On January 3, 2018, Gonza and I got married in a civil ceremony at the Civil Registry in Quito.
Since then, it’s been happily ever after. Right?
Not quite. While we are absolutely enjoying married life, marriage to a foreigner is a serious undertaking. It is not for the faint of heart. While all newlywed couples can face challenges, these challenges take on a whole new dimension of hard when you’re talking about marrying someone from a country far far away and a completely different culture. I would categorize the challenges of marriage across continents into two major categories: logistical and cultural.
The first challenge was where to get married. We settled on Quito because a.) we wanted to pursue a spousal visa for Gonza, b.) we didn’t want to wait until late 2019 or 2020 to get married, and c.) it would be far easier for my friends and relatives to come to Ecuador than for his to go to California. In fact, had we gotten married in CA, it is likely that precisely zero of his friends and family would have been able to come. Except maybe his one cousin who lives in Chicago. But I digress. We had our civil (legal) ceremony in January with just immediate family, and are planning our “real” celebratory wedding with vows, exchange of rings, and a big party, for this July. Getting married in Quito is wonderful on the one had because this is where we met and fell in love. On the other, it is a sacrifice of sorts on my part–most of my family did not/will not come to celebrate with us here. I am grateful to have a loyal contingent of friends and family members who are able and willing to make the 10-hour-flights trek to Quito, but it is saddening that the majority of my family will not be able to come.
The second challenge is where to live. And alongside that issue, immigration. For those who have lived in a single country for their whole lives, I can tell you that immigration is a massive task. We are simultaneously working on getting my spousal visa for Ecuador while working towards getting Gonza’s spousal visa to the States. While I was put out by the fact that the Ecuadorian government requires federal and state background checks, apostilled, from the US (even though I’ve lived here for 2.5 years), the amount of paperwork required for my visa is nothing compared to that involved in his visa. To add to the tedious documents we have to fill out and submission of everything from my tax returns to my driver’s license to our employment history for the past five years, our (very expensive) lawyer told us that we would need to be prepared for a 1.5-year wait from the time of our first document’s submission. The fact that Trump took office and majorly slowed the processing of all visas to the US made his administration’s mission to halt immigration a personal affront. And while we have decided to spend the majority of our lives in the States–mostly because I cannot bear to live away from my friends and family for the foreseeable future, and because we will have better economic opportunities in California than Quito–it cannot be said that this is an easy decision.
To those who argue that immigrant spouses obviously want a visa to the States because it’s a “better country” than where they come from are sorely misinformed. Picking up and moving, leaving everything behind–from your high school friends, to your entire family, to your job and language and culture and everything you’ve ever known–is a challenge that you should hope you never have to face. Though it is of course exciting to see new corners of the world, it is one thing to visit. It is another to move, sight unseen, to a place you will likely spend the bulk of your life. This is something I was considering on my last visit home, in early April, when I was staying at my sister’s home in Redding. Her husband, Danilo, also happens to be Ecuadorian and has been living in California for the past four years. At dinner one evening, I asked him, Do you miss Ecuador? His response: every day. Had it not been for my sister’s job as a physician requiring her to study and work in the States, he shared that he would have preferred to remain in Ecuador. He mentioned that he wishes he were with his family, his friends, his sports teams, and his social network in general. In Ecuador, he told me later, he was offered a very high paying business job with PetroEcuador, the major petroleum company. In Redding, the first job he had was shoveling dirt 12 hours a day for an agricultural company. And while Gonza will not suffer from the language barriers that Danilo initially faced, we have no idea how his degree will be received in the States or what kinds of jobs he would be competitive for.
To leave one’s country is an incredible sacrifice that must stem from a deep love for the person you are committing your life to. The fact that I have lived 2.5 years of my life away from my country, a number that will likely increase to 4+ years by the time we leave, has provided me with perspective and empathy for how difficult it might be for Gonza when we eventually move. While it is most certainly an adventure of sorts for me to live abroad, there are also days when I want to curl up into a ball of loneliness as I ponder how few people I have here, and how I wish I could hop on a bus to eat crappy delivery pizza and sing “No Air” with Lori. Or make a quick trip home for a barbecue and some Zinfandel with my parents. Or snuggle my nephew Julian before he gets too old to be cuddled. One must sacrifice many of these moments, alongside others like weddings/births/funerals, in order to live abroad.
Part of the allure of international relationships is the intrigue of cultural differences. They are also part of the challenge. As Gonza and I get to know each other more deeply, I see more differences as based in culture as opposed to us as individuals. It can be both fascinating and frustrating. Take, for example, the other morning. I was listening to someone I know talk about her observation that her Ecuadorian partner will not stand up to his mother despite the awful or offensive things she does on occasion. I had to laugh, because this is something that is so Ecuadorian. While I talked back to my parents fairly regularly throughout my rebellious teenage and even my middle school years, Ecuadorians are generally much more respectful towards their parents. They are typically non-confrontational, which can make for more harmonious households. This can extend towards siblings and other relatives as well. When I learned about a difficult family secret involving someone in my husband’s family, I was shocked to see how kindly this individual was treated despite his grave transgressions. However, as someone who comes from a family of very direct individuals and a culture of directness/rebellion, it can be trying to witness such passivity when my inner American is screaming for justice. Conversely, Ecuadorians are generally LESS afraid to mouth of to a stranger than Americans are. My usually very peaceful and gentle husband got angry when we were walking Gaby on Sunday night and a man was walking his pitbull without a leash. The pitbull started growling at Gaby and aggressively moved towards her, and instead of picking up Gaby and leaving it at that, he told the owner rather angrily, “Grab a hold of your damn dog!” I definitely understand the sentiment but I would usually shy away from direct confrontation with strangers.
“If you do something you gotta do it right!”
“There’s the lazy way, and the way it has to be done.”
These are two select quotes from Gonza, which lead into my next point: serrano Ecuadorians are some of the most fastidious people I have known. Early on in our relationship, hints of this fastidiousness came to light. It all started with the fact that Gonza would casually mention that the red onions for the chicken were too large–they had to be finely diced, not chopped. Also, the soup needed more salt. You definitely should not be adding salt after any food has been cooked! These sorts of little quirks were, unbeknownst to me at the time, a manifestation of a deeper cultural difference, which is that Ecuadorians can be quite particular. Whereas in the States the attitude I have most commonly observed is that there are many ways to do something, here there is often just one. This extends from rice cooking (it had better not be futbolero–stuck together like a soccer ball–never mind the fact that something called STICKY RICE exists for certain delicious Asian cuisines) to the way in which greetings happen to the location of each object in a household. The last one really gets me. Having lived with Gonza for over a year now, I have come to realize just how important it is that everything has its own place. He gently reminds me to put my keys “away”–into the lock, which is their “spot”–if I leave them on the counter. He designated special jars for certain objects like rubber bands or spare change. He uses a tic tac box for paperclips. His nightstand drawer is impeccably ordered. The toilet seat must always be closed. Dishes must be washed immediately after cooking. It is most assuredly good for me to be with someone who keeps me organized. Howver, it’s hilarious to compare these sorts of habits to the fact that my parents frequently leave the dinner dishes for the following morning (I do too), or the fact that many American families have a “junk drawer” that can be home to all sorts of random things.
Seemingly at odds with fastidiousness is the idea that Ecuadorians tend to be more comfortable with uncertainty and not knowing all the answers. As I fret about planning our next vacation for the upcoming feriado, Gonza suggests we wait until a couple of days before to solidify any plans. There is no need, for him, to create plans for the “far” future (ie: a few weeks or a month), whereas this is something ingrained in me from my impressionable youth when I would see my dad calling in early January to make reservations for our family vacation…in July. Though I grew up with most plans being made far in advance, Gonza is perfectly content to wait until right before to plan anything. In January, for example, I reserved a night at a beautiful hacienda style hotel near Cayambe for a weekend in February. A mere 10 days before the night was scheduled to happen, Gonza told me that he had a mandatory school concert that night, and asked why I had made a reservation and paid a deposit so far in advance. Thankfully, we were able to change our reservation date and not lose money, but the key here is that he was surprised I had bothered to create solid plans a month in advance. Underlying this sense of spontaneity, I think, is the deeper comfort with uncertainty. Perhaps this comes from years of chronic instability, or from the economic crises that have plagued the nation. (*Side note* I’ll never forget when my sister told her then-fiance Danilo about the government shutdown in the States, appalled. He thought nothing of it–as Laura suggested, perhaps it was because his country had seen so many political coups that a mere shut down was no biggie #latinamericanboyfriends). When I worry about my job security, he assures me that we will figure out a way to make it work regardless of what happens, and encourages me not to stress so much. He is content to not know exactly what is going to happen, whereas uncertainty makes me a little crazy. I am constantly trying to prepare for the future, while Gonza seeks to appreciate the present moment.
Another major difference relating to culture is that of familial obligations. Latinos in general tend to be more pegadito to their families–from living with their parents until marriage, to spending entire weekends sitting and chatting with family members, family is a much larger part of life here than in the States. Gonza’s jaw dropped to the floor when I said that when I was in college, I went home a couple times per semester–when I only lived 1.5 hours away. Granted, living abroad and so far from everyone I know and love has most definitely given me a greater appreciation for family members and a desire to see them more often when I live in California again, there is just something different about Ecuadorian families. Gonza grew up in somewhat of a compound of houses with a shared patio, where up to four other families have lived. The house on the right of Gonza’s mom’s place is occupied by tía Aguedita and three of her four grown children. The house in front is home to his prima Ampi, her husband, their four children, and Ampi’s father. And finally, the house on the left is where his tío Rafi and his two grown sons live. I do see the benefit in living so close to family, but it’s a far cry from what I grew up with. Alongside closeness to family comes obligations. Gonza’s mom, a single mother of three boys, worked very hard her entire life to provide for her sons, including moving to the States to labor in terrible conditions (think: walking 45 minutes in the Chicago winter snows to a toothbrush factory job) to help provide for them. Upon her return to Ecuador, she was unable to get a well-paying full time job and has ever since been trying to make ends meet however best she can. At 64, she has a small tienda on the ground floor of her house where she sells various food items and odds and ends. In Ecuador, los hjios are expected to help support their parents in time of need. While this is quite noble, it is also challenging when as a couple we have our own expenses and Gonza is not currently working. And this is definitely coming from a place of developed-country privilege here, but my parents still help me out A LOT whenever they have the opportunity (thanks M&D for basically an entire new wardrobe from my last visit). It’s an interesting shift to be expected to help support a parent–something that will be much easier when we both have US salaries. Another element of the family-first mindset is that he really helps me stay present. As a gringa living in Ecuador but working for a US non-profit, I can very much get caught up in my work. Checking my email at 7 pm, answering WhatsApp messages from volunteers in the wee hours of the morning, and fretting about an upcoming project at dinner time are all occurrences that happen more often than I would like to admit. Gonza reminds me to relax, leave work at the door, and focus on the time we get with one another. While he values hard work and achievement, he values family much more. This is something that makes him a wonderful husband, and will someday make him an incredible papá.
And finally, a cultural difference that is more difficult for me to talk about: materialism. Coming from a capitalistic, materialistic society, where while in college I basically bought whatever I wanted, my materialistic tendencies can clash with Gonza’s level-headed frugality and general disregard for material things. One of the reasons that I fell in love with him in the first place was his ability to be content no matter what. He never ceases to remember how lucky we are–to have one another, a loving dog, a beautiful and safe apartment, delicious food to eat, and more. I, on the other hand, can get caught up in wanting things that I cannot have. For example, I am somewhat ashamed to admit that one of the elements I miss most about living in California is the mere ability to buy a new, nice stuff. I particularly liked being able to expand my wardrobe and wear swanky clothing. My favorite stores were Banana Republic and Zara. I once bought a $60 sweater and thought nothing of it. In Quito, I have never purchased clothing or shoes, aside from an alpaca sweater, which hardly counts. This is two-fold: one, because I am not the size of your average Ecuadorian woman, and two, because the prices are much higher here due to exorbitant import taxes. Gonza helps me remember that I don’t truly need more clothes, pointing to the fact that I usually have to do four loads of laundry…and still have clothes left over. When I bemoan the fact that we can’t travel like my friends back home do or eat at fancy restaurants, he reminds me that we have visited many beautiful places in Ecuador and tells me my cooking is better than that of most eateries. He stops me from buying a new, step-to-open garbage can because we have a perfectly functioning garbage can in the kitchen. He reminds me that we are fortunate to live by a park which provides us free entertainment. Gonza keeps me grounded, and reminds me to be happy in the moment. He is good at living in the present and feeling grateful for what we have, not resentful because of what we don’t.
There will be many more aspects of our shared life to consider as our marriage spans two continents, and culture will undoubtedly always play a part in our relationship. From the way we spend money (when we have more of it) to the language we speak at home, from the vacations we take to the ways we vote, from the songs we sing our children as lullabies to the way we choose to take care of our parents as they age, we will be in for some enlightening conversations and definitely some compromises. If it is anything, marriage across continents is always an adventure.
One of the lullabies that Gonza grew up with, which has somewhat questionable lyrics by US standards.