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Real Stories

Dating Within An Alternate Reality

When I log into Instagram or Facebook, my feed is full of engagement photos, pregnancy announcements and wedding photos. Every day, I see a different person I follow on Instagram get engaged. But this is in stark contrast with my daily life. The last time I came face to face with an engaged person was over a year ago. 

Why? Because I’m living in an alternate realm of dating. Yes, I’m an expat living in Shanghai.  

I date within the expat community and outside of it, but I can assure you that the vast majority of people are not thinking about marrying me. Within the expat community, most people plan to stay here for a few years at most before returning to their home countries. This means that you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone looking for a serious relationship, yet alone marriage. Many expats feel detached from their “normal” lives and thus, embrace their inner hoes.  

Locals, in contrast, are more likely to be looking for something serious. However, it is fairly unlikely that they intend on pursuing something serious with an expat, partially because of the aforementioned reasons, but also because many of their families would not approve of them marrying someone from another country. 

When I go online, I hear my peers saying that everyone around them is getting married. They roll their eyes at the number of engagement photos, feeling some sort of pressure to find love. Many of those people are younger than 25 years old. But as soon as I close the browser, I return to my current reality in which most people I know are older than I am and very, very single. 

There are many ways in which living in China has changed my worldview. But one of the less expected ones is with regards to my dating life. Who knows what I would be doing if I were in the U.S.? But since I’m here, I’m merely dating for fun and getting to know people. And because of the number of expats in Shanghai from various different countries, I’ve practically dated my way around the world at this point.  

When I was in the U.S., I was confined within the bubble of my university. Both of my roommates were in serious relationships, and at times, I felt lonely. Living here has allowed me to burst that bubble entirely. Here, I don’t feel pressured to find anything in particular. There’s no rush at all. There’s no need to settle. There’s no fear that I’ll be the only single friend.  

In this kind of dating environment, finding a long-term partner seems nearly impossible. At the same time, maybe it’s not. Here, we’re getting to know people without pressure or expectations. We’re getting to know people just for the sake of it. It’s definitely not easy to find a romantic partner — but finding a compatible partner isn’t ever easy. 

When I return to the U.S., I want to date like I’m living in Shanghai  — not date like all my friends are getting engaged. I want to date like there’s still plenty of time. I want to date like there are so many different people to meet in this world. I want to date like people’s wedding photos don’t affect me.  

Because guess what? 

I’ve learned that there is still plenty of time. That there are so many different people to meet, and it’s perfectly OK if my soulmate doesn’t attend my university or live on the same street as me. That other people’s wedding photos shouldn’t affect me. 

If other people are happily getting married, then I’m happy for them. But me? I’m happily dating without serious commitment in sight. And that’s OK, no matter where you are.  

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by Paige Sheffield

I'm an American writer, teacher and aspiring cat lady who is currently based in Shanghai. I enjoy talking about feminism, exploring art exhibits, reading and discovering different areas of the city.


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