I grew up repeating to myself one, single mantra on love and marriage: “Never, ever, ever marry outside of your culture!” I know how that sounds, but before you judge me as a racist, xenophobic prick, let me explain. I am biracial/bicultural – my mother is Japanese (straight from Japan – I was also born there and we moved to the States when I was 2), and my dad white American. They met while my dad was teaching English in Tokyo, and I’m sure it started off as a grand, romantic, international love story, but let me emphasize – it did NOT end up that way. I saw firsthand how cultural differences directly impacted their relationship in a negative way, and also how hard it was on my mom to be in a foreign country after a divorce. There was no way in hell I was ever going to put myself through that. Hence, my mantra.
Of course, starting from my first Puerto Rican “boyfriend” when I was 13 to the Salvadorean guy I was with for 6 years during young adulthood to that one Basque dude, I’ve pretty much only ever dated outside of my culture. Ironic! But I still kept to my mantra. Salvadorean-American was ok; straight up foreigner was not.
But, of course, life surprises you.
I first visited Guanajuato, Mexico in the summer of 2015. I was working at a job that I absolutely loved, as a mental health therapist at an elementary school with 90% low-income, Latino student population. I had the summer off and wanted to travel, and was going to go down to South America but thought at the last minute, you know, it’d be more helpful to my career if I studied Mexican-Spanish (and also flights to Mexico are like 100 times cheaper than flights to South America) so that’s what I did. I found (somehow, I don’t remember) a Spanish school with great reviews on TripAdvisor in the beautiful city of Guanajuato and made plans.
It’s crazy to me now to think it was really that random. And to think, what would my life be like now if I had chosen another city? Or even another Spanish school? Butterfly Effect status.
I wish I could tell you that when I first met Beto, his chiseled face and sexy body swept me off my feet, but actually I just thought of him as a professional. I mean, he was introduced to me as my Spanish teacher, (and yes, I have always had a thing for teachers dating back to that hot science teacher in high school). But I don’t know, I just didn’t see him that way. He had a sweet, round face, and glasses. I liked him right away as a person, but I definitely wasn’t trying to hook up with a local guy from a faraway land and get my heart broken. Ugh, been there! Too many times. And never going back there, I thought. The tearful goodbyes weren’t worth the excitement. So I didn’t even consider it.
But – another Butterfly Effect, trippy, “what if”, alternate reality thing – the school had just moved locations, and I happened to be their first and only student at the “new” school. That meant that I paid for group lessons, but got private classes. That meant a lot of one-on-one time with all the teachers, including one class a day with Beto.
I don’t know how it happened, but during those classes, we fell in love. Not once, for the first few weeks, did we ever even see each other outside of school. But I spent that hour of class every day cracking up and talking to this amazing guy instead of learning Spanish (I’m still waiting for my refund). I would randomly touch his hand, or he’d play footsie with me. Seriously, I was nearly 30 and you’d think I was 14.
Finally, literally my last week there, he asked me out. Like, really? You’re going to wait until the last week?! Anyway, we went out for tacos, and talked on a park bench until 3AM. He tells me now that he told me things that night that he’d never told anyone in his life. I felt the same. It was so weird, because some of the stories he told me about his life were so outside of my experience. On the surface, it felt like they should emphasize our differences, but his inner experience and what he’d felt throughout his life, it felt like he knew my soul. It felt so… normal, like we’d just known each other our whole lives. Maybe after about 6 hours of talking (come on, man), he kissed me. I remember I told him right after, “Esto nunca va a funcionar!” (This is never going to work!). And he told me, maybe it can. He said he still wanted as much time with me as possible. (That made me think he was a ladies’ man. He’s the opposite of a ladies’ man, it turns out).
We spent every day together until I left to explore Oaxaca, and then I cut that trip short to come back and spend a few more days with him before going back to the States. We both cried when I left. It sounds crazy after only knowing him a few months, but it seemed impossible that I was never going to see this person again. He already felt like part of my life. He told me he would wait for me, but if you’ve ever dated someone from Latin America before, you know that the dramatic declarations of love aren’t uncommon and don’t necessarily mean anything. So I was like, okay, I have some time off around Thanksgiving, so let’s just see how we feel then.
But he did wait for me. If he hadn’t, we wouldn’t be where we are. He called me every single day at first, and was in constant contact over text. The calling every night turned into Skyping every night, and that turned into Skyping every night at 9PM for a few hours before going to sleep. Every. Single. Night. Without fail. It just felt like there was nothing we would rather be doing.
Thanksgiving week, 4 months later, I visited him, and he came to pick me up at the airport with flowers. He had saved his pesos for 4 months, took me to the symphony, rented a boat, and went out to eat at the best restaurants every day. By the time I left, we’d told each other, “I love you”, and were talking about how we could make this work for forever. I came home and announced to my extended family that I had found the love of my life. They were shocked. I was 30 years old, I had been in one relationship of 6 years and another of 4 years and I had never in my life been 100% sure about anything or anyone. I know this is so cheesy! And even sounds irresponsible and impulsive now that I think of it. But I can’t explain it. It felt like I had found my home.
And I wish I could say, “And then they lived happily ever after”, but the story is a little longer than that. That Thanksgiving visit started 7 months of torture. Visiting him for a couple of days every 5 weeks because the visits could only be one way while he waited for his tourist visa, keeping up with our Skype calls, and getting more and more desperate to be close, caused us to fight about everything. Often, about money. Just pay $100 to come meet me in Guadalajara, I’d argue (the flights were cheaper to there). Like, $100 is nothing! (I am horrified, now that I live in Mexico, that I ever thought that $100 was nothing for someone earning pesos). The missing each other led to tension, a lot of tension. Right around the 5-week mark, the fights would get pretty bad. And then we would spend a magical weekend together, and cry at the airport (I’m traumatized now by that damn airport), and start the whole cycle over again.
In the midst of all of this, we were also trying to figure out a long-term plan. Despite all the hardships of being apart, we were sure we wanted to be together. After 2 huge break-ups, I didn’t know about “forever” anymore, but I knew that I would hate myself if I didn’t give this a shot, a good, God-honest shot. Well, if you’re American, you have a Mexican partner, and you’re not trying to just get married right then and there for the papers, you pretty much have one option left to be with the one you love – you’re moving to Mexico.
I started saving money, and emotionally preparing my loved ones. I didn’t flip flop too much about the decision, but there were moments, especially when really great things would happen career-wise, that I’d think: Is this really what I’m doing? I loved my job. I loved where I lived. I wasn’t one of these people who hate their lives and are trying to escape in whatever way possible. And I think had I even been 2 or 3 years younger, I wouldn’t have done it. I would have thought – typical “independent woman don’t need no man” style – he’s just a guy. Why would I give everything up for a guy? And a guy who lives in MEXICO? He’s just going to dump your ass and you’re going to be left with nothing! Guys come and go! Right?
But I think at 30 and 2 failed long-term relationships later, I had lived enough to know that amazing love like this doesn’t just fall into your lap every day. I mean – I had been with a guy for 6 years and another guy for 4, and I still wasn’t sure enough about them to marry them. This was the first time in my life I was sure. I decided not to overthink things, for once in my life. I just had to trust my gut.
So in June of 2016, one year after I met him, I moved to Guanajuato permanently to be with my love, Beto. Things were rocky at first, as they usually are when you first move in with someone, but with the added component of the cultural differences, which weren’t so apparent when we were living our separate lives. Small things, like will you please turn off the damn banda music?? But also much bigger issues. Like, why are so many of your guy friends such dicks to girls? And haven’t you ever heard of direct communication? Why do you lie about such stupid, random things? And the cause of the most horrific arguments: “Why don’t you respect my time at all?! Why are you always at least 20 minutes late to everything?” (Yeah… I gave that one up after about a month of living here). And of course, the reverse: “Why do you take everything so seriously? Just be happy with what you have. My guy friends are just that way. It’s just a joke. It’s just time. It’s just 20 minutes. But banda music is so good, though. I don’t understand.”
And then, there is the ultimate international couple killer: resentment. The, “I wouldn’t be here in this horrible country if it weren’t for you! I gave up everything for you!” type of resentment. And trust me, whatever country you’re moving to, at some point in time it will feel horrible to you. I don’t know when it was that I decided to just cut that kind of resentment out of my life forever. But I did. That resentment, I think, was one of the main things that killed my parents’ marriage. It was my decision to come. And you have to believe, and I do, with all my heart, that your partner would have given it all up for you, too. Beto used to even offer to cross the border illegally to be with me so that I wouldn’t have to give up my career (no way in HELL I was going to let him do that). We both made this decision, together, that made sense for us as a couple, and resenting him for it was just making everything a million times worse.
Luckily, other things that I’ve heard can be issues in American woman-Mexican man relationships are not an issue with us. He does ALL the dishes, (um… and the laundry. And… pretty much all housework) and he’s the opposite of possessive. He doesn’t care at all that I’m a little ahead of him in terms of our careers. But all of the little things, plus how hard it was for me in general to adjust to life here, took a toll on our relationship.
Thankfully, we kept talking, and kept talking, and kept talking, as openly as possible. We both had to learn new ways to see the world and to see relationships, and that has been a gift to both of us, I think. To judge less, understand more. To see things through the eyes of someone who grew up in a world so, so different from yours. What an eye and heart opener! Not everyone thinks like you, and that’s an easy thing to accept when you’re just making the I-love-everyone declarations to the world’s diverse people, but it’s harder when the person you’re in the most intimate relationship with sometimes expresses opinions that are, like, WHAT?! (Like yesterday I was yelling, “You don’t know the SUPREMES? How can you not know the SUPREMES??”). But despite all of that, that feeling that I first had when we met, that deep down inside of us, despite the opposite worlds we come from, we were very similar, has remained. And I think we’ve even grown more similar as time has passed. People even tell us we look alike! Even if it seems so counterintuitive, it feels like no one has ever known me or understood me like he has, even after years of being together.
So, in November, he took me to this gazebo we danced under one night during the summer when we first met, and proposed with a moonstone ring he’d had designed for me*. I tackled him and said yes. We didn’t want to wait, and got married 3 months later, in February. I didn’t think anyone but my immediate family would come all the way from the States, but all of my aunts and uncles came, along with almost every single friend I invited. It was the perfect wedding for us – casual but filled with love – and for food we served Chicken and Waffles, sushi rolls, and Pozole, representing our relationship: a total cultural mishmash that sounds like it would be horrible together, but actually, when you try it, is pretty amazing.
*Actually, this was his second proposal. He had proposed a week earlier, during a fight. He told me that even when we were fighting, and I was being – let’s be honest – a total raging lunatic, his love for me wasn’t any less
I broke my #1 mantra, and I couldn’t be happier about it. No matter what happens, I wouldn’t regret any of this for a second.
You can follow Saya’s love story on Instagram: @sayaland