(The post by Razib about encountering racism in the US reminded me of a short story, part memoir part fiction, that I wrote last year. I feel that fiction is a better tool to understand complex issues and tried my hand at it).
Imagine that you are a Pakistani man living alone for the first time in an American city. How do you cope with it? All your friends are back in Pakistan, the time difference affects your relationship with even your closest comrades and for the first time in your life, you stop berating your insomniac friends; they are all you have right now because of the eleven-hour time difference. Living alone is fantastic but it gets quite boring after a while. You go and watch a good movie, attend a stand-up comedy show and go sight-seeing. You have spent close to a month in the city and yet you don’t know anyone here. There are days when the only conversation you have is with the library staff who ask you for ID every time you enter. How long can you survive like that? You need to find people to talk to, share jokes with, learn from, cry with. Listening to playlists of your favorite music seems like a drag after the umpteenth time. Netflix loses its charm after a few weeks. Distant friends stop replying to your messages. You are studying for an exam which is unpredictable and even if you pass it, there is no guarantee that you would get the job you want. You descend into a state of sub-clinical depression. You can’t go up to people studying in a library and engage them in a conversation, especially if they don’t know you at all. The way most people meet other people in the United States is through their workplace or in school or college. One can also find people to hang out with in bars and clubs. However, what do you do when you have no money, no job, no friends and you live in a one bedroom apartment with your brother, and his wife.
Your brother doesn’t have these issues; he is married, to the girl your parents chose for him. You finally understand why he never really opposed that idea. He and his wife come back from work late at night and neither of them has the energy to indulge in conversations with you. You don’t have any issues with Alcohol but you have never been to a bar alone and you tend to drink only if you have company. It’s a chicken and egg type situation. You have tried talking to random people on the street, in the metro or at the University campus where you use the library but you feel shy starting conversations with people whom you don’t know already. You decide to try the world of online dating. Statistics show that almost 40% people in the United States are meeting new people through online dating. You have read Aziz Ansari’s book titled ‘Modern Love’ dedicated to online dating and have a cursory knowledge of the whole thing.
You decide to launch a frontal attack and download Tinder, Zoosk and Match.com. They are the top three online dating apps in App Stores. Something’s gotta work. The first issue that you face is that of finding a perfect picture. You discover for the first time in your life that you don’t have a perfect picture, or even a good picture. You have deliberately shied away from the camera all your life and now you rue your life choices. Your friends and well-wishers have always told you that your personality is very different from your appearance. You find some half-decent pictures of yourself and upload them in hope your profile is good enough for someone to ignore your bad looks (and worse pictures). You create a profile that lists your interests, likes, dislikes, idea of a perfect date and what you are looking in the other person. You have never been in a stable relationship for long so you write whatever comes to your mind. You also buy the Service Packs on Zoosk and Match so that at least you can see who has viewed your message and the ability to send replies.
Valentine’s Day is approaching in a week and the sight of red balloons, gifts and valentine-themed treats at every store sickens you and worsens your loneliness. You right-swipe every second girl on Tinder, press the ‘Heart’ button on Match and Zoosk, in hope of at least having a conversation. You take advice from Aziz Ansari’s book and try sending personalized messages to everyone (after carefully perusing their profiles). It takes a lot of work though. Every break that you take from studying, every minute that you spend at home, even the time spent on the metro station, you are right-swiping, pressing ‘Hearts’ for anyone within a five-mile radius (since you don’t have a car) and with mutual interests (which you can always lie about). You have seen ‘Masters of None’, the TV show based on Aziz Ansari’s book and you think that anything could happen.
A few days pass by and you have received no replies, no right-swipes, a few spam messages asking you to contact girls (based in Russia) through email. You constantly alter your profile, adding new photos, deleting old ones, coming up with funnier descriptions of yourself, trying to sound funny. You discover some distinct patterns emerging from your time on the apps: Most girls are looking for Caucasian men with a certain expectation regarding income. You are a lighter shade of brown and don’t have much income to speak of. A week goes by and you are stuck in the vicious cycle. There are times when you wake up in the middle of the night and stare at the screen of your mobile. You wish you lived in the futuristic world of Spike Jonze’s movie ‘Her’. After ten days of signing up to the dating apps, you have received a total of two replies. One day, you get a reply from a girl who lives slightly further but is well-travelled (according to her pictures) and looked good. You chat with her on the app for two days and then you asked her number. She gives it to you. You think you have made it. You forget all the misery and felt on top of the world. You ask her if you can call her and she tells you to call her the next day. The next day is Valentine’s Day.
You are excited to talk to this White American girl for the first time. You have talked to many White, Black and Brown American girls before but never like this. Never in an ‘online dating’ context. You call her on the decided hour and she picks up after two rings. She sounds nice, your inner monologue starts. She tells you that she is a massage therapist and works at a spa. She went to school for learning massage therapy after working as a Barista for many years. She has also visited India in the past, which you think is really cool. You tell her that your best friend got married that day in India and you couldn’t have attended the wedding, even if you were back in Pakistan. You joke about high rates of open defecation in India and then tell her about yourself, how you ended up in the States and what had you done on your previous visits. She hears you out and doesn’t say much. You are about to end the call and before saying goodbye, she says, Oh and Happy Valentine’s Day. You are elated, overjoyed, over the moon. You text her the next day and she doesn’t reply. You wait for a full day, try to call her and send another text. She texts you back, apologizes for the delay and ‘regrettably informs you’ that she doesn’t feel this could work. According to her text, she wanted the relationship to be more about her than you and all you talked on the phone was about you. You suppress your anger and don’t tell her that you asked her everything about her and that she didn’t have anything to say. Your dream shatters and you are back on your knees, swiping, clicking on ‘Hearts’, changing your photos and updating your profile.
You also sign up for a speed-dating event in the city. Maybe in-person interaction will work better than online interaction? You arrive slightly later than the designated hour because of terrible traffic in the city. The venue is a small bar with five tables and chairs on both sides of them. There’s barely space to walk when all five of those chairs are occupied. You see that there are five ladies and seven men. You’ll have to be better than at least two other people if you are going to match. It is Darwinism at its finest. Everyone gets six minutes with each girl and then you have to move on. Everybody has ‘scorecards’ and assigned numbers. At the end of the night, you are supposed to write down your top five matches and if any of them put you in their top five, you’ll get their email and can contact them. You sit opposite the first lady. She is very good looking (and your standards are miserably low) and is wearing a low-cut dress. You can’t keep your eyes off her. She is a cosmetician with an 11-year-old son. You find it hard to concentrate on her face. You try your best though, and try to have a decent conversation. By the time you have composed yourself, your time is over. You move on to the next lady.
She works in marketing and seems to have an imposing, bossy personality. You try your best to survive those six minutes. The third lady is a cross-fit trainer and massage therapist. You hit it off instantly with her. She has seen all your favorite TV shows and you spend most of those six minutes talking about them. There is a break in between during which you go and talk to the ‘men’. One of them tells you that for online dating, you need excellent photos and that you should get them professionally taken. The event resumes after a ten-minute break. Your next potential match is a Nursing student. You decide to ramp up the charm offensive and do some stand-up comedy material for her (you have always wanted to perform stand-up on stage). She can’t stop laughing at the jokes and those six minutes pass by before you could even breathe. The last lady works as a data analyst and you try some of the jokes with her as well. You also talk about the city and she tells you her experience living there for the last five years. Times flies by and the event is officially over. You feel good. Even if none of them picks you as a match (and you secretly hope it is the cross-fit trainer/massage therapist). Once you get out, you are approached by a lady wearing a suit and a charming smile. She works for a company that ‘grooms’ people for dating, providing them with suggestions on how to work on their personality. You are in high spirits so instead of rejecting her offer, you joke with her, calling her the ‘Love Guru’. She gives you her company card, just in case. You take a cab, reach home and start waiting. You receive an email next day from the Speed dating company with two names and email addresses, the cross-fit trainer is not among them. It’s the two girls whom you made to laugh. You email both of them, only the nursing student replies and after a day or two even she stops. Your self-esteem goes down the gutter. You wish you were a white guy. You go back to reading Aziz Ansari’s ‘Modern Love’.