An extraordinary journey

To be honest, the cultural differences – the immense weight of two separate histories, perspectives, assumptions, myths and surroundings – didn’t strike me as particularly significant at first. I felt surprisingly at home in Spanish, which seemed to express and accentuate my personality like a just-right pair of jeans hugs the hips, and Mexico was a natural fit – the casualness and the intensity, the reckless abandon and the human warmth, the coffee, the food, the mezcal. I’ve never eased into a community as comfortably and naturally as I did in Oaxaca; first I was here, roaming, out of it, the classic bumbling gringa, and then I was suddenly a part of things with a tight-knit group of friends and a serious boyfriend. There was a social revolution when I arrived; the streets were full of burning buses, and I went running on a highway barricaded by scorched tires and heaps of scrap metal. Nearly everyone I knew when I arrived left in a matter of months. I fell in love. I stayed through the months of federal police occupation and the fires in the streets at night, Jorge and I moved in together, and in spring of the following year we suddenly had plans to move to Beijing – I’d gotten a position as an English Composition Instructor for the coming academic year.

Throughout this whirlwind first year and throughout our year in China cultural differences seemed the least prominent factor in our relationship. Our socio-economic differences stood out more. We have different givens – college, for example. He was the first in his family to go – I took college for granted from grade school on, and though I loved it and squeezed every inch of experience out of it, I never thought of it as a particularly extraordinary opportunity, and never would’ve rejected the thought of studying photography as hopelessly impractical, as he did. Our upbringings were diametrically different – he grew up in a small village of five hundred inhabitants in the mountains of Oaxaca, and walked those treacherous three miles old-timers famously like to brag about to school and back every day. He studied agriculture, planting onions and chasing bulls. I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, a quintessentially middle-American city of several million people, going to a small well-respected high school, driving around town on the weekends, eating brown rice casseroles and hummus. My family was not rich, but I certainly felt we were the first time I came back from Oaxaca.

There are other differences, too – I love being at the bottom of a learning curve and could switch countries every six months, starting out clueless again and again on a dusty street corner in some distant land where I don’t speak the language or know the customs; he gets a look of immense relief on his face when it’s clear we’ll stick around somewhere for at least a year or two. As in many relationships, in ours there are the myriad differences that smooth the machinery of couplehood or send it coughing to a stop. But I wouldn’t say that culture – his Mexicanness, my Americanness – is among the most important. Perhaps this is because of that year in China, where in the face of Confucianism, Communism, “saving face” and the host of other inscrutable, impossibly foreign ways of thinking, the differences between our countries seemed laughingly miniscule. Perhaps its because there, outside of both of our native countries and cultures (a good friend in Japan once told me that all intercultural couples should live in a third country, a neutral country neither of them are from) we could have a relationship that didn’t conform to particular stereotypes or swing back around to cultural explanations for differences of opinion.

I think perhaps the hardest thing for me has been to assert my own culture while immersed in his; we’ve lived the majority of our time together in Mexico, and this means sometimes I sense my Americanness has been eclipsed. It is an intense pleasure to let loose with a “Dude, WTF?” following an episode of “Lost” with a couple of American friends. I imagine it will be similar for Jorge when we move to Pittsburgh this summer – I’ll be starting an MFA Program in the fall and we’ll have switched roles, with me at home and him fully immersed in U.S culture. I see why my friend made her point about third countries (she is Australian, her partner is British: they live in Japan); it is hard being the one in the privileged role of the native, and it is equally hard being the one in the limited role of foreigner.

But all of this seemed to be part of a distant backstory in our relationship until my friends Susy and Mauricio got married. Their wedding was not simply a union of two people but of two cultures; they are Mexican-American, and the wedding emphasized the otherness and belonging they feel in both cultures. It occurred to me in a rush of emotion that this is the legacy I will leave in the world. My children will be caught up in that otherness and belonging; they will be of two cultures and two languages. They will grow up with Mexico and the United States in their blood, their history, their way of seeing the world.

We have considered ourselves married by common law for quite some time now, but with the pressing need for a fiancé visa for Jorge to immigrate to the states, we’ve decided to go through with an actual wedding. We’ll have a ceremony in English and Spanish, we’ll play the The Magnetic Fields and Celso Pina, we’ll dance with a turkey and give Polaroids as gifts. We will blend our families, our stories, and our cultures. This, as I’ve come to see, is an extraordinary thing. But it’s not everything – it’s one part of us, and one part of the commitment we’ve made to say, “Hey, let’s make this journey together.”

Sarah Menkedick is editor in chief of Glimpse.org and contributing editor at the Matador Network. She’s currently based in Oaxaca, Mexico. If you liked this, head over to Sarah’s blog Posa Tigres for more exploration of life in Mexico, travel, identity and culture.

Read more:
A truly Spanglish couple: learning Spanish in Cancun
Meet the parents and make an impression
Meet the couples: interviews with cross-cultural readers

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12 Comments

  • I think that you are in the early phases of a relationship you gloss over a lot of the cultural stuff. Especially if you are living in another country and you do have that learning curve. Being married to someone from a different culture and different country certainly does have its advantages but it does add an extra level of complication as well. Even after nearly 9 years together, my husband and I still run into cultural differences! And I totally get the you just want to be with people who get you from time to time!

  • Sarah, thanks for sharing this. For me the cultural differences took some time to sink in as well. Some things it took me a while to realise they were cultural and not just differences. We’ve always lived in a third country, which definitely makes things easier I think. We got married in a third country too, with two friends translating the ceremony into Italian and English. But as you wrote, it’s just one part, it’s not everything. Wish you all the best for the rest of your journey together!

  • guillerno

    Sarah and Jorge!! Congratulations!!!! Let´s see what Jorge thinks when he is zipping the budweiser and cherring for the PiTtsburgh Steelers!!! Un abrazo y nuevamenet felicidades!!!

  • Beautifully put Sarah, so nice to learn more about your and Jorge’s past. One of the biggest cultural hurdles for Yvonne and me when we first started out was my North American tendency to play “the game” – you know, where you play it cool, don’t call for a few days, don’t let on how much you like the other person – and her German no-nonsense, speak what you mean, approach. I quickly learned that if I wanted to keep her that I’d have to drop the BS act real fast. And I did.

    Our cultural differences still creep in from time to time, but now that we’re mostly on the road, we really just work together to make it through the challenges.

  • Thanks for the responses, everyone, and the insight about how you’ve dealt with cultural differences in your relationships. I should write a follow-up here in another five years and see where we stand on the cultural differences front. Relationships just keep on evolving…maybe all the Budweisers and Steelers’ Games Guillo mentioned will make our cultural differences all that much more pronounced…

  • Great post! After 18 yrs. in Italy, the cultural differences (or, is it just the mammas) that really wear on a couple –
    good luck to you both

    FMaggi-upyourbottom.com

  • My partner is also a foreigner (or should I say I’m his foreign partner?) We met and got married in my country, Argentina. And although my husband had already adopted the country and loved (many of) its ways, there were still some differences between us. I needed to learn how to get past his British reticence (stiff upper lip?) and he had to get used to me Latin temperament. I think we reached a happy medium, although we still have our ups and downs.

    Living in a third country (the US) helped to bring us closer together, it’s made us miss home so much.

  • Love this post Sarah, and the discussion it started on cultural differences in relationships – thanks for sharing!

  • Sarah,

    I liked your post so much! It made me think of so many things! I am originally form mexico but I now live in Canada. One of the places I love the most in my country is Oaxaca, I am courious as to how a girl from Ohio ended up in Oaxaca, what made you go there in the first place?
    I am also courious as to how Jorge is adating to all these changes.

    Anyhow, congratulations and the best of luck!

  • I enjoyed this so much. I too was married to a foreigner and lived in Spain with my Spanish husband for 30 years. Certainly makes life interesting….and there is really never a dull moment.

  • Sarah,
    Nice posting. I am American and my wife is Moroccan and we live in Oman. We had to go through a panel of Judges before we got married. One of the questions they asked us was what about the cultural differences. I told them that being an English teacher that we would always live in a third country and we would approach the culture together as a Unit. Granted, Morocco and Oman are both Arabic cultures but they are completely different in many respects. It has brought us together as a Unit. IN effect, we keep each other out of trouble.

  • Sarah,
    Somehow, I figured this was you while reading it. Defititely, it’s your style of writing. Glad to see a post of yours here!

    Cheers,
    Mike