Dear Gillian: Love across the cultural divide

Wednesday, October 28, 2015 - 7:11pm

Dear Gillian,

I met two great girls. One of them is from a different cultural background; the other one shares mine. On one hand, I like spending time with the girl who’s from my own culture, because it’s just familiar and natural. On the other hand, Im crazy about this other girl. I fear that my approach to win her affection might be unsuitable to her cultural beliefs, and I really dont want to make mistakes to ruin all the good feelings she may have for me right now. I dont know how to proceed from this point. Idefinitely do not want to be a jerk who’s intentionally developing relationships with multiple girls, but I also can't seem to make up my mind.

Thanks Gillian!

— Force Awaken

Dear Force,

Without knowing the colorful details of your culture differences, which could be as slight as East Coast meets Midwest or as momentous as East Jerusalem meets West Bank settler, it’s hard to know how to guide you. Do you need advice on wine selection (never California with an East Coast sweetie) or with how best to fry falafel? Fortunately, the liberal arts are overflowing with wisdom on your situation.

Egyptian-American playwright Yussef El Guindi’s “Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World” resembles your dilemma. The play, which premiered in 2011, tells the story of Musa an Egyptian immigrant working as a taxi driver in New York. Musa finds himself choosing between Gamila, his put-together and proper Muslim, Egyptian-American fiancé, and Sheri, an American late-shift diner waitress whose conversation lacks not only a filter but an off button. The play takes place in Musa’s bedroom after a cab ride transitions into a drink at his apartment. In Musa’s personal pilgrimage of identity, Gamila represents the sensible and comfortable choice and Sheri the exciting and unfamiliar. Sages have dispensed the advice to “explore the unknown” since time immemorial; it is said to expand your horizons, broaden your perspective and alter the rest of your geometric assumptions. Beware, however, of confusing genuine affection with the excitement of novelty. You don’t want to exoticize the girl’s cultural identity and have it become the locus of your attraction, which is where Musa may have gone wrong.

Another pitfall to avoid is chasing the forbidden for its own sake. From Neanderthal-Homo Sapien hook-ups to our globalized world of 2015, love across ethnic, racial, religious or even genetic backgrounds has flourished despite being forbidden (à la Romeo and Juliet) or outlawed (e.g., the anti-miscegenation laws and constitutional bans on interracial marriage of the several states). But just as a book ban might briefly increase sales without improving the work, a love ban might manufacture temporary attraction without regard to its endurance. Make sure you don’t just want it because you can’t have it.

Another worry of cross-cultural cuddlers is that they might be judged by the less enlightened (as any bat mitzvah’d girl can attest, the first question out of grandma’s mouth when you mention your lab partner Jake, is: “is he Jewish?” often with a follow-up about the charms of the medical profession). Tevye, the patriarch in “Fiddler on the Roof” — a book, musical and film set in 1904 Czarist Russia — like you Force, weighs his two options on one hand and then the other when his third daughter, Chava, announces she is going to marry her Marxist-Atheist (and in any event non-Jewish) lover Fyedka. Tevye struggles between acceptance and tradition (one making for a much better refrain in musical theater): “On the other hand, our old ways were once new, weren't they? On the other hand, they decided without parents. Without a matchmaker!” Eventually, Tevye runs out of hands and, despite tacit sympathy for her inner strength, cannot bring himself to accept his daughter’s cultural rebellion.

The Judeo-Christian God seemed more tolerant of marrying a gentile back in the good Old-Testament days. Moses’s older sister Miriam questioned his marriage to a “Cushite woman,” which is translated as “Ethiopian” in the King James Bible. The woman interpreted to be his wife, Zipporah, is described elsewhere in the same way. In Numbers 12 the scripture reads “And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married: for he had married an Ethiopian woman.” God then punishes Miriam with a temporary bout of leprosy for criticizing Moses’s decision to marry outside of the tribe. Take that, haters.

It is surely noble to be the one to step up and tear down anachronistic boundaries — Moses, Chava, Romeo/Juliet (OK, maybe not the Neanderthal …) not only are true to their romantic selves, but also advance the world’s progress toward tolerance and cross-cultural understanding. Likewise with the New York City Ballet’s Arthur Mitchell and Diana Adams, Black and white dancers, respectively, in the pre-civil rights era who kicked up a powerful stir entangling limbs in their intimate duet in Balanchine’s Agon. So if your Force is Awakening for the right reasons, you can take your place among the great taboo busters of history and the arts. But keep in mind, Romeo and Juliet killed themselves, Chava went to Siberia and Moses was barred from the Promised Land. And the Neanderthal is extinct.

In Zadie Smith’s novel, “NW,” the characters blend and layer an array of ethnic, racial, socio-economic and national identities in an outer corner of London. A central character, Leah Hanwell, grew up poor in the North West neighborhood with one English and one Irish parent. Her husband, Michel, is a French man of West African descent who works as a hairdresser. In the detached stream of consciousness style of the book, Leah muses about her marriage in the objective third person as she lay with Michel in their bedroom. She compares their physical beauties (“The man is more beautiful than the woman”), touches upon the history of how they came together and what they’ve learned since: “They were married before they noticed many small differences in background, aspiration, education, ambition. There is a difference between the ambitions of the poor of the city and the poor of the country, for examples.” Here it was not the obvious differences in upbringing or heritage that differentiated Leah and Michel, but qualities and values that came out after knowing and loving each other for a while.

So, my good Force, I’d advise you first to read “NW,” because it’s a great book. Next I’d say seek to understand the differences between you and the girl who shares your culture and, conversely, look for the commonalities between you and your more seemingly foreign love interest. As Zadie shows us, connection is complicated. Don’t let initial familiarity or its opposite be the deciding factor, but get to know each on a deeper level.

As for worrying about messing up the way you go about courtship, FA, just be a keen observer and ask questions to learn how she interprets different gestures or messages. Guard well against pretending to understand her culture when you don’t have a superficial clue. Have you seen in “I Love Lucy,” the groundbreaking 1950s sitcom, when Lucy conflates the traditions of Mexico, Spain and even Brazil in her hilarious attempt to recreate Ricky’s happy boyhood surroundings in his native Cuba? Differences and misinterpretations make for great comedy, but if you end up with some ‘splainin’ to do, don’t worry: The updated emojis finally have faces along the full spectrum of skin color and iconic cultural references.

Send an email to DearGillian@michigandaily.com or anonymously here describing a quandary about love, relationships, existence or their opposites. Gillian will attempt to summon the wisdom of the arts (literary, visual, performing) to soothe your troubled soul. We may publish your letter in the biweekly column with your first name (or penname). Submissions should be 250 words or fewer and may be edited prior to publication.