Having a second — or third — culture can be complicated. It can also be a blessing. That’s why we launched Second Gen, a series celebrating the gifts, even the bittersweet ones, passed down from our parents, communities, and cultures.
Last summer, it was hard to find someone not watching Netflix’s cringey-but-somehow-cute show Indian Matchmaking. Part of the fascination was an entirely different concept of how to approach relationships: Let your parents choose for you! Have a lady you don’t know tell you to hit the gym! Leave it to the stars! While some of it was definitely problematic, it opened a curiosity about how societies outside North America think about love and relationships. Culture is sometimes seen as an element holding second-gen women back when dating — pressure to choose a partner with the same ethnic or religious background, or to get married early — but many welcome having another frame through which to examine their most intimate relationships.
We asked 20 women what their culture taught them about love and relationships. Here’s what they told us.
“I used to silence a room by talking about dating or being bi. Now, it’s all normalized in my household. I feel extremely lucky to be in that position because [bisexuality is] not always welcome or expected in immigrant families, but I think when we push a little harder, we give our parents the ability to see us more fully. We just have to give them a chance. I still think back to the lessons my parents have instilled. To lead with kindness but to trust with caution. To not fall too deep because I’m young. To keep my passions and career in focus. And to love as graciously as they’ve loved me.” — Amreen, 22, Indian-Canadian
“The [love] stories told through [Colombian] shows and music, and the gossip of so-and-so’s cousin or so-and-so’s nephew, always prioritized entertainment value over how healthy a relationship was. There was always this idea that love has to be passionate and make you do crazy things, otherwise it isn’t real. But my family also taught me about unconditional, ride-or-die, no-questions-asked, sometimes tough-love kind of love. I love and feel as hard and as deeply as I do because that’s how my family loves and feels, that is how our culture loves and feels.” — Ana Maria, 26, Colombian-Canadian
“Something important to Chinese culture is how close family is — sometimes a little too close. But for the most part, it is something that I want to continue with my [future] family, with some boundaries. Once I find a partner, they will be the closest person to me. I learned that from watching my parents’ relationship and how they’ve built our family.” — Jasmine, 24, Chinese-Canadian
“My mother is a big believer in love and always told me there needs to be a deep emotional connection [between partners]. This was especially [present in] my grandparents’ care for one another. Their displays of affection [were] on the reserved side when out in public, however, [when watching] their interactions with one another, it was clear they loved each other. My grandad would remember her favourite foods or gift things she mentioned in passing.” — Joanne, 32, Taiwanese-Canadian
“My parents had an arranged marriage, so growing up, I was given a very pragmatic view of love and partnership. This was juxtaposed against watching a lot of [Bollywood] movies and listening to love songs — I really leaned into the more fantastical elements of Bollywood love. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to really admire what my parents taught me about relationships. I value a love that is more of a work-in-progress.” — Saba, 22, Pakistani-Canadian
“In Fante, my parents' dialect, the verb for sex and to eat are the same word. If you say you want to eat, you have to specify you want to eat something, otherwise, depending on context, you're saying you want to have sex. My mom made sure I was aware of this distinction. I learned this at a young age and I internalized that food and sex are important components of a relationship because they both bring deep satisfaction to your partner.” — Afia, 30, Ghanaian-Canadian
“My parents always tell me that passionate love dies really fast, and all you will have left is the person that you're with. And you have to decide if you want to build a life with this person. It's a very cut-and-dry thing. That's really impacted the way that I see love because I see it as a partnership — somebody that I need to build part of my life with.” — Stephanie, 22, Chinese-Canadian
“I think the values of family, honesty, and also a sense of courage were passed down to me. I learned that it’s courageous to say how you feel about a person, it's courageous to make the first step or make a big change. I don't think that my cultural background really informed me of anything at all regarding my [being gay] or what I’m looking for [in love], but I still used that value of courage to figure out [my sexuality and express] who I am.” — Sierra, 22, Italian and Barbadian-Canadian
“Growing up, I witnessed so many diverse love stories around me, so I want a bit of everything. My parents' relationship, for example, is very beautiful. But as an immigrant kid, it was sometimes easy to see it as not as romantic as Western relationships, because of the way I had internalized Western notions of romance and love. But, the older I've gotten, the more I've seen that the kind of love my parents have is beautiful. Just because it's not grandiose or and filled with lots of gestures, doesn’t mean it’s not loving. It's quiet and simple and beautiful and in the way that they show up for each other every day. Their love is very centred on taking care of each other, and each other’s families and communities.” — Divya, 23, Indian-Canadian
“My parents think I'm going to meet my husband at church, which is probably not gonna happen — and that person might not even be a husband! But they’ve taught me about sacrifice and hard work, and that’s definitely going to be put into my future relationships, especially if I’m with someone from a different culture. The recent wave of the Black Lives Matter movement has got me thinking a lot about interracial and intercultural dating. I need all aspects of myself, including my culture, to be fully understood, respected, and celebrated. And I would also do the same for my partner. Understanding each other’s heritage and history is really important to make a relationship work.” — Tomilola, 20, Nigerian-Canadian
“My aunt had an arranged marriage, but my parents had a very different relationship — they fell in love with people outside of their culture because they prioritized love and believed that it was magical and could override any boundary. I actually no longer think that. I’ve gone back to how my grandparents thought! I've gone through big breakups where [the person] didn't [fit] in the life that I wanted to build. Now, I pay a lot of attention to that — more than my feelings — when I'm dating.” — Maddy, 24, Indian and Irish-Canadian
“My grandparents were together from the time my grandmother was 19. Their love was passionate and complicated. In conversations with my father to understand my grandfather’s [infidelity], I’ve learned there are cultural expectations that impact love and the expectation of the partner to stay [especially for women]. Fidelity is not always as straightforward as you’re led to believe when you’re little. From my own parents, I saw that [they didn’t want that expectation of enduring infidelity] to be a part of love.” — Shawnette, 39, Trinidadian-Canadian
“The Western concept is that love comes first, and everything is built around it, but my parents taught me that doesn't have to be the case. If you’re compatible, have the same values, and want similar things for your medium to long-term future, you can use that as a foundation to then love one another. It doesn’t mean that’s what I want, but ultimately what it taught me is that love is such a tiny sliver of what it means to be someone’s partner.” — Nousha, 31, Iranian-Canadian
“For my parents, being in love [meant] an additional set of responsibilities because you’re in this country where both your families are far away, you take [more] responsibility for the other person. That has influenced the way I approach my own romantic relationships, and I’ve realized that can be toxic if there is no promise of commitment on the other side.” — Anna, 29, Czech and Slovak-Canadian
“Growing up in Canada, watching TV and seeing the way white families dealt with their kids dating versus how my parents did, I sat there envious, thinking, Why can’t I just have a crush on a boy and date him? Now that I’m older, I understand that ultimately it comes from parents wanting the best for their child and craving familiarity. When you’re somewhere that’s nothing like home, you want your kids to marry someone like you because, in your mind, that’s the only way they’re going to keep speaking the language or keep practising your culture.” — Thurka, 24, Tamil-Canadian
“My mom came over from a communist country and got married within six months and all of her love went towards her children. For her, [romance] was just hoopla — not a priority when your food is rationed. [She told us that] partners are a distraction and to leave men alone, to focus on school, career, and whatever you want to do in life. I took her mentality and combined it with the romantic notions I was invested in. [In the end], she loved that we had the opportunity to find that.” — Maya, 32, Polish-Canadian
“Even though I grew up very Jamaican, I’m also very Canadian, and I have very different ideas [about love] than my parents. They don’t think you have to be head over heels in love to marry someone. I was recently going through a breakup, and my mom said: ‘You can have someone who you’re passionate about but maybe you can’t trust them, or you can have someone who you’re not passionate about but you can trust them and rely on them.’ I don’t believe you have to sacrifice one over the other.” — Charlotte, 30, Jamaician-Canadian
“In my culture, there’s an emphasis on being family-oriented — having children and being married is social currency. Ethiopians date with intention, whereas Canadians are very comfortable dedicating time and emotional resources into a relationship without that. Canadians emphasize emotional intelligence and making sure your partner is your friend. I need to find a way to amalgamate the two.” — Liya, 25, Ethiopian-Canadian
“My parents were very easygoing, but in my 36 years of existence, I’ve only seen them kiss on the lips once. [Observing] their relationship definitely influenced me. In terms of PDA, I'm not showy and never have been. I think I am more conservative because I don't want to disappoint my parents or make others uncomfortable. My affection is for my spouse, not for an audience — that's how I show respect towards my relationship and to others around me. — Gail, 36, Filipino-Canadian
“My dad is Indian and my mom is Irish and Italian. Growing up in a biracial household, I was never taught that I needed to marry a person from [a certain] culture. I was taught that I could fall in love with whoever I wanted. My parents went through such a difficult time in the ’70s and ’80s when they were dating because of race — because of how they were able to come together, my view of love is that you love who you love.” — Krystal, 30, Indian, Irish, and Italian-Canadian