Love across borders is as old as love itself: from Othello and Desdemona to Mork and Mindy, there have been countless examples of couples that have combated a cultural or racial difference to join their lives.
Now more and more Irish men and women are joining their lives with people from different cultures and different countries all over the world. But what happens when you fall in love with someone from another culture, another country, who speaks another language, and whose very notion of love might be different from your own?
That’s what Dr Rebecca Chiyoko King-O’Riain from the Dept of Sociology at Maynooth University, is looking to find out in her study of the globalisation of love in an Irish context. ‘I’m just trying to understand the dynamics of these relationships and particularly in a modern age of increased diversity in Ireland, of increased migration and mobility of people, and also increased use of technology. What does this mean for very intimate emotions?’
To find out, King-Ó’Riain has been collating the information gleaned from interviewing intercultural couples to find out just how their differing cultural concepts of love affect their relationships. Already it seems that regardless of cultural inheritance, there are some things that are universally understood. ‘When I asked people how did you know you were ‘in love’, nobody stopped me and said ‘What do you mean by ‘in love’?’ she notes. ‘Everybody knows what we mean, nobody had to seek verification, no matter where they’re from.’
Three scenarios of love?
In her interview guide, King-Ó’Riain gives people three scenarios to describe their experience of love, the first being a romantic instant connection, the second an arranged marriage, and the third a practical arrangement based on factors like age and time spent together.
‘It’s very interesting that when presented with those three scenarios, everybody, even people from places like Bangladesh where they have arranged marriages, reject all three of them,’ says King-Ó’Riain. ‘I wasn’t anticipating that!’
The findings indicate that many see the first option as over-simplified, yet the somewhat more cynical alternatives don’t match their experiences either. ‘Then I ask them ‘How did you fall in love? How did you know it was serious?’ and interestingly a lot of times it was shaped by Irish citizenship.’ In other words, many cross cultural couples may have been in the initial phases of euphoric love, but took a decision to make a commitment so that the non-Irish partner could make a home in Ireland. ‘So love is also a motivation for migration, which is the other thing that we didn’t really anticipate.’
But how do such decisions – to move your life to another country for love – affect the workings of intimate relationships? ‘It makes the power dynamic in a relationship very uneven,’ explains King-Ó’Riain. ‘It ascribes huge responsibility and puts huge strain on the relationship.’ Added to this are the complications of keeping up connections with the families left behind in such a move. ‘Trying to maintain ties with the home – or sending-country – becomes incredibly complex, so the family love of extended family, trying to link the kids with the grandparents back in the home country, is incredibly complicated and expensive.’
When a language difference is added in, the situation becomes even more complex. ‘It complicates the family relationship, in some circles, particularly if the Irish person doesn’t speak the non Irish spouse’s language. What happens then is that they’re left out of the conversations that are going on.’ Yet for the children of such couples, growing up bilingual can have distinct advantages. ‘One of the couples I interviewed had three young kids, and the kids can switch linguistically. They speak in Cantonese and English at the same time – they can combine the two languages in the same sentence, and that’s very common in bilingual kids.’
The advantages of intercultural relationships also extend to a wider society. ‘International couples and particularly intercultural couples are at the frontline of integration, of social integration and multiculturalism.’ The increasing numbers of intercultural relationships in Ireland present increasing opportunities for the Irish government too. ‘If you look at the world from a broader perspective, these people bring huge resources, and their social networks are quite important. Their ties are already there. Somebody on the Irish side just needs to recognise and capitalise on that.’
Definition of home
Another area of investigation for King-O’Riain is how people in cross-cultural relationships define home. ‘They talk a lot about the fact that home isn’t the physical space, it’s not necessarily the tie to land… it’s much more fluid. In some interviews, they basically said home is where the heart is, and the heart is with my partner, and that happens to be in Ireland right now, and with my children. It’s very interesting. It’s about the creation of family.’
Yet despite the fact that definitions of love and home are clearly highly subjective, the Irish State still plays a role in regulating these unions through the marriage and citizenship processes. ‘One of the things lately is a lot of the international couples we’ve talked to have been accused of having sham marriages, which is a new thing, and I think it’s very difficult because that stereotype that we place on what in most cases is a very organic and loving relationship, is quite sad.’
Though the work continues, with King-Ó’Riain still actively looking for more couples to interview that might fit the bill, some surprises have already emerged from her research. ‘I thought there would be all these cultural miscommunications about love and about culture and what people expected out of it, one that would be culturally driven. The thing is that it’s not culturally driven: gender seems to be a big factor, and I think class is going to be a big factor too.’
And as it turns out, opposites don’t necessarily attract after all, with many of the couples interviewed having a lot more in common than might first appear. ‘The people who I’ve interviewed may seem very different on the outside – they may be different races or ethnicities from different countries and different cultures, they may speak different languages – but when you scratch the surface you find that they’re from a similar educational background, or that both grew up in the suburbs or both grew up in a rural setting, so there’s a parallel of experience there that I think is part of the attraction. They recognise themselves in the other person, and they have common values.’