As a ‘white’ man living in an overwhelmingly white country, for a long time the only serious relationship I’d had was – rather predictably – with a white girl. Going abroad for a year of study changed that. When living in Kyoto, I met a wonderful young woman in a Chinese class we were both attending. She had cute short hair and unique facial features; one of her eyelids had an epicanthic fold, an inheritance from her Taiwanese mother, and the other did not, more closely resembling her Japanese father. The very first words she said to me, after hearing me rattle off a self-introduction to my teacher in Beijing dialect, were “Can you teach me Chinese?”.
We fell for each other quickly, and at first it seemed like our relationship was going amazingly. We posed together for photos at scenic spots, she became a part of the social life of my friendship group, and I introduced her to my parents over Skype. She struggled through a self-introduction with them in English, one of the most adorable displays of effort I had seen in a partner up until that point.
However, being a young Japanese girl, publicly pursuing a relationship with a ‘gaikokujin’ or ‘foreigner’ (used often in a racially derogatory sense) was close to scandalous for her parents. Whites generally do not enjoy a good reputation in Japan; we are considered hairy (which is true) smelly (I sweat buckets in the summer) and crass (no comment). More generally speaking, there is also a stereotype of crude foreigners, white or black, coming to Japan to enjoy alcohol and women. This influenced people’s perceptions drastically – first impressions matter, but in Japan, a strongly negative impression was already made for me.
It was not just the fact that I was foreign; the conservatism prevalent in Japanese society means that relationships are generally kept ‘on the DL’ – especially to one’s parents. I spoke fluent Japanese and in no way exemplified any of the stereotypes commonly used to describe whites in Japan (except hairy, oops) so my treatment by my wonderful girlfriend perhaps differed little from that which any other boyfriend might receive. Yet I still found a part of me disappointed at being denied entry into her social life; like a dirty secret.
This year, after my return to England, I again became involved with someone; this time from Nepal. I had recently gotten into powerlifting, which had taken me on an incredible journey of body transformation, and she happened to be a powerlifter too. We enjoyed unparalleled compatibility in almost all aspects of our lives. But again, despite the fact that I invited her physically into my home and would engage with her in all sorts of activities within the domain of my personal and social life, her family and friends, as with my previous girlfriend, did not even know that I existed.
The strain on our relationship this caused was not minor. I would take her out to clubs and parties, bring her along on trips out with my friends, and invite her into my home. But her inability to reciprocate – coupled with strictly imposed curfews and a lack of openness – started to take its toll, and contributed to increasingly frequent arguments. After more than half a year, I decided that it wasn’t worth it. I packed my bags and moved on. More recently, I met someone else – a beautiful and fascinatingly opinionated British girl of North African heritage who happened to be a devout conservative Muslim. Hijab and Abaya was her uniform, which led to some strange looks from people who saw us walking around town holding hands. The fact that she was a Muslim and I had already left the faith was never an issue for us. There were couple of spirited disagreements, such as when she proposed banning homosexuality, but in general we got on like a house on fire.
That house was not to last, of course. To her credit, she repeatedly warned me that our relationship was only temporary; that she could never really be with me, and that above all, I could never put any details of our relationship anywhere in the public domain. That meant Facebook, friends, colleagues, family were all off limits – it was just the two of us.
I am a culturally tolerant person, but I am also a social person. I want my other half to really be that in its truest sense; I want to be able to engage with my SO by getting to see the intricacies of their daily lives and opening them up to mine. This can be exceedingly difficult if the friends or family of a partner might look down on me for my race or religion, as has been the case time and time again.
This isn’t going to be the end of interracial or intercultural dating for me; I think that the best kind of relationships are those where you can truly learn from each other and grow as people, and mixed relationships are a great formula for that kind of experiential learning. Sadly, until such a time as my partner’s culture respects me as much as mine respects her, I’ll probably always be the ‘white boyfriend’ her parents warned her to avoid.