People are often curious about how international or transcultural or transcontinental relationships work out, and what they are like, on a day to day basis. It is true that it can be difficult to conceive, if you’ve never been in one, if you live in a place where there is not much room or opportunity for ties with people from abroad. It is also true, on the other hand, that actually, it is not such a big deal as it might seem from the outside. How so?
Well, a friendship or partnership involves individuals, who have their their fears, manias, passions, needs and limits. Who are compatible in some aspects of life and personality and incompatible in others. Individuals who are not always representative for the culture and background they grew up in. In a nutshell, differences in language, behaviour, habits, attitudes and mindsets are definitely a part of the relationship, but they don’t define it, they are not everything. And, actually aren’t they also present in a bond between two people from the same country but different regions? Or from different social classes or age groups?
Having said that, in my view and personal experience, intercultural friendships do have their peculiarities. Communication – a key factor for any successful relationship – for instance, can potentially be better here. Because we are initially and very strongly aware of the fact that not everything that is obvious to me is obvious to the other. The signs, body gestures, or words I use might not have the same meaning for us both. They might be received or interpreted differently than what was intended, because we are used to them in a different light, and therefore it is crucial that we make it each other clear, that we spell our meaning or intentions or humor out. Besides, it is key that we stay open and willing to attentively listen to the other and not judge or take offence or feel hurt too easily, too hastily by their actions or sayings – for they might as well not be exactly what we first think. Communication and honesty is essential to make transcultural relationships work, especially in the first few years.
Another point that deserves mentioning is how enriching it is! Everything becomes a topic for conversation and a bit of a learning, from the most mundane to the most important things of life (which actually often coincide)… Eating, drinking, loving, the sun and the moon, school and work… Since we don’t share the same experiences in them, we find out something new practically in every moment we are in touch. We are made aware of pieces of literature, cinema, architecture, folklore, gastronomy, ways of life that we never heard about and sometimes otherwise never would – because we are in touch with someone with different cultural references than ours. That broadens our views, experiences, repertoire in a beautiful and very pleasant way.
As for the challenges and perks of living it and making it work in a practical sense… There are some special questions that arise, some issues that need to be addressed, and naturally are. What does it take to diminish the distance that lies between two continents? After all, each person is living their individual life in a sometimes very different surrounding, busy with family, school or uni, work and local friends. How not to lose each other in this distance?
The most important aspect seems to be to stay invested in each others lives, to check in with the other person, what is going on in their lives, how they are doing, what bothers them, what makes them happy, what their dreams and projects currently look like. This can take vastly different forms depending on the individuals and the nature of the relationship. And these things do not specifically pertain to intercultural friendships but to any long-distance relationship. You can text every day, talk regularly via Skype, write long letters, record video messages for each other, send a messenger owl or invent a time machine to travel back to when you met in person. The only constraints are creativity, technology and kilometers. But over time, even this stream of communication can become dull, drowning in the routine of sending each other pictures of your last meal or the result of your cat vomiting on the carpet. It is important to give each other space to live your life independently, to leave time to explore and make new experiences. Things that you can then relay to each other on you preferred channel of communication.
On the other hand if you feel that you grow too distant, engulfed in routine, you can spice things up a bit by finding things to do together. At first glance this vital aspect of friendship seems to be the most constrained by the sheer distance between your doorsteps but with a bit of thought and imagination, many possibilities come to mind. Go on Skype and start writing an article together, play a game of ‘Categories’, watch a movie with the other person on speakerphone. You don’t even have to do things in immediate connection. Draw for each other and then wait for the excitement in the others eyes when they see the result. Read the same book and talk about it. Play video games together, imagine a fictional story together. The options are, while limited, still manifold.
But as much enjoyment comes from talking and writing and engaging with each other over distance, the lack of a good hug, a walk in the nature together or watching a movie not on speakerphone but cuddled together on the sofa can be hard to endure. Sometimes it is just frustrating, to need a hug or wish you could ring them for a coffee or to go to the theater and not be able to do so… When we are caught up in these moments of feeling the absence of our friend or partner especially deeply, it can be comforting to know that the separation is not forever, better yet to know that you will see each other in a few weeks or months, to have a clearly defined time frame when you will see and hug each other again. And when you meet again, it is all the more special and wonderful.
Every reunion is surrounded with an aura of greatness. It becomes a bit of an event in your lives, you look forward to it, you plan it with care, you make a conscious effort to be 100% present and make the most of every minute – which sometimes we just don’t do when we live in the same place or city and meet often, wasting time and energy instead on our phones, or otherwise absent.
All in all, an international bond can be tricky to manage yet also wonderful to experience in its own ways, as well as in ways quite similar to those of any other relationship. The key is to be flexible and persistent, to face challenges together and rejoice in its warmth and lovingness to the fullest. So, if ever life surprises you with someone coming from another culture or a faraway country, don’t fear the distance or differences, turn them into a force for a strong and solid partnership.