Dear Dr. Holmes and Mr. Baer:
I am 28, an English major and a teacher. I have been emailing, Skyping with this American, James, 36. We met three years ago at a party, and last month he proposed to me, after asking my mother and father permission to do so. My parents were very happy, because they saw this as his willingness to respect our Filipino culture. Also, he has never been married and is willing to convert from Protestantism to being a Catholic.
I have been accepted as a teacher in the high school closest to where he proposes we live in the US. It is not my dream job since it focuses on the basics of English rather than on the poetry of Wordsworth or Tennyson, but I have resigned myself that compromising is needed in any marriage.
My parents and friends keep telling me I am lucky to have him. He is what they call “a big catch.” When I tell my parents I am uncomfortable about James, they say, “You can never have perfect in this world. At least, he has no children who will fight you for his money/inheritance.”
I am frightened and when I tell people the reasons for my fears, I cannot sustain the arguments they make in his defense.
He doesn’t make me feel safe. They say a feminist like me should make myself feel safe, not wait for a man to do so.
Maybe so, but why do other men leave me more relaxed than he does?
Plus, I resent it when he corrects me in public. I wish the world would swallow me up when he does that. He claims it is good for me, as I “am too big for my britches” but who is to tell when I no longer need cutting down to size? It has become so bad that I dare not speak when he is around, so afraid that any mispronounced word or wrong syntax will lead to remark that will make me want to die inside. He says I am too sensitive. My parents and friends agree. They say I am just used to being the best in the group that when someone better comes along, I can’t stand it.
Please help me. How can I manage my pride so that it no longer gets in the way of our relationship? Thank you and more power!
Your situation illustrates quite starkly how a person can be viewed in different ways depending on the perspective of the viewer.
What do we know about James? Your letter sets out James’s various qualities, good and bad, and how they are interpreted by your family and friends on the one hand and you on the other.
Firstly, he is unmarried and willing to convert. Depending how dogmatically Catholic one is, these are either essential or at the very least helpful.
He is only 8 years older than you. A significant age gap can be a problem, except of course for a woman seeking a father figure, so everybody can be happy here that he is looking for a wife rather than a nurse.
He is a foreigner. For some, this is a plus and makes him a catch. For others, the cross-cultural complications make a successful relationship that much more challenging. However, you also tell us that he is willing to respect Filipino culture so that must be a positive sign.
It is worth commenting at this stage that James would bring all the qualities we have considered so far to a marriage with any person. They say nothing about his relationship specifically with you but seem to qualify him as a good candidate, which is of course why your family is in favor of this marriage. However, as it is you, not they, that will be marrying him and living with him, your views are paramount, whatever they may say. After all, if life together turns out to be hell, you are the one that is going to be suffering, not them.
What we have discussed so far tells us nothing about how the two of you interact. It is only what could be described as necessary but not sufficient to ensure that the two of you could face a rosy future together. So what else have you told us about him and your relationship as a couple?
– He does not make you feel safe.
– He corrects you in public and thinks that is good because you are “too big for your britches.”
– When you remonstrate, he says you are too sensitive.
These are serious issues and resolution is essential before your relationship goes any further.
In my view, a man who does not make you feel safe is a man you should leave immediately. You do not have to justify it to anyone. There is no need for a carefully constructed argument to convince others. It is quite simply that you should never continue a relationship under such conditions, much less condemn yourself to a lifetime shackled to him.
The other things you tell us give an insight into why you feel unsafe. What sort of respect is a man showing towards his fiancée if he corrects her in public, supposedly for her own good? None whatsoever, I would say. And if he has no respect for you, why would you want to stay with him?
If in addition he considers you “too big for your britches,” again, why stay? The immediate fallout is already apparent. You no longer dare speak freely in his company and matters are likely to get worse, not better, as time goes on.
There is of course another aspect to his behavior and that is the insensitivity of a foreigner to Filipinos. Perhaps he believes in the stereotype of the submissive Asian who will cater to his every whim. Perhaps he thinks he is superior because he is American. Whatever the cause, this man who has mastered merely three Filipino words now thinks he can lord it over you because in his eyes your command of English is not perfect.
Your unwillingness to trust your instincts is understandable because your family, seduced by the prospect of “the big catch,” are trying to railroad you, and any resistance on your part merely encourages them to accuse you of pride and excessive sensitivity.
However, you must go with your instincts here. You have to act in your own best interests, even if it will make your relations with your family difficult for a while. To marry James will make your life infinitely worse, not just now but forever.
Bottom line: leave him, and leave him now.
All the best,
Many thanks for your letter.
Because of space constraints, my answer will focus on your fiancé’s racism. Racism is difficult to live with and practically impossible to eradicate in your hopefully-soon-to-be-ex fiancé’s (HS2BEF) case.
I know, I know, many may seem surprised that I consider him racist. After all, was he not sensitive enough to be willing to change religions a-n-d ask you parents for your hand in marriage in keeping with our old traditions, PLUS take pains to learn a few Tagalog words?
Well, yes. And it is precisely these three examples which make me believe he is a racist.
But first let me tell you about Edward Said, the late Columbia University Professor, who wrote the book Orientalism (NY: Pantheon Press, 1978). Basically, Said believed that foreigners who wrote about and lectured on the east (mainly the Arabic-Islamic east) could not escape the imperialist prejudices they grew up with, thus much of their work has a “subtle and persistent ” Eurocentric prejudice against cultures not European (or North American). Professor Said also believed that this long tradition of romanticized images of the orient depicted us as irrational, weak, feminised and “Other,” contrasted with the rational, strong, masculine West.
Instead of “oriental,” substitute “Filipina”; instead of “scholars lecturing,” an “American engaged to be married.”
In this context, the very things your friends think culturally sensitive of James are the very reasons I feel you should run away from him as quickly as you can.
All he has done so far — asked your parents for your hand in marriage, learn a few Filipino words, promised to convert to Catholicism — are things any trained monkey could do, or, dare I say it, someone superficial enough to think such actions really matter in the long run.
The above is something he has done for himself, not for you. It is his idea of what a Western suitor (any Western suitor) does for his Eastern bride (any Eastern bride).
The above is no proof that he loves or respects you. Hells bells! It is not even proof that he knows who you really are.
Most English majors, I would think, are fluent enough to pass as native English speakers. Can they make mistakes? Of course they can! Just as easily and “unknowingly” as native English speakers do!
Is it ok if people correct their mistakes? I would definitely think so, but then there’s correcting and there’s correcting, isn’t there? Most people I’ve spoken to prefer to be corrected in private. If, however, the correction needs to be done in public — no chance to do it in private, one might forget — then it should be done in a walang personalan way.
Your HS2BEF behaves in anything BUT a walang-personalan manner. Why else would he say you are “too big for your britches”? Could he be jealous that you know English well enough to teach it? Because, barring a few exceptions that he seems eager call attention to, you speak far better than he?
I mean, let’s face it, anyone who uses the phrase “too big for your britches” without any quotation marks is someone no one should learn English from.
OOPS! Now who’s writing in an extremely personalan way? My excuse is that you need to see that his behavior not only makes you (and I would think your true friends too!) awkward. There is no excuse for such cruelty. Yes, cruelty, because his purpose is to draw blood, and he has succeeded. That is why you dare not speak when he’s around.
God, I cannot imagine a fate worst than death for you (except, of course, to actually marry your HS2BEF). One of the most compelling reasons anyone is an English major is because of an instinctive love for languages. Thus, while he need not be an English major himself, a compatible spouse should at least have the same love, if not facility, for the spoken and written word. Not just in letter like a judge with pursed mouth eager to pounce on your pronunciation because he can find no other fault in the way you speak; but also in spirit because he appreciates that Filglish is just as valid — and I, being biased, feel less grating – as Ameriglish!
In fact, if he truly loved all the Filipina in you instead of being the Orientalist with a fantasy of what a Filipina should be, he would be so proud of who you are and what you’ve already achieved. I would think he’d be strutting around in his chaps and pointy boots telling everyone how his wife, who trained in the Philippines, has been hired, sight unseen, based merely on her records and application form to teach Americans how to speak more effectively.
That is a hell of an achievement, Clarissa! And if he truly loved you, he would not only make you feel good about what you’ve already done, he would also try to inspire you about things you could achieve in the future. So that, to use his own expression, being “ too big for your britches” would be a cause of joy because you were starting to live up to your true potential and he, as your partner in life, would do all he could to help you realize this.
As it is, I don’t even think he has the interest to find out. Otherwise, he would tell you about writing workshops you could enroll in and poetry magazines you could subscribe to.
Leave him, Clarissa. He is an albatross round your neck. He is either a good enough actor to convince your family or he is self-deluded enough to think, like any Orientalist would, that he is your knight in shining armor. I can’t decide which is worse.