American society is awash in delusional starry-eye multi-cultural romanticism. We think our problems would be solved if only people from all languages and cultures would come together, hold hands, and sing “Kumbaya.”

There are at least two problems with that idea:

  1. People from most other cultures have no interest in holding your hand.
  2. People from most other cultures have never even heard of “Kumbaya.”

Let me begin by saying: I’m very much up to my neck in cross-cultural bilingual situations daily – at home, work, and church – and I love it and absolutely wouldn’t have it any other way.

But it’s not a bed of roses. Some days are discouraging. Some situations are downright dangerous. Along the way, I’ve discovered a few things, especially about family life.

Here are some tips for surviving a cross-cultural marriage:

10. Keep It Simple

You and your other-culture spouse think differently about everything: from diapers to dental appointments. Living in sync with someone who conceptually views things different from yourself can get complicated quickly – especially when kids are involved.

There’s only one way to deal with this: Keep everything as simple as you can. The less simple things are, the more likely the relationship is going to start breaking down. To quote Scotty from Star Trek, “The more they overthink the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain.”

9. Keep Stress Low

Cross-cultural marriages are inherently stressful. Adding more to those stressors can make both of you more likely to drive each other away. The Cultural Intelligence Center Blog has an article called, “How Stress Can Lower Your Cultural Intelligence.”

Understanding and dealing appropriately with cross-cultural problems is time-consuming. If you don’t factor that into your schedule, you’ll easily find yourselves just glossing over big problems that will do much harm in the future. You’ll save hours and waste years.

If you and your spouse are living in an organized, over-achieving culture, you’ll likely face pressure to “stop being lazy” and over-commit. Don’t do it. Cross-cultural marriage is itself a borderline over-commitment, and those who haven’t done it likely won’t understand that.

Bottom line? Relax. Chill.

This can be especially difficult for an American who is used to crazy levels of over-scheduling. Focus on doing just a few simple basic necessities well. As communication, confidence, and overall trust and stability progress, you can cautiously add more when the whole family is ready. Until then, avoid over-commitment and over-scheduling like the plague.

In our family, that means getting out as much as we can. We take lots of small road trips together whenever we get the chance. Especially for my wife, getting away from the house is like hitting the “Reset” button on her stress level.

8. Err on the Side of Trust

Since cross-cultural motives are fiendishly difficult to evaluate, always assume the best about your spouse, even knowing that you’re going to be wrong sometimes. Your relationship will be much more durable if you sometimes mistake bad motives for good motives, rather than the other way around.

Part of living this out is to never give up on self-revelation. If something is hurting you, you need to trust your spouse enough to say something. When the message doesn’t get across, don’t assume your spouse just doesn’t care. Keep trying.

Remember that things that hurt people in your home culture may be meaningless to people in your spouse’s home culture. Your hurt may at first seem odd to him/her. But remember: In the long-run, your spouse needs to know. Wisely and patiently look for opportunities to explain more completely.

7. Keep a Healthy Distance from Fiercely Monocultural People

By “fiercely monocultural people,” I’m referring to those toxically judgmental people who insist that old ways are the right ways, and everything else is wrong. Period. End of discussion.

Of course, by “old ways,” they’re referring to their own culture’s “old ways.” Your culture’s “old ways” are, of course, shockingly worthless at best.

I had one such classmate during my first semester of Chinese class. She was an older German woman who had accompanied her engineer husband to a Chinese car factory. She was a perpetually angry, exasperated person who spewed out non-stop complaints of everyone doing it “wrong.” I remember one class where she angrily chewed out our 20-something teacher for a solid fifteen minutes, barely even taking a breath.

Such an attitude makes cross-cultural relationships impossible. The moment you start becoming judgmental instead of curious, you are no longer in a position to learn why people do what they do. Defenses go up, and communication breaks down.

Like a disease, this kind of attitude is highly contagious, and can pull down an entire class of international students. You definitely don’t want that happening to your family. Keep them away.

6. Kill Expectations Before They Kill Your Family

I’ve seen a number of articles floating around Facebook arguing that the #1 cause of divorce is not money or infidelity or abuse, but rather unmet expectations.

Expectations are perhaps the greatest difference between cultures. It’s certainly been the biggest obstacle to language learning I’ve encountered. People say stuff to me, and since I don’t know what to expect them to be saying, it’s incredibly difficult to make sense of anything, even when I know all the words.

These expectations don’t only manage how quickly we process language, but how well we can process relationships. What is a “good husband” supposed to do? What is a “good wife” supposed to do? What is a “good parent” supposed to do?

You and your spouse will no doubt answer these questions differently, and shape much of the friction between you. You must be prepared to let go of some of your ideas and adjust to your spouse’s expectations.

Non-flexible cross-cultural relationships shatter easily. Love your spouse for who he/she actually is, and kill those expectations before they kill your family.

Part 2

Photo by 韩爱 in Changchun, China, 2010