Gina Collia-Suzuki is a writer, artist, and art historian. She writes both nonfiction and fiction, the former focusing on 18th century Japanese woodblock prints and the latter being satirical or historical in nature. She is married to native Japanese Ryoma Collia-Suzuki. The couple currently lives by the sea on the southwest coast of England, not far from Bristol.
Where are you from?
I was born in Birmingham, England, but spent the early part of my childhood between England and Italy. In Italy, my family lived in both the south and north, so we went back and forth a bit.
Where and how did you meet your husband?
Ryoma's parents were both born and brought up in Japan, but they moved to Ireland when Ryoma was one year old and then England when he was five. We lived in the same city, and we'd actually been in the same place a number of times over the years without realising it before we finally met at a night class in 1986. At the time, he'd just returned to the UK after living in Japan for two years. I was seventeen years old at the time. Our eyes met across a crowded classroom... the rest is history.
Did you know anything about Japan or Japanese culture prior to meeting Ryoma?
I'd been interested in Japanese culture since I was a child. My mother had the single "Ue o Muite Aruko" by Kyu Sakamoto (editor: aka "Sukiyaki"), and I used to get her to play it over and over so I could sing along to it when I was about six years old. By the time Ryoma and I met, I'd been studying Japanese art for a couple of years and the Japanese language for three.
Had you ever envisioned that you might marry a person from another culture?
My mother's father was a Romany gypsy, and my father is Italian. My other relatives came from all over the place and family friends came from all four corners of the world. Family gatherings were already like meetings of the United Nations. It was pretty much a certainty that when I got married that person would add another culture to the pot.
Is Ryoma bilingual?
He started out being bilingual as a child, but as he got older he stopped speaking Japanese. He says his Japanese is "pub Japanese" now because he can get by, order food and a drink, etc. Like Ryoma, I was bilingual when I was a small child. Somewhere along the way, I dropped the Italian. I understand far more than I speak now. I can manage to write a letter and keep up with friends/relatives on Facebook, but I need a lot more practise. I'm actually trying to make the effort lately. I don't want to just be able to say that I've been reading or shopping; I want to be more expressive and elaborate on the basics. Ryoma's tried learning Italian, and he's got a grasp of the basics.
Do you and Ryoma ever speak Japanese to each other?
Only when we're fooling about. I do talk to myself in 18th century Japanese when I'm working, which Ryoma finds funny.
Do you and Ryoma have any communication problems that have nothing to do with language?
When we first met, Ryoma was used to quite a formal environment and I was used to a very informal one. His mother's a very distant person, and his father's an old-school karate master and quite strict. Then along comes this artist with all these Italian genes flying about. I think I was something of a shock to the system for him. We spoke the same language, but at the same time didn't. Misunderstandings arose out of our different expectations. But that didn't last very long at all.
We've always been very open and direct, and we're very much alike in many ways. As we met when we were teenagers, we've grown up together and I think that makes a great difference in the way we communicate.
What are some of the most challenging aspects of your cross-cultural marriage?
Ryoma's the eldest son and, in the absence of his father (his parents are divorced), he was raised to be head of the family. His father and I get along fine, but his mother made it clear early on that she didn't approve of cross-cultural relationships, and that she would never consider me to be a part of her family. She demanded a lot of Ryoma's time during the early years; she expected him to put her before everyone else, and at the same time actively excluded me. I was very young when we first met and her barbed comments were very hurtful, but I kept on persevering for years. When Ryoma and I moved in together, his mother criticised everything about the way we lived. She didn't approve of a man doing housework or cooking. She used to phone me to check if I was taking care of the house.
When she introduced me to Japanese friends, I was Ryoma's "friend,' never his girlfriend. She was so ashamed to admit the truth. When Ryoma and I got married (ten years after we met), his mother cried throughout the ceremony-tears of grief, as all hope that her son would see sense finally disappeared. Not long afterwards, we moved 120 miles away.
Did you anticipate there being any problems, becoming part of a family from a different culture?
No. Growing up around people from so many different cultures, I didn't really think of myself as belonging to any specific one. My mom used to tell me I was international. When my English/Gypsy mother married into a traditional Italian family, she was welcomed with open arms; I imagined that the same would happen to me when I married. When we met, Ryoma expected that I would integrate into his family; that I would put his family first. He didn't expect to become part of mine. That caused a fair few arguments during the early days. In the end, he became part of my family and I have never been accepted by his.
What attributes do you feel are most important for a successful cross-cultural marriage?
The same things that are necessary in every marriage, I imagine; a sense of humour and the ability to listen. If things are taken too seriously, the smallest things can get blown out of proportion. Ryoma and I laugh a lot, at each other a fair bit, and it's not unusual for one of us to drop off a chair or bed whilst in hysterics. It's very difficult to get all bent out of shape about something when you can't keep a straight face.
What do you find fascinating about Japanese culture? Frustrating?
Fascinating: I'm fascinated by the contrast between modern and old Japan. I'm a history nut, so I like tracing back to the origins of everything, to see how thought/customs have progressed through the centuries. I live with one foot firmly planted in 18th century Japan.
Frustrating: I find the Japanese mask of forced politeness to be very difficult to deal with. With me, what you see is what you get, and I have trouble putting effort into cutting through the facade to get at what a person really feels/thinks. The biggest issue for me, however, is not being taken seriously as an art historian who specialises in Japanese woodblock prints simply because I'm a non-Japanese female. As the artist I focus on, Utamaro, has an undeserved reputation as a producer of "naughty pictures," some Japanese men have assumed that I am equally "naughty!" It's made for some interesting dialogues, in Ryoma's presence.
Do you see your in-laws often? Do you live with them?
In the early days, references were made to Ryoma's mother eventually living with us; I think that would have resulted in me being committed or her being throttled, or both! I haven't spoken to my mother-in-law for about eight years now. Ryoma's father is quite a character. We don't see him often, as he lives a fair distance away, but do keep in touch by 'phone. I think he's still holding out hope that I will write a screenplay, make a fortune, and buy him a yacht.
The two of you decided to combine each other's last names. How did this come about? Were there any repercussions from Ryoma's family?
I didn't want to lose my own family name when I got married, and I liked the sound of our two names together, so I was just going to have both. Ryoma suggested that he take mine and lose Suzuki altogether, but I was used to Ryoma Suzuki, so he decided to have both too. We were very laid back about it. We both changed our names legally. My father-in-law has never had a problem with Ryoma changing his name, but my mother-in-law has never accepted it. It took five or six years for her to address envelopes with the full name when she sent something to us through the post, and even then she did it begrudgingly and only because she worried it wouldn't get to us otherwise. It's a big deal for her.
Have you ever visited Japan?
No. We've talked about going together ever since we met, but we're both mad Francophiles, and every time we are planning a trip we somehow end up in France. We've never been to Italy together either.
Thanks, Gina, for a fascinating interview!
Be sure and visit Gina's website here.
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