Monday, 19 April 2010

Your intercultural future is starting right now – moving-in together and/or getting engaged!

So you have found a partner from a different culture that you love and want to be with, you have figured out which country you will both live in to make the relationship work, you have met each others' friends and possibly family and now you are ready for the next step…
In most of Europe this next step would mean moving-in together, in the US it would more likely mean getting engaged. Even though we were in the US at the time, we choose to first share an apartment to try out compatibility after a year and a half of long-distance relationship. Our families viewed this step very differently. My mother-in-law was hoping we would get married before we moved-in together and my own mother was hoping we would try living together before we got married.

Living together brings out a whole new set of cultural differences. Even for couples from the same culture, moving together comes with many adjustments because you come from families with different routines and traditions. Most of our disagreements (e.g. which direction to peel carrots or how to fold underwear) weren’t necessarily rooted in our cultural differences. The fact that we were both hard working graduate students with little money was a bigger unifier than our cultures were a divider. Plus: I had slowly adopted quite a few American habits. (How many really, I am only realizing right now, that I am back in Europe!). Two areas of cultural disagreement emerged quickly however: food and holidays – both of which will require an entire blog (which will follow this one over the next couple of weeks).

After living together for about 2 years, it became clear that we wanted to stay together and get married. With this decision, a whole different level of cultural challenges appeared.
First of all, while becoming engaged is the traditional start of the American road to a wedding, most Germans of my generation do not get engaged anymore and if they do, they don’t make a big deal out of it. When we got engaged, we decided to have a picture taken by a friend and send out announcements to friends and family near and far. (Little did we know that the generation of my parents in Germany would see this announcement as a request to give a present - how embarrassing! and a nice example of cross-cultural misunderstanding)
You have to know that getting engaged in America is the starting signal of a (at least one) year long preparation for the big day. Girls are indoctrinated from early on that the wedding day will be the culmination of their life, when they will be the most beautiful and everything has to be perfect. This image not only causes a bride lots of stress (some of it positive, some negative), but requires a lot of money, time and effort. In order to know what you want on your wedding day, you are expected to read bridal magazines, go to bridal shows and decide even the smallest detail in order to create the perfect day. (I guess a lot of Germans put the same effort into the first house that they build, while most American’s just buy one to start off with).

It doesn’t matter whether you are twice divorced or just out of high-school. The announcement of an engagement is bound to produce screams of joy where ever you go followed by the immediate showing-off of your ring finger! I have to admit that I had become “Americanized” enough by the time to look forward to and expect an engagement ring. However I did not want the customary big honking diamond that sticks out like a crown in your finger – too expensive and to impractical! I imagined getting caught on things, scratching along surfaces and really didn’t want such a knuckle-duster. I had made sure that B. knew about my preferences and we had been pseudo ring-shopping a bit, where I pointed out nice flat rings with sapphires in them.
When he proposed, he had picked the ring I wanted: flat with three oval sapphires and two small diamonds! Since it was just before Christmas and I was flying home, I was able to show the ring to friends and relatives in Germany. Everybody was very impressed that I got a piece of jewelry for my engagement and admired the ring. Quite the opposite happened when I returned to the US. The ring was so contrary to American expectations (= one big diamond), that my showing of the ring was often met with an unsure look and quick glance to my face - as in: “Is she really happy with this ring? Should I congratulate or pity her?” You have to realize that the established American cultural expectation for a wedding ring is a stone worth “two or three months salary” of the man and anything less means he doesn’t really love you that much. (This message is nurtured by jewelery store adds, especially around Valentine’s day). So the bigger the stone, the greater the love – theoretically. So just imagine my ring in their expectant eyes… It didn’t help my case that at the same time another girl in my department also got engaged – with a traditional American big rock ring. So, often, when I told people that I got engaged, they said “Oww - show me the ring!?” and not only did just my little sapphires come out, but from the back came an “I got engaged, too” scream and the hand with the honking diamond was shoved over mine. It sure made it difficult for people to say something positive about my unusual ring in the face of cultural perfection.