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Relationships and Its Discontents: Personal Encounters of a Sociologist

In this post, I reflect on my rather poor love life. I could go back to my old sociological self, and blame the neoliberal and postmodern reality of present society, which makes it increasingly difficult for people to start relationships with romantic partners. There are, in fact, people, who analyze sexual relationships in a strictly sociological manner, that the notion of a sexual partner choice and finding a partner who can fulfill all of our high criteria are rather modern and have evolved over time (Illouz 2012).

In the past, it was much more common to have the family decide on who your marital partner would be, and there were many pragmatic considerations like income level, ethnic background and socio-economic status, which mattered most in the partner selection, but certainly not romantic love. Romantic love is a more modern conception, and carries the neoliberal essence of individuality and choice. Sociologists are not confused, and rightfully refer to today’s situation as “marriage market”.

I could take this sociological analysis and apply it to my own love life, which has been rather poorly developed, as I cannot claim any profound sexual experiences in the past. But to see myself as part of the larger social reality is not enough, because there are still many other people of my generation, who despite the greater freedoms of choosing a spouse and the increased risk of becoming disappointed, are still able to find a partner. Though divorce levels in overall society are elevated compared to the prudish past, it is not true that divorces continue to skyrocket. In fact, they were slightly declining in the US since the 1980s.

Source: University of Maryland

It is also the case that whether a couple stays together is more dependent on their socio-economic class than anything else. High-income people tend to stay together, while low-income people are more likely to divorce, which is a double punishment for children born into single-parent, low-income households. The implications on deepening the rift in social stratification and the distribution of opportunities across different segments of society are evidently quite substantial.

Another interesting development in the world of sexual relationships is that the percentage of intercultural, interethnic and interracial marriages is increasing, and there are more and more Americans, who identify themselves as biracial or multiracial than at any time in the past. Sociologists like Robert Putnam emphasize the point that socio-economic cleavages are becoming by far more important than racial cleavages, though racial discrimination, redlining and disproportionate minority incarceration show us that we are still rather far away from racial equality. As far as marriage patterns are concerned, it is becoming more acceptable for Asian American female professionals to marry European American male professionals, and for working class male African Americans to marry female Hispanic working class people.

These are rather fascinating social insights, but they provide no insight as to my personal predicament. There is an active stereotype of Asian American males for being sexually rather restraint, and Hollywood resists depicting Asians as sexually promiscuous or aggressive. One may be reminded of Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan in one of the successful Rush Hour movies, where Tucker consummated a female in the hotel room, while Chan waited outside the room for them to finish their business.

Asian women in the US see that and upon mixing with men of other races, are rather prone to take on black and white males as sexual partners. Let us look briefly at the table of interracial marriages, according to the US census:

Married couples in the United States in 2010[11]
White Wife Black Wife Asian Wife Other Wife
White Husband 50,410,000 168,000 529,000 487,000
Black Husband 390,000 4,072,000 39,000 66,000
Asian Husband 219,000 9,000 2,855,000 28,000
Other Husband 488,000 18,000 37,000 568,000

Source: Wikipedia

It is difficult to comment on the ‘other’ category, which may be biracial or Hispanic people, so I will leave the outer columns uncommented. It is not surprising that the vast majority of pair-ups happened within races, but let us focus exclusively on the interracial patterns. White husband and Asian wife is 2 1/2 times more likely than Asian husband and white wife. Similarly, black husband and white wife is more than 2 times more likely than white husband and black wife. The most lopsided distribution, but with the lowest prevalence were between blacks and Asians. Black husband and Asian wife is 4 times more likely than Asian husband and black wife.

The implication of this distribution is that the least favorable sexual position is for Asian men and black women. We all read about the stories of Asian men as computer nerds or gamers, who are so tied to their computers that they are unlikely to go out and search for sexual partners. For black women, the sexual situation is even worse, because there is a so-called missing man problem, where so many black men from the lower class are either dead or in jail. Men of other races in turn are not so likely to accept them. So what typically happens is that they have sexual relations, break up and often end up as single parents.

In the rest of this post, I recount my sexual non-experiences with various women, and to protect their anonymity (and prevent my embarrassment), I have chosen to refer to their initials. AK was my first crush back in elementary school. A Polish girl with blond hair and blue eyes. I remembered her as a very kind girl, who spent a lot of time with another Bosnian girl. We did not have many personal conversations, but I do remember how the other boys were actively flirting with her, even though we were all 9 years old. I looked at them with envy, but what was I going to do? My parents met each other via family matchmakers, my father never had a girlfriend in his youth before and married at 35, and my older brother also never had a girlfriend, so there clearly was a background for my sexual inhibition. I had already begun to write my diaries back then, and though I no longer have these diaries, I do remember that I have written how I imagined to be her boyfriend. The one brief conversation we had was when she held up two pens and asked me whether that was the way to hold chopsticks. I just said yes, and could not think of anything else to say. The year sailed away, and when we graduated from elementary school, I lost touch with her.

For the next two years of middle school, I had the fortune to be without a crush, and I lived a comfortable, normal life. When I entered seventh grade, our previous class had dissolved because more than half of the class left the school, and the remaining students were allocated to the other classes. I joined another class, and discovered VZ, a Bulgarian girl with huge green eyes, and long, shiny brown hair. That was the next crush, and, of course, nothing materialized. What was so impressing about her were her cynical comments and her desire to be a tax accountant (at age 12!). One might say that the former feature made her rather unsympathetic to deal with, and indeed I never had a reasonably long conversation with her, but both of these facts actually make her rather mature and intelligent, and these were features that I increasingly appreciated in women as I grew fond of books and ideas.

There was this other boy in class, who had a good relationship with VZ, and I don’t know how we became adversaries, but he was a rather tactless and unfriendly figure. They never had a romantic attachment with each other, but what impressed me was that he was on such good terms with her, even if it was of a silly nature. Why could I not replicate it? The worst experience with VZ was when the class got so bored while a substitute teacher was filling in during the day that someone had circulated a list of all girls evaluating all boys and vice versa based on their looks and their character. What was interesting was that it was not anonymous, so I could see who thought what of whom. If such an experiment was conducted with adults in the workplace, there surely would be a huge problem because underlying resentments which would have never come to the fore, would literally explode and make further team work impossible. But we were 13 year old teenagers with a surplus of hormones, so who cares? I greedily looked at VZ’s evaluation of me, the only column that mattered, and I got a 4 and 4- on each score, which is equivalent to D in the US. I passed the list on to the person next to me, but felt rather miserable afterwards. I know I was not taking any steps to show my sex appeal, but was I really such a poor choice? After the end of eighth grade, VZ switched school, and I have never heard of her since.

I was very happy to be able to end that school year and look ahead in life. I never contemplated having a girlfriend, and I would not have one soon either. When I entered high school, I got allocated into another class, and there I saw KS, a tall, blonde Austrian girl again with blue eyes. I later discovered that she clearly colored her hair, because the blonde kept on changing until she decided to color to brown hair, which made me rather upset, because I had been used to the blonde look. We also had no profound interactions, and she was also rather cynical with some of her remarks. The one memory I had of her was when she told me on three different occasions how she would support my bid for political office later in life through her vote, because she knew my passion for politics. In 10th grade, I became the deputy class speaker, a meaningless bureaucratic position in the class, and she was elected the class speaker. We did not take any common action together, as far as I could recall. When I left Austria in the middle of 11th grade, it was the last time I had seen her. When we organized irregular class reunions, she never attended them, and I was glad that she didn’t. We were briefly Facebook friends, and then she removed me. I only found out recently because I got curious and searched her name to no avail. Apparently, her love for my political posts were rather limited. Her hypocrisy revealed, I should say that I am glad that that crush ended with my departure.

Adjusting to new life in the US I thought would be troublesome, and girls were as far from my mind as I could imagine. But a few months in, I saw this Chinese girl, TL, standing in line in front of me in the long queue for the free lunch in high school. I always got a wrap or a hoagie, which was the healthiest option but took the longest, because they were individually wrapped by the cafeteria employees, while pizzas and hamburgers were quickly served and quickly taken. I enjoyed and hated the daily routine simultaneously. There was this one fat, black girl, whom I apparently offended, don’t ask me for what, and she made spiteful comments against me whenever I saw her.

The fond memory was the black cafeteria lady, who knew that I preferred Lactaid milk, even though I still drink regular milk today, and the old white guy, who gave out the napkins, who cursed out the impolite teenagers passing by, while talking nicely with me, the ‘gentleman’. The black police officer guarding the entrance called me a future political leader, though I replied that I am happy enough to be a thinker. I always sat with the same group of immature students, who referred to me as “Terminator” because I grew up in Austria. There was an immature Portuguese kid, who taunted me, even though I never let myself be provoked. My good friends were the Indians and the two fat Greek students.

TL was a strange woman, and we were not much in contact because she came from the IB (international baccalaureate) program, which are the most advanced students. (Had I arrived in the high school a year earlier, I would have gotten into IB without the bat of an eye.) They had their own wing in the high school (the “annex”) and were virtually permanently segregated from the other “average” students. When I looked at their photos in the yearbook, I saw exclusively Russian Jews, Chinese, Vietnamese and Indians, maybe one or two white Americans and black Americans. The rule is that the lower down the quality of the classes, the higher the minority rate. TL and I did not talk much, and I remember that I have interrupted her when she made fun of the stupid juniors, while she was a senior. I got fresh and dared her to call me a stupid junior, and she affirmed it. How can this woman be so cruel? On another occasion, she was accompanied by a group of other students, and I asked one of the male students, whether I could join them to the annex (IB building), and have lunch with the other “smart” kids (though only a small fraction of them were really of intellectual caliber). He retorted untruthfully that it would require special identification to get into the annex building, which is complete horse shit, because I did end up taking a few classes there later. But I realized quickly what he intended to say: “Don’t mix with us aristocrats, you bloody peasant!”

To the defense of these IB kids, he was the only sucker, who treated me with such disrespect. I got to know another blonde Ukrainian woman, who worked in the library, and we had great conversations on politics, and she was a real intellectual. There was another petite Ukrainian Jewish student, MB, whom I had a few associations with at the National Honors Society, who put on her Facebook post that if a friend liked that post, she will tell that person what she thinks of him or her. I liked it and she replied to me that I was a smart student. She was not the first one to say it, but it did produce satisfaction. I entertained a brief crush on MB, but for lack of association I quickly dropped it. As far as TL is concerned, the only major interaction was negative. To add insult to injury, our Facebook friendship was also of a short duration, which she quit after I had sent her private messages, which she only briefly replied and rightfully considered as stalking.

In the military and the community college my libido was calmed and for two and a half years I went without any sexual cravings whatsoever. For most people at that age, it would have been normal to have desired a girlfriend, but that was absolutely not the case for me. I went to an honors program in liberal arts at the community college, and had the academic time of my life. I started the University of Pennsylvania also with a rather light heart. The most intense experience during the first term was the Math 104 (calculus I) course with Florian Pop, a Romanian born and German educated professor, who was brilliant in math, knowledgeable of classical music, politics and history. He would tell me a few things in how to solve problems, while we listened to Bach and other classical music playing on his computer in his office, but I really was only curious to quiz his opinion on Ceausescu’s terrible rule.

Then I met this Austrian guy, who wore his “I am from Austria” T-shirt in the Christmas party given annually by the president of the university. Everyone was fighting to get into a selfie with the president, but I just watched them amused from afar. It turned out the Austrian guy was an exchange student in the US, and founded a German club, even though he would spend only one year at UPenn. How un-Austrian such entrepreneurial spirit was! He is now a big consultant in Austria, and came from a bourgeois family. He invited me to attend his club, so I agreed, and did not mind to have a little bit of social life after my socially poor first semester, where I had spent all the time commuting on the bus and subway solving my math problem sets. The rest of the school terms where not too bad as far as the workload was concerned.

The German club really had two people at the core: the Austrian guy and this Chinese girl, YZ, a mechanical engineering student in her final year. By now I had developed a clear pattern for preferring East Asian women. She had spent one year as an exchange student in Germany on a DAAD scholarship, and spoke excellent German albeit with an American accent. She was born in China, but lived in America since she was 6, and, therefore, lacked the very Chinese mentality. The Austrian was the brain of the organization, while YZ was the host with her small apartment. They had weekly meetings, and after our first meetup where we held a conversation for over an hour, I decided to go back there every week. As the semester progressed, YZ became more and more busy, so the events were held at a Starbucks coffee nearby. There were different people coming in and out, but I had no regard for them, only when YZ was there. I often was the first person to come, and I had to wait outside before the event started. It was her roommate answering the door, and she would usually leave while we held the meeting.

It was ironic, because even though only during the first and maybe third and fourth time we had a good conversation together, I was pulled to the event, just so I could be with her and see her. She was very helpful and told me that I should be in contact with professors for research assistantships and gave me tips on preparing for the GRE, and I only then realized the normality of what it takes to be an Ivy League student. In the later phase, she saw my political obsession and was happy enough to converse with others rather than just me. The highlight was when she gave me a hug before I left, and such spontaneous move is usually not undertaken by Asian people. I hugged her back every time I visited. She never initiated again, but neither did she resist me. I was swimming in a sea of illusions about our common future together. The blow came when she revealed in a conversation that she visited her boyfriend in Germany, which I did not know was true, because she had no photo of a German boyfriend on Facebook. Most of her pictures were with conventional Asian American friends, which more likely reflected her real network. The boyfriend bomb once dropped always destroyed any hopes that one might have of being with a girl.

But the most important insight from this casual interaction was very simply threefold: first, I had a clear sexual preference for East Asian women, and I never had any more crushs on white girls since high school. Second, it was possible for girls to treat me nicely rather than as some weirdo or stranger. Third, it was therefore also possible to have good conversations with girls that I liked and I had no reason to be shy about it. After graduation, YZ continued to study a masters program in engineering at another big school, and we only are connected via Facebook though without any interaction.

I finished my undergraduate program without obstacles and began a masters program in England, where I am spending a year. Socially, this year is an absolute blast, because I have so many female Asian friends at this point, albeit without any romantic attachment. It was easy to befriend them, because they were mostly rather intellectual and very open-minded. Most of them are married or have boyfriends, but it does not deter them to meet with you if they have sympathy for you. One girl, LT, I have encountered during the Freshers Fair, where different clubs and organizations signed up members. LT was a representative from some Chinese organization. She was very pretty, a Japanese literature student, who could talk about her subject matter forever. She asked me some curious questions, which were clearly meant in a friendly manner.

I received their newsletters, and attended the only event of the term, a British-Chinese politician was invited to give his insights about taking part in British politics. Me and another British guy destroyed him for his allegiance with the Conservative Party, and took up most of the questioning time, while most of the Chinese students stayed silent. I saw LT in that event, and we talked about all aspects of Japanese culture and society for half an hour before her friend pulled at her shoulder to get her out of my hands. I asked for her contact info, which she revealed. I wrote to her on Facebook about staying in touch, and she did not reply. I had sent her another message via email about having another chat, and she also chose not to reply, which gives me an indication of how much (or little) sexual interest she had in me.

These are my sexual non-encounters, and I am looking forward to more hopeful encounters in the future.

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