On July 30, Jeff and I celebrated our 4th wedding anniversary. Around the world, the fact that we’ve been married for four years has elicited one response: shock and awe. The reasons for this differ, however. If it’s a Westerner we’re talking to, they want to now just how old we are if we’ve been married for four years already. If it’s a local we’re talking to, they want to know just how it is that we don’t have a child (or four children) if we’ve been married for four years already.
The practice of marriage is nearly universal; yet at the same time marriage differs greatly around the world. For those of us in the West, we see marriage as a celebration of love. We marry someone because he/she inspires something inside of us that no one else does, because when we’re with him/her we’re a bit closer to being the person we wish to be, because we can’t imagine a life without him/her. We marry for a completely inexplicable feeling we call love. We’ll pass up someone better looking, someone with more money, someone with a better job, someone with higher social standing to marry the person we love.
It’s a beautiful thing (the 50% of the time that it works out). And it’s a concept that to most people in the world is completely foreign. As our new friend Byoung Jo, an engineer from South Korea, put it to me when he found out we’d been married for four years: “Jeff had no house. Jeff had no job. But you married him anyway. Why?”
Love obviously wasn’t the answer he was looking for, so I just laughed and replied: “He had potential.” Byuong Jo just shook his head. It was incomprehensible to him. No girl in Korea would agree to marry him if he didn’t have a good job and a nice home–and probably a few other assets to boot.
Marriage in most of the world is more of a business deal than anything else. In Africa we’d often hear talk of “bride price” or how much a man had to pay for his wife. In tribes and rural villages, the price was often in heads of cattle. In cities, it was a straight exchange of money, though quaintly enough the price was still discussed in terms of cattle. In other countries, there is talk of dowry–gifts of money, jewels, livestock, or other objects of wealth–from the bride’s family to the groom’s. Parents choose spouses for their children often without even a word of input from the to-be-weds. Being in love prior to the marriage isn’t part of the deal. Maybe it will come later. Maybe it won’t. To much of the world that seems irrelevant.
To them, marriage isn’t about love but is instead a merger that hopefully results in a better situation than if the two individuals stayed separate. It’s also about babies, about creating a family. It seems that pretty much everywhere we go, people expect that you have a baby within the first year of marriage. In some places, the marriage is considered void if a baby isn’t produced within a certain time frame. To many people we meet, being married but not having children makes about as much sense as pigs flying.
At first the constant questioning about whether we had children seemd odd. Now I’ve just learned to anticipate it and answer with a smile. I don’t try to explain the difference in our cultures. Instead I just smile and say “Not yet…” and then accept their offers of prayers or voodoo offerings or whatnot graciously. Later I offer up a silent thank you for the fact that I was born in a place and time where I’m free to marry whom I want at whatever age I want (or to not marry at all) and where the choice to have children, how many to have, and when to have them is all a personal decision (unless you have those pushy parents we’ve heard of, but luckily know nothing about ourselves).