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By Matt Marko M.D., Ph.D.
I have many couples here that seek my services for the difficulties they face in their relationships here in China. Some are from two other countries and happen to be here in China but most of these are Chinese and someone from several other countries. And many of which only turn to a professional such as myself only as a last ditch effort when they should have sought out this help much earlier on. I hear so many things about these difficulties that I thought in writing this, it may help some of those whom I haven’t yet or can’t get to.
Couples have difficulty communicating with each other at the best of times, but when one partner comes from a different country things can get really difficult. We may be part of a global community, but one cannot deny the existence of certain cultural differences - and these can seem strange to your average foreigner and downright bewildering to a prospective suitor.
For many, establishing relationships with persons from cultures different from ourselves is challenging. One of the challenges is learning new customs and traditions. This can be a fun and interesting experience to have because you are learning something new about another member of the world. A second challenge of relating with persons different from us is identifying fears, prejudices, and stereotypes that not only guide our social interactions and contribute to misinformation about members of various cultural groups, but help to perpetuate various social inequities. Know that you are not alone in your experiences, and feel encouraged in your efforts to make personal changes.
Uncertainty and Confusion
It is common for many people to feel uncertain about how to interpret and respond to the attitudes and behaviors of someone who is culturally different. Understanding the historical legacy of a particular group in this country and being persistent are two approaches that will help alleviate the confusion.
Fear and Discomfort
Many may feel awkward and uncomfortable interacting with persons from different cultural groups because of limited exposure to members of those groups. Those who do interact with persons from different cultures may find themselves outside of their comfort zone. Clearly it's easier to interact with persons from your own cultural group because that is most familiar to you. Other contributors to the feeling of discomfort typically revolve around doing or saying the "wrong" thing and being labeled a racist, sexist, etc... Exploring the source of the discomfort with trusted others and recognizing that the intensity of the discomfort will eventually subside could help you to deal with it.
Misunderstanding and Denial
Many have preconceived notions about members of other groups. This in and of itself is not as problematic as rigidly holding on to those notions. When people aren't open to exploring their beliefs about another cultural group, (and even at times when they are) misunderstandings will eventually occur. A willingness to be open to the perspectives of others and a sincere attempt to empathize with the experiences of others can prevent most misunderstandings before they happen.
Being a Cultural Ally
Those who are actively exploring their own prejudices and stereotypes, consistently engage in activities that challenge the assumptions and information they have about others, and are forming alliances with culturally different groups to eliminate the various forms of discrimination that exist are cultural allies. These people may become frustrated with their peers who do not share the same beliefs and commitment to activism as themselves. They may feel alienated and ostracized by members of their own cultural group because they are perceived as "traitors." They may also feel that their efforts are unappreciated by members of minority groups. Being a cultural ally is a challenging role. If you choose to take on this role, you should expect to experience discontent from a variety of sources, but don't feel discouraged. While being a cultural ally is hard work with few rewards, those rewards are invaluable.
Crossroads is where you stand at when you're part of an inter-caste or inter-cultural relationship. Crossroads, because there are so many choices to make. Crossroads, because not all roads lead to where you want to be, except for one, and so it is important to ensure you set foot on the right choice!
When you come from two different cultures, it's like two different worlds coming together. They could either collide and explode into the pit less nothingness of numbing pain, or could merge into one universe of eternal bliss!
So, am I talking compromise? No. I'm talking respect, I'm talking adjustment. To compromise is having to make do, to respect is to understand, if not necessarily accept. Not substitute, but add. And when you come from culturally diverse backgrounds there is so much more than can enrich that relationship as compared to the more conventional ones.
It's a lifetime of amusement - right from laughing over diverse childhood anecdotes which taught the same lessons or preparing your favorite dish using methods your grandma abandoned; or just learning each other's lingo and all the hilarious mispronunciations that follow! And on a more insightful level, there is an underlying element of continuous education which rounds off your personality as an individual, as well as a unit.
You are exposed to points of view and mental planes of a collective subconscious, as foreign to you as intriguing. And there could be major platforms of arguments because it is so much easier to run back to the shade of beliefs, rather than accept those contradicting yours, because acceptance could instigate change and no one is ever prepared enough for change!
But it doesn't have to be like that - not if you can help it! You can always add new ideologies without relinquishing your own. The growth via the synchronization of two different realms can lead to an incomparable atmosphere of sharing and loving.
So his mother doesn't think too much of your "working woman" identity and feels violated even acknowledging the fact that you are non-vegetarian. So her father breaks into an allergy knowing that you drink and can't stop comparing you to the other guy who's an engineer.... but hey! You're the one in love, that makes it all worth it.
Add that inherent exotica to your relationship, appreciate that which comes from your mate, and you'll know you made the right choice on the Crossroads of life.
You and your partner will have these differences of thought, ideas and opinions due to the different backgrounds from which you both came from. This is going to be there no matter what. When the stress of life enters into your world, understand that it will complicate things even more. The little things will inherently become big things. As in all relationships. But with the cross-culture factor involved, those areas tend to expand. Each of you will do things that are very “foreign” to the other and understanding that what, why and how of it all will be a challenge for each of you. Because there are many things that are just that, foreign.
Each of you brings into the mix two separate worlds of life, society and culture that when brought closely together will most times clash. In this, each of you must take a longer time for reactions to these new things that you are confronted with. A “think before you speak” understanding. Our normal quick reactions as we are used to, doesn’t work so well here. In this, you need to analyze first, and then speak.
So one of you says or does something, your partner can’t understand it, but says nothing. It is not simply gone at that point, it has been pushed aside or to the back. But still there. And then another time it happens again, and again, and yet again. This builds up until that time when something else occurs and then all of those “other” things come out into the open. And most times the other partner is standing there wondering, “Where in the hell did all this come from”? That lack of communication and withholding of all those previous little events then come out. Why? Lack of proper communication. This happens in same culture relationships, do you think it won’t happen here? Yes and usually worse. So learning to be communicative in more than what you are used to is a must have skill. Assuming that the other person understands what you are doing is one of the biggest mistakes we make.
We all have our habits. As individuals as well as from our culture and background. We must learn to put aside those things or at the least to be more aware of it and to be able to change some of them.
Love itself is not enough to get you through these issues. It isn’t in a regular relationship and it "really" isn’t in this case. Love is of course many things and consists of many things. So please remember that in the course of your journey into this brave new place that you have “chosen” to be in.
Frustrations for the both of you will abound. And these will come at unexpected times and in many forms. You have to learn to be aware of this fact and learn to adjust to it “as you go”. Even at the best of times, with language limitations and limited understanding of the other person’s culture and upbringing, full understanding will take a very long time, maybe even years. All of this will press and test your limits to the extreme on occasion and at best continually throughout your day to day lives. There will be good days and bad days and awful days. And how you handle these things will determine a lot of what will come out of this life you have chosen to live.
End of part one.