Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Auntie Seraphic & Wondering About Guys from Other Cultures

Dear Auntie Seraphic

Do you know what advice to give women contemplating relationships with men from other countries and cultures? Obviously, there might be a language barrier to contend with, but I'm wondering if there might be other things to consider.  

Wondering about Guys from Other Cultures

Dear Wondering,

I am married to a man from a different country and culture, and although I rolled my eyes around after a priest told us (a Scot and a Canadian of mixed, but largely Scottish, background) we might experience serious cultural difference, he was to a certain extent correct. 

The most important things to consider when contemplating romance with a man not of your culture are whether he or his family are racist against your ethnic group and/or nationality, his culture's attitude towards women and his culture's attitude toward marriage. The only way you can find these things out is to read up on the subject, keep your eyes peeled and your ears open, and ask.

What many women who are brought up to be anti-racist don't understand is that most other people in the world are NOT brought up to be anti-racist. (Asia and Africa are intensely racist continents.) Possibly the vast majority of men in the world find women of other races and cultures sexual curiosities, either to be used or to be ignored, but certainly not to be brought home to mom and dad. Of course, a minority of men are the exception to this, and indeed a man of mixed heritage may certainly be drawn to a woman of his mother's ethnic group.

If you are a white American with a mixed, Anglo-Saxon or just plumb forgotten ethnic background, you have to be wary of those individuals who explicitly blame white Americans for their or their ancestors' suffering, no matter how justified that might be.  (If you have to apologize all the time for stuff you never did, it's not going to be a good relationship.) You have to be strong enough to stand up to people who think they have the right to disrespect you just because you are are a white American who did not share in their (or their ancestors') experience. 
I hope this is helpful.

Grace and peace,

But I should have added to this that if my reader is a white American, she should also examine any notions she may have grown up with about the culture of her suitor/crush object and ponder her family's ideas, too, and whether they all need a good mental clearing-out and restocking.

She should also determine if she is uncomfortable with any real, not imaginary or extinct, aspect of the man's culture. In some cultures, for example, son's wives are directly subordinate to their mothers-in-law; in others, sons' wives are indirectly subordinate. 

She should also admit if she finds him hot just because he is "different" or because women of her culture habitually turn men of his culture into sex objects. There's a reason why the surviving Boston Bomber has a swooning teenage fan club and the Oklahoma Bomber did not. I am sure Edward Said* would have had something to say.

If you are a white girl who found it hilarious that on The Big Bang Theory, Raj's parents threatened to disown him if he kept dating a white girl, you have never dated a South Asian guy. And I once knew a heartbroken divorced WASP whose parents walked out of My Big Fat Greek Wedding because of its portrayal of a WASP groom's parents. And there is a saying (and song) "Shiksas are for practice" which is supposed to be hilarious but isn't if you're Catholic and grew up where I did. 

Seraphic's Dad: You should marry a dentist.

Seraphic (saying the unsayable after 20 years): You always say that, and yet we live at X and Y. 

On the other hand, I also know a variety of immigrants who suffered from nasty names and stereotypes when they emigrated to the USA and Canada, even as late as the 1990s. This experience has left some of them protective of their primary ethnic identity and a few very resentful of anyone who reminds them of their petty persecutors. Meanwhile, there are any number of people who hold it as a primary value to marry someone of their own ethnic group, in part because of the history of that group. As I've mentioned before, I was once quietly and tastefully discouraged by a handsome Armenian who quite frankly said he needed to marry another Armenian. Well, having grown up at X and Y, I totally understood the concept. And knowing how difficult mixed marriages can be, I respect it, too.

Racism and racist sexism are real. However, profound cultural differences are real, too. If you don't like your boyfriend's mother, and she doesn't like you, but she and your boyfriend are from a culture where wives are subordinate to mothers-in-law, it would not be a good idea to marry your boyfriend. Or, if your boyfriend comes from a culture where language trumps every other consideration (e.g. French-Canadian), it might be a very good idea to learn that language as well as you possibly can.

Update: For the record, Scotland constantly surprises me, and I am glad I didn't have many preconceived notions of Scotland because I feel a sense of loss every time one gets overturned. For example, Scottish republicanism blows my mind because my 75% Scottish mother is a monarchist and Scottish-Canadians of the 20th century were all very rah-rah King and Empire. Fortunately, my husband is not a republican. But he is definitely not Canadian either.

*By the way, I do not take Said's ideas without a spoonful of salt. The Ottoman Empire was very nasty and imperialist, as is Wahaabism today, and in a Turkish restaurant in Edinburgh, Calvinist Cath and I discovered a painting celebrating the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in which the slain Christians were depicted as apes. Don't talk to me about "otherness", Edward, unless you are willing to admit it cuts both ways.


Mixed-culture gal said...

My Midwest farmgirl mom married a [Mediterranean country of origin], who promptly whisked her away to [Mediterranean country]. They were happy for a number of years until my dad grew discontent that my mother wasn't a [Mediterranean country of origin], and never would be. Now they live in their respective counties of origin. For me, marrying an American (my country of residence) is nonnegotiable.

Seraphic said...

Oh dear, how sad for you and your parents. Every foreign bride's second worst nightmare. (The worst is that the disgruntled husband takes away the kids.)

Calendula said...

I wonder, are there any warning signs about whether the man is likely to change his mind about being okay married to a "foreign" person?

Seraphic said...

That I cannot tell you. It hasn't happened to anyone I know personally.

B.A. gets moderately annoyed when I don't wash dishes the same way his grandma did, but he is still a huge fan of Ray Mear's Canadian Wilderness Adventures on telly, so I figure I'm safe.

Oho! But I did think of something. See how he gets along with older women from your culture, especially your mother. If he really likes your mother, you'll probably be okay, but if he just can't stand your mother, when actually most people like your mother, that would be a red flag. He might be so swept up in the (temporary) foreign glamour of you, that he will be shocked and disappointed to discover that at the end of the day, you're a younger version of your mother--or maybe a younger female version of your father, so better check how he gets along with your father.

B.A. adores my mother and father, and my mother just knit him a sweater. We're good.

Mixed-culture gal said...

I recon my dad should have married someone of his ethnicity; however, I believe that he would have been discontent with just about anyone, eventually. That's just his personality. The cultural differences didn't help, but they were hardly the *cause* of the marital difficulties.

Anonymous said...

Trying to figure out how to ask this in a way that will make sense... What about other cultural differences? Not the things that will cause long term regrets and problems, but the kind that just leave you confused. For example, I have been dating a nice Catholic boy who happens to be originally from another country (a predominantly Catholic country if that makes a difference), for several months. He has yet to even hold my hand, much less kiss me goodnight. I am not honestly all that concerned (not that I am not attracted to him, but I appreciate that getting to know one another in other ways is more important, and I certainly would not let anything get to the point of "making out") except that I fear it might be a bad sign. But then, on the other hand, he is taking me to visit his homeland (and to meet his family who still lives there) in researching that country, there was a statement on one page warning Americans not to participate in public displays of affection because they just aren't comfortable with that. So...is it just a cultural difference and I should refrain from asking "what is up" with this, or should I be worried? Anonymous if you please don't mind this once?

Midwest Miss said...

I once went on a coffee date with a very nice young man who had emigrated from Egypt a few years prior. He was very vivacious, I enjoyed him, I felt we had some things in common, and I just couldn't take it.

Partly it was the language difficulty--conversation, dialogue, banter are all very important to me, and his English was missing some crucial things, like idioms. We had to work very hard to connect verbally, and his writing was even worse. I laughed and smiled throughout the date, but was utterly exhausted by its end.

Partly it was that he exuberantly messaged and called me 4x/day from when I agreed to the date until we met up, more if I didn't respond, and I felt smothered. I worried it'd turn into controllingness later on.

Partly it was that since he'd left Egypt he was working as a chef at a nursing home instead of using his degree, and it didn't sound like he was worried about getting into a field where he could advance or support a family.

And partly it was that he liked clubbing and I like knitting and I didn't feel we'd get anywhere. But mostly it was this hesitant nervous feeling in my stomach that something was off and this wasn't for me.

When I called to cancel our 2nd date he gently said that sometimes we don't feel that spark, and that's okay. And it's funny, in that quiet moment where I finally felt understood, I wondered if maybe I should've kept that date.

Seraphic said...

Midwestern Miss, I would say no, you did the right thing. It may even be a widespread female experience to second-guess after a guy takes the bad news amazingly well.

Anonymous, back where I come from (only 46% Catholic), we NCGs have a question for times like this: "Is he gay or does he have a really tough confessor?"

It's great when a guy doesn't act like an octopus on speed, but most guys, even Catholic guys, at least act like a stealthy octopus. And if by "several months" you mean more than three, it is time to have The Other Much Rarer Talk, which is "How come you never kiss me good-night?"

Don't feel bad for asking this question. If you're in the West, it is the norm for dating people to at least kiss good-night. And maybe you'll be able to have a good conversation about affection and intimacy, which I would recommend anyway before you meet his parents. Travelling to another country to meet boyfriends' parents sounds like a HUGE emotional investment on behalf of a guy who hasn't shown any signs of physical affection. (And I don't mean lust, I mean AFFECTION.)

Maybe he does have a really strict confessor. Or maybe he's always dreamed of saving his first kiss for his wedding day. (I know a Filipino couple who didn't kiss until their wedding day.) But I don't get the no-holding-hands thing. Well--better ask!

Anonymous said...

I do get a hug good night, and when he arrives...so it's not like completely no affection, just... He is the type who does not even consider missing Mass, does not believe in dating just to date, so I have the feeling he may be particularly strict on himself. It's a long distance relationship and he's in a profession that demands a LOT of time - so I rather feel the fact that he makes time to see me means a lot (and yes it's technically been more than 3 months, but not necessarily more than three months worth of dates, and my friend who was in a similar situation didn't get her first kiss til they had technically been together a year!)- but yes I guess it is something I'm going to have to ask. Ugh...

N Taylor said...

Another consideration is that sometimes men who have social difficulties -- let's say for example, they have Asperger's Syndrome -- gravitate towards relationships where there is a language and culture gap, because the gap hides the man's problems.

In addition to your advice, I would recommend meeting the fellow's friends. How many friends is he keeping in touch with, do they seem normal, what do they say about him?

Julia said...

A friend of mine told me about a wedding reception where the bride was essentially verbally and physically assaulted by the groom's female relatives, particularly his Mediterranean grandmother (if I remember correctly). The bride was Aussie-Anglo (I think). Anyway, she was of a different ethnic background, and that was the problem for the groom's female relatives.

There are mixed-race marriages on both sides of my family and as far as I know it's never been a big problem for anyone. Having said that, culture and race are not the same thing, and I'd say a cultural difference would be more of a challenge than a racial one.

Julia said...

Okay, I need to correct myself - the family wasn't Mediterranean. More like Ionian.

Seraphic said...

What people do not get is that in many, many, many (most?) cultures marriage is not just about "the couple" but about their families. A family is saddled with a new person, and this can be very hard to adjust to, especially for the female relatives of the groom, if they are often or always together, and if they have carved out a space of power for themselves behind the scenes (e.g. in the kitchen) of a highly patriarchal culture.

I have heard a number of stories of Anglo-Aussie or Anglo-Canadian women being treated like crap by their new female in-laws. In one case, the bride got sick of her in-laws speaking their language in front of her knowing that she wouldn't understand so she went to night school to learn it. Then one day when her in-laws were talking about her, she interjected a fluent remark. Dead silence. But after that her in-laws had a lot more respect for her.

But do not think it is all gloom. My sister-in-law married into a different ethnic group, and our families get along fine. In fact, I suspect we enjoy the differences. of course, our parents and her parents are cosmopolitan. Oh, and she's a medical doctor, which in our culture means instant respect.

Julia said...

The fact that marriage so often involves 'merging' two families is what makes me nervous about it much of the time. It's not like it's a bad thing as such, it's more that one of my great nightmares is ending up with a mother-in-law who doesn't like me or vice versa. I've seen this first-hand, and it's highly stressful for the daughter-in-law, even after decades of marriage. My eagerness to avoid such a situation in my own life would lead me to seriously reconsider marrying a man whose family I couldn't get along with.

Wow. I am seriously impressed by the woman who learned a foreign language like that. That'll show 'em. It's got me thinking about languages, actually. I'm pretty good with languages. French? Pretty good. Italian? Pretty good. Spanish? I could cope. But the hilarious thing is that despite having Polish grandparents (well, by now there's only one left) I can't speak, read or understand Polish. As a young teenager, I got my hands on a Polish/Latin Mass Book. I read the Latin side. Much more hope of reading that than the Polish side.

Seraphic, your last paragraph is what I'm talking about when I mention the difference between culture and ethnicity. For example, my family wouldn't care a bit about a man's race, but they'd certainly care about the culture (or, more specifically, religion) he was raised in.

Just because it's funny - I've never been asked out by a man of my own ethnic group, or even a man of mixed-race descent. So maybe I will find myself in a mixed-race marriage one day!

This is an interesting topic. I think that race sometimes doesn't have a lot to do with how people react to each other. I know that there have been times when I've had moments like, 'Oh, yeah. This person is actually ethnically Asian! The Aussie accent, mannerisms and Ockerisms prevented me from noticing that'. I have a close friend who is a North American of South-East Asian descent, and I had a similar experience with her. It was about two months after meeting her that I realised, 'Wow! She's Asian!' And that was really only because she brought it up. Because all I heard when she spoke was 'North American'.

Excuse the super-long rambly comment!

Julia said...

By the way, if anyone decides to Google 'Ockerism', please don't be freaked out. I mean it in the best way possible and with much affection. Australians often use slang terms affectionately with each other even when those slang terms have insulting connotations.

Seraphic said...

Julia, it is very interesting about culture. I knew a Japanese-Canadian girl in high school who said that she was considered masculine and weird in Japan because of the way she walked. (She just walked freely like Canadian women.) On the one hand, her face looked Japanese, but on the other hand, her body-language was Canadian.

I'm not surprised you have a hard time with Polish. It is absolutely nothing like English or any of the Romance language you mention. It's got a lot of German loan-words, but the language it reminds me of most is Ancient Greek. That's just because of the case endings, however. Apparently it's way easier to learn Russian; Russian is simpler.

Julia said...

Seeing as I haven't really tried with Polish, I haven't struggled with it yet. But you're right, since it's pretty far removed from the languages I have an understanding of, I think I'd find it challenging. One of my close friends grew up in Australia with two Polish parents (one of them a former Polish teacher, no less) and a Polish grandmother, and she thinks her Polish is not great. And it was her first language. Her grandmother speaks very limited English, and my friend complains that she can't really explain her day to her grandmother in great detail because her Polish isn't good enough. At least it has a Latin alphabet I guess.

Urszula said...

I was wondering what you would respond to the letter-writer, Seraphic, as what with my travels and international leanings I have frequently found myself dating or being interested in foreign men.

I would add to this that not all foreign men are similar, ie putting all non-Anglo-Saxon (I assume this is the culture of the letter-writer?) in the same pot is a huge mistake. I would think -based on my own experience - that the dominant religion in a given country really does influence even the non-dominant-religion citizens of that country (as an example, during a recent trip to the Middle East I spoke at length to a Christian Lebanese driver who told me with horror that when he was applying for his kids' passports in the US, the passport office asked for his wife to sign their documents as well. He couldn't fathom this because even in a Westernized Middle East country like Jordan he was used to being the sole authority over his kids).

Also, on a more individual note, while other cultures are endlessly fascinating and exciting, I would give a lot of thought to someone whose leisure/eating/social habits were completely different than mine, or my cultures. It seems to me that of such small details is spun daily life, and what seems fascinating from far away may become very hard to deal with day by day.

Seraphic said...

Good heavens, Urszula! I very much hope that my post does not seem to shove all non-Anglo-Saxon men in the same pot. Being from multi-cultural Toronto, I would never do that in a million years. (Note the distinction between cultures in which brides are directly and indirectly subordinate to mothers-in-law.)

I was writing generally, and didn't want to single out any particular ethnic group. There are all kinds of cultures where Ma-in-Law rules over her daughters-in-law, or where it is the norm for the entire family to go to Ma-in-Law's every (EVERY) Sunday.

Quite obviously the specific cultural expectations for women and marriage are going to differ between Italy, Germany, India, Lebanon, Poland, China, Zimbabwe, Syria, etc., etc. They may even change from diaspora community to diaspora community, too. For example, Polish families in Toronto may have different family values than Polish families in Chicago.

But, really, the important thing is that a woman (say a Polish woman) dating a guy from a culture not her own (say, Mexican) establish--most effectively by ASKING--what cultural expectations he and his family live by.

Incidentally, it would be great if he asked what cultural expectations she and her family live by, too.

Seraphic said...

By the way, I don't know the ethnic or even national origin of the letter-writer. 60% of hits come from the USA, so there's a good chance she's American.

The reason why I mentioned the "white American of Anglo, mixed, or just plumb forgotten" experience of resentment and dismissal (or objectification as Other or even Status Symbol) is because very few women feel comfortable talking about it in public.

Anonymous said...

These are all great thoughts! I'd just like to point out that as American's we are from a largely emigrant population - we women have cultural traits in our own families that makes us do things differently from other American families. For example, I never truly understood my mother's side of the family until I visited the mother country (it's shaped like a boot). Then I began to understand why we do things a certain why on that side of the family compared to my father's germanic side of the family - and indeed, why the two families seem to be at odds sometimes (loving, but things get lost in communication despite the fact that everyone speaks English perfectly, it's just the culture clash).

Just a thought.


Anonymous said...

These are all great thoughts! I'd just like to point out that as American's we are from a largely emigrant population - we women have cultural traits in our own families that makes us do things differently from other American families. For example, I never truly understood my mother's side of the family until I visited the mother country (it's shaped like a boot). Then I began to understand why we do things a certain why on that side of the family compared to my father's germanic side of the family - and indeed, why the two families seem to be at odds sometimes (loving, but things get lost in communication despite the fact that everyone speaks English perfectly, it's just the culture clash).

Just a thought.