All in the Family – a discussion with two couples
One doesn’t have to be a sociologist to know that the institution of marriage has changed drastically over the past few decades. This has come about partly as a result of a shifting economic reality, as the household with the husband working and the wife staying home to take care of the house and raise the children is fast becoming as anachronistic as the rotary dial telephone. Another change is that many women no longer aspire to that ideal, preferring to find satisfaction in careers of their own. This doesn’t by any means rule out marrying (or cohabiting) and having children, but it has created a new family paradigm. Throw in same sex couples, same sex couples raising families, single parents and the increasing number of people choosing not to have children, and it becomes apparent that there has been a seismic shift within society, with many preconceptions no longer valid. While some view this shift as a threat to the very foundations of society, others see it as a loosening of a strict set of rules that created a one-size-fits-all definition of happiness and fulfilment.
What hasn’t changed is the biological, and very human, urge that many men and women have to find a mate to share one’s life with—whether that means following the traditional path of marriage or forging one’s own trail.
As in society in general, the Japanese Canadian community has undergone its own shift when it comes to marriage. From mail-order brides to wholesale intermarriage within the space of one or two generations, the face of the community is unrecognizable today, a scant 130 years after the first Japanese immigrant arrived on these shores.
This month we talk to two couples about finding that elusive soul mate and what marriage means to them. Tom and Avalon Tagami, both recently retired, are long-time volunteers at the
Avalon, you have an unusual name, where did you get it?
Avalon My father served in the Royal Canadian Navy during WW II. Prior to shipping out for sea duty around
How did you and Tom meet?
Avalon In April, 1974 Tom started a summer job as an Occupational Therapist at the Workers’ Compensation Board. He’d already been hired by the Vancouver School Board to commence teaching in September but took the job at the WCB because he’d been told it was the best, easiest summer job in
When you married was intermarriage still relatively rare?
Avalon Intermarriage in my family was non-existent prior to my marriage to Tom. The closest was when my sister married her first husband, who was one half French Canadian. Then, a cousin married a Jewish psychiatrist. When we told others we were going to marry, with the parents on both sides there was reticence. People at large had little or no reaction, other that an aunt of mine who was difficult to reason with at the best of times, anyway.
Tom I grew up in a total mainstream community, in fact I had only one acquaintance that was Nikkei as I was growing up. I never attended Japanese language school or was a member of the
Aki and Reiko, I understand that there is a connection between your families that goes way back, even though you didn’t meet for a long time.
Reiko It’s pretty eerie. The Mimoto family was interned in Slocan’s #10 building, and their neighbours on the same floor were the Takarabe family, my grandmother’s family. The two families shared a cook stove, and my grandmother and Aki’s dad remember each other from that time, though they were quite far apart in age.
You two recently tied the knot. Did you have a traditional ceremony?
Reiko We were married in October 2007 at a small community hall in
With a 90% intermarriage rate, it’s unusual for Nikkei to marry each other these days, so you’re kind of bucking a trend. Was that something that was important to you, or did it just happen that way?
Aki For me, it just happened. I was not active in the Nikkei community at all before meeting Reiko. I can’t say that I avoided it as much as felt disconnected from it. If I did have an opportunity to tell myself what to do in dating matters when I was young, from hindsight, I don’t think I’d do too much different. Well, except for saying that girls are not nearly as terrifying as I used to think. Carpe diem boy.
I’ve met other Nikkei girls in the past, we just didn’t connect—different interests, different approaches to life. My partner’s heritage has always been the least of my concerns. Reiko and I just got along well, our communication and humour styles were very similar. We also have a very similar background in life, growing up in the lower mainland, going through the public school system and IB, then university. We learned afterwards that meeting was just a matter of time. Both us had circles of friends that overlapped multiple times. To me, it seems like personality and personal experience means more than heritage.
Reiko I never decided that I had to marry someone from the Nikkei community; however, after careful thought over a number of years, I had concluded that I could only partner with someone who had or was prepared to develop a significant understanding of Nikkei culture. This is because of my involvement in the Nikkei community as a performing member of Katari Taiko, core volunteer of the Powell Street Festival, and position (until recently) as Assistant Archivist at the
Tom and Avalon, what is your secret to maintaining a healthy (and long-lasting) relationship? Any tips for Reiko and Aki?
Tom Accept each other for who you are, don’t try to change or train each other. If you don’t know that you are totally suited for each other then you should not be married.
Avalon There is no secret, just common sense. Our relationship has been built, hour by hour, over 32 short years, by being aware of how each other is reacting to their day. We try to pay attention to how we interact with each other. The faster we deal with a small issue, the better. This way, small things never escalate into a spats. We use our weird humour to relieve stress and diffuse irritations. We have never had a major disagreement or a heated argument. Annoyances are dealt with through common sense, discussion, mutual respect and, especially, humour. Over the years we have learned to “read” each other fairly accurately and to sense building tension and diffuse it with a touch of humour. Mostly, we simply love spending time with each other. You should never marry anyone with the intention of changing the way they are. Accept them for who and what they are and adapt the way you interact with them to facilitate harmony.
Avalon, as someone marrying into a minority culture, did you find yourself facing any particular challenges?
Avalon The only challenge I had was getting used to family gatherings where much Japanese language was interspersed with English. Often the conversation was going so quickly that asking for a translation was not an option. While in high school, my best friend was Chinese Canadian and I learned much of my cooking skills from their mother, so adjusting to Nikkei food was not difficult. My British tongue has no ability to pronounce Japanese words, so I have become used to entire rooms of people giggling every time I try to use a Japanese word.
Reiko, your parents seem to have a really solid and loving partnership. Do you see them as good role models in terms of relationships?
Reiko My parents were great role models in the sense that they developed a relationship in which two very different cultures – and two very different families – could co-exist happily. Everyone in town from both sides of our family always came to our house for Christmas, birthday parties, and other family get-togethers. They still gather together at my parents’ house for Christmas dinner. Mom and Dad started that tradition.
My Mom and Dad also have very different personalities and interests, so over the years I came to see how two quite different people could fit into each other’s lives and passions. It’s a constant process of negotiation, checking in with each other. They both retired this past summer, and it is exciting to watch them foster interests and activities that they like to pursue together, such as volunteering at the National Nikkei Museum & Heritage Centre.
Aki and Reiko, you’ve only been married a short time, but does the act of being married change your relationship, or your view of it?
Aki Small changes in life, larger changes on paper. It’s nice to be able to plan years into the future now, we’ve got this year pretty fairly well planned out and have been talking about 2009 now. The bigger change was going from boyfriend/girlfriend to husband/wife. In some ways, a wedding feels like an arbitrary thing and moving to the new titles almost a sham. When I think of married, usually I think of couples more mature than me, that have been together for as many years as I’ve been alive and what they have as a married couple relative to where we are now somehow feels like I’m usurping their title. Perhaps that’s the reason why using the word “wife” to describe Reiko still causes this small involuntary burble to grow in my mouth. I imagine most people go through that period of adjustment. Friends tell me that it takes a year or so before the relationship matures enough. It’s already becoming easier as I hear myself saying it a few times.
Reiko Marriage doesn’t change the nature of my relationship with Aki at all. If anything, it’s made things easier. Soon after we first met, we found that our values and outlooks were similar, and we thought alike in many situations. There was never really a time period when we had to work to harmonize with each other – we were in sync from the start, and it felt like we’d already been good friends for a very long time.
Aki We get asked “so, how’s married life?” in EXACTLY that phrasing. What’s up with that? I suppose it’s like asking “how’s it going?” and I should be thankful. More creative questions could be problematic, stuff like, “So how loudly does Aki snore and how much does he drool when he’s asleep?”
How will you all be celebrating Valentine’s Day this year?
Tom We really don’t bother with Valentine’s Day. Our relationship is not based on material things, nor is it based on one special day of the year.
Reiko We will likely celebrate by avoiding all of the activities stereotypically associated with Valentine’s Day. There will be no giving of flowers, chocolates, or other presents, and we probably won’t go out to dinner. In elementary school I used to make all of my Valentine’s cards, one for each person in the class. No favourites. I kind of think that people should return to that model – give a card to each person you see regularly in your life, to say, “Hey, I’m thinking of you.” But who has time to do that nowadays?
Avalon, it sounds like you and Tom really enjoy each other – you really can’t ask anything more than that, can you?
Avalon Our marriage is always fun and our humour, teasing, verbal pokes and digs bubble to the surface multiple times every day. I am the most fortunate woman on earth to have married Tom.