Cultural Musings, For Foreigners

The ins and outs of binational relationships

Being with someone from another country is often an adventure and sometimes a challenge. Which is it more of? Well, that’s hard to say. Have you ever been in a relationship with someone from a different culture than you? Then you get it. If not, it’s hard to imagine. Here are what I think are the upsides and downsides and how to manage them.

You are forced to learn your whole life.

Upsides: Not only do you have to learn each other’s languages but you also have to learn each other’s cultures. Getting to know a person when you come from the same place is complex but when you’re from other cultures you have so much more to teach other. Plus, your babies will grow up bilingual. How badass is that?

Downsides: There are nuances of language and culture which are either very difficult to understand or impossible to know all of. You can’t really reminisce together about those cool TV shows from the ‘90s, weird food products they had when you were a kid or things you used to collect. Imagine the difference between the ‘90s in America and the ‘90s in Poland. Yeah kinda different. Do those things really matter? No, not really, but sometimes you catch yourself realising that yeah you had very different childhoods and that could cause some dissonance.

My advice: Take the time to learn their language, at least a little bit. Even if you speak your native language most of the time like I do with my husband, speaking their language as well opens up a lot in the relationship. Their language will help you understand them better, as well as their family, friends, culture, all of that. Plus you get to enjoy all those funny language mishaps. A few of my favorites are when my husband called hash browns hash brownies… two very different things. So when he told me he ate hash brownies for breakfast I was pretty surprised. Another one – when I told my mother-in-law that my baby “rucha się” (fucks) instead of “rusza się” (moves)…that’s pretty embarrassing. Or what about the time when I called frytki (french fries) fiutki (little dicks)…

You either get to travel abroad or live abroad. 

Upsides: Some may say my husband is lucky as he has a second family in Florida. We vacation there about once a year, which isn’t something to complain about, especially in the winter months. That may be true but I get to live in Europe, which is hard to beat.

Downsides: Just as it’s an advantages to live abroad or travel abroad, it’s also a disadvantage sometimes. What about holidays? What about when you have kids? Someone’s family is always going to miss out and that’s pretty sad. Also, you have to have a lot more money if you’d like to travel to and from your respective countries regularly.

My advice: Acknowledge the fact that your partner, especially the one living in a different country, has many challenges to face on a daily basis. It can be hard to notice, especially if they’ve assimilated well, but it’s exacerbated when there’s high stress, very important events, or special occasions that you don’t get to spend with friends or family. Sometimes you just wanna see your mom and you can’t. There are a lot of sacrifices that that partner makes and it should be acknowledged.

You go through a lot together. 

Downsides: These are the things which will make or break your binational relationship. Do you care enough to apply every two years for a new residence permit? How about go to court when you want to get married? We’ve done things together that are so absurd that mono-national couples will just never have to go through. My husband has to have a visa to visit my home country and I have to have formal permission to live in his even though I have a house, business, husband and baby here. I couldn’t understand his parents or any family members when we first met… on Christmas day. Those things can be very challenging and if your relationship isn’t strong, it’ll break under the pressure.

Upsides: You do these things together which aren’t easy, require a lot of patience and understanding, and they seem so ridiculous at the time but, in fact, we have a lot of fun reminiscing about all our red tape nightmares. It’s like something special which only we have.

My advice: Support your partner and acknowledge that it’s a struggle to be with you sometimes. When it come to things like bureaucracy, the individual who’s actually from the country where you live has to put forth the effort to help you with this. It can be intense and you probably need their support in order to obtain everything you need. Likewise, it’s important to show them that you understand what’s difficult about being with you. Just simple “thank you for helping me with that” or letting them know that you appreciate that they speak your language or make the effort to… those things matter.

Also, you just have to be more flexible in general. You can’t communicate your irritation through the subtleties of language, you just have to say them out loud because there’s no way your partner will pick up on them. You just have to literally say “Are you mad at me?” or “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.” Is that a minus or is it a plus actually? Being from other cultures might not allow you to hold back your feelings and therefore may force you to suck it up and communicate more clearly and directly. It could be uncomfortable but overall it’s probably better, right?

In general, it’s a lovely thing to be in a bi-national relationship and a lot of the time you don’t even think about it because it becomes so normal. You don’t even think twice about asking “Wiesz gdzie jest ten cup I was using earlier?” or “that’s ciekawy”, something I found myself saying today. Even though you might go through a lot of hard times together, those will make your relationship stronger and it’s something that a lot of people don’t get to share. I think when you have to fight to be together, you appreciate it more.

I know a lot of my readers are also in binational relationships and can surely provide some interesting insight here. What do you guys think? What’s hard about being with someone from another country? What have you gone through? Would you recommend it?

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  • Reply N. 16 May 2017 at 20:11

    Wow! I love this post 🙂 I’m in relationship with guy from Jordan. We still live in USA where we met but soon we have to move somewhere (of course visa requirements :)). And your article is so true! But in mine relationship is one more downside- he is Arabic so maybe it’s not problem from inside but from outside – I think you should already know how sometimes intolerant are people in Poland. And now this situation with refugees in Europe… at the beginning of us my mum was very opposite to this relationship, that it’s different culture, they don’t respect woman etc. I decided to try and I can’t tell any bad word how he treats me but still… when people here that I’m with Arabic guy are like “OMG! What are you doing?! Leave him!”. America taught me tolerance and to not look with stereotypes but it makes me tired to explain to someone why I choose like I choose 🙂

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 16 May 2017 at 20:29

      Hi Natalia – hmm I can imagine that battling the stereotypes is a huge struggle for the both of you. People are so bold to say such things to you about your partner! It shows how acceptable intolerance is becoming, well, everywhere. I’m surprised people aren’t actually more intolerant in the States. I mean I guess it’s divided really and it depends a lot on where you live as well. I’m sorry you have to deal with that but it sounds like you are handling it well.

  • Reply Piotr 16 May 2017 at 20:30

    Being in a binational relationship definitely can be a struggle sometimes but this may make your life richer at the same time. If you are with someone who comes from a different country, you learn that your point of view, rules, cuisine, food don`t have to be only one and the best, have they? The cultural nuances seem to be frustrating sometimes but quite funny too. For example if you ask to Pole “Przynieś mi herbatkę i ciasteczka”, he or she will understand this as a wish, not demand. However, if you do the same during speaking to the British or Americans, they will find you impolite. In this case you ought to say: Could you bring me a cup of tea and biscuits, please? And I have to say language flops made by you and your husband are really ridiculous- I simply couldn`t stop laughing! Confusing marijuana with a famous American cake ;-). Well, getting to know a new language is never easy, isn`t it? I have recently made a similar mistake during watching a film. The sentence ” I give you a ring, ok?” was got by me as “Dam ci pierścionek, dobrze?” instead “Zadzwonię do ciebie.” I have known this colloquial quote (typical for British English) but I completely forgot about the context.

    • Reply Piotr 16 May 2017 at 21:57

      I have just noticed I made mistake on my own! I thought that hash brown means brownie cake ;-). Sorry-It must have been the kind of diced or cubed pan-fried potatoes, right?

      • Reply Leah Morawiec 16 May 2017 at 22:10

        Hey Piotr! Hah yes hash browns are like fried, grated potatoes. The words are so similar though it’s easy to make a mistake, isn’t it? It was such a funny thing though. And yeah “give someone a ring” does sound exactly as you translated it 🙂 It’s crazy how easy it is to mix things up sometimes! They’re too damn similar!

  • Reply Meric Ostrowska 16 May 2017 at 20:59

    I think polish language and missing homeland is hard 🙂 Also the cold :s . But it’s really an adventure. And new baby automatically learning 3 languages 🙂

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 16 May 2017 at 22:11

      Hey Meric – yeah for sure those are hard things but 3 languages at once? That’s incredible! Totally worth it 🙂

  • Reply Monika 16 May 2017 at 22:21

    In my case, the biggest downside is meeting parents, actually. I come from a small town, where people are very traditional and old-fashioned, and I’m literally terrified of introducing my boyfriend from the other side of the world to my family. A situation, where he doesn’t speak any Polish and they don’t speak English at all seems not very comfortable to either of us.
    An upside might be the fact that whenever we go for vacation there’s always free accommodation at his friends’ houses 🙂

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 17 May 2017 at 12:18

      Yeah vacations at your friend’s houses abroad… that’s pretty sweet. Well do you think your family wouldn’t like your boyfriend or wouldn’t approve? Or is it just the language barrier that’s a problem? I guess it depends on how patient you are. You’ll have to do all the translating, which is a huge task and responsibility. My husband never minded (don’t ask me why) but I think it’d be a huge pain in the ass to translate everything. However, now I do it for my parents when they meet with my parents in law and it doesn’t really bother me. It’s just mentally taxing. But I mean if everyone is pretty easy going then it’s not that bad. It’s always gonna be awkward until your boyfriend learns some Polish and even then it’ll still be hard sometimes. My husband still helps me a bunch :/

  • Reply Kasia 17 May 2017 at 02:16

    So true! Especially the language thing..I hate fighting in English, I can never fully express my frustration! 😉 I can also add one thing. It probably doesn’t apply to a lot of people, but it did to us – LONG DISTANCE. 2 years of flying back and forth can be definitely a trying time for a relationship, let me tell you… Thankfully, that’s behind us now:)

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 17 May 2017 at 12:15

      ugh long distance… what a disaster but I guess it was a good test if you got through it. But yeah I imagine it’s a little unfair for you having to communicate in English during a fight. Like you totally have the disadvantage… my poor husband haha.

  • Reply Madzia Łaskawska 17 May 2017 at 11:53

    This part about little dicks and baby’s movements made me laugh so hard?
    Hmm I thought to myself you don’t have to speak different language to have difficulty communicating your feelings..

    My husband’s cousin married an American, they have an amazing son..but something went wrong,she says that he’s a playboy, he doesn’t take life seriously (why didn’t she notice it when thay started dating and then got married?I don’t know.)and now they want to get divorced. She’d like to come back to Poland but she can’t because of her son. I’m curious if you had any doubts about having a baby, because if anything went wrong, you’d be forced to stay here for years.

    I hope you feel good and enjoy last days of peace and quiet. 🙂 this time last year I was as close to the baby due as you are now, time goes so fast..?
    Hugs and kisses!!

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 17 May 2017 at 12:13

      Hey Magda! Oh that’s terrible for your husband’s cousin. I guess people just make the wrong decisions when it comes to spouses – it’s always weird to me too when someone didn’t realize the person wasn’t good for them. Honestly I think they do realize it before but they just hope it’ll change or something. So that’s really sad for her since they have a child together. Really I never thought twice about it because my husband is so great and I don’t see us ever having problems. But you’re right that’s a huge potential problem…

      Anyway I am enjoying my last few moments of alone time 🙂 I just stopped working last week so I didn’t give myself much time but regardless it’s pretty sweet!

  • Reply Marina 17 May 2017 at 15:01

    The hash brownies made me laugh out loud. I love language mishaps so much. I was ordering a low-fat milk latte for a friend in South Korea when I had my best mishap. She told me the word for low-fat, but she was wrong. The poor baristas were just astonished and then started giggling. I kept getting frustrated because I was saying exactly what my friend had told me and thought they just weren’t making an effort to understand my accent. It turns out that I was saying “penis-milk latte” over and over again.

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 18 May 2017 at 08:03

      Hah oh my god Marina – that’s probably the worst language mishap I’ve ever heard!! hahah

  • Reply Alex 17 May 2017 at 21:55

    Hi, the worst thing is that we cannot see our families at the same time. We cannot spend Christmas Day with my family and Boxing Day with his… I hate having our family being so spread out and we miss out on so many birthdays/family celebrations… best thing is that our son gets to learn two languages at one! He is two and he just became really chatty, he doesn’t get the plural thing yet so he says “shoe shoe” for shoes which really sounds like siusiu and that makes us laugh a lot every time he looks for his siusiu (our favourite inside joke ;-))

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 18 May 2017 at 08:06

      Alex – hehe your son sounds so sweet 🙂 I know what you mean about birthdays and holidays and everything. I saw my parents for Christmas last year for the first time in 6 years. That’s pretty bad. And I haven’t been to any thanksgivings, birthdays, mother’s days… nothing in 6 years. And if you remember them a little too late then it’s bad too cause it’s harder to send a last minute gift! Thank god for Amazon though!

  • Reply Diane 9 July 2017 at 18:52

    So much to relate to here! I’m American and my husband is French and while we speak each other’s language, sometimes the little nuances don’t translate. I agree with all your upsides and downsides. Though it’s not always easy, I wouldn’t trade him for anything. 😉

  • Reply Bernie Franklin 3 October 2017 at 08:52

    Hey Leah,
    Leaving everyone and everything behind was hard but sometimes its worth it like the travel to different countries. Since arriving in Poland permanently in September the hardest thing for me has been the stares. Since I’m biracially half-black guys qmd living in a smaller Polish village, people are constantly staring and it gets old really fast. And ypu never know if its because either they’ve never seen a darker skinned person or of they just don’t want upu here. You really want to know but know its ruse to ask. Then you do get those Poles who can speak english and when you tell them that you’re from California they cannot believe that you’ve chosen to live in Poland instead; they look at you as if you’re stupid and why would you ever leave. It’s definitely not easy but its working, I’ve applied feo my temporary resident permit so wish me luck.

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 3 October 2017 at 14:58

      Hi Bernie – ooh yeah being biracial unfortunately could be hard. So not only are you foreign and weird cause you left California (gasp!!) but you look different as well. You have my sympathies :/ It gets easier I promise – especially once you speak some Polish!!

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