Closing the Culture Gap

California's San Francisco Bay area attracts a diverse group of people from around the world who come to the US for work, pleasure, or study. When the love bug strikes, though, do cultural differences just fade into the background? Certainly not, says this article in San Jose's Mercury Times. Nonetheless, honest communication and an open mind can help bridge those inevitable cross-cultural gaps. While women generally adjust better to new cultures than men, says one expert, both partners should at least make the effort to learn the other's language. "It shows a respect for the other person and provides validation that can weather the storm of culture shock,'' she says. Ultimately, the article concludes, although many initial attractions are developed on emotions and hormones, if you want to win arguments with your partner you had better bone up on your language skills. – YaleGlobal

Closing the Culture Gap

For love to survive, it's vital for couples to respect differences
John Boudreau
Friday, July 18, 2003

The language of love does not necessarily need, well, language -- at least not in the beginning, when emotions and hormones usually do most of the talking.

In the Bay Area, where people from all over the world come together, cross-cultural couples are not unusual. Likewise, the ability to travel the globe for business or pleasure brings people together as never before. And let's not forget international dating Web sites.

``A lot of chemistry and physical attraction is not verbal,'' says Liz Kelly, a Los Angeles ``dating coach'' and author of ``Smart Man Hunting (iUniverse, $14.95).''

However, once the romantic embers cool a bit, a linguistic disconnect can cause problems. There are also cultural differences that play out the longer a couple are together.

Helen Taliaferro, a 30-year-old native of Taiwan, met her Texas-born husband-to-be, Jesse, a year after she came to study in the Bay Area in the mid-1990s. They have shared interests, including a deep Christian faith. But there were still obstacles, she said. For one thing, Taliaferro had to learn to argue in a foreign language.

``I couldn't make my point,'' she recalls. ``I was getting really frustrated. My English wasn't good enough.''

There were also awkward moments with his family, which loves to share jokes. ``It was hard to explain them,'' says Taliaferro, who lives in San Mateo with Jesse and their 2-year-old daughter. ``Humor is cultural.''

Indeed, a bond formed between two people of very different backgrounds can greatly increase the usual personality and familial differences experienced by any couple, says Solange Cubie-Roca, clinical director of San Jose's Multicultural Family Therapy Institute.

Frequently, Cubie-Roca says, women adjust better then men. ``Some women come here and all of a sudden they enjoy so much freedom that was denied to them,'' she says. She adds, ``Women are able to be more flexible because they have to. Men are more resistant because they have been socialized to hold on to their values more.''

Serious problems can arise when women, desperate to escape the poverty of developing countries, marry American men they meet on the Internet virtually sight unseen. The men are looking for a more ``traditional'' wife; the women are hoping for a better future, says Teresa Yu, domestic violence program manager with Asian Americans for Community Involvement.

The women can lead isolated lives, depending entirely on their husbands. And if they do begin to exercise independence, their spouses may object, she says.

Both partners must have freedom to grow, Yu says. ``Both people need that for it to be a healthy relationship.''

It's important that each person respects, if not embraces, the other's culture, Cubie-Roca says. One way to do that, she suggests, is for each partner to at least try to learn the other's language.

``It shows a respect for the other person and provides validation that can weather the storm of culture shock,'' she says.

Taliaferro was deeply moved -- and her family thrilled -- when her husband learned to speak Mandarin. In fact, he now teaches it to elementary school children. He also studied Chinese history.

``He really wants to know because he loves me,'' she says. ``It makes a huge difference.''


How to nurture cross-cultural love:

• Respect each other's background.

• Attend cultural events together.

• Learn, or try to learn, each other's language.

• Be sensitive to cultural differences, particularly if you have children. Expose children to both upbringings.

• Encourage your partner to connect with his or her ethnic community.

© 2003 Mercury News and wire service sources.