Finding a common dictionary as a cross-cultural coupleWritten by Matthea Schumpelt
What's inside this article
Even as a young girl, this Chinese-Canadian somehow knew she was going to marry a "white guy."
And now, two days shy of fulfilling my prediction, I look at my fiancé’s sprawling family, sitting on a beach in Vancouver, BC.
This is their first time in Canada, a long way from the desert of the American Southwest. Already, it seems the ocean has captivated them. A harbour seal peeks out from the waves; they gasp and point.
Sitting to their right is my Chinese-Canadian family who have travelled across the country from Ontario. This, too, is their first time in Vancouver. And they are delighted with the abundance of excellent Chinese food and Cantonese-speakers in this city. For once, they are no longer a minority.
I had fretted about this meeting the night before. What if they don't get along? Will his parents think my parents are weird?
Naturally, I feel anxious. This is coming from a girl who went to a rural Ontario school with packages of seaweed and dried squid for snack. And all I wanted was cheese strings and Fruit Roll-Ups® like everyone else.
Cross-cultural marriage on the rise
A growing number of Canadians have shared similar experiences. According to Carly Weeks in the The Globe and Mail (April 2008), the number of interracial relationships in Canada has increased 30 per cent over the last five years. "About 85 per cent of all mixed unions involve relationships in which one partner is white and the other is not. Nearly 42,000 couples in the country consisted of two people from different visible minority groups," Weeks writes.
And it’s no wonder. Between 1991 and 2000 alone, 2.2 million immigrants were admitted to Canada, apparently the highest number for any decade in the past century. Canada, it seems, is becoming a global meeting place, without the borders and geographical distance once separating people of different cultures.
What exactly is culture? While there’s no standard definition, the University of Manitoba anthropology website gives a concise starting point: "Culture is the system of shared beliefs, values, customs, behaviours and artifacts that the members of society use to cope with their world and with one another, and that are transmitted from generation to generation through learning."
Because every person comes from a family with a unique background, shared beliefs, values and customs, you could say that every marriage is "cross-cultural." But in a marriage where each spouse comes from different ethnic backgrounds, not only is there the bridging of two unique individuals, there is also a bridging of two different cultures. Take Western and Asian cultural values, for example: Whereas Western culture typically values individualism, rights and privilege, equality and self-assertion, Asian culture values collectivism, duty and obligation, hierarchy and self-effacement. No wonder culture clashes happen!
Finding a common dictionary
So just what is your spouse thinking? Whether or not you and your spouse share the same first language, you’ll likely have different cultural dictionaries for defining and interpreting certain values, customs and behaviours. Here are some ways to help decipher cultural influences on common marriage conflicts:
Conflict and communication style: Does your spouse come from a culture that values hierarchy and submission to authority, or one that values assertive self-expression? Your spouse’s cultural background may help you understand why they avoid conflict, dive right into it, or find expressing their feelings so difficult.
Finances: Money is a common area of conflict for all types of marriages, but it’s worthwhile to explore how your cultural background affects the way you approach finances. Marsha Wiggins Frame, in her study, "The Challenges of Intercultural Marriage: Strategies for Pastoral Care," writes: "When partners hail from culturally different families, frequently they have diverse beliefs about who should make the money, who should spend it, and under what circumstances."
What kinds of feelings, values and beliefs do you and your spouse hold about money? What were you taught as children, and what did your parents model for you?
Love languages: Ask each other, How do you give and receive love, and how did your cultural upbringing influence this? Where some cultures show love by performing tasks for another, others express love physically and with words (hugs, kisses, encouraging touch, words of affirmation). Find out how your spouse shows they care.
Define "leave and cleave": Do you and your spouse agree on what it means to "leave and cleave"? Often, conflict happens when spouses have different expectations and boundaries concerning their ties to their parents. For a spouse whose culture values collectivism, their ties to their family of origin can be much stronger than for a spouse whose culture values individualism. Making sure you are both on the same page on extended family boundaries can relieve tension in your marriage: You can still maintain good family ties and preserve ample space for your own family to grow.
Above all, submit each of your values and opinions to God and His Word. In conflict, trying to decide whose culture is right and whose is wrong doesn’t help. The final word is God’s: ". . . speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ" (Ephesians 4:15). This isn’t to say that cultural background counts for nothing; it merely takes a back seat to our identity in Christ. So, when we submit to Him, our marriages will gravitate towards a Christ-centred like-mindedness that transcends all other influences – even culture.
One body, one Spirit
So what happened the day my parents and in-laws met? There they sat, a row of sandy-brown heads with a row of black, enjoying each other and the same God-created ocean and mountains – together. Perhaps it wasn’t so hard to believe that my fiancé and I would tie the knot and make all of us irrevocably and wonderfully related.
Later in the evening, we gathered in a Chinese restaurant, with my in-laws looking confused at the menu and my parents chatting in a flurry of Cantonese. Finally, when it was time to bless the food, there it was: the same unity in Christ, same familiar Spirit. As Paul explains in Ephesians, "There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all." (4:4-6).
It’s this mutual striving after Christ’s heart that bonds our families, and the same reason why our marriage today – despite our differences – can work.
Matthea Schumpelt was an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada at the time of publication.
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