Things Bicultural Couples Do

Bicultural and/or international couples (in my case, both) have some habits that can seem odd for an outsider. Most of the time, when Mario and I take a trip, we end up speaking a weird hodgepodge of English and Spanish and Spanglish, which confuses the locals who just want to place us in a little box. (Oh, Americans; or Oh, Spaniards.) But no, we’re not so easily categorized or identified.

Mix up traditions

I wear my wedding ring (alianza) on my right hand because I didn’t have the traditional engagement ring and wedding ring match set. I wanted everyone who saw me, in Spain and in the US, to know I was taken, so I figured I’d wear one ring on each finger. Problem solved. Mario, on the other hand (literally), wears his on the other hand, his left. Why? It’s more comfortable. So we mix up traditions. So what?

We also chose to say our vows both in English and in Spanish, because those words in our native languages were and are really important to us.

Oh yeah, and we had two weddings. We’ve decided we could have one every year. There are lots of states, after all.

Code switch

It’s not uncommon for me to say to Mario, “Did you have lentejas for lunch?” or “How was the sandía?” I also tell him, “Love you mucho” in our emails. We talk about Spanish foods in Spanish (see: chorizo, salchichón, all kinds of fish, fruits) and American foods in English (see: the turkey pot pie a friend made for us this weekend, the stuffing we ate for Thanksgiving, and the gravy I made too). This is called code switching, when a speaker alternates between two or more languages in a conversation. If you’re part of a bilingual couple, you know this phenomenon all too well.

Know a lot about the other’s culture without even trying

When you get married, you acquire a new family. That new family is most likely very different than the one with which you grew up, and you end up learning a lot from them. This happens to an even greater degree in a bicultural relationship, because not only are you learning about that family’s customs and traditions, but you’re also getting a cultural education!

I’ve learned a lot about Spanish culture without even trying—I simply absorb the information by spending time with Mario’s.

Get confused about how someone could possibly do something that way

You know, the wrong way. Similarly to the previous point, I sometimes wonder why Mario and his family and often Spaniards in general do things a certain way. Of course, it’s better not to wonder aloud—at least not too often! We all have our ways of doing things, and if using a bayeta is what you think is best … by all means, go for it!

Think about which country they’ll live in … eventually

Most people take for granted where they’ll end up, at least as far as the country goes. You may live in different states or counties, but you don’t think you’ll end up on another continent. Not us, though; we’re an international couple, and the question of where comes up quite frequently. (Sometimes more frequently than I’d like.) The answer? We don’t know yet.

Spend holidays in different countries

I’ve heard of people splitting up for holidays, with one partner going home to his/her family and the other going to his/hers, but in an international relationship, sometimes one takes an eight-hour flight back home and spends the holidays several thousand miles away. For now, Mario and I don’t mind this arrangement, but maybe it will change in the future.

Do you have any to add?

Please check out the discussion on my Facebook page, where I’m asking which cities or areas in Spain you wouldn’t recommend!

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16 comments

  1. Me and the bf code switch a lot. This especially applies to words that doesn’t make much sense or doesn’t translate well in the other language. For example, in Italian they use allora a lot. In English it can be translated by several different words depending on the context and it doesn’t help it is just used as a filler between sentences. People do give us strange looks when we talk.

  2. I hate to break the norm, but we only fall under the “get confused” and the “discuss where we will live” categories. My husband is a quiet person and does not talk much about his past or Spanish traditions. (I am so glad that I got to live in Spain to understand some of why he does what he does.) We lived in the US for 10 years before we came to Spain. The plan was simple: one year of us only talking English and then I was going to learn Spanish. That never happened. Communicating at first was hard enough without adding another language in (at least for us). We STILL talk in only English and we have lived in Spain for 2.5 years. English is our default language. We can speak Spanish, but often don’t, unless we are around his family (who live on the other side of the country). Speaking of his family I saw them 4 times total in the 10 years we were in the States, so when I say I really didn’t know Spanish culture…wellI really did not. (Traveling across the ocean is expensive.)
    Actually I only ever met one other ex-pat couple that had a simular history (I am sure there are other too) but they were a British/US couple so language was as big of an issue.

    1. Thanks for sharing your perspective! I didn’t intend for it to be universal, because (obviously) we’re all different, and of course so are our experiences. It was mainly just a fun to way to title the article!

      1. Wow I re-read that comment and it sounded more uptight then I meant it to. LOL sorry! I am just super sensitive to the whole “why do you not speak Spanish fluently?” thing.

  3. I’ve always thought I would take on my husband’s surname when I married, but that’s not the tradition in Spanish culture (which really surprised me). Personally, I feel it would be a bit strange to keep my original family name, while I guess for my boyfriend it would be strange if I took his last name. We’ve talked about it and he says that I could take his name if I wanted, but I wonder how his family would feel about that since its not the norm here. How have you handled this situation?

    1. Good question! I have thought about this too. I won’t take his name here, but I’ve decided that if we move to the US, and we have kids, I will. I want us all to have the same last name there, though I suppose it wouldn’t be super weird to keep my last name even there. It’s definitely a unique conundrum!

  4. This post speaks so much to me and my boyfriend. We also mix up traditions. For instance, this Christmas, we’ll have Christmas crackers (English tradition) added to our midnight dinner (Filipino tradition).

    We also code switch between English, Spanish and Filipino. I think it’s so great because he’s able to learn Filipino without being overwhelmed or frustrated. It does help that he’s great at learning languages.

    We’re both learning a lot about each other’s cultures, but there are still the occasional WTF moments.

    We do know where we’ll live eventually, but for now since we’re doing long distance, it means holidays here and there for both of us!

  5. This cracked me up. My boyfriend and I have been together for six years, so we’re finally over the culture confusion (especially because I live in Spain and he spends 6-8 weeks in the US each year for work). We have a really weird sort of code switching – we speak almost exclusively in Spanish, but our nickname are in English. He’ll often stop by my work with a, “Qué pasa, you?” or send me off to bed with a, “Este little one está muy sleepy.”

    Like Estela, I’ve always considered taking my husband’s name. Given the paperwork fiasco, it may take a while for me to actually get around to doing it… but Montero is cooler than my last name. As for kids, we’ve come up with a mixture of Spanish names that are easy for anglos, and Anglo names that are easy for Spaniards (though Jeremiah was AXED really fast).

    At the moment, we’re in Spain, but understand that the US and American culture will be important, too. We celebrate Thanksgiving and carve pumpkins, and I will sure as hell teach my kid to play baseball and buy him Hawkeye onsies when he’s little (I’m convinced I’ll have two or three boys who will, duh, wear stockings and mary janes just because I want to embarrass them when they’re older).

  6. My boyfriend and I change the language all the time and sometimes I speak in French when he talks to me in Spanish… very confusing but it works for us. I’m just concerned about our kids in the future, especially since we’ll be most probably be living in France.
    As for the surname, I’m way too proud to take his. It’s not like I love my last name because I actually don’t but I’ve come to like it after so many years and I don’t want to lose that part of my “identity”. I once met a French/Spanish couple who had two kids and each of them had the surname of one of their parents, as the mother had kept her maiden name after marriage. I wouldn’t mind doing this!

  7. I just married an Englishman who has lived in Spain for many years, and I speak way better Spanish than he does, but we do code switch because of foods and other things in the community that just make more sense in Spanish. I also have a bit of a transition time after work where I’m quite Spanglish. But we have more difficulty with the British-American differences. Like he says dinner and tea, whereas I say lunch and dinner and then we confuse each other by trying to use the other’s word. I’ll say mince for ground beef and he’ll assume I said “mints” because I don’t use the word. Our kids are going to be so confused they might just speak Spanish!

  8. interesting post, but i am a bit confused when you all talk about taking or not the surname/last name of a husband…..which surname do you mean? the first or second? Spaniards do have two surnames or last names because it’s forced by law, it’s something that cannot be chosen.

    a Spaniard’s first last name is the father’s first one, and the second is the mother’s first one, although it may be the other way round if the parents agree at the civil registry.

    i don’t know if in Spain it is legal for a woman to take ONLY one of the two last names of her husband….and it is really weird or strange because their future children might have two same last names if the woman happens to take her husband’s first last name.

    just imagine a man named Francisco Garcia Sanchez, then his wife takes only his first last name Garcia…. well…. a future daughter would end up being named Maria Garcia Garcia with two same last names…..and even weirder and worse if the wife happens to choose his second last name Sanchez because the daughter would end up being Maria Garcia Sanchez, just the same two last names of an own father! the poor little girl would appear a sister!

    1. Well in American culture, we generally only have one surname — our father’s surname. Upon marriage, most women choose to change their surname to their husband’s surname, and then their children will all share the same surname — their father’s surname. It’s becoming more common for women to not change their last names, generally for career purposes. Some also choose to hyphenate their last name, such as “Smith-Williams,” the woman’s surname followed by her husband’s surname.

      (Also, I’ve know of quite a few Spanish-speakers who have both of the same surnames because their parents just happened to have the same first surname, such as “Isabel Martín Martín.”)

      1. yes i am aware of the culture in the USA with surnames…..only that it is weird under a Spaniard’s point of view…..in Spain if you share the same surnames with a family member it means that both are brothers belonging to the same father and mother.

        the question that confuses me is which surname will a wife take from her Spanish husband? the first or second? if she chooses the first, why not the second? why not the second if the first is chosen? sorry if the question looks silly, but us Spaniards don’t see the two surnames like something separated, we see it as something together that forms the identity of the person, just like actress Catherine Zeta-Jones must see her two surnames together.

        under my opinion it makes more sense to take the two surnames, not one.

  9. My boyfriend is from Barcelona and I live here now with him, but I’m from San Diego, California. I’ve lived here almost two years and in one year we will move to California to see how we like it there. While his parents weren’t immediately fans of the idea of him leaving Spain, it is only fair. I think it’s important for international couples like us to try both sides before deciding where to settle down. Really it is the fairest solution. Do you think you guys will ever live in America? We totally do the language mixing mid-sentance too!

    1. Yes, we do plan on living in the U.S., and I think that’s where we’ll end up. Mario is much more open to the idea of living somewhere else permanently, while I am often homesick and miss my family.

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