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My husband and I moved from the liberal Northeastern town we both grew up in to a small, conservative Southern one several years ago. One of the biggest adjustments has been the way people very openly talk about religion and assume that everyone else should as well. We mostly kept quiet about the fact that we don’t practice any religion and politely explain (over and over) that we’d rather not come to their churches. Our elementary school daughter recently told us that her teacher led the class in prayer each day before lunch in her public school. All the children had to bow their heads and recite a lengthy prayer. My daughter said she didn’t know if she should do it, but thought maybe it was “being a good American.” We told her that no one should ever force you to pray against your will. My husband and I wrote the principal about this and asked our child not be mentioned by name. The principal said she’d send a general reminder about not praying in class, but the tone of her email made it clear she thought we were overreacting. Our child reported the praying stopped immediately with no explanation. My husband and I think the teacher should have told the students why she shouldn’t have led them in prayer. He wants to press this issue, while I feel as long as we let our child know what’s right and wrong, we should let this go and accept this is part of where we live. Our child will be in this school for several more years. We did tell a few acquaintances about this and they said “people like us” were ruining the community of faith. Sometimes, I feel like I’m being a coward not standing up for religious tolerance.
Your neighbors may think you’re a family of unholy Yankees (although “unholy Yankees” may be a redundancy where you live), but you were right, even righteous, to make known your objections to forced prayer in school. Whatever the tone of the principal, she understood it violated the law and the praying stopped. So please don’t be sore winners and now try to compel this teacher to rend her clothes and explain to her students that she was violating the Constitution. I understand that it’s distressing to live someplace where people not only don’t respect your lack of religious belief, but make it clear you’re going to hell. Presumably for professional reasons you must live somewhere where you are out of sync with the general culture. But one problem with our country is how insulated people can be from those who don’t share their religious or political views. You may accurately feel somewhat bullied by the devout you live among, but I think you should continue to remain diplomatic in your interactions. You are being good ambassadors for heathens! Since you’ve got at least several years of living down South ahead of you, you want to try to see beyond the religious fervor and appreciate some of the appealing qualities of your neighbors that might not be so prevalent up North. You explained to your daughter that she didn’t have to pray in order to be a good American. Some of the other crucial lessons you are giving her are that being a good person means standing up for what you believe when necessary, and letting things go when it’s wise.
My husband and I have a wonderful marriage, a great sex life, and are very happy together, with the exception of one argument that we are continually having. Shortly after my husband and I married, he was offered “the opportunity of a lifetime” to help set up a new division at his company’s office in Beijing. This was supposed to last 12 to 18 months and was going to be our big adventure. It’s now six years later, we are still in Beijing, and I hate it. The first year I tutored, took Mandarin lessons, and made friends with other expats and some locals. We now have two lovely children and I have continued to be involved with the community: I volunteer at a charity teaching English to migrant workers, I write articles and reviews for a local English magazine, etc. But the pollution is horrendous, and I miss my friends, my family, my old life, and the U.S. My husband has no desire to move back. His career has advanced at a pace he couldn’t have dreamed of back home and he’s the youngest person in the company worldwide in his position. I think my husband is being extremely selfish by putting his career ahead of what’s best for his family and we’ve been fighting for two years over this. We’ve seen a therapist several times and that’s gotten us nowhere. I’m ready to pack my bags and take the kids back to the States and live with my parents and tell him to call us when he comes to his senses (though I would never actually do that). But what should I do?
—Stuck in Beijing
Perhaps the family in the first letter wishes they were the ones residing among godless communists. You signed up for a short-term opportunity and did everything a trailing spouse can do. You studied the language, you got to know the locals, you made a group of ex-patriate friends, you gave back to community, you found part-time work, you produced two kids. Now that you’re about five years overdue for the end of this adventure, your husband is digging in and refuses to even contemplate returning home. This impasse is eating away at your marriage. So you need to stop talking and start acting. Summer is coming up and I suggest you and the kids spend it with your family. Please don’t do this in a punitive way, or make it into a trial separation. Instead, explain to your husband the break in the school year is the perfect opportunity for you and the children to spend some serious time with your family, for the kids to feel more like Americans, and to give all of your lungs a break. Tell your husband you hope he can arrange to join all you for a good chunk of vacation time. Yes, there is some risk to a couple in being apart, but many families who have a parent in the military, or in the foreign service, or at a dangerous corporate post, endure far longer separations. At the end of the summer, all of you will have a much better sense of how to proceed. Maybe if you make this an annual ritual, you will feel able to stick out a couple more years. Let’s hope your husband recognizes he’s established his bona fides, and that a summer missing his family prompts him to make plans in the near future to request a transfer back to the States, or to write his own ticket at another firm.