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How To Make it Seven Years (Or More) as a Single Woman in Asia

Tips for Female Expatriates on Loneliness, Culture Shock, and the World's Toughest Dating Scene

Woman in rice field in China
Woman in rice field in China — Jennifer.

"If we give you the job, are you prepared to go two years without a date?"

Most women, especially if they're new to overseas work, can't imagine a potential employer asking such a question. The first time it happened to me, I was interviewing for a long-term volunteer position in Kyrgyzstan. At first, words failed me. Was this some kind of a joke? How dare the interviewer make such glaring (hetero)sexist assumptions! Then came a terrible thought. Why would he ask anything so blatantly inappropriate unless he was actually serious? Now I was anxious as well as angry. After all, I was fully prepared to forego running water, electricity, refrigeration and the English language, but had never considered the toll that working in Asia would take on my love life. What was so terrible about the Kyrgyzstani dating scene that abstinence was practically part of the job description?

Why Single Women Don't Last in Asia

If you're hoping my anecdote concerned a freak occurrence, know that I was asked some variation of this question before three out of my four Asian postings. Fairly or not, many Orient-based employers worry that single Western women will make a less-than-stellar adjustment. "When I first interviewed for a job in Asia, my boss asked whether I was expecting to date," says Jennifer, a teacher who worked in China for four years. "After getting over the initial shock of the question, I realized he was being upfront about one of the most challenging issues facing single expatriate women."

While I've failed to locate a formal study on the subject, I've met precious few solo sisters in Asia who didn't grapple occasionally with loneliness, body image, and anger that an obese sixty-year-old male could date freely, but a thirty-five-year-old female could not. Furthermore, the subject raises sensitive racial and gender issues that make many women hesitant to talk openly about their feelings for fear of coming across as bitter, stereotyping bigots.

What makes Asia a sexual paradise for expat men but causes females such angst? Carl Janowitz, a certified marriage and family therapist who's practiced for eight years in Thailand, feels stereotypes play a role on both sides of the cultural divide. "Western men are seen as good catches by many Asian women, as there's a perception that foreign men are more faithful and dependable than their Asian counterparts," he says. "Many Western men also believe that Asian women are more deferential. And this can create a much smaller “dating pool” for single expat women." Stereotypes and cultural friction might also explain the relatively small number of Western women dating Asian men.

When asked what factors women should consider before accepting an assignment in the Far East, even singles who have made a successful, long-term adjustment to the region don't sugarcoat. "Women need to consider that the available men will be searching for younger, Asian women," says Molly, who's worked in Indonesia, Myanmar, and China. "After 12 years of living in various parts of Asia, I've finally realized it's nothing personal, just the way it is."

The Upside: Freedom, Growth and Cultural Accessibility

While the challenges are real, signing a contract in Shanghai, Bangkok, or Jakarta need not sentence a singleton to years of bitterness and frustration. On the contrary, rising to the challenges of a solo life abroad can be a tremendous confidence boost. "The years I spent single in Asia and Africa were by far the most rewarding years of my life," says Nicki, who taught abroad solo for over a decade before meeting her fiancé in Jakarta. "Those were the years where I found myself, grew as a person, and never felt stronger and more in control."

Living solo can also open doors with the host culture. "The locals have felt safe to be curious, speak with me, and invite me into their lives," says Elaine, now in her ninth happy year in Asia. She's found her solo status makes her extra accessible when visiting traditional and indigenous communities: "I've been able to bond with local women, something a foreign man isn't able to do."

Living Well Means Taking Risks

Feeling up to the challenge of solo stint in this gracious and rewarding region? Here's what you can do to reassure yourself (and potential employers) that you'll thrive while single in Asia:

  • Take stock. Is your biological clock ticking? If so, you might want to test the romantic waters on a short-term assignment or consider a destination where the dating game favors females. "This is not an issue to avoid," says Jennifer. "It really is important to be at a place in your life where you're happy as a single."
  • Confront your biases. While Westerners are quick to brand Asian women who date foreign men as predatory gold-diggers, Asian families (more so than individuals) have sought social and financial protection through marriage since the dawn of civilization. Grow your insight into Eastern values of love, family and self-sacrifice by studying the lives of women whose experience spanned both East and West. 

Suggested Reading

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, by Jung Chang. A family rises to power in Communist China, only to face persecution and exile during the Cultural Revolution.

When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: Tie-In Edition, by Le Ly Hayslip with Jay Wurts. A displaced peasant girl recounts her struggle to survive in wartorn Vietnam, torture at the hands of the Viet Cong, and eventual escape to the US.

Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's Prisoner of Conscience , by Justin Wintle. Acclaimed biography of the Nobel laureate, freedom fighter and long-time political prisoner of Burma's totalitarian regime.

  • Plan to live large. Even before you arrive, scour the Internet and ply your destination contacts for info on clubs, lessons, professional organizations, sports teams, and volunteer opportunities. "The most rewarding thing about being single in Asia is the possibility of meeting others, which wouldn't be so easy if you were attached," says Molly.
  • Escape your expat bubble. The opportunity to explore a new culture is the greatest gift of life abroad, so dare to venture beyond your comfort zone and learn as much as you can from host-country friends. "It's important to learn about local customs, learn enough language to be able to communicate, and be willing to try new experiences and adventures," says Carl.

  • Sarah Maurer with orangutan
    Author Sarah Maurer playing with orangutan.
  • Nurture your yin as well as your yang. Per ancient Taoist and Confucian teachings, we all need a balance of male and female energy to live well and prosper. Cultivate friendships with males, not because you want to date them, but because their perspective will refresh, entertain and enlighten you.

Men Struggle Too

Annoyed that Western men in Asia seem to have it made? Consider that every lifestyle has a cost. "Thailand can be very isolating and lonely for men, especially those who don't want to become involved in the bar scene," says Bangkok-based therapist Carl Janowitz. Other common sources of guy angst: Asian partners who expect financial support early in the relationship and peer pressure to engage in high-risk sexual behavior. As Carl sums it up, "Many men come to realize the ‘paradise’ is an illusion."

  • Dismantle your "Mr. Right" box. Ready to jump into the dating game? By seeking out potential partners without limiting yourself to your own nationality or native language, you'll not only grow personally, but invite the law of averages to work in your favor. "If you want to meet a man, leave your whole being open to the possibility that man might not be the sort you typically would date back home," says Elaine. (For more advice on cross-cultural relationships, see Sex and Love Abroad by Marina Wolf).
  • Go digital. If the local dating pool feels claustrophobic, consider using the internet to expand your search. At sites like eHarmony, Match.com and Plenty of Fish, you can meet potential partners in your host city, home country, or even an upcoming vacation destination. Before embarking on an Internet romance, be sure to educate yourself about issues such as safety, privacy and fraud prevention.  A good resource is the Match.com website and its e-zine, Happen.
  • Focus on the perks. Though it's arguably harder being single in Asia than in most Western nations, in some subtle ways it's actually easier. "Apparently single women in New York City can't find decent men either," says Kendel, currently working in Indonesia. "At least while living in Asia, your life is full of adventure and other meaningful relationships." Nicki agrees that the benefits of her overseas life far outweigh the challenges, single or attached. "Little me is here in the beautiful tropical country of Indonesia, which contains areas and species still unknown and unexplored," she says. "I feel utterly spoilt and honored to be here!"

Our Best Advice For Single Women

"Despite the rhetoric, there are quality single people all over [Asia] looking to connect with others of similar value. However, it requires patience, a commitment to standing by your values, and a lot of 'weeding out' to enjoy the quality of life here."
— Carl (Therapist, Thailand)

"Embrace each part of the adventure, explore with childlike enthusiasm and never forget who you are."
— Lynedah (Teacher, Indonesia)

"Dare to date guys who are NOT six-foot tall, North American, and a hockey player. Seriously, I'm home now and I really regret not being more adventurous over there."
— Sarah (Teacher and volunteer, Thailand, Indonesia, China, Kyrgyzstan)

"Treasure the time you have as a single in Asia. It's the ultimate freedom."
— Elaine (Teacher, China and Indonesia)

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