The wild, weird world of cross-cultural relationships

The wild, weird world of cross-cultural relationships

[divider]Potato man in rice culture[/divider]rice_bowl
“I eat potatoes. They eat rice.”

According to Upper School History teacher Mr Magill, this is the greatest difference between him and his students. He’s worked in three other overseas schools and feels that TAS is not as culturally diverse as the others.  At his previous school, Mr Magill could have had “12 different nationalities in a class.”

“I think the similarities between the students here and the students at my previous school [a slightly smaller, elite, private, K-12 school in Virginia] far outweigh the differences,” says Mr Montgomery, Upper School English teacher, who is new to TAS this school year. “On the whole, the school and the community here were an easy transition for me.”

You would think that teachers who have lived in America all their lives would feel the greatest cultural differences, not only from the students but also from the Taiwanese environment. There are, however, greater cultural differences between teachers who have previously lived in other parts of Asia and their students.

Dr Coburn-Palo, Upper School History and Political Science teacher, who lived in South Korea for several years, experienced culture shock when he first arrived in Taiwan. “When I was asking my advisory group about how their holiday break had gone, I asked them what the best or lamest gift they had received [was],” he says. “Much to my surprise, most of them had not received Christmas, Hannukah, or Kwanza gifts, as their families do their version of gifts [money in an envelope] during the Chinese New Year.  My question seemed to strike them as pretty odd,” says Dr Coburn-Palo.

Is American culture that different from Taiwanese culture? They may appear as two totally different cultures, but there are some obvious similarities between the two. Take the importance of familial ties, for example. It is a tradition for the Taiwanese to get together with their families for reunion dinners on Chinese New Year’s eve. For their American counterparts,  it is a tradition for large family dinners on Thanksgiving. Perhaps these two cultures are more similar than most people may think.

– Jing Yi N.

[divider]Two cultures one love[/divider]


Mr O’Neill, TAS’ communication officer, does not believe in the principle of “homogamy.” He and his fiancée are in the midst of planning their wedding, which incorporates traditions from East and West. Trying to find an ‘auspicious’ date is a bit of a challenge,” he admits. “As someone who doesn’t really understand the importance of a Chinese calendar, I may say, ‘Oh, so we can do it on this weekend’ and she’ll say, “‘that’s in the middle of ghost month, so that’s not right.’” Clearly, communication is important in every relationship, but critical in cross-cultural relationships.

Do you believe in the principle of homogamy? Do you believe that marrying (or partnering) someone who has a similar social background—socio-economic class, education, religion and/or ethnicity—will results in greater individual happiness, or at least a less stressful life, and less likelihood of divorce?

Author and Researcher, Alvaro Martinez Perez does. In The Significance of Homogamy, he concludes that homogamy remains “extremely powerful as an intervening factor in partnership choices.” This means people feel the “need” to marry or partner with people who are, in broad terms, like themselves. Some call this “like marrying like.”

If, on the other hand, you are a non-believer, then you are on the same side as Pocahontas and John Smith, Anna and the King, Jay and Gloria from Modern Family, and Mr O’Neill and Ms Chang.

Mr O’Neill, who comes from a small town north of Boston, recounts a funny incident that reflects one of the many cultural disconnects he experiences when out and about with his fiancée:

“I have this firm conviction that whenever I cross the road anywhere in the world, that cars will stop for me. And that’s not always the case in Taiwan. They will fly around you. Oftentimes, when it’s time to cross the road and we’re at the crosswalk, and there’s no light saying you can’t cross, I will go and act like a traffic cop and make that car stop, while my fiancé is on the corner yelling at me, ‘This is not America!’”

There is a certain sweetness to love stories about overcoming the Romeo and Juliet divides. Culture is for the most part invisible, hardly noticeable if not for physical signs like skin tone or an accent…until a “clash” forces us to step back and see ourselves in a new light.

“Culture is a little like water to a fish–we’re in it but we’re not necessarily aware of our culture until we encounter someone who doesn’t share all of our beliefs and customs and rituals,” says Dr Kyle D. Killian, author of Interracial Couples, Intimacy, and Therapy, a recently published book that highlights interracial couples with multiracial children. Killian advises, “Encountering someone [different] means finding ways to do things that are exciting, fresh and new. Sometimes it’s so unfamiliar that it’s not something you immediately embrace. But if you want the relationship to survive, you have to be inclusive of both partner’s traditions.”

In his book, Dr Killian challenges the principle of homogamy, advocating a deeper understanding and respect for intercultural couples. Mr O’Neill believes “both have to make compromises” but he expresses sentiments that show signs of a heart struck by Cupid. “By being in a cross-cultural relationship, you are spreading a message of understanding and compassion and love for another person from a different background…you’re sending a positive message around the world.”

Kudos, Mr O’Neill, for not allowing cultural differences get in the way of love!

– Berry S.

[divider]The Great Language Barrier[/divider]


Speak Chin-glish? Fluent in Ko-nglish? Well, you’re not alone.

Growing up in American international schools, my English has always been better than my Mandarin. Like many other TAS students, I speak broken Mandarin with an accent. However, because my parents are Taiwanese, they only speak limited English, which creates an inevitable language barrier.

Beyond the basics, I find it hard to express myself in Mandarin because I don’t know which are the correct words or phrases to say. (I have been laughed at by my parents and sister one too many times for my apparently hilarious grammar.) But I can’t tell them how I feel in English either because then they wouldn’t understand – and vice versa.

How do we communicate then?

Well…through a mixture of broken Ching-glish, hand gestures, and significant looks. It isn’t as unnatural as it sounds. Over the years, my family has adopted a style that might look incredibly peculiar to outsiders, but is perfectly comfortable for us.

This “mixed languages” phenomenon is common in families with kids who attend international school.

“I speak ‘Japenglish’ (Japanese and English) with my family. We can’t really talk otherwise,” says an anonymous student at TAS. Another student, Phoebe K. (9), says, “It’s pretty easy [to speak with my family] but I often mix my English with Chinese.”

For Juliana C. (11), the language barrier even made it hard to communicate with her brother. “When I moved back to Taiwan, my parents decided to send me to TAS but sent my brother to local school, so growing up, we were actually going to schools with different languages,” she says. “Now he speaks very little English and I speak very little Mandarin, so when we talk at home it’s mostly through gestures with our hands or getting our mom to translate for us.”

Likewise, this barrier of communication can also create a sad loss of connection between grandparents and grandchildren. Like many other students, I can’t understand or speak Taiwanese, but my grandmother only speaks Taiwanese. Most of the time, I have no idea what she is saying, and she has no idea what I am saying. We mostly just nod our heads and pretend we know, but my parents always end up having to translate during an actual conversation.

However, some students find that with practice, the difficulty of communicating decreases.

“Before, when my Chinese wasn’t good, I couldn’t talk to my grandmother. We only had five minute conversations,” says Samuel B. (10). “Now that I learned Chinese, we talk a lot.”

Munir S. (11), who speaks Bahasa, English, and Mandarin to his family, also finds that communicating becomes easier over time.  “As a child, there may have been a few difficulties in passing a thought along due to only knowing the word in one language or another. But as my vocabulary expanded, these difficulties became rare occurrences.”

Language barriers can take some getting used to, but they’re not impossible to overcome. Communicating with my family is a more of a lifestyle – not an obstacle. Personally, I’m just thankful we can understand each other at all.

-Rebecca T.

A Cultural Toss-up

Cindy H. (11) has been tossed back and forth between Taiwanese and American cultures. She grew up in Taiwan (attending local school), moved to the US, and has just moved back to Taiwan to attend an American school.

Cindy definitely has experienced cultural barriers and clashes: “The people are very different. After living in the states for six years, I came back and had problems communicating with my old school friends because of language and cultural barriers. We talk about different things.” Different interests in TV shows, celebrities, and hobbies in addition to attending different schools resulted in empty conversations and a bit of awkwardness, she says.

Socializing with people from a range of ethnicities and cultures, though, comes with its perks. “I really like having a diverse group of friends because everyone brings something different to the table,” says Liliana B. (11). “I learn a lot from them.”

Besides, you can read about countries and their traditions, but books can’t beat the first-hand experience of visiting friends and meeting their families.  Anjoli G. (10), who is half Indian, says, “I think it’s great to have friends from other cultures. For most, learning about a culture outside your own doesn’t extend past reading about it, but my best friend [Jene S. (10)] is Japanese, and I’ve sure learned a lot more about Japan from him than from anywhere else.”

I’ve had my share of cultural learning experiences and confusion as well. Having been raised by two Taiwanese parents, I used to think you had to take off your shoes before going into the house, or that rice was the constant in every single one of your meals. It was crazy to me when I learned other kids and friends didn’t all live this way.

As a Taiwanese American, I was confused with the contrasting Taiwanese and American teachings pitched at me. I saw differences in importance of academic success or morals in school and at home. I had friends who were satisfied with a C or B on a test, while I knew that if I had gotten the same grade it would mean a lot more than just a scolding when I got home. Watching American television while living in a Taiwanese household also reflected the difference in values. I saw a trend in Americans valuing friendship in family relationships. For me, respect has always been the most important value in the family.

I’ve taken in a mix of these different teachings, and I can’t say that I am completely Taiwanese or completely American, but the cross cultural experience between the two has molded me into the Taiwanese American I am today.

– Jocelyn C.