"Before we were engaged, I told my husband an American foreign service officer that I had received a scholarship to Vienna, to study art," says Mexican-born Sheila Switzer.
"He told me, 'If you marry me, I will give you a scholarship for life -- you can travel and learn for the rest of your life.' "
Switzer took him up on it and 10 years ago joined the untold numbers of adventurous people in the Washington area who are part of a multicultural, international marriage.
Between 80,000 to 110,000 citizens apply for visas for their foreign spouses each year, and another 6,000 get "fiance' visas," says Duke Austin, spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "But a lot of people meet and marry foreigners in this country and we don't keep track of that," he says. Neither does the Census bureau, says a spokesman.
And with the U.S. Foreign Service (at least 100 international couples residing in Washington), embassies, the World Bank (foreign spouses make up 36 percent of the married staff), U.S. military posts and various international firms with offices located here, marriages like the Switzers' are not unusual here.
That does not, however, make Washington a dream post, says Mary Skocz, one of the founders of the Foreign Born Spouse Committee of the American Association of Foreign Service Women. "The employe comes here and says, 'I'm home, I'm home!' " she says, "but for the foreign spouse, it's just another post," a feeling Skocz says she shared -- even though she's an American -- when first posted to this city.
And yet, it's not just another post -- this one has in-laws, fast food and thousands of other small cultural norms that bring out the American in the native spouse, while underscoring how foreign the other one looks, acts and feels.
"The worst is when they come here for the first time after getting married," Skocz feels. "Up to that point, in her country, the American's done all the adapting, but now, it's the other way around.
"She may have just met her in-laws for the first time, and not liked them," she says, "and she may be asking all those questions newlyweds ask -- do I want to be married to this person? Do I want to be married at all?"
Reinforcing their commitment to marriage, on the other hand, are the elements that brought them to the wedding in the first place. "They tend to be a little more adventurous, a little more independent than your average," says Dugan Romano, author of a forthcoming book on multicultural marriages. "And they either are looking for something more than they can find at home, or else they're running away from something in their culture," observes Romano, who has been married for 18 years to an Italian businessman.
The couples also tend to be more tolerant of other cultures and "less attached to their own society," she says.
"This may sound strange," says Kim McLeland, an American who married his South Vietnamese wife, Nhung, in 1972 during the Vietnam war, "but I've never thought of myself as American. It's not that I'm anti-American," says Kim, a financial analyst. "I just identify myself more as a citizen of the world."
Having a world view may be part of the initial attraction, but it doesn't necessarily help them over their first difficult hurdle: getting permission from (or at least, getting away from) the immediate family.
"My mother was a very internationally minded individual," says Torill Floyd, a Norwegian native and past member of the Arlington school board who married her Alabama-born husband 35 years ago, "but my father was heartbroken. I was his only daughter, and he knew his grandchildren wouldn't grow up in Norway."
But her husband Tom, a business consultant specializing in international trade, "played beautiful Grieg -- Norwegian music -- and that helped a little," she says.
A Korean wife, who prefers not to be named, tells this story of how her husband wooed the in-laws:
"I told my mother, 'This guy wants to marry me,' and described his character without mentioning that he was a foreigner. Then, when he came to meet her, oh boy, was she shocked.
"But he'd made a careful study of the Korean customs," she says, "and he knelt on the floor, and spoke in polite language, and showed great respect. And my mother whispered to me behind her hand, 'He acts like a Korean!' "
Learning to adapt to one another's cultures continues throughout the marriage, couples say. And the list of things to adapt to can seem overwhelming, since the other person's food, body language, holidays, customs, family structure and language are all, well, foreign.
In most of these marriages, for instance, at least one member of the couple must speak in a non-native language. Judy Clair, a counselor with the Northern Virginia Information and Counseling Center for Women who specializes in multicultural marriages, describes the kind of semantic difficulties this can create:
"One couple, who spoke a number of languages between them, had an argument when the husband accused the wife of doing a 'foolish' thing. She was furious at being called foolish until she asked him to translate his remark into French. He did so, and she said, 'Oh, you mean it was a silly thing to do!' and calmed down."
The possibility for problems of definition like this seem limitless. For instance: "You have to remember that Vietnamese is a tonal language, where everything depends on your voice inflection," says lawyer and chemist Nhung McLeland. "In the beginning, I used to misread Kim's tone, and think he was angry when he was just giving me information."
"And I don't even try to speak Vietnamese anymore around her family," says her husband, "because I always get the inflection wrong and say the wrong word." He gives the example of the Vietnamese word ma, which has five different meanings, depending on how it's pronounced. He'd call his mother-in-law "ma," thinking he'd said "mother," he says, "but it turns out I called her a 'ghost' instead."
Body language also varies from culture to culture. "Americans carry this enormous bubble around them," says West German-born Sylvia Andrusyszyn, married to an American for six years. "You don't touch each other. You don't shake hands, you don't kiss and you don't hug."
"When we first got here, Sylvia never knew what to do at the door when friends came," says her husband, Walter, a foreign service officer.
The way Americans use language, body or spoken, takes some getting used to as well. "The way you make this very diverse society work," says Torill Floyd, "is by avoiding talking about anything that's at all controversial."
This contrasts sharply with her native Norway, where "everyone's pretty homogeneous, so you can have some very frank discussions." Coming from that openness to the American South of the 1950s, she says, was "pretty tough."
"In America," says Walter Andrusyszyn, "you probe around in conversations until you find the differences, and then you know what to avoid. But in Germany they probe around until they can find something to disagree with . . ."
"And then the fun begins," adds his wife. "Then you can have a good discussion."
Children provoke the most discussion in these marriages, say the experts. "All the things that have stayed hidden come out when you're going to have a child," according to Judy Clair. "What nationality will you name the child? How will they be raised? How will they relate to grandparents?"
The raising of children is a "real cultural tug-of-war," agrees Skocz, and it brings into focus all the sharp differences -- everything from how you treat the elderly to whom you educate, whom you spoil, how you protect and what you protect the child from.
In addition to all those questions -- including what you feed/name/teach the child -- there's the language question, again. "We've seen couples who were speaking Urdu or something to each other at home, until the children come. Then, all of a sudden, he doesn't want his children raised to speak Urdu, and they have to switch to English," says Skocz.
"In Italy, I saw mothers speaking broken Italian to their babies instead of English," says Romano -- a practice she's firmly against. "It seems a shame to deny them half of their heritage," she says.
Then there are couples like the Andrusyszyns who speak a foreign language at home, allowing their children to pick up English outside. But even they find that the children have trouble maintaining two languages. "Alexander at 7, their oldest has to be conscious now of speaking German to me," says Sylvia Andrusyszyn, "and the 4-year-old twins speak English almost all the time. But sometimes," she says, have their friends over, they'll speak German between themselves, like a secret language."
Other couples, like the Floyds, choose to stick with the language of the culture they're living in. "I saw a lot of first-generation Americans really pushing their culture on their children," says Torill Floyd, "and it didn't work -- they rebelled. We tried to share Norway in a good way with our five children," she says, "by taking lots of trips there, and celebrating holidays with some of the Norwegian customs."
Their methods, they believe, worked: The children, now grown, "all feel like Americans, but they're comfortable going to Norway, too," she says.
Learning to appreciate each other's culture is one way these marriages survive. The other ways, Clair says, are the same as for any good marriage -- "good communication, a willingness to work things through, lots of patience and flexibility."
The survivors add that, although their marriages probably have more than the usual number of clashes ("it can get very, very loud," says one), the bond itself is not based on whatever's causing the clash. "You sort of fall in love with the guy first," says Sylvia Andrusyszyn, "and then, years later, realize that you've married a whole other country."
Switzer agrees. "We have so much in common," she says of her marriage, "art, history, a love of travel. Marrying him was like a dream come true."
And international couples' commitment to that dream, says Tom Floyd, may be stronger than most: "She's giving up so much by leaving her country," he points out, "and you feel much more obligated, I think, knowing that you're taking this girl away from her family and her homeland. So you both really want to make it work."