Hiding from the rain under a tiny umbrella, my boyfriend of barely a month and I were making our way to class. We couldn’t see anything but the inside of the umbrella and our own two feet. In the midst of a conversation about the future of our relationship, I reflected how this was what much of our relationship felt like – all we could see was the very next step. It was a simple statement, but a lesson that we have been learning ever since that day.
I’ve been reading some blogs of others in South Asian intercultural marriages here and there, and one particular post took me back to that time when my husband and I were working out the ifs of what it would look like to spend our lives together. The question of loving each other wasn’t the problem – it was more the question of being able to commit to working out life together permanently. There was a lot of angst, questioning, talking, praying, reading. After a long four years, we decided to take the plunge.
We’re now well over ten years in – past the questions of if to be together and well into the actual hows. As we worked through the initial surface differences (i.e. food, race, dialect), we found ourselves in uncharted territory regarding where to go after the books we’d read stopped. Living in a non-diverse area of the country, we found ourselves feeling isolated because of choices we made in relation to our bicultural-ness and unsure of how to connect to others without our experience. Our hearts ached from the lack of frequency with which our children would interact with both families because of distance. We grow weary of always being different, of still feeling like we’re navigating this boat alone. In spite of these realities, we also know deeper levels of commitment and love than we could have even imagined when before we married. Our friendship has grown and stretched us into more compassionate and humble people. We wouldn’t dream of trading what we have for a simpler, more straightforward life, but we readily admit it hasn’t been an easy road.
So in honor of those just starting to sort through, and in hopes of connecting to some others in the same boat, I want to spend some time reflecting on skills we’re developing in what I call ‘deeper intercultural marriage.’
Grace. Living in a rural area, we are nearly always the only interracial family anywhere we go. This leads to stares and sometimes questions. Because of the wideness of our experiences together, we also tend toward seeing the grayness in many matters. This goes against the prevailing black-and-white perspectives represented in our current location because so many have not had opportunities to see the breadth of the world up-close. When we find ourselves in such situations, it challenges us to offer grace to people who come from different perspectives while still sharing from our own experience.
Insight. A friend conjectured once that if two similar people marry each other, that they will have a life of mostly easy communication and little conflict. However, because of their similarities to each other, they will have a limited understanding of people who function differently than them. Conversely, if two very different people marry each other, they will likely have quite a lot of conflict to sort through. If they face this head on and choose to find healthy ways to sort through their differences, they will gain a deep understanding of a wide array of people. I’m not suggesting that either arrangement is superior, just that differences aren’t bad when we work through them in healthy ways. They give us insight into the world that we would not otherwise if we function in a world of similarities. They’re rich – not in a sugary sweet cupcake way, more in a complex, layered arrangement of flavors like curry.
Sacrifice. When we were first married, I remember being surprised that I grew slightly jealous watching couples who appeared to share the same culture. It looked so easy, so fluid for monocultural couples to relate to each other’s worlds. As we’ve gone on, functioning in and accepting each other’s cultures has required sacrifice for us both. The materialism of American culture makes my husband squirm, and yet he has also grown to accept how it has shaped my daily habits and choices (both for good and bad…) Travelling to a war-torn country with young children stretched my American notions of safety, and yet it taught me to trust God with my children in ways I cannot in my home country.
Flexibility. I don’t think either my husband or I would inherently qualify for a title of ‘laid-back’, so I’m grateful for being forced into situations through cross-cultural interaction that require us to hold loosely to our plans and expectations for what we deem should happen.
Patience. Sometimes, waiting is half the battle. Our world is soon to be rocked when we move from tiny-rural-town to sprawling-suburbs-of-major-metropolis. Tiny-rural-town hasn’t been the easiest of places for us to be patient, but the practice is still restorative for our souls, and will certainly serve us well as we sit in traffic in the awaiting suburbs. As we’ve sorted out our differences in personality, family background, preference, and culture, we find that patiently waiting for the other to grow and understand goes a long way in cultivating a peaceful relationship.
Honest Communication. I’m chuckling that the last two words of the above paragraph are “peaceful relationship”, because that’s not particularly how I would characterize honest communication. Honesty can certainly create peace, but it doesn’t necessarily start that way! Some of our most challenging conversations have held truths so painful that it takes every single one of the skills above to face them. Yet this honesty is the only path to growth, because if we don’t know where each other is coming from, we can’t truly know each other.
Friendship. When we first got married, I (of course) considered my husband my BFF. And to the extent that I understood this term, I suppose it held some truth. What I have learned since these days is that, in order for our relationship to thrive, we not only need each other’s friendship and support, we also need trustworthy, reliable, and consistent friends who we can lean on when we fail each other – friends who love us both, and who can handle that we are broken people attempting to love each other.
I could likely write a whole post, or maybe even a whole chapter on each of the topics above (maybe some day I will!), but this was just an attempt at a start. For now, I’m curious about you… If you’ve been in an intercultural relationship long-term, what are you learning? What sustains you? What breaks you? What shows up deeper into intercultural marriage that may not initially be seen at the surface?