Looking for Love in all the Right Places

Published On March 29, 2010 | By Ethos |

Finding the right person is like putting a puzzle together upside down. Many pieces look as if they will fit at first, but may ultimately prove ill-matched with the surrounding edges. Once in a while, a spontaneous, chanced guess falls into place. Although unclear, ambiguous, and perhaps frustrating, the challenge is exciting, the goal remains clear, and the delight in success is strong. Across the globe, single teens and young adults find similar outlets for the desire of love, but with a mixture of traditional customs, new ideas, and opportunities. Assumptions and expectations differ strongly from those in the United States, but the desires and outcomes often find worldwide similitude. For young people around the world, now is the time to test boundaries and stretch limits, in the hopes of finding what we all seek: love.

Europe

Standing in line at the grocery store check out, a couple in their mid-twenties hold hands. This scene is not uncommon for most, as holding hands is a common, if not universal sign of affection throughout much of the world. And in Europe, physical displays of attraction are barely given a second thought. In some cases, especially in metropolitan areas and red light districts, sex as an industry flourishes without the stigma received in other parts of the world. This openminded view of sexuality has shaped the way Europeans approach relationships.

Johanna Mattay’s sunny disposition matches the vibrant yellow and orange walls of Café Roma as she sips a latte. Mattay, an exchange student from Germany, notes, “in general, Germans are more reserved.” People go out in groups of friends, she says, adding that meeting people is more coincidental. When people are interested in each other, it’s common to smile while catching the gaze of another. “Often girls will approach boys,” Mattay adds coyly, twirling a blonde curl between her fingers. But approaching someone in Germany is much different. “It’s not so obvious,” Mattay says. “People don’t say, ‘Hey, want to come over to my house tonight?’” In Germany, it starts with a handshake and slowly progresses into more.

However in Italy, when two people become acquainted or are in the early stages of their relationship, a single kiss on each cheek is quite customary. This practice is very common, even between couples who have been together for a long time. “A kiss on each cheek “is very Italian – it’s more of a term of endearment than affection,” says Taryn Hull, a University of Oregon student currently studying abroad Italy. The equivalent of a handshake, this ‘intimate greeting,’ also reflects how Italians approach dating.

“Italian men are braver at approaching women than American men are … if you even smile at a man, chances are he’ll approach you,” Hull says. And while many Italians, like Americans, view dating as casual flings, traditional ideals of finding the right person are still deeply engrained. One of Hull’s Italian professors explained this concept well, saying, “It is very easy to pick up an Italian man and very difficult to get rid of him.”

University of Oregon graduate student Bryce Peake has spent time conducting research in southern European nightclubs and says, “it’s all based on the Mediterranean schedule: people get up around ten, eat lunch around one, then take a nap. Things start to open back up around four or five – [they] don’t eat dinner until ten or eleven. With dinner [they] can have a couple glasses of wine, and that’s when the dating would happen.”

Carol Silverman, an anthropology professor at the University of Oregon, who has lived in various European countries over the years, attributes the surge of casual daters to the rising number of people who consciously choose to postpone marriage. “Marriage isn’t really seen as a goal to have children and have a long-term relationship. Marriage rates have actually gone down in the past twenty years.”

Besides the trend to marry late, Silverman notes how new ideas of sexual liberation have prompted the increase in casual liaisons.

“Dating is almost considered an ethnocentric category. In the majority of populations, it’s harder and harder [for people] to even have [their] own apartment.” Throughout Europe, men are living at home longer, sometimes until the age of forty, for financial support during tough economic times.

Like Americans, Europeans often cruise the mall, scope out bars, and hang around coffee shops in search of potential dates. But in some European countries, “hooking up” has become a more frequented past time, in clubs and in pubs. “Sexuality has become more open-ended, for example, the statistics show more women are having children out of wedlock and that marriage isn’t necessarily the required transition point to having children,” Silverman says, sinking into a chair behind her wooden desk.

It is important to realize that in traditional cultures, “there is no such thing as dating,” Silverman says. Yet the mentality regarding dating has changed over the past twenty years, and today parallels what is commonly found in the United States.

Perhaps the constant flux of tourism has resulted in some of the similarities the dating scene
in Europe shares with the United States, or perhaps humans are just similar creatures, who, despite being separated by bodies of water, religion, language, and culture, will forever be searching for companionship. –– Kasandra Easley

Middle East

A young man saunters home after work with an intensified step. The daily monotony had become charged with interest after his first sideways glance at the new girl sitting across from him a couple months ago. Today, he has decided to reveal his feelings to his parents, and will ask if they can set up a meeting with her family.

This circumstance is not uncommon in many Middle Eastern countries today. Diane Baxter, an anthropologist at the University of Oregon, studies and spends her travel time with Palestinians. She says with love interests, “parents often get involved. Marriages are traditionally arranged, and still, the concept of dating is pretty foreign.” Because of customs that date back generations, dating has less relevance than in the United States.

Awab Alrawe, the rain curling his short black hair, looks out behind large eyes with surprising confidence considering his arrival to the University of Oregon from Iraq only four months ago. Alrawe says most relationships happen during college. Baxter added since there are more women in the workplace, relationships can be sparked during coffee breaks or lunch outings. Although firm societal rules exist, they may provide structure to prevent long-term damage. “I look at it as a good thing because young people make mistakes,” Alrawe says. Marriage in the Middle East is considered a contract, one that is personally formatted and deeply discussed before the ceremony takes place. Baxter says that the argument of many Middle Easterners includes the question, “How can you leave the most important decision in life to two young people whose hormones are raging?”

In the past few years however, dating practices in the Middle East have begun to shift. Physical affection, such as holding hands, kissing, or even just a touch on the shoulder or back, which in public is usually seen as strange, has become accepted in certain environments. “Because of the restrictions, people tend to do bad things, secretly,” Alrawe remarks. “So having a relationship for example, when you’re under eighteen, is not culturally acceptable, but it still happens a lot. They just hide it, which is unhealthy I think.”

The transition between tradition and modernity doesn’t happen all at once. Baxter has witnessed many interesting combinations and diverse scenarios. One example is called Halal dating in the United States. Halal means permitted, and describes a way to transfer traditional guidelines into a new context. Middle Eastern singles involved in Halal dating compromise between the Islamic rule of no dating before marriage and a practical way to find a compatible spouse. This kind of pursuit, similar to speed dating, allows for those with similar beliefs and backgrounds to get to know each other in a social environment, without any preconceived expectations about physical relations.

Another example of the transfusion of old and new has come about because of the Internet. Online conversations allow friendships to develop and serve as a way to share feelings and thoughts that wouldn’t fit into a social gathering with many other people. Although also used in the U.S., online dating is especially prevalent in the Middle East because of the limits of face-to-face social interaction.

Alrawe says that purpose of dating is, “To get to know the other person better. For me it’s like steps: you meet the person, you go on dates, you get into a relationship, you see that this is really the right person for you, and then you get married. You make a commitment to all people and yourself that you’re committed to that person forever.” Just as in any other nation, the struggle continues for a balance of practical matters and desired happiness, a difference echoed in the relationship of parent versus child. Despite conflict, disagreement, or change, all face a daunting but thrilling task when it comes to relationships. Those in the Middle East are no different. –– Kourtney Hannaway

Asia

Some simple advice: Don’t neck in public in an Asian country. You can stroll through the streets with your sweetheart holding hands. You can even hug your partner for a short time in public, but it should not continue for too long. For in Asia, dating is different.

Compared to Western countries such as the United States, many Asian people still uphold conservative ideals of courtship. Thus, immodest expressions of love are considered shameful, even outrageous in their respective countries and cultures.

In South Korea, guys generally ask girls on a date. Girls asking guys or going “halves” on the check would be considered faux pas. And in terms of who gets to call whom for a second date, guys always call the shots. At the end of a date, the guy will ask for his date’s phone number, and if he wishes to see her again, he might call her every day. According to Han Keul Kim, a student from South Korea, this is how relationships typically begin in Korea.

Like dating, marriage is also contingent on one party: the parents. The parents of the girl possess the power to decide if the couple will marry. Even if a couple loves each other and wishes to marry, if a girl’s parents say no their wish may never come true due to strict parental influence, Kim says.

Similarly, in China, guys usually approach the girls. In elementary school, a boy might try to sit closer to a certain girl in order to get to know her better. In middle and high school, some boys may write letters asking a girl out. If the girl does not feel like spending time with the boy alone, it is not considered rude or strange to bring her friends along.

It is common for people, no matter what country they live in, to marry their sweethearts. And why not? It makes sense for people to end up with someone they have known and loved for a long time. However, in many Asian cultures, the sorrow of parting might be sooner than expected for even the most devout couples.

Crystal Zhao, an international student from China, says that some couples break up after college. The reason for this is that both the boy and girl may end up with different kinds of jobs, so they may travel to different places. It’s “so sad,” she adds softly.

Japan may be the strictest country in terms of social rules that dictate public affection. Momoko Okudaira and Chika Onoshima, students from Japan, agree that it is not good idea for couples to hug and kiss in public. “In general, people care more about what people around them think about than what they want to do in public,” Okudaira says. Both explain that these activities should be confined to private situations. Those who break the societal norms are likely to receive unfriendly looks.

On the contrary, casual encounters have become more common in Japan through services like blind-date parties. Intended to help ease the process of searching for possible spouses, blind-date parties match up groups of men and women. “In this party, men and women, usually three-to-four each, arrange to meet and hang out,” Okudaira says, explaining that these set-ups usually occur between strangers who are looking for a date. Typically, the men and women will go to a bar and introduce themselves over drinks and dinner. In the process of getting familiar with each other, the men are required to show enthusiasm and interest to a certain woman. But when this doesn’t happen, the women may soon get bored and no one will talk, leading to an uncomfortable situation. Also, if the men don’t pick up the tab at the end of the night, the women may become disappointed. “At the end of the party, a man will ask a woman for her phone number to meet her personally next time,” Okudaira says.

Cultural and social rules make dating customs in Asia different from that of Western countries, creating a drastically different environment for finding love. ––Seiga Ohtani

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