“So, what’s your relationship status?”
Three international students sit in The Dalhousie Gazette office, looking at each other sheepishly. They’re here to discuss their relationship experiences.
International students come from many languages, countries and backgrounds. But these are only the tip of the cultural iceberg. Differences may go deeper, to beliefs, attitudes and values.
Renayre is from the U.S. and in her second year of computer science. Her boyfriend is Canadian.
“We have different views on certain aspects of different things. For example, I really love the idea of kissing, but my boyfriend doesn’t show affection by kissing. The different views of us may clash sometimes but it doesn’t mean any of us are wrong, it’s just different.”
Yijie is from China and like Renayre, is in his second year of computer science. His girlfriend is an international student from Japan. They’ve been together almost a year.
“You can learn so many things from the different culture through your partner, which is fascinating. Sometimes we share our childhood stories in our counties, sharing our favorite music and tv shows.”
Yijie and his girlfriend communicate in English, although neither are native speakers. Daily communication is easy, but the language barrier plays out in unique ways.
“We all feel that sometimes we can’t thoroughly pour our hearts out. There is lots of guess work,” says Yijie.
Nathan is an exchange student from Hong Kong. Language barriers don’t only apply to dating.
“It is human’s nature to talk with each other in a relationship, sometimes you want to make some jokes and talk about some gossip. I would rather to talk about some gossip with people who speak the same language as me rather than using English,” he says.
According to Yijie, language differences may affect a relationship beyond verbal communication, “Language decides your confidence level, if you aren’t speaking your first language in a relationship, you feel that you are at a relatively inferior position because you can entirely express yourself.”
Despite language or cultural differences, Nathan thinks love prevails.
“Love is able to across any boundaries as long as you love someone. Personality or even appearance might play a more important role than cultural differences in a relationship,” he says.
When the love is there, it’s not always easy to convey. There are different cultural understandings of love.
“You can still be in love with the person, but after going through lots of frustrations with communication, your point of view may change, and you might not want to be in the relationship with that person anymore,” Renayre says. “You can still love your partner, but if your love cannot be felt by your partner, it is nothing.”
Expectations around love also differ between countries. People have different ideas of what is important to consider in a relationship. Nathan says, “In Hong Kong, even you if aren’t pop stars, just students, your relationship might be judged by other people, like families or relatives.”
It isn’t just about cultural interpretations. Everyone has different experiences learning about love. Renayre reflects on how her idea of love has changed. “My idea of love was based on what I saw on TV. It tends to be really sexual which is not huge on emotional impact. I’m trying to look at love as how I would feel when that person passes away,” she says.
Relationships are complex. Everyone has different experiences. Others may have the impression that communication challenges for international students boil down to language barriers. But their personal experiences, cultural norms and understandings of love are also important, as they are for everyone.
We all face challenges looking for common ground in relationships. In the process, we grow and learn, and maybe even find love.