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When Cupid's arrow flies across cultures

Published Oct. 4, 2005


Personal Accounts

Edited by Dianne Dicks

Crossing Press, $12.95

Reviewed by Nano Riley

Love is a powerful uniting factor, but it is blind and seldom takes into account problems that may result when it strikes people of different cultures. Gathered here are a number of personal testimonies of the ups and downs of such unions.

Whose rules do you follow? Whose country will you live in, and what language is spoken? Which language will the children speak, and in what religion will they be raised?

Susan Stafford's first meeting with her husband's Irish Catholic family of 10 is nearly a disaster. An only child from a middle-class English Protestant family, she doesn't understand the family's thick Irish brogue or its strange Christmas customs, not to mention the prolonged enmity between the English and the Irish.

Other cultures are even more difficult to reconcile. In "Does Anybody Speak Bimoba?" Agnes Bieri, a Ghanian native, is chastised by her family for her impending marriage to a white Swiss. "Are you getting out of your mind?" asks her Ghanian mother.

The divorced flower shop owner from Oklahoma marries a Samoan tour operator and adapts to life on the Western Samoa island of Upolu. She's happy with no running water (she bathes in the waterfall), no electricity (only kerosene lamps and Coleman lanterns) and no TV, but her American daughter of 16 is devastated by the lack of normal American amenities. Even the Bradys might not have been such a happy bunch if their parents had come from opposite sides of the globe.

A mate's exotic qualities, which were attractive in a foreign setting, may diminish considerably when the person is on his home turf. The witty, urbane Muslim may slip into the traditional role of a pasha when he returns to North Africa, much to the dismay of his American wife. Quaint cultural traditions may lose their appeal, as one American woman living in Germany discovers. Her landlady expects her to scrub the apartment steps with a scrub brush. When her accommodating German husband comes to the rescue by offering to help, the landlady is shocked.

Religion is another stumbling block. One Protestant woman is refused the chalice at her wedding by the Italian priest because she didn't convert to her husband's Catholicism. A young Japanese-American girl is told by her teacher that her statuette of Buddha is a heathen idol.

Languages also can cause great problems. Arguments often tangle lines of communication when people speak the same tongue, but they can be twice as bad in bilingual households. Even the dialect of a specific region may be unintelligible to someone who's learned a language in a university. A mispronunciation or an innuendo wrongly interpreted can have disastrous results. Some people can't even pronounce their partner's name.

Most of these accounts are from women, perhaps because they are the most affected by cultural customs. Women are usually expected to adapt, especially in male-dominated societies. Sometimes they feel they've lost their identities.

The half-dozen or so accounts written by men show an extraordinary adaptivity. Michael Sedge serves tea to his Italian wife the way she would serve him in Italy. Bill Kirkpatrick-Tanner admits his Swiss wife has drawn him out of his shell.

Not all of the stories in this book have happy endings. Some couples have worked out their differences, but other marriages have ended in divorce because of irreconcilable cultural rifts. As the accounts in Breaking Convention show, however, when these relationships work, couples share the wealth of both worlds and their lives are genuinely enriched.

As Dianne Dicks, an American who grew up in Indianapolis, attended college in Florida and has twice been married to someone of another culture (she is currently married to a Swiss), puts it: "An ever-increasing number of couples (are) being struck by Cupid's wild arrows, for better or worse."

Nano Riley is a writer living in St. Petersburg.