Half the world away

By Yin Lu Source:Global Times Published: 2015-11-22 20:03:01

Transpacific relationships, a struggle for Beijing expats

Expats in a transnational long-distance relationship often rely on their phone to keep their love alive. Photo: IC

Whenever Tony Ryan (pseudonym), 30, and his girlfriend see each other, there is always a weird couple of minutes at the beginning.

"Wow, I can touch your face instead of a two-inch image on a computer screen," Ryan would say.

Then they would fall right back into sync, as if she never left, as if standing in arrivals at the airport is not the first time in months that they have been in the same time zone together.

The two have been dating for five years, three and a half of which were spent on two different continents. Ryan works in media and communications in Beijing, and his Chinese girlfriend Li lives in New York.

They met in Beijing only a few months after Ryan moved to China from the UK, when Li was a university student. She later left to do her master's in the US.

Now, having graduated, Li has found a job and has decided to live in New York; Ryan is leaving Beijing to reunite with her.

While their long-distance love is finally coming to a happy ending, there is still a number of expats in Beijing who are struggling with transnational long-distance relationships. As the cold, smoggy weather dawns, it makes it even harder for the city's departed lovers at this time of year.

In an internationalized cosmopolitan city like Beijing, transnational long-distance relationships among expats are increasingly common. Photo: IC

Keeping the spark alive 

"Three, two, one, go!"

"Pause! Go! No, wait… I am at 32 minutes 22 seconds, you?"

It's movie night. Ryan and his girlfriend are trying to watch a movie together despite the time lag between the two continents. "It's kind of like a date, but it's just a replacement for having a proper relationship, for being able to come back and sit down to have some food and talk about the day," Ryan said.

As a long-distance couple coping with a 12-hour time difference, they have built a daily routine. They call each other on Skype or WeChat at least twice a day - morning and evening and have movie nights where they would log in to Netflix (a video streaming service in the US) and try to hit the play button for the same movie at the same time.

"It [having a routine] was good, but we needed to spend real time together," he said. 

All their holidays were spent visiting each other. But even taking a trip together differed from other couples.

"My friends who go on holidays with their partners are excited about the trip, but we are just excited to see each other and want to stay in the hotel for a week," he said.

Instead of experiencing a different culture, it's more important for the couple to reconnect with each other.

When embarking on a long-distance relationship, Ryan said couples need to be prepared for the changes and challenges it will bring.

"It's going to change the way you structure your life," he said. "Every relationship changes your life, but this kind makes you struggle in a middle ground where you are kind of single but still have an emotional commitment to somebody."

Together, apart 

The cold winter in Beijing adds to Will Gorst (pseudonym)'s loneliness. A month has gone by since Gorst, a British fashion designer, visited his girlfriend in the US. "A few weeks feel like a year. It really changes your perception of time, he said. "The weeks before you meet are pretty easy and time goes by fast because you are preparing. After, when you are alone again, the distance is back in charge."

Gorst met his girlfriend, a college student on an exchange program from the US, in Beijing in early July. They had dated for only three weeks before she went back to the US.

While their meet-cute happened in Beijing's most "amazing" season, Gorst said, it is winter and, like a pathetic fallacy, the cold not only mirrors how he feels but makes it especially difficult to maintain a long-distance relationship.

"It's more than the cold; it's the grayness. Everything loses its color and just goes gray. It's like a black-and-white film," he said.

"Being a foreigner here makes it difficult to fully understand what's happening around you. This can lead to a certain detachment from the place," Gorst explained, adding, "It's very easy to get lost in it, and you end up missing your partner very much."

Staving off insecurity

Sometimes Gorst feels uneasy.

"I am envious of the people who get to spend time with her whenever they want while I can't," he confessed.

Gorst and his girlfriend both had long-distance relationships before. What ended his previous relationship was not working out a plan.

"We didn't try hard enough to communicate," he said, adding that he hated long-distance relationships and didn't expect to be in one again.

"You put a lot emotionally on that person. But that person is on the other side of the world," he said.

Ryan agrees on the importance of constant communication. "You need to make the effort to talk every day or every other day. Otherwise, insecurity will come in."

"I only felt insecure when we were not able to talk. I would start thinking to myself, 'What the hell am I doing?' or 'This relationship is doomed,'" he said.

"But [talking to her again] would remind me of how much I love her and how great we are together."

Christine Forte, a mental health counselor at Balanced Heart Counseling in Shanghai, has worked with a lot of couples that are in this very situation.

She said transnational long-distance relationships, which often include multicultural factors, are happening more often, "because people are more mobile in the world."

Forte said that communication and connecting with your partner is the biggest challenge in long-distance relationships that have a multicultural aspect.

"The connection you feel when you are physically with somebody is different from talking over the phone," she said.

"It can cause difficulties to the overall attachment that people have for each other; it can feel like they build separate lives."

She also noted that when a couple has an argument, a part of the make up process would probably involve some kind of physical intimacy, like a hug or kiss, but when the two parties are apart, this level of intimacy is not possible.

Trust issues can also come up, especially if one or both of the parties have had trust issues in a previous relationship, which can lead to insecurity or jealousy, she said.

Living in a metropolis like Beijing also poses challenges for long-distance relationships. The everyday stress of a fast-paced life and the abundant opportunity to meet new people may lead to a wandering eye.

However, Gorst said, for him, Beijing doesn't offer anything much in the way of temptation, which is what most people would usually get worried about when their loved ones are far away.

He finds the local culture of "sajiao (women acting like a spoiled child)" very repelling.

Meanwhile, Ryan thinks Beijing's active expat community and exciting nightlife are tempting, and there have been women who were romantically interested in him over the years. But the key to trusting each other lies in thinking it through thoroughly, he said.

"You need to know you are both making sacrifices and giving up opportunities."

A lasting bond

Gorst has great confidence in his transnational relationship. But he is still determined to close the distance soon. "I am not worried about drifting apart. It [the distance] drives us crazy, but not apart."

Forte agrees. "Long-term is probably not very sustainable," she said. "Their plan should not be to live permanently in different countries."

She suggests couples be apart one or two years at most.

"Ideally I want us to be together in a different place (not Beijing), making that happen, however, will mean making sacrifices but I think it's worth it," said Gorst.

The original plan for Ryan and his girlfriend was for them to reunite in Beijing after her graduation, but now they've decided to lead a life in New York. He is sentimental about leaving Beijing, a place filled with good memories - the place he fell in love.

"My girlfriend and I once spent the early hours of the morning looking for a 24-hour KFC in the city. We ended up sitting under a leaky AC duct surrounded by homeless people, but it was still a blast because we were together, having a ridiculous little adventure," Ryan said.

But still, he said he hopes he doesn't have to be a way from his girlfriend too long ever again.

"I am envious of couples who are able to spend all five years together," he said. "We are not going to get these three and a half year back."

Posted in: Metro Beijing

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