Dear Dr Ren,
I met Tam our second year in university and we’ve been together ever since. We’ve both now graduated and I’ve begun a business while Tam has entered his MBA program. I grew up here in BC and Tam came here from Japan to study. His family is all still there. He has never come out to them and I have never met them.
Tam has just told me that his parents are arranging a marriage for him (!) to take place after receiving his degree. He’s supposed to return to Japan, marry this woman he’s never met, and move into the family business.
I thought he would refuse but he tells me he can’t, that I don’t understand the pressure he’s under. He says the only way we can stay together is if I follow him to Japan and we continue on the down low.
Tam is 26 years old and has been living in Canada for seven years now. Shouldn’t he be able to cut his apron strings and say no even if he can’t come out? Isn’t he expecting too much of me to accept this awful suggestion? He says he has no choice. I say of course he does. Who’s right here?
Torn by Culture
Dear Torn by Culture,
My heart goes out to both of you.
What you want, indeed what you are entitled to, is beyond your grasp. As devastating as it is to you to hear Tam’s news, try to imagine how it feels to him to be in this situation — loving men, loving you, and having to deny this truth to honour his family.
But of course you can’t fathom what this must be like because you were raised with an entirely different family ethic than Tam was. As a Canadian, you grew up believing in the power of love, individuality and self-direction in determining your life mate. Surely it was difficult enough for you when you chose the ‘wrong’ path of a same-sex partner. Only now are we breaking ground to making that an acceptable choice.
None of this was true for Tam, coming as he does from a collectivistic society in which decisions about marriage are simply not personal decisions.
He has probably known all along that this day was coming, when he would be informed that his future was determined with the family’s welfare the primary consideration, and that it would be his duty to comply.
Breaking with tradition is an expensive option for him. Doing so to remain with his male lover? Blasphemy and shame would rain on his family, who could be lost to him forever. If he did this, eventually you could bear his resentment for the cost of his loss.
I think you must forgive Tam for keeping this from you. It is only human nature to deny what we know will break our hearts.
If he had divulged this news earlier, would you have surrendered to him as you did? Your time together would have been marred by wrangling about a decision he sees as irrevocable.
We are supremely ethnocentric about and protective of our social beliefs. They provide us a framework for structuring our customs and traditions, and planning the arc of our lives. They influence everything from our clothing to our food, our manners to our religions, our superstitions to our loyalties.
Does anyone ever break away? Surely we do. We call it social change, and we would be lost without it. But make no mistake, we would be equally lost with social anarchy.
You ask me who’s right. You both are. The rub is that ‘right’ doesn’t matter.
Tam is right to obey the traditions he was raised to believe and follow, despite the fact it breaks his heart and opposes his very nature. He would be equally right to challenge those traditions, kick open his closet door, and take a stand for gay rights and independent choice, despite the fact that it would break his family apart and likely cost him their acceptance.
You are right to want to keep your relationship as it has been, despite the fact that it has been not wholly truthful. You would also be right to follow your love to Japan and see him secretly, probably the only way it would be possible for him to keep you and his family, too.
And we have not even mentioned the disillusion and disappointment in store for Tam’s wife, who believes she is marrying a heterosexual man.
You see, ‘right’ has no seat at this table.
You and Tam may find some comfort in reading Dr Faizal Sahukhan’s book, Dating the Ethnic Man to determine the extent of Tam’s ties to his traditional expectations. Perhaps a few visits with Dr Sahukhan would be helpful, too.
As to your best course of action, there are no clear answers. Where honesty, flexibility, and acceptance are not primary values, somebody loses. Still, love is buoyant. Seek the path with the greatest gains and the fewest consequences. Look for the best possible options, given your terrible choices.