Intercultural Relationships: For Better AND For Worse

Dating and Relationships overall, are challenging experiences. It becomes even more complicated when you are involved with someone from a culture or race different from your own. I used to think that “sticking with my own kind” would ease my life decisions towards marriage, having and raising kids and, the place I would settle in. Well it was, until I realized that I was not the typical “Congolese” girl and, might have a hard time finding a man of my culture and race that could handle my outspoken, stubborn and independent self. Blame it on my father.

Expectations 

Like any teenage girl, I have had crushes, flings and flirts which allowed me to experience and venture out of my culture (ethnic group) and race. Even though my parents taught me cultural sensitivity and how to appreciate everybody to their true value, they never really believed nor imagined that I would marry a non-Congolese; while my brothers dated girls from everywhere. Well, my mother probably started having doubts after my last breakup, three years ago.

I gradually distanced myself from my “people” because of the hypocrisy, and the prevalent and obnoxious culture of recycling boyfriends. I never was the type to share a man so, settling for someone who couldn’t appreciate being solely with me, was a NO. Furthermore, I hated the idea that one day, I could be in a room full of women that had either slept or, been in a relationship with my husband. That was not for me. Overall, I was tired of the ethnocentric culture where a good wife/husband was determined by his/her regional affiliation. Nope, Nope, Nope.

Game Changer

Moving to New York was reality check. It changed my conception of relationships and marriage. While I did not agree with the U.S. “dating” idea, I loved the idea that here I could get a clean slate. I could finally get to really “know” a person without outside interference. I must admit I was scared, a lot, because that meant exposing myself to a stranger and, opening myself to a new culture and different traditions, with no guidelines.

However, Regardless of whom I married, I needed it to be someone who understood my special connection to Congo and Africa. Someone that would respect it because I cannot spend a whole year without flying back home. It is part of me. You can take the girl out of Africa but you can’t take Africa out of the girl!  

Language barrier

I was born and raised in Congo Brazzaville which makes French my first language. I also speak Lingala, a language we share with the DRC. Though I now am fluent in English, starting and building a relationship in a language that isn’t yours is difficult. There have been many instances where I couldn’t seem to find the right word or expression to describe  or express a feeling/situation. I get why people wouldn’t venture out of their circles because it is stressful and terrifying.

The main fear however was the difficulty to communicate with my family and friends. Expressing oneself in a foreign language is challenging, uncomfortable and sometimes discouraging, to a lot of my entourage because they don’t want to sound or look stupid. That also implied that a genuine conversation would always be ruined and altered by a third-party. It takes away the spontaneity and creates a disconnect between people. Plus, I hate translating. I get bored and tired after five minutes. It is annoying.

Tradition & Customs

Family always comes first, and sometimes, at the expense of everything else. That is something that almost all cultures share, especially African. My family and I are extremely close and stay connected regardless of our locations. That’s how we maintain our bond. I am a true African. My continent and country’s values run through my bloodstream. I will always have a pied-à-terre either in Congo or in Africa. And I cannot see my kids growing up without knowing nor having a connection to Congo or Africa.

 Marriage

I believe in monogamy. While Congo allows two different status of marriage – monogamy and polygamy, I could never see myself build a life nor bring my child in a different environment. A relationship is hard enough in itself to bring multiple actors into it.

I don’t believe in divorce. As a Christian, marriage is a life commitment and, I strongly believe in “till death do us part.” While it is easy to call it quit in a relationship when one of the partner is unfaithful, in marriage, there is only one option plausible: working it through.

Reality

With all that being said, I ended up falling in love for someone who had always considered “dating” the norm. He was raised in a polygamous family and envisioned his life the same way. When we met, he was still “talking” to other girls and, had no desire to learn or speak French.

This was probably the greatest of life lessons. You see, God has a way to force you to grow by sending your way, situations and people who will have you question yourself. My husband definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone. I was his first African girlfriend and he, my first African-American babe.

He is the demonstrative and touchy-feely type, I am not. At least, not in public. He believed in polygamy, I did not; which became our #1 argument. He is first generation American, of Ghanaian descent, but born and raised in the Bronx. I am from Congo, lived in Paris and settled in New York. That however, didn’t stop us from falling hard for each others and, tying the knot.

Step by Step

I never had that “simple” type of love where you just take it one day at a time. Our story should have ended after a couple of months but we are now going towards our 3rd year together. He taught me how to be patient and how to trust men again. Though I disagree of his “friendly” manners, he is the cutest and most annoying human being ever. Well, my most annoying human being.

I don’t think people see how difficult and pressured intercultural relationships are. Adjusting to one another while remaining “yourself” is the greatest of challenges. You both want to fit in each other’s worlds but at the same time, fight that natural instinct to “colonize” the other. Learning and embracing someone else’s culture are two things that require time, patience and a strong commitment to your partner.

The stereotypes also seem stronger and harder to overcome. Although we might both be Africans, there is a huuuuuge gap between Central and West Africa that goes beyond the language barrier. The Francophone and Anglophone Africa had different experiences through and post-colonization and, that in itself, greatly influenced their people and culture.

For Better AND for Worse

Just like any relationships, there is a lot of work required, even more in an intercultural one. Spending time together, mingling with each other’s family and friends was crucial to understand each others. Until you have seen your partner in his/her natural habitat, you cannot really see their true self, without inhibitions.

We are lucky to be both Africans because our eating habits are very similar. That makes it easier for me since “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” I do plan on learning and speaking his language (Twi) and his, mine (French and Lingala). When? At some point. But definitely before our traditional wedding. Once we have kids, we will definitely emphasize on their rich cultural background. We want them to have a solid understanding and a strong love of their ancestry. Who doesn’t love a polyglot child?

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