Thinking about having an intercultural relationship? Read this first

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.

Family’s acceptance
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?

Gender roles
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.

Raising children
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?

This entry was posted in Communication, Cross-cultural, Culture, Differences, Family, Inequality, Intercultural, Intercultural Relationship, Interracial, Love, Nepal and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Thinking about having an intercultural relationship? Read this first

  1. Great post! You’ve covered very important topics. The biggest issue for me has been realizing that R’s parents might have very hard time understanding my point of view about living separately. It’s also frustrating that often people in Nepal think that you are rich just because you live in the U.S. (or another developed country). R is still a graduate student, but he’s already planning to buy land in Nepal for his parents in the future (which I don’t have a problem with). What is harder for me to accept, though, is that he feels obliged to give some $ to his uncle’s family (even though the uncle has 3 adult kids of his own).
    I can only reiterate that it is important to discuss future sooner than later. I know a couple that have been together for 5 years, but ended up separating. She comes from a background where it is not customary for a married couple to live with parents. His dad (Nepali) was eager to come to the U.S. and live with them once they were married. This was unthinkable to her. The guy took her opinion (a cultural difference) as her not liking his family and Nepalis in general.

    • Thanks, I don’t think I’ve covered everything I wanted to but the major ones are covered. I know what you mean about being perceived as rich just cause you live abroad.we face that too, I don’t think we can get away from it. I agree with you about having to send money for uncles, cousins etc, i’m not impressed. I have done it too and we have kind of cracked down on it now and said no more. It’s a big thing in many families.

      when you say your biggest issue is R’s parents not supporting your view about living separately, did you actually tell them you won’t live with them? how did they take it? or did you just quietly say you don’t think you would live together because in your culture it’s not normal? I really don’t know how to face this in the future for me personally, if it ever comes to that point. It will be terribly hard decision for me. If my parents are elderly, I would want to care for them but i dont see any reason for living together while they are capable of looking after themselves. What does your partner say about it? does he support you?

      • He agrees that it makes no sense for his parents to live in US. They see US through pink glasses, but in reality they would be very bored, because of language barrier, no Nepali neighbors, necessity to drive etc. Instead, Ramesh wants to build them a better home in Nepal. He agrees that very elderly parents will need care, sometimes by living together. His parents, in his late 40s, already can’t wait for Ramesh to tare care of him.

      • *His dad. You are right that taking care does not have to involve living together. Luckilly, Ramesh agrees.

    • hungrydai says:

      Khinkali. Wow now I am remembering Rustaveli in Tbilisi and an well know restaurant ‘Khinkali’

  2. hungrydai says:

    A truly excellent blog. Well written.

  3. Ayk17 says:

    Since I started reading your blog, I had imagined you might have hurried yourself into an inter-cultural/national marriage. I’m glad to have finally got the answer. It was hard for me to imagine how someone can be seamlessly be willing to get into a more restraining culture and a country where living standards are relatively lower from where you belong. So it was indeed a rush.

    And you have mentioned each and every issue that I ever thought a ‘foreign wife’ in Nepali society would face. Great to realize that I was aware of them.

    But there’s one issue which i find hard to agree on- giving your family free money especially with the amount of money you have mentioned. Getting land/house for cousin/sibling with your money is extremely, extremely rare but financially supporting parents is not just prevalent, it is indeed the duty of the son. Regarding big FREE money to cousin/siblings, they hope you will help but they certainly don’t expect that. But my experiences may be inadequate and it may be little more common than i realize.

    I’m Nepali, single and currently abroad. If i ever think i found a soul mate, and if she shows will- to adjust with me, my family and country- more easily than I expect her to, I’ll tell her to read your blog to know what she’s getting herself into 🙂

    • Thanks for your comments. It wasn’t a rush, we were together five years before we got married, and we only recently married so I could have chosen not to marry him even when I knew about all the cultural differences years ago. As you know I have been blogging for quite a few years now. Some things I did wish I knew earlier on in our relationship, that’s true. Nepali culture is restraining yes, but my husband doesn’t follow a lot of it so thankfully I am let off the hook. I think you are right about the money thing, not expectation for wider family in most families, and of course all the examples I gave are dependent on different families.

    • hungrydai says:

      Excellent advice Ayk. I’m British and married to a Nepali. We live happily in Kathmandu and with totally different cultures. We just agree to be different. I don’t do pujas and she doesn’t drink alcohol. It works well.

  4. Sara says:

    I married a Nepalese man and I have been nothing but happy. His parents are very strict Hindu (Vegetarian) and come from a high-caste family. They were aware that we lived together here in Australia before marriage, and also that I was a single mother. I am also white European (Scottish). None of this mattered, his family were so overjoyed that their son was happy. My husband lived in the US for 7 years prior to moving to Australia, and in that time discovered life beyond the cultural barriers. He vowed never to marry a Nepalese woman, because he knew that they had the expectation of being a stay at home wife, being reserved and quiet, and following traditions. He wanted something different. There is no expectation for me to take part in any of his culture, especially that of Hindu. Whilst he is Hindu, he respects the fact that I am a born-again Christian. He understands that I will not take part in ceremonies, in worship of their dieties/gods, and is happy that I have my own faith. He encourages me to be modest at times, but likes it when I dress sexy, but at the end of the day I have freedom of choice. We both disagree on many things in Nepalese culture, and he believes that it is strict culture and tradition that in some ways has held his country back from progression and kept it as a third-world country. He hates the way Hinduism allows people like the “untouchables” to exist, and discriminates against women and their rights. But for me at the end of the day, even had my husband been stricter/more traditional. This is the thing, to be in an inter-cultural relationship you don’t need to ‘adopt’ your partner’s culture. There does have to be a sense of respect in a sense, but when issues come up I will be the first to say, if he wanted a Nepalese woman he would have married one. He married a white, western woman. Whilst I am reserved, and respectful with good family values, my culture is one where women are encouraged to speak up, make their own choices and be free. I am very proud of this. I feel that too many people are so quick to give up their rights, their culture, their beliefs for another. Blended / intercultural families are a beautiful thing, but they are about blending, not one family dominating the other….I know some traditions will stick in our relationship, and that one day his parents will come here to live with us, and that is fine. But one thing they would never do is expect me to change for them. Because they love me and my husband just as they are, and I think if people truly love you as you are they would never expect you to change to suit their ‘cultural requirements’.

  5. madhmama says:

    Great post. Gender roles was a huge one for us. And not only that, but the gender roles that my spouse’s family want of me (read: more traditional)… LOL

  6. This is such a great blog post! Nearly all of these have come up in my relationship since pretty early on and every time we revisit them it is always interesting how we change and grow but still remain fairly constant.
    I think the one thing I hadn’t considered is the money situation and that is such an important thing to think about!
    I think it really is important to discuss everything with your partner though as you are entering an intercultural relationship and make sure not to compare yourself with others as well. I know people who are living with high caste partners and lead really liberal lives and other couples where the foreign partner is expected to fit in completely. There is no right and wrong and I wish I had known that at the beginning more. It is hard enough trying to find a balance between you both without considering how other people are leading their lives as well.
    Great blog! Looking forward to reading more 😀

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