Dear Dr. Faizal,
I immigrated from India in 2010 and I’m dating a “coconut”, i.e. a southeast Asian man who was born and raised in Canada. We were both raised by single moms and share much in common in terms of the situations around our childhood, but we grew up in different countries. We’ve now been dating for 3 years, and it seems to be going well, but I sometimes struggle with the difference in our backgrounds. He doesn’t share my enthusiasm for our festivals and has no connection to India, to Bollywood, or to our history. We also have VERY different views of sex and intimacy. How do I not let this be a factor in our relationship?
– Lost in Translation
Dear Lost in Translation,
In the West, when dating, we try to find someone who shares similar qualities, values, experiences, etc. to us. Finding things in common is considered the goal of dating. Both you and your boyfriend, being raised by single moms, I’m sure, have many stories to share with each other about the challenges that you and your moms had to endure. Such sharing connects you as a couple.
However, the best of relationships – even those in which partners are from the same background – is sometimes a struggle. It is true, though, that partners from different cultures face an additional set of challenges that test the quality of the romantic union. It is for this reason that I believe that cross-cultural partners should focus on – and, in fact, make it a priority to complement each other’s interests. You and your boyfriend have opportunities that most other couples don’t have – to share with, and teach, each other about two rich, yet different parts of the world. Instead of looking at differences as a “struggle,” embrace them as opportunities to learn more about the other.
Learning about each other requires communicating in an open, honest, and non-judgmental manner about your relationship needs. I would suggest that you both make a list of your “Top 5 Needs” that you would like each other to at least attempt to fulfill. One item on your list, for example, could state that you would like a “Bollywood movie night,” in which your boyfriend would watch at least one Bollywood movie per month with you and then discuss the cultural implications of the story, perhaps over chai in an Indian restaurant. Such a discussion would, no doubt, raise topics that would educate him about India, its people, and most importantly, about you.
Be open to sharing your other needs, including your sexual ones. Whether one of you prefers the Kama Sutra-type of intimacies while the other craves those found in The Joy of Sex, the key is to communicate your needs without the fear of being judged. You don’t have to adopt your partner’s preference, but trying to fulfill his needs, and he yours, would validate you both as unique individuals and each other’s partner.
By taking these steps, I hope you and your boyfriend find the translation of a common language that will help you celebrate romantic cultural diversity.