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Bridging a Cultural Distance

Bridging a Cultural Distance

Because my now husband is German and I am American, we met at a cultural distance. After living in a country that was foreign to us both, then visiting Germany and moving to America, we have learned to take steps to bridge that gap. While our cultural and linguistic differences are many, they are also exactly what have drawn us together.

 I’ll never forget the first time P’s use of my native language caught me off guard. It was at his hostel in Cambodia, where I had signed up to bartend for room and board. We were preparing snacks for a motorbike trip in the jungle, when P, the hostel’s German owner, announced, “Alright, let’s go out into the green!” I remember laughing at his phrasing, thinking how odd and how poetic it sounded. 

In the years since then, during which we’ve mostly communicated in my native language, I have learned to translate P’s English in my mind. Instead of suggesting more common and understandable sayings, I use each turn of phrase as an opportunity to see the world differently.

Many experiences I’ve had in my relationship with my husband have shown me a new perspective that I appreciate.

Not all of them have been positive. 

The Cultural distance, illustrated

Take, for instance, the conflicting qualities of American politeness and German honesty. There was a morning during the last few months when I woke up early to make breakfast. Both of us had been working hard and barely fitting in meals between restaurant shifts, and I wanted to cook us something to enjoy together. Later, over a breakfast of a bacon and egg scramble with potatoes, I asked P how his food was. “Honestly? Not good.” 

I was crushed. 

When I confided in him that the comment had been hurtful, P was taken aback. “So you want me to lie to you?” 

Having to explain the difference between lying and avoiding a hurtful truth was frustrating. It’s been a common theme in our relationship, however. A few times he’s even scoffed at my greetings of friends on the street – “how are you”s followed by some version of “good and you?” – as American fakeness. 

Although I can see across the cultural distance (or chasm) to understand the value of honesty, I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to shed my polite reflexes, or if P will be able to say anything other than the direct truth. As in any marriage, we are learning to build a bridge between us. That way, we can practice taking steps towards each other before retreating back to our separate ways.

How we’re fighting to close the gap in our marriage

Part of what has helped my husband and me adapt to our differences is spending time abroad and in each other’s countries. After meeting in P’s hostel in Cambodia, we lived in the country together for a little over a year. In an environment where everything was foreign, we felt like we had a lot more in common than not. Our identities as travelers in a multi-cultural expat community brought us together. 

When we left Cambodia, we spent a month together in Germany. 

Suddenly, I was the foreigner, and everything I saw, heard, and ate was of P’s world. 

I met his family and saw how they acted around each other, ate his favorite foods, struggled to get a foothold in his complex language. I witnessed real German honesty at play among friends, learned the funny and poetic German phrases that I had heard translated into English, and came to see P as a product of his environment. And just like that, the cultural distance shrank.

After our time in Germany, we spent a week with my family in Massachusetts and then moved to Colorado, where we’ve been for the past two years. Living full-time in the nation where I was raised, in a culture that feels familiar (even if I don’t fully identify with it) has been interesting for our relationship. 

Building a bridge over our cultural distance

My husband has taken big steps over the bridge between our cultures (I even heard him recently answer “good and you?” to someone asking “hey, how are ya?”), and I’ve found myself retreating towards him. Instead of being a stranger in each other’s culture, we have now built our own. We speak in a mixture of English, German, and Khmer, we listen to English and German music, we eat hamburgers one day and schnitzel the next. 

But best of all, we sit on the bridge we’ve built in between our two worlds, and give each other glimpses of a completely different perspective. And that is what I love about our relationship.

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