Good morning class! Today we’re going to discuss a topic that most teachers don’t want to acknowledge, but is part of the gritty reality of overseas development work – especially among young people.
Love. That’s right. You know what I mean – the stuff that makes the world go ‘round. Those chemicals in your brain that fill each day with butterflies or rainbows, or can reduce capable people to inconsolable fools.
Don’t worry: today won’t be a technical lesson. We’re not going to discuss serious “I want to spend the rest of my life with you so how do we figure out Visas?” love. No, instead we’re going to talk about the early stages, otherwise known as dating.
Dating across cultures almost always entails more complications than both parties anticipate. When I look back at my first relationship – 5 years with a Latino – I can recognize a lot of issues that arose because of our dissimilar backgrounds. At the time, though, I didn’t appreciate these differences. We were 17, self-centred, and in love! Furthermore, I had no idea what to expect from a boyfriend.
Since then, though, I’ve dated a variety of men (haha I originally wrote “a lot of men” but decided it sounded trashy) and can see the additional difficulties that arise when you date someone from another culture. Lots of things you assume about how the world works – like that no self-respecting adult wants a stuffed animal as a gift – are suddenly rendered null and void.
As you can probably guess, I’ve awkwardly stuck my foot in my mouth more than a couple times.
Since I’ve dated “a variety of men” you’d think that I’d have this whole dating game figured out. I’m open-minded, tolerant, and continually advocating for communication. What difference does it make if I’m dating someone in while living in my home country or someplace else? Dating is always complicated, right?
It makes a huge difference.
Not just the obvious stuff. Moreover, I don’t mean stories like this the one that my American friend told me. She worked for a couple years in the Peace Corps and one of her coworkers got impregnated by a native resident. It took her, her friend, and the local doctor hours to convince him that he was involved in her pregnancy because they’d had sex. He believed that he couldn’t get anyone pregnant because he’d made sure he sat on a block of cement before intercourse. Moreover, he’d seen her sitting on cement as well so how could she have gotten pregnant anyway?
What a nightmare!
But that’s not what I’m focusing on. I’m talking about dating between two people with similar economic and educational backgrounds.
Let me tell you, dating a South African while living in South Africa is completely different than dating a South African while living in Canada (although I haven’t actually done that).
First, there are inherent power dynamics that complicate things when you’re a temporary foreigner. Back home, I am in my element! I receive tons of invites every day. I throw frequent dinner parties. Men, good luck integrating yourself into my busy schedule.
But that’s not the situation here. If my date cancels on me, I don’t think “Oh well now I can go that other party!” or even “Hmmm maybe tonight I’ll finally mend those socks that have been sitting my drawer for 2 years.”
Even though I’ve tried to recreate my busy social life, it takes time to make all those connections. When one person cancels on me, it’s a bigger deal than it should be.
Second, the local automatically has more knowledge of the city so you feel a little more dependent on him. When he says, “Where do you want to eat tonight?” you don’t answer “Wherever you want” because you’re lame and indecisive, but because you only know a couple restaurants and you’ve already eaten there before.
These power dynamics play into normal friendships as well. I think that’s why you so often see foreigners befriend other foreigners.
One of my friends recently became involved with a European man and exclaimed, “This is what I needed! I’m done with South Africans!”
I laughed and told her that I considered dating a South African while in South Africa a cultural experience – probably the #1 reason why I tried it despite my promise to myself for a 6 month dating hiatus. At the same time, however, I completely understand where she’s coming from.
Third, no matter how open-minded you try to be, you will still be blind-sided. I dated a guy for a few months and the break up has been messy – especially for someone like me who hates drama and disorder. I told my new roommate, a wonderful South African woman, about the situation and was shocked at her response.
I told her that I was surprised by this man’s reaction. First, he broke up with me so it didn’t seem fair to me that he’d drag it on like this. Second, I’ve had men besotted with me before and this guy’s behaviour didn’t fit the bill. It seemed to me that he was idealizing our time together, whereas in my mind it wasn’t even a real relationship. That’s not to say that I didn’t take it seriously – I cried every night for weeks after he broke up with me, which is unusual since I don’t cry often – but since then I’d regained my rationality and could see the “relationship” for what it was: somewhat insignificant.
All you Canadians out there, tell me what you’d think if you were in my position. You meet a guy who tells you he doesn’t want anything serious, which is cool because you don’t either. You two rarely communicate during the week and you usually see each other one night on the weekends – but you never even go for dinner dates. Instead you meet up after you’re done hanging out with your own respective friends.
That’s not a relationship, right?
As my roommate explained to me, though, maybe it is. When I described the situation, she said (somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but still), “Honey, that’s practically married in South Africa. We’re a very emotionally removed culture. Especially the men.”
I know she was exaggerating – there’s absolutely no way this guy had any long term plans around me – but she also made me question my own interpretation. Could he actually be sad about the way things played out? Maybe his feelings for me were stronger than I thought. Maybe he wasn’t just being melodramatic and attention-seeking.
(Hahahaha oh god I hope he doesn’t read my blog.)
Regardless, however, the point is that I hadn’t considered the inherent cultural differences between us. Instead, I’d interpreted his behaviour completely through my own cultural references.
Fourth, when (or if) things fall apart, you’re going to feel incredibly lonely: you’re going to miss your support structure. But don’t dwell on this aspect too long and definitely don’t let it stop you from getting involved with someone. With email and Skype, you can instantly reach out to your friends and family back home.
Thank goodness. I don’t think I would’ve survived the beginning of 2013 without the internet.
Fifth, you’re going to have to say good bye at one point. Whenever I get sad about letting people go, I think of this quote from Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel Eat, Pray, Love:
People think a soul mate is your perfect fit, and that’s what everyone wants. But a true soul mate is a mirror, the person who shows you everything that is holding you back, the person who brings you to your own attention so you can change your life.
A true soul mate is probably the most important person you’ll ever meet, because they tear down your walls and smack you awake. But to live with a soul mate forever? Nah. Too painful. Soul mates, they come into your life just to reveal another layer of yourself to you, and then leave.
A soul mate’s purpose is to shake you up, tear apart your ego a little bit, show you your obstacles and addictions, break your heart open so new light can get in, make you so desperate and out of control that you have to transform your life, then introduce you to your spiritual master…
A little bit histrionic, but I still find it comforting.
So, class, what are the lessons? None particularly. Just understand that you’re going to have some additional difficulties while you date overseas.
Furthermore, as you always should with dating, try to give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Instead of thinking, “Why isn’t this asshole texting me?” recognize that he has his own life and his lack of texting probably isn’t a malicious power game.
Then again, maybe it is.
Awesome people and mean people exist everywhere. Protect your heart and only open it to someone worthwhile. Make him prove that he’s worth your love.
That advice is relevant no matter where you live.