My husband and I are of different races, nationalities, cultures, religions and languages. He is brown, I am white. He is a Tamil Brahmin [Tam-Bram], I am Canadian. He is Hindu, I am Catholic… but despite these differences, we are united by love in its purest form. When you love someone with your full heart, you open yourself up to their world, to different possibilities and to a future, different to what you had imagined. When it is an intercultural love, it often serves as a pathway to unknown—a different country, culture and lifestyle.
Being in an intercultural marriage has been the biggest learning experience that I could have ever asked for… and I’m still learning. I’m a constant student, discovering bit by bit every day.
In the beginning, it was all about love [and it still is, in many ways]. But, as I got to know my spouse, I noticed that there was so much about his culture that I didn’t understand and that even he couldn’t explain to me. It was like that part of the moon which is hidden from the Earth. Naturally, I wanted to know all about it. It wasn’t just curiosity; it was respect. I think learning about your spouse’s culture is one of the highest forms of respect you can give them. I did this because I wanted to know what would make him feel more at home with me [since we were living abroad]. I wanted to bring the comforts of his homeland into our life together—whether it was the smell of sambar cooking, or the early morning incense. I wanted him to find his home in me. And I believe this changed me. And though I’m still that same Canadian girl, now I’m also a Tam-Bram wife…
Keeping the flame of tradition
Even while I was dating my husband-to-be, in the back of my mind I was always thinking about the future. I wanted to know about my spouse’s culture, partly for the sake of our future children—what if they ask me questions and I can’t answer them? I needed to know things so I could explain it to them, and I knew it would take years to learn all the complicated intricacies of his culture and be able to understand it in my own way.
After I got married, my mother-in-law told me that in Indian culture, the wife is seen as ‘the keeper of the flame’, which means ‘the keeper of traditions’ and she told me she was proud of me and my interest in their culture.
In the beginning nobody thought we would end up together. They thought that because of our vastly different cultures, we wouldn’t be able to get along or sustain a lifelong relationship. But our love has kept us together.
Delving into the unknown
Even though I started to learn about my spouse’s culture for my own reasons, there was a happy side-effect: I started gaining support in my spouse’s iron-clad, Indians-only family. Eventually, almost the entire Tam-Bram clan was won over. They liked how I respected their culture, how I asked questions. They liked how I wore a saree, how I cooked Indian food and how I respected the elders. Just like my husband, they too started feeling more comfortable around me. The fact that I was a foreigner became less obvious. By immersing myself in their culture, it served as a gateway for them to get to know me as a person. And what we all discovered was that beneath our perceived differences, we really weren’t so different after all!
Tips for cross cultural couples
I’m often asked by other intercultural couples how I’ve successfully blended into my spouse’s culture. To the outside world, it may appear like we have blended effortlessly. But in reality, it has taken a lot of work on both sides. It takes a lot of understanding, patience and flexibility. You have to keep seeking and discovering because even when you think you’ve learned all there is, there is always more.
Here are a few tips that I can offer from my experience:
- Immerse yourself in your spouse’s culture: You will learn most of the customs by observing and doing your own research. Many things will not be properly explained to you or they will be explained differently by different family members. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about anything and everything. Read books, watch movies, talk to both young and the old. Pay attention.
- Make an effort to combine both cultures: Whether it is creating your daily menu, or celebrating holidays—do both with the same enthusiasm. I often plan a South Indian lunch and a Western cuisine dinner. We celebrate both Diwali and Christmas. Celebrate both cultures in little ways and big ways, until it feels natural in your daily life. Whoever said you can’t do both is wrong! It honours both of you equally and it’s more fun.
- Bend traditions to fit your own life: Not all traditions are made equal. Some traditions are timeless, while others have no place in modern life. Be the engineer of your own life and choose which traditions not only speak to you, but also work for you. Don’t mindlessly practise a custom that doesn’t make sense to you.
- Embrace differences: Instead of judging the cultural differences as right or wrong, view them as just a different way of life. Think of them as a learning experience. There will be specific cultural mannerisms that you don’t agree with—and that’s OK.
- There will be misunderstandings: All couples have misunderstandings; but intercultural couples tend to have more of them due to the differences in culture, language and ways of speaking. Use your misunderstandings as a way to communicate more—more communication is always a good thing.
- Family is everything: Welcome each other’s families often into your home and visit relatives in your homeland regularly. It is important to spend time with family before they are gone, and learn all that you can from them. Knowing where your family comes from empowers you, and it’s something that future generations will cherish.
- Don’t lose yourself: It is easy to get lost in your spouse’s culture. There will be times where it may seem to overwhelm you and make you feel claustrophobic. Always remember where you came from and stay centred. Find a happy medium between both cultures.
Love changes us, it helps us grow. Being loved and loving deeply brings us on a higher plane. As we grow with love, it opens up our families too. Our intercultural love changed us for the better. Ditto for our respective families too!
This was first published in the October 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.