Lessons from Dating: When Race Does and Doesn’t Matter

My last serious boyfriend met my parents for the first time at my grandmother’s wake. It didn’t mean to happen that way, but the night showed me how race played a role in so many of my relationships whether I had noticed them or not.

B was one example. We first met at a national student conference with very few other visible minorities around, so as another Chinese-Canadian he easily stuck out to me. On the final night, we ended up sitting at the same dinner table, hitting it off and trying to do long-distance for five weeks afterwards.

B and I were both layout design nerds and heavily involved in our university student newspapers, but it was the cultural stuff that really bonded us on that first night together in the middle of the Canadian Prairies. We were both raised in Canada, spoke Cantonese, had the same favourite dish, and childhoods full of time on ice skates and strict discipline at home. Despite being from Montreal, I found out B’s dad had owned a counterfeit-DVD store in the same suburban plaza in Markham, Ontario where I had my first job. And yet, we had somehow found each other in Saskatoon. It seemed like a situation out of a movie.

We filled the weeks of long-distance with near-daily Skype calls, long strings of text messages and ambitious plans for my visit. We were giddy with how much we liked each other and the cultural things we already understood. My 20-year-old overactive imagination kicked into overdrive, and visions of him talking to all my relatives at the wedding in both languages soon filled my head.

Even though we broke up soon after I went to see him in Montreal, the experience helped me understand the popularity of services like JDate. Dating someone from the same background often means they automatically have a better understanding of your language, food, culture and/or customs. There are so many things you don’t have to explain or apologize for. You can be more of yourself.

M showed me how someone from another background and culture could cross that divide anyway. A 6’4″ French-Canadian banking strategist originally from Northern Ontario, M comes from a pretty different place than me. We became good friends after bumping into each other regularly at events and after he picked up rock climbing.

We started dating last summer after we had been friends and rock climbing partners for well over a year. By then we were spending lots of time together and I knew he genuinely liked the real me. He had already seen all my flaws and plenty of moments when I was at my worst, like whenever I screamed during 30-foot lead-falls. I found him sweet, caring, smart and fun to hang out with. Friends mock-complained it was been obvious we should have gotten together earlier.

When my grandmother died and M asked to come to the funeral, I was a little bit nervous. It wasn’t just because we had only been dating a few weeks. This would also be the first time he would be meeting my parents. Many of my relatives, family friends and former work colleagues would also be there.

My mother ended up suggesting he come to the viewing the night before instead, as it would be less formal and I would be able to spend more time with him.

M ended up surprising everyone. When M initially asked me if he could come, he also had some thoughtful questions that made it clear he had researched Chinese funeral customs, like when he asked about the small white envelopes given to each visitor.

The night of the wake, I worried he might initially be mistaken for one of my aunt’s banking colleagues, so I let the receptionists know in advance. My sister’s best friend and a family friend had volunteered and they became pretty excited. Word spread quickly. For such a somber moment, he was a positive distraction. When he arrived, everyone turned to look at us when we entered the chapel.

“Mom, Dad, this is M.”

Watching my parents shake hands with him while relatives were craning their necks to get a view and my grandmother’s open coffin lied a few feet away was a little surreal, but the smiles everywhere gave a bit of a lift to the night’s otherwise dark and somber mood.

Soon afterwards, the wake was over and M was invited to dinner. My parents asked if he minded Chinese food. Outside the restaurant, he and my dad shared a smoke. M met all my cousins on my mother’s side and my sister chastised me for not talking with him more at our “kids” table. Under the circumstances, the introduction was a great success.

This relationship fell apart for other reasons related to distance. But whenever I told the story to friends, it always struck me as a great example of how someone could cross the cultural-difference divide in a relationship. All you needed was genuine interest and effort. Love and care would help you find a way to understand.

A showed me how much I unfairly assumed about people of a similar background.

I met A during my backpacking trip when we had both randomly signed up for the same Salar de Uyuni tour, crossing the Dali-like salt flats of southern Bolivia. I soon learned A was a Chinese-Italian Londoner living in Western Australia. You generally don’t see a lot of Asian backpackers in South America, so we gravitated towards each other right away.

We ended up dating for a total of two weeks spread across three other countries. On three separate instances people mistook us for an engaged or married couple, which just added more pain to our inevitable separation on Christmas Eve when he flew back to Melbourne.

I found out despite speaking seven very different languages and his mother’s fluency, A didn’t speak or understand any Cantonese beyond simple phrases like “joh-sun” (“good morning”), “joh-tow” (“good evening”) and “say-jei” (slang for “stupid boy”). It pained him a little how much I knew in comparison. And while his near-flawless Spanish meant he handled 90% of the conversations with local people, I was the one who ordered Chinese food for us in Cantonese on a random night in Buenos Aires.

Yet despite this huge rift in language and the simple fact that one of his parents was Italian, I still assumed A knew a lot of the same things about Chinese culture that I did. When I was perplexed he didn’t know about egg tarts or the term “gai lack” (slang for “junk you do not need”), he sternly set me straight. He reminded me he had grown up with completely different set of experiences and just because he didn’t know those things didn’t make him more or less Chinese than me.

Even though A had a dramatically different upbringing and background, he was one of the few people I met in Latin America who really understood what it was like to have their personal identity pointed out or questioned on a near-daily basis. In countries like Peru, Bolivia and even tourist-heavy Costa Rica, people often said “Konichiwa!”, asked if I was Korean, or made slanted eye faces at me. When locals and other backpackers asked me where I was from and I replied, “Canada”, at least 80% of the time they would reply, “No, where are you really from?” To them, my answer was simply not enough, they had to know where my parents were born. Once, I railed back at a African-French girl. “Are my parents travelling with me? No. I’m from Canada.”

A’s fluency in Spanish didn’t deter inquisitive locals and other travellers from the same follow-up questions. At a high-end buffet restaurant in Buenos Aires he nearly erupted after the waiter asked us about our background only a few minutes after we had sat down at our table. “We just wanted to order wine,” I remember telling him. “Why do people always want to know?”

Despite the fact that we had met by accident and we knew exactly when our time together would come to an end, at one point I began referring to A as my boyfriend out of convenience when asking about hostels, talking to locals and sometimes in my head. At the end of our two weeks together, A called me his first Chinese girlfriend.

Looking back, similar backgrounds and interest in Chinese culture certainly helped me bond with these three men. But the reasons why these relationships ultimately didn’t work out had nothing to do with race. They’re the same reasons why any other relationship falls apart: distance, compatibility and commitment issues.

After dating B and A, I’ve realized how appealing it would be to date another person of East-Asian descent. They would be much more likely to have a better understanding of where I’ve come from and why I would want my kids to learn Cantonese or Mandarin. But they would also have to be a very specific type of person who is similar to me: born or mainly raised in a Western country, educated, athletic, interested in the arts, travel and food. Someone who has recently moved from China, Hong Kong or Taiwan will have a very different culture, relationship with their parents and ideas about women’s roles.

My parents have resigned themselves to the likelihood I won’t marry someone Chinese. This isn’t just because of the type of person I’m looking for is very specific, but that I’m far more likely to find it in someone who’s white. My values, interests and appearance are more of a typical Canadian twenty-something than traditional Chinese from Beijing. I am, as they say, a banana.

What I have or do not have in common with someone based on their race and background ultimately becomes part of a wider picture of similar interests. And while it the issue may be much more multi-faceted, someone’s compatibility and attractiveness are often just as much determined by traits unspecific to race like honesty, kindness and sense of humour and simple things like favourite music, sports or hobbies.

Even though we might “look” good together, someone’s Chinese or East-Asian background wouldn’t keep me in a relationship that clearly isn’t working. And if the next person I’m in a long-term relationship with isn’t Chinese or East-Asian, I would expect them to care enough about me to try and make an effort to understand, just like M did.

This post was inspired by the work of EthnicAisle, a project about race, ethnicity and multicultural issues that I’m thrilled to be a part of. I also highly recommend reading John Michael McGrath’s Ethnic Aisle piece 8 Simple Rules for Marrying a Chinese Woman.


1 thought on “Lessons from Dating: When Race Does and Doesn’t Matter

  1. jlin

    I had a few dates with someone I met online. She was a 5’9, British, blondish, grey eyed beauty who spoke English with a lilt that just lit up all the lights in my head. However, the kicker is that she spoke incredibly fluent Chinese and reads simplified Chinese much better than I can. When we talked, we started interspersing English and Chinese phrases throughout our conversations. It was magical and amazing to find someone with whom I can communicate on that level. We talked about English books, and then about Chinese books. And then we started talking about Spanish culture and Brazilian culture. It was pretty amazing. BUT it didn’t work out because while we were speaking the same language, our values and cultural norms were totally different. I realised that just because we spoke the same words, we didn’t automatically believe the same things. I was born in bustling Taipei, followed by a long childhood in wild, beautiful British Columbia. I camped out as a kid and slept under the stars. She comes from Manchester, the urban industrial UK city that it is – and lived around the world for many years, including Brazil, Washington DC, various countries in Eastern Africa, China (where I have only set foot once briefly). And the cultural difference was just too great. We got along fine, but we were talking past each other. It was exhausting to bridge the gap.

    The experience with her taught me that I could imagine myself being with people outside of the stereotypical norms – tall Caucasian English women can speak Chinese in an authentic Beijing accent (imagine that …). And I think she was shocked that I as an Asian Canadian spent six years of my life immersed in the study of English Literature, and that I knew Shakespeare and the King James Bible better than any of her friends and family back in the UK.

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