On the fast track to love

By Ye Jun Source:Global Times Published: 2011-8-11 8:41:00

Hailed as a quick and easy way to find romance, speed dating events have served to open up a bigger dating pool for the city's internationally minded singles. Photo: CFP

Magpies are hard to find on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, as they have flown to make a bridge for the Cowherd and the Weaving Maid, according to Chinese legend. While the star-crossed lovers were meeting on Chinese Valentine's Day last Saturday, a dozen lovelorn expats and local white-collar workers also had the opportunity to meet, not over a bridge of crows, but through speed dating.

In an international city where work always comes first and free time is precious, it is not surprising that speed dating events catering to English-speaking participants emerged a few years ago. Since then, the city's dating scene has been enriched by a small, but steadily growing number of speed dating events.

While it is still uncertain whether such a bare-bones approach to courtship helps or hinders the intricacies of intercultural relationships, local organizers have helped open up a bigger dating pool for internationally minded professionals looking for open-minded partners with overseas backgrounds.

"I think speed dating is relatively effective in the sense that by meeting a lot of people in one evening you have a better chance of finding someone you like. To me it's much better than going to a bar, but not as good as being introduced through friends," a French Canadian who goes by his Chinese name Cheng Bowen, told the Global Times. "As most foreigners have no family and few local friends in Shanghai, it is one of the few ways for us to meet people."

Quest for romance  

Hailed as a quick and easy way to find romance, speed dating was originally invented by a rabbi to help Jewish singles meet other Jewish singles. It first took off in a Beverly Hills café in 1998 and soon gained worldwide popularity, especially in modern metropolises where busy professionals find it hard to meet potential partners through traditional means.

Following the typical format of Western predecessors, local speed dating events, which cost around 100 ($15) to 200 yuan, usually require preregistration via phone or the Internet, though walk-ins also occur. Men and women are partnered up and chat from four to eight minutes, with the men moving to the next table after each interval. At the end of the event, participants turn in a list of people who they are interested in meeting again, and the organizers provide contact details for matched couples. Some local organizers incorporate ice-breaking games and prizes for the most popular participants.

"We began hosting speed dating parties for English speakers about three and a half years ago," Chen Danting, founder of OK, Deal! - an international social networking club established in 2007 - told the Global Times. "We started on a once-a-month basis, but in recent years we sometimes hold two events a month. Every time about 30 to 40 participants will attend."

"There are many factors in Shanghai facilitating international dating," James Farrer, associate professor of sociology at Sophia University in Tokyo, who is an expert in Shanghai urban culture, told the Global Times. "The local people's high English proficiency and the increasing Chinese skills of overseas people coming to Shanghai, the relative lack of racial barriers and religious taboos, the relatively liberal local sexual culture and the increasingly large and young foreign population have all contributed to the increasing phenomenon of intercultural dating in Shanghai," Farrer said.

Most of the serial daters in Shanghai are white-collar workers aged between 25 to 40, looking for someone with an international background, said Ma Jia, an event assistant at OK, Deal!, adding that more often than not Chinese American men turn out to be the most popular according to end-of-party matching results.

While intercultural couples - in most cases Chinese women and Western men - are a common sight on Shanghai's streets, Chinese women who are particularly interested in getting foreign dates are no longer known as "gold-diggers" or "Green Card seekers." With fewer Chinese women wanting to leave China permanently and more foreign men looking to stay in China in view of the growing Chinese economy, there are fewer people seeking "practical benefits" through dating across national borders, said Farrer, author of Opening Up: Youth Sex Culture and Market Reform in Shanghai.

Instead, a sense of adventure and internationality appears to be common characteristics among these couples. They look for new challenges and excitement. They are open to new experiences in new cultures, not restraining themselves to one country, Zhang Lili, a master's degree holder in intercultural communication, concluded in her research on relationship development between Chinese-Western couples in Shanghai back in 2006.

Struck by Cupid's arrow

Although it is hard to pin down the attraction between people from different cultures, stereotypes play a large role in stimulating these mixed unions, Cooper Wakefield from the University of Kansas who researches and teaches interpersonal and intercultural communication, told the Global Times.

"In general, the Western stereotypes of Chinese women are that they are exotic, mysterious and submissive, while Chinese women generally believe that Western men are more faithful, less spoiled, more equal and more romantic," Wakefield said.

This is exemplified in the case of a Chinese woman surnamed Zou who refers to herself as Anne. "I like the fact that European men are more explicit when it comes to showing their affection. Chinese men are less likely to put on a public display of their love for you. The idea of hugging or kissing in public makes me feel excited," the 27-year-old who has had Italian and American boyfriends, told the Global Times.

For some, the attraction comes from an interest in their partner's culture. "I've always felt more comfortable in the company of Chinese men, since their culture is more in tune with who I am," US born Jocelyn Eikenburg, an English/Chinese translator who married a Chinese man and blogs about intercultural relationships, said, adding that she's actually "incredibly shy and not so direct with people."

For some however the union with somebody from another culture is in tune with what the world is shaping into. "The future is really about globalization. I really want my kids to grow up in a multicultural family, and the mix of North America and Chinese is very powerful for a child," Cheng Bowen from Vancouver said. "I think it's for the children's career, for understanding the world, and languages of course."

The economics academic who's in his 40s said he's only dated Chinese girls in the past 20 years and that he's looking for a girl of "marriage quality."

While cultural differences may attribute to some extent to the chemistry between couples, it is arguable that attraction is derived a lot from character and varies from person to person. "I think that most of the people who are dating across ethnic or national boundaries simply happen to find a partner within their social circles or leisure activities and that partner happens to be from another country or ethnic group," Farrer said.

Fighting chemistry

Taking differences in dating etiquette as well as cultural values and customs into account, intercultural couples tend to experience more conflicts during a courtship.

"Chinese people are not good at communicating with their partners. When they have a problem, they tend to let it go, forget about it. They don't try to confront the problem whereas we tend to fight," Jean-Christophe Gras, a 26-year-old French national who works in sales in media industry, said.

For many Westerners, saying "I love you" is a big step in a relationship, a sign that you are really serious and invested; while love is usually implied among Chinese couples through actions such as sending you all the way to the door of your apartment, Eikenburg said.

"When Chinese do verbalize their feelings, they tend to use softer terms than what we are used to, such as 'I like you' because the word for love packs quite a punch in Chinese," she added. "Not surprisingly, many Chinese with foreigners actually feel more comfortable saying 'I love you' in a foreign language."

Although there may be more conflicts down the road, intercultural couples make the passion last longer, Cheng Bowen said. He said that an important lesson he learned from his first relationship with someone from his own culture is that "with someone in your own culture, you get bored a lot faster because you are thinking the same, but there's no growth," he said, adding that while the ability to resolve conflicts smoothly is important in any relationship, intercultural relationships have the advantage of "testing" this capability earlier on.

A tricky shortcut

Speed dating may get people on a fast track to love, but the road to romance remains a long and winding one. It takes an average of 75 hours and costs £500 to find a new love, while finding a sexual partner takes 50 hours of dating, according to research done by professors at Humboldt University in Germany who simulated a real speed dating environment on 384 volunteers, the Daily Mail reported last year.

Cheng Bowen, who has participated in speed dating events three times, said he hasn't had any success in finding Miss Right. "Maybe the high volume of candidates we meet in speed dating makes everybody even pickier. There is often only one girl and one boy that everybody likes and the rest just look 'not good enough' compared to him or her," he said.

While how effective speed dating is for hectic singles remains controversial, local organizers also need to improve their services. In one local speed dating event male participants ended up at a table with three women and had to talk to all three at the same time, due to insufficient control of the gender ratio. "We strive to get the same number of men and women, but we almost always get more women than men signing up. It's harder to attract male participants," Chen Danting with OK, Deal! said.

At another local event, a Dutch pilot who was staying in Shanghai for the night told the Global Times that he was actually "occupied," though he added that he would be honest with the other participants about his relationship status. Founder of Shanghai SpeedDate Shu Lu, who goes by the name Dallas Rose, said she was unaware that he was already committed.

"We advertise our events for singles, but that night my partners might have forgotten to make the rules clear when they were asking patrons in the bar to participate. It's not easy to balance the gender ratio. Sometimes people show up late or don't come at all," she told the Global Times, adding that in the future they will enforce the admission rules more strictly and strive to be more responsible for their participants.

"We are hoping to hold events on a weekly basis in the future, and provide special nights for particular groups of people (such as people working in a particular industry). We will also offer tips for participants about how to attract the opposite sex," said Dallas Rose, who is in her 20s. She started organizing international speed dating events about four months ago.

Three women chat to one man at a speed dating event. Gender imbalances can be common at speed dating events in Shanghai. Photos: Courtesy of Lu Kai

Posted in: Metro Shanghai

blog comments powered by Disqus