If you’ve ever thought that John and I had this perfect marriage where nothing ever goes wrong, well, I’m here to burst your bubble.
You should have seen us a decade ago when we lived in Shanghai and had our share of arguments (including some explosive ones, with yours truly losing her temper and doing lots of yelling). I’m pretty certain I must have given some of our neighbors quite a “show” at times.
Arguments aren’t fun in any relationship, but they can get really ugly when you’re dealing with a cross-cultural relationship. Why? Because sometimes the ways in which we argue – and the things that get us irritated – relate back to culture.
After 10 years of marriage, we’ve learned a thing or two about each other and how to maintain a harmonious cross-cultural relationship – with a lot more happiness and a lot less arguing. Here are three things that have helped us get over arguments:
1. How you manage anger and even argue can be a cultural thing – and sometimes the differences can set you off unexpectedly
In my husband’s home, his family has always valued a certain emotional restraint and don’t really show their anger that much. But I’ve seen his family angry – specifically, his brother – and guess how he responded initially? He was silent. Didn’t say a word. (I can tell you, it was a pretty painful silence!)
On the other hand, in the family I grew up in, when you’re angry, you show it – which means you might raise your voice, yell and even go red in the face. I come from a long line of fiery women. We’re an expressive bunch and, when something bad happens, it needs to be hashed out immediately – even if it gets a little emotional.
So you’ve got one emotionally restrained guy who goes silent when he’s upset, with an emotionally expressive woman who vents her anger and wants to talk it out. Put us together and you’ve got the potential for a disastrous argument to happen. How do I know? Because John and I have had plenty of them.
They used to go something like this: I would start out with some anger, and because John wouldn’t respond to me, my anger would escalate until I suddenly turned into a mad tiger on the prowl (which made John even more likely to clam up and avoid me).
It took us a while to realize that part of the problem was our totally different styles of handling anger.
So, John has learned that it’s important to acknowledge and respond to me when I’m upset.
I’ve also learned that it’s important to manage my own anger. Sometimes when I let my temper loose, things can go a little overboard. John’s a great model and reminder that you don’t always have to be like that when you’re angry.
2. Recognize that living in a different culture can be stressful — so it’s important to provide some “compensations” to the person who left their culture
When John and I lived in America, I started noticing that he was much more irritable than he used to be back in China. And it didn’t take much to set him off and start another argument. It was so unlike John, who had always been so easy-going, always ready to greet me with a smile. What had happened?
Then one day, it hit me – he was stressed out because of living in America, a different country and culture from his own. And adding to all of that stress, he was forced to navigate this new and stressful world in English, his second language.
Of course, this didn’t occur to me for a long time. Because I felt so comfortable to be back in America, the country and culture that I grew up in, I took it for granted that John would feel as comfortable as I did.
So, eventually, I realized what I needed to do: make room for some things that John missed from his own culture. In other words, provide some “cultural compensations” if you will.
Naturally, it started with food. You know how they say that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach? Well, I figured that the way to quiet a man’s heart – especially when he’s stressed over living in another culture — is through his stomach too. I started cooking up his favorite Chinese foods and putting rice on the menu more often.
But then I moved on to other things that he missed from China. We rented Chinese movies and streamed Chinese TV shows on the Internet. I even let John teach me how to play some soccer (a sport that, while not Chinese, is so popular in China it might as well be the national sport).
All of it made John a much happier guy – and, by extension, ours a much happier marriage. And if I had only figured it out sooner, I might have prevented a lot of unhappy moments we had together.
3. Practice reciprocity
When I tell people that I make my husband red-braised pork, yet I’m still a devoted vegan, they look at me like I’m insane.
Well, believe me, it wasn’t easy to pick up that raw meat one afternoon and turn it into one of my husband’s most favorite comfort dishes from China. A part of me (the part that knows I was definitely made to be vegan) still recoils whenever I see any kind of raw animal flesh in the kitchen.
Ultimately I did it out of love – or, more specifically, to reduce arguments in our marriage.
See, at the time all this started, I had subjected my husband to months of vegan dining, thinking that we could eat vegan together in America and live happily ever after.
But there was a huge problem with that.
John grew up in a culture and household where people eat meat. It’s a normal part of life in China. Granted, when he was younger meat wasn’t as prevalent as it is today. But if people had meat, they were going to put it on the table.
So when you try to force a guy who grew up eating meat to go without, he gets grumpy. And it’s not fun to live with a grumpy husband.
So I started making a little meat on the side, just for John. Some red-braised pork. Baked chicken legs and chicken wings. The occasional fish too. Anything his carnivorous side desired.
Suddenly, my husband transformed into a much pleasant guy. It was a miracle for both of us to finally live in a house with a lot less arguing going on.
And since he was happy about his food, he decided to reciprocate. So whenever I went to do shopping at the store, he would encourage me to indulge my crazy vegan cravings and buy what John called a little “rewarding food”. Things like vegan cheese and faux meats and soy yogurt.
Sometimes, we’d end up having meals where the two of us might eat completely different things. At one end, there’s John digging into his red-braised pork. And at the other, there’s me tucking into a vegan Mexican wrap (with my favorite Daiya vegan cheese).
As bizarre as it might seem to be eating two different things at exactly the same time, it has really worked for us. This is reciprocity in action – both of us were happy because we accommodated each other’s personal cravings and needs.
We’ve extended that kind of reciprocity to other things in our life. For example, nowadays when we watch TV here in Hangzhou, I’ll let me husband tune into some of his favorite China news programs. Then he’ll toss me the remote after a while, so I can catch the kind of TV I like (such as romantic comedies and love stories – yeah, I’m a sucker for romance, can’t you tell?).
I think any couple – especially couples who hail from different cultures – would benefit from a little reciprocity in their lives.
What do you think? What strategies have you used in your own relationship to reduce arguments?