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Peter lived for nearly a half-decade in China, including two as a Peace Corps volunteer, and is the author of Socrates in Sichuan: Chinese Students Search for Truth, Justice and the (Chinese) Way. It is the intention of his blog to foster the sort of intercultural understanding necessary for long term relationships.
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What are a Chinese woman and Western man doing in India?    

By Peter V
1196 Views | 7 Comments | 5/10/2017 4:19:05 AM

This India adventure has been interesting. Four months as a Fulbright scholar has offered me the opportunity to interact with Indian college students, Uber drivers, and vegetable vendors; to walk in the footsteps of the Buddha, trace the journey of Rama, and float on the holy Ganges; to view Bollywood movies, Indian art shows, and the classical dance form of Bharatanatyam; to learn the difference among nan, roti, and paratha, as well as that among tabla, tampura, and sitar. In short, to experience first-hand—even if only in a limited and at an ultimately superficial level—India.

 

Notice, I did not say to know India. A mere four months here does not allow me to make any such hubristic claim. Like Socrates, the only type of knowledge I would claim is knowledge of my own ignorance. Which is not to say I learned nothing as a result of my visit. However, the one piece of knowledge I would lay claim to seems both disconnected from India (in that it could have occurred in almost any country) and difficult to classify, neither a knowledge that or knowledge how. More like a knowledge what. I know what it is like to exist on an equal cultural footing with Yong. This situation has not only been responsible for generating a type of empathy that is especially important in intercultural relationship but also for introducing a new possibility into our future.

 

But first, empathy. For obvious reasons, most culturally mixed marriages usually unfold in the homeland of one of the participants, often not because of any conscious plan but because of the circumstances of the situation: employment, family health, immigration issues. Whatever the rationale, the result is that someone in the relationship invariably possesses what Seinfeld called “hand,” the superior position in the relationship. An inherent state of inequality exists. One member of the pair can read the street signs, interpret the cultural signals, order what they truly want at restaurants, and, in general, gets to feel at home in the world, while the other must subsist as a stranger in a strange land. Sophie Tucker said, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.” Just so, I have been the resident as well as the alien. Being at home in the world is preferable.

 

The problem with one person having the superior position is that is difficult for those in a superior position to feel empathy for the struggles of those in an inferior position. If I have adequate health care, more than enough to eat, and can afford to send my kids go to great schools, I will find it difficult to relate those without health care, sufficient food, or decent school choice options.  Such a gap cannot be bridged by an act of will alone; wishing or wanting empathy doesn’t generate the emotional state. Empathy, social researchers inform us, requires more concrete steps. In an article titled “Social Empathy” in the Journal of Social Research, Elizabeth Segal details one effective step: “examination of other groups and cultures through the eyes of members of other groups and cultures can increase empathy and inform us about the impact of social conditions.” In other words, the more you can walk a mile in someone’s shoes, the more likely you are to empathize with their position and to take actions based on that empathy.

 

Applied to an cross cultural dating, this means actually experiencing what it is like to live in another cultural can go a long way in helping you (the partner in the preferable position, culturally speaking) develop empathy what your partner is going through. This then is what India has allowed me to do, to experience the disorientation that Yong must undergo on a daily basis back in America. I should note that this is hardly a new situation from me. I lived for nearly a half-decade in China and experienced more than my share of cultural frustration: failing to be understood despite speaking the local language, unable to order what I truly want at a restaurant, and sometimes being unable even to decipher the menu, limited in what I could purchase in supermarkets and retail stores, confused by things said in movie lines and airplanes, deprived of cultural familiarity of newspapers and TV shows and movies in my native language.

 

But it’s been a while. And so the humiliation and daily defeats (as well as the occasional victory) involved in living in another culture have faded from memory the way that in summer we forget the cold winds of winter and in winter we cannot imagine we were ever too warm. India, then, has been a much-needed refresher course in cultural displacement.

 

But, as I mentioned above, there’s one more thing. Just as a desert sandstorm might unveil the tip of some hitherto buried ancient relic—the head a statue of Dionysius or the roof of a temple of Baal—so this tempestuous time in India has provided me with a peak of something I had not hitherto contemplated. As befitting this land of spiritual enlightenment, a land that has given the world both Buddha and Gandhi, living here with Yong has opened my eyes to the possibility of a new way of being in the world—a way that may in fact point to a new path forward in our lives: the possibility of living in a third culture, one we are both strangers in.

 

Living in a culture that is alien to both of us offers the option of existing without the inequalities and threat of the loss of empathy that can imperil an intercultural relationship. If you are both experiencing, say, the frustration of not being understood in a situation, you are more likely to express, process and perhaps even laugh at the anger it together, whereas if it is an event that occurs to only one of you (the cultural outsider) there is the danger of internalizing that anger and at an inconvenient time projecting it onto your partner. In addition to allowing you to sidestep a potential negative in your intercultural relationship, living in a third culture opens up to you the joys of mutual discoveries of your adopted culture—a joy that is simply unavailable to at least one of you if you are already in your homeland.

 

Of course there are obvious drawbacks to adopting a third country as your homeland (more on that in another article). And for reasons I won’t go into here (cheeseburger), India would not be my choice for that third culture for us to settle in. But living in a culture that is alien to both of us is something I will be considering, and that I invite others, if that is a real possibility, to keep in mind who have the option.

 

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(Showing 1 to 7 of 7) 1
#2017-05-10 04:18:46 by JohnAbbot @JohnAbbot

Peter, I opened this article expecting an in depth discussion of India, the pros, the cons and the difficult to explain. What I got was something much different, and much deeper.  I should have expected no less.  It's always a treat to read your blogs, because you always write find such a different angle to view things from than I, and I suspect most others, would think of.

You really have me thinking now about whether living in a third culture, one that is neither that of yourself or of your partner, would be beneficial or not. 

It seems that you have found it to be a uniting force in your relationship, or I assume you wouldn't be considering it as a future practise. Did Yong feel the same way, that it helped build a bridge between you?

For my own part, I suspect that two people in a cross cultural relationship may find that living in a third culture that is unfamiliar to them might find it to be a very good test of their relationship. In other words, as opposed to strengthening their relationship, it may be a good indicator that their relationship is already strong. Likewise, if their bond is already weak, it might be the final grenade that rents their realtionship asunder.

Either way, whether it strengthens the bond, or merely reveals that the bond is a strong one, it seems it has been good for the two of you. Congratulations on that. It bodes well for a long future together.

#2017-05-10 09:42:45 by melcyan @melcyan

Thank God for Yong! 

 

The change that your relationship.with Yong has made in you is amazing. There is a new depth to the way you write and see the world around you.

 

It will take me a while to fully digest your words here. Meanwhile, congratulations on winning a Fulbright scholarship. I sense that you will put it to great use.

#2017-05-10 17:50:29 by Barry1 @Barry1

@woaizhongguo

 

"living in a culture that is alien to both of us is something I will be considering, and that I invite others, if that is a real possibility, to keep in mind who have the option"

 

Interesting thoughts, Peter.  I've been considering living in a third country not for empathic, cultural or mind-expanding reasons but purely economic ones.  Initially my country of choice was to be Thailand but over the past couple of years, I've heard more negatives than positives from expats living there unfortunately. Paul tells me his preferred country now is Vietnam where the populace is more welcoming, the beaurocracy less constrictive, the vibe generally is more genuine.

 

In principle though, I heartily agree that for those able, traveling and residence within a variety of countries and cultures is a wonderful plan. Even more so if the culture is foreign to both partners. Too many of us are way too insular, way too blinkered in thinking to seriously contemplate such an activity however.  Or else, they simply can't afford it, natural enough in today's highly pressured, high expense, dog eat dog world. 

 

I have a friend in Mumbai who has invited me to visit.  Thanking him however, I declined his offer because I know this huge city would be similar in many ways to so many other huge cities in the world, with masses of people, masses of traffic, masses of both poverty as well as extraordinary wealth.  I think I'd prefer to sit under a coconut tree in a South Pacific island such as Fiji or Vanuatu, watching the waves languidly roll in.

 

A thought provoking article, Peter.   (beer)(y)

 

 

 

 

#2017-05-15 11:59:31 by melcyan @melcyan

 

 

Peter, I have thought about your suggestion several times since you first posted this blog. I tend to agree with John that the fact that your relationship was on solid ground to start with, made a crucial positive difference to your experience in India. A "third culture environment" or a "continuous travel environment" for many months puts a strain on a relationship that either strengthens or weakens it.

 

John asked you a question “Did Yong feel the same way, that it helped build a bridge between you?” I strongly suspect that the answer is “yes” but I doubt that it is an identical “yes”. Can you share Yong’s version of the benefits of your India experience?

 

I doubt that my partner and I would choose to do the same as you and Yong if we were given the opportunity. However, I think your third culture option can in some ways be practised at “home”. I think my partner and I have had a similar experience to your India experience through dance. Ballroom dancing can be considered a culture with its own language. A language of body, mind and spirit. We are a much stronger dancing team now than when we first started dancing. Our relationship is much stronger now than when we first started dancing. It could have gone the other way. We have seen couples break up after exposing their relationship to the heat of learning ballroom dancing together.

 

How a couple learns together is absolutely crucial to the success of a relationship. After thinking about this blog I am starting to think that there are at least three critical dimensions to the learning of a couple in a cross-cultural relationship.

 

Dimension one – engage collaborative learning in the culture of the wife, where the wife is the senior learner in the partnership. Dimension two – engage collaborative learning in the culture of the husband, where the husband is the senior learner in the partnership. Dimension three -engage collaborative learning in a “third culture” where the husband and wife have an equal footing as co-learners. My use of “third culture” here could mean India or Ballroom dancing or any activity that allows a husband and wife to function as equals in their co-learning.

 

 

#2017-05-17 03:07:14 by woaizhongguo @woaizhongguo

@JohnAbbot: I agree the relationship probably needs to be strong to begin with before you move to a third culture, and it is probably not the best way for the new intercultural couple to start out.

@Barry1: To be sure, insularity is a common condition among mankind. Indeed, it is a desire to have a new experience as much (or more than) the belief that it would be helpful to our relationship that is behind my interest in a third country. Sickened by my home country and having already experienced a half decade in China, I seek some new experience.

@melcyan: Good question. I had not thought to ask her until your suggestion about her attitude towards India. Unsurprisingly, she is not so hot on a third country. As much as she enjoyed India and loves to travel, she is a simple Chinese girl who would prefer to live in her homeland. Your idea of practicing a third “language” at home by taking up a new activity is probably a much saner way of accomplishing the same end. Your three dimension idea is one all intercultural couples would do well to institute.

#2018-04-22 13:09:24 by sandy339 @sandy339

As usual, Peter's blogs are so informative to me, both in the rich content and writing style:)  I have been in India for three months, also wrote something about it, maybe quite different from yours(rofl).  I could share it here only if John could delate my pic here, lol. ok my suggested options might be Singopore, both English and Chinese languages are spoken, both of you might feel comfortable. My preferred place is Italy, but I have never been there, I like the culture and slow pace there. But they are all the places I would like be for a while , minght not want to settle in, and might find a clear place in China finally to settle down when I am too old to travel, who knows:)

#2018-04-23 12:07:07 by JohnAbbot @JohnAbbot

@sandy339 - I'd love to post what you wrote about your time in India, or anything else you have written that is relevant to us here. But I'm not sure which picture you want me to remove.

If you mean your picture on your blogs, please provide me a replacement picture. It doesn't have to be a picture of you, but of something you feel has some meaning about you would suffice. For example, Cao Huis replaced her personal photo with a picture of a Panda, and her blogs became "Panda's Blog". See it here:

https://blog.chinalovematch.net/blog/space/Cao-Huis-Blog

Or you can provide a picture in which you are very small and can't be recognized. For example see the photo that Ken Silver switched to on his blogs here:

https://blog.chinalovematch.net/blog/space/Ken-Silvers-Blog-About-Asia

He's in the photo but nobody is going to recognize him.

Send me the blog and photo to service@chinalovematch.net with Attn: John in the subject line, and I'll take care of that for you. Please also include a photo to go with the blog itself.

If you meant some other photo, like your membership profile photo, please explain and I'll get that done for you as well.

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