In ‘The Swiping Game: How Expats Navigate the Dating App World in China,’ our August 2021 cover story, we guide you through some of the highs and lows of using dating apps as an expat in China. The anecdotes are laughable and genuine.
Dating is an arduous task. The technology from this century has simply given us too many options. Meanwhile, we’re inundated with gossip magazines, romantic comedy flicks and social media influencers sending mixed messages on how dating should be done.
Let’s throw in the additional barrier of being a foreigner in a new environment here in China, and you might suddenly feel like you’re navigating a minefield blindfolded.
Below, we walk you through the world of dating apps used in China and hear the good, the bad and the ugly of dating app experiences.
China is home to more than a million expats. The seventh Chinese census, released in May 2021, reported that there are currently 1.4 million foreign nationals living on the Chinese mainland. A healthy portion of these expats is likely single and ready to mingle.
Additionally, many foreigners studying or working in China will date outside of their ‘expat bubble,’ meaning there are a lot of potential partners available. The seventh consensus also reported that more than 51% of the total population are male and nearly 49% are female, in theory giving female expats more options to choose from.
“With so many cultures, nationalities, languages and backgrounds mixing together, the dating and relationship scene takes on a whole new landscape…we feel it’s important to have a platform to talk about these issues”
Dating as an expat can be difficult. You have to navigate language barriers, cultural differences, family pressure, different expectations and cross-dating.
In Beijing, long-term expats Rachel Weiss and Nathan Williams set up a podcast and event platform called Date Night China as a way to offer advice and support to people who are navigating this new environment for the first time.
“With so many cultures, nationalities, languages and backgrounds mixing together, the dating and relationship scene takes on a whole new landscape…we feel it’s important to have a platform to talk about these issues,” the duo tells us.
This is great for Beijing dwellers, but for expats in smaller cities – apps are integral.
We reached out to several dating app users to share their experiences and gain insight into how expats and locals navigate this intercultural landscape.
But first, let’s take a look at the history of the digitalization of dating. Dating sites in China ‘date’ back to 2005, while apps didn’t really take off until 2011, according to South China Morning Post.
In 2021, many English-language dating apps do not function without a VPN in China, including Tinder – despite its popularity and regular use in the country.
According to Statista, an estimated 72% of Tinder’s userbase in the US is male. Image via Pixabay
Chinese-made apps have also been known to lose approval from time to time. Tantan and Momo were notably removed from the Chinese internet back in 2019, despite their large userbases. (Both apps have since been reapproved on Chinese app stores.)
Chinese apps generally reign supreme among dating app users, which can lead to difficulties for users who are not fluent in Chinese and struggle to adapt to different platforms.
Statista recorded that as of May 2021, Momo, Tantan, iAround, Zhiya and Soul are the most commonly used apps in China, but it doesn’t necessarily reflect usage by expats.
Momo promotional video celebrating its 10 year anniversary. On average, one million users meet each other every day, according to Momo’s official Weibo account. Screengrab via @陌陌科技/Weibo
There have been countless stories of bad experiences, ranging from catfishing (pretending to be someone else online) to outright scams. These often include investment opportunities linked to Forex or an expectation of payment for a date that isn’t mentioned until after the wining and dining.
Catfish experiences can be harmless, but occasionally leave a sour taste in the user’s mouth.
Vicky from Hangzhou had such an experience. (The dating app users we contacted for this story have all asked us to omit their surname for privacy reasons.)
“I matched with a black Canadian guy on Tinder, and a friend told me he was nice. I got super drunk one day, and he invited me to a bar, so I went… but it was a massive white guy. Like twice as big as his chair massive,” says Vicky, who added that she didn’t say anything, finished her drink and left. “I like dating apps, I still use them and met some of my best friends on there, but I always expect drama.
Dating apps are often believed to contribute to a ‘hook-up culture,’ where users are not serious and only looking for some fun. This perception is twofold though.
“We aren’t dating; we just meet up. And it’s been awesome. He is very experimental and always showing me new things to try – I dig it”
Firstly, where both parties consent and seek out this behavior, apps allow them the opportunity to find like-minded individuals. “I’ve had a great experience through Tinder with a Chinese guy,” says one person from Anhui province who asked to remain anonymous. “We aren’t dating; we just meet up. And it’s been awesome. He is very experimental and always showing me new things to try – I dig it.”
Secondly, the same time-wasting behavior can occur from the apps and is unfairly attributed to meeting via apps. Meaningful relationships and hook-ups happen everywhere – just be upfront about what you want.
Although maybe not too upfront, as one user listed common questions she regularly faces when logging on. “Tantan is the place to be for memories. Marriage proposals, people thinking I’m a bot – I was offered money for sex and my favorite line: I’m a gay man but I have a female friend who is interested,” said Lenka, who is based in Hangzhou.
These miscommunications can further increase the stigma of dating apps, but as the world increasingly shifts online, you have to question whether dating entirely offline is the most effective use of time.
As expats in China, it’s easy to find dating overwhelming. Expat communities are relatively small, and many foreign nationals here are nowhere near fluent in Chinese.
If you don’t wish to be confined to expat groups, but struggling to find dates, then this is where apps come into play.
Dating apps allow you to meet more than just a soul mate, as Shoshanna found out after an unsuccessful date with a doctor. She remains friends with him and recalls, “When I experienced bedbug bites, he helped me diagnose them over a quick WeChat conversation.”
Life as an expat can be a double-edged sword, where you have a ready-made community waiting for you, but many expats will actively avoid it in pursuit of cultural immersion.
Anue from Fuzhou discovered that despite his aversion, Tinder enabled him to connect to an expat with similar views, and two years later they’re still together. “We are from different continents and both avoided the expat circles in our city so were unlikely to meet without the help of apps.”
Although he still remains hesitant of expat-only gatherings, he admits, “I couldn’t recommend them enough to help you outside of your immediate surroundings.”
“Bad dates help you figure out people you don’t want to be with and are just as important as good ones. Put your worries aside and go explore”
Every date doesn’t always go well or even include someone we would typically spend time with. But, ‘getting out of your comfort zone’ could be the slogan for dating apps.
Linda from Nanjing admits that her most memorable encounter was an awkward, cheap first date. After her date let her pay for show tickets, he sought out discounted drinks and ultimately cut the date short after failing to find any deals. Linda recalls it positively though and admits, “Bad dates help you figure out people you don’t want to be with and are just as important as good ones. Put your worries aside and go explore.”
Additionally, countless opportunities and people are waiting online for you due to the sheer number of users. Xiao, a Chinese national living in Fuzhou, summarized online dating sweetly: “Some [people] you may never see again, some will be good friends, some may be good lovers, a serious relationship, or even marriage material.”
He believes, “More ‘interesting souls’ are on Tinder because people who know how to access apps like Tinder in China are usually more open-minded or have lived overseas before,” but admits that it’s a generalization between him and his friends.
While explicit messages, catfishing and disastrous dates are part and parcel for many, Lauren from Xiamen highlights why persistence pays off.
After just over a year on Tantan, she found ‘the one.’ “I matched with the love of my life, and we are due to get married next year,” she tells us, adding that he moved across the country to be with her. But Lauren admits, “To find that good pingguo (apple), you’ve got to go through a few rotten ones first.”
On the flip side, some people don’t take dating apps seriously at the start. Stacee from Shenzhen ended up in a long-term relationship with someone she used to casually respond to at first. “He’s the best thing to happen to me. He truly loves me for me.”
As we’ve learned over several discussions with dating app users, not all apps are made equal. Barbara from Fuzhou tells us that while Jimu is common among younger, diverse crowds, they’re less likely to be taken seriously. With that said, “You can definitely find the right one too if it is destiny,” says Barbara.
In her personal experience as a lesbian in China, she notes that Jimu users generally use code words to signal their sexual orientation. She tells us that Chinese lesbians tend to be shy on dating apps and are less interested in “hooking up.”
Soul, on the other hand, offers a promising user interface with multiple functions to meet the user’s needs, according to Sylvia from Guangzhou.
“You can match by sound. If you like the other person’s voice, you might end up liking the other person, while if you don’t like their voice, you can pass. If a person’s voice is nice, I will have a good impression of them, whether it is a guy or girl.” Additionally, Soul offers a group chat function.
Sylvia also mentions Hood, a relatively new app that can match people by dressing style. “Different dressing styles can show different personalities. Some people will see whether the other person’s fashion style matches their own,” says Sylvia.
Some have found dating apps to be a great way to make friends as well. Liz from Shanghai admits that she found her best friend on Tantan. Despite suspicions of “getting scammed or just meeting tons of guys who wanted to ‘ride the horse’,” she found a local with excellent English skills.
After many dates, he returned to Beijing for work, but neither was ready to end things so they remained friends. Liz told us, ”If you are a normal person that just wants to try a Chinese dating app, don’t rule out meeting someone you will actually like on one.”
Beyond romance and friendship, dating apps also play a role in learning new languages.
“The app helped me save time that I might have otherwise spent trying to find out if I was compatible with someone”
Albert in Shanghai admits that he quickly learned to use Tantan for language exchanges instead of dates because he personally found the cultural differences too great.
“The app helped me save time that I might have otherwise spent trying to find out if I was compatible with someone. I realized I wasn’t comfortable being asked to define the relationship too early and felt awkward on dates but enjoyed the opportunity to connect to people,” says Albert.
While dating apps have facilitated a proliferation of relationships that likely wouldn’t have taken hold in the real world, there’s also a darker side to the world of online dating.
Penny from Fuzhou has found that people can leave our lives just as quickly as they entered after meeting a Sichuanese man who had traveled through her city.
Despite flying her out to Sichuan for a romantic week away, “He blocked me after I returned,” Penny tells us. However, she remains positive about dating apps and continues to use them.
Some apps emphasize the importance of real-user verification – a useful tool in preventing catfishing.
We reached out to Lancheng, the company behind dating apps Lesdo and Blued, to learn what they are doing to thwart catfishing.
Lesdo is a lesbian social app based on location. Image via Apptopia
“For Blued, the function of user verification was launched in China several years ago and is now promoted to its overseas markets. Users who pass the verification will have a special logo attached to their profile photo. Through AI technology, Blued also protects user’s safety by providing automatic alarms and recommendations to users while the system detects risky topics, including fraud, personal safety as well as health-related issues,” a representative from Lancheng tells us via WeChat.
Lesdo has also made similar efforts in real-person verification and phone number binding.
If you’re worried about catfishing but don’t feel comfortable going through the user authentication steps, some apps implement it more casually.
A Jimu representative tells us, “The user authentication system may be a double-edged sword, [and] if it is too strict, there will be some psychological burden for ordinary users to accept.”
They also partially address concerns by requiring users to “complete real identity authentication on some personalized functions, but in a more general social environment, users will not be forced to authenticate.”
As we’ve learned, some dating apps are taken more seriously while others have a reputation for flings. Regardless of intentions though, one issue for many non-Chinese users is navigating a Chinese-language app. For most expats here, a multi-language app is a necessity.
The Lancheng team informed us, “Regarding Lesdo, we do have plans for a multi-language version and will keep users posted when we have a schedule to share.”
As for Blued, it’s more user-friendly for expats due to its existing translation infrastructure. “Our quick translation function supports English to Chinese translation, however, Chinese to English is still being developed. We hope to launch in the future,” a representative tells us.
The Jimu team further confirmed that “real-time language translation facilitates communication between foreign users and local users.” The app plans to help users break the ice quickly with more interactive communication functions like personalized emoji expressions. “After all, users around the world have basically the same understanding of emojis.”
Ultimately, two people speaking the same language isn’t the only recipe to making a successful relationship.
“Language barriers may cause communication issues between users with certain cultural differences, not only foreign users and local users, but also users in different geographic regions [in China]”
The Jimu PR team raised a valid point about their focus and efforts in making their user interface expat-friendly.
“Language barriers may cause communication issues between users with certain cultural differences, not only foreign users and local users, but also users in different geographic regions [in China].”
Ai or Goodbye?
Dating can leave people feeling like a hot mess, whether you’re meeting Steve at the pub in London or Cherry for shengjianbao in Shanghai. There’s no clear formula for success, and as we already hit on – horror stories do exist.
Although previously many dating apps gained a bad reputation, it’s simply a part of dating nowadays.
If people are deterred by the possible unauthenticity of dating apps, consider that our grandparents were writing self-adverts into newspapers and likely adding a couple of inches to their height and subtracting a few years off their age back in the day.
So, are dating apps the only way to finding a soulmate? By no means. But, with an open mind and a sense of blind adventure, people will find that these apps can add more value than they get credit for.
[Cover image via Pixabay]