When it comes to questions about my life as an expat, the international state of my romantic life is surely to arouse the most curiosity. I decided to raise the curtain a little and write a post about my life as a part of a multicultural couple. How does it work? Does it work at all? Do we constantly fight about things related to our cultural differences? How does it feel to love in a language that's not your own?
The key attribute to success in living with someone who doesn't possess the same cultural background as you is to acknowledge the fact that it is indeed the case: we are different in a way that cannot be possible for a Finnish or a Canadian couple. Our struggles are different: where a Finnish couple might fight over who does the dishes, we're fighting over with what we're doing the dishes, since my quebecois partner prefers a washcloth, and I want my brushes. We both think the other's option is unhygienic.
Come to terms with these differences. I'll start with a real-life example from yesterday: Alex has started in a new job in retail close to our home, and he had told me his shift would finish at 5. So at 20 to 6 I started to get a little confused and tried to call, but he didn't answer. I was hungry and wanted dinner. When he finally arrived home, I proceeded to ask:
"And where have you been?"
"At work? I told you my shift finishes at 5?"
"It's 15 to 6?"
"Well the shop closes at 5 but of course we have to clean up the shop before we leave!"
"So why isn't that included in your shift schedule on a daily basis? That's how it works in Finland. The shop closes at 5, so they extend my shift to 5:15."
"But they can't know how long it will take to clean up the shop."
"Well can't they estimate?"
This went on for a while until we realised the discussion has faced a dead end. I didn't realise that this is how they roll in Canada. Alex of course didn't know that I was unaware of this. So when these fights happen, someone has to raise the white flag and request a time-out, since none of us is right.
There are pros and cons in a duo of two nationalities, as one would expect. I came up with 3 biggest differences compared to a couple of the same nationality, and my way to deal with these differences.
|The Library of Parliament, Ottawa, Canada|
The Difference: Our cultures and habits are not the same.
As demonstrated above, we often encounter situations that feel a little absurd for a Finnish or Canadian couple. We want to do different things, we want to do same things with a different method, we need different things, we speak differently, we intepret words differently, we eat differently. The list could go on.
I came across one of the most common differences up to date just a few weeks from becoming a couple: I call it the Maybe-question. Finns are very straightforward and direct to a point where it becomes impolite in Canadian culture. I say yes and I mean yes. If something is wrong, I'll say it straight away, and if something pisses me off, I'll open my mouth and speak up. I don't play word games. However, in my partner's culture this is much more common, and sometimes it's hard for me to understand what they actually want. I might ask if Alex would like to eat mushroom pasta for dinner, and I get "maybe..." as an answer. This confused me at first, but with almost 2 years' experience I know now that "maybe" often means yes - depending on the tone, of course. No-Maybe sounds different.
We use words in a different way: our languages have been developing in different surroundings, and thus they stress and have words for separate things. I often amuse (and frighten) quebeckers by telling them Finnish doesn't have a word for "please". Meanwhile all that "ça va?" sounds unnecessary and pretentious to my ear - but my opinion on this never changed the fact that for a year our Skype conversations would always, always start with this mantra:
"Hi there, how are you?"
"I'm fine, how about you?"
"I'm fine too. So, what's up?"
Many times I requested we drop this courtesy and go straight into business, since we never had much time to exchange news. But no, he insisted and kept doing it. So after a while I understood that another way to start a conversation with a French-speaker doesn't seem to exist, and have been playing along ever since.
|Alex trying to touch the Baltic Sea in Helsinki, Finland|
One thing that directly affects the everyday life of an international couple is the question of holidays. We consider different days of the year to be worth celebrating. Quebeckers go absolutely nuts on the 24th of June: St. Jean, Québec's official national day, is one of the biggest celebrations of the year. I myself am very keen on Midsummer (Juhannus) around the 21st of June, when the sun doesn't set and Finns spend their nightless nights dancing around bonfires and trying to avoid drowning. Our common calendar holidays, such as Christmas, have completely different traditions, and I'm already mentally preparing myself for a Christmas without smoked salmon this year.
BUT: It offers us a chance to question our own habits and opinions as something universal.
Stepping outside of your comfort zone to a new and strange culture is a crucial moment for anyone's national identity: it offers us a chance to rethink our position in this world and in our own culture. Am I a Finn? What does it mean to be a Finn? How much of a Finn am I? Living in one single culture makes it easy to take cheese slicers for granted and think of door handles as something cosmopolitan - the Finnish way of living appears as something universal, The One Culture, and the rest of the world as The Other in relation to it.
Multicultural relationship puts you into a position where struggles like these are part of your everyday life. The new homecountry/travelling destination/exchange university might appear as the biggest enemy for someone who's not used to facing that mild helplessness at first, but for one struggling with cultural differences on a daily basis such a feeling is nothing but new. Your whole life is that culture shock: your spouse doesn't understand doors without knobs nor see the point of cheese slicers, toilets in Europe don't have enough water and there are multiple separate stores for stuff you would normally find in one single pharmacy in Canada. Every time I might slip into thinking the Finnish way is the only way, he reminds me that none of us knows the right way to do things - only different ways. And no matter how much I might think asking the unnecessary "ça va?" is not at all me, last week I actually asked this question for the first time completely automatically when I entered our HR Manager's office and simultaneously realised how handy it is when trying to break the ice!
|A blackboard along the Seine, Paris, France|
The Difference: We don't have a common native language.
My boyfriend is a French-speaker. Sometimes I wake up in the morning, I look at him and it strikes me all of a sudden: My boyfriend's mother tongue is French. How did this happen? I was pretty much able to say "Bonjour" and "Merci" when I met him for the first time. I, however, speak Finnish as my first language, a language that no one has ever even heard of. It was obvious that Alex had no idea how Finnish even sounds like.
Sometimes our linguistic differences reveal much bigger things about our general cultural differences. French and Finnish are binary opposites on many aspects, but I came up with one fundamental difference: GENDER. Finnish is a language of gender equality. There is no she or he, only hän to describe the 3rd person singular. After 2 years of speaking English every day I still screw up at times when it comes to mentioning the gender of the person I'm talking about, and it makes my quebecois friends really confused.
I might be telling a story while simultaneously fucking up the pronouns in English (or French, even more drastically). My quebecois friends look at me, a little confused, before they proceed to ask: "So.... was this person a man or a woman?"
Me, being raised in a culture where I will necessarily never know the gender of the protagonist, ask the obvious question: "... Why do you need to know anyway?"
They stay silent. Because they don't know why they want to know. They're just used to knowing. We argue about this at times, since it's hard for me to understand why there has to be a different word for a female mayor. At the same time, Alex makes lots of efforts to make me realise that without a female word for a mayor, the French word only refers to a male.
So we communicate in English, which has been a natural choice of language since the very beginning - we lived in England, after all.
Is it hard? At times we might have to stop and try to find words for certain things. We might sit down on a couch and go on Google Translate together to check this word the other was is trying to explain (usually diseases or kitchen utensils). You should hear us when we have to tell each other something really quick while doing 10 other things at the same time (cooking is a perfect example: imagine a situation where I witness a bowl of tomato sauce about to fall on the carpet, and I have approximately 0.5 seconds to inform Alex about the upcoming disaster!).
BUT: We learn new languages while simultanoeusly mastering our English skills.
The best way to learn a language is to speak it with native speakers. Even if my French skills are not at all impressive, I'd like to be brave enough to say my pronounciation is not too bad, thanks to learning it from a French-speaker.
At the same time we learn a lot about our own mother tongues by listening to our spouse questioning the obvious. "But WHY do you say it like that?" "WHY is there a difference?" I've become familiar with the confusion and helplessness I feel in front of my own mother tongue, thanks to my partner's brilliant questions.
Sometimes it's hard for me to remember that Alex has a different mother tongue, a whole different world happening in French inside his head - a world I haven't been able to understand. Communicating with Alex in any other language than English feels unnecessary and weird, since we both speak it almost perfectly. The idea of Alex not understanding my mother tongue has never been on my list of concerns - and you know what's much scarier? Now that I speak and understand French remotely well, I'm finally able to hear the French-speaking Alex, the quebecker who ends his sentences with "là" and swears by saying "calice".
|Gamla Stan, the Old Town in Stockholm, Sweden|
The Difference: Our future is always a bit uncertain.
We spent a year in a long-distance relationship before being able to live in the same country, but we were lucky - for some, it might be 2 or 5. Where a Finnish couple picks up a phone and calls when they miss each other, we created detailed weekly schedules to find a moment for a quick Skype session. We saw each other every 2 to 4 months. The question I heard the most during this time was ”Are you sure it’s worth it? I mean, that must be really hard.”
The word is not hard - it’s complicated. It’s complicated because it asks for arrangements which make that lifestyle sound just a little miserable: it asked us to schedule our every day to match someone’s who’s living 7 timezones apart just to hear their voice for an hour at 2am. We ate noodles and porridge for two weeks straight just to be able to put that last 100 bucks aside for the plane tickets to have a chance to see each other every 2 or 3 months. We always took that one extra shift, thus making us study at nights, I even sold over a half of everything I owned so I could move into a hippie commune from my cozy studio flat. It asked for long, uncomfortable and complicated flights, to sleep at all these bloody airports using a computer as a pillow, to plan our life a year ahead and to argue with friends and family who think we’re batshit crazy - and I really can’t blame them. It asked me to start over once more by beginning to learn my 7th language while Alex tries to make all 14 Finnish cases make even a slight sense. A hint: they don’t.
To maintain this relationship I went through a long and complicated immigration process of half a year, filled 8 forms and provided 20 different supporting documents from criminal recods to medical statements. I had lived my whole life in a barrel called European Union, and nothing could have prepared me for the complications and procedures it required to move to North America. No, ESTA, I'm not a nazi!
We finally live together - for now. If everything goes well, next September our common destination will be Ireland, and I can happily jump back into my barrel of visa-free immigration, euros and European Insurance cards, and it will be Alex's turn to go through a war of papers and certificates.
BUT: We share the desire to explore and experience the world.
You meet a guy on an exchange semester, you fall in love after chasing each other like idiots for ages in the fear of an uncertain future, and finally at the end of the year you promise to stay faithful and skype every day. Sounds like a disaster-to-be-born, doesn't it?
A situation like ours had all the chances to become a disaster, and it's exactly what happens to many. The disasters like that turn into exchange flings, and are the reason why I had to count to ten, inhale and exhale a few times and bite my tongue more than enough when family and friends came up with their concerned queries about the realistic outcome of my love life. There are always obstacles to overcome and extra willpower to maintain.
But when you overcome those obstacles, keep up with those skype sessions and fill all those forms, in the end you end up with something absolutely amazing!
|Lost in Brussels, Belgium|
Over a quarter of the people attending Erasmus find their long-term partner while studying abroad - why? People attending international mobility programs often share the passion to see the world, meet new people from different cultures, gain more international experience and figure out whether or not the expat life could be their thing. Meeting such people is a welcomed change for many. I'm personally more afraid of getting stuck in Finland and living in the suburbs with a 8-to-4 job than I have ever been of getting my heart broken because my international relationship ended up being too hard to maintain.
So you go on an exchange semester in the hopes of figuring out what you want to do in life and experience new cultures, you meet a guy from the other side of the world who shares your passions, desires and plans to see the world and never get stuck in one place, you fall in love, and finally at the end of the year you've figured out that the person you fell in love with will never ask you to stay when you need to go, they will never make you choose between them and your own ambitions, and if you're lucky, they're mad enough to surrender to a life of weekly skype schedules, lonely nights and countless hours at airports, so that in the very end they will have a life with you.
We have so much to offer and teach to each other due to our different cultural backgrounds. We don't have a common native language, so we will master three at once. Our future is always a bit hard to figure out, but it makes our everyday life yet another adventure. It's a perfect deal!