Or: Could you please explain that one more time, in simpler Spanish, so I can make sure I’m justified in wanting to hit you right now..?
In the grand scheme of things I’d hardly say I’m used to only existing within one culture.
I was raised within a multi-cultural, globally-dispersed family, in one of the most diverse boroughs of one of the most diverse cities in the world. I learnt to flirt, to date, and to love under the influence of, amongst others, Brits, Nigerians, Jamaicans and Indians – cultures that are hugely different in their approaches to life, dating, sex and love.
My ‘dating history’ includes one of the first Northerners I’d ever come across (ok, its hardly exotic, but I’d barely been past the North circular..), a Jewish boyfriend, and most recently a NZ-raised Egyptian whose parents really didn’t like that I wasn’t a Coptic Christian. Plus various little things across South America and in Nigeria that required understanding and compromise.
Because of this I always thought I’d have no problem properly dating ‘cross-culturally’. That it’s dangerous to make assumptions when dealing with anybody’s feelings, let alone someone whose whole grounding and background is different to yours. To always try and remember that something I find cruelly personal might have just been a throwaway comment, with no offence meant, and to not focus on it.
I never thought I’d have such a confusing and stressful time dating in Colombia. How wrong I was.
You see, there’s a boy (I should probably be used to saying man by now). I like him. A lot, actually. And I think it’s safe to assume that he likes me too. He definitely says that he does – he dropped the L-bomb about a month after we met. And asked me to have his babies. Can you imagine if a Brit you were dating did that? He’s affectionate, and loving, and tells me how special I am to him.
But the thing is, I really don’t know how to take it. Brits might not be the most expressive lovers, but at least when they’re affectionate it’s generally safe to assume that they mean it. Colombians on the other hand like to spout about love from the minute they meet you; people will happily call you ‘mi todo’, ‘mi princesa’, ‘mi cielo’, ‘mi amor’* from the get-go.
* ‘my everything’, ‘my princess’, ‘my heaven’, ‘my love’
It’s cute, it’s nice, it’s fun and affectionate. I like it, I really do. But it’s really very hard to take seriously when it’s said by everyone from the bus driver, to your colleagues, to that guy who has a girlfriend but is hitting on you anyway. So there’s difficulty number one for me. How do you know when someone actually really, truly, likes you vs is just being their everyday affectionate self?
Obviously, you can try and go by their behaviour. Now, if you were dating within your own ‘culture’ this would be a fairly safe bet – if someone is treating you badly, they probably don’t care about you that much. But now, let’s introduce the mind-fuck that is that the definition of ‘treating someone badly’ is really quite different over here sometimes.
Take, as a still-uncomfortable example, my Friday night with Mr Colombia. We go out with some friends. We drink, we dance, we’re having a great night. We’re dancing together when a girl in the group (a friend of a friend who neither of us knows) interrupts and asks him for a dance.
No problem, this is Colombia, we all dance with each other. I use the opportunity to pee and grab another drink. Two songs later, they are still dancing. I am sat watching, hoping to catch his eye and motion him over. It’s the kind of dancing that leads to sex in the UK – so it’s not very nice to see for me, with my repressed cold-country roots – but I tell myself that it’s just how people dance in Colombia. And it really is, I’m not just talking myself into things.
About 30 minutes later, however, they’re still dancing. By now, I’m starting to be an alcohol-encouraged mix of pissed off and really quite upset. My friends notice, realise why, and whisk me off to the bathroom. By the time we come back, he has disappeared (just to the bar with a friend, it later turns out..) and I go from being subtly upset to that embarrassing drunk girl welling up on the dance floor.
I’m taken home by a friend, and when he texts soon after to find out where I am he is genuinely baffled by my being so upset. He is completely confused that I didn’t like seeing him dance like that with another girl, or that I thought that they were together for an upsettingly long time. More than anything, he thought it was hurtful that I left without telling him where I was going as I was supposed to stay at his.
The next day, when feelings and alcohol had settled, I expected him to be apologetic and understanding. But he thought it was hilarious that I was still upset about him dancing with someone. When you come from such different norms, how do you deal with something that is genuinely upsetting to one person and completely baffling to the other?
For me, the obvious answer would be that you try talking about it. It’s something everyone spouts about back home – communication is key, and when something is bugging you, you have to talk about it to move on.
The only slight difficulty here? Colombians communicate in a very different way to us. If a Colombian is upset, they like to be begged for forgiveness, to be told how beautiful and treasured they are, and to be smothered in love. To be bought flowers and wooed with a big gesture. If I’m upset, I want to be listened to, and understood. I want the thing that’s hurting me to be acknowledged, not covered up with a grand gesture and, ultimately, ignored. And it’s really hard explaining this in another language, even more so when you’re upset and just want to be understood.
Sometimes it’s enough to want to make me want to give up. Except then I remember that the good moments are brilliant. And that the hurtful ones are genuinely completely accidental. And that some of the things that I do are equally as absurd, and possibly as hurtful, for him. So instead I guess that instead you just have to try and muddle your way through for as long as you can both take it.
Except that there’s the slight obstacle that I’ll be going home in a couple of days time and who knows where I’ll be living next. Ahh, the joys of cross-cultural romance..