On international dating…

As you may have noticed from brief mentions in previous posts, I’ve finally succumb to the charm and got an Italian boyfriend. I won’t lie that I was a bit uneasy about the idea. There are certain stereotypes about Italian guys that I’m sure we’ve all heard: sleazy mothers’ boys who are very romantic, yes, but are so with several women at the same time.

My first year and brief dating experience only confirmed these stereotypes. To give you just a couple of examples, a man in a park who got my number through sheer persistence spent days messaging me calling me his “angel”, and an encounter on a train with a guy who actually seemed interesting ended with me backing off very quickly when he started our Whatsapp conversation with heart emoticons (hearts, after one hour of knowing me?). However, thankfully, one guy ended up proving me wrong and turning me into a hypocrite for all my “I will never be with an Italian” rants. It’s been well over a year with him now, so…oops. Of course, the main attraction is that he would never dare to call me his angel and waited at least a month or so before adding any hearts to Whatsapp messages.

There are and will always be, however, certain difficulties in any foreign relationship. Honesty and trust become all the more important when bonding across cultures and languages. I have been lucky that I found someone who has both these qualities, but most importantly is aware, like me, of potential problems:

  1. You cannot share childhood experiences. Or rather, you can, but you will never fully understand, enjoy, or empathise for the other’s. Childhood games and TV shows always seem strange to think about as adults, yet we remember them fondly and even still enjoy because they were a joint cultural experience that we grew up with. Of course, other nationalities will have had different TV shows and different games that marked their upbringing. You can inform each other about them, but you will never share the fondness that you would with people from your own culture. For me, for instance, I could still watch SM:TV and thoroughly enjoy it, yet on showing it to my boyfriend he was understandably completely bemused.

  2. You cannot quote TV shows or films accurately. Not exactly a relationship maker or breaker, but still relevant to a geek like me who enjoys quoting from top sci fi, fantasy and comedy TV shows and films. You might well share the same interest in films and TV, have even watched the same things … but you will have watched them in different languages, so quoting accurately is difficult (because most TV translations are never exact, but adapted to that language). M (his name is going to be M from now on) and I are steadily getting past this through watching things in the same language, and luckily are such nerds that we know our favourites films well enough to understand even a miss-translated quote. Still, there has sometimes been sadness knowing I can’t accurately recount the ridiculous Frodo – Sam scenes with him.

  3. Your sense of humour will be slightly different. Or, even if they are similar, you probably won’t enjoy the same comedians or comedic styles. Comedy is very much entwined with language and culture. You’ll notice that most comedians joke about everyday things, but these everyday things will be based upon that culture’s lifestyle. It is also popular to make jokes about the nuances of language. Both of these are difficult to truly enjoy if you were not raised on that culture or language, because – even if you understand it – you do not have the same feel for it as a native would. Comedic style also differs across cultures, with some enjoying more slapstick comedy, and others more subtle. Don’t be upset if your other half doesn’t laugh at your favourite comedian, or vice versa. Spending more time absorbing the other culture might help: it’s only after three years in Italy that I’ve found comedians I really enjoy.

  4. Be aware of cultural differences in gender and family. It goes without saying that gender and family traditions can be very different across different cultures. I have learnt, for instance, that family is far more important in Italy, and gender stereotypes are a lot more traditional. However, this also depends on the person you date: everyone has their own values. M is not as traditional as many other Italians I’ve met, which works in my favour (he’s happy to cook and clean, and doesn’t mind me swearing). Just bear in mind that some views you may see as “old fashioned” could simply be a part of their upbringing – the great thing about international dating is that you open yourself up to these different social norms, become more accepting of them, and maybe even change some of your own beliefs.

  5. Bear in mind the language differences. You may well be lucky enough to have one or even both of your mother tongues in common, but even if you are at an advanced language level, understanding sarcasm and expressions is difficult, and often doesn’t translate too well. I find it a lot harder being sarcastic in Italian without being outright insulting, where as the English language seems to lend itself to sarcasm perfectly – but an Italian still might not get it. Just a few other examples:

  • Things seen as light humour in one language might be extremely offensive in another. Italian still has the scarily common expression “lavorare come un negro” – I refuse to translate this, do so at your own offence. But yes, different cultural beliefs (and apparently their advances in racial awareness) will lead to different levels of political correctness in regards to humour.

  • Similarly, certain exclamations might be seen as offensive, and translations of swear words have different impacts. Swearing to God in Italian can still be extremely frowned upon, and is technically still illegal, and expressions like “son of a bitch” translate more offensively into “figlio di putana” – “son of a whore”.

  • Even compliments can be mistranslated, or taken differently. It’s common to call people good in Italian when they do well at something, even as adults. M will often compliment me on my successes by saying “brava ragazza”, yet in English this would come across as extremely patronising, “good girl”.

There are complications and difficulties in communication in any relationship: one with two languages and two cultures only heightens this, yet also adds an element of excitement that you cannot find otherwise. Everything that is normal to you can be new and completely different to the other: you get to experience their thrill of discovering and exploring your own culture, and vice versa. The lack of a shared native tongue also forces you to be honest with each other, since language games will not work. If you are open to learning and understanding each other’s cultures (and this has to work both ways, or someone is going to be left out), an international relationship can be the most exciting and rewarding thing – and you might just find yourself understanding a foreigner better than anyone from your own country.

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