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Friday, October 31, 2014

Cross-Cultural Relationships, Literature and Love

A core belief of modern men and women at least in the West is that marriages/partnerships are based on romantic love.  When two people wish to get together is is assumed - nay, it is required - that they have some sort of emotional attachment.  Any hint that there are more practical considerations behind that decision is met with revulsion.  To marry for money, for example, or to unite fortunes and families or for political purposes - all things that in the past would have been perfectly legitimate reasons for two (or more) people to get together - are now anathema.  This extends so far as to pose an interesting problem in the realm of immigration/emigration.

To marry in order to get legal residency for a partner is a very common occurrence and yet this provokes very ambivalent reactions on the part of the native citizenry who mutter about les mariages blancs and insist that their government do something about it toute de suite.  The "something" (I can assure you) is generally quite a comedy with government agents asking questions like whether or not the marriage is consummated, and filming the couple with an eye toward examining them closely for hints of that Western ideal of pure love untainted by the crassness of economic interest.  It's an impossible task because there is no sure way to determine a man or woman's internal emotional state and whether or not he (or she) is truly in love with him (or her).  But they try and the voting citizenry of the democratic nation-state everywhere should give them a break.

With so many people on the move today there are many more opportunities for them to find their love interest outside of their own culture/country.  Even within one culture/country people cross internal boundaries of religion, class, and culture in ways that would have been unheard of in our grandparent's day.  This, I believe, causes an enormous amount of angst because people are torn between two conflicting ideas:  1.   That people in love should be together and that every man and woman has the right to choose his or partner (it's not any one's business, right?) and 2. an older idea that says that a society, a family, a culture cannot be entirely neutral about love, marriage and the raising of children because those individual choices impact everyone in some way.  I think that the latter idea was first proposed to me in my youth in an Orson Scott Card novel and I found it shocking at the time.   And yet, I believe he was correct;  There has never been and never will be a human world where a community is completely disinterested in how people partner.

And for the people who practice a kind of extreme exogamy there is a searching for a framework within which to understand and a guide to such relationships from courtship to some sort of legal partnership to the common project of raising offspring.  To say that the fundamental basis of any such relationship (for it to be considered legitimate in North America and Europe) is love is simply not helpful. I'm not even sure that it works anymore for relationships within a class or culture because those rules have changed and are still changing and God knows people struggle mightily to cope with that alone without the added stresses that come from crossing borders, cultures, language groups, religions and so on.

Where does someone in a cross-cultural marriage go to find this framework or even perspective?  I suggest starting with Dr. Lucy William's book Global Marriage: Cross-Border Marriage Migration in Global Context. This is the big picture and I for one wish the book had been written many years ago because it would have saved me from starting my thinking about this with the autobiographies of men and women in cross-cultural relationships, an exercise that I found to be very frustrating.  These are not necessarily bad books but they are limited because each case presents itself as something rather exotic and different and special and never stretches to connect to other cross-cultural relationships and marriages.

Also, however revealing these books are about the interior life of an individual, they are seldom very honest for reasons that are entirely understandable.  Talking about one's marriage at all is something few of us wish to do in public.  There is even more reticence, I think, when the author is someone who is still married and living in the spouse's country.  To create a portrait of that marriage, its ups and downs, successes and failures, the great love and promises versus the cruelty and pain inflicted over the years is more than any of us have the right to ask of an individual and certainly we cannot reasonably demand it from an "expat" writer,

And the cult of love as the basis of all relationships?  Well, that's another impediment to writing this sort of book.  What "marriage migrant" would wish to admit in print and in defiance of the cult of love mentioned above, that they did get married to get that residency permit.  What woman living what her compatriots in her home country consider to be the apex of romance, who has thrown up everything to join a spouse in a foreign land, would care to open up to the larger world and tell the complicated story of that marriage of which love and romance are simply two elements and not even the most important ones.

So there are studies and the big picture and there are autobiographies, but recently I discovered another source that I've found very helpful in thinking about my cross-cultural marriage and about all such marriages.  It's a realm where people can ask questions, explore the contradictions, work out the issues, and tell the truth as they see it.  This is the world of fiction - literature that allows an author to speak to these things and a reader to learn and think about them but where both have distance.  This is not my life or your life - these are "simply" characters in a story.  And yet we work toward our own truths and conclusions, find frameworks and guides, and arrive at our own understanding though these stories.

Some of the fiction written by expatriates/migrates speaks of these things in an explicit way.  I recently picked up Passion Fruit by Sandra Cruza on the advice of a Flophouse reader and I both enjoyed it and was disturbed by it.  This is the slow disintegration of a marriage in a foreign land and anyone I think who has lived in expat communities outside of his/her home country will recognize the fault lines that appear in the marriage when it is exported to a distant shore, the problems and issues, the temptations and so.  I have never lived in Brazil where this story is set,  and yet I recognized so much from my experiences in Asia.  And you can see the cult of love in the latter part of the story and how it is used to justify, not the beginning of the relationship, but as the means for ending one.

That is an example of fiction that talks about cross-border/cross-cultural relationships in a fairly direct fashion - I have heard this referred to as "expat fiction."  But very recently I realized that there is a genre (perhaps two) that I have read for years that tackle cross-cultural relationships in an indirect but very powerful way (I just never had the insight to recognize it):  science fiction/fantasy.  In them there is even more distance as we are asked to contemplate relationships with the extreme Other - something so foreign and strange that we can easily (if we wish) dismiss the entire business as "bon bons for the mind", "fun reads" or "trash" - certainly not serious literature.  (And here I know that the sci-fi fans are raising their hackles but let's just all admit that the genre has struggled for respectability and is still not always taken terribly seriously.)

In the sci-fi/fantasy world best example I can think of is C.J. Cherryh's Foreigner series.  She is a gifted writer and these books can be read on many levels:  politics, a treatise on technological progress, a commentary on colonialism, an extraordinary example of world-building and so on.  But in it is a thread which we all recognize as the love story/interest and it is between the main character Bren Cameron, a diplomat to a non-human civilization called the Atevi, and one of his security guards, Jago.  He is human, she is not.  As competent as he may be as a translator  and even as he integrates more and more into Atevi civilization, he is unsure about the relationship and how it could work between two individuals who don't even the same biological wiring.  The Atevi, he says, don't even have a word for "love" - the closest term he can find in his own language is "association" and yet the two do build a relationship over the course of the many many books in this series.  So here is Mr. Cameron starting from something that we (the North American/European reader) recognize and identify with - the cult of love - in a relationship with a partner who not only does not share it but never ever will.  Her feelings do not and can not map to his.

And is there not in this love story something that all of us in cross-cultural relationships will recognize?  That every once in awhile (or perhaps often) we feel the chasm that exists between us and our partner - that we are not coming from the same place, that our feelings and theirs do not necessarily map directly, that we must build a common project out of two worldviews that are not always compatible and that something must give if the association is to continue.  Even between a North American and a European who broadly share this ideal of a relationship based on romantic love, they might find that their respective cultural interpretations of that might be different enough to cause great dissatisfaction, if not moments of actual fear and loathing. And all of this, mind you, on top of the fact that we are all individuals with different personalities and characters and we are frequently at odds with the close Other within the same culture, with the same cultural references, prejudices, upbringing and education.

Bren and Jago's relationship in this work of science fiction, I have belatedly realized, has been one way that I have worked through some of the questions and feelings about my own cross-cultural relationship. I'm not saying there are concrete answers here or anywhere but like all good fiction, it seduces us by approaching such intimate, delicate, emotional and controversial subjects indirectly, and works its magic in such a way that we are changed by it.

"Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth." (Albert Camus)

Next post will be from Osaka, Japan.


Ellen Lebelle said...

I just can't keep up with your reading list. It's all so interesting, but I'm being lazy and satisfying myself with reading your take.
How was the trip to Montreal?

Anonymous said...

Nice and interesting take.

Donna said...

Victoria, thank you for another excellent, thought-provoking post. I shall add Ms. Cherryh's books to my list!
What has struck me during the last 21 years in our multi-cultural marriage is that it's actually a threesome, with the native country as an antagonist: in the UK, it was me against my husband and his country; now in the US, my husband has felt the sting and it has been him against me and the US. Whoever holds the native land's instruction book is the "winner"; and yes, the moments of misunderstanding, fear and loathing, though rare, can still come without warning.
That is why I'm interested in what will happen when a couple moves to a third, "neutral" country. Will the threesome be the couple bonding against the new country? Will there be some complex projections happening, where I imagine the country's on my side, and he imagines that it's on his side, and thus the same me vs. them mentality comes up again? I sincerely hope not--but when we go back to Europe in January, it will be an experience to watch all the same.
Happy landings in Osaka!

Unknown said...

@anonymous coward:
I wish you happiness in your loneliness.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Ellen, Read Passion Fruit as I would love to get your take on it. Montreal was great - not too cold. I got a tour of UdeM from my daughter. On the plane over I met a lovely woman, a professor at UdeM and we merrily chatted for several hours. Trip back was fine but the jet-lag was horrible. And I leave tomorrow for Osaka where the jet-lag will be twice as awful.

@Andrew, Merci!

@Donna, Oh yeah! I call this the "home court advantage". :-) We did the Third Place (japan) 7 years ago and it was, well, interesting. And here we are about to do it again. I meet a fair number of couples in Paris (Brits, Americans, Canadians and the like) and I haven't seen what I think I saw (and lived) in Asia. What was/is the difference? Anyone have any insight into this?