by Shruti Dargan
She’s from Brazil. He’s from Zimbabwe. They met and fell in love here in Canada. It’s not uncommon to hear of intercultural love stories, especially in a country that’s home to people from different parts of the world. This Valentine’s Day, we bring you one such tale.
Marilene Oliveira and Otis Mushonga met at a multicultural church in Stonegate, Etobicoke, back in 2010. They had been living in Toronto for a few years. She was part of the worship team that performed at church. It was love at first sight for Otis, and much like the plot of a romantic novel, Marilene played hard to get.
“My friends saw him coming in and noticed that he was watching me as I was performing. They would often tease me that he was interested in me, but I would brush it off as a joke. I was living with my pastor at the time. She invited Otis over to get to know him better and that’s how we started talking,” says Marilene, blushing every now and then, as she reminisces over the couple’s courtship.
“I was interested in her from the moment I laid my eyes on her. I saw a young and beautiful lady who I wanted to know more about. I was watching to see if she was with someone and would look for common things to talk about. At the time, she was looking for a place of her own, so I jumped in with the offer to help and asked her for her phone number,” Otis recalls.
The couple’s friends would compliment them on how good they looked together. But Marilene wanted to be sure before she gave Otis her heart. “I guess I was thinking that maybe this guy just showed up and was trying to make a move. I was at a point in life when I didn’t want a casual relationship, so I thought if he’s serious, he would stick around. Soon, we began visiting the mall together, and a few months later, we were already dating.”
It was exciting to get to know more about each other, their origins, cultures and ideologies. The couple calls theirs a typical North-American romance. No culture shocks whatsoever until Marilene’s mother visited Toronto for her graduation. “In my culture, we’re very huggy and touchy people, but in Otis’s culture, you keep a respectable distance, especially from your girlfriends’ mother or in-laws in general,” shares Marilene, teasing Otis about how visibly uncomfortable he was when her mother grabbed him and gave a warm hug when they first met. “You should’ve seen his face,” laughs Marilene.
“Years later, at our wedding, too, jaws dropped when I had a slow dance with my mother-in-law. My side of the gathering could have never imagined that I’d share such proximity with my wife’s mother,” adds Otis. “Mine’s a more formal familial setup. In our culture, when it comes to marriage, there are several stringent traditions that we follow, and the couple makes a formal announcement with rituals months before they have a church wedding.”
Otis and Marilene dated for three years before they wed in August 2014. He had proposed to her in January that year. “He kept me waiting for so long,” smiles Marilene. “I knew it was coming but every occasion would go by, and nothing! My birthday in November, then Christmas, then New Year’s Eve. Each time, I would go all dressed up for a date thinking that he would propose, but nothing!”
“That’s because I knew she expected the proposal so I kept my cards close to my chest; I never gave her a hint of my plan,” says Otis. “On January 1, I took her to the Royal Ontario Museum. “We were walking around, and just when we reached the precious stones section, I asked a guy to take a picture of the two of us, but I set the phone on video mode instead. When she turned towards me, ready to strike a pose for the picture, she found me down on one knee.”
After the engagement, the couple could hardly wait to marry each other and into their respective cultures. Their families, too, couldn’t have been more supportive of their love. “Our families were open to learning about each other’s traditions and ways. I remember being on a Skype call with Marilene’s father, sharing my intentions and seeking his blessings. Most of my family was, unfortunately, unable to attend our wedding in August, but my friends and Marilene’s family and relatives were delighted to meet and celebrate together. It was every bit of a multicultural celebration. We had Brazilian and Zimbabwean music, and the food, that was largely Canadian,” he says.
Marilene recalls how in Otis’s culture there’s a distinct way of clapping hands to show respect to the elders. “When his friends and family did that to welcome my parents, it was quite a moment. My parents didn’t know how to respond to that. They would look at me and I would laugh saying, ‘Just play along’. In our culture, it’s not so formal.”
The couple truly experienced each other’s cultures when they visited their home countries after marriage. “There was some teaching and learning for both of us. We visited Zimbabwe in 2016 and Brazil in 2018. My family particularly was fascinated to learn about Brazilian culture. I come from a patriarchal society where there are defined roles for men and women and how they conduct themselves. Even though both Marilene and I were open-minded and living in a North-American setting, we never lost respect for our families’ beliefs,” says Otis.
“I felt welcomed in Zimbabwe,” adds Marilene. “With guidance from Otis, I tried to blend in their traditions; I truly enjoyed it. When we visited Brazil, Otis’s mother joined us. This was the first time she was meeting my family. It meant so much to us to see our families engage and educate each other about our cultures and traditions.”
Cut to the present, and Marilene and Otis have been married for over five years and are proud parents to their two-year-old son, Nathan, and six-month-old daughter, Gabriella. “I’m learning Portuguese and Marilene’s learning my language, Shona. Our son is also learning Portuguese besides English. Getting our kids to be multilingual is something that we’re trying to do,” says Otis.
Valentine’s Day, like any other occasion now, is a family celebration. “Marché in Brookfield Place and Milestones are two of our all-time favourite places for date nights. Let’s see what we plan for tonight,” they share, lovingly exchanging glances with each other before signing off.
Otis and Marilene’s tips for newcomers in an intercultural relationship
- Be patient and respectful of each other’s cultures.
- Be excited to meet new people and make the effort to learn and embrace your partner’s language. It’s a great ice-breaker and will help to impress their family; they’ll see that you’re making an effort.
- Keeping an open mind is important. Remember that everyone has their own cultural baggage and expectations. You might be open-minded but it’s key to respect your family’s tradition and cultural values, too.
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