A few weeks ago we received a request from a Caucasian American woman about her marriage to an African man. In her email, she complained about how her husband wasn’t helping her with household chores because he felt it wasn’t a man’s job. She was beyond frustrated and was even contemplating divorce.
As beautiful and wonderful as a multicultural/interracial relationship is, it isn’t always as rosy as it may seem from the outside. From the realization that different cultures and upbringing can affect how a couple interact with one another, to realizing how majorly different we are, based on the country we grow up in, the happily ever after effect can soon turn into a nightmare.
Language, lifestyle, idioms, thought process are largely influenced by culture and/or religion. The term culture refers to a state of intellectual development or manners; social and political forces that influence the growth of a human being are also defined as culture.
While no one stops to consider these factors while falling in love (understandably so), it can either solidify the relationship or break it apart.
Divided into more natural geographic and cultural sub regions, including the Caucasus, Central Asia, East Asia, South Asia, North Asia, Southwest Asia and Southeast Asia, it is not a distinct continent; culturally, there has been little unity or common history for many of the cultures and peoples of Asia.
Asian art, music, and cuisine, as well as literature, are important parts of Asian culture. Eastern philosophy and religion also plays a major role, with Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, Islam, and Christianity all playing major roles.
One of the most complex parts of Asian culture is the relationship between traditional cultures and the Western world.
Asia can be divided into three main areas: South Asia, East Asia and Southeast Asia:
- East Asia consists of China, Japan, and Korea. The main influence historically has been China, though in modern times.
- Major characteristics of this region include shared Chinese-derived language characteristics, as well as shared religion like Buddhism and Taoism.
- Pakistan and Afghanistan share a common heritage from the Indus Valley Civilization and the Maurya, Kushan, Gupta and Mughal empires.
- South Indian states and Sri Lanka share a Dravidian culture, due to the prominence of Dravidian languages there. Bangladesh and the state of West Bengal share a common heritage and culture based on the Bengali language.
- Nepal, Bhutan, the states of Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Ladakh in the state of Jammu and Kashmir and parts of the states of Himachal Pradesh, Uttaranchal have a great cultural similarity to Tibet, Tibetan Buddhism being the main religion there.
- Southeast Asia has lot of Western influence due to the lasting legacy of colonialism.
- Roman Catholicism
- Vajrayana Buddhism
- Theravada Buddhism
- Zen Buddhism
- Mahayana Buddhism
In many parts of Asia, rice is a staple food. China is the world largest producer and consumer of rice. In India, people often eat food with their hands, and many spices are used in every dish. Most spices originated around India or neighboring countries such as Sri Lanka.
The West has adapted fragments of various cultures over the centuries which also includes cuisine. Although there are finger foods such as appetizers common in the West, food is typically eaten with cutlery, and spices are not as bold as in the East (Asia).
An Asian may not necessarily appreciate the flavors in Western cuisine any more than a Westerner will appreciate authentic Asian flavors/cuisine.
LESSON: It’s important in any multicultural/interracial relationship to always be sensitive to your partner’s background and culture. Keep in mind that the foods they are accustomed to and culture are different from that of the West!
Because of the many different cultures which came into contact with each other in West Asia, clothing became very important as a way to tell which group of people a stranger belonged to.
So there was no one West Asian way to dress. Instead, there are many different ways, and all of the differences are very important to people, because they identify a ethnic group.
The only differentiation in clothing in the West is that of old and young. We are expected to dress age-appropriate in the West as we do not have a culture that distinguishes by ethnic group.
LESSON: Now that you understand why certain people dress a certain way, you no longer have to ask ignorant questions or stare thereby embarrassing them.
China is home to one of the world’s oldest and most complex civilizations covering a history of over 5,000 years. Although many ethnic groups exist in China, the major ethnic group is Han Chinese. Throughout history, many groups have been assimilated into neighboring ethnicities or disappeared without a trace.
Traditional Chinese Culture covers a large geographical territories, each region is usually divided into distinct sub-cultures.
The traditional vision of family life in China is one of a strong family unit led be the father and husband, who largely have absolute rule and control of the family.
Religion plays a major part in defining the roles and responsibilities of family members. Confucianism taught social order and behavior. This control is also extended to selection of marriage partners, which was often arranged for the children.
As you can see religion plays a major part in the Asian culture, this also extends into the family life. Men are viewed as being the superior gender and have ABSOLUTE rule and control.
While the Western culture has long been advocating gender equality in the workplace and at home, it would seem almost impossible to transform or convince a man of Asian ancestry (one who is immersed in the Asian culture) to view his partner as his equal.
LESSON: If you a feminist and are strong advocate of gender equality, it would pose to be a problem in the relationship as your Asian partner would have a hard time understanding why you’re taking control away from him. There are tricks however in creating an illusion of ‘power’ without actually giving ‘power’ away.
Hosts are not allowed to randomly pick the best seat there is a specific order to where you can sit:
- The host sits nearest to the door and the guest of honor sits opposite from the host
- Other honorary guests sit to the left of the guest of honor
- It is rude to eat the whole meal; it is expected for all to sample everything on the plate. Dinner usually consists of several courses
- Never pour your own drink first. Instead make a toast, about business or friendship. Pour everyone a drink, leave no one out or it will seem as if you forgot them. Even if everyone’s cup is filled, pour a few drops in, or give the cup a long stare, before moving on.
- Don’t take the last piece of food on the platter, as it will seem you’re greedy.
- Don’t take your chopstick and turn them into forks by poking into the food. You must use the chopstick to pick up the piece.
- If you pick up a piece with a chopstick and drop it, don’t attempt to pick up another piece instead, keep on trying.
- Don’t use the chopsticks as tooth picks, or suck on them.
To a Westerner, this seating and eating etiquette is slightly too complex. I’m sure you’re thinking ‘why can’t I just sit wherever I want?’ The answer is simple: It’s a part of the Asian culture! Ignoring this important aspect of the culture especially if you have knowledge forehand would be considered rude!
LESSON: I am sure your Asian partner can forego this part of their culture, however, should your in-laws be visiting, the rules should be followed as to not seem rude. Compromise is crucial in a multicultural/interracial relationship.
- When you first meet a Chinese person, they might seem unfriendly, but that is because they are taught to not show emotions in public, because it is thought to be unacceptable.
- Chinese like being formally introduced to a person by another person. When being introduced to a person, shake their hands. A smile, a wave, a nod, or a bow is good. At the same time kissing and hugging is bad etiquette. You can only do this once you know the person well enough.
- Once you’re familiar with a person, you’re expected to compliment them. Never, insult your friends or do anything to embarrass them in public like yelling at them or trying to prove them wrong in front of other people. Instead pull them over and talk to them privately.
- Chinese never refuse or say no to anything, but that doesn’t mean they will say yes. That is because they will lose “face” or get embarrassed, if someone downright says “no”. If you disagree with someone, or have no as an answer say “maybe” or “we’ll see”.
We don’t necessary consider ‘greeting’ as part of culture in the West, it’s considered more or less etiquette (manners). When someone says ‘hello’, you respond. Depending on the social setting, it is considered courtesy to respond back in a friendly and professional manner. Unlike the Asians, we are not taught to hide emotions.
LESSON: This would perhaps explain why certain people of Asian descent are ‘cold’ when you visit their establishments. It’s interesting to learn they are taught to be emotion-less.
The Japanese people are the main ethnic group of Japan. The Japanese language is a Japonic language that is usually treated as a language isolate, although it is also related to the Okinawan language. Japanese religion has traditionally been synergistic in nature, combining elements of Buddhism and Shinto. Shinto, a polytheistic religion.
I mentioned earlier how culture and religion were intertwined in a lot of countries and Japan is no exception. One privilege we enjoy in the West is that religion is not imposed upon us, thereby leaving us the option to choose.
The Japanese word kimono means “something one wears” and they are the traditional garments of Japan. Originally, the word kimono was used for all types of clothing, but eventually, it came to refer specifically to the full-length garment also known as the naga-gi, meaning “long-wear”, that is still worn today on special occasions by women, men, and children. Kimono comes in a variety of colors, styles, and sizes.
We are all familiar with kimonos, we refer to ‘kimonos’ in a lot of clothing designs. However, the Japanese ‘kimono’ refers to the ones we see ‘Geishas’ wearing in movies.
LESSON: History is a beautiful part of culture is a beautiful part of history. Respect it and open yourself up to learning new things.
Japanese Eating Etiquette
- In Japan if you leave your plate empty it means you want more food. Leave some food on your plate to indicate you’re full
- There is no American way like “help yourself.” Do not eat until the host offers the food
- There isn’t tipping in Japanese restaurants (this does not apply to Japanese restaurants outside of Japan)
- Eating and drinking while walking down the street is considered impolite to others
- Do not leave a mess when you’re done eating. Put your chopsticks down, fold your napkins and fix your eating area
- Do not pick up food on the same end that you used to eat your with. Try to use the ends of the chopsticks for picking up, and the front (smaller end) to eat with.
- It is normal to make slurping noises when drinking or eating noodles. It shows that you enjoy the food and keeps it from burning your mouth.
- When leaving a restaurant or other public area don’t steal or take napkins or little souvenirs. It is considered very rude.
- Before you start eating you say “Itadakimasu” and “Gochisosama deshita” when finished. “Kampai” means cheers and is used for drinking.
- Don’t pour your own drink; if your glass is empty, it is your host’s job to refill it
Similar to the Chinese culture, the Japanese also have an eating etiquette. What’s fascination is how in the West we are taught as kids to finish all the food on our plates and not waste any, while the Japanese leave fragments of food behind to indicate a ‘full’ feeling.
LESSON: If you ever find yourself in a relationship with a Japanese wo/man, do not be offended if they don’t finish the food you serve them. They’ve been taught to leave some food behind. Also do not get offended if they wait on you to serve them now that you understand why.
Indian culture is rich and diverse and as a result unique in its very own way. The culture of India has been shaped by the long history of India, its unique geography and the absorption of customs, traditions and ideas from some of its neighbors as well as by preserving its ancient heritages.
Indian culture treats guests as gods. It serves and takes care of them as if they are a part of the family itself. Even though if an Indian family have nothing to eat, guests are never left hungry and are always looked after by the members of the family. Elders and the respect for elders is a major component in Indian culture. Elders are the driving force for any family and hence the love and respect for elders comes from within and is not artificial.
An individual takes blessings from his elders by touching their feet. It is also the elder’s responsibility to pass on the Indian culture as their children and grandchildren grow.
The great number of languages in India has added to the diverse culture and traditions at both a regional and national levels. 216 languages are spoken by a group of more than 10,000 people; however there are many others which are spoken by fewer than 10,000 people.
Isn’t India’s culture beautiful? They treat their guest like gods. It’s almost unbelievable that 216 languages are spoken by approximately 10,000 people. Although Europe has a catalog of languages that are spoken varying on country, it is nowhere near the 216 mark. But don’t worry, most Indians speak Hindi which is considered the National Language.
LESSON: Don’t assume all Indians speak the same language, as you can see there are over 200 languages spoken. Since it’s their culture to be extremely hospitable to their guests, it would only be fair for them to expect the same when they visit.
So if you ever find yourself in a multicultural/interethnic relationship with an Indian and his family or friends visit, BE HOSPITABLE!
Tilak is a ritual mark on the forehead. It can be put in many forms as a sign of blessing, greeting and/or a sign to identify married women. The Tilak is usually made out of a red vermilion paste which is a mixture of turmeric, alum, iodine, camphor etc. It can also be made out of sandalwood paste blended with musk.
The Western Culture too as a sign to identify married wo/men, we wear wedding bands or engagement rings. While we don’t have a ritual similar to the Tilak, our generation has adopted tatting (tattoos) as an expression of art.
LESSON: Now you understand the Tilak better and ought to accept it as a form of art just as seeing a tattoo is nothing new.
- Traditional Indian clothes for women are the sari or the salwar kameezand also Ghaghra Cholis.
- In some village parts of India, traditional clothing must be worn at all times.
- India was the first place where cotton was grown, even as early as 2500 BC in the Harappan period. By the Aryan period, women wore one very long piece of cloth called a sari that they wrapped around themselves in different ways. The word “sari” comes from a Sanskrit word that just means cloth.
- Saris is first mentioned in the Vedas, about 600 BC. Wealthy women wear saris made of silk, but most women wore cotton ones.
I have a lot of respect for Indian women as they are so proud of their tradition clothing and will gladly show it off whenever they have an opportunity. A lot of Western women have also been known to wear saris. Interesting is the fact that India is the first place where cotton was grown.
Did slave-masters know this? Why didn’t they simply import cotton from there instead of enslaving millions of innocent wo/men? Well, that’s a discussion for another day.
LESSON: Culture is sometimes expressed in traditional clothing!
Cuisine of India
Food is an important part of Indian culture, playing a role in everyday life as well as in festivals. Indian cuisine is characterized by its sophisticated and subtle use of many spices and herbs.
In many families, everyday meals are sit-down affairs consisting of two to three main course dishes, varied accompaniments such as chutneys and pickles, carbohydrate staples such as rice and roti (bread), as well as desserts.
Food is not just important for an Indian family by ways of eating, but it is also viewed as a form of socializing (getting together with a family of many).
In our busy and hectic Western life, the concept of sitting down together as a family to eat a meal sometimes eludes us. It’s wonderful to see that it’s a part of the Indian culture. Indian spices have long traveled the world, with pieces of it finding their way into Western cuisine.
LESSON: This would explain why an Indian lunch or dinner takes on the form of a festive celebration. Their culture emphasizes ‘unisom’.
Sri Lankan culture
The culture of Sri Lanka has been influenced by religion and colonialization by the Dutch, Portuguese and the British.
The Sinhalese new year (Sinhala and Tamil new year) is a very important cultural practice in Sri Lanka. This is the festival that’s celebrated in April (the month of Bak) when the sun moves from the Meena Rashiya (House of Pisces) to the Mesha Rashiya (House of Aries).
Sri Lankans begin celebrating their National New Year Aluth Avurudhu in Sinhala and Puththandu in Tamil.
The Western Culture also celebrates the New Year different. Remember the Jews don’t celebrate the New Year on the 1st. They celebrate Rosh Hashanah in early October. Notice how religion influenced the Jewish New Year? Perhaps all cultures are all alike in certain ways.
LESSON: Now that you know Sri Lankans celebrate the New Year in a different month, be considerate if they don’t get excited as you during the New Year’s celebration or opt out.
Customs & Traditions
The social etiquette of the Kandyans (according to an early English compilation of Kandyan law, namely John Armour”s “Grammar of Kandyan Law”) is that the consent of both parents is necessary for a valid marriage.
There are three other parallel systems of personal laws in Sri Lanka, i.e., Kandyan Law, the Thesavalamai and the Muslim Law. These laws are grounded in ancient customary practices and/or religion.
Sri Lanka has a large population of Muslims, therefore their marriage traditions may vary slightly from ethnic group to ethnic group. However, what remains the same is the custom of seeking parental consent before marriage can take place. This practice is common in other countries outside of Asia as well. Unlike the Western culture, where we’ve adapted a ‘if I like her/him, I’m marrying s/him’ philosophy, the East are still driven by their culture.
LESSON: If you find yourself in a relationship with a Sri Lankan wo/man, I recommend you meet your partner’s parents as early as possible to avoid any heartache later. It would be devastating to date your partner for two years only to learn his/her parents don’t approve of you.
Cuisine of Sri Lanka
The cuisine of Sri Lanka draws influence from that of India, as well as colonists countries and foreign traders. Rice, which is usually consumed daily, can be found at any special occasion, while spicy curries are favorite dishes for dinner and lunch.
- A very popular alcoholic drink is toddy, made from palm tree sap
- Rice and curry refers to a range of Sri Lankan dishes
- Sri Lankans also eat Hoppers which can be found anywhere in Sri Lanka
- Many Sri Lankans eat a variety of snacks which can range from hamburgers, hot dogs, Chinese rolls, patties and pastries
It would seem the British, Dutch and Portugese influenced Sri Lankan cuisine a lot more than their neighbors with the inclusion of hamburgers, hot dogs, etc. This only means Sri Lanka as culture-driven as it is, are probably more accepting of the Western culture than other Asian countries.
LESSON: You ought to not have any issue with cuisine in Sri Lanka as it’s clear their colony masters left a large part of their culture behind.
Sri Lankan clothing is a mix of Eastern and Western fashions. Even the older generation sometimes choose to wear jeans. Teenagers typically wear shorts and T-shirts as well.
- To be really comfortable in the hot climate, clothes made out of cotton is advisable. you should choose clothes made of cotton
- Shirts should be light as possible
- Bright sunshine during the day makes dark colored clothing too warm. Sri Lankan’s however are not particular about the color of their clothes unless it’s for a formal gathering
- For work women typically wear sarees, dresses or skirts
- Men typically wear pants and the national attire. Business suits are hardly ever worn
- For special functions, men will typically wear a suit or the national; women wear sarees
- Nudity at the beach or public place is a taboo
It’s interesting to see that Sri Lanka, a former colony, has taken on a bit of the culture from each of its colony. There is no mention of a traditional attire in Sri Lanka unlike its neighbor India.
LESSON: This is a country that has a lot of Western influences!
If you are a Western wo/man you can see from the few countries we’ve examined how different each country is and how they’ve been molded and shaped by culture.
If you were to go into a relationship with someone from any of these countries it would be unrealistic to expect them to forego their culture and/or religion or adapt to the Western culture within a short amount of time. The Western culture does not place too much value on issues such as clothing, religion and traditions.
Be mindful that each relationship is unique as is each individual, so it can be self-defeating to look for some formula, but even so, the same stuff that makes into happy marriages between people of shared backgrounds also makes into marriages between people of different cultural backgrounds.
A marriage is an arrangement between two individuals, and not two groups of people.
It is often said the first few years of a marriage are often the toughest. People used to thinking just of themselves now find themselves having to think about some other person as well. Bye bye vagabond existence.
It is almost like going to college and suddenly finding, lo, you have a roommate. You have to recognize someone else exists around you. Maybe the roommate example is bad, since you do choose your marriage partner, and you are head over heels into him/her, but living together does bring in many factors not accounted for before.
People are prone to misunderstand each other. It is hard enough to maintain understandings when people actually are talking to each other, making efforts to explain themselves, taking the time to listen and ask questions so as to seek clarifications.
Communication is a tough job. We spend entire lifetimes trying to explain ourselves, understand those others around us, trying to communicate. So imagine the magnitude of misunderstandings when the communication channels are not kept open.
The very fact that a relationship is about two people as opposed to one person ensures differences will exist, starting from the differences in opinion going all the way to differences in backgrounds. And, to my mind, the healthiest ways to respect them would be to actively celebrate them.
Festivals would work great for someone like me, but plenty of personal customizations can be made. To tolerate might is not enough, to accept might be okay but still not enough. To celebrate and join in the festivities is the way to go.
When I look at my identity, at who I am, at the cultural heritages I relate to, I am happier for all that “wealth.” No amount of college courses can fill in where childhood memories occupy the shelf of identity.
That makes me think children of cross-cultural marriages would be doubly and many times over blessed and they would have more of that heritage to draw from. Bring enough of them together and the very term inter-racial marriage will look archaic to them, the way we resort to the phrase African Americans and think the term “Negro” to be rather historical and not contemporary.
Many couples that are of different culture and race from each other have the same questions as you do. To help understand common challenges that multicultural relationships face and tips for making multicultural relationships work,
Read this interview with psychologist Darryl L. Townes, Ph.D.:
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
“I have a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Louisville, completed my postdoctoral fellowship in Clinical Psychology at the University of Georgia, and completed a postdoctoral Master of Science in Clinical Psychopharmacology from Fairleigh Dickinson University.”
“I am a licensed psychologist practicing in Georgia and currently pursuing prescriptive authority and licensure in Louisiana. My area of research is in multicultural counseling, especially with regard to Black ‘” White counseling relationships, racial identity, and cultural mistrust.”
What are common challenges that multicultural relationships face?
“I find that multicultural relationships mostly face challenges that are external to the relationship, especially when issues of race are concerned. Prejudice attitudes, discrimination, and racism from the dominant culture, their community, and their families can be particularly challenging, especially if there are historical conflicts between the two cultural groups.”
“Racism, discrimination and prejudice are very different; racism comes from the dominant culture and group downward in one direction only, prejudice beliefs and discriminatory acts can come from all directions, even from your own culture or racial group.”
“The couple can face issues where each individual wants to raise their children the same ways they were raised, which could amplify cultural differences. The same would apply to issues of religion. If the individuals are of different faiths, especially those who have historically opposed each other or that have strong contrast in beliefs systems, then overcoming these challenges may require one to suppress their belief system in order to remain in the relationship.”
What type of impact can those challenges have on the multicultural relationship?
“Couples in multicultural relationships tend to experience more microaggressions toward them than same culture/race couples. Microaggressions are subtle comments, behaviors, or attitudes that on the surface may appear to be innocent, but have covert racist or prejudice connotations that causes a person of a minority group to feel uncomfortable or slighted.”
“Microaggressions have a tendency to culminate over time where the multicultural couple can pick up on social cues that people give them of their displeasure or disapproval of their relationship.”
“Then when one or both parties confronts the microaggressor, they are made to believe by the aggressor that they misunderstood or misinterpreted their behavior or comment, and the couple is just being oversensitive about their cross-cultural relationship.”
“This can cause internal conflict with the couple, especially if one of the individuals in the couple either agrees with the microaggressor that it was all a misunderstanding or mistake, or misses the microaggresion altogether.”
What are some tips you can give for making multicultural relationships work?
“The biggest challenges are the internal ones. Families that are against intercultural relationships have a long time to adjust their beliefs and behaviors, and they should and in most cases will.”
“People become less prejudice and racist when they have exposure to the group they are prejudiced or racist against, and develop an understanding of the individual, which can shatter their stereotypes and their distorted belief system. The more united you are as a couple, the better chance you have of overcoming a racist society and prejudicial community.”
What type of professional help is available for a multicultural couple that is having difficulties in their relationship makes of their culture?
“Professional psychological help is an important resource, especially professionals with doctorates in psychology because their training programs usually incorporate multicultural counseling and psychotherapy. Also, if the one member of the couple is of the dominant cultural group (white), it may be helpful to seek out a minority psychologist even if they are not of the same race or ethnicity of either couple.”
“As a African American male psychologist who received his education at predominantly white institutions, the majority of my training was with white patients, which gives me a great deal of experience with cross cultural therapeutic relationships.”
- The Role Culture Plays In Multicultural/Interracial Relationships: Africa (kolorblindmag.com)
- Multicultural Wedding Spotlight: Nigeria meets China (kolorblindmag.com)
- Multicultural Wedding Spotlight: India meets Jamaica (kolorblindmag.com)
- Gay Voices’ Family Friday: Meet Scott and Daren’s Family (huffingtonpost.com)
- Multicultural Wedding Spotlight: A Nigerian Traditional Wedding Reviewed! (kolorblindmag.com)
- What makes Southeast Asia Southeast Asian? (eslschoolforenglish.wordpress.com)
- Commentary: Obama’s Trip Highlights Importance of Asia (news.xinhuanet.com)
- Art an important pathway to Asian engagement (crikey.com.au)
- Asia Knows How to Get Along With a Bigger China – Bloomberg (bloomberg.com)
- Buddhism’s Race Problem (huffingtonpost.com)
- ” Struggle For Smarts? How Eastern And Western Cultures Tackle Learning” (teacherlingo.com)
References: Asian Culture