How Cultural Differences Can Get in the Way of Love

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This post features a story of a new friend of ours, author and bodybuilder Nicolas Cole.

Relationships are complicated endeavours. Love sometimes makes us believe that no matter what difficulties come along, we can surpass them. Life, however, writes its own stories.

Nicolas Cole shows in this very personal story, how cultural differences, a seemingly small crack in an otherwise special relationship, can turn into a mile-wide canyon between the two of you.

Enter the stage Nicolas Cole:


So when I was a senior in college I started dating this girl who sat behind me in science class.

Turns out, she was a model downtown Chicago running to class between castings and shoots, but she didn’t want anyone to know.

I suppose you can say it made sense, right, the bodybuilder dating the 6ft beautiful brunette print model. Whatever. The real reason we connected was the first night we hung out, she asked what I was studying and I told her creative writing. She ran over to her bookshelf and pulled down her favorite book, Shantaram, and we proceeded to read a chapter aloud together, trading off pages. I then, fearful I’ll admit, told her I had just started working on my first book. Beside herself, so excited (she loved reading), she asked what it was about.

Sigh. Of course, the gorgeous girl who wants to fall in love with a writer, and I’m writing about…

“It’s about my life as a teenager, growing up with celiac disease and basically living in the bathroom with nonstop diarrhea but at the same time playing World of Warcraft and eventually I got pretty good, one of the best, actually, and so yeah, I’m writing about that.”

Her jaw dropped and her hands clasped the side of her cheeks and she said, “That sounds like an incredible story!”

We fell in love.

I wish there was a better way to say it. She was quiet and humble and wore non revealing clothes and spent her Friday and Saturday nights reading alone in her apartment.  She was studying abroad from Costa Rica and was fluent in Spanish and English. She didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, ate vegetables and fish and drank tea. I was the gym rat and writer-in-hiding, spending my Friday and Saturday nights doing almost the exact same thing.  Except while she read, I would write. That’s what brought us together.

For nine months, we dated.  She even started lifting just so we could spend more time together in the gym. At night, we would read, sometimes books, sometimes my manuscript.  She would laugh at the funny parts and go quiet at the sad parts. She would hug me tight when something happened suddenly, and she would shoot up and stare me down when something dramatic happened. She picked apart my work and she helped me make it better, and with her I shared everything.

She was my reader.

Within six months of our dating we started having “the talk.”  We connected in a way I’d never found before, and we both had admitted that we had started wondering if we’d, you know, found “the one.”  We discussed moving in together the following year. I met her family, she met mine.  Everything was moving in that direction. I’d never loved a girl like I loved her.

And then as school let out and I graduated from college, she returned to Costa Rica for the summer. I knew it was her home and I supported her seeing her family. After all, she was a beach girl.

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She came from a tiny town called Montezuma, and she told me often what it meant to her. I told her she could stay for the whole summer if she wanted—as long as it made her happy.

“What if you come with me?” she said.
“Are you sure?” I said, half of me wanting so badly to see her country, the other half of me apprehensive of what that would entail.
“I want you to see where I’m from,” she said.

I told her I couldn’t afford it. I’d just started my new job. Plane tickets were expensive.

A week later she handed me my ticket. She bought one for me.

As I set out to join her in her country that summer for 10 days, I thought back on my life and the road less traveled I’d taken to get to where I was. How I had grown up very sick and very socially outcasted, girls hardly even knowing I existed. How I had fallen into bad situations, drug abuse, rehab. How I had somehow pulled myself out and rebuilt myself in Chicago. How I had floated through a series of majors before finding my love for writing again. How I had found bodybuilding and a group of friends through the gym. And how, after all that, I had ended up with a girl more beautiful than I could put into words, not just on the outside, but one who loved the most honest part of me — the writer.

When I landed in Costa Rica, I expected this to be the beginning of my next chapter. I even considered leaving everything behind, packing my bags and moving to her foreign land with her. I would live a humble life and write — I thought that would be enough. And with her, I would be happy.

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But when she met me at the airport, we looked at each other in this way like we’d never known the other person. It was like for the first time, she saw me as a foreigner. In the car on the way to the ferry, we didn’t speak much. When we got on the ferry to cross over to Montezuma, she was joined by guys from her community — shirtless, grungy, poor English.  In Spanish, they mocked me to my face. The only word I recognized was “gringo.”  In silence, she sat, and didn’t say a word back.

The 10 days that unfolded thereafter were a slow and painful untwisting of our relationship.  Where she came from was essentially a third world country. The houses on the side of the road were four walls and a hose. The “grocery store” was a local spot where people who grew vegetables would go and trade. There was one bar and every night she would go there and dance merengue. Every guy in the town was her “older brother,” and they all looked at me with murderous eyes. I stuck out like a sore thumb, and it was made very clear by everyone there that I did not belong. One of her closest “brothers,” high on coke (who was nicknamed Coca Rica for a reason) and drunk, disrupted our first dinner date by slamming his bottle down on the table and asking me to explain to him why I deserved to date his “sister.” It didn’t help my case that his best friend had been her previous boyfriend for seven years.

Every morning I would wake hoping that things would return to normal, and every night I would go to bed beside her in silence, realizing that something had shifted and things would never be the same. I wasn’t from there, I didn’t know the language, I knew nothing of their way of life — I was a city boy who had spent his adolescence growing up playing video games. To make matters worse, I was a bodybuilder, so everyone there (no gym in sight) was extremely intimidated by what I looked like. And as each day passed, it became more and more clear that she had to make a choice. If she stood with me, her entire community would ridicule her for being with a “gringo.”  And if she didn’t stand with me, then our relationship would be no more.

When we got back from Costa Rica to the states, we tried to make it work.  We lasted about two more months, and then began a slow 6 months of breaking apart. It’s been 2 years and it still feels like yesterday.

Never in a million years had I thought that such cultural differences would end what I considered to be one of the most intimate and special connections I’ve ever found in my life.  We broke up, in a sense, over where I was from.

And I wasn’t from there.

 


 

Could he have done anything to save the relationship?

In the movies the hero would have heroically returned to the town where she would have happily jumped into his big strong arms. Then the two of them would have rushed to catch the next plane and flown off into the sunset.

But love in real life is not like a cheesy movie. It’s all but perfect. It’s messy and complicated and every situation is different. In the real world love makes you almost go crazy. It rips your heart out and puts it back in. But no matter how hard it might be at times, it’s always exciting and leaves memories that shape your personality.

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A life spent laughing and crying, kissing and fucking, loving and missing, is a life well lived. Every time you get up and dust yourself off after a breakup you become stronger than you were before. And you have learned a ton about yourself, women and relationships.

I asked Nicolas if he’d do anything differently if given the chance to relive everything from the beginning. This was his answer:

Through it all, I don’t regret it happening—it made me a better person and was still an experience I value and will remember fondly. I don’t know even if I were to say if my approach was different if that would have changed anything. I think I could have gone into the situation with more understanding and an open mind as to her withdrawal and fears, and maybe that would have salvaged our relationship. But I think at the end of the day she realized I didn’t want to spend my life living on a beach, that I had bigger goals for myself, and I realized that she did. But I would say from the beginning that one thing I would have changed was making sure she was as open to her family and friends back home about our relationship as I was with mine. That might have prevented the initial shock of the trip to both of us.

So what practical tips can you take away from this post that will help you solve cultural problems?

Awareness that culture might become an issue is often the solution.

Talk with her about your concerns regarding her loved ones accepting you. She will not only understand and greatly appreciate how much you care about your relationship but also make sure everyone in her family and circle of friends knows you are willing to fit in.

Oh, and by the way, learning her native language as quickly as possible is always a good idea as well. :-)

Thx for reading if you made it this far!

I am Austrian and my girlfriend Kristina is Bulgarian. We have faced many cultural differences that were challenging but so far we have overcome them by using the tips above.

What cultural differences have you experienced yourself or seen in other relationships? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.