You are on the bus filled with many people, but no one is sitting next to you. All of a sudden, a girl gets onto the bus. She prefers to stand rather than to sit next to you and you suddenly begin to think skeptically: Do I look like a threat?
Now on a different bus, another girl gets on. She sits next to you— you can tell it’s not a random occurrence because she looks at you knowingly and asks, “do you have a girlfriend?”
How do you respond to that?
I hesitantly said no, because I was taken aback, but I also found myself intrigued. After exchanging pleasantries, she told me Seattle wasn’t the right place to be when it comes to romance for someone in my situation. She added that New York and LA are the best places to date. While I wasn’t interested in moving to a different city, her advice made me think deeper about why it is so hard to date as a newcomer to Seattle?
There is no question that Seattle is known as one of the most progressive cities in the United States. It’s considered to be immigrant-friendly, accepting of new cultures, and it is a proponent of social and economic justice. However, when the conversation turns to relationships, the Seattle Freeze often comes up. Knute Berger, a local historian, described the Seattle Freeze as “the surprising cold nature of Seattle residents towards newcomers.” Berger’s definition rings true to my experience.
Just because Seattle is growing rapidly does not make it a de-facto melting pot. You need heat to melt. But ask a native Seattleite and they may attribute the Seattle Freeze to the rest of the country’s amplified liberal expectations of the city as a friendly and accepting place.
From the perspective of a newcomer, the work of a melting pot is not being done in earnest. Consequently, the work of full cultural inclusion is frozen in place. If you are a new transplant to Seattle, you feel it when it comes down to your social and romantic life.
There are more immigrant-friendly signs in the windows than there are immigrant-friendly people in the streets.
I was born and raised in Pakistan for a great portion of my life until I moved to Seattle five years ago. What deeply shocked me was that Pakistan is misunderstood to be a part of the Middle East – not only by people in Seattle, but across the country. People from Pakistan are stereotyped as being overly controlling and close-minded. What I personally fear is that the women in Seattle are reluctant to talk to Pakistanis due to the stereotype that they might treat them differently. I don’t think it’s just a function of ignorance at play. Rather, it seems to be a belief that Seattleites are progressive, so progressive in fact that they have nothing else to learn when it comes to the subject of immigrants. Chimamanda Adichie has rightly said, “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” I don’t blame Seattleites for stereotyping Pakistanis. My mom thinks that Americans eat frog, which is not untrue for some areas of the United States, but an incomplete story for the country as whole.
However, there is no question that Pakistan is a repressive country when it comes down to dating publically. If you grew up in a country where talking about dating is a taboo, dating itself is an unlikely reality – at least from an American perspective. Full disclosure that I can only speak to the male experience of dating in Pakistan. On that note, if in Pakistan you have a crush on someone, in most cases you write your number on a piece of paper and give it to her when she is not surrounded by anyone. If she is interested, she will text you with terms and conditions such as, ‘you must not call or text unless I text you first,’ or, ‘if I don’t text you, you should assume that someone is home and we cannot talk at that time.’ In other words, when her parents or siblings are at home, don’t expect a lot – she is just trying to stay out of trouble. In fact, if her parents found out, they would probably consider it an attack on their dignity and honor. She would get in trouble and so would you. You can not dare whatsoever to ask her out in an open fashion. If you do so, you must expect a negative outcome. It’s an Islamic belief that you must cross the Bridge of Siraat in order to reach to heaven— the Bridge of Siraat is as thin as the strand of hair. If you ask me, I’d say dating in Pakistan is much more difficult than crossing the Bridge of Siraat…which is probably for the best because I grew up not knowing the difference between condoms and balloons.
With that, prior to embarking on my journey to the United States, I heard a lot of stories of how easy it was to express your emotions to someone that you like! I thought dating would be incredibly easy for someone like me coming from a place where dating was not allowed. To my surprise, when I arrived here I found that many people in Seattle avoid eye contact and conversation. They act as if they are bound by the same rules I had been under in Pakistan.
It took me almost three years to go out on a date. I was not prepared for an interrogation of surface-level trivialities. I did not know what my favorite show on Netflix was. I did not know what my favorite movie was. I was not an American music aficionado; I grew up listening to Bollywood or Balochi music, it is no surprise I do not know much about American music. It is literally hard to grab the attention of an American girl if you are not a fan of Snoop Lion or Yeezus. On the other hand, I grew up being a student activist and most of the people I socialized with back home were as well. On my first date, all I could talk about was the politics of my country and the flagrant violation of human rights. All she could talk about was pop music and culture.
Most recently, I went on a date with a Pakistani-American girl who was born and raised in Seattle. She could barely speak Urdu and preferred to be identified as just American, not Pakistani. She was not shy to express her indifference for what was going on in Pakistan. She also said she was surprised I was not religious, controlling, close-minded, or a Pakistani man with marriage on his mind. Although she has dated Pakistani-American men before, she told me I was her first Pakistani-born date. Just as I had stereotyped her, it seems as though she had stereotyped me.
These days, stereotypes are unavoidable. They, and the subsequent cultural misunderstandings attached to them, have structural roots. It starts at a young age when we are exposed to misinformation about other cultures, most often portrayed by the media. These depictions are not only partial and second-hand, but they flood our fragile understanding of others with incomplete, often incorrect, information.
Most of my Pakistani friends think the best way to be part of American dating culture is to assimilate. They have given up watching Bollywood movies and speaking Balochi at home. I get where their frustration comes from. However, I personally believe that our culture is exclusive in its own way. Why give up watching Bollywood, the world’s biggest film industry which produces 1200 films in a year? Shah Rukh Khan, a famous Bollywood actor and philanthropist, whose popularity extends beyond the borders of South Asia, is the richest actor in the world. Despite the outward importance of English proficiency, it is not the be-all end-all solution. Everybody’s culture is valuable. Maybe the best way to approach dating regardless of culture is to leave our preconceptions at home.