The interview of the month is about intercultural relations. Research shows that in most cases intercultural relations are accepted, but initially met with resistance (Bonte, 2018). Resistance and disapproval create moments of doubt in a relationship. Today, Raya tells us her story. Raya lives in Amsterdam. She works at Global People and is specialised in diversity and inclusion. She provides support to highly educated multicultural students in their job search. For this she works together with companies and organisations that want to diversify the workforce, but are unable to achieve this by themselves. In her spare time, she loves dancing salsa, bachata, twerk and belly dance. Raya was born into a Hindu Surinamese-Indian family in the Netherlands.
Raya, you are in a relationship with someone from a different culture. Before we get into that, let me ask what were the beliefs you grew up with about relationships.
Being in a relationship was not encouraged. I grew up with the slogan that is familiar to several Surinamese-Indian ladies: your diploma is your first husband. The focus was mainly on studying, studying, and studying.
My aunts and uncles taught me that I should not come home with a black man or a Muslim. My parents didn’t even say this to me.
Because having relationships with men (including friendly ones) was not encouraged, I missed the interaction with men during my childhood and early twenties. It wasn’t allowed. I also did not have a positive self-image. People always commented on my appearance. Never slim enough, not this or that enough. I would have liked it if I had had the freedom to explore. That things didn’t have to go secretly, because if something goes secretly you will catch some heat eventually.
What happens if you don’t get enough space to try things out?
You have no backup and you can’t go back so you let yourself go beyond your limits faster. Someone can take advantage of you because of that. Suppose I had the space to have a boyfriend and the unconditional support of family, then I would have been better able to explore and see for myself whether this is good or bad behaviour. I think I would have made better choices in the past.
I once had to deal with sexual harassment at work. My family responded aggressively to men walking me home from school or work. So, I couldn’t tell at home that something had happened at work. I was afraid to tell them out of fear that my parents would no longer allow me to work. Out of love they will want to protect me that I don’t have to go through that again. But that also meant sitting at home the whole day and I didn’t want that.
You ended up being in a relationship with a white man. While dating, were you concerned about how your family would react? Why?
Yes, very much. I waited a long time to announce it, fearing that it would be disapproved. My parents had no problem with it themselves, but extended family members disapproved the relationship. They would say things like ‘your daughter is a bad Surinamese-Indian girl’ to my parents. Also, because I am one of the older cousins in the family who came with a non-brown guy. That was not a good example according to them. Initially, my parents approved it but after the family got involved, my parents started to have doubts. In the end, my parents supported my choice and chose my happiness. But the road to it was not easy due to the influence of others.
When my relationship with this man ended, family members said things like “you wanted this, right? This is your own fault.” This made me sad because I was being judged for something I had no control over. I think more Surinamese-Indian women deal with this. They get blamed for things they have no control over and especially when they are things others didn’t agree with, it’s rubbed in even more.
Someone even said ‘if someone comes and wants to marry you, then you must marry him, because you are worth nothing.’
What does that do to you?
Disbelief. As a Surinamese-Indian woman in Dutch society, you still have to work ten times harder. We are beautiful, sweet and smart, but it takes a lot of effort to emerge in the various roles we have. Good daughter, good sister, career woman, good wife, top student, etc. It’s a different role you have to fulfill every time. The older generation has no idea or understanding of all the hurdles we face. How much pressure it gives to keep switching between two cultures and those diverse roles.
I have distanced myself from these thought patterns. I’m not going to change myself for people who don’t know what it’s like to be in my shoes. Before I was with that Dutch man, I was with a Surinamese-Indian man, someone from my own community and religion. I don’t sign up for having to marry someone because we have the same cultural background and being plagued by restrictive corsets and meddling.
You are now happy in an intercultural relationship with a new partner. How did it start?
I have known my Dutch partner for six years. We were colleagues. At work he looked often and I thought what’s your problem? When I tried to talk to him he acted weird. So I thought I guess this guy doesn’t like me. Then he left the company and sent an email that he really liked me. Then I thought oooh that’s why you were acting weird. I was in a relationship at the time so I didn’t do anything with it. At some point, my relationship ended. I then took time for myself. I thought I am going to take care of myself.
After a while, I looked him up on Facebook, but apart from becoming friends, neither of us took a step. Until last year and I was curious how he was doing. Turns out he still really liked me after 6 years. He had even watched me giving an online workshop at HSFN (Hindu student association). I thought ‘Okay, this one is very dedicated…’
Haha, Raya, where can we watch this training so we can admire you too?
Haha, I thought I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. Then we called for a long time and we went on a date. He is very sweet, careful, caring and also genuinely interested in my culture and faith. With Divali (Hindu festival) he lit diyas (candles) and offered flowers with me. His mother is also very sweet and she also comes with me to offer flowers.
Wow! I think it’s so beautiful when people from another culture are open to the unknown and respect it. They see that it is important to you and support you in this. Whether they believe in it or not.
Yeah, so I’d rather have a mother-in-law like that. Then a Surinamese-Indian mother-in-law who says ‘you should have bought white chrysanthemums.’ I had such a bad experience with a Surinamese-Indian man that I went to the opposite. Now I’m on a good middle way. I was only able to learn that by discovering who I am and what I need. Then it doesn’t matter if my partner is green, yellow or purple. I need to know who I am as a woman. I would love to give the freedom to all women to develop themselves. Go on that exploration, get to know yourself, how much you are worth and don’t listen to others. Then you automatically attract the right partner, because you will also demand it. I would have liked it if I had been able to develop my insights at an earlier stage by experimenting.
I’ve read stories on social media in which people say they ended their relationship because they know the family doesn’t approve it. And I’ve also read that people advise to end the relationship if people are still in doubt about what to do, these people say that parents are the most important thing, want the best for their child and are often right. How do you feel about people ending an intercultural relationship because of the family’s disapproval?
I find it very pathetic. Eventually you will be forced to marry someone to your parents liking. Then you are in a marriage and you have children with someone you do not love. This will affect your children.
It often feels to people as a choice between the expectations, norms and values of parents and choosing for their own happiness. Why do you think parents are against an intercultural relationship?
I think they find it scary. It is new to them, because many Surinamese-Indian people of the older generation are married within the community. And this is also the case for people from other cultures. In the past, the Netherlands did not have that many migrants. White people married their own kind. Moroccans married Moroccans. Chinese with Chinese. We live in a multicultural society through which we come into contact with people of other cultures and beliefs.
Our parents probably think if you come with a Dutch white man, then your behavior will change, so you suddenly go backpacking or drink beer every weekend. When our parents came to the Netherlands from Suriname, they started working with Dutch people and probably saw things that were different. So that’s the image they’re walking around with. They are afraid that you will behave like this too and that you will forget your own culture.
In my experience, daughters who have an intercultural relationship receive a different reaction compared to sons. Daughters are sometimes forced to end the relationship or get a lot of criticism, while with sons parents are disappointed but it is generally accepted. I know a Christian woman who is treated differently by her mother compared to other children in the family because she has chosen to be with a Muslim. Is this something you also encounter?
Yes. I know a Muslim woman who is in a relationship with someone of a different religion. The women are absolutely not allowed to do this, while with men it is more or less tolerated. Somehow, women are still seen as the weaker sex. She puts the family to shame and is ostracized. She is seen as a man’s slave. While a man, yes he has ascendancy. He takes a woman to his family. She is then theirs and he makes sure that she adapts. I think that’s a strange way of thinking. Someone once said, “We have daughters to borrow, we’ll take care of you until you go to your own house, until your husband comes for you.” That was so weird. I thought but if I’m your daughter, I’ll still be your daughter. No, only when you are married, you go to your own house. It’s like you’re giving away a sofa, like I’ve got a sofa, do you want a sofa, here you go. But you do want the sofa to be in a villa and not in a flat. You give it away but it has to be good for your image.
What is your own experience with having an intercultural relationship?
Challenging, but certainly achievable and beautiful, but only if you know yourself. That applies to all relationships. As long as you don’t know yourself, know your self-esteem and can count on yourself, things will go wrong. If you know who you are and dare to express it and your partner vice versa, it will work. Love knows no color. Love is being there for each other, being able to communicate well and getting the best out of each other. Of course we also have discussions, but you also have those if the partner is from the same culture.
If you could give advice to people who have doubts about an intercultural relationship, what would it be?
Be open to it. It can go right or wrong, but that is the case for anyone. Even if it is someone from your own culture. Try it. It is good for your development. Just like you have multiple job interviews at different companies. And after that you decide ‘I fit/don’t fit in here’. Or ‘hey, I actually really like this.’ Don’t think in boxes, but in opportunities.
If you could give advice on how people can tell their parents about having an intercultural relationship, what would it be?
I find this a difficult question. I sat quietly with my parents and told them that I ran into someone. I have indicated that I have thought about it very carefully, that I do not just enter into a relationship with anyone. I have worked very hard on myself. It has been a well-considered decision. And also clearly stated that I will always take good care of myself and put myself first. I know I can live without a man so if I come with one, I’ve thought it through carefully.
You are asking your parents to trust that you are wise enough to make decisions. I don’t believe in right or wrong decisions. You make a decision and what the outcome is, time will tell. A person’s cultural background or religion says nothing about whether the relationship will be a success or a failure. Is there anything else you would like to say to the women reading this?
Take the time to get to know yourself. I missed that. My parents were in charge at home and outside that man was in charge. I found it difficult to keep myself going, because no matter how I turned it I was always dependent on someone else. Now on the other hand… I was alone for a while, then I was able to travel alone and did many things in terms of work. I know my worth. I know what I like/don’t like. I know what I need in a relationship. As a woman I am much stronger. I have my own house and car. No one is going to say ‘pack your bags and leave’ anymore, which left me crying in the car and thinking ‘where am I going?’ I have nowhere to go. I never want to experience that again. My foundation is so solid. Even if my relationship ends, Raya still exists.
It’s about creating a basis for yourself, what you do/do not accept from the other, financially independent, self-esteem so high that you dare to say NO when others treat you disrespectfully. You know that you are worthy of someone who can give love, talk to you respectfully, take your needs seriously and is stable in their behaviour. You say NO when someone doesn’t live up to your values no matter how much you love the other.
Exactly and as long as you feel that you are not worth much and you are dependent on others. Then you will not be able to develop yourself fully. It doesn’t matter what colour he/she is, it starts with you. That may be why Surinamese-Indian women, in particular, are a vulnerable group, because the foundation is not strong.
If you’re having trouble with your self-image, know that there’s no shame in asking for help. Talk to friends. Stand strong, know that you are beautiful and smart, but also know what you are worthy of and dare to demand it.