…is difficult. I guess that should come as no surprise – trying to order food in a foreign language is difficult enough, so obviously dating should be a bit tricky. Communicating in any sort of relationship is always complicated at times, even when you do speak the same language. Add to that a different culture, upbringing and worldview and you’re bound to run into some issues.
But, naturally, that’s not what’s on your mind when you first start out. You don’t meet the handsome stranger and think, “Hmm, we only have a limited shared vocabulary to verbally communicate to each other with…this could cause some problems.”
No, no, no – you think, “Hmm, I’m in an exotic country and this handsome stranger is pretty dang intriguing…and their English is really good…but I’m sure this isn’t going to go anywhere, that’s just silly, and…shit, they just kissed me.”
And then you’re screwed.
Things are good – it’s always exciting and interesting, and somewhat unbelievable, when you begin to get to know someone. To go out and each time learn a little bit more about them, the window into their lives opening a little bit more.
Then you realize, “Wow, eight months of Thai lessons and I can just get people to understand my order…most of the time. How am I supposed to explain when I’m upset with something? Or, now that we’ve gotten the usual ‘getting to know you’ questions out of the way, how do I explain my political stance or religious beliefs?”. How do you differentiate between stressed and feeling serious when there’s only one word for the two in their language? How do you explain a part of your culture or beliefs accurately when the language is so different and the custom so foreign?
Sometimes you don’t know if it’s the language or the culture differences getting in the way. You get into arguments over little things, like how to sweep the floor because you assumed there weren’t rules to sweep the floor but actually it’s customary to sweep out a certain door at a certain time of day and when that’s being explained to you you don’t quite understand, because those ideas never ever crossed your mind and then you get confused and a little defensive. And then it turns into a misunderstanding because the tone of voice being used comes across as not very kind, but it’s not actually meaning to be harsh there just is a different understanding of the subtleties of the language being used, so things are perceived one way when they’re actually meant in another.
And then you can do one of two things: you can get angry and give up, or you can take a moment to cool down and try again.
What you decide makes all the difference.
Yes, it’s frustrating to not be understood or for what you say to be misconstrued. But if you both realize that this is going to happen, that you have to be patient and try not to lose your temper or jump to conclusions, and are willing to try again, to try to communicate in a different way or word what you said a little differently to be better understood, then it can work. (And speak clearly! Between accents and mispronunciations and gaps in vocabulary, speaking quickly or mumbling is not going to help you.) You both need to give in. You both need to make an effort to figure out what works for the two of you. You both need to cut each other some slack for saying something that doesn’t come across or translate well. Cause it’s going to happen.
But after a while, just like if you were dating someone who spoke the same language, you’ll start to learn how to communicate better. When to speak up and when to hold your tongue, when to push an issue and when to acknowledge you said some things that could have been misinterpreted. You learn that when you hear them say they’re going to ‘sex bar’ they really mean the place called ‘Sax Bar’ down the street to play pool.
When you’re able to make it past those initial hurdles and misunderstandings it gets easier. And, after all, there’s no better way to improve your language skills and get an insider’s perspective of where you’re staying.
Have you been in a relationship with someone who spoke a different language? How did it work out?
Hey! I'm Alana and I've spent nearly the past decade living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, working as a writer and photographer. I started Paper Planes as a place to share local insight, special places, and how to travel well through a range of experiences — from hostels to high-end hotels, street meat to multi-course meals.
New places are always calling my name...
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