I was in my late teens when I fell for Johnny. Tall with dark hair and sparkling eyes, he looked like a matinee idol and had a quick-witted, rollicking sense of humour.
We spent several months joined at the hip: driving around the city in his Honda Accord, making out, and indulging in late-night dim sum, the caffeine from bubble tea coursing through our veins. It was what Vancouver teenage dreams were made of, until I asked him about his parents.
I’m white, with Eastern European roots, and Johnny came from a traditional Hong Kong Chinese family. His parents worked late hours at their family business, but on the rare occasion we’d cross paths, they were always polite, if a bit standoffish. When I finally mustered up the courage to ask him what his family thought of me, he said, “They’re fine with us dating right now but in the long-term, they’d prefer I was with someone Chinese.”
It was my first—but not last—experience navigating the complexities of an intercultural relationship.
According to Statistics Canada, intercultural relationships have been on the rise since the early 1990s, with Vancouver leading the way. As of 2014, Vancouver had more intercultural unions per capita than any other Canadian city, with approximately 9.6 per cent of Metro Vancouver’s couples made up of people from different backgrounds. It’s not surprising that many people in the region find love outside their culture; Vancouver is a vibrantly diverse city where, for the first time in 2022, more than half of residents identified themselves as a visible minority.
While Vancouver is often hailed as a multicultural dating mecca, the numbers don’t tell the complete story. Intercultural couples in Vancouver still face unique challenges, with parental influence being one of the main barriers to long-term commitment and marriage.
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Dr. Faizal Sahukhan, a clinical counsellor, sexologist, and author, wants to help. In December, he published Authentic Relationships: Guidance for Resolving Challenges Across Cultures, a book of hand-picked questions from Sahukhan’s popular Metro Vancouver advice column that helps people navigate the intricacies of intercultural relationships—both romantic and familial.
Canadians live in an individualistic society where personal attitudes and choice are paramount, Sahukhan believes, while many minorities trace their roots to collectivist societies. In those cultures, “you don’t just marry that person, you marry their family,” he says. When one partner is part of a cultural minority and the other is white—as is often the case with the couples Sahukhan counsels—differing beliefs and values around family can create conflict and tension.
Sahukhan was inspired to write his book in part because he wanted to leave a legacy of healthy relationship skills to his two daughters. These are skills he sees as valuable beyond just creating a happy couple, family, or marriage. “I believe that if you’re in an authentic relationship with others, this results in you gaining insight into the goodness within yourself. And this leads to self-growth and personal development,” he says. “I’d like to share whatever experience and the little knowledge I’ve acquired as a clinical counsellor to the public. It’s my way of giving back.”
In his clinical practice counselling multicultural couples in Vancouver, he’s seen several challenges that get in the way of successful relationships.
For starters, the family of the cultural minority partner often feels anxious about their child dating outside their culture, especially if they are recent immigrants. “They fear losing their traditions, their culture, their religion. The older generations have told me that they’re afraid that they will not be able to communicate with their future grandchildren, if one of their kids marries outside of their culture,” says Sahukhan.
When these fears can’t be assuaged, Sahukhan says, the family adopts what he calls a harmful “us versus them” mentality. “That needs to stop. In my counselling sessions, we look at the human race, we look at nurturing ourselves through our appreciation of all different races.”
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The partner from an ethnic minority may feel pressured by their family to maintain cultural homogeneity. As Sahukhan explains, if the family comes from a collectivist society, they might say, “Listen, we’ve given you birth, we’ve raised you, we’ve given you a car when you needed it, we paid for your university education. And now you owe us, so we found a nice girl or boy back home, and you’re going to go and we’re going to have this arranged marriage.” This creates a challenging dynamic where one partner feels like they’re being forced to choose between their family and the person they love.
These struggles aren’t unique to Vancouver. I spoke to Jewel Love, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the founder of Interracial Couples Counseling, based in the San Francisco Bay area of California. Love has witnessed similar conflicts in the couples he counsels, which can be further complicated when there’s money involved. “Inheritances will be withheld in some of those scenarios, if they choose to date somebody of a race or ethnicity their parents don’t approve of,” explains Love.
While we like to think of Vancouver as a progressive and accepting city, there’s also “some racism, ignorance, or discrimination from the Caucasian families of those who date outside of their race,” says Sahukhan. “I’ve had families—Caucasian Canadians—who say things like, oh my, my daughter is dating someone Middle Eastern, or a Muslim? Maybe they’re terrorists or something like that.”
In this scenario, Love says the white partner is often caught off guard by the intensity of their parent’s reaction. “That’s usually the most surprising thing for people: learning about their own family’s preferences,” says Love. It may even lead them to reevaluate how they view their familial relationships.
Internalized racism can be a hindrance to Vancouver couples getting together in the first place, whether dating someone of the same or another culture. “I call this the Snow White syndrome in my book,” says Sahukhan. In his practice, he’s encountered many people from minority groups who think “if they date a Caucasian person who’s a local in Canada, it’s like an achievement that increases their social status.”
Susan Semeniw of Divine Intervention has seen a similar trend in her own matchmaking business in Vancouver. “A lot of Asian women in particular want to date a Caucasian guy,” she shares. Semeniw has to encourage them, “Don’t dismiss the Asian guys!”
Instead of making broad generalizations, she encourages people to be open-minded and “not make snap judgments or sweeping generalizations about other people. Because we all have unique stories.”
While it may seem like the cards are stacked against intercultural dating in Vancouver, the experts I spoke to all echoed the same sentiment. With open communication and patience, multicultural couples can thrive.
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This starts by being curious about each other’s cultures. Sahukhan especially encourages white partners “to educate themselves and accept their ethnic partners’ background, their religion, their culture, and their cuisine.” While you don’t have to conform to their traditions, it’s important to respect them and be open to learning.
Those navigating intercultural relationships also need to be patient when it comes to family acceptance. As Love reminds us, “Those thoughts, beliefs, or prejudices aren’t going to change overnight.” However, oftentimes they do shift over time. “What typically helps to change it is exposure to that person, and having an experience one-on-one with the person of the race or ethnicity that they have prejudice about, and seeing these good qualities and how well they treat their child, and it usually softens and warms them up over time for those prejudices to dissipate,” he says. “I’ve seen that happen quite a few times.”
Sahukhan also encourages intercultural couples to seek counselling before making a long-term commitment. Counselling provides a safe environment for couples to discuss big-picture questions such as “Does your family approve of you dating someone from a different culture?” and “If not, what would you do?” This allows partners to have “open, honest, authentic conversations,” he says.
Lastly, Sahukan believes everyone deserves personal happiness. While it’s important to honour your culture, “Don’t allow your culture to suppress your individual need to love,” he says, adding, “Whoever you choose to love is a choice you have the right to make.”
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