Intercultural Relationships Are Hard. But Do They Have to Hurt?
Most years, I’d spend Spring Festival with my family or going out for a Chinatown feast with my friends. But this isn’t most years, and in February, with the United Kingdom once again under lockdown, I found myself boiling dumplings and steaming fish at home with my then boyfriend, Eric. We hung red banners on our bedroom door and Googled what the ox zodiac sign is supposed to represent.
Some of my best memories from our two-and-a-half-year relationship were the times we’d share our cultures with one another. Eric — a pseudonym — was French, raised in Brussels and educated in the United States. He, like me, had seen enough of the world to be interested in cultures other than his own. We talked longingly of traveling the world together and fantasized about living in a country foreign to us both. It was a dream relationship: exciting, adventurous, and stimulating. I was always learning something new and I was pleased to think I was able to offer the same to him.
But reality is never so cut and dry. Multicultural relationships, as thrilling as they may be, aren’t all dreams and new experiences. My friends talk about the dread they feel at the thought of their partner’s parents meeting their own and how much easier it would be sometimes to date someone who “gets it.”
Toward the end of our relationship, it became clear that Eric, too, thought a source of our problems was my Chinese background, that somehow by being both Shanghainese and part of the only-child generation, I was programmed to be a certain way. “You’re an only child, a Shanghainese princess,” he burst out during one particularly heated argument. “And that’s not something I can handle.”
It was a phrase he’d learned from a stranger — a Chinese passenger seated next to him on a flight once told him Shanghainese women were notoriously difficult — and he’d clung to it ever since. As for the only child comment, well, I’m sure he’d be horrified to know that there’s an entire generation of only children in China, almost all of whom were products of a population control policy. Admittedly, I can see how that might seem preposterous to a man with 18 first cousins.
This idea that culture can influence how we experience relationships is not a new one. In 1992, anthropologists Edward Fischer and William Jankowiak published a study conclusively dispelling the myth that romantic love was a Western concept, showing instead that it could be found in almost all cultures around the world. Yet subsequent studies have proven that expressions of romantic love across those cultures vary significantly. Researchers have found that passion is a celebrated — even necessary — part of falling in love in Western cultures, whereas for both South Asians and East Asians, passion is less of a priority than ensuring the unity of two families: It is not about being swept off your feet, Hollywood-style, but about serving your family and community through long-term, pragmatic, and responsible relationships.
After Eric and I broke up, I decided to start seeing a therapist. Over the course of our weekly sessions, I came to realize that Eric was not necessarily wrong to see my present self through the prism of the past. One of the most significant memories I have from my early childhood was a fight my parents had when my mother and I first followed my father in immigrating to the United States. In a state of rage and desperation, my mother packed a suitcase and declared that she was “going back to China.” She was gone for a few hours before she returned home, depleted, with her suitcase still in hand. Growing up, I noticed signs of occasional unhappiness, helplessness, and even spite in my mother’s attitude: Moving to a foreign country to keep her family together wasn’t an easy choice for her.
Recently I read an article in Vogue by Jeanine Celeste Pang titled, “How Becoming a Mother Helped Me Connect to My Chinese Heritage.” Pang’s description of her relationship with her mother struck close to home. The mother’s love that Pang describes so beautifully was grounded less in explicit displays of affection or what was said, and more in what her mom did for her.
“I didn’t have a stage mom or a bake-sale mom or a soccer mom,” Pang writes. “Phone calls never ended with ‘I love you!’ Our love was between the lines. She was more comfortable showing affection through lessons in hard work, something she picked up from her own upbringing.”
In Chinese, there is a saying, chi ku which, translated literally, means to “eat bitterness.” More broadly, it refers to the willingness to endure and overcome hardship at all costs — a fundamental Chinese value and a quality seen as worthy of admiration and praise. It’s a concept that I find myself referencing often, whenever I need motivation to keep going, to keep trying, to keep pushing. Nothing good in life comes free, right? I often wonder if my mother rationalized her own marital troubles as chi ku. And how many times I’d packed a bag in my relationship with Eric, threatening to leave, but ultimately staying because to love is to eat bitterness?
Every relationship takes work. But to an extent, multicultural relationships take that to another level. So many of our individual values and views are shaped by our childhood upbringings, and when it comes to our perceptions of love, we are inclined to mirror what we witnessed in our own homes growing up.
In this sense, the problem with the concept of chi ku in the context of a multicultural relationship is its inherent Chinese-ness. To Eric, love wasn’t supposed to be hard. Love should be easy and effortless, and it should never involve sacrificing your self-respect or your happiness. Although our two conceptions of love were not mutually exclusive, they were often at odds with one another. Whereas one of us might be ready to fight through anything and everything to make the relationship work, the other might decide there was nothing wrong with walking away with their head held high.
That poses the question: How do we navigate the modern-day world of dating, one that is more global, connected, and diverse than ever before? How much of what I have to offer in a relationship is predetermined by my cultural upbringing? And if the answer is “a lot,” then how can I find compatibility with partners who are products of entirely different upbringings?
The answers to these questions vary depending on who you ask. I can only speak from my perspective, but I refuse to accept that I am solely a product of my childhood. Humans are complex creatures. Sure, we are heavily impacted by our formative years, but we are also shaped by all the memories, experiences, and times that come after. I might be an “only-child, Shanghainese princess,” but I’m also a dependable friend, a good listener, and stubborn or charming, depending on my mood. I’m a human with flaws, some of which have nothing to do with my upbringing or culture. I know I have things to fix, but despite there always being room for improvement, it’s OK to not be perfect. I want to be with someone who sees all that in me. Though perhaps next time, I’ll start by looking for another only child.
Editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Stuart Kinlough/Ikon images/People Visual)