Sam and Jessy got married in 2013. Sam is English, and Jessy is Chinese.
How long have you been together?
S: We have been together since October 2008 so... nearly 8 years.
J: China fought Japan for 8 years and succeeded. We're almost there.
How did you meet?
J: Tell the truth.
S: What is the truth?
J: You went to school with my cousin, you were dating her!
S: OK so when Jessy arrived in the UK for her A levels I was dating her cousin. I met Jessy the first week she was in Birmingham so she was still quite shy. The next time I saw her was at University.
How did your families react to your getting together?
J: Chuffed, over the moon, happy they will have a mixed grandchild! Also they think Sam is a lovely guy if he can put up with me.
S: My mum was just glad I had a girlfriend. I think they didn't really appreciate there's quite a difference until they went to China, for our wedding. My parents like to go to Scotland on holiday, the EU at most. China is quite different but they embraced it, I think they're quite welcoming of new things.
Have there been any cultural challenges?
J: I think small things like life-habits you picked up or food we eat, that's the stuff you have to get used to. The things that get difficult are more cultural, maybe political things. Like you are very keen on 50:50 equality but in China the husband gives their salary to their wives...
S: Hah! Nice try. You're right, there are things I imagine any two people will be challenged by. Those strange little things you do that make up you as a person are what takes getting used to, but they're not really cultural. I don't see China as totally alien, I can relate to it, like I could relate to a different family from the UK.
Some things are different and they get negotiated. Like some things Jessy dominates culturally, like food. We mostly cook and eat Chinese 'type' food and there are a few meals that we cook that I'd call British but well, a lot of what I'd call traditional British food Jessy doesn't like. So there's a compromise there and it sides with whoever has the most to lose. I like Chinese cooking so I don't have any problem with that. I suppose that's not exactly a challenge.
J: Wait what is British food?
S: Like shepherd's pie, toad in the hole, marmite.
J: But those are all awful!
S: Yeah! That's a silent negotiation to choose China over Britain, in that instance. Diplomacy.
J: I don't like lasagna either.
Jessie and Andrea got married in 2013. Jessie is from Maine, USA, and Andrea is from Sicily, Italy. Since taking part in the project, they have moved to the USA.
J: We were both studying in Finland. We met on a boat going from Finland to Russia.
A: We were studying in Finland but in two different cities. We happened to be in the same school trip to Russia. I was in Helsinki.
J: I was in Oulu.
A: 7/8 hours apart by train. So we met in the boat the first night - we talked for a bit. And then we had 4 days in Russia - we were all students so... at some point we saw again and started to talk again.
J: For me, I remember when I was going on this trip I was at a point in my life that I didn't want to get with any guy - I was in the man-hating stage. I'm not going to talk to anybody, I'm not going to do anything... So as soon as I decided this, and as soon as I saw Andrea I was like: Oh my God he's so hot, oh he's SO HOT. But I'm not going to talk to him... nothing's going to happen, and... he asked me to dance. The first night. And I said no because I was a strong independent woman... and then he left, and then the next morning we were all in a line queueing up for tickets or something, and I went up to Andrea and was like "Do you remember me?"
A: She regretted the second she said no.
J: Things moved pretty fast you know, there was a lot of drinking involved... I totally broke my strong independent woman thing!
A: We didn't exchange phone numbers. On the way back, I told her "Oh I'm going next week to Tallinn, what are you doing?"
J: Oh I'm going to Tallinn too! But not next week, I'm going in 10 days… In fact it was the same trip.
A: And then one week after we were on the same boat again going to Tallinn this time. And we didn't know we’d see each other. A friend of mine said, “Jessie's here" - I was like "What? Not possible." And she was there. So we met again. Then we got back [to Finland]. She came to visit me in Helsinki, then after that I went there to Oulu. We started to travel back and forth for a bit. And then after a semester, we went on a Europe trip together.
J: So after studying abroad my plan was to go on a Europe trip, even by myself. And then I was like why don't you come with me? So we went to Greece, Portugal, Italy. Our last trip was London.
A: And then she went back to the states and I booked a flight after to go see her, and I spent like the whole summer there. On a tourist visa you can't do anything, just stay for three months following her around. Then back to Italy, two months apart, then back to states, then she came to Italy to do her internship, because I found her an internship to do in my city. So she would spend three months there doing the internship. And then after that she went back.
J: I was still studying - I had four more months left of university. So Andrea surprised me. Like he flew from Italy to my university [in America]. He told me he was going on this camping trip so he wouldn't be able to talk to me for a couple of days. And I was like okay whatever. Then he called me at midnight. My window was open. He was like “What are you doing?” I could hear him outside, I was like “[screams]”!
A: We met in March 2011 and we got married January 2013. After almost 2 years we got married because we were sick of going back and forth. Also because when I went there, I couldn't work. When she came to Italy she couldn't work. So basically one of us couldn't work for half of the year. We got married in Sicily. We stayed in Sicily for 9 months.
J: It was after I graduated that I went to live with Andrea's family. I just moved there temporarily, because I could only stay for 3 months, so we were like at the end of like 2 months… what are we going to do? Because I'd graduated, he had a job, y'know, where's our future? So we decided we either get married and cross our fingers that everything goes well or we don't because otherwise it's just going back and forth... so we crossed our fingers and got married!
A: After a bit she was sick of being in Sicily. Sick of not understanding people speaking Sicilian. She was working as an English teacher so we both had jobs, but she wasn’t doing what she liked.
J: It was very hard.
A: So we tried to look for a place that was English-speaking so she could find like a proper job, one that she liked. And then I think I wanted to come to England because it was closer to Italy.
J: I had been travelling a lot and kinda just wanted to be in the states.
A: I also applied for the green card at the time because we weren't sure - is it England or the states? Wherever we find a job first, and I got a job in England first, in London. So we moved here - it was also much easier because in the states I had to wait for a visa, I would have to move there and stay five months doing nothing. And in England since me being European, it was much easier.
J: For me, living in Sicily was really really hard. Like I had this idea before like Oh yeah I'm moving to Italy it's going to be amazing, I'm going to eat lots of good food, everyone's going to be so amazing. I didn't realise that people wouldn't speak any English. None. So we lived with his father, no English. I really think the big thing is the language.
A: Language is less of an issue [in America]. In the beginning maybe. It was like when we were with your friends and there were too many people talking to each other, and at some point I would just stop listening. I would just go outside or in the corner and relax a bit because there were too many people talking. But it's more like - I'm a city boy, I grew up in the city. So for me like living in London is the best. But she, like... yeah, that's our main difference.
J: Main topic of our fights.
A: Oh yeah. She wants to live outside of London, I want to live in London. So that's gonna be like... not one of us is going to back up on this. We may have to find something like zone 5 or 6... but still call it London just because there is a tube but basically it's not London. So that's one of the main things...But also my family is different.
J: My mum like, 16 or 18, she was like "Go on! Get out of the house," and that's what we do in America usually.
A: My dad still calls me and makes sure if I'm okay. If I want to go back home, I could just go now.
J: They'd welcome him, and me too.
A: And sometimes I just don't understand the way it works there [in America]. For me it feels like they don't really care about family, but in reality they do, but in their own way. Like your brother. My sisters - I hear from them at least once a week. She doesn't hear from her brother for months.
A: For me that's strange because... I don't know, like something is wrong. But it's just his way.
J: I think we're [my family] a bit different, like, that's not normal, me and my brother.
A: I get there [Italy] and the first two days everyone wants to see me, and it's like rushing here and there. And instead of being like a vacation, it's like... duties.
J: Pass Andrea around.
A: Yeah! And after two days I want to leave right away. But then if you stay longer, like 2 or 3 days when everyone has seen me, then everything is fine. After 2 or 3 months I miss the food, because you cannot find some things here even if you try to buy the same ingredients and make the same things. It's not going to come out the same way. She [Jessie] didn't even know how to cook pasta before we met. She still doesn't do it the right way...
J: Babe I do!
A: Do you wait for the water to boil before you put the pasta in?
J: Does it taste the way it's supposed to? This is the question.
A: Do you wait for the water to boil? She would overcook the pasta, like frothy - you would eat it and it would just melt. It would be like a soup. Like overcooked for hours.
A: With kids we're going to have some cultural differences as well. I'm really protective, like if something is dangerous, I don't want them to do it. They are like - if they get hurt, next time they're not going to do it.
J: Builds up your immune system! Like - go climb the tree! You've never climbed a tree in your life, that's the problem.
A: I did!
J: That wasn't climbing a tree! That was to take pictures! Obviously I grew up with my family being like do whatever you want, take care of yourself. I don't think I'm going to be like that, I think I'm going to be more protective, for sure. Andrea, especially if we have a girl, he's going to be like "Who's that guy?"
A: No dating until you're 18!
J: So the daughter is going to love me!
A: I'm not going to be like that, but close to that. If she [Jessie] doesn't learn properly [Italian], then I'm going to have secrets with my kids.
J: He also has Sicilian, and Sicilian is completely different from Italian. Not completely but...it's much different.
A: Imagine if you have your kids and you don't know what you're explaining with your dad! Even if we're planning a surprise party for you we could just plan it in front of you!
J: Even if he talks to his dad in Sicilian - his wife is Romanian. She speaks Italian perfectly, but she doesn't understand Sicilian. So I'm screwed either way!
A: Eventually she'll learn as well.
Ben is from Wales, and Rose is from the USA. They met in Cambridge in the UK, where they now live.
R: I'm from Tucson in Arizona, quite near the border with Mexico. When you talk about cultural identity I think that that's something that people wouldn't immediately think of when you think of American and British. Where I grew up has such a strong Mexican influence - especially food-wise! When we go back we have to go get Mexican food. At school you could do folklorico. Most people take Spanish at school like a lot of people here take French or German.
B: Especially in that part of the states it's a very visible language. You would hear people talking Spanish all the time. Like Rose's cousin was saying the other day, if you look vaguely Spanish people will just talk Spanish at you.
R: People immediately think of the desert, and that's accurate. The city is like any other big American city. The whole city is made up of lined streets, because it's a city that came after cars. And after air conditioning!
B: The state of Arizona came after cars! It was only made a state in 1911 was it?
R: Yeah, 1911 on Valentine's Day or something.
B: We met at the end of our third year [of university]. I did gigs in my last week with Orphans of the Beefy Incident [Ben’s band]. The last one we played was in the Graduate Union which was a graduate ball for Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin students and that was the end of Rose's Master's year at Anglia Ruskin so that was why she was there.
R: I'd done a study abroad year in Norwich at UEA and then I'd done a little bit of time just living in Norwich and then came back for a Master's and was living in Cambridge then, but we were both about to go to the states. You [Ben] were about to go to the states for the first time because you went to Brown [University].
B: It was very fortunate because I met Rose over that summer and I was in Cambridge for the July, I was doing some indexing for someone in the ASNAC [Anglo-Saxon Norse and Celtic] department so I had a lot of time to just hang out with Rose. And then we kind of assumed it wouldn't carry on because I was going to Brown, she was going to Arizona, which is quite far away - a plane ride away! About two and a half hours. It's like opposite ends of the states. But during that year we had enough opportunities to see each other at various events. Rose went to a conference in Orlando at one point so I flew down to meet her there and had a holiday while she was at the conference.
R: There was a point where we were like we really wish we could have a 'normal' [relationship]. Because long distance was hard but what was harder was that we didn't know if we would survive being like this - like in a house together.
B: Kitchen couple!
R: Kitchen couple! Because so much of our relationship up to that point was holiday. Because we were on holiday perpetually. We had no idea how that would be as - as real life! And then we were long distance when I was in Chichester to start with. So that was something we struggled with. But at least then we could drive to each other, and trains make life easier - something you don't really have in the states.
R: I was quite inspired by Ben doing his PhD - I just really liked the idea and I started looking into how could I do a PhD as well. I looked into the states as well but basically for what I study [Folklore and Fairytale] I'm looking at European texts. It makes more sense to be over here. But also the folklore programme in the states tends to be a bit more indigenous and it tends to focus on folk art, I would say. So most of my best options were here, there's like 4 or 5 schools I could go to here with people who could supervise me. I did fast-track my application, I would say, knowing that Ben was going to be here. Because I was going to wait one more year and save up a bit more money but I think I just decided - we had a conversation where it's like we are going to last better if it happens earlier. It was an emotional conversation, but it was something that we both came down to - at least I could try, and then I did get accepted to Chichester so it didn't make sense to wait.
B: I'm currently working on a project in the ASNAC department that they got funding for last November. I've been working on that since Christmas. In October I've got a Junior Research Fellowship in Robinson [College, Cambridge] starting. There are all kinds of weird ways that they [ASNAC and Folkore & Fairytale] cross over. Recently Rose was at a conference in Luton on Cinderella and she was in the same panel as an ASNAC PhD who reckons he's found a version of Cinderella in an old Norse saga.
R: Welsh food was something I had to learn about! Because we do St. David's Day celebration, so that's really nice. I mean... it's mostly lamb and leeks.
R: Tuscon's in the Senoran Desert and a Senoran hot dog is a hot dog covered in bacon with refried beans, usually a fried chilli pepper on the side, cheese, lettuce - you ate one, I haven't had one in years. The other thing that would be different from other couples is the Jewish side. I'm Jewish - I'm not practising - so we tend to celebrate some of the holidays. It's a cultural Judaism. Some people call it a bagel Judaism. It's less prevalent in our daily life. I'd been to Israel and that was kind of the only international travel I'd done, and I just got it in my head one day - I thought "I want to go to England." I told my parents, I said "I'm going to go for a semester" and they said "No you should go for a whole year." Because they said "We think you won't get the full experience." They were right, I think. The people who went for a semester just didn't - I don't think learn as much about daily life in England. They had that whirlwind thing where they spent all their weekends travelling.
B: It's more like a holiday then.
R: I actually met someone else when I lived in England the first time and I came back. Basically I used the Master's programme to come back to be with that person, and I wasn't that serious about doing the Master's. And I know that sounds like then there was that repeat with the PhD but it was so different because we broke up in the middle of my Master's and I was stuck in England and I had no idea. I totally threw myself into my Master's programme and started to really enjoy this research-based side of it and started to produce some of the best work that I'd ever produced and realised that was something I wanted to be doing. And when Ben was doing his work, and obviously he's really passionate about the ASNAC stuff that he does - it was just quite inspirational to say "You can do that!" You don't have to just then go into the workforce, you can find something that you're passionate about and study it. And I think that suited me better.
Lara is Italian-South-African and grew up in London and Italy. Clayton is Australian, grew up in Sydney, and moved to the UK. They met on Tinder. Since taking part in this project, they have gotten engaged and now live in Australia.
C: I remember your picture, there was a temple, you were sitting somewhere drinking a smoothie or something. Just looked like a lot of fun, smiling in every picture - a lot of enthusiasm for life.
L: I saw Clayton and I was like - he's hot! And his little blurb was actually quite funny. It was like: "Looking for love. Or a visa. Whichever comes first." A few days passed and… I messaged him "How's the visa situation?" Then we just started chatting.
C: At the time I was looking for a job. She asked me what I was doing. So I was telling her about it, and she said “Oh send me your CV, I'll send it to someone.” So I was like “Oh a Tinder recruiter!” So I sent her my CV, and... [laughs]... it was really weird courting.
L: He sent me an email: "Thank you my Tinder recruiter." Then he messaged me like "Maybe you shouldn't just forward that email."
C: I work in a start-up now. I moved here working for British American Tobacco and they gave me a visa. I couldn't stay with them, so I quit, went back to Australia, got a visa. [Then] I accepted this job with a packaging company. And it was originally meant to be for 6 months, and then they asked if it would be extended for 9. But I wasn't doing what I wanted. So I was like I'm just going to pull the rip-cord and that'll force me to work a bit harder. We met on the week before my last day or something like that?
L: [joking] Unemployed! An immigrant! I think we both definitely have the same curiosity and desire to travel. He's the same. He'll go wherever he can. I couldn't end up with someone who just wanted to stay in one place. He is far more flexible than I am.
C: I think Lara has more specific requirements whereas I'm pretty good at finding something to enjoy no matter where.
L: Whilst I have certain things I need for my happiness which includes the proximity of friends or family, he's just fine with whatever. The culture in general, like if it's super super different for me that has an impact.
C: Whereas I like the difference.
L: That's good because I can say I like this, this, this. And he'll be like yeah fine!
C: I can adapt very easily.
L: It's a good quality.
C: I don't know. Some people don't think it is. Some people think you need to have a plan. And I'm... well, I kind of like options. If you tell me that I can only do one or two things, I begin to get a bit panicked. Whereas if - I don't know - Lara just comes to the table, I'm like these sound alright, you pick. That's fine, I'll enjoy it.
L: The cut-off moment, let's say, with the whole visa thing is getting closer. And so he's obviously been looking for jobs. And since Brexit it's just...
C: I'm currently on a 2-year visa that any Australian under 31 can get. But because post that it requires sponsorship, and it's actually way more expensive than I realised - you've got the raw cost of the visa plus the time taken to advertise for the role to get someone internally to process it, HR, lawyers - it stacks up quite a bit. I monitor jobs online, and even just the numbers, you can tell they've really dropped. Normally Brand Republic I'd get about 60 recommendations a day, now it's dropped around the mid-30s.
L: Now literally as soon as he mentions visa it's… 1 in 4 companies have frozen recruitment. I think even if you're not an immigrant - even if you don't need a visa, it's tougher in general. So many of my friends - EU people - have said thank God I found a job just before Brexit because I think it would be much much harder now. Add the whole visa conundrum and it's just... urgh.
C: [I have] 7 months left [on the visa]. But when you take into account that I leave for a month in November - I'm actually trying to apply for a different sort of visa, bit of a long shot but I'm going to give it a go - so I'm gone for a month, and December nothing will happen, January nothing happens. And even now, one of the busiest times of the year in recruitment - I'd be pulling a rabbit out of a hat if I make it happen. Stranger things have - on the last week I've decided I'm going to give PR a go. That's my mindset to a lot of stuff. Oh yeah no, I could do that!
L: A week ago he calls me telling me he's going to be an actor in New York.
C: I am a bit all over the place!
L: Instead of becoming the apocalypse, which it was in both of our minds in the last 10 months, we're now actually excited about the next steps. We've literally looked at a map of the world and been like where can we go? I like the look of this, I like the look of that, but then you look more into the job situations…
C: Anywhere I go in Europe is going to invite the same - if anything it will be worse because I can only get a maximum of a year.
L: Places where it's easier I'm not super keen on like Amsterdam. So we've literally been like where can we make a decent amount of money, learn something new. So we've been looking at Dubai - oh we can't legally live together. Okay. Singapore? Yeah could be interesting. Where else did we look at? South Africa - because of my heritage, my connections.
C: Just an awesome place! Quite similar to Aussie culture.
L: We got quite excited about that for a few days until...
C: Then we saw a job profile that was £10k a year.
L: And suddenly the Australia option comes up on the table. He always said he didn't want to go back, but if it's an intermediary step, so, somewhere to go for 1 or max. 2 years before we make a decision of where to go, or whether to go to Europe, but where we can get a decent job, earn some decent money, acquire some good skills, and also live in a nice country where you have a good quality of life. Australia became very appealing if you have it as more of a temporary thing to then go to a longer term project...
C: Australia's very isolated from everything. You've got Sydney which is a beautiful city but in London you talk about going to Spain for the weekend, going to Paris for the weekend. You don't do that. You don't go to NZ for the weekend, you don't go to SE Asia for the weekend. So you're exposed to a lot less. Whilst the people are pretty cool and chilled out, there's definitely an island mentality that comes from a lack of exposure to other things. It's also a different lifestyle. In London you can go any day to the markets, or go to a show, or there's a restaurant here and there... In Sydney - it's got bustle, but it's a lot narrower in terms of the repertoire. And I like options. And also, I didn't live in Sydney for quite a few years before I moved to London. The people kinda made the place for me, outside of the lifestyle, whereas a lot of my friends have got married, had kids, moved away. So if I go back it's kinda weird starting in a place I know a certain way and it's not going to be. Don't get me wrong if I do get deported or something, there are far worse places to go. As Lara's never been it'd be pretty cool to show her where I grew up. There's some pretty fucking awesome trips you can do, a year would go really quick. But yeah, in terms of going back there and staying there - it's kind of... in a lot of ways the opposite of what I want.
L: Unfortunately we're not in your typical situation. We want to stay together. We're forced to either get married or move somewhere else. So... we have a slightly different array of options to most couples. At the end of the day we just want to work. And be with someone.
C: Work and pay taxes. Which is a pretty...shit set of needs. It's complicated, but you get angry with it and it's not going to change anything.
Miika is half-Finnish, half-British, and has lived in the UK from the age of 9. Mehriban is from Azerbaijan but lived in Turkey for 6 years.
Mehri: I just graduated from university in Istanbul and I was waiting for my work visa for Ford.
Miika: I had just left my job as I was bored working in an office and decided to travel to Australia without flying.
Mehri: At the end of May 2011 [while in Istanbul] I received a couch-surfing request from a guy called Miika. I thought “Oh what an interesting nickname, I wonder what his real name is.” My childhood nickname had always been Meka. I was a bit bored waiting for my work visa so I had some spare time and I decided it would be nice to host him.
Miika: So I was 4 weeks into my travels and I had already tried couch-surfing in Thessaloniki [Greece]. As it was fun, I thought I would try couch-surfing in Istanbul. I wrote to two people; one of them didn’t bother replying.
Mehri: I remember reading Miika’s first message and it made me feel like he actually took some time to read my profile so I wanted to host him, but my flatmate was busy. I declined his request and suggested we meet for a cup of coffee instead.
Miika: I was a bit disappointed, but I found a cheap hostel and thought it would still be fun. After all I was there only to get my Iranian visa and I had been to Istanbul before so I wasn’t interested in tourist sites.
Mehri: I remember waiting for him at Taksim square and he was late.
Miika: Yes, I was late. I spent all night on the train so I needed a bit of a nap. I woke up all sleepy, kept pressing snooze and I didn’t have a clue where I was going.
Mehri: I was waiting and thinking “Why did I agree to meet him? He is late and he is probably another weird guy from couch-surfing.” Sometimes you meet with people from couch-surfing and you instantly click but sometimes they can be annoying.
Miika: I was shy like I always am. She tried to kiss me.
Mehri: In Turkey people actually always kiss on both cheeks when they meet each other. I do not like kissing people when meeting them for the first time but some people think that I am too cold. So this time I thought I will try to be warm.
Miika: I am a Finn and we are known to be cold.
Mehri: OK, I got it wrong!
Miika: We spent the next few days together in Istanbul. Mehri made me try Turkish coffee for the first time and I wasn’t impressed.
Mehri: I remember how time flew so fast when we were together.
Miika: We didn’t really talk about it but I just decided to stay 2 days longer than I intended to. On the last morning I left and all I remember was a silent ferry journey across the Bosphorus [a Turkish strait].
Mehri: We said our goodbyes at the train station with a kiss. It was our first kiss.
Miika: I got on the train and sat there silently thinking things over. This was the start of my next month sitting in dingy internet cafes in Central Asia [Iran, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan].
Mehri: I was upset that he left. All I remember was thinking that he is so silly to go on that trip. I wish he stayed but he promised to come back one day.
Miika: A month later I decided that I was fed up of poor internet connections and watching the locals playing computer games at internet cafes continuously and out of the blue I booked a flight back to Istanbul from Kyrgyzstan. We had spent hours after hours chatting away on Skype. The flight I booked was due to depart in 15 hours and I was still 12 hours away from the airport by taxi.
Mehri: I was really surprised.
Miika: Then we spent the next 3 months together in Istanbul.
Mehri: We were both unemployed and it was the happiest time of our lives. I call it ‘chocolate and flower stage.’
Miika: Probably explains why our first date was to the supermarket for tomatoes.
Mehri: I was trying to impress you with my cooking skills. In Russian there is a saying, “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”
Miika: Unfortunately in the end I started to run out of money. So in October I moved back to England and started my new job.
Mehri: I went back to Baku [Azerbaijan] because I had some work visa complications. In December we both flew to St Petersburg [Russia] and Miika proposed to me. He tried really hard to buy me a ring even though he couldn’t afford it. He secretly bought a red rose and a bottle of champagne from England. It was New Year’s Eve and we were watching fireworks by Neva River. This all happened so quickly just 7 months after we met but it felt right.
Miika: It was back to online chatting at this point. Thankfully I was in the comfort of my own home this time but I was still rather poor so I remember spending hours preparing fiancé visa application documents sitting on the floor.
Mehri: I finally arrived to the UK in March.
Miika: I was waiting for her flight and watched her plane land at the end of the runway.
Mehri: We got married in Brighton 3 months later in a small family ceremony. That was 4 ½ years ago and they have been the best years of my life.
Miika: I wouldn’t say we’ve had any major differences of opinion. However, it was difficult for me to understand how little countryside time Mehri has had in her life. Who doesn’t know how to ride a bike or wear walking boots?
Mehri: I lived right in the city centre of Baku.
Miika: I lived next to a forest in Finland as a child.
Mehri: I had nowhere to ride a bike in the centre of Baku and my family didn’t take me to the countryside. Now we have compromised by living in Richmond. It is close to London and has big green parks everywhere.
Miika: I have always enjoyed experiencing different cultures. It is one of the reasons I have travelled so much. I can’t really say that I have any strong cultural identity as I moved countries when I was young and I get along with pretty much everyone but I am always a bit shy at first.
Mehri: I am not a very traditional Azeri person either. I spent a year in America as a teenager and went to university in Istanbul. As a child I had a lot of Russian influence. I never really culturally belonged anywhere either. That is probably why we get along so well.
Miika: My parents weren’t surprised [when we got together] as my dad is British and my mum is Finnish. They went through this long distance relationship malarkey 25 years ago before Finland was in the EU.
Mehri: My mum didn’t care where Miika is from as long as he is a nice person and we get along well. We already have an international couple in my family. I think I am quite lucky in that sense as there are many families in Azerbaijan who wouldn’t approve a foreign husband. I think the best thing about being with each other is that we like different things and that is the way we complement each other. I like going to museums and theatre and Miika likes outdoors. He actually made me enjoy camping and long walks in the countryside with Pepper.
Miika: She made me realise that cities have enjoyable sights too and it’s not all about greenery. Before we met I had never been to theatre, but now I enjoy it. But I still don’t understand museums.
Mehri: Miika almost fainted in Hermitage in St Petersburg after 4 hours looking at Monet and Matisse.
Miika: Who? [Wink] She loves cooking and she makes amazing food. I think I am spoiled but don’t tell her that!
Mehri: Miika also started drinking tea without milk with my mum’s fruit preserves on the side - the real Azeri way. Another good thing about being with each other is that hopefully when we have kids they will be multilingual. I will teach them Azeri and Russian.
Miika: I will try to teach them Finnish.
Mehri: They have to speak French as well so that they can teach me [laughs].
Mingxi is from Henan province in China and Harpal is from Ambala in India. They met in London when they were both studying at UCL. Harpal is Sikh and Mingxi is Atheist.
H: I moved here [UK] around 2007.
M: I came here for my Bachelor's degree October 2007. When I came to London for my Master's degree in UCL, that's where we met. We were in the same class but we didn't really know each other until this group project. We were allocated into one project team and spent two weeks doing the project together. That's probably the starting point when we started knowing each other and interacting with each other.
H: It was pretty quick actually. I think in short we were interacting with each other after that class, and generally I have lots of friends, she has lots of friends, so we'd go out, so we just went out one or two times and it was pretty clear there was something there.
M: Everything started from chatting I would say. We'd chat quite a lot, first few times we went out and then came back, texted every day, and started speaking to each other, understanding each other a lot more.
H: That's how it starts. [laughs] If a girl and a boy are chatting too much, texting each other too much, that's a good sign!
M: I remember the end of the project we had this gathering and everyone was in that room and started asking about your beard, your turban, everything about religion. I was interested. I have my grandma who's Christian, and one of my aunties is a Christian as well - they're always trying to convert me. And my mum is Buddhist. I'm interested in religion, but I've never been into a specific one, so I asked him about his religion and he told me the stories. We don't have a problem with religion. Probably because of his storytelling abilities, I'm just kind of fascinated by the religion he's in.
H: I tell the truth, which is a good story! [laughs] It has never been a problem and I hope it won't be simply because it's an open religion. We are taught to treat other people as humans and people first rather than as a religious people. And I have no intention to convert anyone around me to my religion or anything. I think for me it's a set of values that we live, and it's a set of values that draw people in. I mean, I'm not the best representation of what a Sikh should be like. [laughs] So there are many many people better than me who are living the life in a much more sincere and purist way. It's more around three things. One is you remember God, second is you share with everyone, now it could be sharing love, sharing food, sharing with the needy. Then third is do good deeds, and that's all. It's like any other human values basically. So there's nothing sort of specially religious like you should behave this way, do this, do that, worship a stone. None of that.
H: When I'm pretty serious about something I sort of dive straight in. I think one good thing which was an instinctive decision that we made: very early in our relationship, I'm talking about a few months in, we are not even sure, and Mingxi like any other obedient Chinese child tells her parents straightaway about us. So what we do as a result - because obviously they are freaked out when you have no idea who that person is - we went straight to China to meet the parents. Spent two and a half weeks with them.
M: That's actually probably one of the craziest things I've ever done in my life. I never thought about consequences at that time. [laughs] I told them, I'm chatting with this guy in the classroom from UCL and we're doing the same class, and I'm going to bring him to meet you guys and see how it will go. I can't exactly remember the exact sentence, whether I specifically said you are my boyfriend, but...
H: It was pretty clear! I mean, bringing a boy from 9,000 miles away... [laughs]
M: At that time because my younger brother was studying in Shanghai and my mum was there to take care of him, they didn't allow us to go to hometown straightaway. We landed in Shanghai and I took him to have a tour to Beijing as well, just those two cities.
H: One of the most fun trips in China, like really good!
M: It was a crazy time, I have to say, for a person like me, thinking back, that was quite a bold step. Basically my whole family - everyone comes in and talks to me like: Are you sure? What is going on? Such a guy? And they can't even talk to him because of the language barrier.
Mingxi's family speaks no English.
M: That's quite a challenging time but when you're in love, you don't really think that much about reality. So for the next two years my mum just constantly nudged my friends around me, no matter where they are, as long as they know I'm in this relationship, mum actually called them, went to meet them. My dad gradually tried to understand. He's always trying to understand it from my point of view, trying to understand him [Harpal] through me, and I really appreciate that. But my mum is a lot lot harder. You know Chinese people have this impression of Indian people: they all have very low status for women, they are all about their status and men as the main character in the family, and that type of thing. All these stories are accumulated in their heads without understanding this person.
H: It's like super strong stereotyping.
M: Very strong. And even until now it's still quite strong. Because I see first of all of course all this media portrayal of other cultures, and the other one is of course Chinese parents are all about status, their social circles, so first of all their reactions are: Oh my goodness what's going to happen, how are other people going to think about me? Daughter marrying such a guy... For two, three years I would say, I kept it low. I didn't really share stories with my mum and dad. My mum even thought we were not really together anymore. And my dad on the side I'm trying to talk to him a little bit more, smaller stories. He's trying, really trying to understand me. So that helps quite a lot. That was probably the hardest time I would say.
H: Yeah for her unfortunately. I did speak to them through body language and through her brother and many other ways, tried everything. But she's [Mingxi's mum] a strong personality, I would say, like me. So when two strong personalities meet you don't really give up easily. She wanted to be proven right all the time. She wanted a Chinese person. But her dad understood from the very beginning that it's about the person. It's all good. It was never so worse that they would say get out. I think one thing we did was we gave our relationship time. We could have married two years in, but we didn't. We wanted to be sure ourselves. We wanted to be sure for our parents.
M: But more importantly I think was for me. He [Harpal] knows what he wants quite clearly. Probably because of how he's grown up. For a kid like me, I have been always that goody kid in the parents' eyes, study alright so they don't have to worry, they make all the decisions for me. For me there was more uncertainty in this relationship. Especially because of the pressure from my parents, even my best friends. To start with they didn't understand. They were not really always on my side.
H: I think that was a little bit disheartening for me. That close friends - Mingxi's close friends - were not trying to talk to me to understand but trying to tell her don't be with me.
M: They just said: are you really sure? That type of question.
H: The funny thing is that some of my friends joked as well, the guys were like yeah you can hang out with her but don't get married. I think this is the thing, because it is so rare and unusual to have a relationship like ours, the first thing in anyone's mind whether it's friends or family is it must not be serious. They don't jump straight into the love aspect, they jump into they must be hanging around just a boy and a girl and it will be over before you know it. So everyone I would say expected us to part ways in a few years' time. And it only got stronger, I would say. Maybe because of that! [laughs]
M: I think time really tells. That's probably one aspect my parents finally realised - we'd been together before marriage six and a half years. So my mum really saw the changes in me the last few years, started working, started becoming more independent, becoming more outgoing rather than a really shy personality. So they do see a lot of changes in me, and they do think that's actually the positive side this person brings to my life. So that gradually built up their confidence. I'm trying to bring him into the family a little bit more, see whether they can actually from lifestyle and habits understand this person a little bit more, rather than just thinking about looks and culture.
H: And it was a good thing that I like China! [laughs] So I went there every time, travelled around, every time a new city, a new place.
M: That definitely helps.
H: We went to India two, three years ago. There was no problem from my family's side. Basically that's the short version. I've been very independent from the very beginning. I didn't really tell them that I'm dating a girl.
M: He kept saying there won't be any problems, it's my own decision. But during that period of time I felt quite insecure. I thought okay only your brother and sister know of my existence and your parents are still looking for girls for you, preparing his profile to get him married. So that was actually quite a hard time for me.
H: The reasoning for that was that we weren't 100% sure what was happening. There were lots of uncertainties. And I wanted to make sure that she [Mingxi] was 100% in. My parents are pretty straightforward, when we went there we sat in the room together with the rest of my family, my brother and sister are there, and said okay next 10 minutes you're going to listen to me I have to tell you about a girl. And their ears popped up! [laughs] And they listened and said okay, sounds great.
M: His family environment, I quite like it - everyone's kind of close but still keep boundaries. It's not like my parents, they just want to overlook every aspect of my life, try to give you advice, try to safeguard every aspect of your life. That's kind of overwhelming after you've been more independent.
H: I will say it's also unusual for an Indian family as well to come back with a response like that. I think it's primarily because of my dad. He has been a businessman all his life, entrepreneur, well-travelled man, has seen the world, very open-minded. He instilled those values in us. It's truly diverse. When we talk about this stuff in the family, we look at facts. And the fact is that your own culture is not an indicator that your marriage will be successful, and that's a very big thing. You look at the divorce rate [in China], similarly in India. In India the divorce rate is very low because people commit for their entire life and the problem is that whether they are suffering in the relationship, they wouldn't leave. In my family we have all seen this whether it's relatives, whether it's friends, it's very common. In Hinduism they go through lots of matching stuff: the stars should match, the dates should match, whatever whatever. And still people fail in their relationships. So I think I've been very lucky just because of my family.
M: Life with you - honestly speaking before and after there were a lot of changes. I basically started recognising myself more, knowing myself more, all different abilities and potentials because of this relationship. That probably is surprising if I think back, thinking of the person I was before I met you, really quiet, always in the corner, didn't really speak much.
H: Now you don't stop! [laughs] The thing I am surprised by is how - thankfully, touch wood - we don't have any fights, any problems, and how smooth it has been. And especially given the fact that I'm a very strong personality. I'm very surprised at how adaptive Mingxi is, that she understands me and accepts me, and I love her, absolutely love her for that. We don't discuss about kids, we don't discuss too much about family because that's all fine, but we do discuss about us, what our life is, how do we want to change it, improve it, adapt it, because the answer is not always clear to everyone. And it's always changing as you're learning new things. I for sure do not take Mingxi for granted. I have a lot of appreciation for Mingxi that she - given her nature, given who she was - that she took the bold step to be with a person like me and we're still together. So the more credit goes to her than to me. For me it was really easy. Oh I like this girl she's amazing, yes no problem with the family, no problem! But she had to go through all of that. So I never lose sight of that. I really really appreciate that.
Rongrong and Gareth met while working for the same company; Rongrong worked in the Beijing office, and Gareth worked in London. They got married in 2013. Rongrong is from China, and Gareth is from the UK. Since taking part in the project, the couple have welcomed a baby girl into their family.
G: I remember the first time we went for dinner - it was with your manager at the time [in China.] It was in a courtyard and it flooded, and there was a power-cut so they had to come round with candles.
R: In the Beijing office it's forbidden to have an office romance. You're not supposed to have a relationship with anyone in the company. A lot of Chinese companies do that. Also he's English and white and I didn't want people to feel that I'm going out with him with some… purpose. Some people in Beijing would judge you…
G: It's the preconceptions of wealth and different kinds of opportunities.
R: Like taking advantage of dating someone from America or UK. 'Better' countries.
They had their first 'date' alone about half a year later and then in 2011, they went to Hong Kong on a 'secret' holiday. Rongrong could only be in Hong Kong for 7 days - Chinese mainlanders have to apply for a HongKong-Macaulaissez-passer, and that allows them to go to Hong Kong for up to 7 days as a general tourist. Gareth could enter freely on his British passport.
G: There was no plan. It was just about spending time with each other away from prying eyes, somewhere where we'd both never been.
R: Hong Kong is a good place for people like us - combined culture for English and Chinese. After we went to Hong Kong, I decided I needed to leave the company. My manager in the company was very unhappy with it and because I was going to a competitor and because he [Gareth] was still working in the company, it was even more complicated so we had to keep it secret. We didn't talk about work at all, but if people knew about the relationship, they would think we did. Although people sort of sensed it. My new boss was asking me, "Your English is...quite good. And quite native. That's really strange because you've never studied overseas..."
Until they got engaged, only their family knew about their relationship.
G: I think there was less risk then... it's serious, and that's more important than work. So if people have got a problem at work, then just leave work. We'd done about two years of just seeing each other for a couple of weeks at a time. Most of the time it was 4 month gaps between time together and that was okay for a while. There was one time when we didn't see each for about 7 months. We got to 4 months, and there were another 3 months to go... I think at that point we realised we had to be quite decisive.
R: Every time I got back to China from the UK, or he got back to the UK from China, it was awful - just a really bad time. We thought we can't stand this kind of life anymore.
G: We didn't talk about it [getting married] explicitly, but when I went to Beijing, you sort of knew it was coming.
R: It was a really rainy evening. I went to Gareth's hotel to meet him. We went out for dinner. We got to the lift and he suddenly said, "Oh I forgot something." So he went back to the hotel room, and I thought that's suspicious... I was in his room and he didn't have a chance to get the ring!
G: I did have a plan! We were going to go to this rooftop bar. It was a really lovely afternoon - really warm, we had a late lunch, early dinner, walked around a bit. And then my intention was as the sun was setting we'd be at this rooftop bar... but an hour before it pissed it down! That torrential rain that floods the pavements. It was like that.
R: We didn't have an umbrella either!
G: We were in this rooftop bar but inside, it was really loud, really dark. I was so tense I just thought I've got to do this. It doesn't matter if it doesn't quite happen as I envisaged - it has to happen now.
R: You brought the drinks back and said "Here's your drink." I said "Thank you very much - how can I return you?" He suddenly -
G: That's my moment!
R: "How about you marry me?" he said. I said "No! Not here!" Because there were so many people around us...
G: Mind you, nobody noticed.
R: I just felt so nervous, I didn't want people to watch us!
G: But the rain stopped as soon as it started.
R: We went out and walked around, that was really late.
G: Most places had shut.
R: We walked into a quiet little square, and I felt more comfortable.
G: And then it happened.
They've now been married 3 and a half years. Gareth and Rongrong have met all of Rongrong’s family by now.
R: Even though they're my family, I was surprised to see that there was doubt from some of them about my motivation to go out with a white guy. I think Chinese society has that feeling that if you're going out with a white guy... you basically get married to that person because you have some other purpose over love.
The media in China often reports on the negative side of the mixed relationships. People talk about the high divorce rates in the western world, and that white people are less serious about family and marriage because they can get divorced any time.
So the family read so much about it, and there are a lot of cases where people get married so that they can get Permanent Residence in America or Australia. At some point I'm sure some of my family doubted what I wanted. I was surprised and a little bit upset, but I kind of understand. I always worked and lived in Beijing which is far from them, so I think after a couple of years they probably felt they didn't know me well anymore.
It got better when they saw the photo of him. He's a nice guy of the same age as me, rather than an old man. When people imagine what we're like they imagine a very old wealthy white guy...
G: I don't think it's very common, but it doesn't need to be very common to be perceived as sticking out.
R: In China the image is: Chinese girl with a Western guy, one for money, one for - for - I don't know...
G: It sounds like a poem!
Chinese girl with a Western guy,
One for money, one for what? For what? How's it finish??
R: [laughs] After a few years we got married, got a house, now we're living in a serious life.
G: [laughs] My main motivation for getting the house done is just so that we can have a weekend where we don’t do anything. We haven’t had that for a while now.
Xuefei is from Shenyang in northeastern China, and Daniel is from Munich in Germany. They recently welcomed their first child into their family, their son Lukas.
X: We met in London when I was an exchange student. I did most of my undergrad education in the US but did a one-year exchange program at the LSE. When my friends found out that I was going to London they told me I should go to a May Ball in Cambridge. It would be the highlight of the exchange. The tricky part was that somebody from Cambridge has to invite you so meeting Dan seemed like a great way to get tickets.
D: Apparently she only dated me because she thought I was going to get her May Ball tickets.
X: [laughs] But he failed that task!
D: I'd like to think that the baby made up for not getting you May Ball tickets! You now get to stay up all night and party with the baby.
X: After the exchange program I had to go back to the US. Dan followed me to the US. And then he followed me back to London.
D: It's a question of testing my determination! I used to work in consulting so luckily it was relatively easy to transfer internationally. We overlapped in America for about a year. Then she went back to the UK to work here, and I stayed another year in the US before transferring back myself. She was looking for jobs in the US but it was at the time of the economic crisis so a lot of companies stopped sponsoring visas.
X: And I already had my job offer in London at that time.
D: She would have been able to find jobs outside of Boston, for example in New York or on the West Coast, but then we would be apart and we wouldn't know how soon we would actually be in the same location. With London we knew that a year later I could transfer back.
X: So we made it work basically. He did make a good effort the year we were apart. He came to visit almost every month.
D: When I decided to propose it just felt right. I realise this is not a helpful statement but when you know you know. It felt very comfortable to be with her and I realised she is the person I wanted to be with for the rest of my life. I proposed on our 1 year anniversary.
X: Actually I think the reason he proposed this early is because I went to a women's college - he wanted to lock me down before I get to see the world!
D: True. In her school in China, girls had to dress like boys, have short hair, and weren’t allowed to flirt. Then she went to a women's college where there are no men. We met in her first week in London and started dating right away - I like to think she dated me because she didn't know any better.
X: [laughs] Pretty much, yeah.
D: [joking] I'm the first man she's actually met.
X: My parents were in China at that time but wanted to come visit as soon as they found out that I had a Germany boyfriend so they can check him out. My grandma told me I should break up with him or she would not come to my graduation. She just felt like I need to marry somebody Chinese. She felt Westerners are not very trustworthy, that they don't take marriage very seriously, and it's better to stick with Chinese guys. But we didn’t break up, and she still came to my graduation.
My parents sent me abroad for an international experience and to be educated, so I think they are quite open-minded. Me marrying a foreigner is probably not something they had in mind, but it's not totally surprising either. For my grandparents’ generation it's definitely a big shock though.
D: For my family it was much easier. My mother is Polish and my dad is German so we had a precedent for an international relationship. When my parents first met Xuefei’s parents they were very conscious of cultural differences though and often asked what is culturally acceptable and not acceptable. They really wanted to make sure that they make a good impression.
X: When we got married, we actually eloped...
D: It sounds more crazy than it actually was. We got engaged on our 1 year anniversary, then we eloped to Las Vegas and got married without telling anyone about 8 months later. So it wasn't completely spontaneous.
X: So our parents knew we were engaged for sure but we didn't tell them we just eloped to Las Vegas to register.
D: Part of why we married in Vegas was for simplicity. Xuefei doesn't have a birth certificate. It just wasn't issued at the time of birth so we knew that could cause problems with registering. When we heard stories from friends with similar issues, I eventually turned to Xuefei and asked "Shall we just go and get married in Vegas?". Her response was: "That's exactly what I was just thinking!"
X: To me it was just a fun idea!
D: Great minds think alike.
X: We dressed up as Cleopatra and Pharaoh to get married. We went to a tiny chapel in Vegas and got married for about $50.
D: When the priest said "You can now exchange rings!" we had to tell him we didn’t actually have them yet. He told us to just kiss the ring finger instead.
X: To be fair though, we did have a proper wedding in white afterwards in Cambridge for family and friends. We told my parents about the wedding in Las Vegas on Skype. They congratulated us and stayed calm because he [Daniel] was there too and said “Okay…okay…” but I could tell that they want to basically say “Oh my God this is crazy!”. They were definitely shocked. For Dan’s parents it was a bit more fun...
D: The plan was to tell my family in person on a trip to Germany about 1 month after the wedding. When we arrived in Germany, my mum picked us up from the airport and on the way home she asked "Do you have anything to tell me?" I asked her why and she said "You know I was almost thinking that you'd arrive and you'd tell me you got married in Vegas." Xuefei was REALLY REALLY struggling to contain her laughter. I just responded "Of course not, why would we do that."
We eventually did tell my family over dinner the same day. Halfway through dinner Xuefei and I got up to “look for something in the suitcase”. We put on 'Married in Las Vegas' shirts and came back to the table pretending nothing unusual was up. My sister noticed right away and started asking "Really? Are those shirts real?"
Everyone was extremely happy. My dad was absolutely over the moon. He keeps telling me to this day how lucky I am.