• Angie Cui reflects on the challenges of having a harmonious marriage when you and your partner come from different cultural backgrounds. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Making my cross-cultural marriage work is about more than less curry or less soy sauce.
By
Angie Cui

17 Sep 2019 - 8:27 AM  UPDATED 18 Sep 2019 - 7:34 AM

Although mixed-race marriages are common these days, people often are surprised that my husband is not Chinese. My usual response is: “Why would you marry someone who is as the same as you?”

I came to Australia from China when I was 18 years old to study in Melbourne. At the same time my husband Tom came from Bangladesh to study in Sydney. We met through an online dating website during our final year at university. And after we graduated, he moved to Melbourne to be with me and we got married at age 23 and 24.

Mixed-race marriages are common. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, about 30 per cent of registered marriages were of partners born in different countries in 2016, compared with just 18 per cent in 2006.

At the beginning of our marriage, my husband used to say: “As a couple, we don’t feel like we’re from different cultures or religions, we’re just two people who were destined to fall in love.” It was a romantic notion we carried through our honeymoon period and beyond.

But now, seven years later, cultural cracks are starting to appear. Installing harmony in a mixed marriage is not just about less curry or less soy sauce, there are more issues and complicated nuances to consider.

These issues came to the fore when we became parents. Although my husband and I have shared similar experiences in Australia, our cultural differences surface when we discuss how to raise our children aged two and three.

Sometimes, we fight over small things. Most Chinese people wear shoes outdoors and we take our shoes off before we come back into the house. Going barefoot outdoors is very uncommon because you’ll bring the dirt and dust back into the house.

So when I insist on our kids putting their shoes on before they go into the backyard, my husband says: "Relax! Let them get dirty!" In Bangladesh, it's perfectly normal to go barefoot in your backyard. It might seem like a minor point of disagreement, but it causes an underlying tension.

So when I insist on our kids putting their shoes on before they go into the backyard, my husband says: "Relax! Let them get dirty!"

Another thorny issue we have is about religion. My husband comes from a traditional Hindu family, so he believes our kids will follow Hinduism too. However, my family isn’t religious at all. When my husband wants to take our kids to temple for a Hindu ceremony, I disagree.

“Don’t think that’s too early for them?” I ask.

“I have been going since I was a child!” he replies. 

While I respect his religion, I’d prefer to let our children decide on their own religious choices when they grow up. It’s a minefield we’re still trying to navigate.

According to Dr Karen Phillip, a counselling psychotherapist and author of Communication Harmony, “Any difference in values can create problems.” She says: “You don’t have to follow each other’s sets of cultural and religious backgrounds, but you need to negotiate, then develop a solution together.”

To help us negotiate a solution, my husband and I have started seeing a marriage consultant because bare feet in the backyard and religion aren’t the only things causing strain.

To help us negotiate a solution, my husband and I have started seeing a marriage consultant because barefeet in the backyard and religion aren’t the only things causing strain.

There’s also the issue of what language to speak at home. I speak English with my husband because that’s our common language. And I usually speak Chinese to my kids because I want them to have a good relationship with their Chinese-speaking grandparents.

When I teach them how to count in Mandarin: “Yi, Er, San …” my husband says,  “Kids, say one, two, three.”

My husband is concerned our children will develop an accent and may get bullied at school.  I understand my husband’s desire for our kids to embrace English but wouldn’t it be nice if our kids could also communicate in his mother tongue Bengali with Dadu and Dida (Grandpa and Grandma)?

My husband is concerned our children will develop an accent and may get bullied at school.

It seems that the seven-year mark is a turning point, though our marriage consultant assures us that these arguments are normal. According to Dr Phillip, “After about seven years, a mortgage has occurred, and children have arrived. These can escalate any problems for couples.

“Understanding is essential,” Dr Phillip explains. “Understand the reason each partner feels and believes the way they do.” My husband and I have had a few conversations about which language our children should speak.

We've agreed to have one "second language day" every week. On that particular day, we can only speak either Mandarin or Bengali. It also means I will learn some Bengali and he will learn some Mandarin.

Perhaps we should have identified our cultural differences a lot earlier. However, seeing a marriage consultant has helped provide some structure to the way we communicate. Instead of getting angry or frustrated, we first try to work out whether it's a deeper cultural issue at heart.

I feel blessed for my marriage and the chance to live between two cultures.

I feel blessed for my marriage and the chance to live between two cultures. As my husband says: "Being in a mixed marriage has made us open-minded with everything." Most of the time, it pushes us to be more patient and flexible with each other - it’s a lifetime experience. 

That doesn’t mean everything is smooth sailing. We still disagree, we’re still seeing the marriage consultant – but we’re working on it.

Angie Cui is a freelance writer. 

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