I would preface this discussion by making the following point: I have always believed and still firmly believe that there is absolutely no basic, inherent difference between people from different races. I am, I guess the term is, a humanist. It is my basic premise that we are all one race - the human race, and that our differing skin tones and appearances just add more color, variety and spice to life. It seems to me that human beings, when you take away the environmental and cultural conditioning that we go through, all have one or two very simple needs from life: Number one of those is to love, and to be loved and number two is to pass our genes and our world on to a future generation, in a better state than we found it. I won't go into number two, simply because it is a whole story in its own right, but our most basic need is simply to love and to be loved.
I have been in two cross cultural relationships in my life and consequently two marriages. Clearly the first was not wholly successful, but it was incredibly important in developing and building on my understanding of what it means to fall in love with someone from a different culture. Now, although my relationships have both been with Filipinas, I suspect that the pitfalls and dangers that I will touch on here, plus the benefits and joys of such a relationship are universal.
When I first became involved with a Filipina, I did my research. I didn't know a hell of a lot about The Philippines, apart from what I'd read in the news and seen on television - the bulk of which was negative to the extreme. What we heard about in New Zealand was about typhoons, ferry disasters, the incredible poverty of the street people of Manila, martial law, corruption, and of course the ultimate insult to these beautiful people - "mail-order brides". All in all it was a very negative picture of what I now know is a beautiful country with a wonderfully warm and welcoming people. So, I researched and discovered that the country had endured over 300 years of Spanish domination, followed by 40 odd years of American colonialism. It seemed, from what I read, that Filipinos were very westernized, sophisticated and urbane.
Certainly the early parts of my first relationship seemed to confirm this assumption. I was impressed by the knowledge and world-view that my friend had. I was also impressed by her command of the English language. Ultimately I decided that when it came down to it - she was just like any Kiwi girl and there would be little or no problem with assimilation and with building our burgeoning relationship. In time I would discover the pitfalls and dangers of such thinking.
First, to the downside: What to try and avoid!
1/ Language: If English (or any other language for that matter) is your first language and it is only a second, third or fourth language for your partner then you MUST learn something very early on in the relationship. "Watch your mouth!" Words have an incredible power to hurt and confuse, especially when they are delivered by someone you love and care about. What we may think of as a "funny colloquial expression" can be seen and interpreted very differently by someone for whom English is a second language. I cannot emphasize this enough - communication is one of the cornerstones of every relationship and if the partners are constantly confused and misunderstanding the intent, it can quickly lead to a breakdown. I learnt this lesson the hard way in my first relationship. I have this annoying (other people's words) habit of what I call "throw-away" lines. They mean nothing to me, but to the recipient they can be taken to heart, dwelt on and fester in their minds.
You have to watch incredibly carefully what you say to your partner. Speak slowly (hard as that is) and most importantly try to avoid using slang from your home country. She won't understand it and she may misinterpret it.
What I would suggest is what my current wife and I did. Right at the start of our relationship we made a solemn vow to each other that we would NEVER let something either of us had said, affect us emotionally, without asking the other person what it was they meant. Knee-jerk reactions are not part of our marriage. If I feel hurt by something Thess says to me, I'll ask her to explain what it was she was trying to say - invariably I have got the wrong end of the words and am taking offence at something that was not meant. Likewise, she does the same to me. Hard as I try I do still lapse into my old ways sometimes and after four years I can now actually see immediately when I've hurt her. She doesn't even have to ask me why I said it, I'm already back-tracking and explaining it to her. This simple technique has saved us from numerous misunderstandings, needless hurt and potential arguments. IT WORKS! Try it.
One example of this in my own relationship is with faith. Now, Thess is a Catholic and I'm a good protestant (although non-practicing) boy from New Zealand. In many societies - "never the 'twain shall meet", but for me it is important that I not only respect my wife's faith, but that where possible I actively participate in it with her. Prior to meeting her I had nothing but disdain for the Catholic Church, but when I saw the importance the Church and her faith played in her life, if I loved her (and I do) then it was incumbent on me to not only respect her faith but to be a part of it. No, I haven't become Catholic, but I do go to Mass with her from time to time and just recently I joined 7 million other devotees to go and see Pope Francis deliver a Mass in the pouring rain. On my first Christmas here I participated in a nine-day Simbang Gabi, which meant absolutely nothing to me, but meant a great deal to my new wife. I did it out of respect for her beliefs - that's what I mean about respect.
That's just one example of how important it is to respect your partner's beliefs. When your relationship is cross cultural there are many things that we, as westerners, can sometimes dismiss as poppycock, which can quickly develop to cause hurt and a feeling of rejection in our partner. If there is one phrase I've heard more than most since I met Thess it is this: "But my Lola told me..." Now, if you scratch the surface of most Filipina's veneer of sophistication and urbanity, you will quickly find the little girl, who grew up in the provincial barrios and was indoctrinated on her Lola or her Mother's knee about many things in life. These messages and stories meant to explain how the world operates are very important to young, impressionable girls and they intuitively believe them, adopt them, continue to practice them and pass them on to their own children. I learnt very early on that to question Lola or Mamang's wisdom was tantamount to heresy or treason. That's not to say I don't put forward my own arguments on the subject, and Thess and I will often have spirited discussions about why Lola was right or wrong.
My point is - there is NEVER anything to be lost by accepting and respecting your partner's beliefs, wherever they may have originated. There is so much more to be gained, in fact, by discussing them, analyzing them and even accepting them. What I've found, more often than not, is that Lola was a "pretty smart cookie" and that my way of doing things or viewing things wasn't always the best. Not always though, but even when I disagreed with Thess, I still respected her right to believe what she did and I didn't try to change her.
While trust is essential in any relationship, in a cross cultural relationship it can take on an even more important aspect - that of language. When Thess speaks to anyone here, she naturally talks in Tagalog, rarely in English. As I only understand a tiny part of the language most of what is said goes way over my head. One thing I found I had to stop myself from doing too often was asking her to explain what she was saying to others, especially if I heard my name mentioned in the discussion. There is a temptation to want to know everything, but it is generally non-productive. What it does is suggest to your partner that you don't trust him/her and that is something you really want to avoid.
I have a very simple rule in life. If I love someone, I will trust them 100% until such time as that trust is clearly and demonstrably broken. I don't believe that will ever happen in my marriage and accordingly it is something I have learnt to disregard.
So, those are some of the pitfalls to watch out for in a cross cultural relationship, but what are the benefits and joys of such a relationship. In this world of the internet, borders are becoming less and less important when it comes to meeting and falling in love. The way we interact, as humans, has changed forever over the past decade and it has opened up exciting new opportunities to break out of the standard, marry the girl-next-door mentality. It has opened the whole world to us as a potential place to seek our life partners. Equally, I firmly believe that this melding of differing cultures around the world can only serve to improve the opportunity of finding lasting world security and peace. Evangelizing the world - one relationship at a time. Creating a United Nations on an individual level. I find that incredibly exciting.
Of course, not everyone needs to go to the extreme changes I opted to go for in my cross cultural relationship. It is still possible to continue to live your life much as you have before and become involved with someone from a different culture. You will still expand your mind and open yourself up to new experiences. There is something wonderful to be had by blending the cultures to make a life together. I can only recommend it - not to disparage relationships that aren't cross cultural, but to encourage anyone who is considering it. Don't ever let worry about differences put you off.
But more than an excuse to travel, a cross cultural relationship does give you an expanded world view. It reminds us that the world is just a very small place and that despite the strife, turmoil and pain that is occurring around our planet, it reminds us that at the core, we are all human beings. We all feel the same emotions of pain, suffering, hurt, joy, happiness and love - we have a common bond, and too often we forget that in the strains of nationalism or fundamental faiths.
It is important that we never forget that a woman in Syria or the West Bank, for example, feels EXACTLY the same grief and pain as we do, when her son, brother or husband is killed. Equally we can easily forget that a family living on the streets of Manila or on the streets of Bangalore, has the same aspirations, hopes and dreams for their children, as we do for our own. Sometimes it is too easy to forget that none of us chose where we were born. It is not their fault they were born into poverty and equally it is not our doing that we were INCREDIBLY LUCKY enough to have been born into a wealthy, progressive, and free country.
Cross cultural relationships help foster this world view and I know that since I have been living here in The Philippines and have been exposed to some of this grinding poverty first-hand I have developed a much greater sense of understanding, empathy, compassion and mercy, along with a burning desire to make even just a little difference myself - fortunately a dream both my wife and I share.
What most people don't realize is that long before the arrival of the Spaniards who came to "civilize" and "convert" the natives, there were many varied and unique cultures and empires already flourishing here. This country has an extremely rich and diverse history and nothing gives me more pleasure than setting aside a few hours to read about the early days of life in The Philippines. This is not something I would ever have done if I'd not gotten married to a Filipina.
My life is so much richer for having this opportunity.
I will put my cards on the table here. I firmly believe there is an inherent beauty in Filipinas that attracted me to them from the very start. They have that exotic mix of Malay, Chinese, European and American among other variants that gives them (to my eye anyway) a very special look. Now I'm sure that many others feel the same about Africans, Japanese, Chinese, Indians etc, etc. and as it is this exotic look that initially attracts us to each other, it shouldn't be dismissed as either superficial or unimportant.
Clearly there is much more to a relationship, than looks, but without that initial attraction that draws us toward someone, it is often hard to get beyond that and develop a relationship. There's no point in denying that we are sexual beings and as such are drawn to form relationships with people that we find attractive...it is our nature.
What is important in a cross cultural relationship are the exact same things that are important in any relationship: TRUST, RESPECT, COMMUNICATION AND LOVE. If you have these - you should not fail.
Remember, there are good and bad people in EVERY culture - never generalize: Generalization is a way that politicians and religious leaders have used for millennium to try and convince us that the people next door are evil, are bent on our destruction, are infidels, are savages, or are somehow inherently different from us and need to be at best avoided and at worst exterminated.
We are all the same - when you cut us we bleed, but when you love us, we love you back.
Celebrate Our Differences!
Dedicated to my beautiful wife Thess Paclibar Leishman. Thank you for loving me babes!