I hand my debit card to the cashier, and she recognizes the African surname imprinted on the bottom of the card. With immediate suspicion, she lifts her eyes to meet my pale face.
“Is this your card?” she asks unashamedly.
“Yes,” I answer.
She hesitates, unsatisfied, and tries a different angle: “Is your surname Motaung?”
“Yes,” I respond again.
Another hesitation. Still unable to reconcile the mystery at hand, she enquires with tremendous curiosity, “...Why?”
“My husband is a Motswana,” is my reply.
Slowly she raises the card toward my hand, using the final seconds before its return to conclude the silent battle that wars in her mind as to whether or not she should call her manager.
It may sound like an exaggeration, but it happens all the time. Many people cannot reconcile a white woman with an African surname. Apparently, to some, it is more believable that I would've stolen someone else's debit card than to actually marry someone of a different race.
Once as I was waiting to be called into an office for an appointment, the receptionist entered the empty waiting room and walked straight past me, certain that I could not possibly be Kate Motaung.
The fascination is rampant.
Some people just blurt it out: “So what's it like being married to a black man?”
Others think they are being more subtle, yet their curiosity is obvious as they just about veer off the road while staring at us in their rear view mirror. My husband and I have nearly caused countless accidents as drivers try to determine whether we are actually holding hands while walking side by side down the road.
I can't even remember how many times we've invited guests over for supper, only to have the conversation turn toward the inevitable: “But really – what is it like to be in a cross-cultural relationship?”
And every time, our answer is the same.
We start off by saying that we actually count ourselves at an advantage rather than a disadvantage, since the differences were obvious from the beginning. We knew that we were coming from different starting blocks, so we were aware from the time that the starting gun was fired that we'd have to work hard to get on the same track.
Other couples who grow up in the same home town may presume otherwise. They may assume that because they are from the same culture, same school, same town, that their beliefs, worldviews, customs and traditions are in sync. It is couples like that who are more likely to be in for a surprise.
Needless to say, every home operates differently and no two sets of parents raise their children in the same way. As a result, even husbands and wives who graduated from the same high school may have completely different expectations as to how their newly formed nucleus should function.
“But my mom doesn't fold towels like that!”
“Oh yeah, well my mom would never dream of rolling my socks into a ball the way you do!”
“Didn't your parents ever teach you not to squeeze the toothpaste from the middle?”
“What do you mean you want to send our children to a Christian school?”
Statements and questions like these are not uncommon. In our case, because my husband and I knew that we had been raised very differently, we worked hard from the beginning to be very specific about our expectations, our assumptions, our preferences, and our traditions.
The Secret Ingredient
However, more important than just good communication is the one overarching component that makes it all tick. Without it, we'd be in for certain disaster. That component is Christ.
Though our upbringings were as different as our skin colour, both my husband and I have personally committed our lives to serving the Lord Jesus Christ.
And that is what makes our marriage work.
Our love for the Lord and His Word dictates our decisions. It dictates the way we communicate with one another. It dictates the way we function in our roles as man and wife, in our roles as servants of Christ and one another. It dictates the way we solve conflict and handle disagreement. It dictates how we raise our children. And the list goes on.
Sure, we have our differences. All couples do. And to be honest, there are some things we may never get used to. After eight years of marriage, my husband still doesn't understand why this white wife of his insists on washing her hair everyday. Nor will I likely ever grow to appreciate the aroma of boiled sheep intestines – a so-called delicacy he is crazy about. I have, however, learned to cook (and enjoy) pap, samp and dombi, and he has learned to live with my love for crayfish and sushi.
Ultimately, it's how we approach these differences that determines the course of events to follow. Do we sigh and resign ourselves to the fact that we will never see certain things the same way because of our culturally-tinted lenses? Or do we do our best to take off those biased spectacles, and ask the Holy Spirit to help us see things the way God does? Do we insist that our way must be the right and only way? Or, with the help of God, are we willing to set aside our preferences and selfish desires to seek out the biblical way?
The recipe for a good marriage
It may look simple enough on paper, but what does it look like in real life? Maybe I can put it this way – some of the best marriage advice I received before I got married came from an unexpected source. It was a short message tucked away on a corner of a handwritten recipe given to me at my kitchen tea. This particular friend who had written the recipe said this: “There are many good verses in the Bible about marriage, but some of the best advice is found in Ephesians and Colossians, in those passages that speak about how Christians are to treat one another.”
Think about it. What would happen if all of us, regardless of race or cultural background, were to treat each other like this:
“... as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion,kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Colossians 3:12-14).
If we were consistently and selflessly compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, patient, forgiving and loving – who would ever have a single issue or conflict to work through? I say this not as an indictment, but rather as an encouragement to say that in spite of our differences and in spite of our sinfulness, with the help of the Holy Spirit, it is possible to have a marriage that survives against all odds.
Building on the rock
For my husband and I, our commitment to Christ is the one component that makes our cross-cultural relationship possible. This all-important foundation can be compared to the parable of the wise and foolish builders in Matthew 7:24-27, when Jesus says,
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
If both parties are committed Christians and have built their foundation on the rock of Jesus Christ and His Word, then even when the storms of life arise, their home will stand firm. This is true for all couples, whether mixed race or not. It is in homes where the Word of God is not upheld and put into practice that the real danger is found.
As the well-known hymn puts it, “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.”
With this in mind, ask yourself: Upon what foundation is your home built?
This article was previously published in Radiant Magazine. Used with permission.
Kate Motaung is the wife of a South African pastor and homeschooling mom of three. She has contributed to Ungrind, Radiant Magazine, (in)Courage, StartMarriageRight.com, Thriving Family, MOPS and Young Disciple magazine. You can read more from Kate at her blog, Heading Home or on Twitter @k8motaung.