Once international marriage is mentioned, it’s very common that differences related to culture, language, maybe differences of religion, diet, etc. become the central preoccupation. Do these differences really matter and should we really be concerned about them or is it just all about understanding each other and being understood just like in local marriages?
I was born in Istanbul and started my world trip in my early twenties. I have spent over 11 years travelling and living in New Zealand, the US, Mexico, Canada, and Brazil. I met my wife in Canada before we made Istanbul our next destination in 2012. I now have many foreign friends with different cultural backgrounds, married to local men or women living in Turkey. I took my marriage, and my role as a husband, as an amazing opportunity to take a very close look at the attitudes of Turkish culture in regards to international marriages.
One of the very common differences comes from understanding the family and parenting style in the Turkish culture. It is necessary to learn about the Turkish family structure, especially at the early stages of an international marriage.
In Turkey, the in-laws see themselves as an essential part of the grand family, so they see the children as a branch of the family instead of independent individuals. When they believe it is the right time, people in western cultures let their children go to live their lives and make their own decisions. In Turkish culture, parenting never ends. Yes, it never ends!
Even though children become adults, marry and have children of their own, this does not make any difference for Turkish parents. They think it is their job to protect their children, support them in any way they can, live very close by or in the same house, if possible, and make decisions for them on everything for their children’s and family’s well-being. (And the same applies to the foreign spouse.) They are now a child of the family and, of course, of the grand family. Especially the ‘’making decisions for the child’’-part -depending on the family- can reach a point where in-laws decide on the couple’s finance, color of their apartment, the brand of their car, what town to live in, etc.
Foreign spouses often struggle with this sort of family structure that demands a very close relationship with all members of the grand family. In some cases it means that the foreign spouse may spend almost all the holidays together with the in-laws, all the cousins, uncles and aunts, going to barbeques, having breakfasts or dinner on almost every weekend, and so on.
Another issue that may create confusion for a foreign spouse is the demand of integration. It is not very common for Turkish parents to directly express their love to their child. They use tools instead such as providing for all kinds of needs and making the child’s wishes come true as the sign of their love. So for some parents there is connection between that attitude and your integration process. They would take the spouse’s effort of integration -such as cooking Turkish food, learning the language, respecting the elders of the family etc - as a kind of tool they use as a sign of love for their child (the Turkish spouse), for them, for the grand family and even for the country and its culture. That would make an average Turkish family feel very comfortable and secure about the future of their children’s marriage. You would experience very similar attitudes in both religious or traditional, and even modern families. Moreover, very similar attitudes can be seen in countries with many different religions, cultures and traditions on the whole Asian continent, from Turkey to Japan.
Cross-cultural awareness is lower in Turkey compared to Europe or North America. In addition, given that the foreign spouse moved to Turkey, local families expect them to adapt to their culture and lifestyle even if the person did not come over because of any particular interest in Turkey or the Turkish culture for that matter, but simply to follow their love. This attitude is especially true for daughters in law.
For all these reasons, it is important to make an effort to understand the differences of a foreign spouse’s culture and lifestyle. Often, these differences are unconsciously imposed by local families and even by the Turkish spouse in some cases. This is the point where everything gets very complicated. The person who is about to move - or has moved – to another country for their spouse is usually ready to build a life together with their partner. Those are complex circumstances, being surrounded by a new language and culture, new tastes, and a lifestyle very foreign which disables all the survival skills that person has built throughout their life.
Great expectations and the feeling of not being heard can combine and result in a huge shock. The foreign spouse might feel lost to the point that can make them pull back, close their heart, and pass judgment about the country and culture. This judgment is often followed by lack of care and it can go so deep that the expat spouse might soon feel so bitter that they lose their interest in learning or adapting to the local culture, socializing only with their own expat community, constantly complaining and blaming anything that is different on the local culture or their partner. At that point, differences of culture, language, lifestyle, world view, etc., can turn into something that causes an argument on a daily basis.
But people also have another option: if we are having trouble being understood then we can first try to understand our partner’s behavior. The practice of empathy can be very transforming and it is the very first step to creating and improving cross-cultural awareness. It is very clear that, just like in any other marriage, someone who choses an international marriage doesn’t have to change or give up their own cultural identity. Once they stop taking these differences personally, both sides can begin to explore each other’s culture.
When we just quit judging, we begin to understand beliefs, facial expressions, non-verbal patterns, and implicit philosophies of that culture. Some cultures express specific emotions with eye contact while other cultures don’t. Some cry more, yell more, smile more or show anger and fear and some don’t. It may take much practice to be able to recognize and adapt to all characteristics of a certain culture. But in time, just by paying attention and seeing them, we can adapt without even knowing. This can help us find more effective ways to express our feelings, our choices and differences in a way that can be easily understood. Just like the famous quote ‘’it is not what you say but how you say it!’’
Ayhan Yalcinkaya is a Istanbul-based freelance consultant and trainer in intercultural communication, workplace diversity, immigration and cultural integration processes. He has a lot of experience in the intercultural field. Ayhan has travelled to five different countries, in eleven years and lived and worked in USA, Canada, Mexico, Brazil and New Zealand.
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