Weighing Ethnicity When Picking A Spouse

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As the old saying goes: "Love is blind." But for the American-born children of immigrants, it's sometimes impossible not to look at ethnicity when picking a partner.

It's a topic widely discussed on college campuses across the country. The University of California, Berkeley is typical of those institutions that serve as global crossroads, filled with students from around the world. At school, students — White, Asian, African-American and Latino — all socialize together in a place where ethnicity holds no boundaries. But at home, things can be very different.

"Today we will talk about marriage, interracial marriage," sociologist Keiko Yamanaka, who teaches a course on the experience of Asian-American women, tells her classroom. All of her students are children of Asian immigrants. Yamanaka lectures about the issues they may face in trying to meet their parents' expectations.

"Asian marriage is often decided based on an obligation to the family, whereas in America, you choose the partner based on your interests," Yamanaka says.

Connections To Family Culture

Overall, interracial marriages are becoming more common in America, according to recent U.S. Census data. But those numbers mainly reflect the increase in black-white marriages. The same data show that since the 1990s, fewer American-born children in Asian and Latino families are marrying outside their ethnic group.

Take Jessica Nghiem, a UC-Berkeley student from Sacramento, Calif. While her parents are from Vietnam, Nghiem describes herself as thoroughly "Americanized." In high school, she says, she dated "white and Latino guys." But her current boyfriend is Asian, and Nghiem says both she and her family are very comfortable with that.

"I think my boyfriend gets brownie points because he does speak Vietnamese," Nghiem says. "And my parents can speak to him in a different language. So I think they're much more accepting. I definitely got a better response with a Vietnamese guy than, for example, a white guy or a Hispanic guy, you know?"

Nghiem's friend and fellow student, Elaine Ly, has had a somewhat different experience. Her parents are ethnic Chinese from Vietnam. Her boyfriend is Asian, but he's Mien, descended from refugees in the Laotian highlands. And Elaine's parents have issues with that.

"They come to me and say, 'How come you didn't find a Chinese boy or something?' " Ly says.

Her parents' question may strike her as irritating, but Ly understands their desire for her to pick a boyfriend who is connected to the family's culture. And for her own part, Ly says she can't imagine dating a guy who isn't Asian.

"The reason I love my boyfriend is because he understands what I'm going through," Ly says. "To me, I feel like values are important. Because he respects my parents, I love him for that."

Relationships Within One's Ethnicity?

None of this surprises Daniel Lichter, a Cornell University sociologist who studies interracial marriage patterns. Lichter says America's growing immigrant population gives today's children of immigrants more choices when picking a partner.

"It creates a ready marriage market for native-born minority groups, including Hispanics and Asians, to marry co-ethnics — in other words, Asians and other Hispanics," Lichter says.

This may reinforce cultural boundaries and traditions, but Lichter says it's too early to tell whether it's part of a long-term trend of immigrant children marrying within their own ethnicity.

Across the bay from Berkeley, students at San Francisco State University confront the same issues. Andres Rico, 21, is in his junior year. His parents are from El Salvador, and his girlfriend is from Spain.

"It's the first time that I've dated someone I can speak Spanish to," Rico says. "I don't know — it's kind of a comfort zone. It's refreshing, because I guess I feel I can express the side that I couldn't before, just because of the language barrier."

Suzanne Salazar, a senior at San Francisco State, says she never thought about the ethnicity of the guys she dated until she brought home a man whose parents are from Guatemala.

"And he speaks Spanish," Salazar says. "That was one of the first things my father mentioned when I told him I was in a relationship. He says 'Oh, he speaks Spanish? That's great. Finally.' "

Salazar says that while her father never made an issue of race, culture was another story, and he clearly appreciated her finding a boyfriend who is Latino.

"It is an issue for him," Salazar says. "It's something I never thought I would take into consideration, but I am now."

Bucking The Trend?

Of course, many students happily buck the trend and reject any effort to limit their romantic choices by race or ethnicity. Angela De Claro, a 21-year-old senior at San Francisco State, whose parents are from the Philippines, says she is not at all interested in staying within the Filipino culture when it comes to picking dates.

"No, I've never dated a Filipino guy," De Claro says. "I'm 5-feet-10, so, you now, find me a Filipino guy who's 5-feet-10! And when I wear heels, I'm 6-feet-1, so that's even more difficult."

But De Claro admits that being a rebel sometimes backfires. She just ended a long-term relationship with a boyfriend her parents didn't like.

"I hate to admit it," she says, "but my parents were definitely right about him."

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