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Bicultural Relationships: Navigating the Holidays

One of my favorite New Year traditions that my family celebrated while I was growing up in Hawaii was driving the windy road up to my great grandmother’s house where our extended family would gather for a potluck lunch overlooking the city and ocean. The table spread would be full of vibrant colors and always too many dessert dishes, but what I really looked forward to was getting the chance to sit in my great grandmother’s kitchen with her and have a bowl of her delicious New Year’s soup called Ozoni. Ozoni is a traditional Japanese soup that’s made in celebration of the new year that is supposed to bring good luck and fortune. Her recipe was simple but comforting and she’d always sit down beside you and chat with you as you ate it. I identify as either Asian-American or Japanese-Taiwanese-American depending on the context, and my partner identifies as Euro-American. This is the first Christmas we are celebrating as a married couple and have begun to think about what traditions we want to continue from our families of origin. 

Navigating cultural differences in multicultural relationships can be challenging, but it also presents the opportunity to honor both origins and share meaningful traditions together. According to the U.S. census bureau, 10.2% of marriages were interracial or interethnic in 2016 while a 2015 Pew Research Center’s report stated that nearly one-in-five newlywed couples in metro areas were intermarriages. These have and are expected to continue rising as globalization and the expansion of urban areas continues. Many couples are trying to navigate not only the different traditions that they grew up with but also personal and familial expectations. For example, my family prioritized the day of the holiday to come together and celebrate with a few events occurring on the days surrounding it, but my partner’s family has always seen the week leading up to the holiday as the time that the family is expected to get together that includes a number of shared activities. Differences such as these may require compromise from one or both partners but communication about these expectations and having these conversations in advance is likely to promote connectedness rather than conflict. This could include discussing expectations around specific traditions, family gatherings, gift-giving, religious services, food, travel, work-life balance to name a few, but it’s essential to maintain respect for differences and a willingness to advocate for one another with each other’s family of origin. 

A practical tool that couples can use while trying to navigate the holidays is to each create a list of negotiables and non-negotiables for the holiday celebration and to share it with one another prior to the day of events. As mentioned above, it is most beneficial if respect for one another can be mutually agreed upon as a non-negotiable. Focusing on the values underlying the tradition and similarities shared in that rather than the surface differences may also help to establish what synthesis of the different traditions could be possible upon that similarity. My partner’s family doesn’t make Japanese New Year soup but does make large assortments of cookies and the similarity our two traditions share is the time spent with family enjoying something delicious. Lastly, holding a stance of curiosity for one another and openness to experience the holiday through your partner’s worldview can lead to discovery, connectedness, and validation. 

I am so excited about the revisioning of celebrating holidays with my partner to create new traditions as well as sharing and inheriting traditions that have meant so much to each of us and our families. In some ways, it represents an evolution in our identity as a couple, and it will continue to change as time passes or when we add more members to our family. One day, our children will get to make similar decisions, but just as a gardener that inherits a plot of land may keep some plants and decide to take out others, so too are traditions and we each must make that decision ourselves. 

Brandon Liu 

Associate Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist 

CORE - Center of Relational Empowerment, PC 

[email protected]

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