I can only speak for myself and people who share similar experiences to me. I’m a tall, relatively fit, white, pansexual man. These forms of privilege mean that I rarely fear for my safety abroad, especially since I can pass as heterosexual. In the past three years, I have gone abroad on study abroad programs, for independent travel, and for work. Tremendously privileged people, people like myself, need to discuss how to help dismantle oppressive structures and repair the harm our cultures have done and continue to do. My hope is that this article, published at a mostly white university—a problem in itself—can contribute to that process by relating to the many students whose levels of privilege are similar to mine.
At Wesleyan, many of our greatest humanities classes instigate the introspective discussion that white Westerners mostly avoid. These classes teach students how to recognize what is wrong with the world around them but can’t always teach them how to make it right. Among many things, we examine the violent and abusive effects of power dynamics used to exploit, isolate, and intimidate others by forming exclusionary spaces—see Jürgen Habermas’ “The Structural Transformations of the Public Sphere”—but we don’t leave class with a list of concrete strategies to dismantle or open them up. We learn to recognize and critique superiority complexes and notions of “white men saving [foreign] women from [foreign] men”—see Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “A Critique of Postcolonial Reason”—but it takes more than papers and presentations to remove the deeply rooted lenses through which we see and are seen by the world.
Half of Wesleyan undergraduates study abroad, and many of them will go on to work or even live abroad for segments of their lives. I fear that when we go abroad, our experience at Wesleyan teaches us what behaviors to avoid, but not how to engage with other people and cultures in all sorts of contexts, including dating. I once asked a female friend of mine if she had tried dating while studying abroad in Europe, to which she casually replied, “No, I’m not really here for that,” a reply I have heard from other Wesleyan students abroad as well. It would have been better to dig deeper, to ask what she was there for and what shaped her reluctance to try dating while abroad, but I instead selfishly focused on another question: How significant is dating as a part of my experience abroad? What do the answers to that question say about myself and others like me?
My experiences and understanding of foreign cultures have indeed been largely shaped by the people I’ve dated while studying abroad and, particularly, while working abroad independently. When depressed, I sometimes wonder if I embody the loathsome white man we’ve learned so much about at Wesleyan. This kind of introspection needs to be honest and can quite frankly be painful, but I think it’s critical to the process of identifying concrete ways to live ethically: “The unexamined life is not worth living,” right Socrates? In short, I choose to go abroad because I want to learn. I believe that immersing oneself as much as possible in different cultures around the world catalyzes the development of two important traits human beings intrinsically possess: sympathy and empathy.
So, what do people learn from? Books, sensory experiences, etc. As human beings, we learn from each other. When traveling, I tremendously enjoy conversations with cab drivers, waiters, and passersby; I call these “micro-interactions” because they usually last less than an hour and they’re often quite shallow. In such contexts, people tend to emphasize the aspects of their country and culture which make them proud, while downplaying or just omitting the rest. In authoritarian countries, like the one I was in most recently, there is a real and legitimate fear of openly criticizing the government and traditional culture. Therefore, I never seek nor expect the whole truth from micro-interactions. Pushing for answers from strangers on sensitive subjects in authoritarian regimes is a manifestation of privilege because we’re not entitled to their trust; trust is earned. We rarely understand the risks they run in revealing their whole truth, and we rarely need to deal with the consequences of their honesty.
Micro-interactions are vastly different to dating; a slow-growing and trust-based form of interaction that, at its best, creates mutual intimacy. Dating abroad has taught me more about my host country’s government and traditional culture than any language or history class ever did. It’s given me a snapshot of the oppressive realities that women, queer people, and ethnic minority groups experience every day. These are usually the perspectives downplayed or omitted in micro-interactions, but they’re clearly some of the most important ones.
Dating abroad has also shown me the way my host country sees me, the type of people who date me, and the scope of intercultural relationships more broadly. If you emphasize honesty, trust, respect, and most importantly sympathy and empathy for your significant other, then you can learn critical lessons about your host country and life in general. You must be honest about your intention to pursue a romantic relationship in the finite amount of time you have somewhere, and you must be willing to expose yourself first, to make yourself vulnerable before even daring to hope that someone else will do the same. Reactions to vulnerability are what build and destroy trust, and do not expect to be forgiven if you ever break somebody else’s trust. Respect in all forms is paramount, too. Your significant other is not your professor, and you must not see them or expect them to act as such. You’ve got to first try and follow your heart and let your mind follow after.
Sympathy and empathy are, by far and away, the most critical parts of dating abroad. Always try to remind yourself that you’re leaving whereas they’re staying. That your personal, professional, and even physical well-being as a foreigner are often more ensured than theirs; the experiences of some women, queer people, and ethnic minorities in various countries—not to mention the United States—are more traumatizing than you can comprehend. Even with trust and intimacy, mentioning or asking about what you might not even realize are sensitive topics could re-traumatize a person you care for deeply. Tread lightly and carefully; you have no idea how much pain you might inadvertently cause.
You need to be ready to live with the guilt from making mistakes, because you will likely make some; learn from them. In the best of circumstances, dating abroad can give you and your significant other some of the greatest experiences of your entire lives. It’s not even the lessons you learn or the experiences you have with your significant other that make the deepest impression on you. The most meaningful part of dating, for me, is that you and they were lucky enough to be part of each other’s lives, even if only for a while. You got to know a wonderful person who, some would say, is very different to you, but who you related to on more levels than numbers can express. I now unashamedly say that when I go abroad, I absolutely intend to go on dates, because it’s infinitely more than just dinner or a walk in the park. Hopefully, others like me can learn from this article and conscientiously seek out their own experiences abroad.