It is with great knowledge that I write about this. A knowledge that is based on direct experience, acquired through constantly facing one of the most difficult yet funny circumstances of cross cultural relationships. It doesn’t matter for how long you have studied a language, or how many times you have dated people native to that particular tongue. There will be moments when you will have no idea what’s going on. Trust me, it is not that you needed more time in school, no, that’s not the issue. Somethings are so cultural that even years of study will not help you to be part of them, it is who they are in their most active expressive conditioning. It’s a struggle to be around your in-laws in those particular moments. But do not lose fate, there is always a moment after when it all becomes clear, and all you can do is laugh about it.
Can you picture this scenario: you go into a Spanish restaurant and all you can understand is hello. You sit down, look at the menu and order that which has a colorful picture and a Budweiser. The world around moved untouched by your interaction, yet you were there, as present as those old ladies in the corner, drinking coffee and talking nonstop. The food came, you had a sip of beer. The waiter passed you by, then came back and with hand signal asked you if everything was ok and you mumbled: – Muy Bueno! Then you finished your food, left a nice tip and walked out. It is like going to the movies, right? You are a mere observer, not really an active participant of the life around you. Sometimes spending time in your international in-laws home may end up resulting in a similar scenario, including talking in hand signals. The way they deal with things passes by you like a breeze, and all you can do is admire it. Even if someone comes and translate bits and pieces of what is going on, you still feel pulled by “how it looks” more than by “what is actually happening”.
Many times, I have seen my husband in my own family gatherings and he has that “I am a tourist and my bags have just been stolen, can you point me towards the nearest airport?” look on his face. My Spanish is a little better than his French, but we both are constantly looking to each other with the typical “quick translation please” glance when we are visiting our relatives. I remember the first time we had a Christmas meal at my aunt’s house in Quebec. Everyone was trying to speak the little English they knew to make him feel comfortable. I had never seen my relatives so eager to communicate. Even now, they still do the same, with the difference that my partner speaks some French now and understand way more than back in those early days of our relationship. The fact that our family members are so helpful when it comes to our partner makes an enormous difference for us. Half the battle is won due to this help.
We both sometimes feel like that mere observer in the restaurant during those get-togethers. There are things we are so accustomed to that for an outsider may seem like an instrument out of tune. So that’s why it is important to take the time to explain to your partner how some inner family events can only be understood in the feeling they carry instead of solely by the language being used, otherwise you are always going to find him or her with a dictionary in the bathroom or trying to download a language app every time there is a family dinner or brunch. Imagine twenty or so Quebecois and a Cuban in the same room. Trust me, if I had a camera filming every time we felt that awkwardness of not truly following whats going on, we would have a TV show by now. We could call it “the moment when the dictionary fails, and your partner is nowhere to be found”. Wouldn’t that be something? I have been in the same spot as him, and Cubans and Quebecois people are very, very loud. We may not have a lot in common, but loudness, that’s a definite similarity.
So if you ever find yourself in those situations, act normal, don’t despair. Sit back, enjoy the show and write down those twenty questions you want clarified later that night. We all fall prey to the localism and expressive communication of our loved one’s background. Enjoy its music!