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.
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.
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.