What to consider on your first date in a foreign country

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Written by Ameerah Arjanee on 21 June, 2024
If you're a single expat in a new country, you might be excited at the idea of going on dates in completely new places (a great way to discover restaurants and the local cuisine!) and meeting new romantic partners. The dating pool is different from the one back home, and so are the social norms around dating. How do you navigate these norms and ensure you're not making a faux pas or even putting yourself in danger? Here are some tips.

Ask local friends, especially those you have a lot in common with, for dating advice

As with other aspects of culture, the best experts are locals. It's important to ask locals who share key aspects of their identity with you, aspects that are central to a person's love life. That is, it's best to get dating advice from locals with whom you share your gender, sexual orientation, age group and political inclinations.

If you are a straight, liberal woman in her 20s, for instance, another straight, liberal woman in her 20s with dating experience in that country would be the best person to advise you. She might help you learn to spot whether a man is conservative from the conversation and other non-verbal cues on the first date. Certain culturally-bound aspects of how your date dresses or uses body language might signal red or green flags — and you might not know how to “read” these without some prior “coaching” from a local friend!

If you are queer, a local queer person will give you advice about which bars, cafés and restaurants are LGBTQI+-friendly. Some of them can be perfectly romantic places for straight and cisgender couples but dangerous for queer ones because of the management or area.

A lot of that knowledge cannot be found in official guidebooks: you learn about them only by talking to people, often one-on-one and in private. Forums like the one on Expat.com can also be places for these questions if you don't know who to ask in person.

What's more, any advice is specific to its time. A local colleague who has been married for a decade and hasn't been on any new date since then might offer well-meaning but outdated advice. You don't want to be texting your date with slang from the early 2000s!

Expats who have been in this country for a long time are also good people to ask for advice. They might know how to deal with some peculiar dating challenges that expats face more than locals. Fetishization and exoticization; assumptions about foreigners (e.g., concerning promiscuity or wealth); avoiding dates who are mainly looking for a foreign passport; the difficulty of finding a long-term relationship when your stay is transient; social or family opposition to intercultural dating… These are challenges specific to dating abroad.

Dating apps: the same apps aren't used (or used the same way!) everywhere

In this day and age, our online selves play a big role in the early stages of dating. Many find a date on a dating app, and the frequency and nature of texting make the other person interested in a second date.

The usage of dating apps varies between countries. For instance, if you are a new expat in South Korea, you may find that while the international apps Tinder and Bumble are popular, there are plenty of local apps with more Korean users. Noondate is a popular one for serious dating (as opposed to hookups), and other well-known apps are Wippy and Glam.

If you are an expat in China who is using a VPN to access major international dating apps, you should also not be surprised to find mainly other expats on them. To expand your dating pool to more locals, try joining local apps like Tantan, Momo and Blued. They all have niches. Blued is a queer app that caters more to gay men. As for Tantan, it is China's equivalent of Tinder, i.e., an app for casual dating and hookups. The app Coffee Meets Bagel, while based in San Francisco, is also popular with white-collar Chinese people in their 20s and 30s looking for serious relationships.

The catch is that using local apps might require you to speak the local language – at least at a casually conversational level, even if you are not entirely fluent. Fortunately, some of these local apps are expanding internationally, which means that they have English versions. This is the case with Blued, which is expanding into Southeast Asia and the US, and with Tantan, which is available to download on Google Play outside of China. Momo is, unfortunately, mostly in Chinese.

In some countries, you might find that it is ineffective to use any dating apps to find a first date. This is especially the case in small countries and rural areas far from bustling cities. These places tend to have close-knit communities and value “real life” socialization more.

For instance, if you are using Bumble in Mauritius, which has a population of only around 1.3 million, you might come across a “no more matches available in your area” message after an hour of swiping! You will not be able to download Hinge because it is not available for such a small market. In this case, it's best to meet potential dates the “old school” way: through mutual friends, at parties, etc. Mainstream social media that is not mainly built for dating can also be a way to connect with dates, as long as it is used respectfully. In China, you could well find a date on WeChat, and in Mauritius, on Facebook.

Culture-bound aspects of dating abroad: gender, safety, date spots

Gender norms and LGBTQA+ culture are at the very center of dating. In straight dating, expectations around how men and women are “supposed” to behave in a specific culture affect how smoothly a date goes and determine if romantic signs are “read” properly by each person. While gender norms can be less rigid in queer dating, both straight women and queer people need to take into consideration safety on first dates.

Where to have a first date?

The location of first dates can also be culture-specific. In many countries, having a first date at a pub or bar might be considered “tasteless” or “cheap.” Yet, the pub culture in the UK makes them a preferred date spot for Brits. A study by PPL PRS found that 40% of Britons prefer going to a pub on a first date, which is as many as people who prefer café first dates. Many British pubs have a rich history, great ambiance and music, a “casual chic” atmosphere, and a varied menu of main courses in addition to snacks and drinks. That is, they are a less formal version of restaurants – not just a place with alcohol.

Generally, though, date spots tend to be quite universal. In nearly every country, cafés, restaurants, museums and galleries are great places for a first date. For dating that is “taboo” in certain societies, such as queer and interracial dating, it's important to check how safe the spot is first. Since 2022, Google allows businesses to attach the labels “LGBT-owned,” “LGBT-friendly,” “Transgender Safe Space” and “gender-neutral bathrooms” to their profile on Google Maps and in search results. This is one way to spot safe dating spaces.

Who picks up the tab?

Countries with better rankings for gender equality tend to have dating cultures where men and women are more equal. In Scandinavian countries and other European countries like Germany and the Netherlands, it is customary for men and women to split the bill 50/50 on a date. It is not considered a sign of the man being uninterested in a second date.

In comparison, in the US, men are still expected to pay for at least the first date to signal their interest and to be chivalrous. This is the case even among younger and liberal Gen-Z Americans. The New York Times gives an account of a study by Dr. Shanhong Luo from Fayetteville State University, which showed that 90% of young American men still pay for first dates, even if the bill on the second and third dates is split.

In some countries, opinions about splitting the bill are mixed and evolving. According to a survey by Chen Aoxue for Sixth Tone, for instance, around 30% of young Chinese people split the bill on dates, even if the majority of dates are still paid by men. This depends on factors such as whether the women on the dates are college-educated high earners who identify as feminists.

To kiss or not to kiss (in public)?

Physical touch is also another wider cultural issue that intersects with dating. Public displays of affection (or PDA) have varying degrees of social acceptance in different cultures.

In conservative countries, PDA will attract stares, frowns… or even trouble with the police! According to Article 1.4. of the Dubai Code of Conduct, “kissing and petting” between dates, boyfriends and girlfriends, and even married couples in public space is an “offense to public decency.” This type of PDA can even lead to jail time and deportation! Of course, not every peck in public is going to come under the radar of the authorities, but it's better to remain on the safe side. The situation is similar across the Middle East and in India. Holding hands remains more acceptable.

Even when there is no law against PDA, it can attract disapproving gazes. In China, for instance, there is no law against kissing in public, but it is likely to attract disapproval from strangers, especially if a kiss is shared between a local and an expat. It remains culturally safer and more respectful to share a first kiss in a more private space.

Other cultures are very open about physical affection, even when it is platonic. In Latin America, for example, kissing on the cheeks, hugging, and touching each other's arms while talking is common, even in friendships. So public romantic kissing, such as in a restaurant after a date, is also acceptable (of course, don't overdo it and cross a limit; that would make anyone uncomfortable!).

Keep an eye out for fetishization

This is a peculiar dating problem that expats face. They can be seen as “exotic” by locals, especially if they have different physical features from most locals (e.g., an Afro in Japan, dark skin in East Europe) and an accent, to the point that they can be fetishized.

On the forum of Expat.com, a prospective expat to South Korea asked for advice about dating there. She was warned by an English expat in the country to be careful about Korean men who might only try to date her to boast to their friends about having sex with a white American or someone who can pass for a white American. Of course, this is not a generalization about all Korean men, but it is something to be careful about.

On your first date, try to pick signals about whether your date is attracted to you as a whole, complex person rather than a “category” to tick off a list of fantasies. Be careful about comments like “You're my first Black girl,” “I prefer white men” or “Asian women are more feminine” on the date, even if they are offered as compliments.

Expats from wealthier countries who move to developing countries face another delicate situation. Often, locals in difficult economic situations try to date expats who can help them or their families out financially. That is, they are looking for “sugar daddy” or “sugar mommy” arrangements rather than a normal date.

On another forum thread of Expat.com, some American expats in Colombia and the Philippines talk about how to avoid this situation. They ask fellow expats to be careful about locals seeking large age gaps in their dates. They also say to avoid showing excessive displays of wealth (e.g., wearing luxury watches) or talking about your salary, property, assets, etc., in the early stages of dating. They also recommend avoiding tourist hotspots and party areas in these early stages. In Medellin, for example, one expat recommends avoiding Parque Lleras.

Transience, or not knowing how long you'll be in the country for

Expats often stay in a country only for a few years until their work contract expires or they have saved enough money. Or they might be unsure about how long they will be here: will immigration laws change and affect their visa renewal? Will they need to return home to take care of a family member? Will their thirst for adventure take them to another destination?

Friendships can usually be maintained across countries, but fewer people are ready to face the challenges of a relationship that might turn long-distance. Even when you meet great people who are compatible with you, they might be hesitant to pursue anything serious because they're scared that you will leave.

Transient stays affect globalized metropolises more than other destinations. In cities like New York, London, Paris and Dubai, many people are expats and international students who are here only for a few years. On dating apps in these cities, it's common to even come across tourists who are there for a few days or weeks.

France 24 interviewed 30-something expats in Dubai who struggle to find long-term relationships. A French expat keen on starting a family was even considering returning to France, even if she likes her teaching job in the UAE, because of the difficulty of finding expat men willing to commit there. A Brazilian echoed her thoughts by saying that the constant flow of new people in and out of Dubai makes people hesitant to get tied down because “they want to remain free in case there's somebody better out there.”

How to deal with transience? First of all, be honest with your dates from the get-go. The “what are you looking for” conversation should happen within the first two months of dating a person, or ideally within the first three dates. Ask if they would be open to a long-distance relationship or even relocating if things get serious but you – or they – have to leave. Even if the future is fuzzy, be open about any possible scenarios and the fears you feel around these. Leaving things unspoken is more likely to lead to conflict later on.