Five years ago, disenchanted with the trajectory of my career back in the U.S., I made the decision to move to Asia — first South Korea and then Shanghai, China — for work purposes.
In some ways, being a black woman in South Korea and China was relatively easy. Compared to America, both countries are relatively safe. I have been lucky not to experience any type of assault or harassment, unlike in America where I was often subjected to street harassment. Being black in America felt like I constantly had a target on my back.
While I haven’t been singled out, I certainly haven’t been catered to either. Both Asian countries that I’ve lived in are largely homogenous with their own beauty standards that hold up white skin as a premium. Being in a culture with almost no black people also means that things I once took for granted, like makeup and hair care products, are largely inaccessible.
It’s hard to say if I experience more or less racism while being black in Asia. When it comes to my life in Asia, I’ve never really felt as if there was a systemic or historical agenda against me or people with my skin color. But while I may not have to worry about police brutality, I have seen job postings that contain phrases like “white teacher only,” or “Obama skin teacher okay.” People also take endless pictures of me on the sly, and I’ve been offered skin bleaching cream because apparently the Shanghai sun is making my skin “too dark.” Living here is its own special kind of soul-crushing.
After a year spent in South Korea teaching English as a second language, I made the move to Shanghai, China, where I taught ESL again before transitioning into the world of media. Career-wise, I’ve made many strides that have made my move abroad worthwhile. But when it comes to interpersonal relationships, particularly that of the romantic variety, life in Asia has left much to be desired.
Throughout my 20s and early 30s, I only had two relationships that both spanned less than six months. I have always yearned for something more than casual. Instead, I’ve spent the bulk of my time here single — but not for lack of trying.
For one thing, the expat life can be a rather transient one. Many people in Asia, usually ESL teachers, move abroad for short-term work contracts lasting about a year. As such, it often feels like I’m in a perpetual adult gap year cycle meeting people who want to jump into bed with me not long after figuring out how to pronounce my name correctly.
Many people I encounter in the dating scene, including expats, seem to assume that hooking up is the default expectation. Once, while I was browsing a popular dating app, a man messaged me a polite introductory message. Upon perusing his profile, I saw that he was only seeking hookups. At first I tried to just ignore him, but when he circled back wanting to know why I left his message on “read,” I let him know that I was looking for something more than just a hookup. Offended by my honesty, he scoffed, “This is Shanghai. Good luck with that.”
A woman on another dating app had similar things to say when I told her I wasn’t interested in a threesome with her and her boyfriend. I wanted to date someone not already in a relationship, to which she informed me: “That’s gonna be a hard stretch.”
Dating locals hasn’t been very fruitful for me either. South Korean and Chinese cultures both seem to worship all things having to do with whiteness, from skin bleaching to double eyelid surgery. As a black woman, I don’t fit into either society’s standards of beauty.
When I talk to friends back home about my lack of dating prospects, they often sheepishly reply, “Maybe it’s because of where you live?” For all the things that Asia has given me, a robust dating life is not one of them. East Asia is generally not a place where anyone goes with the intention of dating black women.
I often feel invisible, which can breed an air of desperation that I’m sure isn’t very attractive. As a result, I’ve made some really bad dating decisions —involving myself in verbally and mentally abusive situations, dating people who were unavailable to me and settling for less than what I wanted and deserved. I’m sure my singledom has been a self-fulfilling prophecy in some ways.
Still, it’s hard for me to discount my loneliness and desire for companionship.
Moving abroad was essentially my way of leaning into not only my career, but also my personal wanderlust desires. But as I get older, I realize it’s likely not possible for me to keep up this lifestyle while also obtaining long-lasting companionship and possibly building a family.
My friends’ words often echo in my ears. I’ve been thinking more and more about moving back to America in search of the relationship that I desire. Perhaps I do need to live and date someplace where there are people who look more like me. I’m not getting any younger, and I need to face the fact that maybe I am getting in my own way by continuing to live in Asia as a black woman.
On the other hand, many people I know back home and abroad have shaky dating experiences. Many of my “happily” coupled friends argue excessively, feel unfulfilled or stifled by their partners, or just go through the motions simply because they have an apartment lease together. Sometimes I have to remind myself not to be envious of others: Finding love and maintaining a healthy relationship is hard no matter where you live.
For now, I’m working to find a healthy balance in my life as a single woman. I’m trying not to come from a place of scarcity. Instead I want to enjoy my days and be happy with the experiences I’m able to have.
I recently moved to Thailand to build up my remote and freelance writing business. While I likely won’t find the love of my life here either, at least I have myself.