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Think Love is Complicated? Try Speaking Different Languages


Mengyu Xiao, an international student from Shenzhen, China, is studying business administration at the University of Goettingen in Germany.

The language of love is difficult and complicated, no matter where you're from.

With more than one million international students enrolled in colleges and universities across the United States, sparks are bound to fly.

VOA Student Union talked with three couples to better understand how they manage a romantic relationship while studying abroad in the United States.

Khea Chang (Vancouver, Canada) and Justin Devuono (U.S.)

Khea Chang's family immigrated to Vancouver, Canada, from Taiwan, making her a first-generation Canadian studying international relations at Boston University. Justin Devuono is from an Italian American family and studying computer science at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

When they met at a friend's party, Justin said he thought Khea was cute. But they were friends first. Justin described himself as "a guy who always keeps his eyes opened to new opportunities." So, he went for it.

However, even though they both were born and raised in a Western culture, the differences between their families were significant and hard to conquer.

"It takes a lot of communication and understanding," Khea said, recalling her first visit to Justin's family.

"Being from an Asian family, when you bring your significant other to meet them, they're always very reserved," Khea said. "But when I met Justin's family, they immediately took me in and warmed up to me very quickly. This was something I was not used to, and I was shocked by. The first time they met me, they already invited me to stay with them for Christmas."

Justin also said he felt the most difficult part of maintaining their relationship was to communicate and form a meaningful relationship with Khea's family, because they don't speak English.

"The language barrier between me and her parents makes it hard to make connections," Justin said.

Cultural differences matter a lot in their relationship. Different family backgrounds made their communication harder because the values they hold and the ways they think differ significantly.

Khea said that she had a hard time explaining her Chinese culture and roots to Justin.

"It is easy to get into fights with him simply because we have very different ways of doing things," she said. "For example, it was hard for him to understand the symbolism behind many Chinese customs. And for me, even though my family is from Taiwan, I grew up in Canada, so even myself can't thoroughly explain some parts of [the symbolism]. But I just use it because my family use it."

Mengyu Xiao (Shenzhen, China) and Jan Frederic Lammering (Germany)

Mengyu Xiao and Jan Frederic Lammering met in their first-year economic class and dated for almost two years before brreaking up in October 2016.

Mengyu is an international student from Shenzhen, China, who is studying business administration at the University of Goettingen in Germany. Jan is studying the same major at the same college as Mengyu, but he is a local student from a town 20 minutes from Goettingen.

At the beginning of their relationship, everything seemed fine. They studied, partied and traveled together to other cities in Europe.

"I would say having a romantic relationship with a person from different cultures/countries was not much different than a relationship with a person from the same country/culture," Jan said. "Except for the language, because even her German is pretty good among international students. We still have to communicate in English, which is neither my native language nor hers."

Mengyu had a different opinion about the barrier between them. Even now, she thinks the breakup was due to what she thought was Jan's immaturity.

"I think his thinking process is like this: 'You don't need to be my girlfriend to spend the whole day and night with me. However, you should behave like my girlfriend when you're with me, but I don't need to tell anyone else that I am not single anymore,'" she explained.

"If you truly love someone, you would definitely tell your close friends about her, " Mengyu said.

Jan tried to fix their relationship, but could never explain why he hid their relationship from some of his friends. They remain, as Mengyu said, "friends who really know each other but don't talk anymore."

Kristen Burke (Massachusetts, U.S.) and Juncheng Qian (Zhejiang, China)

Kristen Burke and Juncheng Qian had been dating for more than one-and-a-half years before they broke up six months ago.

Kristen is an American from Massachusetts who studies neuroscience and psychology at Boston University. Juncheng, also a BU student, is studying mechanical engineering and is originally from Zhejiang, China.

Neither of them was comfortable talking about the relationship.

"For me, the biggest difficulty in this relationship was to realize and accept the different concepts of love that we had formed during our lives before meeting each other," Juncheng said. "Validation and empowerment are very crucial in the American culture. And although these values are also important in my culture, we express them in very different ways."

When Kristen started going to the gym more, she saw it as self-empowering behavior, he said. But she still sought his validation. Thinking he was helping, "I gave her suggestions about doing weights other than cardio," he said. "That was what I understood my role as a boyfriend should do."

It was an epic fail.

"But I ended up wiping her tears because I failed to see that what she needed then was validation rather than constructive advice," he said.

Kristen's memories are similar to Juncheng's.

"It's hard for him to understand what I expected from him are his encouragement and support rather than his constructive advice. But it's so hard for me to let him completely get that, because the ways guys and girls think are so different," she explained.

"If I were able to rewind, there would be many things that I would've done differently," Juncheng concluded.

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