When Two Become One: Navigating International Marriages
The number of cross-cultural marriages in Czechia is on the rise. Last year alone close to 5,000 Czechs tied the knot with a partner from a different cultural background. Kevin Loo explores the challenges and joys of being married to a Czech partner and making a new home in Czechia.
Starting a new life with someone from a different cultural background can be exciting and challenging in equal measure. There are language barriers, cultural differences and even clashing values within the broader family to be overcome.
How hard is it for the foreign nationals who fall in love with and marry a Czech to settle here, make new friends and bring up their children far from home? Kevin Loo spoke with the spouses of Czech partners to find out more about their experience.
Lauren, who comes from the US, admits to initially being fascinated with classical European notions of romance.
“My first impression of Czech guys, at least the ones I was around, I thought that they were really friendly and charismatic and romantic I guess. There was something very intriguing to me about European men. I love that flowers are a thing and that bringing a rose…Yes I guess overall Czech guys are romantic. I just got a rose two days ago, and yeah that’s always a surprise!”
Ethan from Australia shares that for him, Czech girls proved to have a different communication style and attitudes towards relationships than he was used to.
“My first impression of Czech girls is that they are fairly strong-willed. Australians, we can be a bit more relaxed, I found that Czech girls are very direct which is a good thing. But it’s certainly an opposite to the Australian way of doing things.”
No doubt, these differences between individuals can be a strong source of magnetic attraction. As dating leads to marriage however, these cultural differences can also become a source of friction and tension.
This could be something minor, like missing out on certain jokes or cultural references. Andre from South Africa explains:
“Perhaps another surprise about being with a Czech person is how homogenous the culture is and how everyone shares the same cultural references. For example, especially as it relates to language and films. There are those famous Czech films ‘Vrchní, prchni!’ and ‘S tebou mě baví svět’ and all of these, and they’re cultural reference points that all Czechs know, and they’ll quote them in appropriate circumstances. And I feel a little bit left out because even if I’ve seen the films, I don’t remember the line.”
The longer you spend together though, the cultural differences can go deeper, sometimes manifesting as a fundamental difference in worldviews. Ashley from the US shares her experience as an American optimist faced with Czech, let’s say, realism:
“For example, one thing that has come up before and I think comes up at different times at different points in our lives is that for me as an American, I have the idea that ‘everything is possible’. There are no limits. If you want to do something and you put your mind to it and you try really hard, anything is possible. There are so many opportunities! Nothing is off limits.
But for Honza, and from his perspective and culture, who he is and where he grew up, there’s this idea that actually that is not true at all. There are lots of limits, and not everything is possible. So you have to be sceptical maybe, and logical and rational. Maybe it’s not smart or wise to go into something thinking that everything is possible.”
While flexibility and open-ness are key to every marriage, an international marriage can feel like it always has a cloud of uncertainty hanging over it every day. Whether it’s negotiating family vacations and Christmas visits, or the larger existential questions about where you will live in 10 years, the future is never simple or clear cut. Lauren again:
“One thing was definitely planning out for example, when is he going to meet my family? Since I only visit home about once a year, the options were limited. Do I take him this year for Christmas? Or do I wait another year and take him next year for Christmas?
Then once we got serious, or maybe something that helped us move forward in our relationship was just his openness to potentially leaving his home country - that he wasn’t tied to only living in the Czech Republic. I think that open-ness was very important to me.
Just planning things out was maybe one of the things that we had to put more thought into than if we were both from the same country.”
So who gets drawn into these kinds of relationships with so much added pressures and challenges? It comes down to the individual’s own experience of travel and exposure to international life outside of any dating or marriage context.
Most couples found this a topic of discussion early on in relationships. Andre relates his wife’s personal fascination with international life as a kind of prerequisite for them moving forward.
“Fortunately, Nina has quite an international mindset and she grew up around quite a lot of foreigners interestingly enough and learnt English and spent a summer in America and really loved American culture. She even wanted to marry an American at one point, so I was lucky.
She’s pretty flexible and we actually put that to the test after we got married when she was on maternity leave, I got an option to live in Japan and so we moved there and we had a second child in Japan. Then actually we had the option to stay in Japan, and as we thought about the future, we decided that Czech was more of a home than Japan could ever be, even though it’s an amazing place.
But we are open to moving to further possibilities of moving somewhere else, be that South Africa to look after my mum when she gets older. Or somewhere else, we are very much open to the idea of moving.”
These questions come into even sharper relief once children enter the equation. For Bec, who met her husband while he was working abroad in Sydney, Australia, their family has spent seasons in both countries. As their son gets older, they are now preparing to make another move in 2023 back down under. This is their immediate plan for now, but she admits that the future can never be certain.
“Thinking about the future as an international couple is difficult. There’s this kind of unknowing of what the future will hold. We want to do what’s best by our son Felix and we have family in both countries. We hope that we can try to live in both countries and we will see what will happen in the future.
Having to visit family in both countries, the expenses it costs to be able to fly back and forth. Will he know his grandparents? Will he get to spend time with his cousin? Will he adapt to these kinds of changes? It’s difficult to say how the future will be and where we will live, and this is probably something people don’t think about very often.”
The overarching theme I found in these conversations about international marriages was that of language. While moving to the other side of the planet is difficult, sacrificing one’s language at home for the other partner can be just as big a burden.
Ethan: “Something that I forget about sometimes as well is that English, although she’s amazing at it, it’s not her first language. To have three people speaking at once, and you’re trying to just take it all in when it’s not your main language, it can be tough. I’ve had to be mindful of that”
Lauren: “And then there’s the given one about language. Just merging our lives together, sometimes with the language, I’ll get upset with him for not apologising in one way or not saying the words I want him to say, and he’ll say ‘But English is my second language!’ so he can kind of pull that card and then like ‘OK yes, it was my decision to marry you as a second language speaker’”.
Ashley says that even if you learn Czech, there will always be a gap in communicating in what some call your ‘heart language’.
“We each have a different mother language. I think that’s something that people don’t realise. Even though Honza speaks English great, and I can communicate in Czech, so we can speak others’ first and second languages. I think there is still a depth there, or a reality there…there is lots of personality and hidden nuances in language.”
Communication and linguistic challenges also intensify when multilingual children try to navigate their blended home environment. Sarah from Ireland, explains that for her and her Czech husband, choosing culturally appropriate (and intelligible) names for their sons was merely the first step.
“When we were deciding names, we struggled because we had to find something that fit both cultures. So we were looking at names with certain spellings or certain pronunciations. I didn’t want a name that began with ‘J’ for example, because of the ‘Y-’. The ones we settled one aren’t massively Czech, but they’re not massively normal in British culture either so they’re somewhere in between.”
The cultural pressures one feels from your adopted country can also be felt internally from older generations, such as grandma or grandpa who understandably desire a connection and relationship with their grandchildren.
Sarah: “I don't know my mother-in-law that well because she doesn't speak English, so the relationship can only go so far. I guess she's very passionate that we have the Czech influence. She thinks I can’t understand but I can understand bits and pieces, when she speaks to my husband that she's always asking “Are you speaking to them, why is their Czech not better, you need to be speaking to them in Czech.”
Sarah also shares that watching her kids navigate the world across boundaries via language and culture is one of her biggest joys, even if it may potentially cut her out of the loop due to different schooling systems or discussions with their Czech relatives. And while she’s tried her hand at cooking certain foods and learning conversational Czech, she can feel a bit on the backfoot being a kind of foreigner, a Brit, even in her own home.
“Teddy, my elder boy speaks more English than Czech, he understands Czech and he’s starting to speak it more and we really have to push for that. And I love that. And I also just like that they’re bicultural. It’s easy for them to access my culture here, where it’s so multicultural in the city.
And obviously, I'm cooking certain things for them at home, and we're watching certain things on TV, or we're playing certain games or learning certain nursery rhymes. But, I love that they know the Czech nursery rhymes too. And I love that they're exposed to the Czech fairy tales and even Czech food - eating things I would never have grown up eating, you know, like dumplings. I see Teddy having his clear soup and you know, that makes me really happy. I love that their favourite dish is probably paprika chicken that his Granny makes for him, his babicka makes for him, and I think that's really nice.
I love that they're this dual nationality. Yeah, and the language thing is a big thing because I know that then that will make life easier for them further than the line as they want to learn more languages. And I've always felt a bit stunted being British and having one language.”
As it turns out, the gift of raising multilingual children can also prove to be a double-edged sword. Having spent time in a third country foreign to both parents (Japan), Andre relates the peculiar experience of navigating a ‘half international family’ with his kids having the home ground advantage of living in their mother’s motherland, so to speak.
“Our kids speak both English and Czech but they speak neither perfectly. They don’t have the same rich language input at home that they would have if we as their parents were both Czech native or both English native speakers. They don’t learn the same turn of idiom or subtleties as they would in a native household. My son even gets made fun of at school when he uses English phrasing or word order in Czech.
I also wonder about my kids’ identity. Obviously I would love them to take the best from both cultures and live that out, but they also need to fit in somewhere and to have a home.
And so many kids nowadays have international identities, like the children of diplomats, international businessmen, refugees… So I imagine they’re in the same boat and we’ll somehow manage, and hopefully they’ll be richer for it. But obviously it’s a cause for concern as well.”
From linguistic challenges, pragmatism versus idealism, to customs in saving money and utility costs, or surprising practices of chivalry, it’s also heartening to realise that many of these experiences may just as easily come up in a single nationality marriage. And while yes, an international, cross-cultural marriage does present unique pressures and obstacles, they are in essence no different to any other marriage - two individuals learning how to make two separate, complex worlds into one new whole.
With every succeeding generation of blended families and international partnerships, the gap of differences in dreams, hopes and fears will slowly close - perhaps not fully, but close enough for there to be better understanding and community amongst all.
Ashley: “Even despite maybe the difficulties of having a husband from a different culture, it actually adds a lot of richness to our relationship. It adds a lot of richness to my life.
Czechs have a really unique perspective and the history of this country is really deep. It helps to open my eyes to the world and to see community, relationships and family in new ways and I’m really thankful for that.
I think it really is a gift to be in an international marriage. I think it’s definitely not a reason for anyone to hesitate or be scared of, because while there are difficulties and challenges, at the end of the day it’s choosing to love the person for who they are and Czechs really have a lot to offer and to bring to this world.”