This one goes out to everyone who’s ever asked me how I communicate with my boyfriend. (In English, is the answer.)
By Karen Juarez, University of Illinois at Chicago
When you start dating someone, your family and friends will usually be the first to grill you with questions.
Are they cute? How old are they? What do they study? Questions like these are common, as they show that the person asking cares about the individual in the relationship, as well as who they choose to emotionally invest in. However, there are some questions that cross the line, intruding into an uncomfortable area that makes answering them unpleasant for any variety of reasons.
I’m in an interracial relationship, which can be a pairing fraught with unintentionally offensive questions. Two different cultures meet in the relationship, though most of the time the combination is seamless; in fact, it’s usually the families of the two lovebirds that are responsible for introducing drama into the equation. So, to help anyone out who’s curious about what is acceptable and unacceptable to ask, here are a few of the questions that people in multicultural relationships would love to stop having to answer.
1. “No, but how did you really meet?”
When I hear this question, the answer I usually give is that we met at school, though too often my response is met with disbelief. However, I personally don’t see how where we met matters.
I’m sorry if you were expecting some crazy response, but I don’t have some extravagant story about how we met at a bar or at a taco truck. Just because the two of us come from different cultural backgrounds doesn’t mean our meeting could only come as a result of the planets aligning. We met Monday afternoon on campus, and that’s as interesting as it’s going to get.
2. “Do you speak the same language?”
I get this question a lot, as my family is from Mexico and his is from Korea, but it’s a nonissue, because we both speak English. In addition to Spanish, I also speak French and have been learning Korean in my spare time, so there wasn’t any “forcing” the other person to learn the language. However, I must admit, he is extremely helpful when I fail to understand the meaning of a Korean word or grammatical pattern.
As the relationship grows and marriage increasingly becomes a possibility, family and friends might also question what language the children will learn. This query in particular, after asking all my friends in interracial relationships, strikes everyone as the most asked. Truthfully, I cannot understand why, because there’s a simple answer to it. Children will speak whatever language they pick up, but my guess is their mother tongue is going to be English.
Language is a way of preserving culture, but think about the spoken word as different within every home. You can still know a lot about your own culture, even without knowing the language. A lot of my friends cannot speak Spanish as fluently as I can, but they preserve traditions and know more about Mexican culture than I do.
3. “What about the kids?”
First of all, I am nowhere near ready to be a parent, but if I was, they might look like me or they might not; the truth is that genetics is a raffle. What my kids look like is none of your business; I would love them all the same. Also, please stop commenting on how “mixed kids” are so cute and “surprisingly adorable.” It’s a little creepy to treat humans like they’re some experiment.
Please don’t ask me about how I plan to raise the non-existent kids either. Why is it okay to ask me what my parenting style will be, when you haven’t even gotten around to thinking about the same thing?
4. “Do you wear his culture’s clothes?”
My response to that question would be, Do I even dress in my culture’s clothes? I’ve barely even seen a traditional Mexican dress from the state of Durango, so why would I have a reason to wear one? Sure, they’re commonly worn in folk dancing, and I think they are beautiful, I just lack a reason to wear something reserved for special occasions on the regular.
While I have tried on a Hanbok, the traditional Korean dress, multiple times, I do not own one nor have I worn one anywhere. If it came down to having to wear one for a special occasion, I would do it without a second thought, but the idea of walking around in traditional clothing every day is a bit much.
5. “Food gets complicated, no?”
Personally, one of my favorite parts of the day has always been eating surrounded by friends and family. I love sharing food! Yes, there is a lot of trying the food of the other person’s culture, and it’s important to give their cuisine a chance. Because we’re constantly trying each other’s favorites dishes, I joke a lot about how thinking of dinner is never boring. Even eating something for just the second time in your life, especially if it’s an acquired taste, is more interesting than buying a burger on the way home from work.
Even though I hate fish, I have found that I love Korean food, because the same flavors I’m used to in my mom’s cooking are in his culture’s dishes too. Really, it’s a perfect match food-wise, because both of us love spicy things; there’s never any problems with sharing a meal, other than when one of us is craving something else. I still refuse to eat fish, but the problem is a personal one, because seafood makes me want to throw up.
6. “There has to be culture clashes, right?”
While cultural differences may be a problem in other relationships, I can’t really say that there’s an issue in ours. There’s never really been an instance of culture shock or something that’s impossible to wrap my head around. I’m sure everyone in relationships enjoys learning about the other person, and culture is the same sort of thought. Neither of us would call the other’s culture incorrect for doing something a different way, as the heart of a healthy interracial relationship is openness.
Yes, at first there were a lot of things to learn from each other, but they soon became just normal behaviors. For instance, shoes inside his house are a no-no, while at my house, it’s impolite to not greet everyone who is present.
Overall, a lot of learning happens within interracial relationships, and sometimes I get questions that I don’t know how to answer, and that’s okay. My boyfriend doesn’t know everything about Mexicans either. Learning about the other person’s life is something that happens in all relationships, not just interracial ones. While there may be some questions that I can answer and don’t mind talking about, it’s still rude to stereotype a relationship by the ethnicity of its members.
While segregation only ended fifty years ago, and interracial couples are still a mystery to a few people out there, please, don’t stereotype or assume. Don’t ask culturally insensitive questions; it doesn’t feel nice to have to answer to ignorance. I think of my relationship like everyone else out there does—I’m with the person I love. We’re just two people who are dating, trying to build a life together.