MANAGING DIFFERENCES IN A CROSS CULTURAL MARRIAGE
Source: Islamic Herald, Volume 34, No.3, 2017 pp17-2 . A publication by PERKIM Malaysia
“Understand the differences; act on the commonalities.”
Marriage is an undertaking by two individuals who have come together, fall in love and decide what they want from the bonded relationship “until death do us part”.
To enjoy the ride they have to do a lot of preparation which may include finding out about the other party’s likes, dislikes, values, beliefs and expectations, so that both will enjoy the journey together.
Often marriage is not only a physical and emotional undertaking but a total commitment involving mental, spiritual and psychological dimensions to last a life time. Both parties involved have to agree that they are able to obtain peace, happiness and tranquility in the process. Of course, like most life journeys, they can end when either party decides to cut short the ride and go their separate ways.
In many ways, marriage is a living arrangement with numerous trials, tribulations and expectations, often unknown to both parties at the beginning of the journey. Indeed, it is a voyage of discovery and at every turn of events there are decisions to be made; some simple and others traumatic. But at every decision point both parties are tested for their trust and commitment to each other, as their partnership has to be measured in terms of longevity (how many years did you stay together), durability (how did you remain loyal to one another) and sustainability (how did you keep the relationship together).
Azlan (my husband’s Muslim name) and I embarked on our matrimonial journey in October 1981. He is Caucasian and British who migrated to New Zealand (NZ) and later to Australia, and I am a Malay Muslim who studied abroad in Australia, USA and worked in a multinational American company.
We have been together for the last 36 years and gone through many challenges – both positive and negative. The fact that we have remained together is probably due to our understanding and appreciation that in a partnership there are differences to be managed, decisions to be taken and conflicts to be resolved.
Most important, we are honest with each other and open in discussing the things that unite us and those that separate us. Being together means not to impose our values on the other, and not to expect the other to always follow.
So, what helps and hinders in a cross cultural relationship?
This essay attempts to explore what has kept us together and share some key learnings with those who are about to go on a similar journey.
We met in Kuala Lumpur at a course Azlan was conducting for a local based organization. I had just returned from my graduate studies in the US and started work. He had just started to provide training and consulting services to organizations and was looking for a local associate and I filled in the gap. We worked together on a number of consulting projects and shared a lot of common interests due to work, studies, travel and seminars we were involved in.
It soon became apparent that we are interested in many similar intellectual pursuits and after years of being together we tied the marital knot. It was a difficult decision, as we knew there will be a lot of both cultural and religious differences that we have to encounter and manage delicately. However, we did our best to go through the process of getting married and settling down in a local neighbourhood.
Our first step in the process was to seek the assistance of a number of local friends to facilitate the engagement and wedding ceremonies. I was fortunate to have my special family friends who are familiar with the intricacies of holding a Malay wedding and were willing to assist in the preparations.
I felt relieved as Azlan did not have anybody in the country who was familiar with what to do when marrying a local Malay Muslim woman. So, my friends represented the groom’s party and orchestrated the formalities, especially the engagement ceremony and the preparation and wedding gifts hantaran to be exchanged.
All these rituals were new to both of us and we were fortunate to have some true friends who filled in the vacuum. As he did not understand the local Malay customs of performing various rituals of merisek, bertunang and bersanding. our friends were ever so willing to play their roles as his substitute parents and family members. He also engaged the services of a local English speaking religious preacher ustaz to understand the process of converting to Islam.
At that time there was no necessity for both of us to attend the mandatory course by JAKIM (Religious Department) prior to getting married.
Our big day started with the exchange of vows and gifts in the late afternoon followed by sitting on the wedding dais. Both of us had to dress in our Malay traditional best and Azlan had to wear a ceremonial baju complete with the tanjak, as his headgear, and the keris statched in his sampin. This was all a new cultural and learning experience for him which he accepted without much fuss. All in all, it was a simple ceremony and our friends came to wish us well.
Most important it was also an event that enabled my parents to announce to their circle of friends that their daughter had finally settled down. This was an important marker, as the wedding ceremony is an indicator with social and cultural significance in the Malay culture. Most daughters and mothers would spend time and effort ensuring that the wedding ceremony was well-executed in the eyes of the local community that my parents belonged to. My late father was at that time about to retire from the Government after spending a good number of years in the legal service.
Taking Stock of Differences
Fast forward to 2017 and looking back over our times together what did we experience in our cross cultural journey?
One definite response is in the way we learned to navigate our many cultural and personality differences that could form a source of incompatibility.
The cultural differences are many. Based on studies done across cultures both of us, have contrasting values and underlying assumptions. At the top of the list is the concept of self.
Azlan grew up in a highly individualistic culture where at the age of 7 he went away to study in a boarding school. As he grew up in England, he was able to express his adventurous self freely, and by the age of 16 he often cycled away from home during holidays, camped, and even hitched hiked through Europe. As a member of the Senior Scouts and the Cadet Force he started to climb mountains in Europe and camped in wild remote places.
These experiences helped satisfy his adventurous spirit and by the age of 19, he decided to migrate and sail for 6 weeks on a ship to New Zealand. Throughout his growing and adult years he had to support himself through University and post graduate studies, without any financial help from anyone else. He had to work part time at all sorts of jobs: in abattoirs, a night club, hotels and restaurants as well as fruit picking and sheep shearing.
This was in sharp contrast to what I had gone through growing up in a typical Malay family, where the values of interdependence, modesty, religion and respect for elders are important. As a Malay girl growing up in the 1960’s I was taught to always consider the views of others and of the groups to which I belonged. We were also expected to be a face in the crowd, speak softly, and not be too self-centered.
Although I had spent a number of years in a residential school and studied in universities in Australia and US, the concept of a related self, is so embedded in how we identify ourselves to others in our day to day interactions. In our marriage, these polar views of how we see ourselves, was key to our understanding of a cross cultural relationship.
There was also the issue of language, as my mother did not speak enough English to carry an intelligent conversation with Azlan, who spoke only English. How do they carry a conversation? It used to bother him when visiting my mother who lived down the road. Obviously he was not used to the concept of ‘showing’ face, where one does not need to have a conversation – just showing one’s presence by being there is enough to show respect for one’s in-laws.
Most Malays are not so direct in their communication approaches and it used to baffle Azlan whenever I gave him non-specific responses to his direct questions. It was also difficult for me to give compliments, as we were not brought up to give positive feedback to others.
Generally, most Malays will get to hear nice or bad things about themselves through another party. Soon he realised that being too honest or direct in stating his views may not always work, as it may be interpreted as being rude. Azlan later learned that Malays are from a ‘high context’ culture. Being born in England and then living in NZ for 12 years, and Australia for 5 years, he was used to being upfront and at times blunt. His ‘low context’ culture had taught him that “What you see is what you get” or, “Say what you mean and mean what you say”.
The concept of shame is also part of the conditioning of a Malay child who is taught not to do things that can cause discomfort for others in the community. There were many instances when Azlan was caught bare chested in the garden and neighbours used to convey to me that he should cover himself by wearing a T- shirt. They would not tell him directly but would communicate their concern through me who would then convey the feedback.
We also had different ways of looking at time. It used to upset Azlan when his business contacts did not appear at the agreed time that he expected them. Little did he know that Malaysians have a different way of managing time unless you have been conditioned from young to be on time, like in a boarding school. Most Malaysians are “polychronic” - flexible in observing time and sometimes allowing relationships to influence their priorities. Azlan was “monochronic”, expecting others to adhere to time and consider those who are not on time to be rude.
The use of honorifics also tended to confuse him. I have many uncles and aunties with different honorifics due to their age and birth sequence in the family. In a hierarchical society respect is shown in how you speak and the body postures you use. Coming from an egalitarian society, he had to get used to lowering his body when passing in front of our significant elders and being polite and friendly with members of my extended family. Instead of using a firm handshake, he now can use a limp touch and never to have eye contact with my women friends and relatives.
As both of us were working and financially independent we do not have any expectations for me to be a dutiful wife. Our living arrangement was atypical as Azlan did not expect me to cook and do much housework. My Malaysian friends often teased me that I am fortunate to have a “White man” as a butler! Fortunately, we had a maid who came from Indonesia and has been living with us for the last 25 years.
Working with Malaysians was also a culture shock for Azlan who had earlier served many years in an American multinational company and an Australian international airline. Although he had conducted cross cultural training for Australian expatriates, it did not prepare him for the major differences in Malaysian work culture. Being used to a very task driven work culture with deadlines, he was initially very frustrated with how Malaysians work.
But he soon learned to adjust to a more relationship orientation, of getting things done, when he observed that Malaysians tend to start their meetings with ‘curry puffs and coffee’ to break the ice. Meetings had both a social as well as a task orientation agenda, where things get done, but in a more harmonious way. When relationships are built, trust is established and people relate in a more relaxed manner.
Perhaps the most challenging area of difference is over religious matters. A Malay in Malaysia is constitutionally defined to be a Muslim and follows Malay customs. As a result of Azlan’s conversion to Islam when we got married, it became a learning experience for both of us, as he was always questioning me on many aspects of Islam.
All the above-mentioned differences became apparent in our day to interaction and have remained to be a constant source of conversation, discussion and dialogue. We continue to learn about the reasons for those differences and in the process become more sensitive and respectful of each other’s backgrounds. We begin to appreciate, that while we cannot change our cultural roots, we can modify our behaviours so as to minimise conflicts, and disagreements in our marriage.
Reflections and Key learnings
Looking back and reflecting on what we have gone through together, we realised that there are many key learnings which may help others who are thinking of embarking on a cross cultural relationship. A key question you may ask, with so many differences, is, what has kept us together for so long?
Firstly, it is our compatibility in the same field of studies and interests, which include personality, cultural studies, leadership and human resource development. We both value learning and development and enjoy sharing ideas, research and studies through our readings, travels, seminar attendances and roundtable conversations with friends and contacts. We believe that the glue binding interracial couples together, and helping them bridge the cultural divide is having the same values and a shared vision of life.
Secondly, both of us have learned to respect cultural, religious and personality differences due to our different upbringing and heritage. We recognise that while we have different worldviews, we can discuss many things at an intellectual level without going into the deeper areas of belief systems. Like they say “let sleeping dogs lie”, so no matter what the differences we have encountered during our marriage, we are able to freely articulate our expectations and assumptions. We can have rational discussions about the original sources of these differences and accept the fact that we cannot always make the other change their ways. This has been one of the keys to remaining together.
Thirdly, we recognise that communication is important and we are not afraid to speak our minds and say what we truly mean and expect from each other. We also learn that marriage relationships are not only about love, trust, support, fear, hope, anger, frustrations and disappointments. More important, it is about making commitments, enjoying companionship, and having a sounding board. We believe that marriage is that invisible thread which hold partners together when dealing with clouds of misunderstandings and disagreement. Its what keeps us together during those weak moments of self doubt and anxiety. Believe me, no matter how much love you have for each other, sometimes there comes those weak moments where you need marriage to hold things together.
For those who are about to embark on a cross cultural marriage, you will probably be confronted with situations and challenges where you have to solve problems and make decisions. While cultural differences can enhance your choices by bringing a new level of self awareness, richness, beauty and tradition, both parties have to be willing to share common grounds, uncover hidden strengths, address blind spots and explore the unknown future together in order to draw out the best - to form a new marriage culture .
We believe there is no such thing as a perfect marriage – let alone an ideal one. For the journey to be worthwhile both partners have to be honest and not evasive in articulating their views, accepting differences and not ignoring them and be willing to negotiate new identities together in the journey. Indeed a cross cultural marriage provides an ideal playground for experimenting and learning about the other.
I want to conclude by a quote from Leo Tolstoy, “ what counts in a happy marriage is not so much how compatible you are but how you deal with incompatibility”.