Life & Style | Relationships

Figuring out the cross-cultural love puzzle

Being in a relationship with someone who comes from a different cultural background brings its own set of unique challenges. Laura Fulton meets three couples who are making their relationships work despite - and sometimes because of - their differences.

  • By Laura Fulton
  • Published: 00:00 November 1, 2009
  • Aquarius

  • Image Credit: Supplied

Think back to the last dinner party you went to. Now run through the couples seated around the table. Chances are they came from a variety of different cultural backgrounds - Lebanese, Indian, British, South African, French, Canadian, Filipino...

In a country like the UAE, which is home to people from close to 200 nationalities, it's unlikely you'll ever find yourself out to dinner or in an office with people from only one cultural background. And if you're socialising with couples, you'll probably find a fairly large portion of them are made up of individuals from different cultures - or you yourself might be committed to someone who comes from an entirely different background from yours.

While many might consider variety thespice of life, cross-cultural relationships often bring with them a range of problems that require extra effort and commitment to overcome. We meet three couples who share how they've bonded in the face of racial, religious, and language differences.

Deb Kelly and Mahmoud Al Moneim, married 15 years

Perhaps one of the best ways to make a multicultural relationship work is for each person to truly appreciate the other's way of life. When mutual friends introduced Deb Kelly, from New Brunswick in Canada, and Egyptian Mahmoud Al Moneim in August 1993, Deb was on her second sojourn in Egypt. "I'd spent six months backpacking in Egypt with a friend, but later returned on my own to work as a scuba diving instructor," recalls Deb.

Though Deb's family has always been supportive of the relationship, they weren't sure what to think at first. "I don't think initially my family was thrilled — we've all seen movies like Not Without My Daughter, so they had a perception of what Arab men are like, and the fact is that sort of thing can happen," says Deb. "Even according to UAE law, children of foreign marriages are to remain in the UAE with their fathers. I've always been very independent, though, so my family respected my decision."

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Likewise, Mahmoud's Muslim family has also been receptive. "Most of the people I lived around growing up were used to Christians, so no one in Egypt asks me why I married a Christian," says Mahmoud, a native of Cairo. "It's only here in the UAE that I ever get any questions. Every once in a while, I hear something from the guys around here like, ‘Whoa, you're married to a Western girl, what about the kids?'. I just tell them that it's none of their business."

Though Deb and Mahmoud are from different religious backgrounds, this difference hasn't been a problem. "Technically our children are classified as Muslim, but we're teaching them an appreciation for both religions and North American traditions," says Deb.

What's the key to making their relationship work? Deb says if you're going to get involved with someone from such a different background, you really need to appreciate their culture. "I'd been living in Egypt long before I ever met Mahmoud," recalls Deb, who moved to the UAE with her husband nine years ago.

"I already had an appreciation for the region and all that goes with it—the lifestyle, the traditions, the customs, the whole way of life. I think if I hadn't had that appreciation, my expectations might have been different for the relationship."

Thanks to this mutual understanding, the marriage has flourished. In fact, Deb and Mahmoud believe their differences will benefit their children, Noah, 11, and Jenah, 8. "Our kids can get the best of both worlds," says Deb. Mahmoud agrees. "You can see the difference between our kids and those who have never been anywhere. Kids coming from overseas are generally more accommodating and accepting of differences, whether it's culture, language, accent or whatever. It's definitely a plus and as the kids get older, they'll benefit more and more from their diversity."

 

Erik and Lucille Juhlin, married six years

Like many couples, Erik, a native of Köping, Sweden, and Lucille, from Ormoc in the Leyte province of the Philippines, met via the internet. Despite the distance and differences in culture, Lucille has found the language barrier to be their biggest issue. "We want to learn each others' language, but it's hard," says Erik. Though both speak English, Erik's mother tongue is Swedish and Lucille's is Visaya, a Philippine dialect.

"I feel like I spend a lot of time explaining because I don't want us to argue over misunderstandings," says Lucille. "I end up saying, ‘No, I meant this', or, ‘I was trying to say that,' and sometimes I don't understand a word in English that Erik is saying. He's very loving, though, because he always tries to explain what he wants to say in an easy way."

Ironically, the fact that both Erik and Lucille are speaking a second language helps to ease the tension. "My English is not perfect either," admits Erik. "I studied it at school, but I didn't speak it regularly until I moved here." Despite Erik's daily use of English, he's still always aware that it's not his first language, and that awareness fosters his patience with his wife. Because Erik and Lucille rely on English to talk to each other, their children, Mark, 8, and Janelle, 2, are growing up speaking English as their first language. "They both speak a bit of Visaya and they know some words and songs in Swedish, but mostly they speak English," says Erik, an air traffic controller.

In addition to being trilingual, the Juhlin's are also a family of different looks. Since mixed races are the norm in the UAE, Lucille doesn't really notice the differences in their physical appearance until they go to visit her family back home.

"In the Philippines people will ask me, ‘Why is your son so dark?', and, ‘Why is your daughter so white?'" says Lucille. "I don't think they mean to be horrible - they're just curious, but I get tired of explaining to everyone sometimes."

Thanks to the large American influence in the Philippines, Erik is not as conspicuous as he thought he might be. In fact, he says his family is more likely to draw attention in Scandinavia. "If we were to go back to my little town in Sweden, we would stick out a lot," he says.

 

Félim and Alejandra Bolster, married nine years

Though Irishman Félim and Alejandra Bolster, from Spain, met at work in Abu Dhabi almost 11 years ago, they have learnt that loving a foreigner can be harder than it might seem.

Language has always been the greatest concern, says Alejandra, who comes from Zaragoza in the northern part of Spain. "The wedding had to be in two languages," recalls Cork native Félim. "We had to get a Spanish priest who could also speak English."

Though Alejandra's English skills have improved hugely since her wedding day, Félim still struggles, not so much with his wife, but with her family. "I haven't really made the effort to learn Spanish," admits Félim. "I have a really great father-in-law whom I get along with really well, but it's difficult because we can't have real adult conversations. It's especially important for me to be able to communicate with him because my father passed away when I was quite young, so he's the father figure I've got."

Even more than the basics of communication, neither Félim nor Alejandra feel like their true personalities come through in the other's language. "If you think you're reasonably intelligent, it's hard to prove that to people when you can't speak their language," jokes Félim. "I always have more to offer to the conversation than I'm able to contribute. I'm a funny guy - her friends will never know how funny I am!"

Alejandra feels the same. "No matter how well I speak English, I'm a different person speaking English than I am speaking Spanish. When I first came to Abu Dhabi, someone described me as very quiet and shy; I couldn't believe it because anyone from home would say I was completely the opposite."

Despite the issues, the Bolster's language barrier will eventually pay off for their two sons, Milo, 5, and Connor, 1. "Milo is already bilingual because he and Alejandra only speak Spanish to each other," says Félim, a high school principal. "Even though he's living in what is essentially an English speaking world, he'll be able to speak and understand Spanish like a native Spaniard. We sometimes have conversations between the three of us and Milo will move back and forth between the two languages."

Though it may not seem like Spain and Ireland are that different, Milo is still a "third culture kid", a situation that gives his mother pause. "I worry that, because he's not completely Spanish or completely Irish, he'll never really make friends," says Alejandra.

Félim disagrees. "I want my sons to understand where they come from and to be proud of that part of themselves, but what I really want is for them to be able to fit in anywhere and to be tolerant. It would be worse for a kid to grow up being so nationalistic that they can't relate to other countries or see the suffering of other human beings." A

Before you commit…

Recognising and acknowledging the challenges you might face as a multicultural couple will go a long way towards ensuring you have a long-lasting and fulfilling relationship, say the experts. They highlight some key points for couples contemplating cross-cultural marriage to consider before tying the knot:

 Get to know each other: "Make sure you know your partner long enough to get a feel of various cultural issues that might come up," says Dr Kennon Rider, Professor of Family Community Services at Michigan State University Dubai. "The best time to address them is early in a relationship. They can be too big to manage after a marriage," says Dr Rider, who counsels couples at the Australian Family Care Clinic (04-3694433).

 See your potential partner at home: Before you make a commitment, see your partner in his or her native culture over some period of time, says Dr Rider. A person who lives a relatively Western lifestyle while living in a Western country may revert to a different, more traditional style when he or she moves back home.

 Do you connect emotionally?: Clinical psychologist Dr Roghy McCarthy of the Counselling and Development Clinic(04-3946122), warns that some people use cultural differences as a way to keep their partner at arm's length. "There will always be differences to overcome in any relationship, but for some people, the barriers in a mixed marriage add to the intrigue," explainsDr McCarthy. "These people don't want to connect or are unable to connect. They want to have someone in their lives, but they don't want to communicate on an emotional level."

 Check your communication abilities: Some people purposefully look for a partner who speaks a different first language and then use the language barrier as an excuse to avoid communication, says Dr McCarthy. It's hardto understand your partner's personality ifyou can't understand their words. She says before you settle down, ask yourself if your partner was from the same background as you, would you still want to marry him? If not, the language barrier will only hinderyour relationship.

 Get your family on board: If families are not supportive, life becomes difficult, especially after children come along. People don't always anticipate how intractable this problem can be, warns Dr Rider.

 Agree on gender roles: Each of us grows up in a family and culture that has "rules" about what men are "supposed" to do in a household and what women are "supposed" to do. Dr Rider says it is important to make sure you are on the same page here. All couples have to sort this out, but coming from different cultures makes it an even bigger issue.

 Think about your future children: "When a child's parents are from two different backgrounds, one of those cultures often becomes dominant — usually the one connected to the language the child uses the most. In these cases, one parent may end up feeling alienated or left out," says Dr McCarthy. "To connect to another person, you must connect through the mind. Ask yourself if your partner enjoys the music, the art, the literature, the food of your culture as much as you enjoy his or hers. If not, you may have a hard time passing on your culture to your children single-handedly."

 Don't be naïve about race: Though it's not very romantic, the truth is that it's hard for love to conquer all, especially centuries of racial prejudice, says Dr McCarthy. In some parts of the world, children of mixed race will have a difficult time being accepted. It's important that you talk to people who have lived in the part of the world where you plan to spend the majority of your time raising your children and consider how you'd react if they were to become the objects of discrimination. If you can't face the thought, you may need to consider living elsewhere or even reconsider taking the relationship further.

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