I'm a cowboy in East Asia, lassoed by a local girl

Her parents are insisting we marry, but they're just uneducated village folk.

Published June 2, 2005 7:52PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

You know how to give out the advice. You do. And I need some badly, and right away. I'm currently living in East Asia, and have gotten involved with a local girl. I've been with other girls here before, and while there were certain to-be-expected cultural difficulties, the relationships generally went along in terms I could understand, and they eventually terminated of their own accord. But this one is different.

Several reasons. One, I love her. Maybe that should trump all and everything, but it's not. It turns out that this girl's family is extremely traditional. Before me she had never so much as touched the hand of a man who was not her relative, let alone gone out on dates or been alone with a foreigner or spent nights with a boy (who wasn't her relative). Now she has done all these things. With great enthusiasm and joy, I should add. She says she feels liberated. And when she's with me, she is.

Thing is, she isn't always with me. She's usually at work or at home with her family in the village. At her family's insistence, after she finished high school, she took a job in a factory rather than continue her education. She was told this was because there was no money, but her brother is attending an expensive private university in the city, and somehow there's money for that. She hates her horrible job, which pays her barely over $100 a month for 12-hour days and six-day weeks of mind-crushingly monotonous work. I told her that if we stayed together, I would help her continue her education and get her out of the factory (the job I have here pays me enough to be able to afford this). She took this to heart. So did her family. But in an entirely different mode. They will not allow her to quit her job, go back to school, move out or even continue to see me unless we get married. They have even gone so far as to send a relative to contact my supervisor at work, telling her that I am forcing (!) my girlfriend to defy her family and quit her job.

Cary, I am sympathetic to my girlfriend's family. They are uneducated village folk who fear the unknown, as all humans do. They are afraid I am just using their daughter and, having already sullied her honor and the family's reputation, will leave her in the lurch, with her future prospects (for marriage, for employment) ruined. This is truly the last thing I intend. I love my girlfriend and I can't stand the thought of her wasting her youth in a factory so some first-world shareholder can buy a flat-screen TV, or being crushed by the hidebound traditions of her family and village in a world where those traditions are fast becoming an illusion, when she is capable of so much more.

But I am not going to be boxed into marriage, thus entering into a social contract with a family I cannot trust or probably even understand. I should mention that previously the family has been exceedingly kind to me, doing me any number of favors and feeding me and generally welcoming me into their lives -- which is why their recent actions have felt like betrayal and why I do not feel as though I can trust them. And caught in the middle is my girlfriend, who loves and trusts me, and who would be absolutely destroyed if I backed down on what she has taken to be my promises, to love her, to stay with her, to help her improve her life. If it were just her, I would not hesitate. I'm sure I would marry her, if I felt like it had been our decision together. But it's not just her.

There's more, but this is the gist. So: Should I buck up and tough it out (I started this, after all), or get the hell out of Dodge before I get sucked permanently down the whirlpool?

Cowboy in a Lasso

Dear Cowboy in a Lasso,

I think you have to have a sit-down with the family. Though they may be "uneducated village folk who fear the unknown," they also have legitimate interests to protect and the power to do so.

Before you have this sit-down, you ought to review your options carefully. I would say the two best options are to break off the relationship or marry her. Continuing the affair does not seem wise. The family will only become more adamant as you defy their wishes. They will punish their daughter because of you. They will intervene in unexpected ways -- as they already have done at your workplace. Eventually, if you defy them, I think you will lose.

Of the two options, I prefer the romantic one. So if I were you I would ask for her hand in marriage. If you are married, she can then follow you when you leave the country. You can also live together in relative peace while you remain in her parents' country.

Breaking off the relationship altogether is the second-best option. I would seriously consider it. It is, in my mind, far superior to continuing the relationship against the will of her family.

In order to see the situation clearly, you may have to go through a somewhat painful process of self-criticism. I think in spite of your best attempts to be sensitive to this culture that you cannot really shed your privileged outlook. Who can? I'm not saying this is some deep moral flaw -- we are what we are; we are Westerners. The mistake you might make, however, is in thinking you are being sensitive merely because you wish to be sensitive; to think you are understanding the situation merely because you want to understand it.

For instance, though you say that the ruination of her future prospects for marriage is truly the last thing you intend, it may indeed be exactly what happens as a result of your actions. Your intentions count for little. And your insistence that you won't be boxed into marriage by her family, that "If it were just her, I would not hesitate" indicates that you don't understand the degree to which, in some cultures, the individual does not exist apart from the family.

For another thing, you say the family's recent actions "have felt like betrayal." But you do not indicate that you have any understanding of why they changed their tune. It seems likely that after treating you well, they expected you to reciprocate by proposing marriage. When you did not, it is probably they who feel betrayed. This is a rather clear-cut example of how you may be missing cultural signals crucial to your campaign. That is why I think you are bound to lose in any sort of battle with the family. There is just too much going on that you do not recognize. That is also why I suggest you engage in some self-criticism and try to humble yourself.

In that sense, it would be a fitting gesture, both romantic and cultural, if you would get down on your knees and ask this woman to be your wife.

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