Dating Cross-Culturally: Some Advice
In the age of globalization, who you fall in love with could be someone from beyond your country's borders.
Some days, especially days like today, my boyfriend likes to jokingly ask me why I don’t know how to cook and thus takes it upon himself to cook instead.
“Why don’t you cook?! How do you live?!” he jokingly asks as if he didn’t know it was my plan to date someone who actually knows how to cook, so that he can then cook for me. Pretty smart, huh? I’m so glad — he’s a true gentleman.
I don’t always hear him say things to me like, “You’re beautiful,” or “I love you,” or “I appreciate you.” Instead, he prefers to show it and one of the ways he does so is by giving me food, which is pretty awesome.
As Americans, we believe so heartedly in words; we want to hear our significant others say things to reaffirm their love for us and we want acquaintances to say, “thank you” or ask how we are.
According to my boyfriend, he grew up a bit differently — it’s important to show how you feel, because words won’t cut it. How would you show thankfulness or love through words? He’s similar and has told me that this is a cultural trait that he has. I’ve learned to be okay with how he expresses his feelings for me, even when I’ve always been an American obsessed with the words coming out of people's mouths.
He grew up in Shaoxing, China, a city somewhat close to Shanghai, and is now a permanent resident in the United States as a software developer. This is common — companies need more talent in the tech industries when American students aren’t majoring in the STEM fields fast enough to fill vacancies. Foreign talent is sought after. Regardless of how, I’m glad I met him.
Before I dated him, I dated an international student from Zimbabwe for 4 years. Damn. The details of that shit-show is for another time. Note: It wasn’t a shit-show because he’s Zimbabwean, it was just a failed relationship.
As an American who has some experience in dating others from beyond U.S. borders, I wanted to share some insight with those who may be beginning a relationship with someone who grew up halfway across the world, with whoever may be thinking about dating cross-culturally, or with whoever is interested. In the age of globalization, the chances are high - you might meet the love of your life who happens to be originally born in another country. Even if your significant other is American, they could still have their roots in a culture different from your own.
So, here it is: some questions you might run into and some thoughts you may have as you spend time with your significant other. And perhaps I’ll have some good advice and maybe I won’t.
Disclaimer: I’m not a licensed counselor or psychologist.
1. You may ask yourself, "Is this the culture or their personality?"
As you know, when you’re dating someone from somewhere else, you need to keep in mind the fact that some of their actions that they do might be influenced by where they grew up. Do they not drink alcohol very often, because they grew up in a culture that doesn’t glorify alcohol the way the U.S. does? Yes, this happens.
Does your significant other speak bluntly about criticisms they may have, when you've grown up in passive aggressive Midwestern America your whole life and you're not sure how to deal with the bluntness? Yes, this also happens. Maybe your significant other doesn’t like it when you wear shoes in the living room, because that’s just rude in their culture.
Sometimes their small quirks are just something a person deals with in a relationship. When dating cross-culturally, you may think to yourself of whether these quirks are part of their culture or just part of their personality, a quality that they have as an individual person and not necessarily due to their culture’s influence.
Even if they don’t like shoes in the living room, it could also be because they simply don’t like it and perhaps other people from their culture really wouldn’t mind. If you’re ever wondering this, you can ask instead of keeping it in your head; however, it may be good to wait to ask until you’ve dated for some time.
Otherwise, it could come across as a micro-aggression if you’re asking on the first date, “Um, do you do that [insert 'weird' thing] because of your culture or just ‘cause you’re weird?"
2. You may be tempted to generalize. Don’t do that.
Learning from your significant other is great – and exchanging information about culture is helpful and improves global competency everywhere. Woo hoo!
Maybe you’ve just learned that your significant other from France always has a cigar and wine with his dinner at 9 pm every night and maybe he says he did this in France. Okay, cool.
But maybe you’re tempted to tell all your friends, “Oh my French boyfriend smokes cigars and drinks wine during dinner; all French people do this.”
As ridiculous as my example sounds, this definitely happens. You actually don't know if all French people do that — it’s best to take his word for it or spend some considerable amount of time in France to know if they really do that. It’s best to think again when learning about your significant other's culture and perhaps leave it to your significant other to tell your friends about his culture to avoid over-generalizing.
3. Communication is very important.
Just as if you’re not dating cross-culturally, working on communication is vital in relationships. Depending on the culture, having good communication may be a little more difficult, but it can be done.
For example, if you’re dating someone from a culture that is high context, meaning speaking with nonverbal cues, leaving things unspecified — and you’re from a culture that speaks bluntly (low-context) then you may run into a few road bumps in communication.
You may ask yourself, “What does this person want from me?” “Why don’t they just say what they feel?” I don’t really have clear advice on this, but all I can say is to be patient, don’t get frustrated, and sit down with each other to clear up any questions you may have.
You may need to say something like, “Look, I know you’ve been dumping my dirty laundry on the floor of the bedroom and I’m not sure why you do that.”
Your significant other might say, “Yeah, you haven’t done laundry in like 5 months — I thought you would get the picture when I poured the smelly clothes in your room.”
4. Be open to their pop culture.
I remember when I mentioned something about The Wizard of Oz only to discover that my boyfriend had never seen that movie nor really know what it was about. “What?? You don’t know The Wizard of Oz, one of the greatest classic movies of all time?!”
Okay, it’s understandable that he’d never heard of the movie — I’m certain I do not know many of the classic movies from China. My advice is to be open to learning about the pop culture of their country: the celebrities, the music, the movies.
You can learn about the tv shows they grew up with and get hooked on music you never thought you would like. You could also have them watch The Wizard of Oz, but personally, I don’t think it’s the end of the world if they don’t.
5. Finally, be open to differences and learn!
I don’t mean to be so hippie-dippy, but you two have so much to learn from one another; even the opinions on life, the values that a person has, and the goals they have for the future can all be impacted by the culture they grew up in. It’s important to listen to their thoughts and ideas, while exchanging yours as well.
I always think to myself, “It’s okay to disagree with something; it’s okay to agree to disagree.”
As someone who grew up in a Western culture, there’s still a part of me that looks at the world with a Western viewpoint — whether it be politics, values, etc. I do my best to be open-minded, but it’s nearly impossible to completely erase the Western viewpoints American education drilled into my head in my history and political science classes; dealing with a media that spews pro-Western opinions at the masses doesn’t help either.
All I can do is do my best to see the other person’s viewpoints and try to understand where they’re coming from. My boyfriend is similar: if you grew up in a Communist country, the views that you have now will have been affected by that.
Having heavy discussions is important — it helps the couple learn more about each other and I truly believe it makes them closer. You can also learn how to see the world through a different lens and it’s okay to disagree. Trust me, relationships can still be successful even if there are disagreements on how you both are seeing the world — you just have to be willing to be understanding and open. Additionally, you can think of it as exciting: you’re expanding global understanding, while reaping the fun benefits of dating.
I understand that this list may not apply to every relationship consisting of people who are from different places. However, I hope you found something insightful or helpful. I know I still don't always have it figured out, but I do know I'm happy with who I'm with now and that's what matters.