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Global Dating: Expats Look for Love in All the Foreign Places

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No matter where you go, or which single-and-ready-to-mingle person you talk to, the complaint is always the same: dating is hard.

For expats, dating is even harder, compounded by cultural missteps, the hard partying and commitment-free lifestyle of many expats, and the concept of “expiration dating,” which assumes that any relationship has a natural end point.

For other expats, it’s the unchangeable parts of themselves – their race or their sexuality – that can make dating harder than it would be in their home country. But one thing is true for every expat in the dating scene: those who are looking for love overseas are bound for adventure.

Barriers and Boundaries

A big issue for expats everywhere is cross-cultural dating. You came to a new country to immerse yourself in all aspects of the culture, so why wouldn’t a relationship be a part of that? Yet despite an increasingly globalized world, cultural rules often remain stubbornly unchanged.

American Christina Petit moved to South Korea to teach English, and fell in love with a local man, even enjoying the barriers created by not speaking the same language. “It made us very slow, calm and careful communicators,” she says.

However another cultural barrier stood in the way: the very firm belief that many Korean families hold about the role of a daughter-in-law. In many traditional Korean families, the daughter-in-law is expected to care for the groom’s parents, who often move into the newlyweds’ home.

The couple recently broke up, “not due to our love ending but due to family responsibilities on his part. I couldn’t stay in Korea forever and fulfill the wife role that his extended family expects,” she says.

Party City

An American woman in Hong Kong, a gallery director in her late twenties, has “no regrets” about choosing the expat life, she says. “I’m financially independent and have come further in my career by this age than I ever would have been able to in the U.S.”

However, one thing is lacking. “I’m nearly in my thirties,” says the woman.

“I would like to have a boyfriend, my parents would definitely like me to have a boyfriend, but it’s hard to find here.” The biggest reason? Expat men in Hong Kong, a city known for its glimmering strips of bars in Lan Kwai Fong and Wan Chai, have far too much fun as commitment-free singletons to settle down with a career-oriented woman, she says.

The woman was seeing a fellow expat, and it was only after several seemingly serious dates that she saw him walking down the street in SoHo, a popular expat hub, with his arm around another woman.

She chalks it up to the high-intensity lifestyle of expats in the city, with 16-hour workdays and too many fleeting hookups. Young expats in Hong Kong on corporate contracts also often have far more wealth than they would back home.

She describes an encounter with an Asian-American man who possessed the trappings of an older, established businessman: a well-furnished house in the prestigious Mid-Levels neighborhood, a driver and money to spend on nice dinners and travel. Then, after a few dates, she discovered he was only 24, and became concerned that he was too young to settle down.

When she returns home and sees that all of her friends are getting married, she says she feels some pangs of regret, but she says “if that’s what I have to give up at this point for my career, it’s worth it.”

Out But Not Open

A gay American expat in Turkey fell in love with his current partner one night in a park overlooking the Bosporus. They’ve been together for five years. As a gay man in Turkey, he says, he has to maintain a boundary between his personal life and his professional life as a private school teacher.

“I think the majority of parents could handle that their son or daughter is being taught by a gay man. However, the few that might have a problem could potentially make a huge issue out of it. It would break my heart and soul to be forced out of my job and the country because of who I love,” he says.

He and his boyfriend, a native of Turkey, have had few issues when out in public. While Turkey has very distinctive gender roles, he says, “males are affectionate towards one another.” Because of this, he’s at ease being physically affectionate with his boyfriend in public, to some extent. “There’s always that feeling though. Did we go too far? Could that person understand the love transmitting between us was more than a great friendship?”

Turkey’s proximity to the Syrian civil war and ISIS’s conquered territory, as well as the increasingly conservative political atmosphere have made him and his boyfriend consider relocating to a more gay-friendly region, where they can see a “bright future.”

However, while they continue their lives as semi-out gay men in a conservative country, they sometimes try to push the boundaries. “Sometimes we rebel and kiss in public, a peck on the lips in front of a crowd or on the metro,” he says, adding that people need to see and accept it.

Dating While Black

A 38-year-old black American woman based in Peru says she’s retired from dating. She found that her race was too much of a hindrance to her relationships abroad, including during a stint in Colombia.

In the region, she says, “white skin here is seen as a marker of goodness and foreign white skin as a prize. Black skin on natives is a marker of poverty, as in the U.S. Foreign black skin is kind of an anomaly.”

She says that local men she has met, especially those who are well-educated, generally tend to seek out spouses who are light-skinned, educated, and foreign. Her dating pool in Latin America was limited to local black men or other black expats. She dated a few of them, but without much success. Poor economic development in the region has also played a role in her difficulty finding a partner.

“Local men of any race,” she says, “are more likely to have much less education and resources than I do, so that creates a bit of a tension.” As a coordinator for a singles group with the expat group InterNations, she’s met other black women who’ve had similar experiences. Dating might be easier in countries where there’s a larger black middle class, she says.

Comments on the website ExpatLoveConnections give more some insight into the experiences of African-Americans abroad. Keturah Kendrick, a woman based in Rwanda, wrote, “the fight for the white girl when there is a room full of beautiful black women is real.”

Kam Smith, who’s based in France, argued, though, that culture plays a bigger role than race. “Location has little to do with why a woman is single unless they are in a place that does not have a lot of men,” she wrote. “I find that American attitudes toward dating, relationships and children contribute to the reason why women are single.”

Swipe Right on International Love

Even for those who aren’t looking for a long-term connection, casual dating is a great way to add something to both travel and an expat posting. Dating apps like like Tinder, Hinge and Bumble can serve as a way to meet friends who can give you access to their world.

One writer for the magazine Marie Claire backpacked through the Balkans, using Tinder in every new city to meet natives, learn a bit of the language, eat and drink at local watering holes, and see the side of a country guidebooks miss. She paints an intoxicating picture of the kind of travel experience people dream of: seeing the best part’s of a country as a local’s home.

An American student in Copenhagen used Tinder to get to know more locals during her months there. However, an agreement to meet for drinks ended in her Danish date’s stubborn insistence that she come back to his place, and their connection quickly fizzled after she politely declined. This led to a conversation with Danish friends about the much more open approach to physical relationships held by young Europeans, as opposed to the more reserved outlook some young American women have. While her date was a dud, she says she’s happy she had the experience to learn about part of the culture of her host country. In some cases, Tinder is exactly right for expats.

When Marissa Tree, an Australian expat in Bangkok, first moved to Thailand, she decided to put her history of being a “serial dater” aside and focus on her career. She says the lack of a dating scene for expats turned her off, and she couldn’t find resources for Western women. Most, in fact, were geared toward expat men interested in meeting Thai women.

After eight months of uncomfortable conversations with business partners not expecting an unmarried, unattached woman in her 30s to have moved all the way to Bangkok for her career, she discovered Tinder. Using it with the expectation that any travelers would only be interested in a short-term fling, she made one rule: no travelers.

After matching on Tinder with a Swedish man in Thailand for a holiday of six weeks, she decided to go against her better instincts and meet up with him. There were few cultural or language barriers between the two. In fact, she says, there are “more things we find amusing about each other’s respective cultures that we laugh at.

As a result, I think the differences were definitely part of the appeal — he wasn’t like the Aussie men I had dated in the past, and that was a great thing!” Nine months after their first meeting, he relocated from Stockholm to Bangkok to be with her. After a year and a half of dating, they’re still together.

Annie Hill is reporting for WSJ Expat this summer. A former expat, she will be a senior at Georgetown University in the fall. Follow her on Twitter @anniefhhill. She previously wrote about Expat Startups.

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