This post started very differently to how it ended. It was supposed to be a post on how to make a cross cultural relationship work. Then we had a bad few weeks. Where I realised (again) I have no damn idea how to make one work and that we, as I’m sure many other couples out there, are just figuring it out… day by day… trying to translate and reform and reiterate and regroup… the very best that we can. Trying desperately to have our sense of humour intact at the end of the day.
There are days in any relationship where you have to work at it. My relationship is no different. Ni and I are two very different people. We come from completely different backgrounds and are at times worlds apart, even when we are in the same room. Ever since we met we’ve been finding common ground. We are still both learning. Learning how to be parents. Learning how to be lovers. Learning how to be a good partner. Life is a journey and each stage has a lot of lessons to teach us. We are learning how to straddle two worlds and come together as one. Sometimes, some days, this seems very possible. Other times it seems like the hardest task in the world.
Cross cultural relationships are hard at a whole different level. but they are also wonderful like any other relationship, when they are working. I arrived in this little village on Ni’s birthday, three years ago. He still tells the story of my bright orange pants getting out of the car when I arrived on the main street. He was there, watching. Within days we had already started spending little bits of time together. Within weeks we were fast friends and within months we both knew that this, whatever “this” was, was something special. We danced around each other for about six months, I was at the end of a relationship and was in no hurry to dive right in, he was persistent and I tested his patience. But when things really started moving, they did so quickly. We moved in together a few months after we started really seeing each other, we fell pregnant about ten months later, with our little bump in the road. We had just started planning our wedding.
At twelve weeks pregnant, we got married, about nine months earlier than we had planned.
Our “shot gun” marriage was hard for me. I had to convert to Islam. I got married in a small village marriage office, in a foreign language, alone. It was the start of what was going to be a very lonely pregnancy. I was lucky to stumble across an online mothers group, one of those Australian birth club groups, where 100 women were all expecting babies around the same time as Bo was due. They saved me. They are to this day some of my closest friends. They still have a habit of saving me on a day to day basis. These women (most of whom I have never met in “real” life) are as diverse as they are united, they are as generous as they are kind hearted and they know me more intimately than most people in my life. This isn’t about them though. I have written about them before, and I’m sure I will again. They feature prominently in my life every day.
I spent most of the year here in the village. Dealing with challenging cultural differences during my pregnancy. Cultural differences that dictated what I ate, where I went, what I wore and how I behaved. I was lonely. My husband and I were on rocky ground more than once. We fought. We argued. We tried to find peace with a relationship that had just shifted 180 degrees. Neither of us knew where we stood. It happened too fast. We knew each other, but we didn’t really KNOW each other. We battled with language barriers (both his and mine) as we tried desperately to find a common ground from which we could communicate openly about the enormous decisions that lay ahead of us. We faltered and we fell. And we got back up again. We still falter.
Cross language, cross culture, cross religion… is hard. There is no doubt about it. Though, it’s not like anyone ever told me it would be easy. I knew it would be challenging. But young and in love and headstrong, I was determined. I still am determined. To make it work. Some days I have no idea if we are going to make it. Some days I think we are moments from falling apart. But from what I gather, this is not only a symptom of cross cultural relationships, but more so a reality of how hard making a relationship truly work, is. We could go on, living parallel lives, making the relationship work on a very surface level. But if we really want (and we do, we both desperately do), at the heart of it all, to be connected… to live and love in a partnership that is fruitful and successful and united, it takes work. And time. And good translation dictionaries. And love. And empathy. And joy. And patience. And tears, sometimes from laughter and sometimes from pain.
We have had some real cultural learning curves. Perhaps the biggest and yet also in ways the simplest has been eye contact. In Indonesia (and in Africa according to a close friend of mine) when you respect someone and are having a serious conversation it is culturally appropriate to revert eye contact. Whereas where I come from looking someone in the face when you talk to them is respectful, anything else is not OK. We haven’t quite found a good common ground on that one. But I have learned to not take offense when Ni won’t look me in the eye when we are having a serious conversation.
There have been funny (more so in hindsight) moments along the way too. Like when I was pregnant and went for a quick medical trip to Australia. I asked Ni to please fix the sink before I returned home as it was leaking and I was worried I would slip and fall. That was it. Fix the sink. Oh, and remove the rats. I was gone for two weeks. I asked him repeatedly if he had fixed it. He replied, no, no but I’ll do it soon. I got increasingly frustrated. I mean honestly, how hard is it to fix a damn sink? Just go and get a washer from the hardware store. So I asked again, and the response was the same. The day before I returned I was in hair-pulling frustration with this man of mine. I yelled at him over Skype… can’t you just fix the damn sink… come on man! And he replied (with seemingly equal frustration)… Fine, I’ll do it, but first you have to tell me… WHAT IS A SINK?
My marriage has taught me patience beyond anything I had before. It has taught me that sometimes being emotionally volatile (my go to place when I’m angry/upset/tired) is not helpful and it is never easier to understand than simply stating matter of fact how I feel and why. It has taught me to breathe, deeply. It has taught me that sometimes you have to make decisions wholly for someone else and leave your own wants/needs at the door. And it has taught me that sometimes, you don’t.
There are no easy answers. Nor are there any quick fixes for the difficulties and challenges we face on a day to day level. And I am forever stumped by the line between being respectful for ones cultural background and where ones cultural background becomes nothing more than an excuse for not just getting on with something. If any of you have the answer to this… I’d LOVE to know.
We are at a cross roads of sorts. We have been at this place for a while and we have been stumped as to how to handle the situation. But handle it we must. So it has been decided. Bo and I are going to return to Australia. For us right now this is the best decision. Not the easiest by any means, or the most ideal, but the best.
After spending most of Bo’s short life here in the village, we are now, a month earlier than previously planned, going home. There have been some decisions made in the past that have done damage to our relationship, that have put undue stress on the love we hold for each other and that have made an already challenging situation at times seem unbearable. This must change. That being said, this is not by any means the end of our relationship – but more like a survival stage. Where we do what we need to do to survive.
The decision for Bo and I to leave the village at short notice and ahead of schedule was not one that was made lightly or without much emotion from both sides. But it is the necessary decision to protect what we have and to give it a chance at flourishing once more in the future. Ni will join us when he is ready, with the excitement and enthusiasm necessary to truly grow a new and beautiful life for the three of us. Until then Bo and I will return to the safety of my family, to the comfort of my home and to the protection of a culture where we are both accepted and celebrated. Yes, it means that for a while we will all live feeling like we have had an important limb amputated. As our family is not united. We will both suffer on a very personal level from that. But Bo, luckily, will be little the wiser and will be better off in the long run, as this decision is made primarily with her extended happiness and well being in mind.
Eight weeks (or less, I hope) apart will be difficult for both Ni and I on different levels. But if this is what we need to be stronger, if this is what we need so that we can live a long and happy life together as a family, then this is but a mere blip on the radar of the rest of our lives. Eight weeks in the grand scheme of things is nothing, even if right now it feels like everything.
Relationships are hard. They take hard work to make them work. I’ve never been scared of hard work. So work we will. And one day soon we will be together again with love and joy and happiness.
We are currently en-route to Australia and will arrive very early on Friday morning.