Difference of Culture, Difference of Class, or Neither of the Above?

So soon after claiming that I wasn’t ready to write my own posts, here I am, writing my very first post. I don’t want this post to set the tone for this blog, as it’s gonna a bit gloom-n-doom (read: a reflection of the state of our relationship). But hey, I started this with the hope that writing and reading may lighten the mood, and I guess I won’t know until I’ve given it a shot.

My partner, L, has been engaging in some pretty self-destructive behaviour recently, both psychologically and physically. I can’t reveal the details over the internet – despite my care to remain anonymous – without betraying the trust that ultimately holds us together, but let me just say that it extremely painful to watch somebody you love hurt themselves REPEATEDLY in a way that undermines all their chances of achieving the things they have been working hard for; and thus in a way that defies all rational thinking.

Which brings me to my point: it’s so hard for me to make sense of his behaviour, and because of this my responses to him have been resentful, aggressive, critical, harsh…i.e. all the things that just fuel addictive, self-destructive behaviour even more.

And the more we become tangled in this the more I fear that it’s due to incommensurable differences in not only the way we think and view the world (‘the way we act in the world’), but our very experience of the world (‘the way the world has acted upon us’) – if I can be so naive as to draw this dialectic in the first place. I’m fumbling here to articulate something that goes beyond ‘culture’ (our socialisation, our value and belief systems, our sense of personhood and family obligations) to what I’m calling, for total lack of imagination and a better word, ‘class’. I don’t mean ‘class’ in the economic/Marxist sense…I just mean that L and I come from such different ‘status’ backgrounds. Another way of saying this is that I’ve had, relatively, a much more privileged life than him – and this is linked very closely to race.

What has been a struggle for him has not been a struggle for me. Not to say I have no way of understanding where he’s coming from. My parents moved to Australia at a time when there were very few migrants here from their home country. Life always seems normal when you’re young, but in retrospect I realise how much they sacrificed for us kids by staying in Australia, because they did, and still do, face isolation and a degree of structural racism that has often placed the family under strain (again, through certain types of self-destructive behaviour, though not the same extent as L). Unlike L however, who moved here by himself over 10 years ago from a country that still has no significant migrant presence, my parents bore the brunt of the racism for me. I am very fortunate to have grown up in an Australia where people from my background aren’t generally stigmatised or looked upon as some sort of exotic specimen (creepy old men might be an exception to this…but they are in every country and prey on anyone!). Unlike L, I have not: survived a civil war (he won’t talk about his personal experiences in this time), been detained without charge, been harassed by police and bouncers on a regular basis, faced discrimination in the workplace…you get the gist. So where he sees social barriers or a problem that seems ‘intractable’, I see a problem that is, yeah, undeniably a problem, but not something to despair about to the point of shooting yourself in the foot.

Cos where’s the logic in that right?

But unfortunately people’s responses to pain aren’t always logical and that’s the rub – I try to understand what he’s going through at the ‘logical’ level, but despite this understanding, when I’m upset and see him doing something I think is S-T-U-P-I-D any ‘rational empathy’ flies out the window and bubble forth all my (irrational) resentful emotions, chastising him for being unable to cope with a type of pain I can try to understand, but never actually FEEL. And because I can’t feel that pain, emotionally if not logically, I expect him to respond the same way I would, based on how I’ve experienced the world – that is, just get on with it and deal with it. It’s not that hard.

[Now let me shift the topic slightly to deflect any more self-criticism…]

On another level, I’m increasingly beginning to feel like our differences also affect the type of lives we imagine living, which makes me feel insecure about our future together. For instance, I have a passionate interest in travel and particularly foreign cultures; an interest which is largely channelled through what L calls an “academic/intellectual” curiosity because I studied anthropology and would absolutely LOVE to pursue these studies further. For L this curiosity is, at best, bourgeois (read: spoilt western arts student with time to ponder on exotic others) and at worst, outright colonial (read: spoilt western arts student with time, money and power to subject underprivileged ‘others’ to exoticising study). He has even refused to go on a mini-holiday I suggested because, he explained (half) jokingly, he suspected me of only wanting to go to “take photos with Aboriginal kids and post them on Facebook” [!!]. Where I saw a fun excursion doing and seeing something different (cos frankly, where we live, there’s not much to do), he saw insidious and suspect motives.

It’s funny, L and I have been together for over 3 years and only now am I starting to realise just how different we are. Not to say that the only thing holding us together this whole time has been the false impression, on my part, that we’re the ‘same’, but I can’t help feeling like the terms of our relationship are shifting and I don’t really know how to handle it…

Sorry for the long-winded post. I would appreciate any comments about how you see differences between you and your partner – are they cultural differences? Something else? Are they intractable? Or do you see difference as something that enriches your relationship?

20 Comments

Filed under Cultural Difference, Interracial Relationships, Race, Racism, Western Privilege

20 responses to “Difference of Culture, Difference of Class, or Neither of the Above?

  1. Hi..sorry the post above went too fast….

    From my point of view…whatever it is called in the end it are personal differences…like as with all other things in the world I just try and work (hard!) to find peace in it and not try to judge him for what he is or let myself down…I also see the good things in our discussions…we always try to understand each other really deeply… in the help spending time with his family and seeing where he comes from helped me a lot in understanding where it comes from… the differences also brings me / us the fun and pleasure in our lives. And all I know is that we really love each other deeply, and that we re just showing each other the way to love in all things… that s what brought you together and that is what is left if u take out all the fights and “materialistic” things… and that is a pricesless feeling….

    It is funny, because if I take my questions and the ways we fight upto my Dutch friends most are saying…this has to end, you have to stop this, he should change etc…. but I know that is not how it is going to work and that it is also just an opinion….there is no way I can change him by telling him..the only thing I can do is take my path and show him the way..whether he follows me is upto him. If he choose not, than I will keep showing him.

    The precious gift in this, I feel, is that we are not going to walk out of each other lives when we just don’t see things straight anymore… That is something I see happening around me in Holland many times..people give up..I tried but I don’t love him anymore…even after 10 years. I dunno what people expect from a relationship. The way we are together is revealing me things in my life, that I feel I could have never discovered with somebody else on my side. It is some deep indescribable feeling.

    If I really loose it, than I keep saying to myself…I am 50 % of this relationship…and changing 50 % of it will definitely change more than 50 %….only changing that 50% is not easy of course…but that is what it is about…

    Ok..take care…

  2. Thanks Marloes, your response put some things in perspective for me.
    You’re so right about it being largely personal differences…how funny that I never even thought of that when writing the post. It’s a much more constructive way of approaching whatever it is that’s going on between us; because obviously personalising all the world’s problems (e.g difference in wealth between our respective backgrounds) is not really the most healthy thing to do.

    L and I love each other, of course, largely BECAUSE of these personal differences not despite them. I like what you said about not walking out of each other’s lives just because you don’t see straight. Most of my friends, and certainly my family, would also advise me to ‘just end it’, which I can hardly imagine doing.

    Working hard on changing this 50% of the relationship 🙂

  3. Hey taswin
    Nice to see you posting and I’ve added you to my blogroll. Just out of interest, what type of racism did your family cop in Australia? I’d be interested to know…

    I’m trying to understand your relationship with L. It sounds like on one side, he is really pulling you down and not letting you be yourself. Relationships are really meant to bring out the best in people. A partner is meant to embrace and encourage your path in life, sometimes disagree with it, but not outrightly reject your ambitions. Maybe I am not fully understanding you both, but I think your interest in travel, anthropology and foreign culture is amazing and your partner should support your passions for these things- not undermine your reasons for it. I am trying to understand what you have in common with him. I know your backgrounds are quite different (so are mine and Rabindra’s) but I think it’s the way we look at life that makes the difference. Is he a motivated, ambitious person like you? Does he have a zest for life like you? If he is going through a hard patch right now and has not always been like this, maybe it is just a phase and he is only going to be bitter about things for a while.

    In my opinion, the issues you are having with your partner are not cultural ones (I could be wrong here but I don’t get the impression you are struggling with cultural aspects of your relationship- more personal ones). It’s about the destructive behaviour he is doing which is also affecting you because you want the best for him and he can’t see it right now. How serious is your relationship? Have you spoke about marriage/kids? Have your parents met him? Is he worth it? I get the impression that the issues you are facing with him are more about whether you guys are a good match together, despite your backgrounds. Issues that people from the same cultures would face. I am trying to figure out what country he is from?? Maybe you could inbox me privately…

    Take care and keep posting

  4. Thanks for your thoughtful comments white girl in a sari. I believe L is full of life and ambition like me and ultimately we hold a similar vision for the future (we have talked about marriage/kids, and he’s met my parents). I guess the shock has been knowing he’s going through a rough patch that well…is not so much of a ‘patch’ but something pretty long term that isn’t going to vanish in an instant, after which we’ll be happy again. Because, ultimately, you can’t erase somebody’s background (though I completely agree with you that our issues are more personal than cultural).
    Will inbox you personally re some of your questions 🙂

  5. Pingback: The Aftermath Part One: From Smooth Sailing to Choppy Waters | taswin12

  6. O

    Hey again taswin

    I like your blog. I find it thought provoking and it is also helping me sort my shit out.

    I think statistically speaking, we would fall in the intercultural category, I guess.

    • Thanks O 🙂
      I think increasingly, probably because I’m blogging about it, I feel more comfortable with the term ‘intercultural’. I guess statistically we are in the intercultural category, but stats don’t always tell the full story (actually, maybe they say more about the person who’s figuring them out…i.e. going around labelling some as intercultural and others as not!).
      Are you in Australia btw?

      • O

        Hey Taswin

        Yeah. In Australia. In the sunny state.

        The term intercultural has its place and I don’t mind it per se.

        However, I don’t have a particularly concrete sense of culture, culture to me, is fluid, dynamic and alive. Plus, almost all my relationships (with my parents, extended family, friends) feel intercultural in a way or the other (if I go about labeling them).

      • Very true. I also think if I went about labelling my relationships, most would come out as intercultural, especially with my family. Actually, my relationship with my parents feels ‘more’ intercultural than my relationship with L in many ways (and many important ways)…but as you say culture is fluid and dynamic, it doesn’t always help to stick to rigid definitions.
        Thanks for commenting 🙂

  7. Bharatiya Nari

    “For instance, I have a passionate interest in travel and particularly foreign cultures; an interest which is largely channelled through what L calls an “academic/intellectual” curiosity because I studied anthropology and would absolutely LOVE to pursue these studies further. For L this curiosity is, at best, bourgeois (read: spoilt western arts student with time to ponder on exotic others) and at worst, outright colonial (read: spoilt western arts student with time, money and power to subject underprivileged ‘others’ to exoticising study). He has even refused to go on a mini-holiday I suggested because, he explained (half) jokingly, he suspected me of only wanting to go to “take photos with Aboriginal kids and post them on Facebook” [!!]. Where I saw a fun excursion doing and seeing something different (cos frankly, where we live, there’s not much to do), he saw insidious and suspect motives.”

    Strange. Is L a Marxist?

    There is nothing wrong with being “bourgeois”. I don’t know why it has such a bad rap in some circles. Those who complain against it are mostly bourgeois themselves and not willing to get their hands dirty in a working class job or live a low income working class lifestyle.

    • No no, I am easily the stronger Marxist out of the two of us.
      It’s funny, when I was writing that paragraph, I was thinking, “someone’s gonna catch me out here, this is more my argument than L’s”. As I’ve mentioned earlier, a lot of my experiences as a child and my formal studies at uni have been all about recognising and contextualising my privilege and power vis-a-vis others, particularly because I work in a field where you generally are working with ‘disadvantaged’ – for lack of a better word, I don’t want to define them as ‘lacking’ in something! – groups. So the bit you quoted is really my critique of myself, and one that has been hammered into me from all fronts. When I said bourgeois I really meant ‘yuppy’, but I’m not sure if/how that term translates outside of Australia.
      You’re right, I am more likely to criticise people for being bourgeois, whereas L, who has no issues getting his hands dirty, actually finds it quite distasteful that I judge people based on how much money they have (ps – I try not to do this, but I can’t deny this prejudice exists).
      L just doesn’t ‘get’ why you need to know people by treating them as subjects of a formal study, instead of just hanging out with them in a more intuitive way – he associates formal study with control (and given the history of colonial Africa, where anthros and geographers were sent in to study people, learn their power hierarchies and their warfare techniques, and then conquer them, this view is not entirely incorrect). My response to this is that it’s better to know what’s going on in the world, even if it’s just through books, than being ignorant of it, and knowledge of people can just as well be used for understanding as it can for controlling.

  8. Bharatiya Nari

    South Asians think badly of Black people for the same reasons East Asians do.

    Here’s an example;

  9. Bharatiya Nari

    “As I’ve mentioned earlier, a lot of my experiences as a child and my formal studies at uni have been all about recognising and contextualising my privilege and power vis-a-vis others”

    * I’m soooooooooo grateful that I’ve not attended and been brainwashed with this stuff from a University. But I still get exposed to these amusing concepts via the media. Having not undergone Western style University brainwashing at first I didn’t know what to make of it when I came across it, now I just laugh and simultaneously feel pity for those brainwashed into feeling a vague sense of “guilt” over their, again, vague sense of “privelege” all the time.

    “L just doesn’t ‘get’ why you need to know people by treating them as subjects of a formal study, instead of just hanging out with them in a more intuitive way – he associates formal study with control”

    * He’s correct. But I’ll add that its a form of control not only of the people being studied, but a control of the studiers as well. Just see how you are unable to escape this “privelege” concept and “liberal guilt”. Its got you and many of many people trapped. There is no way I’d send any of my kids to a University that teaches this nonsense.

    • Firstly, recognising privilege is not nonsense, because privilege is not ‘vague’, at least not in my personal and professional life. Imagine if I never acknowledged that L has had a harder life than me, and bluntly told him ‘get over’ what he’s going through? (as in, if I didn’t realise the obvious fact that I grew up a country that wasn’t torn apart by war, and that in the country we’re currently in I don’t face the same degree of racism that he does. I’m not saying his life is completely bleak, I’m just saying in certain important areas, I have been luckier in life). I promise you, such lack of understanding would make our situation infinitely worse.
      Same goes for me at work – I work with a population who have been systematically colonised and are still being colonised in Australia, with policies made for them by bureaucrats who have no idea what life is like if you’ve suffered deep-seated generational trauma. A lot of policy makers just assume that because some policy would work for them, it will work for others, without realising that other people can’t necessarily take the same things for granted that mainstream folk can, because they’ve been systematically excluded from this country’s share of wealth. The end result is that more than helping, such policies often make things worse.
      Come to Australia, a supposedly first world country with pockets of ‘fourth world’ living conditions, and you will see, quite starkly, that privilege is anything but vague; and that butting into people’s lives trying to implement things without understanding your own position of power and consequent assumptions has very harmful social and psychological consequences (that again, are inter-generational, so they aren’t just going to go away).
      What is nonsense, at least in academic circles, is people who use ‘world poverty’ and ‘the poor’ to narcissistically harp on about their own middle class guilt. There are more pressing issues in the world than one’s sense of guilt (I don’t think there’s anything wrong in naming guilt and talking about it, but there is something wrong in using your sense of guilt to make everything – even world poverty – about you).

      Ok, secondly, about control – Yes, I have been indoctrinated into a certain ideology and way of thinking. But hey, it’s my choice, I can ‘think’ myself out of it if I want. No one’s forcing me to think in this way (this isn’t just about what I learnt at uni, it’s also coming from personal experience), or go out and study anybody. It hardly compares to a kind of colonial control which again has social, political, economic and psychological consequences that go on long after a country has been decolonised (umm…like if the country then has a civil war and everyone has to deal with that…and by everyone I also mean their SOs who maybe didn’t go through it themselves. But wait…I shouldn’t just narcisstically make this about me….)

  10. O

    About the other stuff, I don’t know what to say.
    I hope L is doing better these days (at least with the more acute stuff) and you are taking good care of yourself.
    I do agree that “it extremely painful to watch somebody you love hurt themselves REPEATEDLY in a way that undermines all their chances of achieving the things they have been working hard for; and thus in a way that defies all rational thinking.”
    I don’t want to say much because I don’t know what L is going through. However, I hope you are in touch with someone (or some people) going through/has gone through something similar so you don’t feel too isolated. You might not always get the answers, however, just having someone validate what L is go through as well as your responses to his behaviour might be very liberating.
    Take care.

  11. H

    I’ve just discovered your blog, thanks to Masala Bou and I think it’s fascinating.

    L’s comments about travelling reminds me of my first partner, who went to Africa briefly for work and frustrated me for years because he wouldn’t go anywhere as a tourist. In the end we split up, funnily enough the last straw was his refuse to come with me to India (I’d been asking for over 15 years !).

    If I compare with my husband (who is Indian), I see that my first partner and I, although both university trained and from the same background, had ended up destroying each other, whereas for the moment my husband and I just let each other be. We don’t share the same interests, but we support the other in his interests.

    Are you certain all your problems are related to race and immigration ?

    Wishing you all the best.

    • Hi H,
      Thanks for your comments and sorry for the slow reply. I think you’re right, not all our problems are related to race and immigration. Race and politics is one of the easier, more visible forums to express discontent (particularly in our case), but the problems stems from deeper, more personal places.
      You and your partner sound like you have a great and supportive relationship 🙂 L is normally into travel (just not around Australia) but when I asked him once if we’d ever go on a safari in Africa, he laughed. Apparently only tourists do that and he’d never be able to live it down with his family (they would think he’s acting like a foreigner in his own country). I guess even travel is culturally-influenced!

      • Hélène

        Hi Taswin, I think love is one of the things that help us mature into better persons, because it helps us to face our short-comings and confusion. I hope the rough patch you’re going through won’t last long.

        The best visit I had in India was following my husband around in his own region, doing things I would have never thought of myself. It’s a pity about the safari but I’m sure L could come up with ideas that would largely make it up. What do you think ? 🙂

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