Modern relationships: dating outside the box

Image for story on relationships of mixed cultures
Image for story on relationships of mixed cultures

Love conquers al(most) everything. Jessica Holmes asks why, then, so many Australians cannot accept relationships that unite diverse cultures.

I’d like to think I’m a positive person. Like glass half-full, gets a full eight hours sleep each night, green tea drinking and all round generally okay positive person.

Yet no matter how positive I am, I just can’t shake this one memory.

My boyfriend and I were heading back from Australia Day celebrations at a mate’s place on the North Shore. I was as usual (if given a rare day off) drunk out of my skull and suggested we stop for a junk food binge. I mean Krispy Kremes, Macca’s – the works. I was going to have more than a beer belly that night. It was going to be a beautifully orchestrated piece of bloated flab birthed into existence by quarter-pounder meals and original glaze.

By this stage of the night I was cold so I had a baggy jumper on. I mean, why dress nice when I’m going to spill beer all over myself anyway? And my hair is a pixie cut – so for all intents and purposes I looked like a feminine boy, who can’t handle liquor, bragging about how many doughnuts he’s going to eat.

And then someone yells from across the street.


For a second, I am stunned. This homophobe has just mistaken me for a boy and is bellowing the xenophobe’s motto – go back to where you came from. I say nothing; this has never happened to me before. I just look at my boyfriend, who is trying to ignore it.

I’m trying to see if he’s okay. He’s copped shit before because the higher levels of melanin in his skin ‘mark’ him as a different type of human – not afforded the luxury of basic respect by some people.

“OI! GO BACK TO WHERE YOU CAME FROM FAGGOTS!” the stranger yells again.

The man yelling at us is middle-aged; it’s too dark to make out much more than that. He’s walking a small white dog that’s oblivious to the hateful filth spilling out of his owner’s mouth.

There’s a reason that experience has stayed with me even though it lasted just a minute.

A study published in 2001 revealed that bad experiences are stronger than good:

“Bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact than good ones, and bad information is processed more thoroughly than good.

“The self is more motivated to avoid bad self-definitions than to pursue good ones. Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones… these findings suggest that bad is stronger than good, as a general principle across a broad range of psychological phenomena.”

It’s made me wonder what long term effect negative stigmatism – racial, homophobic, or cultural – has on couples? Not just inter-racial couples, but others of different cultural backgrounds or gay couples.

I spoke with a number of intercultural couples, asking how negative views and attitudes, whether societal or from family, have affected their lives.

Saoirse 23 and Tim 21*

Saoirse (pronounced sear-sha) is Australian of Irish background, a Roman Catholic. Tim is a non-practicing Buddhist, born in Australia. His family migrated from the Guangdong province in China.

They were friends for about a year-and-a-half, becoming really close and were hanging out all the time. “Initially [it] was super platonic and there was no attraction…” Saoirse said. Tim laughed and interjected “Yep.”

“… and then it just grew,” continued Saoirse.

She recalled that though Tim was at her house a lot there was never any friction with her parents – until the relationship blossomed.

“But once our relationship became romantic … there was a shift in my parent’s acceptance of our relationship.

“It shocked me at the start because I would never hold these prejudices but they just were very vocal about this image that they had in their head of who I would be in a relationship with. And Tim wasn’t that image…

“They would use racial slurs and hurtful kind of things to do with race – which were never brought up [when] we were friends.”

‘They would use racial slurs and hurtful kind
of things to do with race – which were
never brought up [when] we were friends.’

A report by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2014 found 31.7 per cent – almost a third of couples married in Australia – were of different cultural backgrounds. The increase in Australia’s refugee intake suggests such cross-cultural bonds will become more common.

I couldn’t even begin to imagine how hurtful that “bad” reaction from Saoirse’s parents would have been. What kind of mark would it leave on her relationship with them – and how had it affected her relationship with Tim?

“I didn’t want Tim to know their feelings. So I tried to shelter [him from] what was going on.”

Eventually she had to tell him because the pressure was too much for her.

“Saoirse just told me eventually. I wasn’t particularly shocked because being a person of colour you’re kind of used to that anyway with the stereotypes and the portrayal of Asian culture,” Tim said.

“I wasn’t really fazed, obviously, it still kind of hurt… But you learn to move past it.”

His parent had no problem with him dating other cultures and had no problem with Saoirse.

“They were pretty open to it.”

There had also been no serious negativity from strangers though there had been some minor hassle from older generations (baby boomers – I’m looking at you).

“Everyone has a different view or perspective towards a certain culture. So I think that’s kind of present in everyone – it’s just whether they vocalise it or not,” said Tim. “I think socially, our generation is pretty open.”

But there has been one big change: “Tim doesn’t come to my house anymore. Just so I can avoid any conflict with my parents,” said Saoirse.

She and her parents simply no longer discuss the issue. “I’ll say ‘I’m going to Tim’s’ and they’ll say ‘okay’ and we won’t talk about it any further.”

As Tim has suggested, many parents have been exposed to a lot more fucked up racial stereotypes from media and society until Australia embraced multiculturalism in the 90s. They’ve gone through decades of the media reinforcing stereotypes.

But, thankfully, Australia’s increasing diversity means millennials (Fuck yeah, Millennials!) have more of a shot of not being warped by bad stereotypes and a lower chance of turning into racist shits.

A personal perspective

When I first started dating my boyfriend (an Anglican born in Australia of South African-Indian parents) I had no clue how to tell my parents I was dating a beautiful brown boy. Based off some of the wildly politically incorrect jokes they have shared, I was worried they’d react like Saoirse’s parents.

I remember vividly an awkward as fuck phone conversation with my Mum, telling her about my new boyfriend. She tentatively asked if he was a Muslim. After I had confirmed with her that he wasn’t, she sighed in relief and said “Oh, good.”

I was so confused – I hadn’t even factored in that religion would be a thing.

What was it about dating a Muslim that scared her so much?  “I would have never have stopped you from dating…” she said. “But if his family was going to be negative towards you, then I would be upset.

“… if someone is Muslim and they are positive and they bring you in and said we welcome you into the family – I wouldn’t have had a problem. But from all the stories I’ve heard – that’s not the case.”

Dad’s answers dipped into some stereotypes: he feels Muslims are negative towards a people from another religion or culture.

“I don’t see any evidence of him treating you as a second-class person like Muslims or Lebanese or Arabic-type countries, where the women are treated as second-class citizens. I’m not sugarcoating this. My only concern was would the religion get in the way of you as a person – being restricted by religious views.”

And then something quite odd happened.

Me: “Was it a relief when you found out he was Anglican?”

Him – with a look of disbelief: “Shut the gate!” And then he gave me the thumbs up.

If religion didn’t matter –  then why the fuck was Dad so chuffed at the realisation that my boyfriend was Christian? It was apparent that the idea of dating someone of a different religion concerned them. Would our relationship have suffered if I had pursued a relationship with someone of a different religion? Is it the same for other faiths too?

Zayne, 22*

Zayne was born in Sudan, but he’s lived in Australia for years, raised as a Muslim by very religious parents.

“My mum, I guess she is a bit of a nationalist – she has a lot of Sudanese pride and she’d rather I married a Sudanese girl.

“I think her perception is that you marry a white girl you’re … going to get divorced because they all just get divorced and it’s just going to ruin you and your family. It’s like ‘Get a Sudanese girl – they’re good, they’re loyal, you’ll never have issues’.”

Zayne’s dad would be happy with him marrying any Muslim, he thinks.

“But even he would come quicker to accept [than my mum] if I were to be with a non-Muslim girl or a girl that didn’t believe in anything.”

When Zayne starts a new relationship, especially with a white or non-Muslim woman, he says race and religion might become an issue.

He didn’t sugarcoat it all for the girl he is currently dating, telling her straight out that their different backgrounds could cause problems.

‘I think her perception is that you marry a white girl
you’re … going to get divorced… It’s like
“Get a Sudanese girl – they’re good,
they’re loyal, you’ll never have issues”.’

“As long as I’m honest with her the whole time – this might seem weird but I’ve been having to lie to my parents my whole life it’s not that hard and it’s not new. But eventually the truth always comes out but as long as I’m always true to you [his girlfriend], then at least I get that relief for myself. I can just be myself fully,” he said.

What would happen if his parents found out?  “I do worry … the worst-case scenario is that I get kicked out …

The bigger problem of bad experiences/criticisms is that it’s not just from his parents: Zayne’s got a whole tight-knight community to worry about.

A lot of those families, he says, fear that their standing in their community will suffer if their kids stray outside the group.  In the end the family’s reputation is more important to them than the happiness of their children.

“What will the community think? It’s not ideal, it’s not healthy … but that’s just how it is sometimes.”

It’s a shitty scenario where your own happiness must take second place to the family’s standing. The potential bad experiences in such a context are not just family breakdown but loss of community and identity and, potentially, the loss of a tradition from which a generation is alienated.

Professor Jill Bystydzienski of Ohio State University, in a 2011 study of intercultural couples, found race didn’t make a significant difference as a point of conflict between the partners. She saw that issues of race were made visible to the participating couples only by outsiders. Those couples learned to handle such negativity by “…finding comfort in talking with each other, surrounding themselves with persons who understand and are sympathetic to interracial unions and living in diverse communities when possible…”

In her book Intercultural Couples: Crossing Boundaries, Negotiating Difference, she wrote “most acquire strength from inside the relationship, from knowing that their union is sound, based on love and commitment … worth defending.”

She found similar effects when studying religious differences. Her findings exemplify Zayne’s experience that differences in religion only became a problem with his religious community and his parents’ standing within that community.

The problem then returns to the eye of the beholder… people who cannot deal with the reality of a non-traditional couple need to rethink their outlook on life or risk alienating a child, a friend, or a member of a religious community.

I’ll never forget that horrible moment of bigotry my boyfriend and I experienced – nor the countless others I’m sure we will have to deal with. But they will serve as a reminder for me to never act like a knob towards other couples who are just doing their thing. And to not give the time of day to people who don’t accept us.

* Some names have been changed.