Cross Cultural Relationships (CCR) are fascinating to me. Although both sides obviously care for one another and are committed to doing the maximum to make it work, culture seems to matter – sometimes it gets in the way, sometimes it’s what species things up.
At the end of 2008, while I was still in Taiwan, I conducted an open-survey about cross-cultural relationships, inviting my open and willing blog readers to share their experiences of CCRs. It’s only now that I’ve had the time to take a much closer and in-depth look at those responses. Surprisingly, there are over 50 completed surveys, which – considering the fact that the survey is long and open and that it was not in wide circulation – is quite impressive. There are some fascinating things in there.
And, yes, ofcourse, I’d be lying if I told you I don’t have a vested interest in the topic – I am a foreigner in a far away land and as such – I have my personal views of CCR, which – if you’re curious – are very positive. So, there might be an inherent bias in how I approach the topic.
The following few posts will try to make a bit of sense in the whole qualitative data. This first part is about cultural misunderstandings.
The open question was “Have you experienced any misunderstandings with your partner due to language or culture difficulties? If you did – please provide an example or two.”
Language – no Culture – every aspect of life/dating is completely different. EVERYTHING.
The meaning of age
hahaha – of course! "When is your birthday?" (a date is given) later – "How come your id card says a different date?" answer -" Well, I was born on date X, but my mother thought it was really Y because it was so close to midnight, but because that is not an auspicious date, she registered it as Z. " "Oh? So how old are you?" "Im A years old. But because my in my birth year my birth fell just before Chinese New Year, although the new date was just after, and oh yeah, Chinese say a baby is a year old on the day it is born and then some add another year after the first month and did I mention that my father is Manchu, and they add another year…" "Uhm… so how old are you, again?"
Not many. Perhaps there are a few issues like her not understanding that it is not appropriate to make certain kinds if jokes or use certain words in a Western office setting, or me not understanding how seriously people in Taiwan take things like prestige, face or titles.
eating habits are a big issue to us since he’s all about meat and burgers, while I’m still more into chinese cuisine. and we have had arguments on differences due to our backgrounds.
Communications with the other gender
Long ago my wife saw that I had signed a letter to a female friend "Love". She misinterpreted this to be something other than the friendship sort of love. It took some time to convince her otherwise. There must be dozens more examples, but I can’t think of anything else specific right now.
Nothing I can really think of at random, except friendships. Taiwanese seem to think once married a man should be with his wife 24-7. Sometimes she doesn’t quite understand my need for male companionship. When I go play rugby she wants to go with, which is ok, but also when I just want to go for a beer with the boys. This causes friction because she doesn’t seem to realise that guys need guy time…
Yes, of course we have. Very specific: 1. Being at the toilet is not a private situation, as I surprisingly discovered. 2. She is quite secretive about her previous relationships, I assume it is culture-based.
Of course. Meanings are in people and cultural baggage intervenes. Differences in preferences in food, manner of dressing and types of holiday activities.
so many. my wife’s family wouldn’t speak to me for a year. lots of different expectations.
Before my Chinese was good enough to communicate very well, we would occasionally have misunderstandings that came from my boyfriend’s embarrassment about his bad English. Sometimes he would rather not say things rather than risk saying them wrong. There would be times when I would communicate deep feelings to him, but he would seem unresponsive or uncaring because he wasn’t confident enough in his English to answer.
yes of course. one thing from the very begining of our relationship. when we started to date and it was 1 week after we slept with each other, i asked him like ‘are we serious?’ actually i just wanted to make sure if we are in such ‘having fun for 1 month’ thing or not. But to him, in their culture, ‘serious’ means somewhat ‘commitment’, which is even considering getting married. So he replied bit blur like ‘i’m sorry I couldnt tell if it’s like this, maybe let time resolves it.’ that made me a little upset, haha… But before long i thought maybe it’s not what i thought so we talked this out, and it was a misunderstanding…that even a little freaked him out, haha.
Differences about personal contact in public. Differences about showing affection generally
Sometimes, for example, social customs. In our culture, men and women don’t hug or kiss the opposite sex when greeting. If it is an elderly, he is allowed to place his hands on the womens head as a sign of respect. In his culture, men and women do hug and kiss as such. My partner knows that this would not be acceptable in my culture but when i am with his party, he lets them know and I will greet the men with a nod to acknowledge them and my partner would not kiss or hug the women. This custom has also been forbidden in our faith (he converted later on to my faith). Language wise, we are both multilinguists so picking up each others language has never been an issue as English has been understood by all.
religion is a big part of his culture and when i visited his home in his country, his mother and i suffered the biggest cultural shock from each other. for example they are conservative and felt that i should not be entering his room when i was merely sitting on the floor of his room watching tv. also she then thought we had secretly gotten married already because to her i was acting like his wife when in my culture it means nothing of the sort.
yes I did not understand why he could not pursue our relationship if his mother was ill. I guess it is disrespectful and shameful to do so. I appear to be more open with my feelings, he seems to hold back.
Yes. Differences about what informayion you give to your family about your relationship.
No language difficulties as previously stated. However, when dealing with my traditional parents, I had to explain the reasons why I dealt with matter the way that I did, in terms of freedom, what was acceptable. Either way, my partner has been understanding, despite moments where he may not agree with my parents.
Yes, many due to cultural differences. Men and women have very separate and distinct roles in Fiji, and I have grown up with fairly feminist views of things in the sense that I believe women and men should be able to do what they want to do, each having freedom and decision over their actions and goals. In Fiji, women do most of the work and never stop working, while men spend a lot of their time ordering women around, playing music and relaxing. My partner has always been respectful of women, but also sometimes did or said things to his sisters ("go to the store and get this" "get me a bucket of water") and to me, his tone was very condescending and patriarchal, whereas for him it’s just normal, how brothers and sisters talk to each other. It made me concerned about how he would treat me if we got married, but really the difference just opened up a very important and good conversation where we really understood each other’s vantage point and got closer because of it.
Our cultures also had significant differences. In the Korean culture, music was celebrated with karaoke, in the Haitian culture, with dance. I never felt fully comfortable at his family gatherings where people would all dance all night long. When we greet someone we bow (no physical contact), when they greet each other, they kiss on both cheeks (intimate physical contact). One time my boyfriend scolded me for not greeting his grandmother properly, asking why I was being rude. I simply was not used to kissing someone I had met for the first time. Similarly, he complained about how my father always made him take of his shoes at our front door. We both loved each other’s cultures’ food though 🙂
Cross-culture relationships = language/cultural misunderstandings. For example, taboo subjects differ from culture to culture. As an American, I have a sense of sarcasm and insult-like humor that Matt sometimes doesn’t understand because it’s very different that his culture’s sense of humor. To Matt, who’s Chinese, I would never make a joke about his family or country that he could take offense to; in America, we’re used to that. As far as taboo subjects go, Matt had to learn that it’s off limits to speak (directly) about weight or physical appearance — like "wow, you’ve gained weight recently, I can tell" — because in America, we (especially girls) don’t take well to comments like that. Directness and indirectness is a huge difference.
Language difficulties for sure, especially since I am no taive english speaker. This is just general misunderstandings in everyday situations, due to a small language barrier.
I don’t have enough English vocabulary, and his English is too good (his major is English literature).
Many examples. Eg. saying "Later", which means one or two hours plus later, when what is really meant is "In a moment"; this goes both ways.
Because he was not as fluent in English as I am, when I got caught up in certain topics he would stop me and tell me to stop using, "All those IB (International Baccalaureate) words". I sometimes felt as if I had to "dumb down" the things I wanted to express, although my boyfriend was in fact very intelligent.
Cursing / slang
When we just start relationship, one day he says "I’m a motherfucker". I didn’t know that expression at all, so I asked him "what? did you fuck your mother?" But he was teasing me, he says "yes, of course." I believed him and asked if it’s legal to have sex with one’s parents in US… because I thought US is an open-minded country, with a lot of freedom. I knew nothing about US besides of the movies.
Yes. One example is about a word "flirt." He was having an interview with a lady, and I told him to be polite and on his best behavior. He answered "yes I would flirt with her" in a serious way. We ended up having a huge fight, and it is all because he thought "flirting" means being polite and friendly to women without any sexual tension. He thought it was something neutral. Upon realizing the exact meaning of the word, he apologized and never used it in such way again.
Adjustment to host culture
Since both as are Asian, there is few cultural differences between us (comparing to other couples carrying both eastern and western cultures); fortunately, we don’t have many cultural difficuties. However, language would be a noticeable concern (but not impacting on our marriage directly)especially I moved to Thailand staying with my husband. I hardly can talk to anyone else except my husband, not many people can really "talk" by using English so that my social life here can’t be as good as that in other countries. I can’t even talk to his mom or other family members…
My partner has sometimes difficulties in saying what he wants – he is fluent in Polish but his vocabulary is limited.
Intonation / Tone
He’s gotten better now, but he never paid much attention to intonation in English. As his English is native-level, and sounds like a native-speaker, I would assume he was mad at me for some reason and get angry or upset. I slowly got used to it and started telling him when his tone was ‘telling me’ that he was mad at me, and he’s corrected it. Mostly. Which is kinda impressive, now I think about it, given how long he’s been speaking English as a first language for.