Mental Notes with Hilary Valdez: Finding your place in intercultural marriage

Mental Notes with Hilary Valdez: Finding your place in intercultural marriage

by Hilary Valdez
Stripes Japan

“When I saw you, I fell in love, and you smiled because you knew.” - Arrigo Boito 

Well, I fell in love a few times. Both to Japanese women. The initial “honeymoon phase” was fun, easy, loving and light. The Yin and Yang was perfectly balanced and harmony prevailed. We had a perfect marriage learning to enjoy and joke about our differences. It took about a year before I started to understand what I got myself into. My wife’s sweetness and honey were fermenting into a new mixture of social nitroglycerin. I had to ask myself repeatedly, “Did I make the right choice?” and “What had I agreed to…until death do us part, in sickness and in health?”

From there, the “disillusionment stage” set in. At the time, my Japanese fluency was at the level of a three-year-old, so English became the dominant language in the marriage. Soon, my warrior mate was getting tired of speaking her second language all day and it was wearing her out. She had her own style of communication which clashed with my New York sense of humor; bridging the gap in cultural differences was a tug-of-war. Adding to my stress, my beautiful wife did not want to live in the States or move to Europe. I resigned myself to the fact that Japan would be my home. And seeing mom, dad, sisters, cousins, and friends, would be infrequent. Being separated from my family led to emotional and psychological blues, feeling sad, disillusioned, and argumentative, especially at Christmas time.

In the “working stage,” my former combat-training from the Marines was put to the test when visiting my non-bilingual in-laws. But I had a commitment to the relationship and possessed a sense of humor, while remaining tolerant with the communication strains, cultural differences, and expectations to assimilate. I politely smiled when asked “Can you eat natto?” and “Can you use chopsticks?” Having an interest in my new family’s thoughts and feelings and seeking their acceptance, I would nod with a garbled “Hai.” This would inevitably lead to a pouring in of compliments on my good Japanese speaking skill as I sheepishly bowed and reply with “Domo.”

The “misery stage” arrived one day as I looked down at my 48-inch-tall son and he silently stared up at me, both of us realizing we were not communicating. My son and daughters were growing distant from their foreign father. Their dominant language was becoming Japanese. The children were becoming Japanese, taking on a Japanese identity, and barely speaking English. A change had to be made. I wanted them to be bilingual. Then, what school will they attend? How much will it cost? This international marriage required not only love, but a vision of the future together, in the same direction. Once the kids were born, it was a different world with difficult life-planning decisions.

The “enlightenment stage.” I remembered the lessons from my Command Sponsored Resiliency Training --- Hunt the Good Stuff: I was hunting. Child rearing, food, religion, etiquette, house chores, partner roles, and cultural customs— they were all difficult hurdles. Living up to the ideals and values of another culture was taxing. I struggled with my personal beliefs, and the cultural expectations demanded of me. But I was obliged to conform to my new roles in the culture. This is where respect for my partner’s cultural boundaries came into play. I focused on companionship, support, friendship and meeting my partners needs her way.

Marriage is a busy place. Both people are busy trying to realize their dreams. But busy people also need love. Love requires action. Love has to be made visible and tangible, simple acts such as doing the dishes, taking out the garbage, a hug, a smile. Simple acts of kindness do wonders. If the family is unhappy, you will be unhappy. Finding a suitable mate is one of life’s hardest tasks. Go slow. Take your time. Ask yourself: is it lust or love?

Instant Insight: Happiness is a choice we make. It can be as simple as deciding to remain positive despite mounting pressures. A positive attitude leads to positive behaviors.


Hilary Valdez is a retiree living in Japan. He is an experienced Mental Health professional and Resiliency Trainer. Valdez is a former Marine and has worked with the military most of his career and most recently worked at Camp Zama as a Master Resiliency Trainer. Valdez now has a private practice and publishes books on social and psychological issues. His books are available on Amazon and for Kindle. Learn more about Valdez and contact him at or at

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