I went on Chinese Tinder

I have not been on dating apps in years. The summer of 2020 I had a brief couple days on Tinder, met a lovely person who is still a friend, and promptly got off. Though I’ve met people and dated in that time, I have not sought it out, and I certainly have not wanted to engage with the game-playing nonsense of dating apps.

Then, after a series of limiting and isolating minor health crises (breaking a toe, a bad cold, stress and culture shock), this week I finally started feeling myself again (the toe is still broken but I’m at peace with the bone-healing process), and boy howdy was this homecoming festooned with emotional banners and mental confetti. Last night it hit an absolute crescendo. I got home from work absolutely buzzing with energy, with a sense of vigor and life that got sucked away by ill-health and was now roaring back to life.

I pulled out my phone and downloaded TanTan, the Chinese version of Tinder. Before you say anything, I know what Tinder is for, I’m here for it, and I one hundred percent understood the assignment. This is not my first rodeo with hookup culture. I had a six-month phase in my late twenties following a breakup that was educational in this regard, and though I thought I had closed that chapter of my life, I’ve never moved to a new country on my own before so some unexpected things are bound to happen. I commenced to swiping.

I went for a joy ride on a rental bike, cruising the streets just wanting to yip for the pure thrill and joy of being in this place, in this culture, a perspective I never in my lifetime thought I would get, but instead taking it all in and letting my heart soar alongside me and my reflection, the three of us pedaling in the lamplit streets of Bao’an as factory workers getting off shift rode their mopeds home all around me.

I stopped into my new favorite restaurant, where the waiter is always super friendly and the food absolutely always slaps, and pulled out my phone. I had several matches already. I initially had set the app to just men. Normally I would set it to men and women but I was a bit hesitant, knowing China’s anti-gay cultural sentiments, coupled with its censorship and surveillance, to be quite so transparent straight away.

Also, as an aside, I’ve been to this restaurant a few times at different hours and the waiter is always there. Chinese work culture is honestly a bit astounding to me. The bao’an (security guards) at my school live there. On campus. In the security guard building, which is just a small brick outpost at the front gates of the school. There’s apparently a room back there with a bed. One of the teacher trainers at my agency lives an hour away and stays near the office on weekends because the travel is not worthwhile to her, even though it means leaving her children with their grandparents or ayi (nanny) for days or even weeks at a time. Most children are raised this way. The parents just work. I see the waiter videochatting with his children often, or eating his own meal alone or with friends at a table, or going out into the street to clip his nails or smoke a cigarette. He doesn’t just work at the restaurant. He likely lives there.

Anyway, TanTan. My first match had only one photo. I asked him for a more recent photo of himself and he sent me his profile picture again. I asked him for a different photo. He claimed to not have taken any photos in the last year. I asked him to take a selfie now. He claimed not to have any lights. Honestly laughable. The photo he finally sent me showed a kid younger than he claimed to be, holding a cigarette awkwardly and sitting at a table with a large bottle of beer. I’ll pass.

My second match was much more promising. 26 years old, about as young as I can tolerate, and very cute. His pictures showed a very fit young man who obviously enjoys a lot of time at the gym and seems to not own any shirts. What’s not to like? I swiped right because you miss one hundred percent of the chances you didn’t take. Welp, we matched, and we started chatting. His first message, in English, read “you smile so sweetly”. This made me smile, and I appreciated the effort to use a language that I, as a foreigner, am most comfortable with. He quickly moved to take it off the app and onto WeChat. Normally I would not do this, but TanTan doesn’t have in-app translation, so I agreed. Once on WeChat we texted back and forth a bit more, but very quickly he moved to the topic of sex. Blatantly, may I add. He would not let up, sending graphic gifs and asking me very provocative questions.

I normally would have a better filter for this kind of thing, but I kept looking at his picture, this attractive young man, and kept chatting. We agreed to meet up the following night, which is now tonight, the night I am typing these very words. We agreed on a time and I was genuinely thrilled, excited, nervous, scared, all the feelings all at the same time. Part of me, the part that remembers being ghosted and stood-up before, gently reminded me to temper my expectations. “He might not come”, she said, and I thanked her, grateful for the wisdom a few extra years of lived experience has granted me.

Well, he did come. At least he tried. If I had let him he would have gladly come over. Instead, he called me. My phone rang, and I stared at it, calculations going off rapidly in my head. Can he really speak English or was he using translation apps? Can I speak enough Chinese? Is he here? Should I go down? Am I ready? Do I really want this right now? I picked up the phone, it was a video call. A man appeared on the screen, chubby faced, wearing a white t-shirt, a white background behind him, unlike anything around my neighborhood. He said a sentence in Chinese. I heard “I am….” and nothing registered beyond that. I stared at him, my mind trying to piece together the image I was seeing with his profile photos. Sometimes people look different, but he looked very different. I told him I heard him say “I am” but didn’t understand the rest. He slowed down, enunciating his words in Chinese “I am on the subway on my way to you.” Oh! I understood it! Excitement filled my chest. “Hao!” I said, ok! “Ok”, he said, and hung up.

I stared at my phone, the excitement of language learning fading into the realization that I had been catfished. I messaged him, asking him why he looked different than his profile pictures. He copped to it readily, admitting he had used someone else’s photos, and apologized. “You lied to me. You can’t do that”, I told him, “you can’t lie and trick someone into having sex with you.” He apologized again, and asked me if he was my type based on the video call, if he could still come over. I blinked at the audacity. I did the very female-enculturated thing and immediately placated him, then backtracked and eased him into rejection slowly, building confidence until finally I flat out told him no, to go home, and reported him on the app and blocked him on every platform.

I felt shaken, disappointed, and betrayed. Undoubtedly he will continue to use this tactic, which makes me sad for every other woman’s time he will waste. As for me, I felt at a crossroads. Quitting the app now felt like letting him win, so I got back in the saddle and kept swiping, focusing this time on people who look like they could be real humans, and skipping anyone who looks like a model or too good to be true. I adjusted the app to my preferred settings (men and women), swiped right on a few more people, and got a few more matches. I’m currently talking to someone, who by the way did not bring up sex right away (classy move), and the first thing I asked for was a live video call to verify identity and to send me a bunch of recent pictures.

Besides TanTan, I also signed up for formal Chinese lessons with a tutor three times a week, which I am equally if not even more excited about. Here’s to being a language nerd with a healthy human sex drive. Here’s to a big thrilling adventure. Here’s to human connection. Here’s to surprising myself and stepping outside my comfort zone in ways unexpected and thrilling even to me. Here’s to the one life I have to live, and here’s to living it!




Anna is a language nerd currently located in China.

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Anna Ka

Anna Ka

Anna is a language nerd currently located in China.

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