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FYI SOUTH Magazine, April 2007

Cross + Cultural + Relationships

Miscommunication due to discrepancies in cultural perspectives, Behaviors and beliefs

she had the notion that Westerners were less family-oriented than Asians

some Taiwanese men are intimidated by the stereotypical assertiveness of Western women

Intolerance may prove to be the Achilles` heel in these relationships


By Wu Pei Ling Translated by Ann Lee
Photos by Kaid

In recent years southern Taiwan has seen an influx of foreigners. And, as this melting pot of different cultures takes shape, it brings with it an increased number of cross-cultural relationships. Impressions, stereotypes and preconceptions of these relationships unavoidably exist and chances are, as you read this, you have subconsciously reminded yourself of the images and opinions about cross-cultural relationships that are already imprinted in your mind.

People hear of the sincerity, intensity and excitement of cross-cultural couples, as well as the failed expectations, disappointments and heartbreaks that may result. Some argue that this holds true for all love relationships. However, being in a cross-cultural relationship inevitably adds other facets of complexity, which can be mesmerizing and thrilling, but at the same time frustrating and confusing. Not only do these couples deal with common relationship issues, but they also experience miscommunication due to discrepancies in cultural perspectives, behaviors and beliefs. For example, assertiveness and frankness in communication—traits more common among westerners—may cause some Taiwanese to feel upset or agitated because they might not be accustomed to such an approach. Furthermore, extrinsic factors such as reactions from a couple's families, acceptance by the public, and underlying cultural tendencies (that unknowingly influence who we are) all add to the complexity of these relationships.

This article takes a glimpse at how cultural differences come into play in relationships, and how they affect, shape and influence long-term couples, as well as singles in the dating scene.
One cross-cultural couple in Kaohsiung understands how culture has had an impact on their relationship. Peggy (Taiwanese) and Sean (Canadian) have known each other for four years and been married for two. Before they met, Peggy had impressions of Western men, mostly stereotypes from movies that portrayed them as "playboys" and insincere in love. It was not until Sean's display of commitment and love towards her that she was able to counter those images that generalized Western men. She was moved by his close-knit connections with his family thousands of miles away, especially because she had the notion that Westerners were less family-oriented than Asians, and was impressed with his willingness to help with household chores, something traditionally done by women in Taiwanese culture. On top of that, Peggy appreciates her personal freedom in their marriage, a rare situation for many women married to Taiwanese men, she believes. Her relationship with Sean has certainly broadened her understanding of Western culture and, more so, helped shatter previously held misconceptions.

Sean, on the other hand, feels their cultural differences have become more evident, such as when sharing a cultural-specific joke on TV, or when understanding puns. He also feels that cultural disparities arise during discussions or arguments because Peggy tends to shy away from direct confrontation, whereas he feels a Western woman would most likely be more direct and outspoken. Nevertheless, they feel that with determination and commitment, trust and patience, and openness in communication, there is no barrier too difficult to overcome—regardless of cultural differences.

Another couple in Kaohsiung, Ellen (Canadian) and Benson (Taiwanese), face additional issues simply because it is more uncommon to see a Western woman with a Taiwanese man. Ellen surprises her friends when she mentions that she is dating a Taiwanese. The harsh truth, she explains, is that Western women are often not attracted to “smaller-framed” Taiwanese men. And even if there is adequate initial attraction, most local men are often too intimidated due to their lack of English language skills and the direct approach of Western women. Benson agrees that local men are generally more reserved and shy, and this makes interactions even more difficult. Though both sets of parents took time to get accustomed to the cultural differences of their child's partner, it has not inhibited the couple's relationship from progressing, nor affected bonding with each other's families.

Though some Taiwanese men are intimidated by the stereotypical assertiveness of Western women, Benson values Ellen's openness and straightforward nature, which he finds uncommon among Taiwanese women. Conversely, Ellen appreciates him taking on a fair share of household chores, though she is surprised by his willingness to do housework because she had heard that Taiwanese men do not do much work around the house. Furthermore, his emphasis on equality between them is something that has altered her preconceived notion that Asian men are more overbearing, and that they traditionally have a higher status in relationships. Finally, there is a notable cultural difference between them, and that is their perception towards work. The time-honored, work-around-the-clock approach that Benson has towards his profession is something Ellen finds hard to accept.

They both agree that due to differences in language usage and expressions, in addition to the innate cultural conduct, greater compromise and understanding is required to maintain a healthy relationship.
The experiences of these two cross-cultural couples highlight the fact that dating, or being married to, someone of another culture inevitably brings out their distinct cultural values and predispositions. Some of these idiosyncrasies are to be appreciated and cherished, while others may act as obstacles which, with appropriate communication and consideration, can ultimately be surmounted. Even so, it is important to bear in mind that for a relationship to flourish, compromise from both sides is required, while at times overwhelming cultural misunderstanding and intolerance may prove to be the Achilles` heel in these relationships.

Jennifer, a 26-year-old Taiwanese, was with her ex-boyfriend (Canadian) for about two years. She felt the relationship allowed her ample freedom, a common attribute that women who date Westerners may express. However, she felt that he too often relied on her, owing to his unwillingness to adapt to local culture, and reluctance to get to know more about Taiwanese people. She also felt that he didn't make enough effort and didn't see the need to learn Chinese. His constant rant about the local culture and behaviors, and his openness in displaying his discontentment and dissatisfaction, at times put her in awkward situations in public. For these reasons, she found it difficult for him to mingle with her Taiwanese friends and even felt that it would be difficult for her parents to accept him and overcome their concept that a Westerner would "come and go" as he pleased. Though Jennifer was not fluent in English at the beginning of their relationship, she comments that language was an obstacle which could be overcome, where the differences in cultural ideologies and behaviors are comparatively more detrimental, a factor that contributed to their breakup.

Fundamentally, it is the trust and openness in communication that crystallizes a relationship and determines how couples get along. Regardless of their cultural backgrounds, a successful relationship is still very much based on the deep-seated love a couple has for each other. Being sensitive to and considerate of a partner's cultural differences is the key to maintaining a healthy and happy relationship.
With the escalating level of cross-cultural interactions in our society and, thus, an ever-increasing number of cross-cultural relationships, it is crucial to go beyond the confinements of stereotyping and intolerance towards a different culture. There is a need to open up our hearts and minds to relish and appreciate, rather than criticize or reject, the differences that exist under a canopy of diverse cultures.


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