When You Come From Different Countries

Reader: After reading your post about religious and political differences and raising children, I was wondering what you thought about cultural differences and being from different countries. How did you and Jennifer decide where to live and have children? Would you ever go back to New Zealand?

Athol:  Well we did have a plan at the time we got married. Being structural thinkers even then, we realized that the exchange rate between New Zealand and America was very much in America’s favor. So we figured if we ever had to switch countries it was going to be much easier to move from America to New Zealand, rather than from New Zealand to America. As things have turned out, the exchange rates have stabilized somewhat and housing in New Zealand is more expensive than America and any advantage we imagined is gone. Oh well, it was a best guess anyway.

We also figured Jennifer was going to struggle a great deal without her family around, while I’m fairly resilient in that aspect. If we moved now, she’d be fine though. We’re family now. Overall, it’s worked out very well for us. We moved to a middle sized town in Connecticut and then have moved twice within that town since then. So I’ve lived in New Zealand until I was 24, then in America for 18 years .

The good points are that people are the same where ever you go. New Zealand and America are English speaking, Western, democratic, capitalist countries, and there are more differences inside the countries, than between them. If you have money and a job you’re okay, if you’re broke and uneducated you’re not having a good time. So moving here was fairly easy for me.

There’s always a nice little edge to things between you when you’re from different countries. You’re always just a little bit unknown to each other, though the longer we’re married the less those little moments happen. We don’t hear each others accents anymore. It’s kinda fun to be from different countries.

Both kids love New Zealand… though they’ve only been on vacation, so it’s not a true understanding of the culture. They like that they have a mixed heritage. Also they have both been very healthy kids. Cross breeding for the win. I’m totally serious on that point. I think the separate countries deal plays a role in still being attracted to each other.

It also makes for a great destination for a major family trip. There’s a natural drama and excitement to see the other half of the family and you get an insider’s vacation experience rather than a touristy one. The kids get to play with their cousins and meet aunts and uncles and whatnot. It’s a BIG trip. Very memorable. Photos and albums and whatnot. I think it rounds the kids out more.

The bad things creep up on you slowly. We only have one set of grandparents close by for babysitting and visiting. When something bad happens in New Zealand… I can’t really do anything but know about it. I basically lost contact with everyone I knew there for ages upon ages until finding people on Facebook a couple years back. I didn’t realize how losing my entire social network was going to affect me. Looking back I realized dad could have probably made a few phone calls and seriously helped get me a pretty decent starting position somewhere. For a long time I was behind Jennifer in earnings and that was just weird to me.

The most important thing you can do is make a decision to be in one country or the other and just stick with it. There’s good and bad in every country, you’re just picking your poison. If you try and ping-pong between the two places it’s hugely expensive and unless you’re moving for a juicy promotion, you’re hurting your career advancement. Plus moving really screws with the kids.

The separate country marriage is a double or nothing gambit. If it’s good, it’s really good. If it’s bad, it’s really bad.

In-laws are critical. We both have understanding and good parents. I think if either set was nutty it would be vastly harder.

Being similar to each other is important. Aside from the differences in country, Jennifer and I are quite similar. It’s not good to be exactly the same as each other, but some differences are fun and create a little friction that keeps things fresh. But too much different and you run out of common ground and stop relating to each other.

In terms of going back to New Zealand… maybe. I’ve been back three times now and it’s always a really good, but slightly odd experience for me. Like I stumbled into Narnia by accident or something. We might retire there or something. We’ll see. We’re actually looking at a potential move to Dallas in about 2018 when the girls are in college.

Anyway… as long as we go together… we’ll always be home.  (Jennifer: happy mushy sigh…)


Jennifer:  The girls are minor celebrities at school every time they go on a trip to New Zealand.  They have a wider appreciation for the world, and understand that not everyone lives the same way.  It’s the little things that they pick up on too…like loving being somewhere where they could walk to town to go to a restaurant or shopping (the whole cafe culture thing…love it!), and the fact that their cousins could go to school with no shoes on and not get in trouble for it!





  1. Oh man. If you move to Dallas, we are DEFINITELY taking you out to dinner. I’m thinking good Texas BBQ. :)

  2. As those following my comments may know – I’m Eurasian and married (unsuccessfully) across cultures. My cross cultural experiences are more extreme compared to those of Athol and Jennifer – different language, religion, economic situation etc.

    I found marriage across cultures exciting as a young person, now I’d rather have someone from my own background with whom I feel rapport. That said, “background” could be many things and not necessarily nationality and ethnicity.

    Similarly, when young moving a long distance from home was exciting, but now I long for familiarity and the strength that comes from living in the midst of family on my home turf (which I do not). I still mourn not being able to sufficiently support my parents in their declining years.

    I guess the summary is – one’s needs change over time – lookng ahead and planning would be useful.

    A word of warning – it’s more difficult to judge if someone is a suitable partner across cultures – you could think you have a great bargain to find there are good reasons why they cannot find a partner locally.

    Also, that sweet person who you see as exotic and exciting can be acting on principles and assumptions you don’t detect or understand. They might argue or resolve conflict in different ways and not even love YOU but legitimately in their culture see the marriage as something that will advantage themselves and their family. In my case, my ex needed to marry to migrate and was quick tempered and did not have the same (or functional) financial goals. People from his own culture had that on their radar, I did not.

    Additonally, fraud is commonplace with overseas online dating – within the reach of my friendship group are people that have lost a lot of money and some who have lost their money, home and even prospect of a home as their overseas-sourced ex-spouse has taken all they have and put them in debt for property not in their name.

    Again, the lesson – be more careful when choosing a partner from a culture you don’t fully understand and also always control all risks including the financial.


  3. Trimegistus says:

    As Athol points out, the differences within a large country like the USA can be as great as differences between countries. My wife and I are in that situation: I’m a Southerner, she’s from the northeast. Because of careers we wound up some distance from either family, but it has been a source of resentment at times.

    If you marry someone who’s likely to relocate a lot, be aware of what you’re getting into. It means every house is just temporary quarters and you have acquaintanceships but no real friends. This should throw the couple together more . . . but that just magnifies every disagreement.

  4. Did you let the kids go zorbing?

    Eldest loved it. Youngest… kinda liked it, mostly terrified lol.

  5. 2manypasswords says:

    Good post. The quality of one’s in-laws can have a real effect regardless of whether the marriage is cross-cultural. Perhaps that would be a good topic for a future post.

  6. People speak English in New Zealand? Really?

    :-) :-)

    When I first came to America I was complemented a couple times how good my English was. I shit you not.

  7. “Both kids love New Zealand… though they’ve only been on vacation, so it’s not a true understanding of the culture.”
    Like not understanding that rugby is the game they play in heaven?

    “…there are more differences inside the countries, than between them.”
    As you will no doubt confirm when you move from CT to TX!

  8. *lol*

    I would consider the cultural differences between Canadians, Americans, English, Australians and New Zealanders as minor at best. We share a common heritage that ties us together more than it pulls us apart.

    Now really step out your cultural comfort zone and then learn what a challenge it is. Candice’s word of warning is a good one. There are so many (valid) assumptions that you will make with people of the same culture that just do not apply to others outside of our shared culture.

    Be warned: Prepare to work long and hard to overcome those problems and learn to understand each other.

  9. Pickup techniques that worked for me in my home country didn’t work when I lived abroad. Both were english speaking countries, but the women abroad didn’t get my humour, nor did they really understand my life perspectives, and my game suffered because of this.

    And it wasn’t me or my techniques; I moved back home again and had success straight away and that success was repeatable.

  10. This one hits pretty close to home for me as I decided that Latin women were Gods gift sometime in late college, so I embarked on a mission to Mexico at 23 to find one and did. We married there and ended up living there for 7 years which definitely made life more interesting. I grew up in white suburbia and can now speak Spanish with the best of ‘em. I don’t regret it and were my wife and I to divorce, I wouldn’t hesitate to consider going right back and getting a new one there!

    I think we’ve both thought a lot about what could have been had we married within our own culture. I am certain that having the culture barrier and language barrier really gave me a confidence boost early on while I was dating women in Mexico. Mostly I chalk it up to that body language / actions speak louder than anything else and is what makes up the better part of your personality. Plus it helps when you’re literally one in a million with green eyes and got the whole foreign thing going for you…

    Athol is right in that people are the same wherever you go, including developing countries. We only just recently moved to the US, to my home town of Denver. We bounced around between both countries for awhile some years ago. It is a royal pain in the ass to start over and since I just bought property here, I’d say we’re done with that.

    There’s something important to be said of my experience though and I can see now some big indicators as to why our relationship struggled a lot in Mexico leading us to where we are today: to a large degree, I felt powerless and therefore left way too much up to her, basically loosing any trace of Alpha I still had along the way. Sure, it’s a cop-out, but this trap was easy to fall into since it’s easy to shrug your shoulders and have her handle it since it is, after all, her country. You genuinely don’t know how everything works, making it a real challenge to provide security. So while life there was super comfortable and easygoing, much moreso in comparison to life here, I have no doubt that she eventually would’ve been swooped up from under me by some schmuck and I would never have seen it coming. Now that the tables have turned, there’s a hell of a lot more responsibility on my shoulders, but on the flip-side, now we’re on my turf and this is my opportunity to get my game together.

  11. Great insight. It also helps if you belong to the same subculture. Me being a nerd weights more than being Latin when I married my gringo husband.
    I’m looking forward to the kids being minor celebrities since there is virtually not Dominicans in California I’m sure every trip to visit my relatives will be interesting. God bless planes and the Internet in my case ;)

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