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Ethnicity and the interracial relationship

Do racial differences matter in love? How does one reconcile differences in ethnic background?

Last week a classmate of mine, Vinh Truong, asked me if my significant other was a white guy. I said yes. It was a funny question but I could see why he asked it. Vinh and I share a common ethnic background – we’re both Vietnamese and grew up with traditional Vietnamese values. One particular Vietnamese value (which I am sure is a common value among most ethnic groups) is “stick to your kind.” Vinh’s question implied, “Why didn’t I ‘stick to my kind?’ Why this white guy over a Vietnamese guy? Why did I violate this social rule?”

It’s a deep question that opens a can of worms. It prompts the question, does race/ethnicity matter in love? How does it matter? How does one reconcile differences in background?

Ever since Jeff and I became a couple more than five years ago, we’ve been confronted with those questions, not just within our relationship, but by parents and peers. Jeff’s dad once teased me by pointing at a dog on the Animal Planet channel and asking, “Tasty, huh?” My mom had a big fat argument with me about how he was white and would make me forget all my traditions and values. Our peers who were in similar Asian-White couplings just nodded and winked at us.

Does race matter in love? Not really. Let me clarify: Race is defined by physical traits like hair and skin color. Ethnicity is one’s background within a cultural group, one’s experience and traditions. Two Caucasian males share the same race, but if one is a Wisconsinite who roots for the Packers and the other is a Minnesotan who is a diehard Vikings fan, they’re free to claim having different ethnic backgrounds. It’s the ethnic background that matters more in a relationship.

The key to building a successful (interracial) relationship is understanding “What do I cherish? What does he or she cherish? What do we cherish? Can we learn to cherish these things together?” From there a couple is free to explore why these things are cherished and whether they should stay cherished.

Within a Vietnamese context, I’ve learned to cherish Confucian values of honor, selflessness and high achievement. Within a White-American context, Jeff learned to cherish individualism, self-efficacy and success as defined by the individual.

We clashed frequently over issues like selflessness versus individualism that were rooted in our past and ethnic backgrounds. There were many times when I thought to myself, “Man, how can I explain why this bothers me other than ‘it’s very un-Vietnamese?’ I wouldn’t have this trouble if he was Vietnamese and simply understood without having to be told.”

We explored reasons for valuing individualism and selflessness. We then looked at the implications of rejecting either as a cherished value. Over time we learned to cherish new values from each others’ ethnic cultures, teach each other new ways of thinking about the same problem and celebrating new ways of living.

Why didn’t I “stick to my own kind?” Because race doesn’t matter to me, and I’m open to expanding my ethnicity. The tension found in an interracial relationship is surmountable, and leads to new realizations and identity. The better question is, “Why not?”

Quynh Nguyen welcomes comments at [email protected].

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