(Almost 3 years ago, I wrote about what it was like to have a Mexican boyfriend. This post sort of builds on some of the concepts I touched on then. It’s cool to see how our relationship has changed and grown!)
Having a close relationship with someone from another culture-a day-in, day-out relationships, a relationship that span years-is the best way to realize just how different your two cultures are. And what closer relationship is there than a marriage?
Carlos and I have been married for just over 2 years and together for 5, and wow, has this been the learning experience of my life. Some of the tips I’ve listed are applicable to any relationship, but I’ve tried to give specific examples of why they’re essential in a cross-cultural relationship:
In language. Some people in cross-cultural relationships might still share the same first language. We, however, don’t. We speak Spanish about 50% of the time, and English the other 50%. When we’re speaking Spanish, it’s not unusual for Carlos to have to repeat a crucial-to-the-conversation word or phrase to me two or three times before I realize that, oh yeah, I actually do know that word, I had just forgotten it or didn’t recognize how it was being pronounced. If it turns out that the word actually is new-to-me, then Carlos has to pause the conversation and explain to me what it means. This can take anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. Of course, I have to go through the same process when we’re speaking English. This is something we do automatically most of the time. But it’s taken hours and hours of practice.
In understanding each other’s cultures. Before meeting me, Carlos had never heard of homeschooling. You know, the little thing that was my life for 13 years? Nope, it was a completely foreign concept (pun intended) to him. Over the last 5 years, homeschooling and what it meant for my childhood has come up time and again. Carlos now has a pretty solid grasp on what kind of experience it was for me. But it took me explaining it lots of times (and trying to assure him that my family wasn’t totally wacko), and it took him listening-over and over again.
Be Humble. We laugh about it now, but after we got married, Carlos was critical of how I cleaned the house. Why would I use Pledge on the furniture when I should be oiling it (he even went out and bought the oil he wanted me to use!)? He thought that Windex was totally unnecessary to buy, because soap and water worked just as well. Though he eventually stopped nagging, this experience left me extremely defensive. For months afterward, whenever he tried to give me advice on anything, I responded rudely and asked him to please stop telling me what to do. Well, at some point I had to admit that Carlos did give some valuable advice, that soap and water do work just as well as Windex (try it!), that when our dust pan was broken he suggested I wet a corner of a piece of newspaper so it stuck to the ground and voila! It worked like a charm. Carlos had to accept that I knew how to dust and that if I wanted to use Pledge, I could keep using Pledge. We both learned that Americans and Mexicans just have very different cleaning philosophies.
Stand Up for Yourself and What You Need. This tip is more for me, because right now, I’m the one living in Carlos’ country. And I don’t mean this in some sort of selfish, “do whatever it takes to make you happy” sort of way. I mean that, as an American, there are certain things I value that Carlos doesn’t necessarily value, or doesn’t value to the extent that I do. There are certain things that make me feel at home and though I don’t necessarily need them, doing them will make me more likely to succeed living here. There’s been times when I’ve had to tell Carlos, “I get that this isn’t normal or natural for you, as a Mexican, to do, but it’s really important for me and I would really like it if you could do it with me.”
A silly example is going to Starbucks. Carlos thinks Starbucks is overpriced and not very good (and I mostly agree), but I’ve asked him a few times to go with me just because it makes me feel at home. A more serious example is when I asked him if we could start leaving earlier for church. To be fair, we were only ever arriving 5 or 10 minutes late. But my whole life, I’ve arrived to church early because to me, it’s a sign of respect that you’re not rushing in the doors at the last second and have a little time to gather your thoughts before the service begins. I had to explain this to him and how and why it was important to me. But too much of trying to push my way is also not good, which brings me to my next point….
Be Flexible. I’m embarrassed to admit that I used to complain to Carlos when we would go to his family’s house for a 1:30 lunch and it might not be ready till 2 or 2:30. This would mostly bother me because my body is weird and I think I’m hypoglycemic and I don’t just get hungry, I get nauseous and weak if I go too long without eating. But that is absolutely no excuse, especially when I was a guest at their house! I complained so much about it that Carlos started to get stressed whenever we went to his parents’ house to eat. Once, on a day that I was actually feeling relaxed, we arrived for lunch at the appointed time, it wasn’t quite ready, and Carlos got upset at his mom. I told him that it was fine, that I could wait, but then later realized that the only reason he was so stressed about it was because of me and allllll of my previous complaints. I had to apologize to both him and his mom (see “be humble”).
Now, I either eat a late breakfast or have a heavy snack if I know we’ll be eating lunch on the later side that day with Carlos’ family. My mother-in-law’s cooking is always worth the wait. And whatever I do, I try not to take out my frustration on Carlos. This means praying a lot and sometimes stepping outside for a minute until I can get my attitude in check.
I’ve had to accept the fact that Mexicans view time in a much different way than I do, and me trying to fight it or complain about it isn’t going to change thousands of years of tradition and millions of people’s minds. Me trying to change things and being inflexible was stressing me out, which in turn put unnecessary stress on our marriage and on my relationship with my in-laws.
Don’t Generalize or Make Assumptions. Hearing statements like, “Americans eat really unhealthily” or “American parties are really boring” from Carlos’ mouth can be really hurtful. Conversely, I can’t say things like, “Mexicans are lazy” or “Mexicans are really materialistic” and not expect him not to be offended. When Carlos makes general statements about Americans, he has to realize that I’m included in that mix, and vice versa, even if he’s not necessarily thinking that I eat unhealthily or that every birthday party I had as a child was boring.
If you are struggling to understand a part of your spouse’s culture, it’s better to ask them questions or do some research as to why it might be the way it is. Just don’t generalize!
Agree to disagree. I think this is a necessary tactic to keep the peace in any relationship, but it is 1000% essential in a cross-cultural relationship. As much as Carlos and I can adapt and grow to understand each other (and we have come a long way!), we are always going to be very, very different. He is always going to be the person who grew up Catholic and attended public schools his whole life in Coahuila, Mexico, and I’m always going to be the girl from Texas with the conservative Evangelical homeschooling background. Very different. If we’ve been patient, and tried to be flexible, humble and gracious and still cannot seem to agree on something, agree to disagree. There is no point in risking your well-being or sacrificing the tranquility of your marriage over an issue that probably won’t matter a hill of beans a month from now.
Have Fun. This is the most important. Don’t get so caught up in your differences or annoyances with your partner’s culture that you forget why you fell in love in the first place! I fell in love with Carlos because of his kindness, sense of humor, and, true confession time, Latin dance moves and accent. Being married to him means that not only do I get to experience all of those things, every day (okay, the dance moves might not come out every day), but I’m constantly learning new things about him and his culture. Additionally, I’m getting to teach him things about me and my culture that an American might already know or not appreciate. I’ve also gotten to experience a lot of cool things, like the banda and mariachi at our wedding and Tigres soccer games (both at home and at the stadium) and breakfast dates over chilaquiles and coffee and date nights that include salsa dancing. My world and heart are bigger because of him.