International Love

‘If I get really desperate, I’ll just go to Lebanon/Pakistan/insert-country-here and find someone’.

If I had a dollar for every time I heard that statement, I’d be writing this from the Bahamas instead of my suburban couch. It’s terribly clichéd to say it, but I’ll say it anyway: increasingly, we are living in a global bubble. I often feel like there are so few degrees of separation between people that it’s all a bit claustrophobic. Social media gives us the sense, even if it’s not entirely accurate, that we have a portal to different countries, with those portals often being people we’ve never even met.

Even as we ‘connect’, the simultaneous sense of loneliness can fester. Routine and repetition can render us prone to the belief that we know everyone in our own city and that if there was anyone to meet, we’d have met them already. Put this sense of boredom together with the belief in global portals of discovery and we have some pretty interesting possibilities arising. We can talk to people in different countries and on different continents and see if there’s the potential of a shared life together, wherever that may be.

But it seems not all countries were created equal. There is often a marked difference in how people raised in Western countries view the idea of marrying someone raised in another Western country as opposed to marrying someone from their parents’ country of origin. This means someone in Australia may be perfectly fine with talking to someone in Canada, but they may not be as open to talking to someone born and raised in Iraq.

Much of this may be explained by language barriers. If someone doesn’t speak a language other than English fluently, they will naturally experience communication issues with someone whose English isn’t fluent. But it’s more than that. Many people refer to ways of being particular to the ‘third culture generation’: those who were raised in a Western country to migrant parents, negotiating their way through different modes of existence and forming their own mishmash of an identity. Those with a very strong sense of cultural identity may feel they relate well to people from their parents’ country of origin, and as such are very open to marrying someone who was raised there.

But even so, a kind of stigma is often attached to these unions. People whisper behind their hands, well, they clearly gave up and couldn’t find someone here. The perception exists that it’s easier to find someone to marry overseas, perhaps grounded in suspicion of the motives of those who don’t hold Western passports. It’s a common perception that many people are just after visas or green cards and will marry anyone to get it. ‘Fobs’ are the butt of many jokes, with everything from their broken English to their way of dressing becoming the subject of derision.

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I find it all very interesting, especially from where I stand as a person whose parents and relatives overseas speak English as their main language. I’ve certainly never had anyone show any interest whatsoever in my Australian passport when I go to South Africa, and so part of me feels sceptical when friends talk about dangling their passport in front of people overseas and watching the hordes run in. I also know many people who’ve simply met someone overseas and hit it off with them, just as they would with someone here, and so I hate to think that their relationship would be attributed to a mere visa hunt by the overseas party.

I also wonder just how similar the experiences and outlooks of Muslims in different Western countries are. How different is the Canadian Muslim experience to the British Muslim experience to the Australian Muslim experience? Of course, migration patterns differ between these countries, which results in different demographic mixes and community dynamics. For example, the migrant US Muslim community is known to be particularly affluent and well-educated. Friends I know who’ve mingled extensively with people from the US Muslim community comment that they seem more ‘liberal’ than people in Australia when it comes to relations with the opposite sex, which makes for interesting international love conundrums. Even here in Australia much is made of the distinction between Muslims in Sydney and Melbourne, and within cities all kinds of different communities and sub-communities exist.

Where is this all going to go? What kinds of identities will the children of Muslim Australian-US-Indian-Somali parents ascribe to? Will these apps and sites, created to foster country-wide and global connections, achieve their aims? I’m not sure. There are too many variables involved, too many factors at play. All I know is that the world for me has simultaneously contracted and expanded as I’ve gotten older. I’m more conscious than ever of all that lies beyond the city of my birth, but am also more conscious of how modernity and globalisation is condensing and eroding culture and difference into one soupy hot mess. I wonder about all the people who are getting left behind as people like me, the privileged, well-travelled, well-educated elite, continue to do our global dances from retreats to conventions to conferences, meeting more and more people just like us.

Would you marry someone from another country? Would it matter which country they were from?

 

 

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2 responses to “International Love

  1. First of all, I must thank you for your wonderful discussion of a topic I have always considered to be a personal plight. The question posed at the end is one I have often vacillated over as someone brought up in Australia to migrant parents, therefore I warn in advance, this may be a lengthy reflection. A potential language barrier has always been one of my major concerns and as you have pointed out in the piece, it is a concern shared by many others in my situation. Lately, I have been thinking about what might be be at the core of this fear. I mean, relationship failure due to miscommunication seems widespread even among those who speak the same language. But obviously what we often refer to as “communication” is not simply superficial interaction, but one of the strongest means of human bonding. Here I am reminded of a quote by Rumi, the beloved patron saint of hipster Sufis/artsy intellectuals everywhere: ‘whoever is parted from one who speaks his language becomes dumb, though he have a hundred songs.’ To me, it seems the problem of the language barrier highlights a deeper and perhaps reasonable fear of an inability to be fully “appreciated” as an individual. In my own situation, I am not entirely “inept” at speaking the language of my parents and it certainly isn’t something I couldn’t improve upon in time, but I can’t help but feel as though I might be limiting the range of my performative capabilities with someone who doesn’t share all of my language capabilities – that I would not be able to sing all my “songs” to employ Rumi’s analogy.

    I believe that the notion of the cultural barrier also plays into this same fear, after all, language and culture are intertwined. Many who share the reality of being the children of migrants (especially those from non-Western countries) will probably agree that we are a “hybrid” creature of sorts and different aspects of our identities are highlighted or downplayed depending on the context. For me, I feel this most acutely when I travel to my parent’s home country. I certainly enjoy it there and feel I could quite possibly live there (for some time) and yet, can’t help but feel like I’m suppressing parts of my identity whilst I’m there. I think international marriage often represents this predicament to other “hybrids” like myself: if I marry internationally, I may have to relocate and forever suppress a part of who I am. Or, if my spouse doesn’t mind becoming the dreaded “import”, I will continue having to switch between identities with the possible risk of alienating them and irking myself.

    To counter this fear, I consider the possibility that I may be attaching too much importance to the role of shared language/culture in maintaining a successful relationship. I remind myself that difference isn’t automatically a bad thing – the relationship may very well be mutually enriching. I am here reminded of that oft-quoted ayah in which Allah exclaims ‘O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.’ In the grand scheme of things, language and culture seem little more than social constructs that once peeled away, reveal a soul that is in essence, no different from any other soul – except in its deeds. In this sense, I readily submit to the helpless romantic in me as I recall the words of Ibn Hazm: ‘For my part I consider Love as a conjunction between scattered parts of souls that have become divided in this physical universe, a union effected within the substance of their original sublime element.’

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I think what you’ve tapped into is the very real fear of not being able to be one’s entire self with a partner, whether that be due to cultural differences, ways of thinking, ways of being. But as you rightly pointed out, people who were born and raised in the same city as you may be entirely alien to you in their ways of being, while someone with a different accent and different formative experiences may be in essence a kindred spirit and soul. How you negotiate what’s important and where the boundaries are is very much dependent on who you meet and at what time of your life xx

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