Why you should date an expat

Photo: Tela Chhe

Every time I see my grandmother she asks me without fail, if — alongside my native country — I’ve forsaken the opportunity to love.

Her question isn’t completely absurd, nor is it unusual. Expats are transient by nature. Even those who have committed to their new homeland for life are often surrounded by those who have not; as strangers in a strange land, settled expats too are pulled into the orbit of itinerants. It’s a bit like drunk driving — just because you’re not doing it doesn’t mean you won’t be hit by someone who is.

These truisms add up to a bad reputation for expats when it comes dating. And yet I believe that expat life is conducive to finding love to a higher degree than dating in my home country, the United States.

Here’s why.

1. Expat situations are self-selecting.

Adventurous? Check. Liberal? Check. Open to new experiences? Check. Independent? Check.

Not all the expats you meet abroad will be just like you (see point two) — and certainly not all people — but I’ve found that the kind of person who commits to a life abroad tends to have certain attributes, such as a natural curiosity and openness (perhaps restlessness), qualities that tend to reinforce themselves around likeminded individuals.

2. You meet people you never would have at home, and are exposed to a wider range of options.

When at home, a lot of people tend to spend an awful lot of time with people of their own race, their own socio-economic status, their own political persuasions, their own experiences. For some people this works, by creating bonds that are immediately strong across religious and cultural levels. But for others, it can be stifling.

Cross-cultural relationships are hard, but when they work, they can be amazingly fulfilling and even revelatory. It’s not just a question of meeting someone who tests your own assumptions and introduces you to new worlds, although this can be wonderful and life changing; you can also end up connecting across levels you didn’t yet know existed within yourself.

Even among inter-expatriate couples, a similar broadening of horizons occurs. Expats are often more likely to socialize across age groups. They’re more likely to find themselves with someone from the opposite side of their native country. It’s kind of like The Breakfast Club — a group of disparate individuals with seemingly nothing in common drawn together by the intimacy of a shared situation.

Almost all my friends in America have had to go online to avoid the stress placed on first impressions and physical appearance.
3. People pay more attention to one another abroad.

Living abroad — especially when you don’t speak the language — can be lonely. You come to rely on your friends in a way that most rely on family at home. They become your home.

Living somewhere like rural India can feel like living at the end of the world. People begin to really talk to each other, and to listen. Conversations get pretty deep, pretty fast, and people reach out to one another with more eagerness and attention. Perhaps expats in isolated situations move more quickly past faces and appearances. The incentive to embrace is more pressing than the incentive to judge. And in this fertile ground of closeness and isolation, love can quickly take seed and grow.

4. Dating in the US is competitive.

When my friends in New York City (my hometown) meet new people, they tend to approach them with a critical, appraising attitude. A city like New York has such an overwhelming wealth of cool people that you need a good reason to let one into your own circle. This overabundance of potential friends leads to an understandably parsing attitude in choosing them. People are quick to classify and dismiss one another (hipster, wall street jerk, gothic navel-gazer, model) if only to make sense of the social flood.

Just as with making friends, there are so many options in a city like New York that intense competition in dating (and the rejection that accompanies it) is inevitable. Almost all my friends in America have had to go online to avoid the stress placed on first impressions and physical appearance. (Of the romantic partnerships formed in the United States between 2007 and 2009, 21 percent of heterosexual couples and 61 percent of same-sex couples met online, according to a study by Michael J. Rosenfeld, an associate professor of sociology at Stanford.)

My ex-boyfriend, who I met in India, and I have everything in common. We’re from the same country, the same religion, interested in all the same books and movies and bands. But though we lived in New York City at the same time, we never met, nor would we have dated if we had. We would have dismissed one another on superficial grounds, and moved on. But in the social wilderness in India, we had the time and space to recognize each other as kindred spirits and connect.

The heightened sense of camaraderie abroad makes dating feel less like a competition, and more like a gift.

5. You’re forced to be more independent, self-critical, and self-reflective.

This may sound like a tall claim, but I think that life in a foreign place can push a person to be stronger, more ethically minded, and more communally minded. I’m talking about a certain kind of expat of course — not the businessman in his high-rise, surrounded by domestic help — but the individual who chooses to navigate a foreign culture more or less alone. The deeper you immerse yourself abroad, the more likely you are to confront a culture radically different from your own, broaden your horizons, and gain a deeper understanding of what connects us as human beings.

We take for granted the emphasis in Western culture on our identity as individuals; immersed in a culture deeply rooted in communal co-dependence, we have the opportunity to re-evaluate the importance of love, and of family.

And when you do meet someone whom you can share this with, you’re inclined to hold on to him or her.

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  • TravelnLass

    “self-selecting.” Yes, yes! Preeecisely!

    In the past, I’ve often joked to friends back in the states that I’m far more likely to meet “Mr. Right” as an expat, ‘cuz by moving abroad, I’ve eliminated all the (vast majority) of lads back home that wouldn’t dream of even VISITING a place like Vietnam, much less choose to LIVE there.

    That said though, after a (most wondrously happy) year here now, I must say – I’m not sure the “selection” is any better. Not surprisingly, there seems to be as many different types of expats/reasons for expatting as there are… grains of sand on the beach. And as for older men – suffice they’ve clearly moved to Asia for a “reason” – yuck!

    No matter. The upside is that at least now each and every day is like a sugar-coated ADVENTURE! I’ve been able to travel to places I’d never dreamed of ever seeing (like a month in Mongolia), and even when I’m at “home” here in Dalat, Vietnam, each and every day offers a myriad of challenges.

  • Jason Sanqui

    I would say that because there is a myriad of reasons as to why expats move, not all are going to be “liberal”. As a gay man and American of Asian descent, I met a large number of expats who were homophobic and racist while living in China. But I do agree with your other points, particularly number three. I dated a Romanian guy and we became closer to one another because of our living situations. I don’t think that would’ve happened if we were dating in the U.S.

  • Turner Wright

    While I agree with every one of those points, you’re leaving out the most obvious flaw in choosing an expat as partner: we all eventually leave to go to another shore. As a result, although we establish bonds faster and more easily than we would back home, they quickly become long distance and impermanent. It’s a rare thing to meet someone abroad at the right point in his or her life to form a relationship, just as it is back home.

    • Maddie Gressel

      Ah, yes. This was in the original article but was cut for space. The obvious, very painful catch of dating abroad.

    • Edna Zhou

      But not completely impossible. My fiance and I met as expats in Singapore (he’s British, I’m American) and even though I’ve since moved to Paris to pursue my dream career, he understands — and over a year later, we’re still making things work from 6,000 miles apart.

      And that’s another point about expats too: so many of us go abroad for our career that we’re more independent and understand that certain things come first, and the relationship doesn’t have to fall apart because of it.

  • Kelli Accardi

    I love this article! There is no doubt that I have formed some of my best relationships while abroad. And there is something about that connection that stays with you for the rest of your life. Sometimes, I feel like one of the hardest things about traveling so much is constantly being forced to say, “goodbye,” but I think this provides a positive perspective :) Well done.

  • Damanjit Singh Punni

    I am sorry to say but this article is quite discriminative in the sense of ethics. I’m indo- canadian guy and i have lived in both place for long time and problems is the person writting article has never visited india as in this article this person say “living somewhere like rural India” well if this is awar India is one of the biggest economies of world. In this article there are view without any concerns and proper findings as, this person lay’s views on personal discretion which is most unethical thing to do while writting article. Also in this conment i would like to mention that “culuter is one of the most important thing for a person.” To understand this statment i would suggest person writting this article to read about aboriginal people in speically North America.

  • Hiba

    I feel like matador’s writers are either only situated in West o are from West. I don’t see a broader range of people of different races or cultural backgrounds expressing their opinions. it would be refreshing to hear their side o the story once too. But overall nice article. i’m an expat too in the UAE and I can totally relate to this