Here is a scenario that anyone who is in a mixed or cross-cultural relationship would appreciate: every morning, my (English) husband’s alarm goes off two hours before mine, and before he even leaves the bed, he talks about tea.
“Shall I make tea? I want tea. Do you want tea? I’ll make tea,” I hear him say as he slowly sits up. I ignore him or make a sound depending on my state of sleep.
“Tea,” he mumbles, carefully making his way around the foot of the bed in our tiny bedroom. I roll away and throw an arm and a leg over his side of the bed. If he has properly woken me up, I say, “I don’t want any bloody tea.” To which he replies cheerfully, “But you gotta have tea.”
A few minutes later, as I’m nodding off again, I hear him come back in and put my mug of tea on the bedside table. “Here’s your tea,” he says. “Hmm,” I say.
For the next two hours, whenever he hears me stirring he calls out softly, “I put your tea on the table,” or, “You know you’ve got your tea there.” When he hears my alarm go off he calls out, “Shall I warm up your tea for you?” I don’t mind cold tea, so I reply hoarsely, “No I’m all right.”
After a while I hear, “Are you drinking your tea?” I raise my voice and shout, “I’m drinking it!”
But actually, unlike my husband who is made up of 90% tea and 10% real ale, I can’t drink a whole mug on a weekday morning. Sometimes, as I’m about to run out the door I realise I’ve only had a sip or two. In these moments I hurriedly throw back a couple of large gulps, leaving what I think he would deem an acceptable amount, about a quarter to a third of the mug.
This is admittedly one of the smaller examples of how mixed couples argue over, and resolve, cultural differences. So small, in fact, that I’m sure they affect couples of the same background too. The difference is, with mixed couples, particularly those who come from different countries, at the back of our minds we’re always wondering which way our future children might lean, or what our parents would say if they knew, or how much of our partner’s culture we want to embrace and why. This turns into bigger questions, such as which country to live and work in, where to raise kids and in what language, and where and how to look after aging parents.
At each stage there are differences in priorities, the threat of geographical separation and a simultaneous aversion and loyalty to our own upbringing which we find difficult to wholly convey to our partner.
However serious or minor these challenges are to each mixed couple – for each has a different story to tell – what we have in common is the fact that we’re forced to have these debates in public. Just by nature of looking different, as is the case with many international or interracial couples, people we meet and passers-by whose glances linger on us that little bit longer are all wondering what our stories are. As Kevin Noble Maillard, a law professor, recently put it in The New York Times, when mixed couples are asked “How did you meet?” there are often subtexts. Specifically talking about interracial relationships in the US, he says:
“[The questioner thinks] Surely, there must be adversity in the tale of an interracial couple… when the people are different races, the subtext is, ‘it’s so fascinating that you are together.’ People want to know because it seems improbable. The deep assumptions of racial difference add a layer of unspoken complex questions: Do your parents approve? What do your friends think? What will your children look like? Sure, this cloud of questions could be entirely exploratory and innocuous, but it underscores the point that people believe mixed race to be an anomaly rather than a norm.”
Using references to films, Maillard also touches on the differences in the ways mixed couples are judged, depending on which partner is white, black or Asian.
“Mixed relationships are sexualized, where everything mundane and normal is forgotten in the wake of the erotic. They are scandalous because we don’t think about what the couple does during the day. We think about what they do at night. White men can jump, if they date a black woman. Everyone is happy in the world of Suzie Wong. Once someone has jungle fever, they’re never going back.”
Whether it’s “jungle fever,” “yellow fever” or “Asian persuasion” there is a host of derogatory terms for branding mixed couples, as well as insulting assumptions about which combination is more flattering for whom.
But if anyone is more curious than that nosey nuisance at the party, it’s other mixed couples. And if we’re honest, aside from a sense of relief that there are others out there, there’s also a feeling of defensiveness, like we want to go up to them and say, “Well, we met at work not at a bar,” or “It’s not like that, she doesn’t need a visa,” or “We don’t care what others think, do you?” I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when I worked at The Japan Times, whose readership consists largely of expat communities and English-learning Japanese, our “Mixed Matches” interview series with mixed couples was one of the most popular.
In truth, cross-cultural couples around the world face grave difficulties where the law or social norms haven’t caught up. In China, where we currently live and where mixed marriages are slowly on the rise, the BBC recently documented the relationship between a Chinese man and a western woman, where his friends thought he was a legend and her friends thought she was a freak. Across the pond, Japan finally caved into international pressure last month and signed The Hague Convention, which forces governments to cooperate in custody cases where one parent takes their children without their partner’s consent out of their country of residence and back to their home country.
In the UK, the other country I’m familiar with, the media recently highlighted the exact opposite problem: cases where, for the sake of keeping marriages within the same culture, girls are being forced back to places of ethnic origin and made to marry. Meanwhile, a 2012 law introduced minimum earnings requirements for Brits bringing a non-EU spouse into the UK, separating those who don’t meet the standards from their families. Even without such criteria, international couples are at the mercy of immigration restrictions that change with the political climate, and in some cases find themselves either torn apart or needing to marry when they don’t really want to.
As each couple has different stories to tell, so each country too has different issues to face and resolve.
It’s difficult to find statistics on how many mixed relationships there are in the world. But I wonder: how many of those are currently doing long distance? How many of them are feeling homesick or culture-sick? How many of them are dealing with a hostile family or society? How many of them are struggling to resolve differences in outlook? And how many of them have overcome some or all of these, and are living happily together?
If the social psychologists are right and we humans are largely motivated by self-interest and protection of those who are in our ‘group’, mixed couples will surely help to diffuse the world’s prejudices and conflict. But on a more humble scale, being in a mixed relationship can help us evaluate our own culture objectively, remember what is good and recognise what is bad.
And if our partner does the same, that’s perhaps a more nuanced and informed foundation than most on which to try and build a future together. It may be a future that has more different combinations and is more impossible to solve than a Rubik’s Cube, but I’d like to think it’s worth the headache and, I should say, heartache.