To date as a straight woman is hell. To date as a straight woman during a pandemic is hell with a face mask on. Long before blossoming into an ascetic hermit, I was somewhat of a regular on the revolving doors of Tinder. Quarantine boredom kept me on the app and fear of the maskless masses kept me inside. So, I was left with little option but to date over Skype or Facetime – all I needed was a willing participant.
This turned out to be easier than I thought; most of my previous matches simply ignored me and newer ones suggested pooling toilet paper resources by quarantining together. So, I got talking to Xav*: a chef, a distant mutual and a mostly ironic photo carousel made him the perfect choice for my quarantine experiment. We briefly talked about our mutual friends and he invited me to leave my cave to make pizza with him—though the offer was tempting, I explained that I was quarantining and suggested an online drink instead. To my surprise, he agreed and we swapped contacts.
When the time came, we immediately hit a few hurdles; Whatsapp call was working, Whatsapp video call, on the other hand, was not. Facetime, a normally reliable form of communication, decided that Xav did not exist according to its search bar. So, to Skype I turned. Finding his name tucked amongst far flung relatives and old French tutors, I pressed call. After a few rings he picked up and appeared in surprisingly high definition, smiling and saying hi.
Following the obligatory synopsis of how the pandemic was treating us we moved onto another classic Tinder topic: food. I, being as flirtatiously unpredictable as a German train timetable, asked him what he, a chef, liked to cook. He graciously said something about specialising in Italian classics, but wanting to explore Japanese cuisine and asked me the same.
This, unbeknownst to him, was a loaded question for me. Dating as an East-Asian woman is a nuanced, sometimes fraught experience. If I were truthful, most of the time I boil a lot of supermarket tortellini. But, it being our first date, I wanted to impress and the answer of “trying out my mum’s Malaysian Chinese recipes’’ hovered tentatively on my tongue. The thing is, an innocuous anecdote like that can often leave me torn. Sometimes, I want to tell people about the culture that forms such an important part of my identity – at other times, I fear that my date will reveal that my ethnicity is the singular thing they find attractive about me. Worst case scenario: I’m inadvertently playing into their fantasy of an exotic flower. Even some of the most well-meaning boys I’ve dated have offered “I’ve never dated an Asian girl before” as a compliment. Those who have never been fetishised may think that I’m paranoid. But I can’t tell you the amount of times a casual mention of my family in Hong Kong has prompted a long story about someone’s exchange in South Korea or a clattering attempt at Mandarin (which I don’t speak). Revealing bits of yourself is always daunting, but sometimes in order to not feel fetishised, I feel like I have to eliminate all possibilities of it by pretending to be a raceless entity. My heritage as the sum total of Chinese Mum + Chinese Dad, produces an appearance that makes that somewhat…difficult.
Nibbling on a slightly expired cracker, I considered all of this as Xav glitched and lagged sporadically across my screen, plugging in his phone and adjusting the lighting in his room. I couldn’t help but be grateful for this well-timed buffer as the cultural conflict raged on inside my head. To be fair, the glitching was largely thanks to everyone in my house watching Netflix (they’d been banished to their respective bedrooms to make room for my pursuit of true covid-proof love). By the time Xav’s face became less pixelated I had decided to go with the second, more…exotic answer. He responded “ooooh I’d love to try that” and agreed to my suggestion of a homemade pasta making lesson via Skype as our second date. Culinary small talk out the way, a little more regular small talk followed and we promised to meet “same place, same time” that Saturday.
Cut to a few days later and I was standing in my kitchen armed with a bag of 00 tipo flour, listening to the familiar bleep of a Skype call. Suddenly, I heard a tentative “he-hello?” in my headphones and a grainy face and striped apron appeared.
“Hey I’m in the restaurant kitchen, my home kitchen’s way too small for this. How’s it going?”
“Good, good I’m excited! What are we making?”
“Cavatelli, they’re like little pasta shells, it’s gonna be fun!”
There’s much less faff before a virtual date than there is a physical one and for once I wasn’t embarrassingly late, so I spent the half hour before meeting Xav assembling ingredients in bowls like I was on Masterchef. I showed him with a flourish and he nodded approvingly.
We got started by cracking the eggs into a flour well. He told me about growing up in Estonia – a heady mix of Finnish and Russian culture and his artistic youth spent waitering and making art. He often wandered to the back of the kitchen leaving me to decipher echoey sentences and once or twice the wifi gave up on us altogether. I, in turn, sometimes fell silent as my housemates tiptoed behind me either whispering “sorry!” or making obscene gestures. The shoddy wifi was frustrating at times but it often helped break the ice and the mutual effort to reconnect seemed promising. I guess these moments of enforced silence would normally be either a lull in conversation or an interrupting waiter.
I must, at this point, stress the absolute importance of an activity. Staring into the face of a stranger, even on camera, can be stressful if not downright awkward; but it was easy to take solace in the distraction of the dough or to ask for the next step. By the time we got to shaping the pasta, we had gotten comfortable enough with each other to joke about the “poor connection” and even planning an eventual physical date. At one point, his boss even popped in to say “hi!”. But of course, there were moments when my mind would envisage a different reality, one where my quickly dwindling social skills would be put to the test in some dimly lit pub. Like many others, being cooped up inside for so long had turned my previously extroverted self into an oxymoronic phenomenon. My newest talent was simultaneously interrupting all the time yet also giving monosyllabic answers to well meaning questions such as:
“How’s your family coping at this time? Will you go back to visit them?”
All the same, these conversational faux-pas were much easier to avoid online. People tend to be more forgiving if you speak at the same time as them, chalking it down to an echo or a smudgy front camera. My date was no different, I found him charming despite a few ill-timed punchlines and he called me a “quick learner’’ despite my cavatelli looking like little doughy hamster shites spread across my kitchen counter.
It can be weird when you can’t entirely gauge the other person’s body language due to a lag or a precariously balanced iphone wire but we had a great time nonetheless. Though I have to say, what turns a first meetup between friends into something more is exactly what cyber dating lacks: physical presence.The first hug, the prolonged eye contact, the lean in across the table as the person tells a story – it all seems vital for a tension and romantic connection. Still, a fun video call takes away a lot of the nerves and sets a great foundation for an in-person date when this all blows over. It can also mean you have a higher chance of good or at least, creative conversation; two hour video calls with strangers tend to put the conversationally inept off and if you can get along with their pixelated presence, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll get along with their physical one. As we head into eternal lockdown I would advise you to give the e-date a try armed with a drink and an activity, minimal graft with a chance of maximum result – all from the comfort of your own home.
*Names have been changed
Header image by @louaimroueh