When two people fall in love and commit to spending the rest of their lives together, they’re inevitably joining two previously separate lives. In any marriage, deciding whose family to visit for the holidays or where you’ll raise your children can be sources of angst. But how do couples make it work when one family doesn’t celebrate holidays at all, or when the places you each call home are at opposite ends of the Earth?
The notion of unexpected and exotic love blossoming may seem romantic, but for the couples themselves it can also mean a lot of hard work and compromise.
While most couples disagree at times and have differences of opinion on all sorts of issues, intercultural couples may have the added difficulty of trying to resolve their issues in another language. Australian Siobhan Thomas has been married to Piseth, from Cambodia, for seven years. While she was growing up in Canberra, he was training as a Buddhist monk to avoid fighting for the Khmer Rouge. They have two children and now live in Hong Kong. Siobhan studied the Khmer language, but says, “Communication is sometimes challenging. Occasionally we have written emails to one another to give each of us time to think about the words we are using.”
Canadian Amelia Weston met her Hong Kong-born and raised husband when he was working in Canada. They have been married for five years and have a two-year-old son. Amelia also struggles with language, not only in communicating with her husband, but with the rest of his family as well: “For me, the most difficult part is the language barrier. Although he can speak English, his first and preferred language to communicate in is Cantonese. When we gather with his family or his friends, they all speak Cantonese. I can’t help but feel like an outsider. And with that comes other issues, such as not being able to communicate properly, be it on a serious topic or just a joke.”
The role of parents-in-law and extended family can also create disharmony, especially in cultures where family are heavily involved in each other’s lives. Amelia explains the impact this has on her relationship: “With the Chinese culture comes a ton of rituals – his family are Buddhists – that I’m not familiar with. There is also the feeling of judgment when I do something that is against what ‘a Chinese girl would do’. My husband was the first-born male in a combined family of 14 brothers and sisters. He was the golden child. So I can’t help but feel that it was a disappointment for him to marry a Westerner.”
American Charlotte Davis is married to a businessman from mainland China. They met in the US, but now live in Hong Kong, and she adds, “Often, being married to someone from another culture involves being married to someone who has different values than you do. And, you may notice (like me) that your partner’s values change when they’re in their home country to be more closely aligned with their home country’s values, which can be challenging.”
From time to time we all have those debates about whose turn it is to do the dishes. But, in some cultures, there is no room for debate: the women do it all. Nerida Kiprotich is Australian, her husband Thomas is from Kenya, and together they have a 21-month-old son and a second baby due in March. Nerida says, “Traditionally in Kenya, men do not help with childcare, housework, cooking, etc. Fortunately, Thomas has been living away from Kenya since 2006, so he is more open-minded about these things.”
Finding common ground
For some of the couples I spoke to, Hong Kong is a third culture – a new home where it doesn’t matter where they each started out. But this too can add more challenges to the relationship. For Siobhan and Piseth, “Living in Hong Kong has been harder for my husband. There are very few Khmer people living in Hong Kong and he gets quite lonely. I have many Australian friends and can speak English with lots of people. My husband, on the other hand, is isolated and misses his home country. This loneliness is further compounded by his role as the stay-at-home parent. He also deals with prejudice regularly and many people have been very rude to him.”
Fortunately, other couples have had more positive experiences. Glenn Douglas, from New Zealand, has been living in Hong Kong for several years now. He met his Indonesian-Chinese wife Kendri when they were both working in the aviation industry. They have been married for six months, and Glenn says, “I have found living in Hong Kong a breeze, especially having married into its culture. Besides the obvious benefits of having a translator on call, conversations with Kendri can sometimes alleviate my ‘frustrations’ as to why the local people do what they do. This understanding doesn’t necessarily make you accept or agree with a particular frustration, but maybe sheds a little understanding on the difference culturally.”
Charlotte describes Hong Kong as “neutral ground”. She says, “We like Hong Kong – it’s not his home country, and it’s not mine, yet English is spoken well enough here that I can feel comfortable. Hong Kong is actually perfect for us. It helps to have a neutral ground where neither one of you feels pressured to conform to one set of values.”
Beth Chakravorty, originally from the United States, is married to Prachish. Prachish’s parents are Indian, but he grew up in Hong Kong. Despite the cultural trend for arranged marriages, Prachish was “determined to find his own way” and met Beth here in Hong Kong. She agrees with Charlotte and says that living in Hong Kong has helped alleviate some of the problems that can arise in an interracial or intercultural marriage. “I’ve actually found it easier living with a third culture in Hong Kong. It helps to balance things out – a little distance from our families allows us to create our own traditions yet enjoy our respective family traditions when we can. Both sides of the family get relatively equal time with us, so it levels out the playing field.”
For Nerida and Thomas, life in Hong Kong has had unexpected benefits for both of them. “Because of living in Hong Kong, and Thomas being well-known here as one of Hong Kong’s top runners, he was able to set up his own business. That’s allowed us to help family in Kenya that we wouldn’t have been able to, and also help Kenyan runners join races throughout Asia.”
Making it work
Most of the couples agree that the ability to communicate, accepting each other’s differences, and finding common ground are all key to making their relationships work. Amelia says, “In order to make it work, I feel like I have to try harder for things that other couples may take for granted. For example, sharing a random memory from your childhood: Our childhoods were so different that we cannot relate to one another on that level. You have to be accepting and live life with an open heart and mind.”
Siobhan believes that, despite their differences, it’s the similarities that make their marriage work: “We both have the well-being of our children as our main goal. Even if we do things differently, we’re still working towards a common goal. Accepting and appreciating our differences serves to make our relationship stronger. Although our cultural backgrounds are quite different, our family backgrounds are not so different. We both come from close-knit families with strong mothers. We have similar values: we both value education, tolerance and hard work.”
Beth agrees, and says, “As with any couple, interracial or not, I think the key is to make sure you’re on the same page before dealing with any challenges. We may not always agree, but we find a common ground and approach the issue together. We always support each other.”
When it comes to tradition it can be difficult to give up things that have been important to you your whole life, and this is a challenge couples face when they have very different cultural backgrounds. Amelia has found a compromise that works for her family for the time being, in regards to holidays. She says, “Unfortunately, because my husband’s family is Buddhist, they don’t celebrate Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, or any of the holidays that I would traditionally celebrate. He didn’t grow up celebrating the holidays that I did, so he doesn’t have any emotional connection to them. So I go back to Toronto with my son for Christmas and New Year’s, and we do a whole family gathering in Hong Kong for all the Chinese holidays.”
Despite the challenges that can come with marrying someone from another culture, there are also many advantages. Learning about another culture is perhaps the biggest one, and each couple credits their partner with teaching them to be more accepting and open-minded. Siobhan says, “It’s so interesting! We learn a lot from each other, especially patience, understanding and acceptance. He has done some amazing things in his life and I love to hear stories about when he was growing up in his village. Our children have exposure to different languages and cultures at home as well as outside. And my husband makes an awesome green curry paste from scratch!”
Glenn believes that marrying Kendri has benefitted not only him, but the other members of his family as well. He says, “Being educated about another culture and history is invigorating for me and for my family.”
Finally, Amelia feels that, “There are always benefits from being with someone who is different than you. You get to experience a new culture, new languages, new traditions, new food. You get a broader sense of the world and those around you.”
Any relationship that gives you such a deep appreciation of others seems worth the effort involved in overcoming all the differences, those we all share and those specific to intercultural couples.