, it was tough and there were times when I questioned why I was pursuing the degrees that I chose. However, the pursuits ended up well worth the pains and sacrifices I made. Some of the best moments I had were in the dorms of college and the life-long friendships made there, are as meaningful as ever.
The same holds true for a marriage or long term partnerships. I have encountered different issues being in an interracial marriage compared to what I might have experienced if I’d married someone of my adoptive culture and country. But I’ve learnt, not to make assumptions about my partner based on her culture. I also realise our relationship is one in which we are both forever teaching and learning from each other. Like all long term relationships, I will always have to compromise and learn to adapt to changes.
Additional Thoughts: What differences and issues have you seen in your own interracial marriage or partnership? Do you think the I am correct to call my relationship “interracial” when we are ethnically the same?
Further Reading: Monarch vs Viceroy: https://www.learner.org/jnorth/tm/monarch/Viceroy1.html