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An expat's dating class in China

By Zhang Yiqian (Global Times)

10:34, July 08, 2013

Edmunds found that American dating methods need to be adjusted to work in China. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Alex Edmunds had a relationship problem."I found generally the kind of girls when I meet in bars are not the kind of girls who are good, classy women a guy would look forward to spending the rest of his life with," he said, explaining it's hard to tell which ones have the same life aspirations with you and which ones just want to get a green card and go to the United States.

Edmunds would seem like a great catch for any girl, a Princeton graduate of mathematical economics, who has worked at investment banks and in the IT industry.

He looks like someone who stepped right out of The Dead Poet Society, a stereotypical valedictorian in a high-ranking private school.

His resume is impressive too. At the current stage, Edmunds is working on a startup project, an online dating site that offers offline events to the "leftover" men and women in Beijing, trying to introduce American dating culture to China.

The search for classy women

Edmunds came to China in 2009, working for the Wild China Travel, doing development and information technology for the company. When he first moved here, he was single. He and his foreign friends all found it hard to meet a girl and have a meaningful relationship.

Then a friend recommended Shiji Jiayuan, a popular Chinese dating site. Edmunds thought it was interesting and created an account.

Edmunds went to an offline event hosted by the dating site. At a bar at the west gate of the Worker's Stadium, 320 people sat down in tables of about 15 or 20. The organizer called out, "Let's play a game!"

So everybody stood up and started massaging the back of the person to their left.

"A girl puts her hands on my shoulder and she's rubbing me," Edmunds said. "I didn't talk to her at all. I'm massaging the girl in front me … this would never happen in America, absolutely never happen."

Next in the dating process came the Chinese-style introduction.

"We all went around, one by one and I said, 'Hey I'm Alex, I'm from LA, I'm in IT, I earn about 8,000 yuan monthly, I'm looking for someone aged 24 to 26.' Then I sat down and the woman sat down." he said. "I had to do that for two and a half hours."

It was the first time Edmunds had experienced a Chinese-style dating service. He went to a couple of different ones, such as, and found they were all more or less the same.

The idea of a dating culture - two people having intimate dinner, and having in-depth conversations - seems to be missing in China.

A foreign hongniang

The idea of introducing American dating culture to China started forming. He thought about creating a website with offline activities. The idea was supported by some of his friends, and he recruited people to work with him in putting together

Edmunds sees his project as more of a networking and friend-making opportunity rather than the traditional, hardcore marriage-partner search the Chinese services offer.

He feels like there should be more to dating than surface questions about salary and education. Beneath the label of "Princeton graduate" and "IT guy, 8,000 yuan per month," Edmunds also enjoys many other activities.

He serves on an amateur basketball team that's made up of mostly British people and plays water polo. In fact, that's how he met his current girlfriend of three and a half years, Stephanie Hsiao, who is also a Princeton graduate.

For market research, Edmunds went to many other dating site services to gather information on what the need of so-called "leftover" are.

Hsiao said she tried to support his work.

"Some of my friends hear this and say, 'Oh my gosh, your boyfriend is going to dating site events?' and it's totally fine with me," she said. "He's good at communicating and would inform me beforehand."

The first event organized took place last year. A group of about eight people, all friends or acquaintances, all Chinese, gathered for lunch, and that was then Edmunds quickly found out he can't directly copy the American dating culture and bring it to China.

"At the fist event, everyone sat down and started playing on their phones," he said. They were too shy to talk to each other.

He then realized just bringing people at the dinner table in small groups wasn't enough, he had to make a few changes, such as getting an event hostess who gave directions on what to do and what games to play.

Learning to bridge East and West

In the process of making changes to the styles of event-hosting, Edmunds said he also learned a great deal about how the dating game works in China.

"Western guys are usually more open," he said. "They would lead with questions when they meet a girl, but I've found Chinese guys are shyer."

Getting a hostess was the first step to help with this problem; Edmunds also thought about introducing some of the games people in the West play to the events, to break the ice.

In a video clip of their last event, around 10 people sat at a round table, with a hostess at the head, playing the popular college drinking game Moose, except without alcohol. Everyone in the crowd made hand gestures and laughed.

It is a constant learning process for him, Edmunds said.

"For example, in the US guys usually get wine when they are on a date, it helps them relax," he said. "But at the coucou8 events, I ask guys what they would like to drink, they all said naicha (milk tea)."

Even though the project isn't making money at this stage, Hsiao said Edmunds isn't that worried, saying it takes years before a startup can really start profiting.

Edmunds said he hasn't calculated the success rate of the events he organizes, which is also something people ask him for. But he is happy with each pairing.

"I feel like a hongniang (matchmaker)," he said. "I constantly had to give the guys a little push."

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