Tariq and his family moved from India to the Washington D.C. area in 1970. He was 12 years old. In India, he’d lived a typical, traditional Indian life, with the constant presence of family and friends, all sharing the same language and culture, all of them devout Muslims. He had a sister, a brother, and strong parents who instilled in him the values they cherished: follow Islam, maintain a place in their Indian community in D.C., and always honor and care for his family.
Tariq didn’t fit their mold, though. He was a rebel. Innately resistant to certain aspects of Islamic and Indian traditions from an early age, his inner compass told him that he should define himself differently than his parents raised him. Intensely spiritual and social, he chose to discover God in his own way, outside of Islam, and thrived on friendships with all types of people, not just those in the Indian community. Though his choices upset his parents, he felt he had to be true to himself and follow his own life path. He became a successful financial planner, married a Virginia native at age 35, and is now raising two great kids. But, in his pursuit of living the life that fit him, he always loved his parents, kept a close relationship with them, and never shirked his devotion to them.
Tariq’s story is his own. Some may criticize his choices, some may applaud him. But the key here in Tariq’s story, is that he had a strong sense of self and an inner compass from an early age. He carefully and consciously chose his relationships based on his sense of self. He knew who “me” was.
Maintaining a sense of “me” in a relationship can be a challenge, and it is especially important in an intercultural relationship. It is easy to get sucked into becoming what you think your partner wants you to be, in order to keep the peace with him or her, and with each other’s families. But it is important to know who you are inside before you can accommodate others without losing yourself.
Below is a checklist of questions to consider when identifying your “me.” Leave culture of it. Pretend you are the alone on an island, with nothing but you, the sand and the surf. Block out everyone else in your life for a few minutes for this, even if it means getting up at five in the morning to sit on your deck alone, or going for a walk by yourself.
WHAT ARE YOUR CORE VALUES?
WHAT ARE SOME WORDS THAT DESCRIBE YOU?
WHEN ARE YOU MOST HAPPY?
Think about the last time you felt truly happy. Were you walking along the beach? Were you alone or with others? Had you done a good deed for someone or were you happy to just be in the moment?
DO YOU FEEL CONNECTED TO A HIGHER POWER?
Leave religion out of this one. If you were raised in a religion tradition, you have learned the rituals that go with that religion, but do you feel connected to a higher power? If so, when do you feel that connection?
WHAT ARE YOUR TALENTS AND HOW DO YOU CELEBRATE THEM?
Are you a writer or an artist? Are you an accomplished athlete? Do you display your paintings proudly in your home or post pictures of yourself after completing the Ironman Triatholon on Facebook? What makes you feel good about your unique abilities?
DO YOU NEED OTHER PEOPLE’S APPROVAL TO FEEL GOOD ABOUT YOURSELF?
This is a big one in intercultural relationships. Do you need to feel like the people around you like you in order to feel good about yourself? Do you act in ways that you think will gain the approval of others, instead of making yourself happy? If so, think about ways to change that.
Write down your answers to these questions and revisit them daily. By keeping a clear picture of yourself in your mind in an intercultural relationship, you can create healthy relationships with your partner, your in-laws, and your children. Of course, your answers will change over your lifetime. You will evolve with your experiences. But, Shakespeare was right: when you are true to yourself, you will be true to those you love.