The love that goes the distance
two Dublin couples talk to Aoife Carrigy about the highs and lows of a cross-cultural relationship and life away from home
A recent ESRI report found that in a quarter of young couples living in Ireland today, at least one partner is of non-Irish nationality or non-white ethnicity; which reminded me of a recent conversation with a friend who is married to an Australian man.
We were discussing an apparent lack of eligible Irish men. She suggested the shortage was due to an increasing number of Irish men "getting it together" with foreign women, before lambasting them as simply not being able for feisty Irish women.
Attractive reasoning for all those single Irish ladies perhaps, but is it just a teensy-weensy bit hypocritical?
Did she fall for an Aussie because she wanted a certain type of man? Do we fall in love with someone's national characteristics, or the geographical location of our future mother-in-laws? Or do we just fall in love with whoever we fall in love with? And is entering into a cross-cultural relationship an easy option, or are there inevitable challenges and sacrifices down the line?
Paul Kavanagh (35) married Jia Hou (31) in China last October, although the couple met and live here in Dublin.
Dating Jia was utterly different to Paul's experience of dating Irish women.
"With Irish girls, you meet, you date, you kiss, things either go okay or they don't. If they don't, adios. And if they do, it's full blown. There are these clear milestones.
"In China there seems to be a more considered lead-in period, you would see the person more times before anything might evolve.
"And it might just end in friendship, whereas an Irish girl would be like: met him, didn't like him, who's next?"
Jia likes that "Irish guys will just be themselves" and that what you see is what you get.
"Chinese boyfriends always buy you lots of stuff, make you happy with nice things and says lots of good things about you. But all the Chinese girls' parents worry that the boyfriend just pretends to be nice and after they marry that will all stop."
There were other attractions too for Jia.
"I did think, maybe I can improve my English!"
So was the cultural difference a big part of the initial attraction?
"I've always been curious about cultures I don't know," agrees Paul, "but fairly quickly the fact that she was Chinese didn't come into it. She was Jia, and I was interested in her."
Theresa Hernandez, an Irishwoman who married Gustavo in Mexico in the 1980s, agrees that while "there is an element of exoticism involved", initially "the similarities and familiarity were the attraction more than anything else."
Sharing the same taste in music and elephant flares as well as similar Catholic upbringings helped ease the culture shock of moving to Gustavo's hometown, having both given up good jobs in Club Med in order to be together.
"I found it really hard to settle in," Theresa admits. "I had to hang out with the women of the family rather than the men, although his mum didn't really tolerate me for the first year."
Things improved after they married, but it proved impossible for Theresa to get residential status.
"I said to Gus, within six months of being in Ireland you'll have citizenship." But back in Ireland, there were surprising challenges. "I had become very Mexican," explains Theresa, who had to unlearn the behaviour that had helped her integrate in Mexico, such as tending to her husband's needs at mealtimes.
"Gus kind of expected me to continue behaving as I had done in Guadalajara . . . He found it very alien that everyone would muck in."
He used to miss Mexican food too, although he now makes and sells his own range of Mero Mero sauces at Temple Bar's Saturday food market.
Keeping in touch has been hard. It gets harder to afford to go home and "everytime I go home it's harder to leave", admits Gustavo.
Today, the phone calls are cheaper, less traumatic and more regular, although "his dad still cries every time we call," laughs Theresa, despite calling three times a week.
Gustavo has found it hard to replace his great network of brothers, cousins and male friends, especially not being a big drinker. Playing baseball helped, until Gustavo banjaxed his knees.
Jia also misses her parents.
"If my parents got sick, if I was in China I could go back to my hometown in a few hours, but here, with flights, you might have to wait a week."
Though her parents are still young and healthy, Paul says: "I had to accept that her parents were part of the equation and that, whether I go with her or not, at some stage she'll be going back to China to take care of her parents."
Jia explains: "It's a cultural thing for me, it's my job in the future to take care of my parents . . . it's kind of like a payback."
On a practical level, that may mean spending periods of time apart further down the line, given that Paul's work is here and that the language barrier is significant.
He's keen to learn however. "I feel bad that I can't talk to Jia's father. Irish guys have this thing about bonding with the father of the bride." Thankfully, Paul's willingness to eat and drink most of what's put in front of him helped win over his parents-in-law.
Having "twice the choice of food" has been one positive aspect to the relationship for Paul, as well as enjoying a "different outlook on things. Chinese people have a way of cutting through the cr*p".
For Theresa and Gustavo, the best thing has been their children's dual heritage. "Our eldest daughter has Hecho en Mexico (Made in Mexico) tattooed on the back of her neck."
It's not every parent who boasts about their child's tattoos.