One of the entries that soak up the most hits on this blog is the group post on Chilean men that several gringa-in-Chile bloggers participated in last year. It doesn't surprise me. Before I first left for Chile -- and, a few years later, for Ecuador -- I too prowled Google for sneak peeks at the dating scene I was soon to confront. To be honest, I didn't learn much, probably because many of the expat blogs I came across were written by people who were married or in stable relationships, not hitting the bars. And those who were on the prowl were wise enough to keep the details to a minimum.
Sorry to disappoint, but I will be doing the same. I can, however, address a broader issue I've been thinking about recently: love of person vs. love of place.
For me, the experience that best illustrates this dilemma is a date I went on when I was studying abroad in Santiago. It was a second date with a very esthetically pleasing young man who picked me up at my host family's house and took me to the movies. For two agonizing hours, I sat stone-still in front of the screen debating whether or not I should continue to let the guy's uninvited hand sit awkwardly atop my own or banish it to the other side of the armrest. Unfortunately, I chose the former.
It was even more unbearable than our first date, when he spent an hour and a half spinning an epic tale that involved the glories of his teen modeling career, the droves of people who worshiped him when he was in a band, and his disdain for a younger brother who was a self-centered asshole for -- gasp! -- wanting to go to college. By the time he finally asked me a question, I was too disgusted to answer in detail.
I know what you're thinking. Why, oh why, would I grace the jerk with a second chance? No, it wasn't the fact that he was attractive. The real reason, as ridiculous as it sounds, was this: While strolling through one of my favorite areas in Santiago a few weeks after we'd first met, I had bumped into him on the sidewalk in front of his family's mechanic shop. That's it. Really.
I wasn't always great at pickin' 'em when I was 20. But I did have a journal (oh, if only I had it with me and could quote from it now!) in which I arrived at what I considered some pretty sage late-night insights. Among them was this one, which I remember scribbling down after that excruciating second date: I did not like this guy. What I liked was the fact that I had bumped into him on the street. In front of the family-owned mechanic shop where he worked. In a neighborhood I loved.
As I believe has been clearly established in this blog, I'm a sucker for chance meetings, urban landscapes and grittiness. Knowing this, it’s not difficult to see just how much of a recipe for disaster this situation was. Already on a high while strolling through one of my favorite neighborhoods, I just happened to bump into someone I knew. Not only did this make me feel ever so integrated into my adopted surroundings, but it also – at least in my gleeful imaginings – opened the door to a part of Chile I had yet to experience. I pictured myself hanging out in the mechanic shop, gazing out into the neighborhood while listening to my charming boyfriend play guitar and getting to know his undoubtedly equally charming family. Collectively, they would welcome me into a world that most exchange students would never get to see, and by golly, I would feel special.
Luckily, I snapped the hell out of it before it was too late. But I would be lying if I said Mr. Teen Model was the only guy I’ve tricked myself into thinking I liked during my expat career. That time, it was a mechanic shop. On other occasions, it’s been aging houses, midnight architectural tours and a salsa club with wooden floors. In each case, I eventually arrived at the (painful) realization that what was truly making me happy was where I was, not the person I was there with. I’m not saying these guys didn’t have anything to offer; they just weren’t right for me, which my passionate love of place blinded me to for a while.
Anyone who’s ever walked down the street with me knows that buildings, cobblestones, graffiti, windows and cracked cement often distract me to the point of robbing me of the ability to carry on a coherent conversation. Therefore, I may be more prone to love-of-place/love-of-person confusion than most. That said, I think anyone who ventures abroad – or undertakes a dramatic change of scenery within his or her home country – is vulnerable to making this mistake. Think about it: You’re alone. You get lost. You’re frequently confused and frequently confusing. You miss your family, friends, dog and everything else you’ve left behind. Why wouldn’t you want to be with someone who could not only provide you with the affection and sense of belonging you crave but also help integrate you into the surroundings you’re coming to love?
Because dating someone from your new country/city/neighborhood does help you integrate. Your boyfriend introduces you to his group of friends. Your girlfriend’s family invites you to their Sunday lunches. While you and your significant other enjoy (insert local specialty dish) at (insert low-profile local eatery), s/he offers a local perspective on (insert topic). And, of course, all in (insert local language/dialect). But dating is not the only way to integrate yourself (if integration is what you’re going for), and if you don’t have real feelings for the person involved, it’s not the right way.
I’m not saying it’s impossible for love of person and love of place to coincide. I know a number of happy cross-cultural couples who are a testament to the fact that they can. But I also know that for exchange students and expats, conditions are ripe for the development of relationships that don’t quite gel but are difficult to end because “So-and-so is this country for me!”
If this post has proven anything, it’s that I may not be the best source of dating advice. But, as someone who’s been there, I have this to say to those who haven’t: Date abroad, but bring your criteria with you. If you wouldn’t have a romantic interest in this person at home, s/he probably won’t be right for you here, regardless of how quaint his or her street is or how beautiful that beach s/he took you to was. Obviously, going abroad involves meeting and forming relationships with people who may be very different from those you left behind, but that doesn’t mean you can’t value and seek out the same qualities (compassion, intelligence, humor, insight, etc.) in a foreign partner as you would in someone who shares your background. Linguistic and cultural differences require an open mind, but certain things – like what your gut tells you – need no translation.