It's a pretty basic rule of evolution that genetic diversity is a good for any organism, and human beings are no different than other organisms in this respect. And evolution, unencumbered by things like concerns over royal lineages (which leads to inbreeding) usually gets its way. With humans, evolution gets its way by making sure we are attracted to people not like us.
Scientists have shown that accents are almost universally considered attractive (I have no citation for this claim) because they demonstrate a foreignness that could provide genetic diversity to one's gene pool. People throughout history have come together in spite of laws and power structures that tried to keep groups, including religions, ethnicity, races, and street gangs (in the case of West Side Story) separate.
This is easy to see when traveling. Stay at any party hostel or beach side resort and you can see the wonders (or maybe horrors) of this Darwinian dating trend at work. But shared history, customs, upbringings, and movie references are a common ground that can often make relationships and getting to know people easier. Without them, things become difficult, biological imperatives be damned. But they can be overcome. Here's my list of the top five difficulties of dating a foreign, non-western girl. (These are all pretty gender neutral, but I don’t want to generalize about dating foreign men, having never done it myself.)
1. Cultural Preferences
Obviously something like "cultural preferences" is a pretty big umbrella term, and everything on this list could probably fall underneath it, one way or another. But here I'm talking about preferences in consumption habits. You don't realize how trained you are to like certain things by your environment until you are out of that environment. With my Colombian girlfriend for example, food preferences is a major issue. I hate to say it, but it's true: Colombian food is awful
. It's not that it tastes bad; it's just that it doesn't taste like anything at all. This is a country where you can ask for "carne" (meat) at a restaurant and you won't be asked for more information. It's also a country where there is, as far as I could tell, one kind of cheese.
But Colombians think their food is amazing. I don't understand why. It's not like they haven't had other ethnic foods, they have (although the versions they get are also terrible), they just like fried tasteless food more than anyone. So going out to restaurants with my girlfriend can be difficult, as she not only likes bad food, she hates good food. It's like she's been trained to distrust taste.
Okay, so she doesn't like the food I like. Big deal. But I really like traveling and trying weird and exotic foods; to me that's part of experiencing any culture and a very important part of the traveling experience. (Also, I like to eat, and this is a pretty damn good way to justify doing it excessively, if I do say so myself.) She, on the other hand, really doesn't like to try new food,so it's hard to share this part of my life with her.
Clearly this upsets me, so let's just move on.
I will add that cultural preferences have a lot to do with other kinds of consumption as well, including movies, music, and books. As an American, I am always amazed what American TV shows are celebrated in other countries, or what music is considered good, even outside of dancing contexts. And like many Americans of my generation, I will sometimes speak in movie quotes with my friends at home. I'm always amazed how often my reactions to things involve Seinfeld and Will Ferrell quotes. This won't work with most foreigners.
This is in a lot of ways the most obvious one, but if you're already dating a foreigner you clearly have worked out ways to communicate (unless you are just so attractive that words aren't necessary, which is a phenomenon I've seen happen, mostly with blue eyed Viking looking dudes and South American women.) It's more the small things that you have to worry about with language, including the flow of communication, which can be broken up by long pauses spent trying to remember words.
There's also the compliment that the other person doesn't get, which is weird, because compliments, like jokes, don't really work if they have to be explained. Also, there's what you think are compliments but aren't (don't tell a Colombian girl she is hot, calling someone "caliente" means they’re horny.). And phone calls, where body language is absent, can be just brutal. You should probably text as much as possible, while having a translation service
ready for help.
On a more personal note, I speak Spanish pretty well. I'm not fluent, or even advanced, but I would say my level is high intermediate. I can have lengthy conversations in Spanish, and I understand all the facts being communicated. Communication can still be difficult, however, because there is still alot of cultural subtext I don't get, and many idioms are still completely bewildering to me. And trying to translate things directly often makes things infinitely more complicated then they need to be, but if you don't know the cultural equivalent, there's not much else you can do.
3. Western Assumptions
Even the most educated, worldly, and non-judgmental westerner (and I’m really referring to Americans here, because we are the worst at this) brings some individualist and consumerist baggage to every interaction with foreigners, especially those from what would be classically referred to as the “third world.” Yes, clearly there are things that western affluence has given you that other people don’t have, and you should be aware of that, but don’t be condescending about it.
In places like Colombia, there is a growing middle class, and a lot of people have everything they need. Nobody dreams of moving to America, although they might want to take a trip there. Yennifer has no desire to move to America, she loves Colombia. Of course I love Colombia too, but my home is in the U.S. and the back and forth can get pretty difficult. But there's just no way she would want to live far from her family for an extended period of time. Westerners need to understand that given many cultures' extensive family support structures, instead of being envious of wealthy, foreigners might feel bad for you sitting all alone with your big screen TV. Of course romanticizing extended familial relationships is another sign of a condescending gringo. See? Even I can’t escape it. Just try to be aware of it as much as possible.
4. Sense of Humor
While laughter and a sense of humor are universal human traits, the type of humor and the way the sense of humor is calibrated can differ greatly across cultures. With western culture spreading everywhere, of course, this is becoming less the case. But there is no doubt that even in cultures that are very similar, comedy styles can be very different ( just watch the British and the American office to get a sense of this…both are brilliant, but noticeably different in tone.)
Heavy irony and sarcasm, often delivered deadpan and straight faced, are not only hard to detect, understand, or execute in a second language, the very concept can often be culturally specific. If this is your default mode, and for many Americans and Brits especially it often is, then get ready to dial down the cynicism when dating a foreigner. If you find yourself completely unable to function without irony, then you are a hipster and I’m sorry. There’s nothing I can do for you.
(“Whatever…I’m going to write my own travel blog and I’m not even going to travel. It’s going to be so meta…”)
5. Visa Issues
This is a big one, because even getting married doesn’t guarantee you a visa (I know! Unbelievable right? That’s a serious myth about loopholes that we should educate people about, it’s on par with the belief that if you ask a cop if he’s a cop he has to tell you. Not true either.) This one can be a big bummer. Because I’m dating a Colombian and I want to be with her more than the six months a year I’m allowed in Colombia. (You assumed I was referring to getting her to the U.S. weren’t you? It’s okay, you can admit it. Just remember #4 on this list. ) And traveling together can be a head ache as well.
The good thing, however, is that if you are working on Visa Issues, and trying to figure out how to cut through bureaucratic bullshit in order to be together, then you’ve probably come up with a pretty good strategy for dealing with the first four. So well done. And remember, you’re going to have issues with people from home as well. You might as well have interesting problems, right?