I possess a deep love for my hometown in the Great Northwest, and feel exquisitely at home when I am in it. Despite this, I live in Costa Rica. Why? For love. I met and fell in love with my Nicaraguan fiancé while working for an NGO in his home country. While I initially relocated to Nicaragua thinking I would eventually return to the US, I was also open to see where life and love took me. Upon meeting my partner, I knew right away we had something special, and now we live together in Costa Rica, with his two school-aged children. Our relationship is lovely. It is pure and filled with the type of vulnerable and raw adoration perhaps unique to an intercultural partnership. But, it sure isn’t easy.
We live in a world that seems to grow smaller and smaller with every passing year for those of us lucky enough to travel. International family vacations, junior year study abroad programs, after-college backpacking trips, and years spent teaching abroad are now commonplace. Of course, this is a wonderful thing. Yet, one of the inevitable results of our increasingly accessible world is falling in love during one of these international experiences, thus creating the huge decision to move abroad for a foreign partner. Upon embarking on foreign travel, we often daydream about meeting a mysterious and sexy lover, whether it be for a short, fun stint, or for the long haul. In fact, a study released by the US Census Bureau concluded that in the first decade of 2010, the percentage of interracial and interethnic couples grew by a whopping 28%.
It is common to idealize an international love affair. However, before entering into such a partnership, we must understand the very real challenges that accompany a long term relationship with our foreign sweetie. Once the sense of adventure, mystery, and sexiness begin to fade, the following realities set in.
Whether you are fluent or near fluent in a foreign language, or just learning, this is perhaps the most challenging of challenges for a bicultural relationship. I was nearly fluent in Spanish upon moving to Nicaragua, and improved dramatically over my almost two years there. My partner was impressed by my language skills, yet this didn’t help whatsoever in moments of sadness, anger, frustration, or perhaps simply struggling through endlessly mixing up tenses when telling a story. Without a doubt, being forced to communicate in the context of an intimate relationship exclusively in another language is a fantastic way to learn, but it comes with many moments of difficulty that can bring you to tears.
However, the flip side of this is that sort of beautiful, unique vulnerability mentioned earlier. When we lack the ability to hide behind words, to sugar coat our emotions, or to understand completely how we are perceived by our listeners, this offers an innocence and purity that opens up in us an enormous capacity to love.
Since spending a semester studying in Israel during high school, I have placed living abroad on the top of my priority list. However, it was not until I met my love and knew it was not just a fleeting romance that the reality hit of moving permanently to another country.
I might describe the process as that of grief. I grieve the loss of not having my family close, the ease of conducting life in my own language, and the endless list of conveniences I took for granted, like salad bars and coffee shops. Don’t wait to discuss this with your partner. If you know for sure that moving permanently abroad is not something you’re up for, this must be an early topic of conversation. Is your partner able to move to your country? Could you split your time? As romantic as things might seem, if neither of you is willing to relocate in the long term, it simply won’t work.
Without a doubt, there is something deeply special about the learning and growth that can take place when individuals from two different cultures form a bond in a bicultural relationship. However, challenges such as gender roles, parenting methods, how to spend free time, and much more will become very real points of contemplation, discussion, and compromise. Consider your non-negotiables in a relationship and in a future. Pay close attention to signs early on that point to which differences will be most relevant to your relationship, and be sure your partner is open and enthusiastic to discuss these differences. After all, this is where the learning and growth occur.
This might or might not be a challenge, depending on your upbringing and personal beliefs. Do you both want to raise children in the religion you grew up in? If so, how might this look? Are you comfortable attending religious events with your partner? What about marrying under religious traditions that are completely different from those you always imagined? Religion is a challenge in a bicultural relationship that can generally be worked through, and can exist with any partner of a different religion, foreign or not, but should be taken seriously.
Through my experience, I have found that culturally-relevant parenting styles are something we often take for granted as being universally accepted. Trust me, this is not the case! Each and every culture has its own ways of discipline, education, expression, and family time, as well as its own traditions. While this can similarly be a challenge in any relationship, when people from different cultures join together in parenting, an entirely new layer of understanding and openness is called for.
So, is it worth it?
I believe that we don’t choose who we fall in love with, but the choice to continue loving over time must be intentional, and requires work. For me, embarking on the challenges specific to an bicultural relationship keep me in a state of constant mental, emotional, and spiritual evolution. This certainly does not mean that moments and days of doubt, frustration, and questioning are absent, but I have never once questioned whether it’s all been worthwhile. After all, “Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.” –Maya Angelou