The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly in Navigating a Multicultural Relationship

When I read articles about interracial or multicultural relationships, I never feel like they’re speaking about my relationship, even though my fiancé and I do not share a culture.

So much of the conversation around multicultural relationships in the United States is about marriages between Black and White individualswhich is great, except for that we’re neither.

I was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New York, and my fiancé was born and raised in Egypt.

I have always been a city girl, and he was raised in a farming village.

My first language is Spanish, and his first language is Arabic.

I am the eldest of three girls, and he is the second youngest out of seven siblings.

I was raised a strict Catholic, and he was raised a Coptic Christian.

I drink coffee; he drinks tea (this one was almost a deal breaker).

We’re like the real life version of the book Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.

Yet we met on a cold New York City night, and almost four years later, we are still together and planning to get married.

We haven’t been together a lifetime (yet), but it has been one of the most fulfilling and challenging relationships of my life.

And while love really is powerful and it may conquer all, it isn’t enough to make a relationship work. You also need understanding and a lot of compromise.

I mean it –a lot of compromise!

But for every challenge, we find that we also have many things in common. And along the way, we’ve learned so much about ourselves and each other that I wouldn’t want it any other way.

I don’t believe there is a magical step one takes to make a relationship work. But knowing what to expect in a multicultural relationship might help you figure things out.

I get through rough days with humor and try to see it as a lesson to be learned.

My relationship – like most relationships – is all about embracing the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good

Everything is new!

Yes, you have to make sure that you know your partner well enough to want to spend the rest of your life (if that is what you want) with them, but a little mystery keeps the relationship fresh.

Use it as an opportunity to learn a new language.

My fiancé and I teach each other our first language. If he says “here you go,”I reply with a “gracias,” and he responds “afwan.” It’s a little silly, but the joy of learning how to pronounce a new word makes us both feel very accomplished.

And while you’re learning a new language, experiment with a new cuisine.

In our home we eat mangú for breakfast and kofta for dinner. We never have a dull meal because there are always dishes we want each other to try.

And while you’re cooking, listen to music and artists you’ve never heard before.

I admit that while I have embraced Arabic music and belly dancing and will listen to Umm Kulthum all day, my fiancé isn’t so interested in merengue and Juan Luis Guerra. This is where that compromise thing comes into play: If he wants to listen to Arabic music during dinner, I’m cooking Dominican food.

Sometimes the discovery of something new will surprise you, especially when it’s something you also do. We get so excited when we discover similar traditions.

For example, both of our cultures believe in the “evil eye.” You don’t compliment someone on their wedding, baby, or new home unless you say “God bless you/him/her/it.”

Both of our moms also swear that salt will cure anything, which I think is totally adorable, but likely just coincidental. Maybe it’s just a mom thing.

The Bad

Everything is different!

Well, not everything, but a lot of things are different.

Sometimes our cultures can be very similar, such as the way Latinos and Arabs are raised to be selfless and family-centric. But sometimes our cultures are polar opposites.

Latin Americans are socially conservative, but we are allowed to date (as much as needed) before marrying. But in Arab cultures, dating is frowned upon; couples often meet though family members or friends, and if the match is good, they get engaged.

I had a tough time knowing that while I wasn’t ready to be engaged; his family frowned upon us being just boyfriend and girlfriend.

At times, due to our penchant to revert to our native tongue when necessary, we run into communication issues. Sometimes it’s just a mispronounced word due to our accents — did you say pear or bear?

Other times, it’s a total lack of understanding. Egyptians make a teeth sucking “tsk” sound to respond “no.” Dominicans use this same sound to signify annoyance – as in “Mom, can I have some money? “Tsk. [insert eyeroll]”. This simple difference caused us many headaches, and fits of giggle, until we understood what exactly each was trying to say.

When people tell us that communication is the key to a successful relationship, I can only smile and sigh. If they only knew!

The Ugly

We might be able to communicate in a neutral language (in our case English), but our families might never be able to speak with each other or spend a lot of time together.

I have a lot of family in the United States, and for the most part, they speak enough English to communicate with my fiancé.

But his immediate family all live in Egypt, and except for his younger relatives, they speak no English.

When I visit them, I communicate via an interpreter, or simply with hand gestures and facial expressions.

We hope that in the future I can bring my family to visit his in Egypt, but the reality is that due to monetary constraints and political instability in Egypt, that is not likely to happen anytime soon.

Another very ugly aspect of our relationship is the way in which we are perceived by others.

I am often asked if I will have to convert to Islam and “cover up” once I get married— never mind that he isn’t Muslim and even if he were, it shouldn’t be anyone’s concern.

Other times, people feel the need to warn me due to stereotypes they hold –they claim that once we have children, he will take them away to live in “his country,” and I will never see them again (cue in Sally Field in the movie Not Without My Daughter) or that he will eventually demand I quit my job and be a housewife.

He gets similar warnings about me. They tell him to be careful because Latinas are loose and hypersexualized. They suggest he finds someone“more like him.”

Sometimes, complete strangers inquire about our relationship and openly state how they don’t believe it will work out in the long-run. They say our children will grow up to be confused and with no sense of self.

This criticism is the most difficult part of our relationship.

***

I won’t lie: Being in a multicultural relationship has many challenges.

You need to have an open mind and be willing to do things “the other way”when necessary.

Yet attraction, love, and understanding are ultimately the only things a couple needs to survive.

It’s great to have the approval of our family and our society, but when that support is not readily available, one becomes unified by other factors. In our case, it’s our love for the arts, disregard for religion, and addiction to cooking shows.

If you are struggling with making a multicultural relationship work, know that I understand your plight.

Be open minded and willing to learn, talk about what you will and will not compromise on, discuss how future children will be raised (religion, schooling, language, visits to relatives), and above all, focus on what makes you both happy.

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