Tag Archives: multicultural relationships

Where is ‘Home’ in an Intercultural Relationship?

Ten years ago I would have bet my left lung that we would never  move to Nigeria. Sure my husband is Nigerian but we met in England and his whole family was here at the time. ‘Home’ was here and the idea of settling anywhere else just a nebulous reality.

Perhaps that’s the clincher though. When you marry someone who originates from somewhere else, the concept of ‘home’ represents different things to you and your partner and moving back always remains a possibility.

Three years and two kids into our marriage, my husband started to get those itchy feet that many of his friends and siblings had already succumbed to. The desire to return ‘home’ again, to embrace his identity and show his own children where they come from. The economic opportunities were nothing to turn your nose down to either. So off we went. Sure, it wasn’t my home but I was all for an adventure. I just didn’t have a clue what I was in for.

seesaw
Soon after we arrived in Nigeria

We moved to Nigeria in 2013, full of hopes of better opportunities in  what was (at the time) a growing economy and a supportive extended family waiting for us.

The latter proved more than I could have asked for. The former, much less promising and harder work than we’d anticipated.

With two young children, it was tough.

I had been used to being quite independent over here. Although England isn’t my home country, it was similar enough to Canada that I’d been able to find what I needed, had formed a community around me and could function, for the most part, independently.

In Nigeria however, I felt very out of my league. It’s not that I hadn’t travelled before. In fact, I’d lived in Ghana for six months, years earlier following my undergraduate degree. But this seemed different. It wasn’t just me anymore, I had kids to take care of, a husband to consider and in-laws living in close proximity. None of this was a problem in itself, but the context was so different, I remember feeling so alone.

My husband was busy jump starting his business and although he was supportive, he did need to be at work- that was the whole point of us being there. As I contemplated each day’s activities for the children, I was struck by how helpless I actually felt. You couldn’t just look up the local playgroup on the internet, there were few parks and open spaces where you could hang out (and even if you did, the height of the afternoon was too hot and the malaria-carrying mosquitoes were often a concern). In any case, much of what I wanted to do I couldn’t because it either wasn’t safe (Nigeria is plagued with many security issues and going out as a foreigner with little knowledge of where I was going and by myself would have been a recipe for disaster), too far or it was too hot to go there at that time of day.

I began to get swallowed up into that hole of despair, uniquely identified as stage 3 of the culture shock pendulum.

I blamed my husband for everything that went wrong. When the temperature hiked to plus 40 degrees, when the rain flooded our compound so we’d have to drive through water that came up to our side mirrors, when my girls got mosquito bites and we thought there was a threat of malaria, when they got a runny tummy, when the driver left and started sending us threatening texts asking for more money, when we couldn’t recruit another so I took to driving myself (which, if anyone knows anything about Lagos driving, is tough), when we found rats had somehow found a way into the car and had chewed holes in the girls’ car seats, when I couldn’t find a school for my daughter that wasn’t insisting that two year olds should be able to count to 100… the list went on…

I was frustrated, angry and ‘stuck’, feeling as if I’d never find happiness over there and it would never feel like home. I knew something had to change or I’d lose it and for the sake of my relationship with my husband and for my kids, I had to make a change.

I realised that in moving to a different country and one as different as Nigeria, I was still comparing it to England. And for that, I was paying the price. It wasn’t my ‘home’ but it could be.

Slowly, with this realisation, I stopped trying to compare my life in Nigeria to my life in England. I began to appreciate what Nigeria could offer me instead of what it couldn’t. Instead of crying over a £12 punnet of strawberries, I began to buy local fruit and relished the sweet organic taste of fresh watermelon, pineapple, papaya, mangoes and oranges.

‘Home’ began to take on a new meaning.

 

Crucially, I met a group of women who became my lifeline. They called themselves Nigerwives: foreign women married to Nigerian men who’d found in each other a sense of sisterhood for the very reasons I’d described. They recognised that they weren’t expats and they were far from local, even though some could have traced their roots back to Nigeria at some point in their gene pool. Instead, all these women had in common was the fact that we all identified with being foreign and were married to Nigerians. But that was all we needed.

In them, I found an outlet for all that I had been feeling towards the country and its differences. They not only understood my feelings but most of all, they were able to offer me community. Eventually, I found a couple of local parks which we frequented almost everyday and playdates became our daily dose of fun. I learned that to find something, it was really through word of mouth so I had tapped into a local community of knowledge. I was now, never lonely.

Eventually, I found a part time job at my daughter’s school. This too, gave me great solace and a community which was my own. When you move to one or the other’s country of origin, it’s hard for the foreign partner not to feel at a disadvantage because nothing is ‘theirs’ so to speak.

In my job, I had my own friends, community and even a little extra money in my pocket so that I could buy those strawberries and not feel guilty. I had made my new ‘home’ a reality.

Eventually I settled into life and discovered that Nigeria’s people and its social life were its main attractions. Not its tourism industry or the cuisine you might find at the local market. It was the people. Our social lives were crammed with invitations to birthday party after birthday party, each one topping the other for the outlandish display of fun for children of all ages. Invitations to weddings, baptisms, engagements and birthdays flew in.  It didn’t matter if you knew the bride and groom or not; so long as you knew someone close to the family, you were free to come, bring as many as you like, eat a good meal and dance the night away.  Our family was happy.

The experience has brought my hubby and I closer, not just because he knows that I can live in his country and survive but because I got an insight into who he is, his family and a lot of understanding into his ‘isms’. I know exactly what he means when he talks about home.

When you meet your partner abroad, it’s easy to think you know him/her because of who they are when they’re in that country. But inevitably, when your partner returns home, another part of them emerges. It’s not to say that my hubby became entirely Nigerian, his experience was fraught with frustrations as well, having lived abroad for almost 20 years and this being his only experience living in his home country as an adult. But it is and remains where he calls ‘home’.

We have no regrets, only broader minds, lifelong friends and a deeper desire to ensure our daughters know their Nigerian home. For me, it highlighted the fact that we are a family of many cultures and no matter where we live, Nigeria is definitely one more place we can authentically call home.

 

 

‘What are you on about??’: Focus on Intercultural Relationships

“Clear!”, he shouted as I clutched the wheel heading into more oncoming traffic. “What are you saying?! What does that mean?”, I shouted back. In desperation, the two of us just looked at each other, dumbfounded that the other seemed to be talking a different language.

“Pull over!”, my-then-boyfriend-now-husband said in exasperation as he realised I had no idea what he was on about.

Dutifully, I pulled over. Why didn’t he just say that? I remember thinking.

That was 10 years ago, our first realisation that although both of us spoke the same first language, lived in the same country and had many things in common, our upbringings were hugely different. And despite all of our commonalities, our differences were a much bigger challenge than we’d thought. “Clear”, I soon discovered, was a Nigerianism meaning pull over or pull to the side.

My husband and I originate from four parts of the globe as far apart from each other as you can get. My father is from Iran, my mother from England and I grew up in Canada. My husband was born and raised in Nigeria, with exposure to British colonial and cultural norms.

In any relationship, the challenges of ‘getting serious’, considering where is ‘home’, family, finances, gender roles, religion and raising children are all big questions. Throw cultural differences into the heap and you can almost feel as if you’re speaking different languages.

For us I think those big questions were obvious and we did tend to talk about them a lot before we said the big ‘I do’. But it was the little things that we didn’t consider and that we’re still discovering about each other. Things that research on this subject just doesn’t seem to explore.

It’s how we both think, the inherent ‘street wise’ instinct hubby has just from living in a country where ‘hustling’ is the norm. I lived the stereotypical suburban life in small town Alberta where locking our door during the day was unheard of. As a result, my husband is much more observant of people and things and subtleties than I am. Whether that’s just our personalities, I hasten to guess. But after travelling to Lagos and being chastised for handing over my passport to a customs officer in uniform and not keeping my eye on what he was doing with it, I realised I have much to learn about being streetwise.

I am also much more verbal than my husband. Again, this could just be down to personality because I know I am definitely more into chatting than he is.  But again, after spending some time in Nigeria, I realised people are expected to learn by observing rather than by explanation or asking questions. In my early twenties, I lived in Ghana and was so curious about everything I was experiencing. So I asked. It was my friend who was showing me the ropes who finally explained, ‘stop talking and just watch’. I often think back to that moment when my hubby and I are arguing over something I don’t understand.

Raising children in the way we were both brought up can become another battleground. Questioning what one partner might take for granted as normal becomes an accepted part of your everyday. Simply because ‘that’s how I was brought up’ and ‘how can you question it?’ just doesn’t cut it.

Take our debate about piercing our daughter’s ears when our eldest was born. I knew it was a cultural tradition and pretty much every Nigerian girl has their ears pierced when they’re born- including all my nieces. But cultural tradition wasn’t enough for me. He wasn’t able to give an answer as to why it was important and in the end, he conceded it might be better to wait. We then faced the often unpleasant comments from other Nigerians questioning ‘why aren’t her ears pierced’ and ‘how can we tell if she’s a girl or not?’ I wasn’t too bothered about being asked.

More than 10 years later, our lives have taken us to Nigeria and back, to Edmonton, Canada for long extended stays and now back to London, England. It’s been good for us to spend time in each other’s ‘homes’- learning more about each other than we ever could have just through communication. But England offers us something neither of these countries can. A neutral ground for us as a couple where we’re both just as lost as the other trying to decipher things like ‘what is the real pronunciation of ‘neither’?

We’re making choices as we go and sometimes the simplest of tasks or events can lead to debate. It’s often exhausting and I have to admit I do sometimes envy marriages between people who’ve grown up together in the same town and who can relate on so many levels.

But as time goes on, I think my husband and I are both beginning to grow having been confronted with the question ‘why?’. Consciously unravelling and exploring exactly who we are and why we believe in certain things can be uncomfortable. But isn’t all growth?  And with more consciousness comes understanding, empathy and compromise. Characteristics that hopefully our children will learn to value.

For more about intercultural relationships, read 10 Things to Consider Before Having Kids in an Interracial Relationship