Friday, May 6, 2011

Musings on Intercultural Relationships

I want to start this post by saying that I have no answers, I have no conclusions – I only have my own experiences and am approaching this topic with personal thoughts and anecdotes, not proclamations. I don’t even have anything particularly deep to say, because it’s all been said before. All I can do is add my own story to the mix.

That aside, as I mentioned in a previous post, I recently received news that a friend’s marriage had dissolved. The marriage happened to be an intercultural one (American/Hispanic). I won’t give details – that would be inappropriate – but one of the things that caused the whole hot mess is something that is more acceptable in one culture than the other. I’m still not necessarily inclined to believe that the resulting split was caused by cultural issues – in fact, it’s more likely irreconcilable differences between two individuals.

Regardless, it’s caused me to muse on intercultural relationships – both of the romantic and friendly kind. I’ll be focusing on romantic relationships for this post, and am planning a future post musing on making Taiwanese male friends (as a foreign woman)…because, y’know, it’s quite hard to do!

Obviously, “intercultural” does not necessarily mean “interracial”. That’s the first thing I want to mention: I know plenty of couples of different races who share a common culture, and my husband has observed that while we’re very much the same race, there are a lot of cultural differences between our families.

When we first started dating, I didn’t think of it this way: I thought of it in terms of “I’m outgoing, and my family is predisposed genetically to be loud, boisterous and extroverted. He’s more laid-back, and his family seems more predisposed to a quieter approach to life”. It never occurred to me that it might actually be a cultural difference.

Then, in the middle of wedding planning, we rented My Big Fat Greek Wedding Subconsciously, somehow, I wanted him to see it – he had seen it but didn’t remember much, and I remember how the film really hit home for me. If I had such a strong reaction and he could barely remember it, there was clearly something worth exploring there.

After watching the comparison of the two families – one laid-back and the other a big pile of boundary-crushing madness - and as a result of those two environments, some of the differences between Tula and Ian in the film, Brendan turned to me and said, tellingly,

“Now I understand.”

“You understand what?”
“All this stuff with the wedding planning, and all of the stress…it’s cultural. It’s like with your big Armenian family, I just don’t get yet how they work because my family is more like that guy’s.”

Note that he did not say I’m like Tula – because I’m not. I have no problem striking out on my own, nobody tried to stop me from going to college, my family is devoid of the sexism seen in the Portokalos clan, and I am happy to stand up for myself (even if an argument ensues).

And that’s just it – the difference isn’t simply between two families – the fact that my family (at least the biggest component of it) immigrated to the USA in living memory and we have relatives who still speak the old language – an Armenian-based polyglot with elements of Turkish and Greek – does have something to do with how my family works, how I was raised, and as a result, to an extent, what my personality is like.

I do have Polish relatives as well, but other than my beloved Grandma G and aunt, I unfortunately see them far less often.

So we visit my family home and drive up to Grandma L’s. People begin arriving, often there are young cousins underfoot. Hummus, olives (real olives, not canned or jarred), cured string cheese and babaghanoush are set out. It’s mid-afternoon and uncles are already double-topping-up their drinks – often, Ararat Armenian raisin brandy. Grandma asks me when I’m going to lose weight and have babies. Like in a Taiwanese family, in my family this is considered fine (I personally consider it a major breach of boundaries, though). Jokes are made about sleeping arrangements - “She made us sleep in twin beds before we got married, and M was visibly pregnant at the time!” – all fine.

Brendan says nothing – “not my culture!” – or whispers something dryly amusing to me along the lines of “So apparently losing weight and having babies go hand in hand?”

Despite my own Daoist/agnostic inclinations, my family is fairly religious, and grace is said, often in Armenian. I am as lost as Brendan is for this part – I don’t have two words of Armenian to rub together (well, I have two: ‘vart’ means “rose” and ‘yavrom’ means “dear”). We eat at a big table – lamb kebab, pilaf and lahmajoun are served. The dishes match, but are kind of tacky. It’s too crowded. I’m asked again about the babies. We argue about politics. My grandparents still hate Turks (and Muslims generally) for the genocide Turks unleashed upon the Armenian people in 1915.

I don’t dare say that Turks alive today can’t be blamed for the actions of their ancestors, just as you wouldn’t shun a German woman born in 1975 because of Nazi atrocities. It’s a shame that they are educated to believe that the genocide never happened, but nobody has control over what their teachers tell them, and many lack the intellectual curiosity to question. I don’t speak; I think these things, though, and Brendan knows it.

(Yes, I realize my family might well read this, but I mention below that I’m OK with how they work and anyway, if they’re going to ask me at the dinner table about popping out babies, then they lose any right to wring their hands when I write about it).

Brendan smiles like it’s a particularly lively television show (and in a way, it is). We don’t quite get to the part where we start dancing in a circle and breaking plates, but I’d say we stop just short of it – that’s Greek, not Armenian and probably an urban legend, but my family lived in Greece for years after running from the genocide and before immigrating to America.

You know who doesn’t ask me about babies and weight loss? My in-laws. You know who doesn’t argue about politics and ask personal questions around the dinner table? My in-laws. You know who isn’t all up in everybody else’s, ahem, bidness?

And yet, I wouldn’t trade my family for the world. I love them and their intrusive questions to bits. It’s taken me years, but I agree with my husband. These differences are cultural, even though Brendan and I look similar enough that we could probably pass for distant cousins (it’s mostly the coloring – fair skin, blue or green eyes, light brown hair). I resemble Brendan more than some of my actual cousins, who tend to be olive-skinned with dark features and coal-colored hair.

Another point I’d like to make – I have been in more obviously intercultural relationships: the last two men I dated before Brendan were Jewish and Indian, respectively. This is where it gets quite hard to draw a line between the cultural and the individual – did those relationships fail because there were cultural differences, or was it entirely that we, as two individuals, were incompatible?

My experience? I do generally default to “we’re just two people who weren’t compatible” but I also think cultural differences had some role to play in why we were incompatible. I was simply not that attracted to the first, although part of that had to do with the fact that he sincerely wanted to have children and raise them in a Jewish home (I don’t even want kids, and am not religious – if I had kids I’d encourage them to follow an ‘ask questions and find your own path’ sort of philosophy, hippie that I am). While, in the end, it was really a lack of a physical spark that did us in, I admit that part of that lacking was caused by my being a bit turned off by such disparate life goals.

The second? Well, we had plenty of chemistry. Culturally I think the only real issue was that he did believe that couples who have children ought to have one parent stay at home, and that that parent ought to be the mother (I have no problem with mothers who choose this path, but deciding it’s the only correct path for everyone really rubs me the wrong way – and I hadn’t gotten to the “don’t really want kids” decision yet, so it was relevant)…and when he said it, I could really hear, behind his voice, a lot of the defenses of the traditional order of things that I heard in India. I’d like to say that this is why we broke up, but it wasn’t – it was (im)maturity on both our parts. Had we been more mature, though, this would have become a dealbreaker. (We agreed on religion and other issues such as telling his parents – mine were totally cool with it and even met him – never came up because it was fairly clear that we weren’t going to last despite all of our chemistry).

That said, such a dealbreaker could arise between any couple regardless of cultural background – I do feel that this sort of dealbreaker is more likely to arise between intercultural couples.

This is not to say that such relationships always face these issues, or that they can’t overcome them. As I’ve said before – and I’ll say it again (I’m secure enough in my relationship with my wonderful husband that I feel I can do so) – if the world had moved a little differently on its axis and I’d spent my time in Taiwan single, well, I’ve met Taiwanese men that I would have dated. Just because things didn’t work out with two other men for reasons that can be partially attributed to cultural differences doesn’t mean they never can.

And, as I said, I have no deep insights. I have no final proclamations. I have only my own experiences to add to public discourse.

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