Love without borders: Dating across cultures

Delaney Farwell

The first time I met my boyfriend’s parents, I couldn’t really speak to them. They knew some English and I knew some Spanish, but it wasn’t enough to foster a good or clear connection between us. 

I attended a wedding for my boyfriend’s cousin — entirely in Spanish with traditions I had no previous experience with and it was nerve-wracking at some points because it was so new. I wasn’t always certain about what was going on, but it opened my eyes to a beautiful and vibrant culture that I had never experienced before. 

These experiences are fairly common to those dating people from different cultures. Couples must learn to navigate complex and sensitive situations with each other in ways people from the same culture can’t always relate to. 

Penelope O’Connor, instructor of communication studies, said that certain barriers are common in cross-cultural relationships. “Fully understanding extended family issues [is one of these barriers], because there could be very different expectations regarding relationships from the extended family, not just the person that you’re in the relationship with,” O’Connor said.

Siksha Ramchurn, a junior international student from Mauritius, said she has definitely experienced these types of barriers with her family. When she told her family she was dating junior Dallas Malott, she received some mixed feelings in return. 

“When I told my dad, he was angry. He said, ‘I didn’t send you there to be dating people. I sent you to [college to] study. What are you doing?’ And I was kind of disappointed because Dallas’s parents were very welcoming,” Ramchurn said. 

Parents can react in many different ways when their children bring someone home for the first time. The large spectrum of reactions about a significant other can even dictate what the relationship looks like later on.  

“My mom’s very nice. She wanted me to have a boyfriend, so she was very happy. She managed to convince my dad to allow it. Then, he wanted to [meet] Dallas. There’s still a little language barrier because Mauritius [is a] French influenced country, so I was kind of the translator,” Ramchurn said. 

Making connections with a partner’s family can become even more complicated when language barriers are layered on top of it. 

“[The language barrier] was probably one of the hardest things. How do you make a true connection with her parents if you can’t even really speak to them?” Malott said. 

My boyfriend’s grandma came to visit his family from Mexico over winter break, and I got to meet her. I tried to tell her that I made her a scarf since winter in Illinois is so cold, but we couldn’t make that connection because of our language barrier. The tiniest of interactions and kindest of gestures get swept away through language, and it’s extremely difficult to connect with someone without the main tool we use to communicate. 

Juniors Quincy Gibeau and Jake Resuch also dealt with differing family dynamics. Reusch’s family is very family-oriented while Gibeau’s is not. “[Meeting Jake’s family] was a big benefit for me because it made me feel [like a part of] the family,” Gibeau said. 

With language and family dynamics being a huge difference between cultures, the dating environments are often distinct from each other. In America, it’s normalized to date casually, but in many places around the world this is not the case. Some cultures may expect people to date later or earlier in life or for much more formal reasons. Other cultures practice arranged marriages. 

“In my culture, you will have a boyfriend and you’ll tell your parents and they will approve or disapprove. But they are never coming to your house. You’re never spending the night with them. Then, you get engaged, and you still cannot live together. You’re still living with your parents. You really cannot experience living with your significant other until you’re actually married and you get permission to do that,” Ramchurn said. 

Reusch and Gibeau experienced a different dating environment the first time Gibeau took Reusch to meet her grandma, who is Korean. “She’s a lot more traditional, a lot more strict about certain types of behaviors and things like that,” Gibeau said. “She would tell me ‘if you’re going to marry someone, make sure that they can support you financially.’ That was her big thing.” 

While a lot of these situations might be difficult or complicated, there are so many rewards and benefits to dating across cultures. “The most rewarding thing is if you go into it with a world-mindedness, instead of total ethnocentrism. [Being] more world-minded [and] just getting to learn and know and experience so many different things is a huge benefit,” O’Connor said.

From food to holidays to songs, different cultures have a lot to offer those from outside of them. These important aspects of culture encourage world-mindedness in ways most people don’t get to experience in everyday life. 

“I learned about many things that are not in my culture, like how [Americans] celebrate the Fourth of July, which I never did. Christmas is a big thing. We celebrate Christmas back home, but it’s simple. It’s not like the biggest get together that they do during the year. Also Thanksgiving. That’s another big thing that they celebrate that is not present in my culture at all,” Ramchurn said.

Culture means something different to everyone, and the ways we identify with it can vary by environment. When people learn about new aspects of culture, they adapt and broaden their worldview. They gain new parts of themselves that they have not accessed before. 

“I have a specific culture which I never got to experience for myself. I was adopted into a white family. I lost my Hispanic culture, and [with that], those traditions that I could have gotten otherwise. Being able to experience a different culture in a family setting, in terms of closeness, being welcomed into the traditions and then everything in-between, was a benefit for me because I’m still able to experience culture very closely, [just] in a different way,” Reusch said about getting to experience Gibeau’s family traditions. 

Couples in cross-cultural relationships will also have to learn how to navigate complex and sensitive topics. “People do stare. I feel like wherever we go, people stare because it’s something very different,” Ramchurn said. “ [But]I was more worried about meeting Dallas’s side of the family because racism is more prevalent [in the United States] from what I saw, and I didn’t know how they would react,” Ramchurn said. 

People pointing out obvious physical differences between those in relationships is something many people have to deal with. When I go to events with my boyfriend’s family, I’m the obvious outsider. I get looked at differently, too. 

“In terms of our relationship, I think the thing that we get the most when we’re out and about is ‘Oh my gosh, you guys are beautiful.’ Or, ‘Wow, your skin!’ They always comment on your skin. It’s [usually] physical features,” Gibeau said. 

Stereotypes are another sensitive issue that those in cross-cultural relationships have to be aware of and deal with. Especially if someone has family members that have never been exposed to anything outside of their own bubbles and hometowns, it can be really scary to bring someone from a different culture home. 

“In cross-cultural relationships, there’s always going to be stereotypes that you kind of have to think and worry about. Am I going to see that within my own family, or am I going to be able to avoid it?” Malott said. 

“You bring two people together, and you’ve got a completely unique combination of cultures, different from most of the relationships that you’re around,” O’Connor said. 

Dating across cultures can be difficult, nerve-wracking, rewarding and beautiful, just like any other relationship. So while I practice Spanish on Duolingo before bed every night, I am reminded of how wonderful it is to come together as humans sharing intimate connections, no matter where on earth we’re from. It’s not always easy to date someone from an entirely different culture, but I and many others wouldn’t trade it for the world.