Cross-cultural relationships may bloom in Whistler, but they are also subject to unique stresses
If Joe Millionaire and The Bachelorette are any indication, North Americans are obsessed with two things: celebrity and romance. Lace it all with scandal, and youre guaranteed ratings. Create a holiday based on an old Roman fertility festival and youll sell more greeting cards than on any other day after Christmas. One billion cards. 35 million heart shaped boxes of chocolate. A proliferation of romance-themed articles how to woo a woman (cook her dinner, admire her shoes), what women find sexy in men (he dresses well but not too well, wears Old Spice, and gives the perfect head massage), the Internet as the ultimate dating tool.
But after all this romance and seduction, whats next? Does it really end with a bended-knee proposal? (One in five men propose on one knee, so the odds are low.) Or is it just as likely to end with a slap across the face? Consider the following four possibilities of life after a successful seduction.
The Vanishing Act.Fait accompli and youre left, like a tourist, with a souvenir T-shirt and a hollow feeling that that wasnt all it was cracked up to be. It looked better in the brochure.
(In Whistler, almost half the year-round population over 15 years of age is married or in a common-law relationship. Combined with the fact that, in a town of its size, Whistler has one of the highest male to female ratios, its no wonder some singles find the dating and mating game in Whistler dispiriting. Single girls take heart 15 per cent of women in the States admit to sending themselves flowers on Valentines Day. How does the old song go? Love the one youre with.)
Obliteration.Cynics and natural scientists may draw some pleasure in comparing other species mating rituals, which goes some way to explaining the success of nature programs. Narrators voice quivers with excitement: "Consider the male praying mantis, who cannot copulate while his head is attached to his body. Witness the female of the species initiate the sex act by ripping the males head off. How he squirms! The moment of personal obliteration and the species continues." The black widow spider and the scorpion similarly devour the male after mating, suggesting he really is good for just one thing. (Or maybe he wasnt that good at all.)
Co-habitation.Sociologists have been decrying the "death of marriage" since the 1970s . Divorce rates increase with more reliability than this seasons snowpack. Canadian divorce statistics for 1998 offer up the following:
The average duration of a marriage: 13.7 years;
The year of marriage with the highest divorce rate: 5;
The percentage of marriages expected to end in divorce within 30 years: 36 per cent.
Based upon these figures, one could hypothesize only that there is no danger zone, no seven year itch, no magic number you can reach and be guaranteed longevity or eternal togetherness. Which, if you were a cynic or a natural scientist, would come as no surprise. After all, across nature, we witness a tiny proportion of species which mate for life among them, penguins, wolves and a small African antelope with the wonderful moniker, the dik-dik. The trend away from marriage (a 40 per cent decrease in the last 25 years), sees a corresponding hike in numbers of the human species choosing to shack up together, without the paperwork, the ceremony, the pile of gifts on a table.
However, for some, cohabitation is not an option. Marriage is the only choice.
Marriage.There are six registered marriage commissioners in the Whistler/Pemberton region. Florence Petersen was one of the communitys first and has been officiating at weddings for 14 years. She has performed 945 weddings and seen a number of mixed cultural relationships that began with a Whistler romance and developed into Whistler marriages.
"Youd see them, one maybe had a work permit that was expiring, and they had a relationship they were serious about, so they had to decide what they were going to do. They didnt all stay around in Canada it wasnt about that. Some couples have stayed in the area. A lot have moved to Squamish or Pemberton in order to make a life, have a family. A good many have put down roots here."
Whistler has caught so many people in its orbit and spun plenty into a trajectory together. I lost count of the number of people who advised me almost a decade ago, when my visa was reaching its use-by-date, "why dont you just marry a Canadian?" In a real-life-is-stranger-than-fiction way, thats what did happen, though it had nothing to do with the visa. Honest. Still, I can see why Citizenship and Immigration Canada might be skeptical. At least, initially. Surely, though, eight years on, it must be apparent Im not doing this just for the paperwork.
"Welcome to the Citizenship and Immigration Canada Telemessage service. Press 1 for service in English. We encourage you to visit our Web site where you can obtain more detailed information about our programs, check the status of your application, change your address, request application packages. This information system is easy to use. Listen carefully to the instructions and press the number for the selection you want. If you wish to end this call, press 8. For information on Citizenship press 1. For information on Immigration press 2. We are currently experiencing abnormal delays in processing applications for permanent residence for persons applying for permanent residence within Canada. It is currently taking more than seven months for an application to be reviewed at the Vegreville Case Processing Centre. Our agents cannot assist you in processing your application more quickly. We apologize for this inconvenience and appreciate your patience. Please be ready with a pen and paper for information on your status. To facilitate status inquiries, we have created a Web site. Please visit our Web site."
I filled out 30 pages of questionnaire. I detailed every address I have had in the last 10 years tracing Whistler sharehouse to Aussie ski fields, to random touring across North America with a foggy amnesia. I elaborated on the story of our wedding. I provided evidence to indicate I am in a serious marriage relationship. I am asked to tell the story of our relationship. I apply for a special dispensation to make my permanent residence application from within Canada and am obliged to articulate the specific humanitarian grounds that justify this well, um, so my marriage can actually function. Is that humanitarian enough?
I make copies in duplicate, triplicate of every page in my passport, and package it all off to CIC with a cheque. I hear nothing for months. When I call, I watch change slipping through the phone at an alarming rate while a voice tells me my call is very important, please hold on, we are experiencing unprecedented demand, while I hope in vain for a human being at some point to answer my questions. No, you cant leave the country while your application is being processed, they tell me. No, we cant give you any indication how long it will take. No, theres nothing you can do. A phone call from an officer I didnt fill out box 3 on page 12 of the applications. Can I fax it ASAP? (I pedal through the pouring rain to Paperworks with my documents zip-locked in a plastic baggie.) Oh, and would I please explain how my husband and I can survive on our income as ski pros. (Yeah, Ive wondered that too. Can I have an open work visa please?) Have I had my medical yet? No, I was told to wait until I was advised to go. Oh, what a shame, if youd had it already, youd practically be done. Okay. Ill get onto that right away. I go for my immigration medical. I give them blood, urine, vital statistics. I strip naked and succumb to a full body physical and internal exam. Imagine. I thought only Customs Officers did that. Valentines Day, by creepy synchronicity, is the one year anniversary of the date my application was received at the Processing Centre. Meanwhile, I am pending. I am in process. I am practising my pranayama breathing. Thank you for your patience.
The leading contenders for relationship stress are money and kids. Work or study demands, an accident or traumatic event or serious illness are all in the top five.
Cross-cultural stressors would seem to add another layer of challenge. Nearly one in five of Whistlers year-around population were not born in Canada, so lets assume these stressors impact on a decent proportion of local lovers. For Belinda, an Australian lawyer who married her Canadian boyfriend after a four year relationship that involved two continents, several plane tickets and some serious phone bills, the big issues are the ones common to all relationships.
"Money is the biggest issue in any relationship. And that really comes from your background. Different backgrounds and different ways of dealing with money. Cultural differences. Although I think Australian and Canadian culture is pretty similar. You do have issues about where youre going to live, which country, where in that country, where you want your kids to be brought up. Of course, I want my kids to grow up in Australia. But obviously, my husband is going to want to be here. But really, ultimately, its just like any other relationship. Its about whether you communicate and deal with issues properly."
Whistler is home to several failed cross-cultural relationships one Canadian quipped that most of his friends didnt want to see another Australian woman again, counting that nationality in significant numbers amongst their collected ex-wives. Interestingly, on the dissolution of those relationships, most of the women in question elected to remain, not only in Canada, but in Whistler.
The failures of those relationships to last the long haul was attributed to ordinary factors, although when pressed, some wondered whether different cultures share a different sense of humour.
Belinda agrees that one of the differences parties in a cross-cultural relationship might experience is that they deal with some of the more contentious issues couples face very early on in their relationship.
"You deal with big problems from the beginning, you talk stuff through. You ask whether you want to make the commitment or not, and you are very conscious that it is a big commitment. You know there is going to be a big upheaval, and you ask, Is this what I really want to do? Its a more considered decision than it might be for a couple whove been together for a long time and just figure its probably time to get married because thats what you do and they might never have stopped to ask themselves if they are really right for each other."
Belinda is experiencing the usual challenges retraining so her qualifications apply in Canada, dealing with various levels of bureaucracy in immigration and medical services, but the biggest issue is homesickness.
"I miss my family. And my friends. I miss seeing my sisters kids. Not being there for my parents to give them more emotional support, while theyre going through the drought on a cattle property. Not being there and being able to help them out. I think my husband understands it, but you feel alone in experiencing that homesickness. You keep it to yourself because you dont want to make them feel guilty. I chose this. Im not someone who has a lot of regrets. You have to live life to the fullest and you have to be flexible. You cant go around keeping score on how much youve given up, or your relationship wouldnt survive. Id still love to go back to live in Australia, but I understand if we dont."
My place or yours? How do you choose the country? For Belinda, her husbands serious phobia of flying meant that she could either choose to be with him in Canada, or the relationship would dissolve. For another couple, they struck a deal locating the wedding in her home and the newlywed life in his.
Now add some kids into the equation. The common mindset is that a woman will feel a strong urge to be close to her mother when she has babies.
"Youll end up back there," they say. "You always return to where the woman is from when the kids come."
I understand the rationale; the journey you take into motherhood is lonely no one really understands the transformation you experience, the grief for your past carefree, great-bodied unscarred self except, your mum. Around whom you may be free to be flawed, to not be the perfect mother earth goddess and still be loveable. It seems obvious you would yearn to return to a familiar place. What you know about childhood is what you remember from your own. Childhood means swimming lessons at the pool, picking mangoes from the tree in the backyard, barbecues all year round under the pergola, weekends at the beach oh, sorry. Shouldnt that be shovelling the driveway, making quinzhees, hockey, hockey, hockey, scrunching through piles of fall leaves up to your knees How do I guide my children through a childhood peopled with things I dont understand?
Ultimately, they say, love makes fools of us all. Whatever you put on the line in the hope that the lottery balls dropping down the tube will prove to be yours and his or hers, happily ever after. Giving up your home, career, identity, your favourite comfort foods, the chance to drop in on your grandmother, your nephew on the weekend. A blank slate. Reinvention. And potentially, an early death by strangulation in red tape. You become a transplant. And the question with every transplant: will it take? Just as the question with every relationship: will it last?
Belinda is philosophical: "A lot of relationships in Whistler happen so quickly. And you wonder if theyll last, and yet, they seem to. You have to live life to the fullest. Accept where you are for the moment. Everything has a reason."