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Love In Translation: Foreign Wife, Japanese Husband


 

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.

Comments
17 Comment count
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Wonderful!

Thanks for a fascinating and fun read. Plus, I learned more about two women (and twitter friends!) whose books are waiting on my nightstand: LOVE IN TRANSLATION and THE WONDERFUL DEMISE OF BENJAMIN ARNOLD GUPPY.

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Thank you!

Randy Susan, thanks so much for your comment. It's amazing how Twitter can bring people together -- that's really how I ended up connecting with Gina. I'm looking forward to reading your book, The Murder's Daughters!

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Thanks

Thanks for inviting Gina to be part of your very interesting series of interviews. They are all eye opening and insightful. What an added bonus to see you featured on the Red Room home page as the featured "Author Conversations"! Wonderful. :)

I hope your launch has gone well and I hope that it continues to go from strength to strength!

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Arigato!

Ryoma-san, Thank you for being a willing participant, so to speak, in Gina's candid and fascinating interview. I'm finding the topic of cross-cultural marriage to be one of great interest to many through the series of interviews I've been doing. It's still the fact that a Japanese Husband, Foreign Wife pairing is much less common that the opposite.

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It really is a fascinating

It really is a fascinating series, thanks for sharing it. I had no idea that the husband/wife ratio was so much less common. Interesting.

I have to say, from my own perspective I always considered myself very English but it's very clear that many attitudes and preconceptions I had were very traditional Japanese which should not be a surprise considering my parents. :)

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You can take the boy out of

You can take the boy out of Japan, but you can't always take Japan out of the boy. Or something like that!

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Yes, I agree but...

My relatives thought that too... before I caused complete chaos for them with my 'Western ideas' and promptly got disowned! LOL!

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It's only been as I've grown

It's only been as I've grown older that I've been able to separate English behavioural patterns from Italian ones. I didn't realise, when I was growing up, that many of my mannerisms and ideas were not English in origin. I wonder how many of our behaviours are genetically programmed?

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>>>I wonder how many of our

>>>I wonder how many of our behaviours are genetically programmed?

Probably more than we care to admit!

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Thanks for this interview, Wendy.

Saw this featured on RR home page and had to come here and read it. Well done--very interesting. Of course, Gina helped you with her openess. I love their combined names, btw. The names look good together and aren't too long to be a problem, which some combined names are. Ryoma seems so laid back and extremely warm--it is hard to believe his mother is so non-warm to Gina. She is missing out on so much, but at least she is sending packages to the Collia-Suzukis. She may warm up yet!

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Thanks, Sue!

Thanks, Sue!

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Thanks Gina and Ryoma and Wendy!

Enjoyed the interview, and am amazed at Gina's perseverance re her mother-in-law. Ryoma, did you see Pico Iyer's comparison of the British and Japanese systems in his review of Remains of the Day? He says their very finely calibrated sense of decorum and hierarchy is what makes them similar.
Best,
Anastasia

p.s. ...oh go ahead, Gina, buy your father-in-law a yacht!

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Hi Anastasia

Sorry for not responding sooner, I've been absent from Red Room for a few weeks as I've been a little distracted on other things. :) 

I'm amazed at Gina's perseverance too, by the way. She  kept trying long after I would have given up. I haven't read Pico Lyer's comparison, but I'm sure I would find it fascinating. I'll look it up. :)

Hope all is well with you. :)

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Remains of the Day

When I first saw "Remains of the Day" and then found out the novel was written by a Japanese, there was no surprise there. Yes, similarities abound. :-)

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i also stumbled onto this interview from the home page . . .

. . . and I'm so glad I did! I follow both Gina's and Ryoma's blogs, so reading this interview was like getting one more taste of a favorite flavor. : ) Thanks for doing the interview, Wendy.

I once knew another cross-cultural/interracial couple in which the daughter had a similar experience to Gina. Her in-laws never accepted her, and from the time she and her husband got engaged, they've never spoken to one another. Even after the couple had kids, which often breaks down such barriers, the in-laws remained steadfastly unwilling to open their hearts. I know how difficult that must be for the young family, to have this insurmountable wall between them and the parents of one of them. It's great that Gina and Ryoma have not lost both of his parents to this problem. Ryoma's dad sounds fantastic! (I'm also hoping for his yacht!) : )

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Evie, thanks for your

Evie, thanks for your comment. It always amazes me when I hear stories like this; I cannot understand what that couple's motivation is in being so cold. I don't know why they cannot think of why they would put some kind of cultural notion first over the happiness of their son.

Just to let everyone know, this interview is part of an on-going series. You can read more interviews at:

http://chirashi.wendytokunaga.com

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Hi Wendy

I love your ongoing series, it really is an eye-opener!