Life Lessons Learnt from My Intercultural Relationship

I’m Dutch, my husband is Sudanese, we met in Egypt and currently live in Germany. At home we speak a mixture of English, Syrian, Egyptian and Sudanese Arabic.

These are the facts of my intercultural life.

Growing up as an expat kid, all I wanted was to be a regular Dutch girl. Marrying a Sudanese guy was never a part of the plan.

Before I met Hussam, I mostly dated Dutch guys, or at most other European guys. It’s what made the most sense.

But when I met Hussam, things just clicked. And even though we were from different continents, we had an insane amount of things in common. Like the fact that we both spent a large part of our childhood in The Sultanate of Oman, a country most people can’t even pinpoint on a map.  Or that we both loved to read the same books and  liked playing around with graphic design. We understood each other. We connected. We knew in our hearts that this was pretty special.

And even though it would take another 4 years, I knew I would end up marrying this person. Somehow, the things I looked for in a lifepartner – patience, compassion, understanding, acceptance, spirituality and intellectual brilliance – I’d found them in a skinny, amber-eyed Sudanese guy.

intercultural relationship

But before I arrived at the point of blissful intercultural happiness where I am today, I was pretty scared about doing this. Being in a serious, committed, Intercultural Relationship. For Realz.

Marrying a Muslim Afro-Arab, as a European woman, is something other Europeans will tell you to watch out for. Because even though he was nice and special now, Hussam might turn into a Scary Salafist Arab the moment we got married. Or if not then, the moment we’d have kids. Because that’s what Arab men do –  they turn into Kidnapping Monsters.

The thing no-one tells you, however, is that the women in these stories are generally extremely naive. They’ll fall for the first Arab Guy they meet, not because of a personal connection, but because he falls into a certain romantic stereotype they’ll have.

You know, I’m not one of those naive women.  I speak Arabic and understand Arab & Muslim culture. And the only thing Hussam’s turned into since we got married is a somewhat slobby, but very adoring and loving husband.

Learning to look past the stereotypes and seeing, believing in the person behind it, was the first life lesson I learned from being in an intercultural relationship.

Lifelesson 1: We are not the stereotypes people have about us. We are all unique people whose identities are interwoven with cultural values, things learnt in our upbrings and personal make-up. We are all just people, with differences and similiarties, strengths and weaknesses, habits and customs. Happiness is about connecting, sharing, feeling whole, letting down our guard, respecting each other’s values and recognizing the person behind the stereotypes.

Lifelesson 2: There is no one right way to do things, whether it comes to housecleaning, raising kids, or wedding organizing. There is only what works for you.
Sudanese norms are different from Dutch norms. And in the Netherlands, my norms will be different from another woman’s norms. My Dutch parents do things differently than I do them – they like to be active all day and keep a clean house. I like to take things easier and have a slightly messier house. Hussam’s parents do things differently than he does them. Hussam cooks, something that is very uncommon for men in Arab culture. In our home, and lives, we’ve chosen a way that works for us – taking bits from our cultures, our upbringings and our preferences, while compromising along the way.  It’s not right, or wrong; it’s what works for us.

Lifelesson 3: There’s a world of opportunities outside your comfort zone. By going beyond the borders of what you know, like & prefer, you might end up experiencing something amazing.
I never thought I’d get married. And even if I would, I never thought I’d have a religious ceremony.  Or dress up in Sudanese national costume at my wedding in front of all my Dutch family and friends. When the likelihood of me wearing a Sudanese tobe at our wedding was first discussed, I thought “Oh God, do I  have to?”. But I knew doing this would please my mother in law, which is why I went along with it. And guess what, on the day of our wedding, us dressing up in Sudanese national costume and clapping along to loud Sudanese music in front of our guests was the most loved part of the whole wedding. Because it was loud, communal, colourful and festive – exactly the things that were outside our guests’ comfort zone.

Lifelesson 4: Accepting and appreciating people’s different choices and habits, rather than judging them, will make you a better person.
All of us grow up in a certain cultural framework. Despite living large parts of my life outside the Netherlands, I have a Dutch/European cultural framework. Hussam has a Sudanese/Arab cultural framework. By living in Egypt, I discovered things about Arab society that European culture could learn from. Like being hospitable without expecting anything in return, being friendly and warm towards everyone you meet, being extremely generous towards your friends without expecting anything in return. By living in Germany, Hussam has discovered things that Arab culture could learn from. One isn’t superior to the other. There is something to be learnt from each culture, from each person’s habit that is different to yours. Being in an intercultural relationship has made me conscious of my own cultural framework, and rather than judging differences, it’s made me more open to different perspectives.

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