How to Navigate an Intercultural Relationship—and Parents Who May Not Be on Board

By Kelly Fong /

Interracial relationships are nothing new, but they still remain one of the most controversial and difficult territories to navigate in society today. In 1967, the Supreme Court ruled that interracial relationships are, in fact, legal (and perfectly acceptable), and there are many instances of men and women addressing the issues they face in interracial relationships—in movies like Guess Who, music videos like Alicia Keys “UnThinkable (I’m Ready),” and articles like the one in the April 2012 Marie Claire issue on interracial love.

But there’s another pool of couples that struggle with a different battle: that of being in an intercultural relationship. While this might feel like a niche issue—and yes, there are still plenty of people who lump all Asian Americans into one big ethnic group—we know the various ethnicities are worlds apart, culturally speaking. Want to know what it’s like? I’ll tell you.

My story starts with my sister, who met a Korean man who eventually became her now-husband. Their relationship always seemed peaceful and harmonious. Little did I (or anyone else) know that their relationship had a handful of surprising challenges: His mother didn’t approve of her Chinese heritage, and his parents barely said hi or otherwise acknowledged her when she visited their house. Despite the rejection, my sister stayed focused on her love for and commitment to her significant other, doing her best to pick up on nonverbal cues and learn the Korean culture.

My sister and her husband have now been happily married since 2009. Her in-laws eventually accepted her after realizing that character matters much more than heritage.

When I heard my sister’s story as a high school senior, I was shocked. I grew up Chinese American, and in my family, dating someone from a different culture wasn’t an issue. My parents, who immigrated to the United States when they were very young, are far less traditional than many Asian American parents I know. My sister’s story opened my eyes to the harsh reality that many intercultural couples face—one that I unexpectedly fell into myself.

In my first year of college, in 2007, I started dating a Korean American with very traditional parents. I vividly remember him telling me that his mom knew we were dating. I was excited to hear her response, only to find out that she wasn’t pleased that I wasn’t Korean. I moved past it—but my boyfriend came to me about two years into our relationship, feeling torn. He cared deeply about me but said that we might have to end our relationship because of our cultural differences.

It was true—I couldn’t communicate in Korean, which meant I couldn’t speak to his elder relatives, and I wasn’t familiar with the Korean traditions that were important to his family. While it hurt that our different backgrounds could get in the way of a meaningful relationship, I saw my sister’s relationship experiences mirrored in my own, and I hoped my faith in love and willingness to persevere would result in the same happy ending that she had.

I took language courses in college and learned how to read, write, and understand basic Korean. The professor also covered Korean culture, from New Year’s customs to proper etiquette in various situations. And while I didn’t become great at speaking Korean, the classes helped me be mindful of Korean traditions. I now bow whenever I meet an older adult, for example, and I make a conscious effort not to lift my bowl at the dinner table—nothing out of the ordinary in Chinese culture but considered rude in Korean culture.

All this helped me maintain a polite and cordial relationship with my boyfriend’s parents for several years, but I wondered if they would ever truly accept me into their family. Despite our differences, I believed things would work themselves out. I saw a lot of similarities between my family and his: both value quality family time and good manners; appreciate good food and love to cook; and show love through action, not words.

Fast forward to December 2014, when my boyfriend proposed to me, and I of course agreed to marry him. We’re the happiest we’ve ever been and, to top it all off, his parents fully approve. I’m happy to report that my relationship with my fiance’s family has evolved from civil and cordial to truly loving and warm. These days, they treat me like their daughter—inviting me over on my birthday, cooking me food, and setting up my own quarters in their guest room.

For those in an intercultural relationship, don’t be discouraged. Here’s one big lesson that I’ve learned from the past seven years: Traditional doesn’t always mean “bad.” And just because your significant other’s parents don’t approve of you due to your ethnicity doesn’t mean they’re bad people. It simply means they grew up in a different environment and generation. And rather than be confrontational or give your other half an ultimatum, just be yourself—but take all the steps you can to truly understand their culture and show respect in a way that’s meaningful to them. If it turns out they simply don’t like who you are as a person, it’s time to move on. Otherwise, cultural differences are not the supreme defining factor of your relationship, and you’ll be respected for trying to bridge those differences.


10 thoughts on “How to Navigate an Intercultural Relationship—and Parents Who May Not Be on Board

  1. This is topical. I’m currently one half of an interracial relationship. My family does not approve of my
    relationship. For them its more than race its culture. To marry this man, means I give up everything I
    know. Is love enough?


  2. After my father died my family received public assistance. We lived in public housing. I was very ashamed of where I lived and going shopping with food stamps. The store clerks would give you funny looks.

    I worked hard in school and vowed never again. After collage I got a job with Citibank and after working four years was laid off and couldn’t find a job. As a last resort I applied for food stamps by that time was on a card.

    It was still humiliating but it wasn’t as painful. You get a lot of these republicans saying people are fighting to get on welfare. My brother and sisters worked hard to get off public assistance and we all bought or mom a home in North Carolina. This article brought made me remember what it was like.


  3. Great read. I’m a white woman dating an Indian man who I truly believe is the love of my life. His parents came to the United States when there were young, so he and his siblings were born in the United States and are highly assimilated. As far as Indians go, they are not very traditional at all except for when it comes to dating and marriage. Recently, we have discovered that even though I am completely willing to learn Hindi and Punjabi and about their food and other aspects of their culture, they will probably never accept me into their family. This has been a really hard thing for us both to deal with. Any advice?


    • Interracial relationships are challenging as its a merging of cultures. Learning the language will help in communication But there isn’t an instant fix. There will be misunderstandings I was in an interracial relationship for more than 25 years and it was uncomfortable for both sides but as a couple we were strong and overtime there was a merging of families and a strong bond that survived our divorce. Advice: Focus more on loving each other and building a strong relationship and less of family acceptance as it will take time. They will get know you on their schedule not yours. Be respectful and honorable to both families, participate in family events and understand there will be misunderstandings.


  4. I love this and the commments. I’m in a interricails relationship and alot of the points apply to me. This is a well rounded blog.

    Thank You


Comments are closed.