Life and Love in the Expatriate World

Here’s an article about the hardships with foreign women face living in Asia. Some of it comes as no surprise to me, but anyway, it’s worth a read.

This is a story that reinforces stereotypes that some people will reject, and other people, like Julie Sleva, will endorse wholeheartedly: For single Western men, Asia can be a paradise of exotic, beautiful women more than willing to pamper them and inflate their egos. The perks of an expat life — low-priced maids, company-paid drivers and members-only clubs — relieve married couples of many of life’s daily hassles, including the chores of child-rearing.

But for single Western Caucasian women like Ms. Sleva, it’s a different story. Accomplishments in the office are often overshadowed by solitary private lives, and even the most casual Saturday-night date with a man is a distant memory. Many such women feel that their chances of having relationships are negligible while they stay in Asia.

Some of the comments in this article really do ring true—you do sometimes see the most terribly ugly or nasty men with beautiful women here; you often do see single women who don’t deal well with their sudden lack of attention, as many foreign men heap attention on the local women, sometimes drinking or binge eating to deal with it—but then again, I think there’s a simplification going on in this article.

Let me state clearly that, no, Asia is not a playground of thousands of beautiful women knocking on mens’ doors. Some men spend a long time here alone. I think they are probably a bit like Mr. Mirmand in the article, who wants more from a relationship than just a compliant wife, or just “the easy way”.

Take me, for example. During two years in Korea, I had a couple of very short relationships and spent most of my time socializing with students, or bandmates (I was lucky enough to fall in with a rock band crazy enough to take in a saxophonist), or strangers with whom I had less in common with than many of my students, and with whom conversations were so unfulfilling I went to the lengths of creating a website.

Wait, was my life a hell of loneliness in Korea? No, no, not that. Nothing like that. Sometimes it felt that way, a little; but often that was a hell of my own creation, my little vice of partaking in my own internal dramas a little too exuberantly. I had my friends (who included my bandmates); I had a number of Korean friends about whom I cared (and still care) about deeply.

But meeting a woman who I could actually understand and relate to, and who could understand and relate to me, with whom I had something in common, who had a strong mind and with whom I could learn and develop(something I need in a relationship), that proved impossible for me for over two years.

It was only by chance that I met my current girlfriend, Lime, and in her found someone I could find these things I was on the lookout for. Believe me, they were not qualities that every Korean woman presented to me. Sure, there were (a few) nice girls who were open to dating me, but most of them had too little English to really participate in a relationship of the kind I wanted, and those who did either were already deeply entrenched in the Foreigner Society that I myself have little interest in hanging around with, or else they weren’t interested in being with a foreign man.

And then, of course, there was the question of click, of fitting together. There were times when I thought I felt or saw it, but was I was seeing was a woman who spoke enough English to disagree with me. Sometimes I went through a couple of uncomfortable coffee-dates, or a few outings to the bar; in one case I made a fool of myself… and in all those cases, I later realized, what I’d thought I’d recognized as “click” was something else… often stifled interest of women who were curious but also afraid of foreign men; or women who were pretty much just out to experiment with a foreign man; or who just wanted a little English-practice.

And I came, eventually, to resemble Ms. Sleva in the article in my attitude. I found ways to fill up my life; I became busy at my computer surfing the web or writing, busy with swimming, busy practicing saxophone (yes, there was a time when I actually practiced that thing), busy at whatever I was doing to fill my evenings. Those days were hard, especially because I was cut off from a deeper network of friends I’d had back in Canada, because at times I was surrounded by people who hadn’t known me long enough to be reasonably expected to care about me. Sometimes that’s the hardest part of life in the Foreigner-World, the seeing people come and go and sometimes coming and going yourself. You see Koreans and foreigners alike hurt from the broken bonds of all this transience.

What changed it? For me, I’d like to say it was dumb luck, but it was also, I think, a case of a change in attitude. Surely, it was a stroke of luck that Lime’s plane and mine were both delayed and arrived at around the same time; surely it was a lightning-strike’s likelihood that our paths would cross or that we’d sit near one another on the bus.

But there was also conscious effort on my part, something I’d been working on since before I’d gone to India, and which I’d worked on even more while there, that I walked into my first evening in Korea with my eyes and mind open. I didn’t plug my headphones into my ears and board the bus as a zombie. Exhausted as I was, when I met someone interesting, I made the effort to stay awake and talk with her. This was part of a bigger change in attitude which, I have to say, came from being in India, being with some very good friends in India, though the groundwork was laid by some of my friends here in Korea. It was part of my whole approach to life as being certain that there was good all over, and that to pick up on it, one needed to be “open” to it. It’s a subtle attitude change, and one that profoundly affects the way people respond to you.

And the person I met, the person who started the conversation, was not just some girl who wanted to practice her English; she wasn’t some weirdo who wanted to “try it” with a white man; she was one of those people that you’re astounded to meet, somone with depth and breadth of thought and emotion, with real interests and passions, creativity and imagination and wit.

This is not something that happens only to men. Women can and do achieve it, even in Asia. I’m not saying it’s easy: but I am saying that most of the men you see out there, the guys walking the street with their pretty little “Asian princesses” are living in profoundly frustrated, unfulfilling relationships; that, or they’re so shallow that someone like Ms. Sleva wouldn’t want to waste her time with them anyway.

For those of us who want more than just someone to sleep with and sit through movies with us, meeting a partner of quality is hard anywhere, and if white women feel it’s harder for them than for white men in Asia, they’re probably right… but they should not confuse the freedom to play in the short-term with finding a really fulfilling and challenging and interesting relationship. That’s hard for everyone, everywhere.


Another thing that occurs to me is that in the article, and in conversations I’ve noticed, a lot of foreign women look with disdain on the idea of dating a “local” man (a mn of Asian background). This doesn’t necessarily make sense, though. While some foreigners date one another and even have good relationships, one does have to come to terms with the fact that the numbers of foreigners in any given Asian country are limited. Your chances of meeting someone who fits with you among the lower population are better than among the small expatriate population, statistically speaking, just as your chances of finding anything in the local population is better than among the the expats.

What’s that, you say? There are cultural differences to be taken into account? The expectations held by an Asian man in a relationship are usually different from the expectations held by an Asian woman? Yes, certainly. But there are huge variations within culture, too. Most expats don’t really represent their cultures all that well, and they should know better than most people that in every culture there are people who don’t fit the mold and refuse to follow the program. To be frank, relationships with the average local rarely work out; it’s those with people who are genuinely different from their peers who stand out. Those are rare, albeit wonderful, people in both sexes. I think, in any case, that foreign women write off Korean men in general too quickly.

Before there’s a mad rush condemning me because “I don’t understand” or “I can’t know”, wait a minute. I mean that they write off all Korean men too quickly. For every Korean man who’s assumed a white woman is a sex toy waitintg to be unwrapped, there’s a Korean woman who thinks that sex is a good way to pay for English lessons. Men have unsavoury experiences with Korean women too, they just often take a lot longer to recognize it. Expat men really just tend toward the opposite direction from how women react; they’re not picky enough, and tend to involve themselves in sticky, messy situations time and time again. Expat men should perhaps be more picky, and their female counterparts should perhaps remember to try be open to the possibility that a Korean man might surprise them, might be genuinely different. I do know at least a couple of foreign women who are happy with Korean men, anyway.

The trick is finding someone you fit with, and whether it’s within your own culture or across cultures, it’s a very difficult proposition. The operative factor may even be openness… or patience… or persistence… or just plain luck.

Anyway, I’d like to credit Elizabeth Briel over at travel-itch, where I found this article. She’s got a pretty good blog over there in Busan.

4 thoughts on “Life and Love in the Expatriate World

  1. Gord,

    I’ve been miserable with bronchitis for a few weeks now, and today while I was out and about with my best friend, what was on my mind? It wasn’t to do with the beauty of the sunlight, the steambath that South Texas weather is, or the lovely Chinese guy I saw in the mall. These words of yours reminded me of my own unspoken frustration at having crossed paths with so many “short term” guys. Definitely not what I want in my life. It’s not enough that some guy thinks me cute, that he turns me scarlet with the merest of words. There has always been something deeper missing. He can look like Park Shin-Yang or Tony Leung, and that won’t make a bit of difference if we can’t express ourselves on a certain level I’ve become atuned to. Gods, how I’d love a man I could really talk to and who didn’t rail on endlessly about how mind numbingly complex he finds me. I’m quite simple, really. ^^ Seriously, sometimes I wonder if the man exists that will meet me halfway, the guy I can truly share with, who will dance away the nights with me to Cole Porter, John Coltrane & Johny Hartman, Chet Baker… Can he possibly exist?


    Someday I shall be sitting at this desk, or another very like it, pecking away at whatever writing shall mean to me in that time. In the background the ringing of a phone cut off by a mans voice uttering one beautiful word: “Yoboseyo.” Nae chingu, wait for me in this life.

  2. Dating and possibly building a life with a man in Asia, or here for that matter, wouldn’t be such a problem for me, I’d like to think. If anything, I’d be quite happy getting to know some nice Hangeuk man. I must say, it saddens me a little to hear how surprised some men have been upon learning that west ocean women may appreciate them and their cultures. Those who haven’t eyes to see, nor ears to hear with, are missing out on so much.

  3. Heh, I’ve always had the same problem in any country I live in – there aren’t many people in the world i “click” with on any level.

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