I had to laugh when Escape From America Magazine asked me to write an article about intercultural dating. As a 32 year old mom-of-three who married her teenage sweetheart, I honestly have not had much dating experience in my life, let alone intercultural dating. I kept trying to tell my husband that I needed to go get romanced by a few select Argentine hotties in town for “research” on this topic, (hey, I’m a committed professional, what can I say?) but for some reason he wasn’t convinced…
Intercultural dating is something that will probably come up eventually for single and social expats living abroad. Some expats choose to date the locals because they really do not connect with or mingle with the other expats. Others, especially if they are living in a small or rural town abroad, may not have a choice, as locals may be the only option they have. There are a few basic things to consider if you are ready to dive into the dating world abroad.
We may have notions in our head, whether we are consciously aware of them or not, that need to be dropped before dating someone from a different culture. Unfortunately, not all Italian boys will pick us up in a Ferrari to go wine tasting at their personal vineyard, followed by an incredible night of pleasure under the stars, ending with them, shirtless, bringing us a cappuccino in the morning. If you are such a said Italian..I was totally kidding about the husband and three kids, so feel free to contact me anytime! (A joke, everyone..a joke.)
Not all Iranian men want to keep us locked in the kitchen, only to have babies with us which they will then take back with them to their home country, for us to never see our children again. Sadly, not all Asian women are skilled masseuses who will bow to you while bringing you green tea and cite Lao Tzu to you on your bad days. It is important to remember that no matter what, people are individuals, and even though some cultural norms should be taken into consideration, we should drop our expectations of how we think the person “should” act, and look more at how they ARE acting.
You may understand why you are initially attracted to someone from a different culture (the accent may be cute or romantic, it just may be something different from what you have ever experienced), but take a second to think about why the other person may be attracted to you. It could be something so simple as true-blue chemistry. If that is the case, congratulations, enjoy, and run with it! But for some cultures, especially more conservative ones, women from abroad can be regarded as being easy to get in the sack, no strings attached. Or they see you as their ticket to a passport or Visa, or at least a free ride in the meantime. My friend Denis Larsen, who has lived abroad in many countries, has this to share: “One thing that is consistent in most/all that I meet is the belief that all gringos are rich. That is a great attractant in the beginning, but not too great for a sustained relationship when the realization that we (I) am not rich opens their eyes.
Not all the women I have met have been attracted by the money, but it has certainly helped get their attention when they first learn that I have a car, own a large house, have a business and am a gringo.”
One thing to be aware of, especially here in Latin America where I am living, is to not assume that a man making an advance on you is single. Whooah, no. Of course it is never possible, nor correct, to say that this is the case with all Latin men, but I have personally known more than my fair share who see no problem with dating another woman, even when they are married with down the road. They might not have told you, because depending on the guy, it just may not be a big deal to them, definitely not worth spending much time discussing! It may be in your best interest, if you are a woman looking to date a Latin man, to straight-up ask if he is married. Or has a girlfriend. Or kids. Or is living with a woman. You can’t be too detailed in your questions. He may truthfully say he is not married, but may refrain from telling you about the girlfriend he lives with and their four kids they have together.
So let’s say you are at the point where you do want to go out on a date…how do you start, and what is okay to do on that date? In some cultures, a woman would NEVER be so bold to ask a guy out, whereas in others it is perfectly acceptable.
In the UK, for example, straightforwardly asking someone on a date is very rare. People will tend to interact in groups and hide the fact that they like someone until they either summon enough courage, or get drunk enough, to admit it. After that, there are ‘dates’ but the emphasis again becomes different as a lot of the embarrassment of the situation has been diluted by that first moment of intoxication. I read a case study where two Brits, Xander and Ben, explain the mating behaviors of the British male. Xander’s girlfriend, Miranda, provides eye-witness testimony to the accuracy of their account. English men never ask women out on dates. They are convinced that if they were to directly ask a woman on a “date” that they will be turned down flat and laughed at publicly. Since the number one priority for an English male seems to be to save face, there is no “dating” in England at all.
Xander explains: “You go out to a pub with your friends, some of whom are girls, get too drunk one night (but not too drunk) and end up sleeping with one of them. Then, suddenly, you’re in a relationship. And since she’s already slept with you, you won’t be rejected – presumably. And it usually works out quite well since you were friends first.”
Although India is westernizing in many ways, dating is not yet culturally accepted. In rural areas there is no dating; in urban areas, dating is rare and almost always covert. Many times, dating is 99% without the parents’ knowledge. When two people do date, dates are exactly what you might find in the West: restaurants, cafes, movies. In India there is no formal asking out on dates. An Indian friend, Sheethal, breaks it down into four steps:
1. Hang out.
2. Boy tells girl “I love you.”
3. You’re a couple but no one knows about it except a select few friends who won’t tell the parental units.
4. Either marriage when the parental units find out, suicide (if kids are super passionate…this doesn’t happen a lot), or breaking up to keep the family happy.
Families have a lot of influence over their children’s choices – and older generations frown on dating. Arranged marriages are still the norm, and love marriages are often met with difficulties. When dating does happen, it is taken seriously. People who date, date with marriage in mind. Very few Indians seem to date just to care freely see where it goes.
In places like Kuwait and Iran, dating isn‘t even allowed. “You have to sneak out,” one student from Kuwait said. “She goes out with her parents and you go out with your parents. You are at different tables and you end up text-messaging.” As for getting caught having premarital sex? You could end up getting dragged to the courthouse to secretly get married if you are in Kuwait, or end up in jail in Iran.
One of my favorite examples of dating culture came from talking to some expats in Japan. Many female expats in Japan agreed that it can be difficult to land a date with a Japanese man. Instead of asking a girl out for a cup of coffee and taking it from there, the man is culturally expected to very dramatically confess his deep feelings to the girl. Then, skipping over the dating part, they are pretty much in a relationship from that point onward. Since Japanese men have the same strong instinct to escape embarrassment and rejection as pretty much all men around the world do, declaring love is obviously terrifying, and it may be easier for them to just forget the whole thing.
Another obvious aspect that needs to be considered is the language gap, both verbal and non-verbal. It is hard enough to figure out what the opposite sex is trying to tell you when they are speaking your own language! Imagine what is possible when you do not share that common ground. It can be either a completely frustrating obstacle that you may not want to put the effort into hurdling, or it could make for some of the most entertaining dates you have ever had. I have heard stories of people playing charades and dictionary through dinner, just to try to get basic points across. On the one hand, it cuts out a lot of mindless, pointless chatter and makes you focus on vibe and how you feel with that person. On the other hand, it is nice to be able to figure out if he is meeting you at 7pm on Tuesday at his work, or if he was saying he has 7 siblings and Tuesday is his day off work. And as for talking about feelings, some cultures throw the word “love” around quite freely. Others, the person may be madly, head-over-heels in love with you and never verbally express anything. It makes it hard to tell exactly where you stand.
In Latin America, it took me a while to figure out that not every guy I ran into was hitting on me (so sad for me…). Here I was, getting told how beautiful I was, what an angel I was, that I was the most lovely thing ever to walk on this earth. Until I figured out that everyone here gets that. The same goes with hugs and kisses, and guys resting their hand on you. If some guy in the US greeted me with a huge hug and a kiss on the cheek, told me he thought my soul was beautiful, and rested his hand on my forearm during coffee, I could probably safely assume he was interested. Here in Argentina, nope. It’s just how it is. I’m not special.
On the flip-side, beware, as physical contact in other parts of the world, especially in public, may be hugely frowned upon. In the United States, for example, some physical contact may be acceptable on the first date; hand-holding and a good-night kiss are not frowned upon (maybe even more depending on the person…I am not saying sex on the first date is the best way of cultivating a long-term relationship, but it‘s definitely not unheard of in the culture). In contrast, Koreans tend to date from an early age, but they may not be comfortable with kissing or hugging, especially if strangers can witness such affection. And in the Middle East…it would be best to be on the safe side and keep your hands to yourself in public.
Some of the biggest problems begin not at the beginning of the relationship, but as the relationship develops into something more serious. Things that are different in their culture that seemed “exotic” or “interesting” at first, may need to be looked at more closely if you plan on living together or getting married. Very important questions to take into consideration are how they feel about child rearing, finances, and taking care of extended family. Going out on fun casual dates, laughing at language blunders is one thing. A whole other reality is learning too late, especially if this is not what you want for yourself, that as someone’s wife you are culturally expected to stay at home and pump out as many kids as possible, all while taking care of his parents, grandparents, and aunts and uncles. How do they feel about you continuing your education, traveling alone, or pursuing your career dreams? You need to make good and sure that this person will be willing to support your dreams and visions that you have for yourself, or you are bound to end up resentful and unhappy in the relationship down the road.
While many romance novels and movies center around a foreign lover and romanticize relationships with those from other cultures beyond our own, no relationship is just like a romance novel or the movies. Any relationship, no matter what culture either of you come from, takes a lot of work, a lot of compromise and a lot of patience and understanding on both sides. I would be willing to bet that a relationship that spans two different cultures may even take more work, more compromise, and more patience than if your partner was from the same background. With that being said, it can be a rich, satisfying, and at the very least an interesting experience to date outside of your culture.
About the author: Cathy Brown is a mother, writer, artist, teacher, traveler and explorer originally from Michigan. She has a serious case of wanderlust and currently lives in Argentina with her three amazing children, ages nine, seven, and five. She writes for and maintains Expat Daily News – South America and Expat Daily News – Central America