Five lessons about being in an intercultural family


imageHe is the son of temperate rain-strapped climes and “keep calm and carry on” whereas, the Caribbean sun and sea were my parents.  Two people that dreamed of each other at a certain point without imagining that they were over four thousand miles apart.  Unexpected is the word I would use to describe how I met Alan.  Being with him is exciting in an equally surprising but normal kind of way.

A relationship with someone from another country or culture is as easy and yet as difficult as any other relationship.  What makes it different is that we observe and absorb the world from a tri-dimensional perspective: an individual’s perspective, our significant other’s perspective from a cultural standpoint and our “hybrid” perspective (a little bit of us, a little bit of the world as a global entity and a little bit of our community). It is a lot that we have not shared in the past that we have to absorb new learnings  through our significant other. We  add  our experiences together to this equation.  All of it, past and new melt in us. We do not want to morph into the other, or to exclusively convert ourselves to something that we are not, we just evolve a little bit.

New characteristics arise from our daily interactions along with a mix of unique new distinguishing traits that makes this relationship unique from the rest of the world.  There are five principal lessons that I have learned about us through the years; of course with deference to the plethora of tiny things and idiosyncrasies:

  1. Being different is good. It is interesting to me now, that one of the most frequently cited reasons by people for break up or separating is that  “we are very different”.   We grow up with the romantic illusion that our other half has to be a reflection of ourselves, another version of us.  I often wonder how boring it would be to live with someone just like me.  In reality ”we are very different” means “ we wanted something different”; beginning with each other. I have learned that being different is one of the most exciting, dynamic and relevant things that can happen in a relationship.  Alan and I recognize that we are different but, our core values and expectations are in harmony.  For example, he motivates me to be more adventurous and I help him to be more free, to be more expressive.  At our wedding he defined it very well: we are the yin and yang, two sides of the same coin, one cannot exist without the other.
  1. The stranger in the family. Both of us are the exotic part of the family.  It is normal to be perceived like a different species by an old school English family.  For Puerto Ricans, an English man is American royalty.  It is enigmatic for both families that two people from different points in the world and culturally different in many ways, find each other and fall in love.  For one family, the English accent is elegant, while for the other family the Latin accent is funny or “cute”.  Any mannerism, any behaviors that seems out of the ordinary is attributed to the fact that “it is from another country” while in reality there are strange behavior that do not have anything to do with any country.  Years of experience has demonstrated to me that English people are as crazy as the Puerto Ricans and vice versa.  At the end of the day, what was strange ended up being familiar, and crazy people find a way to co-exist in their own way.
  1. Two languages in one. There are different words and expressions in a house where the native language of a couple are different.  Usually there is a language that predominate.  In our home, we communicate in English with the exception of the occasions that we practice more Spanish at home.  There are two spoken languages at home but there is a communication that goes further than our native languages.   Meeting a person whose main language is not yours, pushes you to open your mind in a way that you must pay more attention.  Verbal communication is not enough anymore. The eyes and the ears are alert. Nothing can be missed, because we are afraid that we did not get the message, in some way that we ended up incomplete.   There is the way of touching, the way each other look at different things. There the expressions in the smirks of the mouth, in the bite of the lips, how we raise our eyebrows, the way we smile.  Physical closeness vs. distance.  All these elements are present in any relationship, but the non-verbal communication weighs more when the native language is not shared.  We are pushed to use all our senses because what comes from our mouths is not enough.
  1. The gene mix. One of the first topics that comes up in conversations is for people to guess how the children are going to be, especially when the parents have different skin tones, eye color and overall characteristics.  What is the expectation?  Will the child be black, tan or white,  have brown, blond or red hair, will it be straight, curly or wavy?  Will the eyes be brown, blue, green or hazel? What about the hands?  Long or short and stocky?   At the end, there is a wonderful miracle with this gene mix, a hybrid vigor; you see children that are exquisitely different in many places of the world.   I love seeing my tan-skinned son, fine bone, tall for his age with his big brown eyes, a contrast to my baby daughter, who has a slightly lighter skin color with her father’s hazel eyes, brown curls with origins so far from the country where he was born.  Both very different but, us, in a beautiful way.  Once the children are born then, begins the observations about their behaviors. Does he likes cricket or volleyball? Oh!  He learned to dance salsa very young.  Extrovert or introvert?  Smiley or grumpy?  What is wonderful about the kids is that they accept and are accepted easier than adults.  Children are the ones that will have the potential of satisfying the expectations of being the best of the family.  I do not, nor will I, complain about that at all.
  1. Everybody has an accent. When you move to another country and even another area, it is very common to hear people telling you: “you have an accent” or; where are you from?  Since I have been with Alan, it is more common in the United States.   Once I open my mouth, everybody knows that I have a Latin accent but, they cannot pin point from where.  Alan on the other hand is a fascination, and he likes it. It seems that Americans love the English.  Do they love the Hispanics?  Not as much as the English!  If I do or do not have an accent is not the question to me, rather, what any person should realize is, that everybody has an accent!  Someone from Boston does not pronounce English words like someone from Texas or Georgia.  English people from Yorkshire have a different pronunciation that someone from Devon.  People from the Caribbean coast pronounce Spanish different from those from Argentina; an Argentinian speaks different than someone from Spain or Mexico.  Everybody has an accent and it is alright.  It is intriguing!  At home, I have someone who speaks English with English accent, one that has a more American accent, one who speaks Spanish with neutral accent and one with “Puerto Rican” accent.  In our home, we perceive more than anything, the words and gestures.  We do not hear the accent.    Accents which are normal for us, are strange for other people.DSC_0551

Sometimes I ask myself if being in an inter-cultural relationship is a sign of cultural consciousness or if it is only a product of my current reality and being a member of this family. However, I am certain that this reality has enriched me. It has enriched my relationship with the world as one unit, with my community, but more important, it has also enriched my spirit.  Every day I learn something new and my mind is alert to the next lesson, some are easy and others are more difficult to understand.  This clan, this family have helped me to have a healthier relationship with what is around me.  It may be the physical aspect or the virtual one.  I feel that I am more sensitive to many things than I was before, more compassionate perhaps.  It is comforting to see that the children live the experience that took me many years to have and, this is “normal” life to them.  Every day I hope this desire for learning, this openness will not be lost in the routine and at the same time, we as a family, spread this characteristic to everyone we are in contact with, the spirit of acceptance, sense of humor, thirst for learning and community awareness. The world is our community.  We never know where we will end up living next!

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