6 Things I Love About Being In An Intercultural Relationship

After the rather ranty previous post (I just had to get that off my chest), I figured it was time to give myself and you, dear reader, a little motivational boost. What better way than to remind myself of all the great reasons I agreed to get married to my inofficial fiancée in the first place?! A big thanks to Vicci, who brainstormed with me and added a considerable amount of ideas to this list. Because of that I will split this post in two, so welcome to Part One:

Intercultural relationships

1) Learning something new every day
Although it might sound a little cliche, one of the things I find most exciting about going out with a Chinese person is that I feel like I am constantly learning something new, about him as a person, the Chinese language, Chinese culture, you name it. This makes the whole relationship incredibly interesting.

Mr. Li’s favourite remark concerning my learning habits is:

“I always have to watch my language around you, you are like a child, you pick up all the terrible language I use.”

Especially since I feel very passionate about Chinese language and culture, going out with a Chinese person allows me a deep insight into it and a close connection with it, it would be almost impossible to gain otherwise. For this I will be forever grateful.

2) Seeing your own culture with new eyes
One of the most challenging but also rewarding aspects of my relationship with Mr.Li has been not only understanding his culture but also re-evaluating my own, very confused background. It is not until I have to explain certain German or English customs to him that I realize how culturally influenced my view of the world and behaviour is and at the same time how difficult it is to put a cultural label on certain habits. After all, who is to say where an individual person starts and where culture begins?

Recently Mr. Li has started to meet more Germans through Couchsurfing and comes to me with his questions about our culture. This has been especially fascinating to me, seeing him taking his first steps in the German world like a small child, trying to understand our communication styles and realizing that some of the things we say might sound incredibly rude, but we really don’t mean them that way.

Moving to China has helped me further understand and accept his culture and it has done a lot for our relationship after we managed to get through the initial hump of culture shock and finding our feet in a new life, a new culture and a long-distance relationship. Now I feel we are stronger than ever.

I am hoping that the more he is in touch with German culture the more he might discover certain similarities in our behaviour, which in turn might help him accept more easily the things that I sometimes do, which he finds frustrating. We shall see.

I am not counting my UK side into this because he has spent six years in the UK and so is pretty familiar with the culture there. Also, I consider myself about 70% German, since I grew up in Frankfurt and spent more time there than in the UK. Finally, I believe that the British culture is actually a lot more similar to Chinese than one might initially think, with its politeness and etiquette, especially when pitted against the rough but loveable honesty and straight-forwardness of the Germans.

3) Telling our family-in-law about our culture

Because China has mainly followed an isolationist policy and international cities hardly exist in China, many Chinese especially from smaller cities have no idea what your home country is like.

But they are really fascinated by it and eager to discover what life is like back in your country of origin. This kind of interest is really flattering and it is a feeling of joy that someone can get so excited simply by listening to you share stories about your own culture.

4) Fitting in between
This is a very personal aspect to do with my background, but I have a hunch that any of you out there who spend a lot of time studying the Chinese language and immersing themselves in the culture might tend to experience something similar after a while.

Growing up I never really fit into my life in Germany. I would make jokes about how

“I’m too polite to be a German but too rude to be a British”, “I am German, except for my British humour” or I am “70% German, 30% English”

(whoops, I did it again, didn’t I) to brush off the very real consequences of being a child of both worlds. Of course, Germans can be very polite and funny, and my German-to-English ratio tends to shift depending on when and where I am, with whom and finally in which mood.

But there is at least some truth to all my silly jokes in that I have never really felt at home in either culture. In Germany, I always thought of myself as the English person. But after living in the UK for two years, I finally had to admit that I was rather un-British in a considerable number of ways. Add my China obsession in the mix and the confusion is complete.

Mr. Li, having been sent to the UK at 16 years old, spent a majority of his formative years in the UK and going out with me has only made things worse. Hence, like me, he often finds that he doesn’t fit into his native Chinese culture, while at the same time he can’t say that he is British either.

In my opinion, our sharing of this experience of being stuck in the middle and having nowhere really to call home has in no small part founded a strong basis of why we get along so well.

Both of us tend to be just a little of place and awkward with our own cultures. At the same time, due to the distance this creates, we can both critically examine our own and each others’s culture and feel at home nowhere and anywhere at the same time. Actually, we do feel at home. With each other. (Okay, enough with the sappiness now.)

5) Cultural Epiphanies
It doesn’t matter whether you have been together three days or three years, the most uplifting feeling of success is what I refer to as cultural epiphany. These are the moments when you finally realize or learn something about your partner’s culture that suddenly explains all those silly little fights you had, where one of you got offended by something the other did and neither of you really knew why exactly you were fighting.

Even after three years of going out with Mr. Li I still have these unexpected moments of clarity, more on that soon, and it is incredibly important for them to happen for the success of the relationship. I think I can honestly say for the first two years of our relationship neither of us really had a clue what we were doing. I personally a was, despite my advanced Chinese language level and what I told myself, almost entirely ignorant to many of the characteristics and intricacies of Chinese culture.

How do you make these epiphanies happen?

While they are crucial in understanding and improving an international relationship, it is hard to trigger them. They might come any day, any time at the most random moment. Of course there are three major elements that help you get there – living in the foreign culture, interacting with as many locals as possible and talking to those locals about behaviour by your partner you don’t understand. While this can be sensitive in China due to the face issue, it has been mainly through talks with my female Chinese friends that I have been able to comprehend some of Mr. Li’s behaviour as stemming from his upbringing.

6) Getting past the culture

Once you have gone through an initial phase of adjustment, it becomes easier. Friends of mine confirm that the first months of the relationship were not easy simply because both sides were struggling to understand that certain behaviour by their partners is not necessarily viewed as negative in their partner’s culture.

I think on a small scale this is a case with all relationships, since we all have our individual habits and views our partner might find difficult to adjust to. In intercultural relationships there might just be more of them.

But don’t give up if in the beginning you find yourself struggling and having seemingly petty fights. Once you have managed to work through the cultural epiphany process and the cultural differences, the biggest epiphany will be that at the end of the day none of it matters. “Cultural barriers” is just a term and idea we created; and I maintain in most cases, they are just in our minds.

This is it for Part One, Part Two soon to follow.

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