"She's the ying to my yang."
Meet Giada and Shan. We sat down with them one evening over a Zoom call.
Both were brought up in different countries before moving to the UK. Giada was born and raised in Italy. While Shan was born and raised in the Philippines.
They have been together for 5 years, having spent 2 years in long distance while Giada was living in Portugal.
Here's their story:
Love at first dance
Giada and Shan met on the dance floor while living in London. They first fell in love with the latin dance from the Dominican Republic called Bachata, through which they found each other.
S: [jokingly] "I was giving my best moves on the dance floor!
And through Giada’s eyes, the spotlight fell just on me, and everyone else was just a blur."
They spent their initial years of dating going to events together in the thriving underground latin dance scene in London. And even entered an amateur dance competition where they won 3rd place.
Through all this fun and excitement, they also began to notice how cultural differences play out in a serious multicultural relationship. Along with the joys of exchanging their two cultures.
G: ’For me its about sharing and part of communication... To understand why he is the person that he is right now.
Culture influences you in a positive and a negative way. There are certain things that I am right now because of the culture effect that my country had on me for 21 years, and I think the same for Shan.
So to understand what is culturally accepted and not accepted, means to understand the way they are right now."
Blending Italy and The Philippines
For Giada and Shan, it's been a gradual learning curve as they explored their partner's cultural background.
Before being with Shan, Giada didn’t know very much about The Philippines. But in gaining the exposure through Shan, she has nothing but glowing admiration for the warmth of Filipino people. She also notes how compared to Italy, they really are more collectivist in nature in contrast to some of the individualist tendencies of Italians.
G: "We grow up just thinking about our little plate, but they share and just do it so genuinely."
For Shan, he now recognises just how passionate the Italians are about their food! Of course he had this impression beforehand, but he hadn't really questioned why or where this passion stemmed from.
Being with Giada has meant he experiences the Italian passion firsthand - jokingly he refers to how this was apparent when learning how strict she could be about cooking pasta al dente. He smiles as he recalls a memory where he cooked pasta carbonara with a jar of cream sauce (to Giada's horror) instead of the traditional Italian recipe with eggs and cheese.
Shan now emulates Giada's passion for Italian cooking done right and finds himself the one now reacting to his parents 'No, this is not how you’re supposed to do it!'.
But did they expect the other to take part in their culture? Not necessarily. Shan gives the example that in the Filipino culture, if you have a talent, you are expected to show it off. Through karaoke, dancing, or doing a show. And even though Shan and Giada both love to dance, he wouldn’t expect her to participate in this performance tradition.
S: "So long as it's comfortable for the person, not something that should be imposed."
Plus not everyone will have the same comfort level when it comes to certain unconventional practices. For example in The Philippines, cock fights and a local delicacy called balut (duck embryo - yep, don't Google it) are part of the country's list of the tourist attractions. But Giada's reluctance to participate in these things does not bother Shan. She simply understands this is part of the culture and accepts this for what it is - and for Shan that is already enough.
One thing that truly surprised them along their relationship was how, despite language barriers, their families were able to blend. One of their fondest memories was when Shan brought his family over to Italy to spend Christmas with Giada and her family.
G: "It was supposed to be awkward but was actually very natural. Everyone has good memories."
Culture Clash in Communication
Today, Giada and Shan don't have clashing views that impact their relationship. Shan jokingly refers to Giada's allergy to apples, but also praises her advanced organisation skills, especially when it comes to travel planning.
But towards the beginning of their relationship, one of their biggest issues was Communication.
Over time they have both built more awareness of their natural communication styles. Which to an extent, are culture-bound.
For Giada, 'shouting' and 'passing judgement' were two culture-bound behaviours that she needed to pay attention to early in their relationship, in order not to alienate Shan.
For example if you see see someone on the street, it could be socially acceptable in some countries to criticise what they're wearing. Giada uses this an example to highlight what could be the case with an Italian person and how she might engage with another person from her country. But when challenged by Shan, Giada started questioning some of these social norms herself.
The rhetoric around 'not having to change yourself for the right partner' can ignore the fact that for many interracial and intercultural couples, you can't expect to grow in your relationship without change.
Rather, we should consider healthy change.
G: "I try not to shout as much because I know it annoys him and he’s not used to people shouting even though for me, it's normal.
We shout at home for no reason, its just the normal attitude that we have."
At this point, Shan chimes in to say he has now become used to the Italian norm of shouting now that he has visited Italy and spent time with more Italians and Giada's family. He respects it as a cultural communication style different to his own.
In contrast, Shan is more reserved about his feelings and emotions. His response to an argument would be to close off and stonewall himself. This made it frustrating for Giada in the beginning when she couldn't understand why they couldn't effectively settle conflicts. There are many theories on relationship communication styles, and cultural upbringing is one of the influencing factors. Shan's style was derived from seeing how his father responded to arguments while he was growing up. Along with the fact that the English and Asian culture he has been exposed to growing up value modesty in expressing emotions.
They managed to overcome this clash through better understanding of where these behaviours stem from. Shan admits to maturing through being with Giada, and both of them have done the work to adapt to each other.
G: “My way is not better than his way, they are both flawed its just about finding the middle ground where I avoid to shout and he avoids to run away”
In fact it's clear as we sat and spoke with them that Giada's fiery spirit balances Shan's calm and collected nature.
S: "She's the ying to my yang."
Standing up for her man
A common experience for many interracial couples is feeling watched on the street as being 'out of the norm'.
Giada and Shan have been stared at in public - mostly when they are visiting Giada's hometown in Italy or during their travels. Giada recalls that this happens in grocery stores and she has to stop herself from reacting angrily to these uncomfortable stares.
S: [jokingly] "They just think I'm beautiful"
G: [smiling]"Ah. That would be a different problem."
Due to these experiences, Giada has recently changed her mind about wanting to move back to Italy.
G: "It would be complicated to experience that every day...
In the long run it will make him feel uncomfortable due to how people behave, but also language. He would always be depending on me, and I don’t want that for him. I want him to have his own life."
She also considers how living in Italy could impact his job opportunities, as there are still strongly embedded stereotypes about Filipinos as home cleaners that she foresees as being a difficult one to shift.
In a world where discrimination is still an issue for ethnic minorities, having a partner that has your back should not be an underestimated quality.
Giada has stood up for Shan in the face of discrimination in the past. It only happened once while both of them were on holiday in Spain for a dance festival. While grabbing a quick bite to eat at a restaurant, a child from outside the shop window pulled a face at Shan. While Shan turned a blind eye, Giada stood up, went outside, shouting at the kid in her broken Spanish to tell him to come back and apologise.
Why does she feel compelled to defend Shan? Giada acknowledges she has never actually had to face racial discrimination in life (she references the difference between north and the south of Italy as the most similar thing she relate to). But her upbringing has played a part in making sure she calls out the wrongs in society.
G: "For me its not acceptable. My mom raised me in a different way, she would always stood up for things like that"
It is only recently that Shan has come to terms with the importance of speaking out against prejudice and discrimination. When he's in Italy or other countries with Giada, he doesn't notice the stares like his partner does. As he thinks about this, he wonders if he might have become accustomed to it from growing up in a small town in the UK. But he also notes that he feels like he doesn't have a place to focus and share his experiences because he has the perception that relative to his black friends, his struggles are not on the same level. So he'd stay silent. However, through recent chats with Giada and others, Shan's decided to become more vocal about racial and cultural issues - taking this interview as a conscious step in this intention.
To end of our interview, Giada and Shan shared their favourite thing about the other person:
G: "Shan manages to be always happy and caring with people, even when he is suffering himself... I admire this. If I'm mad, I’m mad with everyone!"
S: "Giada is so ahead of her time... [to Giada] You’re such an inspiration to me. She’s amazing."
📺 Currently watching: The Crown, Behind her eyes, This is Us!
✈️ Next travel plan: Another big Asia trip, then relocate to Portugal
🍦 Guess their favourite ice cream flavour: Shan’s is Pistachio, Giada’s is Fior di latte