The Cultural Lens
When I was young, my parents warned me about mixed marriages – how such relationships were to be avoided at all costs. Consequences included estrangement, intolerance and even violence. Worse, children of such unions would suffer further social rejection.
At the time I thought my parents cruel, even prejudice. What I didn’t understand then, was the cultural lens that shaped their point of view.
What is the Cultural Lens? It’s a widening of one’s perspective–taking into consideration influences that aren’t fully visible.
During my parents’ generation, a social stigma against mixed marriages did exist. There were even hostile laws enforcing such views.
In 1922, American Caucasians were essentially punished for marrying immigrants of Chinese descent. Those who did had their citizenship revoked. It wasn’t until the late 1950’s that this law broke down and marriage views began to change.
In 1958, Richard and Mildred Loving married in Washington, D.C. to evade Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law (the Racial Integrity Act). Richard was Caucasian, Mildred was of African-American and American Indian descent. Having returned to Virginia, they were arrested in their bedroom for living together as an interracial couple. It was finally repealed nine years later by the Supreme Court in 1967.
So within my parents’ lifetime they’ve seen a drastic perspective shift regarding interracial marriages. In our own family, we have three mixed marriages. Today the rate of America’s interracial unions continues to grow. A recent study found that 8.4 percent of all current U.S. marriages were interracial, up from 3.2 percent in 1980. And the debate continues with same-sex couples now battling it out in the courts.
I’m a Chinese American married to a Jewish man in the 21st Century. Yet a mere fifty years ago, such a union was illegal.
My novel, Shanghai Love, honors my own interracial marriage.
During World War II, Peilin, a trained Chinese herbalist struggles between duty to her dead husband’s family and her own quest for personal identity. Her path crosses with Jewish doctor Henri–a refugee who flees Germany after Hitler’s hostile attack known as Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass).
I explore these two cultures forced together by war. Openness and love bridge their outward cultural differences.
Today mixed relationships are much more socially acceptable. Yet racism and bigotry still exists. How does a world which tends to cast people in black-and-white identities evolve? How will future generations identify with their past? Will we again become more separate? Will global society become homogenous mix? Or is there a way to embrace all that uniquely defines us?
As writers we can weigh in on the discussion. Walking in someone else’s shoes and seeing the world through their eyes cultivates humanity. Historical and cultural details add emotional intensity and further deepen your characters. Awareness builds understanding.