Wednesday, March 17, 2010


So I just read the book Committed, by Elizabeth Gilbert. Basically, it's one woman's analysis of marriage in Western culture. Although I wouldn't recommend it, it's not terrible – it makes some interesting points – and it has gotten me thinking about cross-cultural relationships.

One of the things that I find the most profoundly confusing here is Liberians' approach to relationships and marriage. (Of course, to be fair, I find romantic relationships profoundly confusing in the US as well. But that's another story, and not one for this blog). As Gilbert debates seemingly endlessly in her book, we as Americans are inundated with all kinds of confusing messages about what a spouse and a marriage should and should not be. But somewhere inside the relatively superficial discourse on gender roles in, the influence of religious and traditional values on, and the legal issues surrounding marriage, there is one basic supposition that affects our views on relationships: our romantic partner should be someone that we like and get along with.

That fundamental assumption doesn't necessarily hold here. A spouse, in many cases, is a work partner, someone to produce and raise children with, to run a household with – not primarily a companion. Companionship comes from other sources in the community – friends and extended family. Of course, with the ever-increasing influence of Western culture, this approach (like everything else) is changing. Still, my conversations with Liberians on relationships often leave me thinking, “what the fuck??!”

A good example of how dissimilar relationships here are to those in the US is the marriage of my landlord. When I first arrived in Liberia, he was living with his 10-year-old son and a young woman who I initially assumed was his daughter. I and my roommate soon discovered, however, that she was his wife. About two months after my arrival, my landlord and this woman got into a screaming, shouting argument (actually, I think the wife was the only one shouting), punctuated by the sounds of the wife punching the doorframe and perhaps also her husband. The next day, the woman packed up and left.

Here's where things get confusing: The next week, a new wife arrived – an extremely large, solid, bad-tempered, and very capable woman. Apparently, the young, attractive “wife” who had left was not actually a wife at all, but a woman he had semi-permanently shacked up with. This wife (who arrived with his 9-year-old daughter in tow) was his real wife, although she had been living somewhere else for the past God knows how many months or years.

So yeah, in addition to being based less around companionship and more around necessity, relationships here are also relatively fluid. I'm constantly surprised at how open many people are about infidelity. Actually, I'm constantly surprised at how open people are about sex in general. Yesterday, when I walked into my seventh-grade class, most of the kids were holding big packs of condoms, which some NGO or other organization had distributed that morning (which is great from a public health standpoint, but slightly distracting when one is trying to teach division).

In any case, because of all of these factors, I personally would be extremely hesitant to enter into a relationship with a Liberian. Admitting this is not easy; to be honest, it makes me feel like a terrible racist. I wince every time a Liberian man asks me “Why won't you marry a Liberian?” or, even worse, “Why don't white women marry black men?” It's not only the outrageous rudeness of the questions that gets to me, but the small part of me that has to admit, “Maybe it's because I am/we are horribly prejudiced.” And yet, I can't envision entering into a relationship with someone who doesn't share my most basic outlook on relationships, someone from a culture that has totally different standards of morality, someone from a place in which lying is standard practice and women are still often second-class citizens. Beyond that, as I said before, the actual and perceived wealth differences between myself and the majority of people around me are very large; this, combined with the fact that many people see marriage to an American as a golden ticket to the land of plenty, is enough to make me very suspicious of anyone's intents.

And yet, even after acknowledging that there are most certainly exceptions, that there are without a doubt attractive Liberian men who would make wonderful husbands by Western standards, I still can't help but feel uneasy as I read over what I just wrote . . . because it sounds eerily similar to every racist argument that's ever been made against any cross-cultural partnership (“they're just too different, it could never really work out” or, even worse, “I think they're wonderful people, but I wouldn't marry one myself”). So I wonder, at what point does being realistically cautious about a situation cross the line into being closed-minded and prejudiced?


  1. I've been following your blog for awhile now. I'll be coming to Liberia in June to teach English, and it's nice keeping up with another woman in country currently! I'm starting to think about packing and compiling lists of what I'll need, and I was hoping you could provide some guidelines :)

    I'm mostly concerned about a few things in particular: appropriate clothes for teaching, appropriate shoes for teaching, how much of my clothing should be waterproof, etc.

    THANKS! :)

  2. Very interesting line of thought, and one that I contemplate a lot. I've found that, when I think of men in terms of nationalities or cutlures, I just end up not wanting to marry anyone. I mean think about what you would classify as typical "American guy". Or a "Penn State guy".

    I think though, when it comes to stereotyping nationalities/cultures, TV and movie relationships from that area can add an important level of understanding. It can show what the "ideal" of that culture is, which is usually (although not always) a little better than many of the ugly situations that you come across and can't help but focus on.

  3. Hmmm, interesting. I can see how that's true and I would add that books can also give an interesting insight into cultural norms about relationships. Though I'm not sure that I'd go so far as to say that TV and movies always show an "ideal" -- sometimes it seems like they represent exactly the opposite, a perfectly bad relationship (like in many soap operas).

    But, I've definitely found the one book I've read by a Liberian author, Murder in the Cassava Patch, to reinforce my statement that relationships are very, very different here (summary of the book at -- although it's definitely not about an "ideal" relationship in any way (spoiler alert: he kills her).

    Anyway I guess another point I have to make is that everyone's individual idea of what a "relationship" is or should be is so different that it's hard to make distinctions (I mean, just think of how many different movies and TV shows and books are out there, each with a very different point). But I still think there's kind of a spectrum of ideas within a culture on what a relationship is, and that the middle of that spectrum varies between Liberian and American culture.