My parents’ wedding consisted of three ceremonies. In one my mother wore a scarlet sari, adorned with an embroidered paisley pattern and golden circles that caught the light as she moved. In another, she made ceremonial bows in a bell-shaped hanbok that gracefully hovered above the ground. In the final ceremony, my mother walked down the aisle in a V-neck white gown towards the man that today is still her husband. I don’t mean to reduce my parents’ wedding to a series of elaborate dresses, but I think that the incredible contrast in my mother’s outfits captures the unique occasion that was her interracial wedding.
Her marriage is a story I often like to tell, admittedly to add intrigue to my own persona. It’s a grand tale of romance, risk, and sacrifice. However, as I near the age she got married and drift away from my childhood years, I begin to realize the enormity of her decision. My mother was only five-years older than I am when she decided to settle down in America and marry a man originally from Bangladesh. When I try to put myself in her shoes, I find it unbelievably difficult. I can’t imagine living in another country permanently, and not just for a quick study abroad stint. I can’t imagine leaving behind my friends, family, and the place I call home. I can’t imagine marrying a man with experiences so different from my own and living with him in a country where I am unfamiliar with its language, customs, and values. Doing all of those things would absolutely terrify me.
When my mother, Heewon Azad, left Korea for the California coast at the age of 23, she was defiantly going against expectations. Unlike all of her friends at the time, she had no interest in marrying, having children, or settling down in a world she felt was patriarchal and in opposition to many of her beliefs. “Studying,” she said, “was my excuse. Grad school was my ticket out.”
Heewon still carries remnants of the society in which she grew up. Her demeanor is soft. Her household is bright. It smells of garlic. The windows are always open. And everything from the meticulous folding of towels to the braiding of my hair is executed with precision. However, these characteristics are not fully my mother but rather by-products of the culture in which she grew up.
In her own ways, my mother had always quietly rebelled against traditional social roles. As a child she avoided helping out in the kitchen, stealthily reading the newspaper instead. She politely turned down all eligible suitors her parents set up for her. She never intended on having children. During the 70s in Korea, not unlike the 50s in America, women were expected to wed and have babies. But my mother had other plans, and her move to America embodied a culmination of pent-up frustration with cultural norms and a desire to carve out her own life path.
Although she did not know exactly what her path would look like, my mother was determined to dictate its direction. Many Korean women at the time, after attending college and getting their degree, were expected to return home and settle down with an eligible bachelor, as determined by their parents. Instead my mother resolved to stay in America and marry the man she loved: a Muslim immigrant from Bangladesh. Needless to say, her parents were not thrilled with her choice. And at times, my parents’ marriage was not smooth. There were arguments regarding household duties and the need for more conservative attire. There were talks about language, celebration of holidays, food, and religion. My mother would buy me a bathing suit and cut my hair short. My father would tell me to grow it long and bring home coke and samosas, a fried forbidden treat in mother’s healthy household.
But on the whole, my mother forged her own independent path and was happy. For she discovered that the key to a happy marriage and life was not just shallow likes and dislikes. My mother would often say, “Although on the surface your father’s culture and my culture sound very different, our older, traditional societies actually share many of the same values. And your father and I as people share many of the same values.” Those common values initially brought them together and have kept them together for over 26 years – an incredible work ethic and tolerance for risk, deep care for their children, and an open-mindedness to other ways of life.
As we search for someone else to spend our lives or even time with, it can sometimes be hard to know what is right. A cursory Google search of “things women look for in a guy” results in a bombardment of various answers such as “Does he have a good physique?” “Is he confident?” and “Does he have a good salary?” In the end though, I believe that the most important part of a marriage or relationship is a sharing of values.
My mother has taught me that.