Intercultural relationships- a starting point

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. The original article and comments from readers is here.
Here’s a list of a few things you should talk to your partner about before you consider entering into a relationship or marriage.

Family’s acceptance
If your partner’s family does not accept their son/daughter’s relationship with you as 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, sons and the son’s wife are expected 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?

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? If you have children, what would you teach them about this?

Gender roles
Often times women in other cultures are expected to behave a certain way in society which is different to how you’ve grown up. The gender bias and prejudice against women in Nepal and other Asian cultures 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. From my understanding these issues are usually the main cause of why intercultural relationships breakdown.

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.

How to raise your children
So, are you going to raise your children the more South Asian way or the more Western way? 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.
Will you tell them to follow caste rules?
If you have a daughter, what will you teach them about them gender issues I’ve raised above in the more Nepali way or the more Western way?
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?
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 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?

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One Response to Intercultural relationships- a starting point

  1. Ellie says:

    My advice would be to try and think deeply about cultural differences before excepting or dismissing it. I lived with a Nepali family in Kathmandu for a year (not my boyfriend’s family!!). I was pretty lucky that they were an open minded family. The extended family lived together, and the family had already had lots of intercaste marriage, which I think contributed to them being a very open and accepting family. One of the sister in law’s even had a brother with a white Australian girlfriend and pestering me to find a Nepali boy was like a daily ritual for my Nepali ama and buwa (They didn’t know I’d already found one, but at his request we kept our relationship quiet until his family knew). Basically they were an open minded family, so I was surprised when I found out that the women sat out during their menstruation. This meant that we were allowed into the room with the idols and gods, we didn’t sit at the table to eat, and we weren’t allowed to handle food that wasn’t going to be cooked before it was prepared. I followed the tradition because I was a guest in their home, and I knew it wasn’t a permanent arrangement. Ok so we weren’t allowed to eat at the table, but we were in my family still allowed to eat at a chair and stool within the kitchen, long as you didn’t go near the kitchen bench, but on your first few days it was legit to ask to have your meals in bed because of cramps. What I found out quickly was that my Nepali sisters thought that western women didn’t suffer from period pain because their men weren’t allowing them to rest during then menstruation by sitting out. I found this really interesting, and I realised that the men in my family really stood up to help their wives as much as possible during their menstruation (which in my experience western men don’t do. Oh you have pms? hahah let’s make a joke out of this). The next thing I noticed was that I was mortified that sitting out meant that everyone in the family knew I was menstruating, buwa, dai, bhai…. anyone who visited the house for dinner… everyone. As a western girl this was mortifying to me… but then I realised actually in some ways this openness of who was menstruating wasn’t shaming at all, in my family it was caring, and you weren’t considered dirty at all (just maybe unclean, because in the past they had concerns over women’s ability to wash themselves and be around food). and actually in the west where I have to hide my tampons up my sleeves in the office and feel shamed if anyone knew that I was menstruating is to me more period shaming than sitting out. I discussed what I observed with my boyfriend, and he told me he didn’t like women getting forced to sit out, but he also wasn’t comfortable with the western way where we have to pretend it doesn’t happen and that girls don’t get tired and sick during their period. I’m still against forced sitting out, and I don’t like the mistreatment of girls in chaupadi huts in parts of Nepal. But I think realising that it isn’t a straight case of yours or his culture being correct is very important. Sorry for the long comment, I just feel very strongly about this.

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