“‘Oh wow, you’re that kind of girl now’”Flickr

I grew up in the far, far east, where relationship dynamics sometimes unfold very differently from the west. The dating culture fostered in my East Asian university encouraged me to believe in pure (and almost fairy-tale-like!) college relationships – many of which usually lasted years, if not forever.

We all secretly loved someone on our course. Classmates became friends, friends became crushes, and then came the personally-delivered coffee every morning with that ever so sickly-sweet ‘I really like you’ note. With a conservative culture, many of us never considered sex to be significant. Clichéd, but I remember that back then and there, love was designed to be simple.

“How could these shady apps be so popular?”

This perfect illusion began to crumble years later after I first moved to the bustling city of Philadelphia, where dating apps were commonplace. I was eager to date again, this time nervous but excited to find someone on another side of the world. While I felt queasy putting myself ‘on the market’, my dating FOMO compelled me to just do it anyway. I somehow knew I was being sucked into that swiping culture that my undergrad circle back home perceived as ‘something unimaginable that students do when they go to the west’.

‘How are these relationships with strangers even real?’ a friend sneered, with an ‘are-you-kidding-me’, distasteful eye-roll.

Of course, I never wanted to admit that her gut feelings proved true. Relationships always started out flawlessly, and then took sharp turns downhill. Anything that lasted more than two months was a blessing. First, there was the guy who tried ever-so-hard to hide his kids and the five other women in his bucket. Then came the one whose ex wouldn’t stop following me. And then the fishy self-claimed businessman who, for some really suspicious reason, lied about his name. And then the seemingly perfect one who asked for my hand in marriage, when in fact all he wanted was a visa. At some point, there were two caring guys, but one wanted me to convert religiously for him, and the other claimed to see angels and demons.

“I was eager to date again, this time nervous but excited to find someone on another side of the world”

This series of drama was also fraught with absolute confusion, usually heart-wrenching. Dating apps somehow entitled people to have multiple partners simultaneously with the pretext that they needed to ‘choose wisely’. I was always someone’s girlfriend – or so I thought – but I was also not. Relationship status updates largely concerned the will to have sex after a meager number of dates, and as if that wasn’t enough, the pressure to please with ‘good sex’. Dates had somehow transformed into a secret assessment, and the words ‘I love you’ were awkward taboo. My heart sank countless times when I opened Messenger with an anxiously racing heartbeat just to find out that they didn’t text back.

The emotional turbulence made me brew some premature ideas about dating in the west. How could these shady apps be so popular? Why this frivolous dating culture? What was so great about casual intercourse with people you barely know? What were people supposed to feel when being asked to send nudes? Flattered? Revolted?

It didn’t help that my circle back home labeled me as the Asian girl who sought joy in ‘changing boyfriends,’ and more so with an ‘interculturally diverse repertoire’. It was an unjust stigma that persistently followed, when, in reality, all I wanted was to be loved like I used to be.

‘Oh wow, you’re that kind of girl now’, sneered that same friend. ‘Didn’t know you had it in you’.

This idea of mine followed me back to East Asia after 16 months in Philadelphia, where things took an interesting turn. Still single, I found myself swiping away again in the dead of night, this time landing on dates with not just western men, but also men from home. The quest for a partner through an app was, as it always had been, unfruitful and distasteful.


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It then dawned on me that the dating nature I so dreaded was not unique to the west, but rather just a dating app culture beyond geographical boundaries: A newfound culture somehow fostered by the digital age ,and perhaps also the larger society’s shifting views towards the function of relationships. I carried my earlier ugly misconceptions about western dating only because the apps were more prevalent in America and I happened to be introduced to it there. Using it at home didn’t prove to be much different – people and relationships were complex everywhere, and I was quick to judge.

My luck came just over a year ago, the very first week that I relocated to Great Britain: I decided to give the app once last chance. This time it was a soul match, and it has since then brewed into something absolutely beautiful and meaningful.

Looking back, I can’t say for sure whether those initial bumps I hit in the dating app world were a result of me being unwise, unlucky, or both. Sometimes I still envy those friends back home who have had their sweet-sixteen partners all these years – those who never had to muster the courage to start a dating profile, just to find chances, however slim, to be loved. But I don’t regret having experienced dating apps and I’m even happy that I picked them up during my time in Philadelphia. Amidst dramatically painful episodes here and there, I came to critically question my philosophy of dating back home and whether it was naive to believe in scarless, non-political love. I started to comprehend that cultural stereotypes about relationships could be dangerously misleading.

While love can be simple sometimes, humans are not, and ‘testing the waters’ turns out to not be a bad approach after all. The rough experiences helped me grow and develop a more mature outlook about what it means to love. In retrospect, memories that were once soul-breaking now feel like interesting stories to tell. They now feel ever so invigoratingly real.

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