Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 24 March 2018

Borders are no barriers: Meet the UAE couples crossing national and cultural divides

We meet UAE couples from contrasting cultures to find out how love conquers all.

The UAE is a natural home (and meeting place) for couples from different cultures. Illustration by Mathew Kurian / The National
The UAE is a natural home (and meeting place) for couples from different cultures. Illustration by Mathew Kurian / The National

In the cultural melting pot that is the UAE, it’s not uncommon for people to form deep connections with those who carry a different passport to their own.

“There’s that mystery and excitement of getting to know someone from a different culture that adds to the sense of romance,” says Dubai-based relationship counsellor Nicola Beer of Pure Peace Coaching. “Most expats have a natural interest in learning about other cultures. That’s often what brought them to the UAE in the first place.”

coupleHeidi and Tony Ciarlo, a Canadian and Italian couple. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National

For Heidi Ciarlo, a Canadian whose husband, Tony, is Italian, the UAE is a “natural home” for cross-culture couples. The pair met during a night out with friends in 2008, and married in Canada two years later. “We’re on neutral ground in the UAE, because it belongs to neither one of our cultures,” she explains. “It’s also great that there are a lot of other multinational couples around us.”

When Nader Sobhan, a Bengali of Italian nationality, first set eyes on ­Jackie, from China, at a party at the home of mutual friends in Dubai, he was drawn to her curious, open attitude towards life. “That first moment was really quite special,” he recalls. “What I found exceptional is that she was born and raised in mainland China and went to university in Hong Kong, yet she has such an international perspective on life.”

But Nader, who is head of Mena operations at the iflix video-on-demand platform, admits that in the early days, there was fear that their cultural differences might eventually push them apart. “People said: ‘You’d better watch out, because a Chinese girl will always end up with a Chinese man, and her parents won’t accept you.’ But I learnt to speak Chinese, and I went to China to ask for her hand in the traditional way. Her parents respected me for that.”

Nader learnt that although their cultures differed in terms of language and religion, his traditional Bengali roots helped him to connect with many Chinese customs. “Both cultures share respect for parents and being overly polite to your elders, which really helped,” he says. “At our wedding, my parents admitted that, originally, they would’ve liked for me to end up with a good Bengali girl. But they’re over the moon that the woman I did end up with was so in touch with our values, and these values are universal.”

Jackie believes that there are advantages to having a mate from a different culture – namely that it broadens your horizons. “You have another country to call home, and I’m not complaining about Italy,” she says.

The biggest challenges that cross-cultural couples such as the Nader and Jackie face when communicating are the subtle variations in the meaning they ascribe to certain words or phrases in their common language. “I speak English well, but there are certain words that I might not understand the extent to which can be hurtful,” Jackie explains. “Slight miscommunication can have powerful connotations.”

coupleBengali-Italian Nader Sobhan and Chinese wife Jackie. Courtesy Jackie Jiang and Nader Sobhan

When Rana, who is Lebanese, married Owen Jones in Abu Dhabi, she had to reconcile her Lebanese tendency to be “very expressive and passionate” with Owen’s Welsh habit of underplaying his emotions. “In Lebanon, you say you really love something or you really hate it. Owen can come across as unenthusiastic in comparison, and that can be challenging at times,” she says.

According to Beer, love has different meanings to different cultures. “Some people will say that they see ‘love’ as looking after the house, while others see it as sharing experiences together,” she says. “The key is expectations. Sometimes couples get caught up in the whirlwind of love, then discover too late that their dreams are very different. Make sure that you talk about your future goals early on.”

Ameera, an Abu Dhabi-based Romanian, made sure her dreams were aligned with Emirati Rashid bin ­Hendi’s before they agreed to marry five years ago. “We spoke a lot at the beginning of our relationship about how we would want to raise our children,” says Ameera. “I think that’s essential. Our two-year-old twins are being raised Muslim, and I’m happy with that. I have friends married to Emirati men who didn’t discuss these issues at the beginning of their relationship, and later they encountered issues as a result.”

coupleAmeera and Rashid bin Hendi, Romanian and Emirati. Courtesy Ameera bin Hendi

Rashid says that not only was Ameera’s Romanian culture similar to Emirati culture, but it also helped that she was already aware of his cultural sensitivities and traditions before they met. “I didn’t have many challenges in making her aware of what we do,” he says. “Sometimes issues do arise and I have to say: ‘This is how it is and this is the reason why.’ Informing her of why something is done makes it easier, even if she doesn’t always agree with certain things – she understands and she compromises, as do I.

“These days it’s hard to find people who are truly committed and know what they want. Before we met, I found it quite difficult to trust people, but she instilled in me a sense of trust. Looks were second – it was about what kind of person she was.”

The couple were fortunate to have his family’s blessing, but that’s not always the case. When Scotsman Paul ­Rennie fell in love with Kiyomi, a Korean-­Japanese flight attendant, her “very Japanese and traditional dad” found the match hard to come to terms with. “That was a challenge,” Paul says. “The language barrier is still an issue, even today. Family has very different meaning to Kiyomi than me. They’re in her thoughts all the time, whereas for me, that’s not so much the case.”

Beer says how in-laws should be treated is a common theme of her marriage counselling sessions. “In many cultures, you’re not just marrying the person but the family, and that can cause tension,” she explains. “In some cultures, it’s expected that you look after the parents – I know cases in which parents visit for months in one go. If you don’t get on with them, that creates problems.”

coupleScotsman Paul Rennie and Japanese-Korean wife Kiyomi. Courtesy Inomata Kohichi

Paul was familiar with Japanese culture before meeting Kiyomi, having worked with a Japanese logistics company for 14 years, and visited Japan numerous times. That bodes well – Beer says that cross-cultural relationships work better when one person has lived in their partner’s home country at some point. “They have more of a cultural understanding than people who have come straight to the UAE from their home culture.”

The biggest culture-clash that the Rennies face is that Paul still wears shoes in the home, which goes against Kiyomi’s ingrained Japanese-Korean customs. “It seems disgusting,” Kiyomi admits. “He even comes to the bed sometimes with his shoes on.”

The saying goes that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, and ­Kiyomi has been expressing her love for Paul by watching Jamie Oliver’s YouTube videos to get to grips with western-style dishes. “In Japan, we never use an oven, so that takes some getting used to,” she says. “But because I serve the dishes with rice, Paul still thinks I’m cooking Japanese food.”

For Heidi, dining proved to be a long, drawn-out affair with Tony, who likes to indulge his Italian tendency of eating several courses in one sitting. “That’s an Italian dinner,” he says. “But Heidi is taken aback by the amount of food that I eat.”

Rana says Owen was also surprised by the abundance of food he was offered on his first trip to Lebanon. “Every time we entered a room, everybody would try to feed him,” says Rana. “When we Lebanese offer food, we torture you into taking it – we keep saying: ‘No, you must try it. I made it.’ Hospitality is our way of showing love.”

Where to settle when you leave the UAE can also be a thorny topic. But for globetrotter Nader, wherever he and Jackie end up living, what’s important is that they will be building shared dreams together. “In relationships, you have one half of the puzzle and you’re desperately trying to find the other piece that fits and creates a beautiful picture,” he says. “I’m lucky to have found in Jackie a piece that fits beautifully, and the picture is absolutely wonderful.”

Q&A with Angela Nicoara

bookLoving an Alien by Angela Nicoara.

Romanian writer Angela Nicoara knows about the highs and lows of love across cultures. As well as being married to somebody from a different culture, last year she published Loving an Alien, a collection of interviews with couples from different cultures.

What did you learn, from writing this book, about the nature of relationships?

The women in an international relationship were hoping to meet someone different. Mostly, they wanted a man who believed in an equal relationship. I believe these relationships are based on love, respect, interest and enthusiasm for different cultures, and openness to people who are different.

Is it harder to make a cross-cultural relationship work in the long term?

Geographical distance can prove a challenge and be difficult to accommodate and negotiate later, especially if you’re planning kids. But based on my own marriage to an “alien”, negotiating our relationship made it stronger. My husband and I have lived in 17 countries in the past 20 years, and I feel we had as many lives. Often, we only had each other, starting our life in a new country, and I genuinely feel like we only just met.

Did you see any common patterns emerge between the couples?

A recurring theme is the importance of spending time with your partner in his own country and in yours, before you take the big step. Another theme is religion: the differences can make or break your family and your heart. Same for language – love is a universal one, but you’ll need far more than that to overcome some misunderstandings. So listen up, slow down, and be patient.

Do you think certain cultures that may appear different can actually be quite similar?

People are people, regardless of skin colour, language and nationality. As my interviewees told me, we all want to be loved and in love. Some women said they married an “alien” from their own country, so cultures may differ greatly even in your own backyard. I would advise couples to prepare for culture shock, often at a profound level, and be ready to adapt, accept and tolerate it. If you’re hoping your partner will change into the person you really wanted, think again.