It was a frigid March evening when John and I went to a local bar downtown to meet up with his professor. The professor invited all of the students taking his course that semester — and their spouses, companions or friends — for a few brews that night. Normally, the freezing temperatures would have easily deterred John and me from venturing out — but it was a sort of “class outing” and the professor, who we had run into on occasion, seemed like a genuinely nice guy. Or so I thought.
But that changed after we walked in and sat down. It wasn’t just that the space reminded me of a bad 1970s basement playroom — from the kelly green walls and tired pool tables to the beat up chairs and couches that looked like someone salvaged them from a garbage bin. It was the conversation that, in its own way, told John and me we weren’t really invited to this party.
“Did you ever see that episode of NCIS when…”
“Yeah, sometimes I think, ‘What would Gibbs do?’”
“But seriously, I’m still wondering what will happen with NCIS later this season because…”
All the while, I felt as if this professor was speaking in Sanskrit. What the hell was NCIS? I wondered. And who the hell was Gibbs? But the professor was too busy talking about NCIS with a bunch of white American students in the class to explain to those of us on the periphery (ahem, John and me) that NCIS happened to be a crime mystery show on American TV. And because this whole exchange of anecdotes, questions and laughter happened in rapid-fire sequence, we never had the opportunity to ask. The professor and this select group of students had already bonded over their mutual love of NCIS, and didn’t have the time or interest to steer the conversation in other directions — for the benefit of everyone present.
Why do I mention this at all? Because that night reminded me of something special about cross-cultural relationships — that you can’t always rely on the same lazy cultural references to make connections with others.
I think about when I started dating John. We hardly ever discussed pop culture references from either of our cultures, and pretty much never made them the basis for our conversations. That made sense because we came from different cultures and thus didn’t want the other person to be left out of the conversation. Stripped of these topics, we learned to talk about other things — such as our experiences, our passions, even our dreams. Sure, in time we came to learn more about the pop culture of our respective countries — where he introduced me to the band Yu Quan, just as I introduced him to Sex and the City. But even today it never dominates our conversations — and certainly not to the exclusion of others.
When I was in college — a time before my journey to China — I used to know guys who would only be interested in girls like me if I liked their bands, or liked the same movies they did. How could that possibly be the basis for a meaningful relationship? Yet we’re easily hoodwinked into believing it is.
Even though my husband and I have come to cultivate many similar tastes in music, movies and TV, none of it really matters. The most important thing is that I can count on him, he can count on me, and we’ll be there for each other — even when we end up at a party in a bar that we really weren’t invited to after all.