Winter 1994 (2.4)
Journey of Halves - Between Two Worlds
To Marry A Westerner?
by Arzu Samadova
Photo: Typical wedding reception party in Baku. Oleg Litvin
In the beginning of time, according to one of our Azerbaijani legends, God created a single human being. He then split that being in half-creating a male and a female, and placed them apart in search for each other. And that's how life has become a quest-a longing of halves to be reunited. That's the ancient account and it's curious that even our language reinforces this possibility as our word "lover" in Azerbaijani is "yarim" which means "half of myself".
Now that I've been living in the United States these past three years, I'm wondering whether this story (which I used to think was so much fiction) isn't true after all, as my destiny seems to be an even more tortuous search for my other half than I ever imagined possible. What concerns me even more is the growing possibility that I may never ever find him-my other half.
I came to America three years ago. My life and future are bright here. I have everything a young woman my age could hope for. I'm a professional, I'm successful in my work, well-respected, well-educated, healthy, stable, and my family back home loves me. My friends tell me I'm attractive. My mother used to say, "God created my daughter when He had nothing else to do" (In Azeri, that's another way of saying someone is beautiful). Well, that's her opinion. You know how mothers always favor their children.
Photo: Mixed couples are fairly common in Azerbaijan. Here the wife is Russian, the husband Azerbaijani. Photo: Oleg Litvin
But still with all these attributes and opportunities that seem to come so easily to me, I cannot really say that I'm content and satisfied. I hear the clock ticking inside me, urging me to settle down and find my life's companion and build a life together. But no matter how hard I search, I can't find this other half. There aren't many Azerbaijanis living here; so my choice is very narrow if I insist on someone from my own background.
To Marry A Westerner?
When I think of marrying an American, my mind clouds with doubts. You see, I grew up in a different life style, with different patterns, social rules, expectations and traditions. Although I feel like I've adapted remarkably well here, I'm discovering how deep-seated my own culture is. I have roots of my own that seem to keep me from being able to lay a new foundation-no matter how hard I try.
It's not that I don't like American men. I find many of them charming and very attractive. But just when I think I've adjusted and feel so well integrated, some little incident occurs that jars me back to a different reality.
Card: Transferring of household goods to the home of the newly married couple. Turn of the century. Postcard at turn of the century: Courtesy: Yakub Karimov.
It appears, somehow, that we're always speaking different languages or talking on "different wave lengths". I'm not referring to words alone; though, of course, language is fundamental to any successful relationship. And I'd have to admit that there are times when my tongue aches from speaking English, and like an addict in search of a fix, I scurry back to the security and comfort of my own language. I'd also have to concede that somehow, "man sani seviram," still sounds much sweeter to my ears than the English words, "I love you."
But I'm really referring to a level of communication that penetrates much deeper than linguistics; that issues deep from inside, challenging my own sense of interests, values, propriety, and rightness.
Since living here, I've come to realize that each culture has a flavor of its own and others outside that community aren't necessarily able to detect its nuances-the sweetness of a culture along with its sourness, saltiness or even bitterness. Of course, each of us always has a tendency to think our own way is right and to criticize others, but the truth is, there are so many ways to perceive the same thing.
Love of Guests
Take for example, different attitudes that cultures hold towards guests. Myself, I love to extend hospitality to others and I'm ready to serve visitors every night. Their presence doesn't disturb me, rather I'm even happier when others are around. I've grown up in a family which used to entertain guests every other night. "A guest is a light in the house," my parents used to say.
But I detect that my friends here think that having guests too frequently interferes with their own lives and privacy. But I don't want to become an island in this huge ocean of a country. It's against my nature to keep people "at arm's length"; I want other people in my life and I feel that I have enough warmth and affection for them all.
The same with my parents. They live far from me and I'm not in any way dependent upon them but when it comes to making any serious decision, I pick up the phone and consult them. I feel an obligation that my decisions somehow effect them, too, even though they're 8,000 miles away. You see, children in Azerbaijan never leave their parents. They continue to live with them until they marry, but even afterwards they always feel responsible for them-as do parents for their children-for their entire lives.
I seek advice from them to maintain that bridge between us. It doesn't mean that I'm still a child or that I'm not independent. On the contrary, I let them feel that I'm available and here for them. And I'm happy that they are part of me and I, them.
But I detect that attitudes towards the family are different here in the West. Pragmatism rules. It seems couples marry, create a family, live together, and if the relationship doesn't work, they abandon it and go their separate ways.
We, Azerbaijanis, are different. Once we make a commitment, the expectation within ourselves, our families and our communities is that we won't break the relationship no matter how hard it is to live together. We continue to hold the family intact. It's inconceivable to imagine marrying someone, bringing children into the world and then allowing the family to disintegrate and the children to grow up without their father.
There are other differences, too. They appear as minor details but have such major implications. Take something seemingly as mundane as food. So often when I have prepared dishes that are favorites in my country-foods which have so many deep and happy associations for me-I've sensed that my American male friends haven't really liked them. They never say it directly, but it makes me wonder how much more Azeris would appreciate and enjoy my efforts. You see, it's not just food, it's all the accompanying emotions that it triggers, too.
Returning to My Own Country
Of course, you might suggest that I go back to Azerbaijan and marry someone there. If only it were so simple. But I, too, am emerging and evolving into a new person as I begin to question and cast off some of my earlier beliefs and assumptions and adopt new ones. And so I'm left wondering if even an Azerbaijani man would be able to understand the "new" me. Can I still meet his expectations of what a good wife must be? Can I fulfill the expectations and traditions of our families and the community at large? Would I be willing to give up some of the things that I cherish here just to better fit the mold of my own people?
You know, I like cooking, cleaning, housekeeping, but that doesn't mean I feel it is the purpose of my life or that I believe I've been created only to do work related to the family or home, or that men shouldn't be equally involved.
Ultimately, I believe that I will return to live in my own country but it may be years from now. And then the question really presses in on me whether an American man would be willing to accompany me.
It wouldn't be easy for him to leave America; there are so many advantages here. The average American doesn't have to be occupied with many of the everyday necessities that we do. In Azerbaijan, there aren't as many choices for us; we're not always able to buy the food or clothes we want. We may not even have access to water in our homes and apartments for several days, even weeks; much less hot water available 24 hours a day. We often have to trudge up many flights of stairs as not all buildings have elevators. Cars are very expensive; many people still don't have them.
Women rarely drive. The telephones don't work well yet. Hospitals don't have basic supplies and equipment. In general, it takes so much more time to get things done. Would anyone be willing to exchange the conveniences of everyday life here for the unknown frustrations and hardships there? Sure, these things are likely to change but it might take another decade. Could an American wait so long?
Even if I found an exceptional person who would go with me, would he be able to make the psychological and social adjustments ? Could he develop the relationships to become a complete personality? Could he find satisfying work? Could he become fluent in our language?
The Eternal Question
There's a deep loneliness gnawing inside me as I search for my other half here. America is not to blame. I rather suspect I'd have these same feelings any place outside my own homeland. Sometimes I wonder if every person-each of the millions of people down through the ages, who has been out of his or her own country during these decision-making, family-building years hasn't felt these same aches and doubts and yearnings.
I love my country. I love the new country where I now live. But it's one thing for me to experience this new world alone, it's another thing to try to build a family on this foundation. My happiness seems neither here in this country, nor there in my own. Oh, to find an ideal place that synthesizes the best of both these worlds.
In the meantime, the question of the old legend comes back to haunt me: where is my other half? Will I ever find that special someone who will dare to explore this unknown journey with me between these two worlds?
Arzu Samadova lives in California.
From Azerbaijan International (2.4) Winter 1994.
© Azerbaijan International 1994. All rights reserved.