Looking for Love: Interracial Relationship Struggles
By Sara Who
You finally found that special someone to share your lazy Sunday mornings with and you can’t wait to take them on a romantic getaway. New relationships often feel exhilarating at first. Yet, when you finally take off those rose-colored glasses and reality sets in, you may start seeing your partner in a new light.
Obviously, no relationship is perfect, but if your new flame happens to be from a different cultural background, you might be in for a few unpleasant surprises – especially if you are each other’s first incursion into international territory.
Every relationship is of course different, but looking back at my first romance with a Japanese man, I did notice a few recurring patterns that seem common to many interracial couples in Japan.
“I have to work this weekend…”
Japanese people being notoriously busy at work, I should not have been surprised to hear it is normal for couples to meet once a week or even once every two weeks. A Japanese girlfriend of mine would only meet her boyfriend once a month and was perfectly fine with it, though she’d manage to have coffee with me every two weeks.
To a Western girl like myself, I could not fathom how it was possible to be happy that way. Back home, couples would generally meet at least three times a week. When my first Japanese boyfriend, a typical overworked salaryman, told me he couldn’t meet me so often nor “needed” to, I realized I would have to seriously downgrade my expectations.
“I should not have to tell you this!”
Japanese people are indirect communication masters and like to show their affection through small everyday gestures, rather than grand love declarations. A Japanese friend of mine got teary-eyed while watching a movie where the male protagonist, while shoveling food in his mouth, declared to his girlfriend: “I want to eat your cooking everyday”. The happy couple got married soon after.
But what happens when things go sour? My ex-boyfriend used to give me the silent treatment whenever he was annoyed with me. Raised in North America, I grew up being told to talk out my problems. With him, I hit a brick wall. The more I pushed to talk about our issues, the worse it became. Our communication style was very different. He wanted me to understand him and what he wanted without having to tell me.
“You haven’t told your family about me?”
It is also normal for couples in Japan to keep their relationships rather compartmentalized, especially before marriage. You might find it strange to have never met your other half’s family, even after dating for a while. Japanese people often don’t bring their girlfriends or boyfriends home unless the relationship is getting pretty serious.
As for their friends, you might meet them at some point, but don’t be surprised if it’s not a frequent occurrence. It took a good six months for my then boyfriend to tell his family he was dating someone, and about a year before I finally met them. It was also the first time he ever talked about his love life with his family.
Since that first relationship, I’ve learned a lot about dating in Japan. I knew from the start that if you date outside your culture, you will have to adapt somehow. In reality, it is easier said than done. My first Japanese boyfriend was very traditional and had never lived abroad. I was also his first non-Japanese girlfriend.
Even though he was making efforts to understand my cultural expectations, I don’t think he could ever really relate to them. I sometimes felt I was sacrificing a lot more for him than he was for me. Though in retrospect, I now realize he did try hard. It obviously did not work between us, but I walked away knowing exactly what I wanted in a partner. Communication issues are definitely a deal breaker for me. However, I also lowered some of my expectations. Even though it’s not ideal, I’m fine with meeting my boyfriend once a week.
I now almost exclusively date men who have experienced living abroad. They are often more flexible and communication is a lot easier. This does not mean a relationship with a more “typical” Japanese person is doomed to fail. As long as both people are willing to compromise equally, happiness is possible. You might just have to put in a little more work at first. But to be honest, I still don’t think I would cry if my boyfriend told me he wanted to eat my pancakes forever!