My Mixed Marriage

UNEXPECTEDLY I dropped off the train in Cleveland to rest for several hours. I called at the house of a friend to find that a dinner party was in preparation. Dr. John Haynes Holmes was to debate Rabbi Barnett Brickner on the everlasting subject of intermarriage — miscegenation, the elect like to call it. The clergyman was to be for it, the rabbi against it.

It was impossible for me not to be facetious.

‘What,’ I asked, ‘do you gentlemen really know about intermarriage? You, who favor it, are married to a woman of your own kind; you, who oppose it, are married to a woman of your own kind. Vicariously, distantly, even statistically, you may speak with some authority. But do you know the secrets of the hearth? Do you know the unspoken thoughts of those who have crossed national and racial and even color barriers? Do you know the anguish that must arise when ordinary misunderstandings among human beings are attributed to prejudices? Do you appreciate the problem of the child?’


Well might I ask such questions, for mine is perhaps the most mixed of marriages. My wife is a Hakka. The Hakkas are the most vital of the aboriginal people of China; they are strong, independent, vigorous; excellent pirates, and splendid merchants. Their women never bound their feet; they carried short swords in their hair as a protection against rape by the conquering sons of Han, who drove them southward as they moved down the Wei and Yellow rivers to encompass a continent. Not intermarrying with the Puntis, continuing to speak their own racial dialect, they nevertheless are Chinese, for the word ‘Chinese’ applies to all the people who live in the country of China — many races, many tribes, many religions, many human mixtures.

Enterprising, hardened by travail, the Hakkas are China’s most intrepid emigrants. They built railroads in the United States; they developed tin mines in the Malay Archipelago; they cultivated rubber in Java. Nearly a century ago my wife’s ancestors appeared in the British West Indies, where they became merchants.

My own people are Polish Jews, mostly rabbis and musicians. On my mother’s side, there is a line that goes back to Italy several centuries ago — a line that moved over all of Europe, and is still moving. Who can know what heredity there is in such a race? A red-headed aunt — might that not be attributable to the rape of Jewish women by Gustavus Adolphus’s soldiers, or to the Lex primae noctis of the feudal lords? Might not some of the Mongolian characteristics which appear in eye and eyebrow trace back to the hordes of the Huns or of Genghis Khan? Who can know such things, for are not the essentials of history all unwritten? Do we not live in the security of overlooked and forgotten facts?

My father came to this country in the 1880’s to be a rabbi among struggling tailors, peddlers, and junk dealers. His was the task of keeping a povertystricken head high among the nouveaux riches who transferred their packs to shops and became department-store owners or manufacturers. His was a life of serving an ideal of faith, while the rewards went to the unholy and sometimes to the wicked.

My wife was educated in England, in a school in Bath and at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Born in a British colony, educated in England, her cultural heritage is British. I was brought up on the East Side of New York, amid the excitements of the transition of the East Side from a ghetto to a vast and assimilative metropolis which now includes the whole of New York. I was educated in New York’s public school system until I went to Columbia University during the stimulating years just before the war. Mine is a New York cultural heritage — distinctly New York, because it is also Jewish.

I came to China by way of Russia, to become steeped in the Chinese revolution, to learn to love an alien people, and then to weary of disappointment and become distressed by unending failures. She came to an idealized China, to the China which her grandmother recalled as it was during the Taiping rebellion, to a China which exists no more, and may never have existed except in the glorified memory of a mother who had never seen China, who had never known the Chinese in their native habitat. Just as I, in my Zionist childhood on East Broadway, had looked forward to the Jewish homeland in Palestine, so she had envisioned the Chinese homeland, to reach which she traversed two oceans and a continent from London to Shanghai.

And in Shanghai we met the day she arrived, and three years later we were married. Three years we debated the question of mixed marriages. Three years we argued our prospects of success. We had nothing in common except an affection for and a faith in each other. Could such a marriage succeed?

Everyone said it must fail. Shall I ever forget how a kindly friend sat before me for hours recounting all the probabilities of failure? Do I not still tremble when I think of the picture he painted of the child’s future — if there should be a child? And then a Chinese friend — a man who had himself experimented with intermarriage and failed — spoke to each of us separately and advised against it. Upon me he loaded a fearful responsibility. He said: —

‘If you fail, she will have no one to go to. If you are cruel, the Chinese will say it is racial prejudice. If you do not succeed in life, foreigners [Westerners] will say that it is your Chinese wife who keeps you down. And you may come to believe it. If you succeed in life, you may not be willing to admit that a Chinese wife helped you. Unless you are both gentle and careful, you will inevitably fail — not only in your marriage, but in your lives.’

Then we married — she, Chinese, Christian, British; I, Polish, Jewish, American. She became a woman without a country, for my country would not have her and hers had to let her go; I became part of a mixed world in the East, where the color line is drawn in the foreign settlements.


Ten years have now passed, and we have both reached the same conclusion: that marriage is essentially a matter of readjustment — the more sensitive the individuals, the more delicate the readjustments. Marriage involves, not races and nationalities, but individuals — two individuals, no more than two. Even if they are of the same stock, the same heredity, the same education, success or failure depends upon adaptability. The inflexible man and the shrewish woman are never a happy pair.

A mixed marriage is, then, first of all, only a marriage. The elements which make for success or failure are primarily those which determine the fate of other unions. Poverty, irascibility, injustice, brutality, deceit — these make for failure in any marriage. The ‘mixed’ characteristic plays no part here.

But there are moments when the mixed marriage is subjected to a stress which does not appear ordinarily — that is, when misunderstandings are attributed to the racial or religious or national differences. In a marriage between a Gentile and a Jewess, for example, an indelicate man is particularly liable to forget the sensitiveness of his wife when he thoughtlessly uses the phrase ‘damn Jew,’ forgetting that he is referring to his wife’s people, even to herself. It is a sad moment for both partners when the ordinary wear and tear of life leads to a repudiation of racial or national equality, to an accentuation of differences, to an attribution of all errors to religious practices. Mixed marriages, then, should not be entered into by individuals who are not certain that they have transcended racial, national, and religious affiliations. Upon that we are both agreed.

Marriages between Chinese and foreigners have usually been unsuccessful— most often when the ‘white’ component has been a woman. Many elements enter into these failures. First of all, most of these marriages have been between sailors, beach combers, or other representatives of the lower social strata of the white man on the China coast, and ‘salt-water girls’ — that is, specimens of the lowest social stratum among Chinese women. Such marriages are doomed at the start. Coarseness on either side leads to injustice and misery. Physical attraction being the sole cause for marriage, the thing goes on the rocks when that has faded. Among such men and women there is rarely either the character or the capacity for adjustment. The man goes his way, the woman hers. He gives her money; she feeds him and sews on his buttons. They have children. She would bring them up her way; he finally gives in and lets them drift. Yet, even among such people, there have been notable exceptions — men and women who have grown, who have achieved a competence and an elevating environment, and who have created a family.

Among what may, for want of a better phrase, be called educated men and women, intermarriage between Chinese and foreigners has, if the ‘white’ component is the man, often been as successful as an ideal marriage of the orthodox type. The Princess Der Ling and her husband, T. C. White, are an example of a happy mixed marriage. Dr. Hawks Pott, of St. John’s University in Shanghai, and his Chinese wife were supremely happy as long as she lived. Our own marriage has stood the test of a decade. There have been other instances which I could cite.

When the ‘white’ element is a woman, the problem is very much more seriously complicated by the intricacies of the Chinese family system. The wife finds that she has to adjust herself not only to her husband but to his relatives as well, to his mother in particular. If she lives with the family — the usual practice in China — she faces problems of differing customs and habits, to which she may never adapt herself. If she lives in Shanghai or Peking, she may take her place in a society in which normal recreation and stimulation are possible; but if the husband carries her to his native village, then she finds herself isolated among strangers whom she never can regard as her people. If he was married in childhood or early youth, as often happens, and he has failed to tell her about it, she soon discovers that his people look upon her as a concubine, and treat her according to that status. If she cannot compromise, and does not follow family customs, then she becomes a problem, an impediment, a cause for quarrels. If she lives a Western life, she is often too expensive. If the father is paying the bills of the entire family, as Chinese fathers not infrequently do, she then becomes an occasion for bickering between father and son, which brings upon her the opprobrium of society. I know of very few such marriages which have not foundered rather quickly.


The only broad general conclusion that can be reached with regard to mixed marriages is that environmental differences make adjustments more difficult than in the ordinary marriage of like and like. Failure comes more often from deceit and ignorance than from any inability of races to blend. American girls who marry Chinese students often imagine that their husbands are very wealthy. One Chinese boy, when he was a student in this country, gave the impression that he was a prince, and the American girl who married him was shocked to discover in Shanghai that he was only another young man looking for a job. Deception, poverty, and disappointment wrecked that marriage, just as they wreck thousands of the most orthodox unions. In such cases, it is not the mixture, it is the lies, that make for failure.

Few of us realize that most marriages involve elements of racial, national, and cultural mixtures. Even when the pair have been brought up in the same village one cannot be certain that there is not, in one or the other, an intricately mixed racial origin. I know an American who may be a New Englander for all I know, yet there is something about him which indicates a deviation. Is it a Hungarian strain? If so, is it Magyar, Gypsy, or Jew? If it is Magyar, it is Asiatic from northwest China, diluted by centuries of assimilation with Europeans. An American heiress marries a Russian prince. Is he a Russian, a Georgian, an Armenian, or what? He may be a mixture of Hun, Tatar, Slav, and German. Their children grow up in Newport and marry there. Is this not as great a mixture as can be found in Canton?

In an intermarriage, cultural dissimilarities are likely to be great, because here enter elements of diverse home environment, schooling, travel, religious practices, and a thousand and one influences that play on every individual from the moment of his birth. These cultural influences make for success or failure in marriage more than any other factor. They are never identical in two individuals, not even in brothers; yet one rarely thinks of a cultural difference as being important except when associated with a racial or national difference. Race and nationality do, undoubtedly, accentuate cultural differences; but there are sports in human development which make for cultural similarities when there are actually wide divergencies of race and nationality. My own affinity for the Asiatic can only be explained in this manner.


In the setting up of a new household, the relationship to friends often becomes a question making for happiness or disaster. What becomes of old schoolmates, old calf loves, old associates? Can they remain quite as they were? In any marriage this may become a problem, particularly if a former friendship has been intense or important.

The struggle between old ties and the new one often precipitates the first bickerings of married life. In the United States, where marriage customs seem at present to be in disorder, I have noticed that husbands are more obviously jealous of their wives’ friendships than are men in other countries where I have lived. Here, there is, of course, a lack of security in married life, a fear of failure, because the law has made failure so easy. The so-called ‘broad-minded’ husband or wife presents a curious problem to old friends because it is difficult to know how much of the broad-mindedness is real. No one ever knows exactly upon what rock a marriage is to split when there are no fixed traditions.

In a mixed marriage there can be no traditions, for there is inevitably an assimilation of — or, alternatively, a compromise over — traditions. You start out — and this, perhaps, makes such a marriage more interesting, if not exciting — by trying carefully to make up your mind just how much you can take over of your partner’s attitude toward life. There may be such fundamental questions to decide as that of table manners, the precedence of husband or wife, the handling of family money, the attitude toward relatives and friends.

Old friends may not be able to understand or make allowances for the strange, hybrid customs which often mark the home founded upon a mixed marriage. The Chinese, for example, are a reserved people. They may be warm and ardent friends, and you may never know it until you meet with misfortune; then they will prove the genuineness of their affection. On the other hand, they have a code of politeness which gives to strangers a sense of being included in the intimate family circle. Later the stranger discovers that he has been ‘dropped.’ Not at all. What has happened is that the code has been followed to the letter, and the matter is closed. Friendship comes very slowly, and involves trial periods. Old schoolmates enjoy the intimacy of brothers; an old teacher stands in the relationship of a father. A house friend is often trusted with the most delicate concerns of the family — even with the care of the wife, say, during a period of long absence.

If husband and wife quarrel, the Chinese code permits intimate friends to intervene. I remember an occasion when a Chinese friend of mine ‘went off the deep end.’ A committee of his closest friends organized themselves, traveled down to the place where he and the young lady were living together in a temple, and appealed to them both to give up their relationship. In this instance the appeal was based upon national interests, since it was felt that the effect of their conduct upon the youth of the country might be harmful.

Among Western peoples, friendship may be quite casual, carrying with it none of the rights and claims which characterize it in China. Returning to America after years in the Far East, I was struck by this difference. Here, friendship often implies neither responsibilities nor obligations, but only gregariousness. You belong to a set or a crowd or a clique. It is always changing in personnel and quality. Men go up in the social scale, often forgetting old comrades who could not keep step; they go down to the song of ‘Brother, can you spare a dime?’

In a mixed marriage involving two such distinct conceptions of friendship, difficulties are sure to arise if either party to it fails to grasp the full meaning of the word and of the ideal as understood by the other. There is danger, particularly, that the Western member may not understand his partner’s appeal to old friends for advice, the continued relationship toward former schoolmates, the dependence upon what has become a static environment, the expenditure of money to help old friends in need. He may apply the rule of ‘every man for himself,’ while she applies the social conception of group responsibility. Even in their charities they would differ — he believing in organization and in a broad doctrine of community responsibility, she adhering to the principle of personal assistance. He would not understand that a ‘ loan ’ is not to be repaid, or that, were he in difficulties, a similar loan might be made to him.

Among the Chinese, the pull of friendship is in the wife’s direction. Her friends tend to become the family friends. In marriages between a Chinese woman and a ‘white’ man, this tendency is accentuated by the fact that European and American women resent such unions and have erected social barriers to discourage them. To the objectors this seems a social necessity, for, were there no barriers, more ‘white’ men would marry Chinese women — if the latter would have them. I can well imagine that in some countries a natural barrier may exist; but Chinese women, particularly of the educated classes, are often both beautiful and charming.

Until 1927, intercourse between foreigners and the Chinese was restricted to business relationships, except among the missionaries. Since then, as a result of political necessity and the influence of Lord Willingdon and Sir Frederick Whyte, the barriers have begun to crumble.

I remember the first time that Chinese and foreigners danced together; it was at a party given by a group of friends when my wife arrived in Shanghai from England. They screened us off in a part of the restaurant — ‘ to guarantee us privacy,’ they said, but really to avoid protests from ‘white ’ women.

Even when the foreigner found it advantageous and necessary to associate with the Chinese socially, he still continued his prejudices. The result is that in such a mixed marriage as ours the social relationships tend to be limited to the wife’s people. In the husband, resentment grows against the discrimination and condescension which he sees frequently manifested toward her people. Old friendships are broken over this issue. Men with whom one has associated become mere business acquaintances, because social contacts cannot be carried over to their wives. More and more the man finds himself tied to his wife’s people. Her interests and her social group become his.

Nevertheless, the home created by such a marriage tends to be Westernized. In matters of food, clothing, and furnishings, Western forms dominate because they are more convenient and, in the upper reaches, less expensive. In cultural matters — books, magazines, music, art — the West seems to pull a stronger oar, perhaps because it is a lighter oar to pull. At any rate, in every home of a mixed marriage that I have visited, I have found Western influences more prevalent than Chinese, Western customs more visible and more usual.


The most pressing problem in every intermarriage, particularly in one that involves racial and national differences, is the child. Not only does he face the possibility of a confused home training, a drawing hither and thither in education and religion, but he encounters a sentimental prejudice among other children, and even adults, which may develop in him a racial inferiority complex so deep as to ruin his personality. His greatest danger comes during puberty, when he may grow to hate his parents for having involved him in confusion, and, later, his first love affair may leave him with psychological scars that never heal. Parents who bring children of mixed marriages into this very cruel and erring world assume a responsibility which cannot be treated with the devil-may-care attitude of most fathers and mothers toward the upbringing of their children.

The Eurasian child in China or Japan is usually the product, not of careful rearing by parents, but of incidental training by amahs. The Chinese amah constantly asserts that such a child is a ‘white man,’ and this creates in him a racial antipathy toward his mother’s people which distorts his outlook on life and poisons his personality. In Hongkong, however, a number of Eurasians have chosen the Chinese side as their own. They have become leaders of the Chinese community, and represent a healthy, decent stock there. The fact that they are not ashamed of either branch of their origin gives them strength.

As we faced this problem, we were well aware, even before a child came to us, that the task of bringing him up would involve a large measure of character building. We should have to instill in him a sense of personal pride so that he might withstand the buffets of a prejudiced world. We should have to nurture his constructive characteristics with special care so that sheer ability would help him over the hurdles. It must be assumed for such a child that, if he drifts, his chances of a successful life will not be many; if his personality is weak, he will be hit down by society; if he lacks charm or special ability, he will be heavily handicapped. Yet what parent can guarantee that his child, whatever its heredity, will not be just one in a multitude? The task, then, was to watch, to analyze, to strengthen.

We felt that our boy would have a more even chance in life if he were to develop artistic traits. In the rough competition of business or politics, his racial origin would almost surely prove an impediment; prejudices would limit his opportunities, keep him from preferred positions, generate thoughtless distrust. Even Hitler is handicapped by his Czech mother. I know a man in the British foreign service who was prevented from receiving an appointment to which his seniority and services entitled him because in his ancestry and his personality there were visible evidences of an Asiatic mixture.

In the arts, nothing really matters but ability. No one asks a violinist or a pianist, a painter or a poet, a great actor or a tenor, who his grandfather or grandmother happened to be. Who cares whether Fritz Kreisler is an Austrian or a Greek? What does it matter that Paul Robeson is a Negro? In the arts, there is not only a genuine democracy in the sense that all men of ability and genius are equal, there is also an aristocracy in which the intellectually fittest survive. For the child of a mixed marriage, then, the arts offer greater prospects of the happiness that comes from achievement than does any other field.

Yet no parent can say to his child, ‘My boy, go forth and practise the arts.’ The hidden qualities of genius, the stirring of a need for self-expression through a particular artistic medium, the lust for music, for color, for words — these must dawn within the consciousness of each individual. What fathers and mothers can do, however, is to be vigilant, providing the child with an atmosphere and environment to stimulate whatever talents he may possess.

The child of a mixed marriage is indeed fortunate if his inherent qualities set him apart from the herd, for in it he will ever be a stranger. His very differences in coloring, in character, in ideas, make him stand out from the crowd. In the arts, each man is an individual. He must be himself. Nothing can thwart him but lack of ability. In such a field the inevitably different child of a mixed marriage can find full equality. There he is in a safe harbor. Who cares that Yehudi Menuhin is a Jew? There is no anti-Semitic intolerance that can compete with the bowing of his violin.


In America to-day, too large a share of the responsibilities of education is relegated to the schools. The parent, busy with work, lectures, bridge, politics, finds the child a nuisance and turns him over to his teachers. I have looked into some of the so-called experimental schools, and have been much impressed by their freedom and lack of discipline. This may be just the environment for the genius; but the child of cantankerous traits may be spoiled by it beyond redemption. The upbringing of a Eurasian child cannot be left to chance. He requires the close supervision of parents who are sympathetic and rational, who have the time and patience to study him, and who dare assume the burden of fitting him to meet the certain difficulties that lie ahead of him.

Their first duty is to make him realize from infancy that there is nothing extraordinary about him. Now that is a terrific task, because the effects are likely to be just the opposite of what one desires. The more it is explained that all people are alike, the more the child will discern that they are different. Sooner or later he may come to the conclusion that his parents have been untruthful, and he will wonder why they lied to him. At that moment trouble begins, both for them and for him.

The recipe is the whole truth. Over a period of years, commencing with the time when the child begins to ask questions, when he notices the difference between blond hair and black, patiently, carefully, the story of his racial origin should be unfolded to him — not nationalistically, not to encourage a superior attitude, not as a political problem, but as a story in which he is an incidental character. The heroine of such a tale should be his mother. Her importance in his young life can never be overestimated. He should grow up to realize that he was brought into the world to take his father’s place in looking after her.

My wife always wonders why our little boy is so good when I am away on my long trips about this country or to Asia. It is easily explained. When I am at home, he has no responsibility for the welfare of the family or for the care of his mother. But when I am gone he is the head of the house. It is a little game that he and I play, with his mother as the centre of the picture. Just now it is only a game; later it will become a habit. It will strengthen his faith in her and in himself. He will feel that it is quite all right to have come out of her race. It will not matter what others say — he will know better.

All children who are carefully nurtured are spoiled by their parents, particularly by their fathers. It cannot be helped, because fathers are like that. The process of spoiling can be arrested, however, by social discipline. This must be applied in the home as well as in the school, and the problem is especially important for the child of a mixed marriage. He must be subjected to the firmest discipline if he is to be prevented from evading his duties and responsibilities on the ground that he is different from other children. The Jewish child, for instance, often becomes lopsided from hearing too much about anti-Semitism. If he has a good mind, he is spurred on to unusual efforts to prove that a Jew can accomplish great things in spite of his disabilities. He never gets over carrying this chip on his shoulder, and he suffers because others never understand why he burdens himself with the chip.

We felt that our boy should be taught to assume his tasks as mere tasks, without regard for the rewards. But such a programme is difficult to carry out in America, where rewards are constantly held out to one from the cradle to the grave. It was largely for this reason that we sent our boy to a Quaker school. There, the object is to minimize rewards and to awaken a sense of social responsibility, and at the same time to avoid arousing any consciousness of difference or of superiority.

As the child grows older he cannot help noticing that in many respects he is not like other children — this in spite of all that one can do. Then it is that sympathy and understanding on the part of parents and teachers must play the rôle of corrective. He must not be coddled because he is different, nor yet encouraged to overcome the difference. He must learn that all human beings face special problems. Some are too rich, others too poor. Some are too beautiful, others too ugly. Some have harelips, others broken hips. Some are lazy, others too active, even nervous. Each person must carry his burden through life and move on. Some burdens can never be discarded, and they must be so carried that they do not become an impediment. Above all, one must not make the burden the principal concern in life, so that nothing matters but to carry it.

This explanation must come to the child at an early age, and it must come from his parents before an unsympathetic nurse or some ridiculous relative spoils the picture. It is the most difficult of all conceptions to convey to a young mind. If you explain too much or too learnedly, you arouse the very fears which you seek to repress. If you are too casual, you convey nothing. How to do it? The task calls for a knowledge of the child’s psychological reactions.

With our boy, I find it easy to point out that a friend of his is very goodlooking but has no money. ‘That is too bad,’ I say. ‘Maybe he won’t be able to go to a good school. Well, you don’t always have everything. For instance, there is the little girl in the next block who has two fathers, one in New York and the other in Baltimore. She likes her father in Baltimore better because he was her first father. But he went away, and her mother got her another. Well, you can’t always arrange these things. Still, you’re pretty lucky. You can go to a good school, and you have both your father and mother. But you will not always have everything you want, and maybe there will be some trouble for you some day. You have to be a pretty good fellow to stand up under trouble. Good fellows shake off troubles. It’s only nincompoops like So-and-so who go around crying that nobody likes them, and they don’t even like themselves.’


If there is a genuine religious difference between the partners of a mixed marriage, their children are pretty certain to grow up in an unhappy environment. A Jewish father and a Catholic mother — the Abie’s Irish Rose complex — are likely to be most unsatisfactory parents unless one of them completely gives up his past religious affiliations. In our case, we have decided to tell the boy that he is a Jew, but to make no fuss about it. Of course it would have been simple enough for us to go over to some more popular religious group in the hope of decreasing his difficulties by one count. But would it really have done so? Would it not rather have increased them? Jews who ‘pass’ have not solved this problem by mere dissembling.

I shall never forget the story of a Jew who, during the war, changed his name to one that was so very Scotch that no one could have carried it off without the face to go with it. This Jew did not have such a face. He wanted a letter of introduction from a Christian friend to a Christian judge somewhere in the West. His friend gave him a cordial letter, but added this postscript: ‘My friend is a Jew who changed his name during the war.’ When the Jew protested, it was explained to him that, had the postscript not been added, the judge might easily have taken him for an impostor.

The easiest way is to avoid the suspicion of imposture, to stand up as you are and not involve yourself in too many plausible explanations. If, later in life, the child of a mixed religious marriage wants to choose for himself, that is another matter, but the lot of an Episcopal Cohen is too trying to wish on any child.


I have tried to deal with intermarriage unemotionally, even rationally. There have been tragic failures; there have been outstanding successes. A young lady once asked my advice. She wanted a page out of my experience. I could only tell her what I have written here. Then I added: —

‘If you were to marry the boy who sat next to you at college, you might be happy, and then again you might be the one who, out of every six or seven, is annually divorced. If you marry this man [an East Asian] because of novelty, it will wear off and your life will be empty. If you love him and he loves you, then allow yourself a sure interval before you have a child. If, after that interval, you are still convinced that you love each other, go ahead and rear a family.’

But would that advice not also apply to marriages which do not involve racial, national, cultural, or religious differences?