Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Cross Cultural Dating and Relationships

Debating the differences between men and women has been around since the bible it seems. A quick search on Amazon will produce a list of books explaining what makes the sexes different and why. But what happens when there's not just a difference in gender but also in culture? Is it easier, harder to date and maintain a relationship?

Now, I must confess I'm no expert on women. Even during my swinging single days I wasn't much of a Casanova and I'm far from the idyllic husband, so I'll avoid any dating and relationship advice. But I was single long enough in Spain to notice some differences when it came to the European and Spanish women compared to their counterparts in the states.

First, however, a little disclaimer. Life in Los Angeles is not an accurate representation of the U.S as a whole. The city is infamous for being a particularly soulless, superficial and harsh place thanks to the allure of Hollywood. Every day beautiful people arrive from all over the world with one goal in mind: to be rich and famous, and as a result, the town is full of narcissistic personality types with pretty faces. Add in the culture of sex, drugs, rock 'n roll, and the porn industry in the San Fernando Valley, and I think you get the picture of what it'd be like to be single there - fun for a bit, but emotionally damaging after a while.

Maybe coming from L.A. is why, what surprised me most at first, wasn't a defining trait or physical characteristic, but how few women had plastic surgery in Barcelona. Sure, there was the occasional girl with a nose job in a bar and there was Belen Esteban and her like on telebasura, but nothing like what I'd seen walking around Venice beach or lining up outside a club on Sunset Boulevard. There seemed to be a more natural beauty to European women and an approachability if that makes sense.

But the differences were more than skin deep. Rarely did the initial banter revolve around work or open with the question, "What do you do?" The topics of conversation tended instead to be about travels, musical tastes, life in Barcelona, languages. Then again, the whole concept of work is much different in Spain, I found. Perhaps it's the high unemployment that sees kids living with their parents until the thirties, but in general having a job and your own room is good enough; you don't also have to do something and live somewhere that impresses people.

Of course, the idea of dating is a particularly American thing to do, I've been told, which might explain another aspect of life in Barcelona that surprised me my first year. Many locals my age were with their high school or college sweetheart, some with kids. I hadn't known anyone in L.A. like that. It was more Hollywood than Hollywood, where most my friends and I had the philosophy not until we were at least thirty would we even think of settling down. But, luckily for me not all Spanish women married their first love, and after a series of random events I met my future wife at the ripe old age of twenty-nine.

Relationships are, I think, incredibly complex things, which like dark matter, I only vaguely understand.  I will say, though, being with a person from a foreign country definitely adds an element of unpredictability to them. First, there's the question of which language to communicate in. When we met I spoke no Spanish while she spoke English like an Essex girl. We lived in Spain, so the decision was Spanish. My wife, being the native, had the upper hand as far as command and linguistic dexterity. I, however, always had the ready excuse of, "I didn't understand," which was used frequently, especially during the first months.  This required a patience at which I still marvel.

But even when we reached somewhat equality with the language, the way it's spoken can bring about all types of problems. My wife, like many Spaniards I've found, likes to explain everything, at times to the minutest detail, before beginning. I, on the other hand, tend to subscribe to the American belief of keeping it brief, answering questions as they pop up but first let's get started.  This can still sometimes be a source of consternation, but that isn't always the case. At first her Spanish directness offended my polite sensibilities, but now she's the one reminding me to say please and thank you.

Then there's the question of her fiery Latin temper and my disposition mellowed by too much sun and Hollywood in my twenties. So like any couple, we squabble from time to time. How much is due to personality differences and how much is cultural, I don't know. I have, however, discovered a side benefit to being admonished in a language that isn't mine: the intended impact of the words is dulled by the time my brain translates them and registers an emotional response, while at the same time, it's also a great way to learn some Spanish expressions like me cago en la leche.

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