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Does Culture Matter in Relationships?

White man and Asian woman smiling together
Relationships between different cultures may require stronger communication and perhaps thus need more effort to make work.

In this world of racial equality, color blindness and the push for world peace, many of us have also begun to accept these values as part of our own ethos. As international trade increases and the nations come together in the global marketplace, all the more we’re learning to respect other people’s cultures and languages, including their religious beliefs.

That’s politics, though. What about relationships and eventually marriage? Should we adopt the same attitudes of “color blindness”? Should we as Christians be equal-opportunity daters? Don’t laugh! It’s a serious question.

Almost a year ago, I was talking with one of the adults at our church. She was a European lady who was married to a Chinese man. I don’t remember much of what we talked about apart from this one line: “The joys of an intercultural marriage aren’t for everyone.” This thought has stuck with me for a while.

Intercultural relationships make for many opportunities for misunderstanding. For example, in most western cultures, it’s considered impolite to put food into your mouth and spit it back out. To eat around bones, you need to take small bites, or better yet, simply cut your food properly. However, in Asian cultures, efficiency and economy take precedence. Thus it’s very acceptable, even encouraged, for you to pop a pork short rib in your mouth, wiggle it about, and spit out a clean bone. That will get you praised as a “good boy” when you’re young in Malaysia (because you’re not wasting any food).

There are strong differences like this between almost every culture and at all levels of interaction, from social to emotional or even spiritual. I could write more on the subject, but some of these differences (and thus the implications for relational interaction) are awesomely illustrated in this series of infographics.

It’s these kinds of differences, plus the fact that much of our own culture is “hardwired” within us rather than consciously acted on, which illustrate how relationships between different cultures may require stronger communication and perhaps thus need more effort to make work.

However, with the growth of the information age and the vast amount of media options available, physical location and parental culture are no longer the determining factor to your eventual cultural outlook. Two brothers could grow up in the same household, yet because one spends much of his time listening to metal music, watching depressing dramas, and hanging out with “emo” people, his language, attitude, values, clothing and even purpose in life could be different from say his brother, who spends all his time playing computer games, follows K-pop, watches tons of Japanese anime, and never leaves the house.

In other words, a “culture” may no longer be based simply on which country you spent your childhood in. We’re no longer living through similar cultural experiences, or even having the same people interacting with us, as the rest of our neighbors. However, we might end up sharing many formative experiences with someone who grew up on the other side of the world.

You could meet a girl or a guy from your own city or church who might have a completely different “culture” than you do, but no one would be able to tell just by looking. You could also meet someone who’s totally opposite to you in color scheme yet very similar within.

Thus, yes, I do believe matters of language, politeness, values and aesthetics have an effect on our relationships and marriages, adding challenges that require additional work to overcome. Ultimately though, as Christians, all of these understandings need to be subject to one supreme culture: the kingdom of God.

Far more important than how “Asians,” “Latinos” or even “geeks” might live, as children of God we live as Christ did, and that’s true for everything, including our relationships.

What about you? Have you ever dated someone from a different culture? How’d it go?

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