Imagine a starry eyed bride being whisked away to a foreign land, she is married to a handsome foreigner, anticipating a life of adventures and of different cultures, while teary-eyed friends and family members bade farewell and wish her the very best of her future.
This is what fairy tales want you to believe. In reality, it’s far from fairy tale.
What are the sorts of people who go into an intercultural marriage (exogamy)? It said these people display some of these attributes:
- Non-traditionals – while being a part of and accepted by their own society, they don’t place importance on belonging to the “in-group.” They do their own thing in life. A loner by choice.
- Romantics – foreign land, international adventure, you get the idea.
- Compensators – one who believe they can only find their better half in a foreigner. E.g. a Latino is more romantic, an Asian wife is deferential and obedient etc. (I can assure you it is just a myth).
- Rebels – these free-minded people are people who consciously or unconsciously marry cross-culturally almost as a form of protest against something in their own cultures they don’t like and / or want to get away from, often things that they are not able to put into words.
- Internationals – offspring of internationally mobile parents, e.g. corporate executive, diplomats.
- Others – and for many other idiosyncratic reasons, perhaps people who feel physically unattractive, unpopular with opposite sex in their own society and suddenly get swooned by another society who finds him or her exotic!
The book does not claim to have all the answers, but it brings those who have their heads buried in the quagmire of making a multicultural marriage work to a higher level of awareness of the root cause of the unresolved differences. The differences in marriage are widely discussed, but the differences in an intercultural marriage present a unique set of challenge. The book outlined the following factors to watch out for: Values, Food and Drink, Sex, Male-Female roles, Concept of Time, deciding the Place of Residence, Politics, friends, finances, In-laws, Social class, Religion, Raising Children, Language and Communication, Responding to stress and conflict, illness and suffering, Ethnocentrism, the unique position of a Expatriate Spouse, coping with death or divorce.
Values are taught at home and reinforced by society, so values are generally culturally determined. And Culture is the logic by which [we] give order to the world. We live our lives taking these social programming for granted. Not until we are put in a foreign culture, in religion as in culture, we often don’t know where our feet end until someone steps on our toes and the differences surfaced, and most likely none of the partners are able to articulate what is really wrong in their relationships.
You have to understand the Male-Female roles, to understand where the scale is tipping where the power lies (in terms of gender role) in the society. Differences or cultural impasse usually happens with a man from male dominant society pairing off with a woman who came from an egalitarian society, the impasse is harder to resolve. One woman said it was easier to “keep on fighting” than to face the fatigue of trying to live up to ideals. I think I can relate to that. It’s like saying sometimes it is easier to keep saying “No” then to live up to your in-laws unrelentless demands and expectations, especially in a culture where family members are expected to do a lot more for each other.
Fraught with so much misunderstanding, one must understand that communication in such marriage requires lots of translation, explanation, clarification and patience. (Phew!)
Ethnocentrism is the explanation for the attitude that one’s own group is superior, i.e. the world view of one’s own culture is central to all reality. How able the partners are to walk in the other’s shoes depends on just how ethnocentric (unalterably convinced of the rightness of their own ways) they are. “You don’t have logic. This is a reality, you are unreasonable!” hmmm… This chapter really stunned me though. As in a lot of sentences in this book, I just kept going back re-reading some of the statements and utter under my breath, “Wow, how true!” It went on to say that Human beings are perhaps never more frightening than when they are convinced beyond doubt that they are right – Laurens Van De Post, The Lost World of the Kalahari. Well I don’t need to be reminded that most of our world’s biggest problems are caused by people which are ethnocentric!
We are also introduced to encapsulated marginality versus constructive marginality (Oh I just love these psychological mumbo-jumbo!). According to cultural researcher Janet M. Bennett, Encapsulated marginality happens to a person who is buffeted by conflicting cultural loyalties and unable to construct a unified identity. Constructive marginality is a person who is able to construct context intentionally and consciously for the purpose of creating his or her own identity. Most children of intercultural marriages will tell you that, while during adolescence they fit more into the encapsulated category and were confused and perhaps even distressed and as children they tend to develop a private and public persona; as adults they have found and rather like themselves in their biculturality. Even out of the context of raising bicultural children, as a spouse you are most likely develop something called Intercultural Schizophrenic. One has to be emotionally very strong to be able to make up your own identity out of your own life and decide if you want to be “Half something” (half of two cultures) or “double something” (best of two cultures). Take the path of self-negation to the extreme and you will lose yourself. It is no surprise that you find a spouse or immigrants who are acclimatise or acculturate socially in their adopted land, only to feel like strangers or foreign when they are back in their homeland.
The book finishes off with introducing several types of intercultural marriage models, and the promises and good of an intercultural marriage. At the extreme, the models can be one of submission or total obliteration. Models that involves more open communication are the Compromising and consensus-based models.
There is only one chapter that is dedicated to the promises of intercultural marriage. You become a broader minded and a model of the future. You increase self-awareness by examine own values, prejudices, become a better problem solver seeking alternative solution to mediate cultural conflicts, you raise children who are bicultural and who have a wider world view and feel at home anywhere in the world or just the sense of being pioneers in a new world order (not sure about this though 🙂 ).
Intercultural couples have chosen a complicated route in life. Some couples or bicultural offspring who finds it hard to fit into their home countries, validates the need to go to Europe and America, where they can vanish into the greater society and have a chance at normal life.
He had explained once that to be born into a strong tradition was to know the steps to an intricate dance which started at birth and ended with death. “When you know all the steps by heart, you don’t have to think anymore – you are the dancer and the dance,” he said, and she had loved the mystery and poetry of it. It hasn’t occurred to her to ask him what happened when a dancer found himself alone on the floor of a different tradition. Could the steps of one dance fit the music of another? – Manjula Padmanabhan, “Stains”
This book teaches you to lookout for the tempo, the rhythm, the musicians, the expectations, your audience, the factors that makes you dance the dance of intercultural marriage well. It is full of gems of wisdom, full of real life examples, experiences of cross-cultural couples and also because it is written from one (Dugan Romano) who has been there. Dugan writes with conviction and arguments and supporting evidence raised are so spot-on, that it prompts me to re-evaluate my life. There are certainly more stresses and challenges in an intercultural marriage and one that should not be undertake lightly. Even if you are not involve in an intercultural marriage, this is one eloquent and comprehensive take on intercultural studies, you might come out of it learning a thing or two about intercultural interaction, or avoid the trouble of an intercultural marriage if you think you are not up to it. 🙂
My Verdict: 5/5
For its relevance and value-add guidance that can be applied, I give it a rating of 5 /5.
p/s: It is indeed my lucky year, I have read many books which sits on the higher end of ratings than any other year.