Eevee’s Amy Van De Casteele explores the trials and tribulations of cross cultural relationships…
Two or three hundred years ago, due to our primitive modes of transport, we lived in exceptionally homogenized societies, rarely straying outside our own homelands – unless we were on religious crusades or plundering the resources of a far-off exotic location. Even then, usually it was only the men who went, while the women and children stayed behind. But in these heady days of rapid air travel, super-fast trains and gap-year holidays, anyone with enough money for a plane ticket and hotel booking can wing their way to the other side of the world and immerse themselves in an unfamiliar culture.
With that rise in global travel, unsurprisingly, has come an exponential rise in cross-cultural relationships. Where once Arabs married Arabs, Russians married Russians and Chinese married Chinese, now Brits marry Thais, Germans marry Laotians and Ghanaians marry Americans. The lure of the exotic has expanded beyond food and holiday destinations to include the world of love and romance. After all what could be more appealing to one’s romantic ideals than falling in love with someone from a strange culture, with whom you can share your vastly different viewpoints, poetry, music and cuisine?
Of course, romantic ideals rarely pan out the way we hope; reality has that most unfortunate habit of bludgeoning its way in. But quite often these cross-cultural unions work out well, the spouses working together to find a comfortable balance between their different perspectives, thereby ensuring that both sets of needs are fulfilled and both parties are kept happy. I know of a number of Western male/Thai female pairings which have evolved into relatively contented marriages. Unsurprisingly, marriage between Thai women and Western men is a very common phenomenon; as is the practice of European and North American men selecting wives from other South East Asian countries, China and Japan. With this in mind – and because it meshes with my own personal experience of expatriate life in Thailand and the Far East – I have chosen to focus on what happens when the Orient meets the West in matters of the heart.
Among the Thai/Western marriages and relationships I am familiar with are a number of my former teachers and a new acquaintance of mine, a successful property broker and entrepeneur who first moved to Thailand 17 years ago. Although his first marriage to a Thai woman was ultimately unsuccessful it resulted in his cherished son, and his current relationship, which has lasted for 4 years and counting, is with another Thai woman.
When asked to describe some of the benefits of cross-cultural relationships, focusing in particular on those between Europeans and Thais, he told me,
“It [a cross-cultural relationship] gives you another insight and helps you avoid prejudice against others. It makes you stronger, if you can ‘adapt’ to fit into another culture – although Thais are quite easy to get along with anyway.”
When asked if he finds it easier to date Thai women or Western women he replied, politely but truthfully, “I think it is easier to date a Thai than to date a Western woman. Thais are more open and laid-back – it is called the Land of Smiles for a reason. Also in Thailand I believe you are dated for who you are, not because of what people expect from you. For example if a guy on a bicycle, wearing shorts and a sleeveless shirt, is kind to others, smiley and friendly, he has a better chance of winning the hearts of Thais than a snob with a Ferrari and his nose in the air.”
Having spent 8 years in Thailand – and returning to the country whenever possible – I have to agree with this point in particular. While in the West it seems like looks, money and fame are increasingly becoming the “in vogue” assets for a desirable future mate to possess, in Thailand the focus remains more on who you are as person than on the contents of your bank account or the regularity of your facial features. It is no coincidence that two of the most important phrases in the Thai language are “sanuk” and “sabai sabai” which mean, essentially, “fun” and “happy/relaxed/content” respectively. For Thai people, a partner who is fun-loving, caring and happy is much more desirable than a sullen, moody millionaire or a snobbish “High Society” beauty.
While the stereotypical marriage between Western man and Thai female is well documented, I also know of several Western women who have married or had relationships with Thai men. When my mother was working as a house parent in the girls boarding house of my secondary school, her fellow house parent was married to a Thai police officer named Nuad. They shared a black dog named Dam (meaning ‘black’ in Thai) a ginger tomcat called Oscar and, later, a beautiful baby girl named Jasmine. Their relationship always seemed like a happy one, but a few years later they sadly parted ways; in their case perhaps the strain of blending East with West simply proved too great.
My former tutor and art teacher fared much better; she remains happily married to her Thai husband and they recently welcomed a new baby. As for me, I enjoyed a 4-year relationship with a musician from Bangkok which, though it has tapered off, remains a source of comfort and joy for both of us and we have kept in contact to this day.
While that relationship was a clearly marked learning curve for me, both because it was my first serious romance and because of a difference in age and culture, I have many warm memories of our time together. Supachai, as he was called (though I always addressed him by one of his numerous nicknames, of which Thais are very fond) did not speak very much English and I spoke even less Thai so we developed our own patois of “Tinglish” which resulted in phrases such as “you want come home me now?” or “what you want to eating?” We spent a lot of time frequenting our favourite restaurants in Phuket Town, Koh Sirey and on the coast, and over the years I accompanied him to numerous clubs and bars to watch him play drums, for which he has a dazzling and capacious talent.
Were there many issues in our relationship caused by our cultural differences? Not many. The greatest source of cross-cultural tension was his differing definition of time. Thai time is notorious and is known as “rubber time” because it can stretch and bend to surprising lengths; this means that if your Thai boyfriend tells you he will pick you up for dinner at 6pm he might get there around 6…but he might also get there 2 hours later, and be utterly taken aback when you greet him with a reproachful glare, tied as you are to your strict Western punctuality.
Of course there are more serious difficulties to be faced in many cross-cultural relationships. Sometimes, even if your romance is blossoming, various obstacles can be thrown in your path. Take the case of German care home assistant Michael Guhle and his Vietnamese wife Thi An Nguyen. After their wedding Michael attempted to bring his new bride home to Berlin but German officials refused Thi An entry to the country on the grounds that she had failed the mandatory language test which all immigrants are obliged to take. This draconian law, ostensibly put in place to prevented forced marriages and to aid the integration of new immigrants, has been criticised by the European Commission. Its policy forced the unfortunate couple, Guhle and Nguyen, to take their case to court and, once they had proved that Nguyen had struggled to learn German for over a year, she was allowed to become a German resident. Fortunately the strain of the legal battle brought them even closer rather than tearing them apart and now they hopefully face many long years of wedded bliss in Guhle’s homeland.
The lesson which we can take from this inspiring couple’s long-drawn out struggle to be reunited can be applied not only to cross-cultural relationships but to any relationship in general – if you treat your partner with love, loyalty and devotion and fight to stay together, no matter what obstacles are placed in your path, your love will grow even stronger and your bond will become almost unbreakable.