Intercultural Relationships: Can They Work? When two people from different backgrounds come together in the name of love, the cultural challenges can seem overwhelming. Many prove to be irreconcilable. This week's culture coach offers her advice on these issues.

Intercultural Relationships: Can They Work?

Intercultural Relationships: Can They Work?

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When two people from different backgrounds come together in the name of love, the cultural challenges can seem overwhelming. Many prove to be irreconcilable. This week's culture coach offers her advice on these issues.


I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead: two New York women wanted to help out after Hurricane Katrina. We'll find out how their efforts took on Olympic proportions. But first, it's time for a regular visit with one of our Culture Coaches.

Today, you're marrying him? Wedding season is around the corner. Brides and grooms will be blushing their way down aisles across America. So what better time to ask an expert about what you might need to know if you're heading to commitment with a person from a different racial or ethnic background? We got this idea from our friends at East West magazine. The April/May issue has a feature called "To Hug or Not to Hug," about how to handle that all-important meeting with the parents.

And joining us now from Phoenix is Anita Malik. She is editor of East West magazine. And from her office in Poughkeepsie, New York, we're pleased to be joined by Lubna Somjee, a psychologist. She's quoted in the article. Thanks for being here, ladies.

Ms. ANITA MALIK (Editor, East West Magazine): Hi. How are you?

Dr. LUBNA SOMJEE (Psychologist): Thank you.

MARTIN: Anita, why did you commission this article? You must have been hearing about this from readers, or perhaps from personal experience?

Ms. MALIK: A little bit of both. Actually, simply put, interracial marriages and couplings are growing at a very increasing rate. And we tend to focus on that a lot with the magazine, but had never done anything where, how do you deal with this in - within your own family and with your parents? And that was something were are hearing from readers that, you know, it's great to know that the statistics are there and that this is happening, but how do we deal with it in our own lives with our own unique circumstances?

MARTIN: And Dr. Somjee, you are offering some tips - or you offered some tips in the magazine. But in the years in which you have been practicing you've worked with couples around this issues, are there some classic cultural clashes that you've seen?

Dr. SOMJEE: Yes. I mean, I've definitely seen some classic cultural clashes, although many times people have been able to sort of work through them. One of the classic issues is when neither parties have, sort of, prepped themselves for what to expect when they meet the parents. They think they have, but they really haven't - although most of the time those meetings have gone fairly well in spite of.

MARTIN: Is that really the case? I just wonder whether over the course of your practice, do most of the couples who come to you - do they eventually stay together, or do you see couples breaking up because of these differences?

Dr. SOMJEE: Most of the couples I see do stay together, but I would not say that it was very rare that some couples would break up. For example, a young couple I worked with had an interracial union and met each other's families. And it wasn't until they met each other's families that it sort of punctuated for them how different their backgrounds were. And they come home and for the first time had a much more serious, in-depth discussion of how their culture impacts their everyday life and realized how different their views were on a lot of things. And unfortunately for that couple, those differences were irreconcilable.

MARTIN: Anita, you mentioned in the article - I'm sorry, which I know you didn't write, but you know, you edited it - that in every culture, meeting the parents can be, kind of, fraught with anxiety. But in the Asian culture, in couples in which there are maybe an Asian or Asian-American, it can be particularly stressful. Why is that?

Ms. MALIK: Asian immigrant parents typically have a very set view of who their children should marry. It's a different type of relationship, but every family has their own traditions, and sometimes a lot of that becomes very, very specific to what the parents want. And it's just a very different child-parent relationship, and so it gets a little bit more tricky. And so it can be difficult.

MARTIN: What was some of the scenarios that were described in the article that you want to talk about?

Ms. MALIK: Well, one, you know…

MARTIN: I thought it was hilarious, actually.

Ms. MALIK: It was. There's a lot of humor to this, too. And I think that's the important lesson is that you need to be able to also laugh at yourself when you make - you're going to make faux pas when you meet the parents. But the title of the piece actually comes from one scenario where both parts of the couple were Asian, from two different countries. And one family was very warm - the parents wanted to hug everybody. And the other family couldn't really handle the hugs. And so that became an issue and - between the couple, and they finally came to a point where they said, well, this is how my family is going to be and this is how your family is going to be. And they're going to have to work it out.

MARTIN: So Dr. Somjee, help us here. In a situation like that, where the parents are meeting for the first time, what advice do you offer to make it go smoothly? Or maybe making it go smoothly isn't the whole point of the thing, just to be honest. I don't know. Tell us.

Dr. SOMJEE: When you're meeting someone's family, knowing what their ethnic background is or their racial background or religion - obviously, it's important but it's only a first basic step. And really, the most important thing to understand is, what is that family's relationship to each of those cultural variables? Otherwise, you kind of get on a slippery slope in terms of making assumptions to stereotyping.

MARTIN: So how would that information best be acquired? Do you try to be very explicit with a partner and say, all right, are your parents huggers or not? Will they expect me to bring a present? If so, what kind?

Dr. SOMJEE: There's a couple ways to do that. One is, do you get a sense of what the expectations of the meeting are from your significant other? Is it going to be a casual or formal get-together? But the other piece of that is your significant other is often steeped in their own culture, so things that maybe commonplace to them, they may not even think to tell you. And I think one of the best ways to get information from your significant other is through storytelling. Try to have your significant other tell you stories that illustrate different occasions in your family or different traditions in a family.

MARTIN: I have an email that I wanted to share with both of you ladies. And it says, this might be a good question for your coach. I just had a second date with a lovely, professional woman who was born and raised in Sapporo, Japan. She now works in the same East Coast city that I do. Our third date is this weekend. I'm a professional, African-American man.

What should I know about the Asian approach to dating? Is there such a thing? The first date ended in her bowing. When in Rome, I thought, so I bowed too. The second date ended in a warm hug and a smile, so I hugged her and smiled back. So far, so good, I'm thinking. We're able to talk for hours, but what do I need to keep in mind?

So, who wants to start? Anita - common scenario among your readers?

Ms. MALIK: Yeah, I think so. Apparently, she's a little bit more traditional. It sounds like she's actually - has emigrated from Japan, and not necessarily born here. So in that case, I think he just really needs to ask her. But I would also speak to her about how her family would feel ahead of time.

MARTIN: Interesting. Dr. Somjee, what do you think?

Dr. SOMJEE: Part of it depends on, are you dating to date, or are you dating to marry? Because if someone is, you know, asked that question and scared off by it, at least you know where they are in terms of their dating and what they want from it.

MARTIN: So when - what I'm hearing you say is ask the question sooner rather than later.

Dr. SOMJEE: Absolutely.

MARTIN: I'm so glad I'm married.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MALIK: Yeah. Hard, isn't it?

MARTIN: It is hard. You all have my respect. Dr. Somjee, I understand that you are also interculturally married. If it's not too personal, can you offer us any guidelines from you personal experience?

Dr. SOMJEE: Yes. I've been married and in a relationship with my husband for about 10 years. He is white, and I am South Asian. And I actually come from a community where arranged marriages are absolutely still the norm. So when my husband was to meet my parents, I prepped myself and I prepped my parents.

MARTIN: What about persons perhaps who weren't welcomed so warmly into the fold? How would you advise them to move beyond that?

Dr. SOMJEE: One thing is, you know, you may have an opportunity to meet the family again and again. And if so, take advantage of those opportunities by getting to know them better. You know, unfortunately, there may be some families who ultimately say, you know what? We cannot do this.

No matter how nice you may be, no matter how much we like you in general, this is not something we can accept in our family. And at this point, you as a couple have to decide whether you're willing to take the risk, and those are hard questions you will have to ask yourself before you even start this process.

MARTIN: But hard questions that have to be asked.

Dr. SOMJEE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Thank you so much. That's Lubna Somjee, a psychologist and therapist in Dutchess County, New York. Thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. SOMJEE: Thank you.

MARTIN: We were also joined by Anita Malik. She is editor of East West magazine. She spoke with us from Phoenix, Arizona. Anita, thank you for joining us.

Ms. MALIK: Thank you.

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