Now more than ever, more people are finding themselves in relationships with people outside their own cultures. As someone in an intercultural relationship, I know how enriching and challenging it can be. I’m curious to find out how others are navigating their own intercultural relationships, so I started this series. If you haven’t already, check out the previous interview with Marcella.
My next interview is with Sanchia, a 23 year old English teacher. She moved to Ecuador last month to start a new teaching post. Sadly this means that she and her boyfriend (Nathanael) are taking a short break while he starts his PhD in London. However, she says they’re also best friends and knows that despite being very different people, things will come through for them in the end.
First, thank you so much for sharing your intercultural relationship story with us. Can you tell us a bit about your boyfriend? How did you meet?
As for Nathanael’s background, he’s half-American (his mother is from Jackson, Mississippi) but he was born in England and has lived here his whole life. He had a very different upbringing from me: he was born and raised in the house that his family still lives in to this day, whereas I have moved house over 15 times – not even my birth certificate shows the place I was actually born!
I met my boyfriend totally by accident when I didn’t get into the university I’d applied for, and ended up taking the first job I could find in a new city. I was desperate to find somewhere to live and ended up in a flat share with seven university students. He was one of those students, and it took about a month for us to realise there was something there – and now we’ve been together for just under five years!
Some might call that fate! What did you know about your partner’s culture before you started dating?
When we started going out, I’d only ever been to the East Coast of the USA and I knew that Mississippi was nothing like that! What I did know was that people are quite religious in the south, and that turned out to be a solid preconception since his father is a preacher, and actually his whole family is very involved with the church in his town. He still gets roped in to play with the church band for their Christmas and Easter services, and knows everybody in the congregation!
I was actually quite surprised when he told me he was half-American, until I met his family for the first time and he introduced me to his ‘home life’ as opposed to the university student I had gotten to know. Once I had a glimpse into that other side of him, it became obvious that he’d had a very traditional upbringing and a lot of that was to do with cultural influences from his mother – even if he doesn’t see that at times!
I’m not sure what he knew about India before he met me – very little, I’m assuming. However, he has pointed out a lot of typically Indian attitudes in me that I didn’t realise I had: the need to get a job that ‘society’ approves of, earn a lot of money, always have a clear direction in life. There’s also the fact that I’m not very close to my ‘elders’, in that I don’t share a lot with my parents … It’s just the way we were raised!
What is your favourite thing about your partner’s culture?
I think it has to be the Mississippi concept of family. Family has such a well-defined, pivotal role in their society and it really shows in the way Nat was brought up. He’s incredibly close to his brothers and sister, and I really envy that relationship – I’m still working on it with my own sister, but Nat and his family make it look so easy! His whole family is like that: they take a lot of trips together, they check in with each other all the time, and they’re just always there for each other, sometimes to a fault. I really admire that and think that some of those traditional family values are still very valid.
What is your least favourite thing about your partner’s culture?
Honestly? It’s that family thing again. I think the Mississippi concept of family has a lot of merit but at times it can also grate on me, which is strange because Goa is culturally similar to the Deep South on this issue! As a child, his mum had a very traditional, supportive role in the household, and stayed at home to raise the entire family. As an adult, he does struggle with some aspects of independence, perhaps because of that. An obvious example is that he’d never learned how to cook – not even an egg. A less obvious example is that he can be incredibly disorganised, because I think a lot of things were done for him as a child, so he never needed to sharpen that particular skill.
What is the most difficult aspect about dating someone from outside your culture?
You can imagine what it was like when I took my boyfriend, the archaeology (not law, not medicine, not dentistry – archaeology) major, home to meet my Indian parents. Both my parents are doctors (because my family is definitely not an Indian stereotype, haha) and both are very well-respected in their field and earn a considerable amount of money. Poor Nat had to explain that archaeology actually did have a lot of transferable skills, but he still wasn’t sure what career he wanted to go into … I think my mum thought I’d lost the plot!
But on the whole, I think Nat found it more challenging than I have, to be honest. I remember taking him to meet my family in India, and being so worried the whole plane journey over. India can be a big shock for a lot of people, and the poor guy also had to meet his girlfriend’s entire extended family at the same time! In the end, everything was absolutely fine.
He’s fantastic at talking to people from all walks of life (I have a theory that he learned that from having to talk to so many different people at his dad’s church!) and he was such a bit hit with my family, even though some of them don’t speak perfect English. The funniest part was that he’s not a fan of eating spicy food or any kind of fish, which was hilarious initially because we’re an Indian family from the coast! He thinks I’m a heathen for wanting to put something like stuffed squid on my plate, and I think he’s blind to miss out on all those tasty seafood treats.
Glad to hear he gets along with your family. What is the biggest way dating someone outside your culture has affected your life?
We both have a very multicultural attitude, in that we never wanted to just stay in England all our lives and only speak to other English people and be happy with that short-sighted view of the world. One of Nat’s older brothers lives in the USA, the other lives in Singapore, his sister-in-law is from Togo and speaks at least three languages; I think we both want that international experience together at some point.
Nat’s currently learning German and I’ve spent the last year getting fluent in Spanish, and we’re just waiting until he’s 25 and old enough to hire a car and take that US coast-to-coast road trip we’ve been planning for so long. There’s just so much to see and do in this world, and the thrill of travel was always there in both of us – although I think I am guilty of pursuing it a little harder! I’m so glad he encourages that part of me; I’ve learned and seen so much because of it, and I can’t bear the thought that someone else may have strangled that exploratory instinct.
Travelling is something my boyfriend and I also share. What has being in an intercultural relationship taught you?
I think one of the reasons I fell in love with Nat was the way he embraced everything about me and my culture, even the bits that were difficult for him, and that really gave me the confidence to celebrate Indian culture within myself. I’d been struggling with how to deal with racism (as every multicultural kid does) for a long time, and to be honest I don’t know if I’ll ever find all the answers, even as an adult. The problem is that a lot of people feel very uncomfortable talking about race, and by virtue of belonging to an ethnic minority, sometimes your voice just gets stifled; you don’t get to have that conversation, you never get to confront the issue like you need to.
For a long time, as a child, I was convinced that I was ugly because of the colour of my skin and that no-one would ever be interested in me. I had this ideal of what ‘pretty’ was, and I didn’t fit it. Well, it turns out that Nat loves all those things about me that I used to be so ashamed of; he’s given me a reason to view my cultural and racial heritage as something positive. And now I’m incredibly proud of it! Part of that change was me just growing up and become more mature, and part of it was being totally and completely accepted and loved by him.
He sounds like a great partner, helping you see the beauty in yourself. Do you have any advice for people in (or considering being in) an intercultural relationship?
If you’re considering it, take the culture clash out of the equation. If they’re right for you, go for it; if they’re not right for you, that’s that and it shouldn’t have anything to do with where you both come from. Having said that, it’s not always smooth sailing in intercultural relationships, and at times you may feel that you and your partner are so diametrically opposed that you’ll never be able to overcome all those differences, those external factors that you can’t change. Trust me, I know exactly how it feels!
The important thing to remember is that you should always look to resolve those issues together; communication is a vital part of any relationship, but it’s even more important when the same phrase or gesture or situation may mean completely different things to the two of you thanks to your cultural backgrounds. I can’t promise you that it will all work out in the end, but I can promise you that you’ll be a much better person for the experience.
Thanks so much for taking part in this series, Sanchia. I hope you’re having a blast in Ecuador! If you’d like to learn more about Sanchia (or just pop over to say hello) head over to her blog 260° West.
Are you in an intercultural relationship and interested in being interviewed? Contact me by email at email@example.com or use this contact form.
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