My "movie star" theory of expat dating

Note: This blog post also ran in the Society of Professional Journalism’s “Journalism and the World” blog. Click here to see the original post.

I recently met a couple of expat women here in Shanghai who’ve given up on datting. I’m sure there are plenty of women (and men) back home as well who’ve given up, but when you’re overseas the problems feel worse. You have less in common with the people around you, there are no family members to set you on well-meaning blind dates, and there are few permanent social networks, like churches and sports leagues. Those that do exist are filled with people who are only in Shanghai temporarily, and too tied up with their own problems to worry about their single friends.

For women expats, the problems are particularly acute because of the economic (and height) differences with local men.

There are two ways to look at this. The doom-and-gloom, wait-to-get-back-home approach is one. I prefer the “Hollywood movie star” theory of expat dating.

According to this theory, being a Western woman in China and trying to date is a lot like being a Hollywood star back in the US. If you’re a male star and you walk into a bar, all the girls are all over you, telling you that you’re the sexiest, asking you to sign their boobs and giving you their phone numbers. If you’re a woman — say, Nicole Kidman — all the guys are too scared to go up to you. Except for a couple of weirdos, and some old ladies who ask you if your hair color is natural.

If you’re a female movie star, you’ve got a lot of competition — all the women in the world want to date male movie stars.

But you know, if I was Nicole Kidman (in my pre Keith Urban but post Tom Cruise days) I wouldn’t sit around and bemoan my fate. After all, I’m Nicole Kidman! If I walk into a bar, sure, everyone is scared of me. But all I have to do is crook my little finger and any guy will come running. After all, I’m Nicole Kidman!

So we Western women have to learn to do what Hollywood movie stars do.

First, they meet guys at work. After all, movie stars have a particular set of problems, and who better to understand than other movie stars? I think that’s why, even when they have all the women in the world to choose from, many male stars marry female stars.

Then, you date other guys in the industry. The producers, the directors, the key grips, the backup dancers. In expat terms, for a European or American women, this might mean reaching beyond the national groups you are closest to in culture to, say, South America or Eastern Europe.

Then you broaden the circle further. Hollywood stars date newspaper editors and lawyers and athletes and musicians. Broadening the comfort circle for Western women, this might mean going beyond your cultural comfort zone even further to say, other Asian countries — where the culture is Westernized to some extent, like Japan or South Korea.

Then, finally, movie stars sometimes date the “girl next door” or “guy next door.” Usually, there’s something particularly cool about the person, though. Here the cultural gap is the widest, but people sometimes still make it work. In China, this might translate to dating Chinese intellectuals or business executives. The benefits here include the fact that the regular guy or gal doesn’t have the personality problems and hangups associated with being a celebrity (or an expat). In China, you also get to practice Chinese. And there is a little leniency about your own bad behavior — after all, you’re a movie star (or a foreigner) — weird behavior is even expected.

When in Russia, I made a point of dating guys from every republic I worked in, and it was great. Occasionally, a guy would try to compare me to local girls — but it was usually in a positive way. I was more fun, more outgoing, more adventurous. Also taller, richer, and with an American passport, but nobody was gauche enough to mention this.

Did it bother me that maybe one reason guys was interested was because I was American? Not too much. After all, the reason guys are first interested in pretty girls is because they’re pretty. And girls are first attracted to guys because of their looks or jobs. But the reason they stay is because of deeper qualities. The looks, or the job, or whatever, just helps open the door a little bit.

So how do female movie stars get all those guys within and outside the industry? They have to be proactive and let guys know they’re interested. I guess it feels a little too much Elizabeth Taylor at
first, but what guy wants to be shot down by a movie star? It’s too humiliating. Especially if it happens in public. After all, every guy secretly dreams of being with a movie star — being turned down will mean that those dreams are gone for good.

Similarly, I think many men dream of meeting a glamorous, globe-trotting American or European woman and being whisked away to a life of adventure and excitement. (I’m not talking about my life here, of course.) But if they go up to that woman and she says no, then he will feel even poorer and more boring than he felt before.

But if the Hollywood movie star sends a friend over to tell him she thinks he’s cute or asks him for an innocuous favor — and then flatters him shamelessly afterwards — well, he might get up the nerve to ask her out.

Signing off in Shanghai — with high hopes —

— Maria