Tuesday, 30 March 2010

In-Laws-Relationships – Difficult To Begin With, Challenging If Cross-cultural…

Dating a person from another culture is always an adventure, your differences make it more exciting, but sometimes also more complicated.

Start with the concept of “dating” itself: In most European countries, there is no such thing as an American “date”, where a boy and a girl go out together for one night to do an activity (most often dinner and/or a movie, but also dancing, bowling, etc). The idea behind this being a) test-driving how compatible you are while b) having a defined end to the activity, so that if you don’t like the person, you can get rid of them after 2h without either of you losing face. In Europe, you would not sign up to go out alone with a person you don’t even know. You would either have known them from group activities, friends parties or met them by coincidence (e.g. in a bar) and then decide to spend the evening with them. Thus you already know that you like them and this activity alone together without the buffer of friends already marks the first step towards becoming a couple. There is no such thing as a European girl/boy having multiple dates with multiple people in one week, some of which they know in advance they might not like, but want to test. With the American date comes a set of cultural rules, that are not entirely strict, but apply in the majority of cases: A) The guy asks the girl B) Since he asked, the guy pays for the activity C) Often the guy picks up and drops off the girl (especially, if she still lives at her parent’s house and they want to have a good look at him). D) If you liked the date, you don’t immediately ask for another, but you have to wait a day or three and them make contact again. E) One or two dates with one person does not mean that you are exclusive and it is totally acceptable to go on a date with somebody else in between. At some point – and I myself am not entirely sure when/how that happens most often – the whole “date” procedure is dropped in favor of being exclusive and a couple. But I digress…

What I really wanted to write about is: When you have overcome the differences in dating, you declared yourself “together” and things are getting serious, you are often faced with the prospect of meeting the in-laws. If you are in the same country, this could be sooner, if you are far apart this could be maybe not until wedding plans are made.
I was still in the “this is just part of the foreign experience” mode when my new American boyfriend took me to his parent’s house for the first time, about 2h away from the university town. It was Thanksgiving, a holiday we didn’t celebrate in Germany, so I was eager to go and experience it. On the way there in the car I asked him whether anybody else had ever brought a girl to the Thanksgiving dinner and he assured me that many of his cousins had. “So what happened to them?”, I asked. “Oh, they are all married now!” That freaked me out quite a bit! Parental expectations are hard enough to deal with, but when you have a culture and/or language barrier in addition, you start walking on eggshells. I think this first Thanksgiving encounter went quite well, but I am also sure that I did or said odd things in the eyes of the American family… I’m not sure how often I offended my American (future) mother-in-law unintentionally with my German directness or simple cultural mishaps in those first months (and possibly still today), but I’m sure know it was often. (And my poor boyfriend/husband was stuck in the middle trying to negotiate misunderstandings, realizing where both sides were coming from, but not necessarily knowing how to resolve things.)

When he came to visit me in Germany for the first time – about a year later for Christmas, since I by then had returned to finish my exams - he was exhausted from his first semester of Graduate school and out of whack with his sleeping patterns due to his first jet-lag. I remember sitting at the breakfast table my family waiting for him to show up… - Punctuality is a very big deal for Germans! - We had waited for a while already, so I went to check on him again and he had fallen back asleep! I was embarrassed in front of my parents and I knew they were wondering what kind of listless slacker I had brought home!? (Thankfully that impression changed at some point and – despite him not speaking any German in the beginning - they somehow found a common ground.)

Mothers-in-law are generally a touchy relationship, but when an American friend of mine got married in Germany, she got a good dose of MIL plus German frankness. All Americans believe that a woman is most beautiful on her wedding day (just a Italians find a woman with a baby on her hip most perfect), so when my friend put on her wedding dress and her American mother and friends were oohing and ahhing over it, she turned to her MIL and asked her opinion… and the woman shot back with German honesty: “I don’t think the cut is the best for you and I would take off that bow in the back.” Stunned silence followed from the American side.
A father of a friend, who is Norwegian, always told the story of his first Kaffeetrinken with his future German in-laws. While the Germans tend to say “Thank you” as in “NO thank you”, the Norwegians say “Thank you” as in “YES, thank you”. So after his first cup of coffee and piece of cake, he was offered more several times, kept saying “Thank you” and then didn’t receive anything. But since he wanted to make a good impression, he kept quiet (and hungry and thirsty).

As a general rule, I would say, in-laws become even scarier when they speak another language or come from a different culture! Especially since sons- and daughters-in-law can be scrutinized for faux-pas’ that aren’t even existing in their respective culture - just think of greetings, table manners or dress code … and never mind wedding ceremonies or child-rearing later on!

Do you have a culture clash with your in-laws to add?

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Intercultural Relationships – The Lure of the Unknown

If you are raising bilingual children, chances are you are either in an intercultural marriage or living in a foreign country or even both. So before children usually comes courtship, so my next round of blogs will be about intercultural relationships.

So imagine you are a young man or woman about to embark on an adventure in a foreign country – new language, new environment, new customs, new people… new love?

While being at university, I have seen hoards of fellow students go on a “study abroad” program, spend a semester or a year in a foreign country and in addition to improving their language and experiencing something new, they also fell in love. Most become enchanted by the new way of living and the new language – and what better way to experience this different life to the fullest than embracing somebody that embodies all that is new and exciting… After all, the best way to learn a new language is “to sleep with your dictionary”.

Many people that go to live in a foreign country (be it as a student, in the military or on a business assignment) feel lonely at some point – and nothing soothes a lonely heart better love! A new relationship is a great solution, when you are single, however causes problems if you have left a partner at home. At least among the student population not many relationships survived one partner’s stint in a foreign country. (This is not to say that it is impossible to survive a longer separation, but you need to work on it: Not only will you have to keep your partner up to date with new experiences the s/he can’t share, but they have to be secure enough not to succumb to jealousy – be it for the new experiences themselves or towards the people that you now spend a lot of time with).
The lure of the new combined with an exotic setting, is hard to resist. At the same time this spell often quickly gets shattered when you return home. You are faced with the choice of a long-distance relationship or frequent visits in the short term and one of you moving in the long run. Since your feelings have often been intermingled with the experience of the other country and culture, importing your new partner in your old environment is often a sobering experience. Your partner, now a foreigner him/herself, is pushed out of their comfort zone and appears clumsy all of a sudden, where there was self-confidence before. Trying to keep a romance alive that depended on the thrill of the unusual while living back in the ordinary is hard! My friend S. added a second year to her stay in order to extend her romance (but in the end to no avail). Another friend had a fling abroad, but returned to her old boyfriend once at home again.

I was well aware of this very likely outcome of foreign romances when I embarked on my exchange year. At the same time, I was young and single and wanted to experience life to the fullest. So it happened to me – I fell in love … but I wasn’t going to make that obvious mistake! So when another girl showed interest in the boy I started flirting with, I told her, she could have him back after my year in the US was up. I was just wanting a fling. Little did I know I would end up marrying that fling…

Monday, 1 March 2010

Raising Bilingual Children - Links and Blogs

As we all know, the internet is a big maze and if there is a topic dear to your heart, most likely somebody else has written about it already. Same is true for blogs about raising bilingual children. I have put together a short overview of sites I found helpful and informative, most of them have even more links for you to follow and spend endless hours reading and stepping further into the net…

First of all, a good collection of bilingual family blogs can be found on the homepage of the Bilingual/ Bicultural Family Network. They also have a link to the Multilingual Family Magazine, daily bilingual tips, and a resource page with playgroups, publications, organizations as well as general support links and a monthly newsletter.

For a good overview with links to articles and blogs, UK based, click here.

A review of English books about raising bilingual children can be found in this blog.

There is also a publication called the bilingual family newsletter, to which you can subscribe with PayPal.

If you want to read a blog about the academic side and current research about Bilingualism, try this blog by a group of US researchers or Claudia Rinaldi’s site.

Finally, there is a You Tube channel devoted to raising bilingual children with lots of videos.

Enjoy your browsing!