Gustavo and I first met almost three years ago. In that time, we’ve gone from dating, to just being friends, to being in a long-distance relationship, to getting married when neither of us thought we would. Fortunately, Gustavo is quite the talker and I’m quite the emotional processor, both of which mean that we do a good job of communicating with one another.
When it came to developing our relationship, we had a few added challenges. My first language is English, Gustavo’s Portuguese. I’m thirty years old, he’s twenty-five. I’m American, he’s Brazilian. Until our relationship started to develop, I never really recognized these things as dominant characteristics of “who I am,” but I’ve come to realize just how much they shape my worldview.
If you asked what’s the hardest part of our relationship, it would not be the distance. Instead, it’s the insidious cultural differences that neither of us was aware of until we started to see the ways in which we differ. Things like time management, social interactions, cultural references (any Saturday morning cartoon references are out the window), comfort food, and so on rear their ugly head on a weekly basis.
For me, as an American in Brazil, one of the biggest challenges is with people around us. While Gustavo hasn’t yet lived in the US for an extended period of time, he’s traveled there quite a bit and works for an American company which means he understands a lot of my unspoken expectations, even if they don’t match his own. Because of our mutual understanding of each others’ cultures, we’re able to pinpoint when something is a cultural difference and talk about how to deal with it.
For the people around us, it’s not as clear cut and, of course, just because we’re a couple that doesn’t mean we never interact with anyone else. (At least, I sure hope not!) Often, family and friends have the perception that they know a lot about American culture because it’s so omnipresent — from TV shows to movies to music — they think they understand where I’m coming from when I do something unexpected.
“Oh yeah,” they sometimes say. “I saw that once in a movie. I know what you’re talking about.”
People logically know that living in the United States is different, particularly from the perspective that there are a lot of little luxuries that are easier to get. There’s Amazon Prime. Taxes are reasonable. It’s safe, for the most part. You can get make-up at an affordable price. There’s cheap food, but it’s bad quality.
While none of these things are necessarily untrue, there’s so much more to the story that shapes who I am. Yet because there’s a sense of already knowing about America, I find people are very resistant to hear my experience because there isn’t room for a conflicting view. “No, no, I’ve been to Florida,” I hear, unable to explain that, just like Brazil, every state is different. There’s more to where I’m from than outlet malls and McDonalds.
One of the biggest differences we struggle with is having friends over. Yes, of course, people inevitably come late and no matter how much I logically know this, I’m still ready and waiting ten minutes early. Even harder, however, is the sense of personal boundaries I didn’t know I had when sharing my home. (Yes, this relates to personal space, too.)
For Brazilians, the home tends to be just another extension of any other public space where you can spend time with friends. Once someone walks through your door, it’s as if they’re in their home as well. Stay as long as you’d like, take what you need, eat what you want, put on music, nap, etc. The only boundary is that there are no boundaries to impose.
For Americans, the home tends to be a personal oasis that we invite people into. While we want them to feel comfortable, there are limits, such as asking before grabbing a drink or food, offering to help in the kitchen, and generally leaving at a “reasonable” time even if you’re not tired yet. Unless someone is a really close friend, all of these niceties are necessary in order to not be seen as rude.
As an introvert in an extroverted country, I like these rules. They mean that I can enjoy the company of friends, while also knowing that my personal space will be intact.
But here’s where the relationship challenges come into play.
Gustavo knows when I’m starting to hit my upper limit of “Okay, we’re halfway between ‘Do whatever you want as a guest’ and ‘Dude, it’s 1am on a Tuesday. Please GTFO.'” So we invariably end up in this awkward middle ground of me non-verbally screaming “Please save me, I need alone time” and Gustavo frozen in the middle of wanting to respect my wishes while not wanting to alienate his friends with my unheard of requests.
Then we kind of stare at each other for an hour alternating between anger and helplessness and laughter and “This isn’t so bad” and back to “Oh my god, this is never going to end.” For an outsider, it must look simultaneously hilarious and confusing.
And that’s the catch. Between the two of us, we’re both open to hearing cultural differences. I can pinpoint exactly what it is that’s off for me and he can express what he thinks is the why and how we can deal with it. Outside of our relationship, however, it’s not so simple.
Outside of our relationship, I’m the foreigner. I can’t impose American culture on the people around us, as much as I’d like, even in my own home. I can’t say, “Hey, usually Americans arbitrarily ask ‘Can I use your bathroom?’ when they first arrive and then they’re cleared for the night. I don’t know why we have this pointless practice, but it’s polite and I like that it makes me feel respected in my house.”
Immigration culture doesn’t exist in Brazil. If you move to Brazil, you are Brazilian. Someone may nickname you based on where you’re from originally, but any cultural differences are seen as irrelevant because you’re in Brazil now. So even though every American I’ve spoken with thinks, “Of course you want people to specifically invite you to events too even though it’s more efficient to just invite your Portuguese-speaking partner!” it’s considered random, picky, needy, and annoying to people in Brazil who are primarily concerned with connecting in person through spending time together.
By Brazilian standards, Americans are cold with all of their boundaries and rules. By American standards, Brazilians are rude with their sense of familiarity. And Gustavo and I are here right in the middle, confused about how to be comfortably uncomfortable with both ourselves and those around us.
Language difference? Age differences? Timezone differences? Easy peasy. Figuring out how to invite one or two friends over to an introvert’s house in a culture that valorizes the group over the individual? Please, send help.