The Beauty, Bumps and Boons of the Intercultural Relationship
It’s a classic situation: the person you love like crazy can also drive you crazy. Intercultural relationships seem to swing both ways on the pendulum, since being raised differently can be a source of spice as well as a source of misunderstanding.
Interested in hearing real experiences from intercultural relationships, I interviewed five couples who spoke candidly about their personal experiences.
A challenge nearly every couple faced was a factor external to the couple: family.
While the family structure here – the relaxed and fun-loving nature of families, the parties attended by all generations, the dependable support – makes the family presence a warm and exhilarating element of the foreigners’ lives with their Costa Rican partners, the omnipresence of family is also a factor to which nearly everybody has had to learn to adjust. Family also plays a role in the couple’s stress in choosing which family to live close to.
Each couple shared with me a cornucopia of delights and aggravations, of which a limited selection is presented here.
Sergio Díaz | Lauren Krieg
From: San José, Costa Rica | Illinois, United
Ages: 31 | 30
Professions: Customer service, Sykes technical call center | Schoolteacher
Years together: Eight, married for three
How they met: Through mutual friends, out on the town
I’ve heard the highs and lows people experience, equal in intensity. Lauren and Sergio’s passion for each other is such that it transmits through the phone line. But a heartbreaking decision is looming over them: when to move to the United States.
Lauren loves how fun and funny and easygoing Sergio is.
“Latinos have passion,” she says. “Sergio is so alive; he makes me laugh so hard, and he’s very passionate about his views.”
She loves how big and how close his family is, how much fun they all have together.
Sergio spoke of how she’s changed his world, of how grateful he is for the new ideas she has exposed him to: about the environment, about animals, about gay people.
“It’s been a huge change for me, how I used to think and how I think now,” he says.
“A big thing is accepting gay people. I used to think they were bad, because of my ignorance and religion. They grossed me out.
Lauren told me that I felt that way because I’d never met any gay people.”
She introduced him to gay friends, and he said he “realized they’re normal people.” Since his sister announced she was a lesbian, it’s a particularly big deal.
“Lauren’s helped us all deal with that,” Sergio said.
Nevertheless, the idea to move to the United States is holding steady.
“It’s really hard,” Lauren said. “My husband is so close to his family and is used to being with them every day. We’ve talked about it, and when Justin (our eight-month old son) is old enough to go to school, we’d like him to go in the United States. I think it’s a better place to raise a child. Sergio now says ‘when’ we move to the States. But I don’t know if that’s five years or 10. I miss my family a lot.”
Sergio is also concerned about quality of life, from a different angle.
“It’s more difficult to find work in the United States for a Latino. And visas for my parents and family to visit us and Justin are difficult. Lauren’s family has more economic accessibility to come here. So it’s a conflict. A challenge for me is to live in another country and achieve success.”
He works at Sykes’ technical call center, and is happy with his job.His worry: “I don’t want to work over there at a restaurant.”
Luis Díaz | Colin Brownlee
From: San José, Costa Rica | British Columbia, Canada
Ages: 33 | 44
Professions: Schoolteacher | Graphic designer, now B-and-B proprietor
Years together: Four
How they met: At a gym, when Luis was visiting friends in Vancouver
Colin and Luis are a gay couple having a grand old time on the Caribbean coast. Luis says he gets a charge out of Colin’s “nasty jokes,” and likes his sense of responsibility, honesty, sincerity, politeness and desire to “do things very well.” Colin grooves on Luis’ romanticism, his compassion for friends and family. He says he also likes that Luis is devoid of the North American-style career money focus and materialism.
A year ago, the couple began working on a bed-and-breakfast catering to gay travelers in Playa Negra, north of Puerto Viejo, on the southern Caribbean coast. Colin, the initiator of the project, said, “One of the things that drove me nuts, and still does, is that (Ticos) are so narrow-focused… they can’t think big or dream big, so when I said ‘Let’s build a b-and-b on the Caribbean,’ he couldn’t see it. He’s never had the opportunity to think like that, so it’s hard to get him on board.”
Luis, in a separate conversation, also pointed to a difference in mindset.
“It’s tricky at times to deal with him coming from the First World, with Costa Rica in the Third World,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t think like he does. But I’ve lived in Canada, and so I’m seeing things differently.”
Differences in mindset can provide some pretty good laughs and new experiences. But they can break people apart, too.
“There were a couple points in our relationship when I thought I wouldn’t be able to get past the cultural and age differences,” Colin said.
Adventure, new experiences and travel are passions for him, he said. Planning a trip, by bus, to a backpacker hostel on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, he found Luis resistant.
“He didn’t want to go,” Colin recalled. “I was really concerned because this is the kind of thing I live for, and I thought if he can’t compromise on it, it’s going to be a problem.” The day of the trip, Luis agreed to come.
And they both had a great time. Colin asked Luis what the issue was, and Luis explained that he didn’t want to travel like “low-class” or “poor people.” Luis had only to look out his window to see poor people. His idea of a vacation was Miami, Colin said.
The experience was mind-expanding for both of them, and drew them closer together.
Mónica Muñoz | Jerry Myers
From: Alajuela, Costa Rica | Illinois, United States
Ages: 33 | 65
Professions: Licensing agent, Gallery Network |Real estate agent
Years together: Six, married for four
How they met: Jerry was a guest at a hotel where Mónica arrived to apply for a job (it’s a long story, but basically they liked each other)
Mónica and Jerry have one of the most stereotypically judged intercultural relationships – she was 27 when she met Jerry, then 59.
“Most of the time when a young woman marries an old man, people think she’s doing it for the money,” Mónica said.
“I like older men,” she explained. “Older men are experienced; they’ve had a lot of fun in the past, so they start to think, ‘I want to stay now with somebody for the rest of my life.’ Plus, they have their life set up, so they have time to spend time with their woman and spoil her.”
With Ticos closer to her age, she said, the spoiling stops after marriage.
“With Ticos, you are the princess, but when you get married the whole thing changes: ‘You are going to have my children.
I’m working, so you should make my dinner, wash my clothes.’ The women get submissive and the men get possessive,” she said.
Her experience is also that Tico men stifle women’s sexuality.
“Tico men don’t see their women in the home being the porn star they watch on TV,” she said. “Ticos think the woman at home is pretty, sweet, the mother of their children…”
The most frank and agonizing judgment she had to face was from Jerry’s grown-up daughters at a dinner when Jerry broke the news they were engaged.
“I’ve never felt so bad,” she said. “The older (daughter, 40) said, ‘Are you crazy? Do you know what you’re saying?’ They were crying, they were so mad…”
Mónica felt caught between her love for Jerry and his life with his daughters.
“They wanted to protect me from making a mistake,” Jerry explained. “And one daughter wanted to protect herself if I die.”
The next morning the daughters apologized, accepting the idea that Jerry and Mónica would marry and continue to live in Costa Rica. But some tension remains.
Mónica’s family, fortunately, is fine with the whole thing, including the age difference.
“My wife is such a treat. I’m so lucky,” Jerry said. “Ticas are refreshing compared to girls from the United States, who seem to have lots of baggage. Ticas are more open, more free.”
For Jerry, one of the manifestations of the pura vida attitude here is a basic openness toward other people.
“It makes it really nice for a Gringo down here,” he said.
Kevin Casas | Simone Bunse
From: Heredia, Costa Rica | Northrhein-Westfalia, Germany
Ages: 37 | 32
Professions: Second Vice-President of Costa Rica, Minister of Planning | Faculty member at the Central American Institute of Business Administration (INCAE)
Years together: Married in July 2003
How they met: Working on their doctorates in politics at Oxford University in England
It is a privilege to have communicated with Simone and Kevin, who, as public figures, are likely to be protective of their personal lives. Commenting through e-mail, they discussed the boons and challenges of an intercultural relationship.
“Being married to someone from a different country is a lot of fun and a never-ending learning experience,” Simone said. “You learn about each other’s family traditions, the countries’ histories, music, films and art.”
In July 2003, they had a church wedding in Oxford, with friends and family coming from 17 countries, the ceremony conducted in three languages. They settled in Costa Rica that same year.
For Kevin, life with Simone in Costa Rica affords a new way of looking at his own culture.
“It’s very interesting for me to get to know my own country through the eyes of a foreigner,” he wrote.
Simone considered the challenge of where to live: “If you live in either your own or your partner’s country, you at least have a support network of family and friends around you and are not starting completely from scratch.
However, in this scenario one of the two has to be the more flexible one.”
For Simone, “…the biggest challenges are not ‘cultural differences’ in the relationship, but finding my way around in a new country, building my own friendships and career, and learning about the cultural differences.
Being from a big European country, moving to Costa Rica meant adjusting to factors as diverse as the small size of the country (i.e., everybody knows everybody); no long summer nights (darkness by 6 p.m. every night); women generally having kids a lot earlier than in Europe; life centering much more around the family than on friends; a different concept of punctuality; chaotic traffic and no sidewalks.”
Asked whether cultural differences hold steady through years together or diminish, she said, “If you mean… personality traits that may have to do with cultural upbringing or family traditions, I do not think they change, not even in a well-functioning relationship.
You simply accept each other as you are and try to build bridges between different approaches, traditions, ways of thinking.”
Rogelio and Su Pardo From: Ciudad Limón, Mexico City | Indiana, United States
Ages: 66 | 65
Professions: Medical doctor, internist | Active member in Women’s Club of Costa Rica (president in 1975, board member until 2004)
Years together: Married 43 years
How they met: Su was on a summer study program in Mexico City, and met Rogelio, who was studying medicine, at a party
Su and Rogelio Pardo have been married for FORTY-THREE years. For them, some intercultural differences have disappeared over the years, and some remain.
Twenty-four years ago, they were interviewed by The Tico Times for an article exploring intercultural relationships (TT, July 4, 1982). At that time, Su mentioned dealing with the transition between different lifestyles and her friends and family in the United States. Since then, the world around her has changed, affecting her experience.
“Now,” she said, “my parents have passed on. I have a brother in the United States, but it’s not the same emphasis as back then. As for the material things, you can get anything you want. I don’t have to bring back peanut butter and turkey anymore.”
Rogelio added that Costa Rica has changed, with roads to all corners of the country, increased communication with the world and supermarkets everywhere.
“Now Su lives a life very similar to the lifestyle in the United States,” he said. And some things don’t change.
“Sometimes it’s hard to get Ticos to arrive on time. Seven p.m. is 7 p.m., not 8 p.m. or later. You have to have lots of patience – that hasn’t changed,” Su said.
Rogelio, an internist, mentioned the same issue in a separate conversation, with that uncanny synchronicity that seasoned couples have.
“This wife of mine is very punctual, and I am not, and that creates problems,” he said.
“In that, I have won. She adjusted to me. With Americans, 7 p.m. is 7 p.m.” “Her identity and her background remains with the United States,” he added. “It’s a strong point in her favor. I never pushed for her to become a typical Costa Rican.”
Rogelio offered this advice for facing cultural challenges: “The most important factor is that the couple love each other. Then they can adjust much easier. The relationship has to be nourished.”
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