Love and Dating for International Students

With love in the air this week thanks to Valentine’s Day, our Facebook fan Abdirahman reminded us that love is universal. Dating, however, is not.  Romantic life in the U.S. isn’t what you’ve seen in TV and movies, but it might still be different from what you’re used to.

For Sadia, her first Valentine’s Day in the U.S. felt very similar to what she was used to from Pakistan:

Since my childhood I used to see, every year on Feb 14, girls and boys in Pakistan get crazy about Valentine ’s Day. They love buying gifts, like stuffed cuddly teddy bears, chocolate, perfumes, small red heart pillows or cushions, balloons and who can forget bouquet of red roses. This Valentine’s Day I saw the same hype here too, everyone is busy in shopping, getting extra deals in shopping malls, websites are announcing valentine day’s promotions on flower bouquet, fruit baskets, chocolates perfumes, dresses, and list is endless.

But Tara noted, on her personal blog, that Valentine’s Day gifts seemed different in America than back in China. Tara’s Taiwanese friend received a greeting card from her American boyfriend, and was disappointed. In Taiwan and China, it’s more typical to give a concrete gift.

Tara puzzled over whether the boyfriend was adhering to an American custom or just being cheap. “If I remember right,” she wrote, “my friend’s b-day [birthday] gift is also a card…” But that’s one of the perils of dating in the U.S. – there are few rules to dictate what is the “proper” behavior.

Dating Norms

New York University has an entire webpage devoted to explaining dating in the U.S., but their main conclusion is that there are no hard and fast rules. “The social rules governing romantic relationships in the United States are fluid and vary greatly among individuals,” they write.

For Farima, the lack of a strict social structure to govern dating makes it very different than what she was accustomed to back home in Afghanistan. She writes:

I didn’t even know what the word dating means when I first came to the US. I learned about dating which is a part of American culture while living in the US since two years.

In my country, Afghanistan people usually get married without dating. The two couples don’t date instead they get engaged. When a boy likes a girl the family of the boy goes to the girl’s house to ask for her hand. In order to get engaged, both the girl and the family of the boy should agree and say yes. If one of them doesn’t agree the engagement is not possible so the answer to the boys family will be no.

The boy and his family could be the relative of the girl or could be strangers. If the boy is a stranger then it is responsibility of the girl’s family to learn about the boy and his family. It is basically like a research project that the family finds out everything about the boy and his family and decides whether their daughter will be happy with them or not.

It also happens that two couples marry when they are in love and have already met each other. So, it might be called dating but there won’t be any sexual relations between them until they get married.

Sexual relations is one of the areas where dating in the U.S. may be least clear. According to NYU, “The media tends to convey the inaccurate idea that all Americans are readily available for sexual activity.” It’s not true, they say – sexual attitudes vary widely from person to person.

Jairo dated American girls when he was an international student from Venezuela, and said the question of who “makes the first move” was always the most difficult part. But he described his time in the U.S., including the romantic aspects, as “the golden years of life.”

Making it Work for You

Sadia, who comes from Pakistan, says that even though she doesn’t want to date in the “American” fashion, she has found her friends very accepting of her personal preferences and limits:

My best friend is gay, my other friend is s lesbian, my teacher is a lesbian for 30 years and I don’t date with anyone, as I am from a culture where there is no room for intimacy unless you are into a legal married relationship. Wow…what a diverse background we share. Totally striking sexual preferences and orientation.

I go and hang out with my friends, we eat and pamper our taste buds, we go and play bowling, even go to clubs and we all still get our share of fun while being true to our inner values. I don’t consume alcohol, the rest of my group does and I love saying cheers while raising the toast with my glass of water or soda. I don’t date but I still have my best friends to celebrate Valentine’s Day in a pillow fight festival.

So if you are true to your values and your preferences no one can impose anything on you in this country. Learn to be true and be proud of who you are and learn to live with others while accepting their preferences. It will lead you create a whole lot of diverse pool of friends while you are away from home.

Dating Across Cultures

This is not to say that there won’t be some cultural misunderstandings.  I recently came across this great transcript of a news show put on by Japanese students studying in Hawaii. Hitomi reported on some of the pitfalls that her fellow classmates ran into when dating Americans:

You know, all couple have problems every time, but international couple have special problems. One of the most serious problems is communication. Especially, they said that it is difficult to communicate on phone because they can’t use body language. Also, it is hard to talk about serious issues between them. Many students said that they could not tell their detail feeling and make many misunderstandings when they had fight so that it was very stressful. Can you imagine? I think you have had boyfriend or girlfriend; didn’t you have fight with them? And, when you got anger you cannot control yourself and speak faster. It is too stressful, but for international couples this feeling come twice or more times than same nationality couples.

There is another problem about culture. Especially, Japanese students said that their American boyfriends do not take off their shoes when they enter the Japanese students’ room. For Japanese, it looks very dirty. And one of the Japanese boy said that his girlfriend was Islam and she worshiped every day, and while she was worshipping he could not speak to her so that it was annoying for him. There are so many differences between international couples, and the differences cause many argue.

But she also said that in an informal survey of her classmates, no one had ever broken up with a boyfriend or girlfriend because of cultural differences. Actually, “in the reality international couples break up the same as couples who are same nationalities,” said Mami, one of the anchors of the program.

Why do white guys get all the girls?

Mami, Hitomi, and co-anchor Kaori also discussed a common myth among international students, particularly Asians – that Asian boys have trouble getting dates in the U.S. because girls prefer to date white men. In their survey they found this to be untrue, leading Kaori to say, “Hey, Asian boys! You can make international girlfriends in the U.S.!!! Yeah!!!”

But it’s a pervasive idea. Tara discussed this topic on her blog in a post titled, “Why do white guys get all the girls?” And even Sadia has noticed:

My keen observation and finding in my year long stay is, usually Asian girls prefer dating with white guys as they are stereotyped with fun-loving, cool attitude, tall, and good financial background.

Jairo encountered myths about Latinos as well. He said that, because he came from Latin America, women often viewed him a certain way because of what he referred to as the “so-called ‘macho’ stuff.”

But José of Berkeley College Life emailed me to say:

I have also heard the same about some nationalities having it easier to find dates in the US. I think this is just a superficial thing, like being blonde or brunette. Some girls might find your accent, your skin tone or your hair color attractive or not, but I don’t think this is the kind of qualities that will make a girl fall in love with you. I think whether you come from Barcelona or you come from Tokyo, you should find someone who doesn’t chose you because of your nationality.

And when it comes to getting a date, sometimes the difficulty doesn’t lie with ethnic or cultural issues at all.  Sadia is studying in San Francisco, where she says her friends have hit a very different sort of roadblock:

My Asian friends from other parts of the States visited me and almost everyone after her stay mentioned one thing with disappointment: “Sadia, San Francisco guys are so cool but why all the cute guys are gays? Who should we date with?”

Love is Universal

In the end, says Jairo, “Dating between a US and a foreigner student should it take it normal, just like among you… love is the key ingredient and America is the melting pot for all races and different customs.”

Jose agrees, saying:

I think love is universal, but the circumstances change from place to place. Some cultures are more conservative than others about dating. However, I believe no matter where you come from, the feeling of loving someone is always the same. If you are really interested in someone from a different culture, you should just be careful enough to find a way to reach that person being considerate with her or his traditions and dating habits.

8 comments

  1. Tara, there are some hard and fast rules. A boyfriend that gives just a card is CHEAP and that’s the nicest thing I can say about him. Any self-respecting American girl would realize he wasn’t actually in the relationship and dump him.

    1. I think it’s important to recognize the importance of class privilege here. Not everyone can afford a huge gift on Valentine’s Day, that doesn’t make them a bad partner. And why is this gift giving so often one sided?

  2. I am American. My husband is Canadian. We fell in love and got married rather quickly. We never thought there was a problem with this. How wrong we were. Everyone thinks that when an American marries a Canadian that they become a citizen of the other country. Big time wrong folks. BIG TIME wrong. The immigration rules change when you have international love, especially when one of you is American. I should have consulted an immigration attorney before we got married, and especially before we travelled out of the US. Sadly, yes, we were one of those couples you hear about on the news; we were locked outside the US from January 2007 until May of 2009. Coupled with the timely economic downturn in 2008 and beyond, we lost our home, and just about every business venture we had going on anywhere. I figure we lost about $1M, but that total keeps going up with legal fees, etc. In short, fall in love as you wish, but if you are going to get any more serious than that, make sure you do your homework; PLEASE do not believe what everyone thinks – there are no automatic citizenships handed out once the rings go on. Just a word of advice from someone who has endured the immigration heartache.

    1. Jennifer, I actually havent met what you are talking about. At the same time I would not like to think that the US is in the business of breaking up bonafide marriages.

      Anyhow it is a strong point you raised for the USA is indeed the land of opportunity, and why would one return to their ‘shitty country’ if there is a chance of getting citizenry through a genuine love relationship.

  3. I simply cannot agree with the notion that giving only a Valentine’s card (or birthday card, or any other card) signifies a cheap partner, whether male or female. As Jaime notes, it can be a class thing…maybe a card is all that an individual can really afford. What’s more important, the material item or the sentiments of the individuals? To me, the answer is very easy.

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