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Dating, Global Style

Date: 2006-09-26

My grandfather Randolph, born in 1896, knew something about the world. So when he spied a black and white couple walking hand in hand in Charlottesville, Virginia, in the mid-1980s and remarked, "They will always live on an island and you can't live life on an island," I took note.Well, grandfather, here I am — living on an island, literally. I've settled into a new job in Hong Kong, a mini, mountainous Manhattan in the South China Sea. People of every race, ethnicity and nationality freely intermingle here. The mixing of the matchmaking market has gone global.

It's all a far cry from my small town in suburban Virginia. Roots ran deep there, and diversity and multiculturalism were nice in theory but rarely practiced — not because of racism or hatred but simply because everyone was firmly set within his own group, either plain old black or plain old white.

Such a group-divided experience may sound odd coming from a member of Generation X. After all, we grew up with music videos that showed Madonna embracing a black man. And we heard the shibboleths about a new, gorgeous cultural mosaic. But day-to-day reality is ever slow to bend. While my 1980s public school was about half black and half white — and I had many white friends — the dating scene rarely involved crossing over from one group to the other. I didn't consider such a move myself until I went off to college in Chicago, where I found myself dating a local Irish-Catholic boy in my first year.

But globalization is dissolving all such hidebound divisions, at least in cosmopolitan centers like Hong Kong. Whereas the typical expatriate here — and elsewhere in Asia — used to be a tired, overworked, married male in his 40s or 50s, today young singles are much more common. GMAC Relocation Services, which tracks the global patterns of corporate workers, found that married male expatriates, at 53 percent, hit at an all-time low last year. Women now account for 23 percent of the expat crowd — the highest figure ever. And well more than half of all expats are of prime marrying age: between 20 and 39 years old.

Sure, I'm living in a part of the world where arranged marriages are still part of local custom and where even romantic relationships are orchestrated under the watchful eyes of parents. Like my grandfather, most people outside the United States believe that marriage is about preserving a culture as much as it is about two people falling in love.

But the whole sense of culture is changing as a new global milieu draws all sorts of people together. On Hong Kong's streets, I've seen an Indian man strolling with a European woman, an Asian woman laughing with an African man, and, far more than once, a white man walking with his arm draped possessively over the shoulder of his (often much more attractive) Cantonese sweetheart. It does not take a familiarity with "Madame Butterfly" to know that white men have lost their hearts to Asian women in earlier generations, but it is undeniably more frequent in our newly globalized world.

People of every background seem to find common ground here. Often conversation begins with commiseration — for instance, over the ordeal of small, closetless apartments. But there is more to friendship and intimacy than strangeness and difficulty. I've worked in the United States and in Asia. I've traveled from Beijing to London. And I speak four languages (not all well, admittedly). I am far more likely to be attracted to someone who can understand my experience and share my interests, and I am more likely than ever before to meet such a person while living an expat life. Here, where nearly 4,000 corporations base their regional offices, I have a decent chance of finding him — or at least I'll have fun looking.

Long-time Hong Kong expatriates laugh at my optimism and sense of heightened possibility. Well, let them. I know that this city, like every other, has its share of lonely singles. Many don't find love at all. But it may just be for lack of trying.

Globalization brings all sorts of benefits: jobs, rising standards of living, liberalizing ideas. But it also — lest we forget — widens the dating pool and complicates the marriage market. Soon the conventional wisdom of generations past — like "stick to your own kind" — will go the way of opium dens and trade barriers. That boy next door may not seem quite so appealing as before.

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