Our Unique Bond #4

October 15, 2010

Culture shock is the pruning process. It’s the Good Friday before Easter Sunday. It’s the dark night before the dawn. It’s the pain before the gain. But let me be clear on one thing: though culture shock is inevitably painful, it is not inevitable. We experience culture shock only if and when we actually desire to engage with another culture in a meaningful way. I personally know couples who marry cross culturally who don’t make an effort to engage in their spouse’s culture and I suspect they don’t have culture shock issues in their marriage. Just as an expat can live in another culture and exist purely in an expat bubble without engaging local culture, they too, won’t encounter culture shock issues.

And here I break the bad news to people considering cross culture marriages. Gulp. In my humble opinion, you WILL have to make sacrifices and be ready to lose aspects of your culture if you want to make your marriage work. And if you, as I did, decide being married to your man/woman, was worth those sacrifices, it doesn’t mean you won’t later on in your marriage miss and grieve those losses. There are parts of my Chinese self, that I can never fully share and relate, with J. Though I try with every effort throughout our marriage. I believe it is ultimately healthy for the relationship to recognize and come to accept this. If you find yourself in a cross cultural relationship, you will have to decide the things you value in your relationship is worth the cost. In my case, I saw a character I admired, a common vision for life, and a deep friendship that bonded us even despite cultural differences.

The problem is you can never fully discover everything about your significant other until after you’ve married and when those losses are experienced later on in marriage, that’s when we come face to face with culture shock. J and I practically minored in cross cultural issues during seminary so we kind of have an advantage in dealing with culture issues in our marriage. On the other hand, we also chose to move to China, where we both had to encounter culture shock in addition to our own issues – that’s the down side. I can give some specific examples of how to deal with culture shock, but my very private husband might object to me hanging out our dirty laundry (ahem, Americans value privacy). But here are some general principles that have helped us:

1) Listen. Culture conflict occur because we can’t get past our own culture bound assumptions of reality. It is really difficult to understand something that you have never questioned in your life. But you love your man/woman, so listen and try your best to understand.

2) AFTER you’ve listened, explain your perspective. Sometimes what you know to be matter of fact isn’t matter of fact at all to a person of another culture. J and I have had to explain some very basic things about our own culture to each other.

3) Talk using very specific terms. Avoid saying, “I am frustrated Americans do this…..”, when what you want to say is, “when you did that, I felt hurt.” Very often, it is because of our culture that we behave a certain way to hurt our spouse of another culture, but it’s not helpful to point that out, it’s much better to focus on the specific incident.

4) Allow your spouse time to ride through the waves of culture shock without taking it personally. When J would get frustrated with certain aspects of Chinese culture, I would take it so personally, as if he was frustrated with me. I’ve learned that it is normal and healthy for him to vent and cope in his time.

5) Some things are better left unsaid. It takes time to struggle with culture shock and to get to the end stage of total engagement and acceptance. During the phase, if you do feel tremendous frustration with your spouse’s culture, refrain from expressing those frustrations with too much liberty to each other. Find another outlet, preferably someone else who can understand your frustrations. And once the emotions ride out, you can find a more peaceful way of communicating what you’ve experienced to your spouse.

Easier said than done. But it is worth doing. Please don’t be the kind of couple who just is content with living life according to one spouse’s culture. You are robbing yourself of the gift of being in a cross cultural marriage. J and I have learned so much about each other, and it has provided us with the invaluable skill of being able to encounter people who are very different from us with respect. And we hope to pass this on to our children to help them navigate themselves in our increasingly diverse yet interconnected world.

Shall I touch on in-law issues next? yikes.