Life

What It's Like to Date Across a Culture Gap

We spoke to couples to find out what no one tells you about dating across language barriers, ethnicities and the UK's north-south divide.

by Salma Haidrani
19 November 2016, 7:00am

You can't help who you love, or want to momentarily shag. And when that person's of a different background – whether they observe a different religion, speak another language or grew up halfway across the country – your upbringings can throw up unexpected hiccups when you start dating.

When you drill down, you learn more about yourself along the way, and realise just how sheltered, inclusive or worldly your own childhood may have been. But on a surface level, you're more likely to end up with a few weird anecdotes about how your South African boyfriend has never heard of Jimmy Savile before the posthumous paedophilia thing, or how you've never wondered how people we call "national treasures" become so important. We spoke to a few people currently dating people from different worlds from than their own, to find out how it's going.

Katie and Beth first met in Sheffield when Beth was an undergraduate student. They've been together for two and a half years and moved in last October

KATIE, 26

We first met through friends of friends when she was a student in Sheffield. I'd like to think that our accents – mine's unashamedly northern – is the most obvious difference in our relationship. Or how she still calls a breadcake a bread roll. But if I'm really honest, social class would come a close second.

She's from a pretty middle-class background: she's well-spoken, played the piano since she was little, the lot. I didn't even finish school and work in retail. There haven been times I've felt inadequate, mostly when her friends from back home come to visit and sometimes take the piss out of how I talk. My exes have all come from similar backgrounds to me so this is the first time I've experienced it.

That said, you never quite know what to expect so it can be really exciting. I did feel a little proud when she once said "mardy bum". Or when she called me "duck". But I will never call a breadcake a "bread roll".

BETH, 23

The weirdest thing I first found about dating a northerner? Tea's a drink, not dinner. And no matter how many times I give it a go, gravy on chips won't ever stop being disgusting.

The best bit? Henderson's Relish on everything. And the accent. I didn't expect Katie's to have that much of an effect on me. My exes were all from "down south" so it wasn't something I ever noticed. It's definitely a talking point with my mates.

There have been a few times when Katie has felt out place if she meets those closest to me, but I think that's more to do with her feeling unnecessarily insecure than the way she talks. I do worry that it might affect her more than she lets on.

Kim was born in London but currently lives in Oslo with her Norwegian boyfriend, Steff

KIM, 24

I missed out on halls in my first year of uni in Scotland, so ended up moving in with some random people. Steff was one of them, doing his PhD at the time and we got serious quite quickly. When he finished, two years ago, I decided to move out to Oslo with him.

The first thing I found odd was that people assumed he wasn't born here [he's half-Malaysian] or that he wasn't even Norwegian – it's actually the other way around. People used to stop and ask me stuff in Norwegian even though I barely knew it at the time.

Norwegians are colder and more reserved too. I'm half French so I guess more "continental" in that I'm a sharer. It's a lot more equal too – women and men get equal maternity and paternity leave, for example. I was a bit shocked when Steff mentioned he'd expect to be in the labour room with me if we had a baby. Annoyingly, marriage isn't really a thing here unless you're religious.

STEFF, 28

Kim's half-French anyway, so moving to Norway wasn't too much of a culture shock for her. We don't tend to fight much, apart from if it's religion and politics. Norway has like 17 political parties, which is obviously quite different. Women are also expected to work as hard as men – think she didn't like that too much!

Mike and Ruth met in London when he was an international student from Taiwan. They've dated for a year

RUTH, 23

We first met at church. Mike moved to London to improve his English. My family were a bit shocked at first when I first introduced them to him. When I changed my relationship status on Facebook, some people even thought it was a joke. Sometimes if we go somewhere together, people don't immediately think we're going out.

It's made me realise that I've definitely had it easier. I've had to put up with all the second-hand shit that I never realised comes with dating someone obviously "not from around here". Especially around Brexit, it can't have been great to live here and feel like you're suddenly not welcome.

The best bit is always feeling like I'm learning something new. I know it's the same for him: he can ask me anything about English culture. Do I see us together in the long term? For now, definitely. Our strongest connection is that we're both Christian and that's not a country or language, is it? Some friends think we can't get past our apparent cultural differences but it's been one of the best relationships I've been in. Why would I want to throw that away?

MIKE, 25

Moving to the UK was a bit of a shock at first. I did feel a bit like people spoke to me a bit slower, or thought I wasn't that clever because it took me a while to get things. Ruth's made me feel more at home here. My English is better now but we've I think we always understood each other.

Everyone seems to be welcoming, but some things are still taking a little longer to get used to: a lot of socialising in the revolves around alcohol. Family's quite important where I'm from and it doesn't seem to be like that here.

James has been in a relationship with Amina* since March. They met on Bumble

AMINA, 25

I wouldn't say it was much of an issue when we went on our first date earlier this year. It was a bit awkward having to explain where I was from come the second date, though – I'm Asian but I'm also quite ambiguous-looking and can "pass" for a few different races. He tried to skirt around it for ages until I told him. It did feel a bit like the elephant in the room.

I'm really wary of guys that could fetishise me as I've dated a few before without realising until it was too late. Thankfully, James wasn't and isn't like that.

The biggest issue right now is staying over at his. My parents are liberal but they still wouldn't be happy about it. It's not the done thing. Weekends are also family time for me, whereas he only sees his on some weekends or Christmas. I only see him during the week, which isn't much – I do feel really guilty and worry it'll eventually be a deal breaker.

I've also definitely learnt the hard way to steer clear of chatting to him about politics. I did consider ending it when he revealed he'd voted Leave in the EU referendum. When Trump won last week, I was pretty devastated, to say the least. But he hasn't even tried to see why I felt like that. It's pretty hard trying to explain privilege to someone that benefits from it.

I didn't expect some of those closest to me have an issue with it: some of my mates think that I don't like guys from my own race or that I'm racist myself. I think it says more about them than it does me.

JAMES, 28

I don't think it's much of an issue. I'm in a relationship with her because I'm in love with her. I feel like I have to be more careful around certain topics though. I've definitely learnt the hard way not to generalise.

We do have some major differences. Our biggest issue right now is that I want more commitment and if I'm really honest, I don't think she does.

*Some names have been changed

@its_me_salma / @joelbenjamindraws

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