Cultural Differences: Can Love Last?

Excerpted from Guess Who's Coming to Dinner: Celebrating Interethnic, Interfaith, and Interracial Relationships

Once you get involved in a multicultural relationship, it doesn't take long to realize that a good sense of humor is essential. That's because we enter these unions with the same societal stereotypes and prejudices just about everyone else has. When we laugh at ourselves, we can see how ridiculous our prejudices were in the first place. Let me give you an example from my own life.

A few months into my courtship with Mark, when I was working in Oakland California, Mark flew in from New York to visit. I planned a party so he could meet my friends. Once he arrived, our differences began to surface. First of all, he was shocked that the party wouldn't begin until 11pm. He wondered how, if we didn't finish up until 4 or 5am, we would be able to make church the next morning (church, after dancing all night?).

Then, my old friends began phoning for directions to the party. I was excited about hearing from them and occasionally lapsed into black English. You may already know that many African-Americans are bilingual. That is, we can converse in King's English when necessary, but when we're among our own folks, black English denotes a certain comfort level. But at the end of one of my calls, Mark asked, "What language were you speaking?"

As the evening progressed, I grew more concerned about our cultural differences. Mark had been raised in a Christian church that discouraged dancing. In my earliest years, I attended a black southern Baptist church that even encouraged dancing during religious services. Although he had moved beyond his most conservative childhood strictures, dancing didn't come easily to him, or so I assumed. As the clamor grew, I joined friends on the dance floor, while Mark remained engaged in conversations with another group of my buddies.

At one point, I led a line of dancers while chanting: "Your house, your house, your house is on fire!" I looked up and saw Mark was still conversing. His lack of response to the music stood in such sharp relief to my gaiety that I wondered if we were a good match.

The next afternoon some friends dropped by to help me clean up, and when we had finished we sat in the backyard discussing how much fun we'd had. Sensing the tension between me and Mark, one of my girlfriends jokingly told him, "Don't worry about last night. Everyone knows white folks can't dance."

With a forced smile, Mark left the table. A few minutes later, we heard music blasting. Someone had turned on the stereo, pulled it near an open window and was playing one of my favorite Nigerian dance records. The next thing we knew, the back door smashed open and out came Mark with my son, H.P., who was four at the time, sitting on his shoulders. They looked as if they were about to perform some acrobatic stunt. But Mark intended to dance.

He took one step, then another, then several more. With his hips swinging and my son snapping his fingers to the beat, this man was getting down. It was like watching a movie hero transform from Bill Gates to John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.

For a few seconds we sat in shocked silence. Then we all clapped and laughed, not at him, but at ourselves for our foolish assumptions. After executing a few of James Brown splits, Mark bowed and was met with a burst of applause. We were all, including Mark and my son, laughing so hard that some of us cried.

Over the years, laughter has played an important role in our relationship. There even have been evenings when our children have asked us to stop laughing because they could hear us from their rooms and we were keeping them awake. I'm not suggesting that our relationship is one uninterrupted laughfest, but humor does cool anger, soothe disappointment, and is a powerful aphrodisiac.

As a descendant of people who used humor in Africa to defeat enemies and entertain friends, a people who later used humor as therapy to survive captivity, I'm grateful for this ancestral treasure. As for Mark's sense of humor, it too survived a long voyage -- two generations earlier from Sweden. Grappling with the loss of the familiar, his grandparents must have sensed that laughter would be their salvation. Humor is spirit within us. Today, Mark and I, like tinder in a dark forest, create sparks that lighten our lives. Sometimes I imagine our final time together, when I'm an old lady taking my last breath, and Mark is holding me, whispering "Babe, I had the time of my life with you." Once, when I told him of this romantic scenario, I concluded by saying "so I hope I die before you."

"I hope you do, too," he said… Our laughter continues.

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