Imagine you are writing a love letter, an epistle to a new beloved who is as frightened as they are charmed by the cultural differences between you. Perhaps you would begin with the saying that 'love laughs at locksmiths'. Or perhaps you could draw from Dutch wisdom and tell them liefde schiet pijlen over honderd mijlen: 'Cupid's arrows can fly a hundred miles.' You want to remind your sweetheart that the two of you have traveled those hundred miles already. It was how you found each other.
As you write you might be thinking about how intoxicating ambiguity is to many cross-cultural relationships as you recall the excitement of deciphering the meaning of each other's actions or words. You write: "Isn't this uncertainty part of the seduction?" However, some expressions of desire seem forever caught up in the ink of your pen, never to escape as a word. Perhaps an image can better convey the love you feel? A heart filled with romance inspires you to start investigating the various cultural symbols of love.
A rose by any other name
What to choose? Do you want to say your love is timeless? The heart has been used as a symbol since records began. Even Cro-Magnon hunters sketched hearts, although who knows if it meant the same then as it does now. You continue to search. You read that the maple leaf can be seen as a token of affection in Japan and China, which would be a fine representation of the sweetness you share. Maybe you feel the need to convey that this is a love that will last. You discover the Celts believed that the apple represented love because it lasted so long after being plucked. Perhaps your deepest wish is to say the love you share is invincible. It will survive against all obstacles, real or imagined. Look no further than ancient Persian mythology, in which Isfandiyar eats a pomegranate, the symbol of love and fertility, and becomes invincible. You wonder, 'how does one draw a pomegranate?'
Images are a great place to start but you want words and actions that show you are committed. In an effort to understand how cultural differences can impact your relationship you start researching how love is expressed in different cultures. You start by asking everyone you know. A Finnish friend reminds you that in some more restrained cultures you may need to think twice before planting a deep romantic kiss on your dearest in the middle of the shopping centre. A friend from Venezuela suggests the opposite: life is too short and you must hug, kiss and express your love deeply and often. Is it better to write you'll shout their name from the rooftops or that you'll toil in silence for your love?
You move this investigation to books and the Internet. You stumble upon many academic terms. High-context cultures (like much of the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and South America) are relational, collectivist, intuitive, and contemplative. Low-context cultures (such as North America and much of Western Europe) are logical, linear, individualistic, and action-oriented. Books and the Internet can make these differences appear so inflexible, but your love is a third generation Iranian from California. Now what do you do? In the future, do you send flowers to your sweetie - individualistic - or to the family - collectivist? Maybe you could get around such obstacles by sending a bouquet to both.
In the end, the letter will declare that you will both have to learn to understand each other. This is a special kind of love, a patient one. It is that rare appreciation that allows you to accept a token of love with joy, whether it be a maple leaf or a pomegranate, and take the time to understand its significance. The love that knows that whether your soul mate shouts your name for all to hear or shows quiet unwavering loyalty: both are meant only for you.
Christine Fischer, MA M.Ed. Multicultural Counselling Psychology, TC, Columbia University. Resident of the Hague, diversity trainer, and owner of www.fischersfiresidechats.com.