To be honest there are some things I wish my-younger-self had known some years ago.
Sometimes when you’re in love, nothing else seems to matter and we find ourselves doing and saying things to our partners to make them happy not knowing the impact of our decisions later on.
For example, years ago when my husband and I were contemplating where to live, we did have to consider where we might live other than Australia.
In my rush of extreme feelings I would say “we can just live in Nepal, as long as I’m with you, that’s all that matters.”
Looking back now, I wouldn’t be so hasty in my decision to leave Australia forever and live in Nepal (especially because ahhh I hadn’t even before to Nepal at that time and now I have…that was a wake-up call).
I get a lot of readers who ask me for advice on intercultural relationships and have shared with me the difficulties they are facing in their intercultural relationship.
It has made me realise that the wave of emotions I felt during the challenges in my own intercultural relationship were actually quite normal and that I wasn’t alone in my feelings.
Common questions I struggled with alone back then are common questions I now get asked by other women like Why do Nepali men not show much affection in public? Why hasn’t he introduced me to his parents yet? Why do we have to think about living with his parents and brothers and their wives and their children?
This post is about what you should consider before saying yes to an intercultural/multicultural marriage and is especially targeted at those in South-Asian / Western relationships.
Here’s a list of a few things you should talk to your partner about before you consider entering into a relationship or marriage from another culture.
If your partner’s family does not accept their son/daughter’s relationship with you because you are a foreigner, what does that mean for your relationship? Will your partner promise to stay with you despite the family’s disapproval? How do you feel about them having to choose between their family and you? This is a question you should ask your partner about quite early on. You can read about the significance of marriage in Nepali society here including my experience of telling the in-laws.
Where to live
Where will you live? Will you live in your country or theirs? What if they want to move back to Nepal/India etc in the future permanently? Could you live in a third world country battling the physical elements and societal/cultural differences? How do you feel about that? What if they grow unhappy in your country because they miss their culture? Would you encourage them to move back to their home country… and would you go too? This is a big one and not something you probably can discuss until the time comes to deal with it.
Who will you live with?
In Western culture, this is a non-question; you live with your husband/ wife and your kids only. But in South Asian culture, it’s common for the sons and the son’s wife to live with his parents under the same roof, often with your brother in law, his wife and their kids. Big, joint families are common in Nepal and India. How do you feel about living under the same roof 24/7 with your in-laws following their way of life and customs? What if you have a chauvinistic brother in law or father in law or a mother in law who doesn’t respect you? Would you decide to remain in an unhappy home for the sake of family or would you break the family tide and move out? How do you feel about living with your in-laws if the culture expects men and women to eat separately?
More importantly, how will you live?
How are you going to balance both cultures? Celebrating Dashain/Christmas/Easter/Teej is the easiest part. What about day to day life of who works/provides and who cooks/cleans? Will you have to do both? Will you follow caste and other societal expectations in your home? What would you do if your family practiced ‘chaupaudi’ where you are segregated from eating with your family because you have your period and are considered impure? Do you let that happen or do you speak up?
Nepali women are expected to behave a certain way but if you’re a foreigner married to a Nepali – there is some leeway – but not much. The gender bias and prejudice against women in Nepal is a big issue. Some Nepali girls have told me the expectations of them are: to speak with a lower voice; be a subservient woman/wife/buhari; always dress covered up; follow traditional women’s role of cooking/cleaning/childbearing while working full time (or not working) and not partake in drinking/smoking/socialising with men…gasp… and other similar “evils”. Majority of western women do not follow these strict cultural rules or at least have freedom to choose against them. Other Nepali women who have been exposed to both their home culture and western countries find a mix between these issues as do most goris. But how you feel about these customs (where relevant) if they were expected of you? If your partner doesn’t like you doing them, that could be a serious issue between you two to sort out. If your in-laws expect you to follow these traditions, there is likely to be some head-butting. In my experience these issues are usually the main cause of why intercultural relationships breakdown, mostly because it’s hard to strike an equal balance between both cultures and the in-laws’ expectations.
Money and finance issues
In many South-Asian cultures, money is shared and loaned between families and is an expected custom. If you have in-laws, cousins, brother/sisters in law back in Nepal or India, you are probably expected to financially support them in the future because they won’t be earning the kind of money you earn. I’m not talking about loaning some money here and then when they are stuck, I am talking about big money like buying them land, a house, a car, motorbike etc. This is a big issue for couples; it’s hard enough to get ahead if living abroad because of the high cost of living. So would you be willing to send $30,000 of you and your partner’s money to buy land or $100,000 to buy them a home even though you will never live in it and you don’t even have a house of your own? What about your own future and your kids future too? It’s fine if you have an income to support both families but what if you don’t? Giving money to family members and loaning money can cause a lot of strain in intercultural relationships.
If you have children, what would you teach them your culture and your partner’s culture? What if there is pressure from your partner or in-laws to raise them ‘more’ Nepali/Indian than Western? It’s a question you will probably get asked and it’s question you will be asking yourself. Obviously it’s easy to say both but there is a blurred line here because of the depth of South Asian culture and all the rules/rituals/customs.
What will you teach them about how girls are treated? In Nepal, when a girl has her period in many families, she is not allowed to enter the kitchen. Do you pass that on to your daughter because it’s part of their culture or do you take a stand and say that will never happen to my daughter? What if your daughter is told what she wears is inappropriate and that she has to cover up? What if your teenage daughter has her period and is told by aunties/grandmothers/mothers that she is impure and cannot take tikka at festivals or be allowed into temples because she is considered ‘impure’ because she is bleeding?
Will you raise your children the traditional way that boyfriend/girlfriend relationships are unacceptable or will you encourage your children to be open with you about their relationships? What if your 16-yo daughter wants to have sex with her boyfriend? In Nepali/Indian culture sex before marriage is generally frowned upon. In western culture, sex before marriage is much more acceptable and many parents will educate their children about safe sex practices from a young age. You and your partner need to discuss issues like this before having a child because if you are of different values, it could turn out terribly in a marriage and as your raise children?
Will you tell them to follow caste rules?
Will you raise them as a Hindu, Christian, neither or something else? Will you give them beef at a young age or not?
Even though you had a love marriage, what if your partner expects your children will have an arranged marriage? Would you let your partner help arrange your child’s marriage? (Surprisingly many modern couples still want their children to have an arranged marriage)
How often will you take them to your partner’s home country and what aspects will you expose them to?
As you can see there is a lot to think about and while in western society it would be seen as crazy to ask your partner such in-depth questions early on in your relationship, in intercultural relationships, you seriously have to think about these things. A reader of this blog got married to a Nepali and it wasn’t until later was told by her husband that she would have to live with his parents permanently. She was shocked because she didn’t know enough about these expectations of Nepali society and he didn’t trap her because he genuinely thought it was so normal that you don’t even ask questions about it. It ended up in divorce.
Also, it’s completely normal to have arguments/differences in opinions over these matters (trust me – we’ve had our fair share) and it doesn’t mean they are deal breakers in your relationships but at some point you have to find a common ground on the core ones which affect your values. If you can find that balance by communicating and working on any issues, you will be happy together.
If you disagree strongly on most of the fundamental issues I’ve raised, it’s worth questioning whether you should be together at all. I don’t say that out of spite, I say it out of experience because I’ve been exposed to the issues many intercultural couples face.
My advice is clear: Ask your partner these kinds of things before marriage… it may save heartache and separation down the track.
What other tips would you give to those in an intercultural relationship?
Do you have any more questions to add to this list?