THE TRUTH ABOUT INTERRACIAL RELATIONSHIPS

THE TRUTH ABOUT INTERRACIAL RELATIONSHIPS

THE TRUTH ABOUT INTERRACIAL RELATIONSHIPS

Love might not conquer all, but it’s a good place to start

MARJ OSTANI

To celebrate my resignation from my first full-time job after college, I booked a flight from the Philippines to Singapore. I hadn’t had much of a  break in between graduating and working full-time, so I thought this was a well-deserved trip after suffering huge burnout throughout school and my early career. I brought one bag with me for a month-long stay. It wasn’t until I landed that I realized how reckless my decision was. I had no idea what I was going to do there.

I was 21 and staying in one of the world’s most expensive cities whilst unemployed, so I devoted myself to three things: sightseeing, searching for a new job, and swiping endlessly on dating apps. I kept going back and forth on whether dating at that point was yet another dumb decision. But it kept me from feeling lonely and like an outsider, so I went with it.

I met a man. Like me, he had moved from Australia on a gap year. He was living in a small state in Malaysia next to the border of Singapore and also looking for work. We sent messages back and forth. 

In the modern age of ghosting, I appreciated his consistency in checking in with me and making time to chat so we could get to know each other. Most importantly, he was very supportive and was a great shoulder to lean on while I was going through major career and life transitions. His willingness to listen and be part of my world captured my attention.

I offered a hushed protest about our constant communication, citing our various differences: I’m a womxn of color, he’s white. I’m pansexual, he’s straight. I’m bilingual, he only speaks English. But despite these, I steeled my courage and overlooked them because I thought we were more complex than our skin color, language, and sexuality.

Each day we found more common ground: experiences, habits, ideas, and hobbies we both had or liked. The degrees of separation began to feel more manageable; more importantly, we felt the same way about each other -- and at the end of the day, we wanted this to be enough. Our relationship felt like proof that common interests, not backgrounds, were enough to build a shared life upon, that our choices could triumph over anything else keeping us apart. 

OUR RELATIONSHIP FELT LIKE PROOF THAT COMMON INTERESTS, NOT BACKGROUNDS, WERE ENOUGH TO BUILD A SHARED LIFE UPON, THAT OUR CHOICES COULD TRIUMPH OVER ANYTHING ELSE KEEPING US APART. 

So we chose each other. I admired his vibrant, forgiving, child-like nature. On the contrary, he loved my goal-oriented, passionate, courageous attitude. Our differences ignited an extraordinary alchemy: his curious, open mind found a new world to explore within mine. The things he carried: a love for crafts, boats, cooking, fishing. The things I shared: arts, music, writing, politics. We were lone foreigners in each other’s spaces, bartering unlike things of equal value, each insisting: this is important to me, and I want you to have it. Every trade was an act of love. 

EVERY TRADE WAS AN ACT OF LOVE. 

Over time, seeing and learning from each other’s passions taught us how to fulfill each other’s wants, needs, and desires properly. If, earlier, our love could be measured by how much we gave, the next stage of our relationship was defined by how much and how well we managed to receive. How well we valued something unfamiliar to us, how we reimagined new forms of support, care, and love. 

We saw each other a couple of times, and saying yes to one date, and then another, became easier. After a number of train rides, flights, and passport stamps, we traveled Asia together, hopping from Singapore to Malaysia to Indonesia, and to my hometown in the Philippines. 

There, the magic seemed to fade a little. People glared at me when we were out, as if lecturing my boldness in loving someone so unlike me. 

Shortly after our travels, he and I decided to publicly share our relationship with our families and friends. I first met his parents and a couple of his mates; he formally introduced me as his partner before we visited my family and best friends to announce our relationship. 

Unfortunately, the next few years were very difficult for us. I had always considered myself an empowered person in my personal life, career, and relationships. I assumed this confidence would protect me from being affected by the racism and sexism that might’ve attacked our relationship. But the world was unkind, and lashed out at us. In addition to uncomfortable leers, we were confronted by unsolicited and hurtful opinions.

“How do you have a good English accent?” asked his family. I scoffed at this comment a lot, wondering whether having a stereotypical Filipino accent would have changed anything of importance - who I was, my relationship to their son, my place in this world. My American accent was a marker of my circumstances, not proof of my intelligence or a measure of my worth. I resented the implication of “good” and its connotation that I was whitewashed and therefore acceptably better, or more qualified for their acceptance. 

I wasn’t surprised that his parent’s first question about me was regarding what I did for a living. They seemed suspicious, as if every womxn of color sought  financial freedom and saving through whiteness. When they learned that I am a writer/activist for all things feminist and POC-driven works, I felt them building another barrier between us. 

They often took offense at my articles discussing white privilege and fragility. I remember being on the phone with him once, when his mom stormed into the room and confronted him about an essay of mine that had been recently published. She called it “distasteful” and “disrespectful.” She was incredulous that he was “fine with all of it.” As if he hadn’t read nearly all of my first drafts. As if everything I stood for was something to be “fine with.” 

Typically, he’d tell me what they’d said about me. No matter how cruel their condemnation could be, I never justified nor explained myself to any of them. In the end, their own narratives became too powerful. His mother stopped talking to me, and blocked me over social media. Eventually, his father and sister did the same. 

Even his mates had a lot to say. They conflated my advocacy for sexual wellness and education with accusations about promiscuity, citing my well-researched work on sexual exploration and kinks ( (“Why does she talk a lot about sex?”) as proof that I was likely sleeping around.

Their misogyny was brutal. They attacked my values, my character, my work. I felt excluded and unsafe.

Quite honestly, my boyfriend has struggled with his desire to defend me; on multiple occasions, we’ve had to work through uncomfortable conversations about how his family and friends have treated me with unbearable hostility. I would tell him how they’d violated my boundaries (“I don’t want those mates being invasive on my social media and I don’t want them in our space”) and remind him that I still saw the humanity, the messiness of his other relationships (“it would be helpful if you can have a chat with your mom and let her know what my work means to the both of us.”) 

Finally, I delivered an ultimatum: “If this keeps going, I’m unsure how we’ll work out.”

I never asked him to choose me over his family, only to consider whose values he aligned with more. Our relationship ultimately forced him to confront the sexism and racism he’d been raised with; through me, he saw the true violence of this bigotry. His love for me humanized the systemic origins of their hatred. In the end, he agreed to cut ties with some people, and set better boundaries with others. But at times, he spiraled back towards them, leaving me to drown on my own in a sea of stinging sentiments. 

I NEVER ASKED HIM TO CHOOSE ME OVER HIS FAMILY, ONLY TO CONSIDER WHOSE VALUES HE ALIGNED WITH MORE. 

I understood the toll this took on him. But I’d been shouldering these emotional burdens my entire life, trying to survive and thrive in a society that continually demeans who I am and belittles what I stand for. 

A year later after meeting and dating, we were constantly falling in and out of love, and eventually moved back to our hometowns, Manila and Brisbane, 5,000 kilometers apart. I knew being in our relationship had its pros and cons, but living separately introduced us to yet another world and versions of ourselves we struggled to navigate. And we could only do so much over long distance calls.

The last six months of our relationship was filled with arguments, fighting, and silence. It took me time to learn that all of these weren't solely an issue of learning to listen, but also how to speak. There were too many unresolved issues swept under the rug. We did everything in English, of course, his first language and my second. As usual, I took it upon myself to bridge this barrier, though, rarely, he would look into my mother tongue. 

Often, I wonder how much better it would be for us without this disparity. How he would pick up on jokes in the middle of my sentences, nuances in between my expressions. If only it were possible. Everything seems to be divided at this point.

And that’s the tricky thing about interracial relationships people don’t tell. It’s a nasty world of structural culture differences and divisions. Clashing morals, values, and collapsing realities. Boundaries disappearing. And we have to nurture, somehow, a love that can survive this all and more. Is it even possible? 

Two years after we first met, on the most joyous season of the year, we finally separated and scrapped all plans for the holidays together. It’s hard to pick what exactly burned the bridge, or what finally severed the ties, but perhaps, over time, closure will become more meaningful than absolute clarity. In time, we won’t be looking for a specific incident or person to blame. We’ll learn to apologize for all of the mistakes we made, all of the harm that sucked space from due compassion. We’ll meet at the median, the epicenter of mourning and forgiveness. 

As I reflected on our situation, I thought about our real similarities - not the adventures we’d braved together, or the books we’d both read - but our profound respect for each other. It was the root of everything we’d truly shared: how we helped and pushed each other to grow, how we listened and believed each other. If we were floating, governed by tides going opposite directions, our love for each other could have anchored us, kept us in orbit rather than allowed us to drift further and further apart.
From the get-go, there had been something about our interaction that reminded me of friendships back home. It was instant, quiet, vulnerable, funny, and supportive. Our pairing was very odd, unlikely.  But it made sense.

IF WE WERE FLOATING, GOVERNED BY TIDES GOING OPPOSITE DIRECTIONS, OUR LOVE FOR EACH OTHER COULD HAVE ANCHORED US, KEPT US IN ORBIT RATHER THAN ALLOWED US TO DRIFT FURTHER AND FURTHER APART. 

I am 23 now. Once again, I found myself flying back to Singapore. Like my younger self, I brought a single piece of luggage with me, this time for a month-long stay. I feel anxious to think that this is where it all started, where we might still be together. But my decision to be here feels right. I am going to see a show of our favorite artist. He is supposed to be with me.

The show is magical. Just like us. Just like we were. 

Today, three months after our break-up, we have reconnected and started talking again. Catching up on what we both missed from one another, telling new stories, revisiting the past and unpacking and healing from the issues and messes and everything in between.

Some nights I still share my frustrations with him: “What happened to us?” It’s a perfectly innocent question, yet something painful always snaps inside my chest. Logically, even from this story, the overwhelming systemic issues seem to play a huge part. He did not grapple with them simply because he did not have to. Even with his willingness, his understanding was just beginning whereas mine had been a lifelong confrontation. 

Other times, I think our personal shortcomings came in the picture too. You know, the typical long-distance relationship woes with two people bargaining for quality time, shaking fists at various miscommunications, holding grudges for unequally reciprocated efforts, one of us invariably feeling pushed aside and left behind. 

Whatever it is, there’s still so many unresolved questions for me -- new boundaries, considerations, learnings, foundations. I don’t have the answers yet. See, I have heard so much about strength through truth, so much about how my voice is a form of redemption; people tell me to speak of my stories so that I can heal. Sometimes I feel like everybody just wants the resurrection story out of this. But right now, there isn’t one. 

Sometimes I don’t want to talk about it. I don't want to do anything about it. There is no triumphant takeaway, no victory to be had. These days, I don't want anyone to look at me like I am strong, with all of the expectations imbued in this such admiration. These days, my heart is just breaking and I am just tired.

THESE DAYS, MY HEART IS JUST BREAKING AND I AM JUST TIRED. 

So when he called a few days ago and asked if I would fly over Brisbane and meet him for the concerts we booked and spend some time together, I let out a sigh and told him I’d think about it. 

He tells me he’d like to be back together once more. At this, my heart swells. I want more than anything for the same thing,  but I can’t tell for certain right now. So here we are, both navigating how we can at least be on good terms and perhaps make this work again. Both a work in progress, both building and growing, individually and together.

With this, I realise one of the greatest romances of my life has been our friendship. In many ways, it has been more fulfilling than our romantic love: less selfish, more subtle, and attuned to kindness, understanding, patience, and compassion. A reminder that this still counts. 

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