The book ‘Loving an Alien’ opens the door into the private lives of around 25 multicultural couples, and asks the question ‘what is it like to love someone from a culture so different to yours that they are almost an alien?’ As a writer, a people watcher, a dissector of human interactions and motivations, this is a book that immediately speaks to me on these levels. I am the type of person who will sit and watch a couple on the street and invent an entire history for them, so being given permission to pry into strangers’ relationships has huge appeal. Incidentally, one of my favourite books of this ilk is ‘Other People’s Love Letters: 150 Letters You Were Never Meant to See,’ by Bill Shapiro.
The couples we meet are as diverse as the cultures from which they hail. Burundian and Romanian? Check. Ukrainian and Chilean? Check. Azerbaijani and Nigerian? Check! The book is set out as interviews (I wasn’t a fan of this style), with one person from the couple responding to questions about their relationship. As with people you meet in real life, there are stories and voices which you will respond to more and others less. Some stories will inspire recognition. For me, having lived as an expat in Denmark, the American and Danish couple and all the observations about Danes and Danish culture had me laughing out loud, as they mirrored my own experience. Other couples were from cultures so unknown to me that I could not help but want to know more.
As a people watcher, a voyeur, for the most part I enjoyed this read, this look behind closed doors. The main downside for me was the writing style. The interview style of the stories felt very rigid, the author had a set of questions and stuck to them, whether they were relevant or not. If this had been more flexible, or if people were asked to tell their stories of multiculturalism as a short essay, I feel it would have allowed the stories to unfold far more organically and in different directions–directions that the author perhaps did not think to query. Another oddity was that each interviewee was asked to provide a recipe at the end, though the relationship with food was often a difference between couples that came up. This felt random and unnecessary and the recipes were often unconnected to the stories in any way.
The target audience is perhaps those who have been in similar multicultural relationships, but I think it will feel very identifiable to anyone who has lived in another culture, regardless of experiencing a relationship there. As you read you will chuckle along thinking, ‘I’ve been there!’ When you become a global citizen, there are things you expect to be the same that surprise you when they are not, and those you expect to be completely alien to other cultures turn out to be almost universally the same. The things which turn out to be different or problematic are never those you anticipate. And this is what we see in the book. These couples have overcome all sorts of barriers in the pursuit of their international romance–distance, language, religion and culture–and yet, they still manage to be surprised by some odd quirk in their romantic partner!
As you might expect with any real human stories, the range of problems, successes and emotions covered is wide. From those disowned by family or who are struggling with their cross-cultural relationship even after a long time, to those who have learned to laugh at their differences or who have blended together so well as to invent something which is almost their own little culture.
Overall, this was a fun read, and I love the premise of the book. It could be taken even further, though. It would be interesting to see the other partner’s interpretation of the same events, or see if their feelings on the hardest/most interesting things they faced as a cross-cultural couple are the same (maybe that’s the follow up, giving away ideas here!).
As far as I could tell these were all male/female relationships, with the stories told from the female’s viewpoint. As well as adding a male perspective to balance out the views it would be interesting to add some more diverse couplings on the LGBTQ+ spectrum to see what obstacles have been the same and different.
If you’re interested in people, what makes them tick, what makes us the same and what makes us different, this is an easy and pleasant read.
Have you loved an ‘alien’? Do you have any funny stories to share about miscommunications or misunderstandings? Comment below.
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