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Asia: Paradise for Men, Nightmare for Women?

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    Thailand Living

     

    Asia: Paradise For Men – Nightmare For Women?

     

    Article published in the Wall Street Journal in 2004! - is this still true in 2012?

     

    BANGKOK, Thailand — It’s a dream job: a high-level position in Bangkok with an interesting company and an expatriate’s salary. A beautiful company-subsidized apartment that takes up one floor of a luxury building. A maid, a car and a driver on call 24 hours a day.

     

    But for Julie Sleva, a Canadian citizen who is an executive with L’Oreal, the French cosmetics firm, the dream becomes hollow when she leaves her office. Although young and by any definition attractive, Ms. Sleva has had to face the often lonely life of a Western female expat professional on a continent where men rule the roost — a life with no serious relationships and rarely a date.

     

    “Outside of the office, it’s tough,” says “thirty-something” Ms. Sleva.

     

    This is a story that reinforces stereotypes that some people will reject, and other people, like Julie Sleva, will endorse wholeheartedly: For single Western men, Asia can be a paradise of exotic, beautiful women more than willing to pamper them and inflate their egos. The perks of an expat life — low-priced maids, company-paid drivers and members-only clubs — relieve married couples of many of life’s daily hassles, including the chores of child-rearing.

     

    But for single Western Caucasian women like Ms. Sleva, it’s a different story. Accomplishments in the office are often overshadowed by solitary private lives, and even the most casual Saturday-night date with a man is a distant memory. Many such women feel that their chances of having relationships are negligible while they stay in Asia.

     

    For Ms. Sleva, whose marriage to a Canadian man ended seven years ago, it is a constant frustration. Although she’s happy to date both Thai men and foreigners, she says that “you never see Thai men with expat women, and expat men are either married, gay or have a young Thai girl hanging on to their arm. You sit in a car near Soi Nana [a popular night-entertainment district] and you can’t believe what walks out of that place — the ugliest, grossest men with beautiful Thai women. It’s so easy for the Western man.”

     

    Ms. Sleva’s experience in Asia as a single Western woman is far from unusual. Many other expatriate women I spoke to for this article echoed her sentiments. Yet the subject is taboo. Beyond the fact that it is a deeply personal, often painful element of life for women such as Ms. Sleva, discussing it opens up a minefield of sexual and racial stereotypes.

     

    In many cases, the stereotypes are accurate. But not always. Some Western men in Asia meet and marry smart or high-powered Asian women — or overseas-born Asian women who are far more interested in succeeding in their careers than in indulging their husbands’ every whim. Some Western women are happy to be out of the dating game and in a world where they — like their single-mindedly workaholic male counterparts — can devote themselves to climbing the corporate ladder with more visibility than they might enjoy in the U.S. or Europe. Indeed, some don’t feel they need to have a partner or a family to have a rewarding life outside the office and are offended at the suggestion that they would. There are other single Western women who either have a string of romances or meet their life partner while living in Asia. And single overseas-born Asian women living in Asia have their own set of experiences that in some cases may parallel those of single Western women and in other cases be totally different.

     

    Learning to Love being Alone

    Psychologists say that one of the most difficult things for single people both women and men — is being alone. Hong Kong psychologist Melanie Bryan notes that “being alone, being comfortable with yourself, is actually very healthy.” Personal Journal asked two experienced counselors in Asia — David Bailey, a counselor for Psychological Services International in Bangkok, and Ms. Bryan — for tips about how not just to cope, but to enjoy being single.

     

    From Melanie Bryan:

    • Maintain a healthy balance between your personal and professional life; target your priorities in both categories.

    • Keep focused on your needs, because so many can be satisfied by yourself, independent of a relationship.

    • Pursue cultural interests, such as going to films, the theater, art exhibitions and wine tastings. Don’t stop yourself because you’re not in a relationship.

    • Maintain family contacts to give yourself a feeling of being connected.

    From David Bailey:

    • Take advantage of counseling services, which are available in most major urban areas.

    • Join groups devoted to professional people or community service, charities or a foreign correspondents’ club if you’re interested in world affairs.

    • Be proactive; create your life by going out and finding people, because they’re not going to find you.

     

    Still, the difficulties of many single Caucasian women in Asia offer a window into a little-acknowledged cultural phenomenon that is so widespread that counselors who cater to expatriates see it on a daily basis. “It takes a toll,” says Melanie Bryan, a psychologist in Hong Kong. Ms. Bryan’s client base alone is telling: 50% of her clients are single Western women. “People don’t get a sense of self-worth from just one part of their lives,” she notes. “Because a woman is a professional doesn’t mean she lacks aspirations for a relationship as well, and quite often these aspirations have to be put on hold. I see women drink more. I definitely see them depressed. I had a new patient the other day just hammering away at herself. She felt washed up at age 36.”

     

    Ms. Bryan, who has herself been a single woman in Asia for the past 12 years, calls the problems of loneliness and lack of relationships “a major source of anguish” that can be reflected in other ways, including “gaining weight, feeling badly about themselves and feeling that they’re unattractive to men.”

     

    Many of the women who agree with such views are willing to tell their stories only if their names aren’t attached. Two women I spoke to, who have had various Asian postings for United Nations agencies, described their schizophrenic lives — great accomplishments in their U.N. positions contrasted with great loneliness outside work. One of them, a U.S. citizen, said she had given up hope of a relationship or children, but the rewards of her work over more than a decade in Asia made the sacrifices worthwhile. While she wanted to use her name, she said that “this wouldn’t go over well with the U.N.” Another woman, an American who has worked in Asia for a consumer-products company for four years, says it didn’t take her long to learn what awaited her. “Before they transferred me, my company sent me to Asia for a look-see,” she says. “On the plane coming back I met a woman leaving Asia after eight years. After a few Jack Daniels, she told me, “Honey, Asia is single-man heaven and single-woman ####.” ”

     

    “The dating scene is ‘forget it,’ ” this feisty executive adds. “Most Western men are married, and if they’re not married, they’re playing around big-time. And I don’t look anything like those sweet little Thai women.”

     

    Of course, Asia isn’t the only place single women lament the lack of eligible partners. The phenomenon is so strongly rooted that it is enshrined in the annals of pop culture. English writer Helen Fielding documented the single woman’s dilemma in her best-seller, “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” which was turned into the 2001 movie starring Hugh Grant and Renee Zellweger. In the U.S., the problem’s resonance can be seen in the continuing success of the HBO series “Sex and the City,” which looks at the lives of four single thirty-something women in New York.

     

    But in Asia, the fact that the issue is rarely acknowledged means that such feelings are compounded by a lack of understanding and a sense of stigma that doesn’t exist in the West to nearly the same degree. “Why do you not have a husband?” is a question that taxi drivers, maids, shop assistants and even the most casual Asian acquaintances don’t hesitate to throw at women both Western and Asian — whom they discover are single.

     

    “It certainly is difficult for a single Western career woman anywhere in Asia to have a fulfilling life,” says David Bailey, a counselor in Bangkok with Psychological Services International. “The cultural issues are difficult enough for male executives. Most companies don’t adequately prepare their executives for living overseas, and they assume they have their personal lives sorted out.”

     

    For Ms. Sleva, the situation didn’t come as a surprise when she moved from Montreal to Bangkok in January because she had already traveled extensively in Asia for business. But for others, particularly men, learning about the extent of the problems that a single Western woman in Asia faces might be startling. They reach far beyond the difficulty of finding a date and include humiliations that a man would never encounter.

     

    Ms. Sleva made one of her initial visits to Asia while working for a Canadian cosmetics company in the 1980s. She flew to Tokyo to see a Japanese supplier who manufactured scissors. “They didn’t know what to do with me, having a single woman to entertain,” she recalls. “So they decided to do just what they’d do with a man they took me to a geisha bar. Immediately two beautiful women sat on either side of the supplier, on either side of the translator and on either side of me. The men were groping the women, and then the women who were next to me started stroking my legs. I didn’t know what to do.”

     

    Ms. Sleva, who has long brown hair, strikingly large blue-green eyes and a ready smile, is general manager of L’Oreal’s professional-products division in Thailand, which oversees placement of the company’s goods in beauty salons. Speaking at L’Oreal’s fashionable, stark-white suite of offices in a Bangkok central business district high-rise, she radiates the confidence of an executive who loves her work and knows she has mastered it. She looks upon bridging the cultural gaps between herself and her 59 Thai employees in the division’s marketing, sales and finance departments as a challenge, not a problem.

     

    But there’s another Julie Sleva — a woman who won’t walk anywhere alone at night in Bangkok. When she walks to her fitness center in the early morning, “I just keep my head down.” Bangkok is not an especially dangerous city, and Ms. Sleva herself would be the first to acknowledge that an assault against a foreign woman would be an unusual occurrence. But overwhelming that logic is the psychological impact of a life without a partner to know or care about your movements in a city where a Western woman walking alone is met by disparaging remarks and often hostile stares. “It’s the staring,” she says. “The lack of confidence being alone. The men would never stare if I were with a man. Security guards ask all the time, ‘You look for boyfriend?’ ” While staring would be much less of a problem in Chinese societies such as Hong Kong, where people tend to avoid eye contact with strangers, in numerous other Asian countries including Thailand, Malaysia and India people stare unashamedly.

     

    The other Julie Sleva is reluctant to leave her hotel room at night when she travels to other Asian cities — even to eat dinner. Few men would think twice about venturing out at night in Asian cities, but women generally are constantly aware of their physical vulnerability. Ms. Sleva recounts an evening at a five-star hotel in Hong Kong when she decided that she was tired of ordering dinner from room service. “I told myself I’m going to go out and do something,” she says. “I didn’t leave the hotel, but at least I went to a restaurant, their sushi bar. I started speaking to a European man sitting with a Japanese woman; since he was with a woman, I thought it would be safe. He invited me to join them at a popular nightclub. But as soon as we arrived, he started to make a move on me. His plan was for me to join him and his girlfriend for the entire night. I took a taxi home alone.

     

    “That,” she concludes, “is what you run into in an effort to have some companionship.”

     

    Like many female Western professionals in Asia, Ms. Sleva tends to work 12-hour days — not only out of dedication to her job, but because it means she can avoid facing the lack of a romantic life. While many affluent people living in Asia look forward to long weekends away in exotic destinations with their partners, Ms. Sleva’s long weekends are often spent with expat couples “who are kind enough to let me tag along. You feel like a third wheel, but it’s better than going alone.” She takes longer vacations with a longtime gay male friend from Canada.

     

    Eternally upbeat and cheerful, Ms. Sleva says she doesn’t let the lack of a relationship get her down. “I’m delighted I moved here,” she says. “Honestly, I’m so busy at work I don’t have much time for reflection. But on the odd occasion when I see what looks to be an interesting relationship, on moments of reflection, it would be: ‘Gee, I wish I could.’ ” As for the lack of a sex life in Thailand, she notes that “what you don’t get, you don’t crave. Besides, I have too much work.”

     

    The contrast between the lives of single expat men and women in Asia is strikingly illustrated by Ms. Sleva’s friend and co-executive, Martin Mirmand, the general manager of L’Oreal’s luxury division, which places products in boutiques and department stores. Both Mr. Mirmand and Ms. Sleva are young, attractive executives. But there the similarities end. Mr. Mirmand, a 32-year-old Frenchman who has lived most of his life abroad, finds his expat existence to be “very easy from a lifestyle point of view, the comforts of living, the opportunities to do things after work.”

     

    Thailand, he says, “is a very special place” — so much so that he constantly has to remind himself that “easy stuff is not necessarily what you want the most. Things can’t always be easy.” He says he generally avoids sex districts and wants much more out of a relationship than a compliant wife. Still, when asked what he doesn’t like about Thailand, he responds that “a downside is everything closes at 2 a.m.” He notes that “it’s very easy to be a man in Thailand, that is for sure.”

     

    By stark contrast, except for nights when she has a work function, life in the evenings for Ms. Sleva is far removed from bars and nightclubs. Sometimes there are social engagements with friends, mostly gay Western men (who also are often also categorized as leading an easy life in Asia). But frequently, she’ll stay home and eat a spicy Thai salad that her maid has prepared. She occasionally dines out alone in neighborhood restaurants, taking a book, but problems can pop up. “There’s a small family-run Indian restaurant nearby,” she says. “I had friends here and we ate there. Then I went back on my own, and the teenage son stood near me through the entire meal and stared. It was so uncomfortable that now I get takeout there.”

     

    Marisa Vidaurre, director of St. John’s Cathedral Counseling Services in Hong Kong, says that Ms. Sleva’s story is one she has heard time and again from her clients. “What they relate to me is that expat men are not interested in women who are going to be challenging,” she states. “A lot more Asian women culturally find it easier to make men feel better about everything they do. It’s hard for a man to resist when every word out of your mouth is a pearl of wisdom and every joke is funny.” Beyond dating, she points out, “if you’re an expatriate woman, you find that a lot of the expat social life is geared toward families. Schools and sports become social forums.”

     

    Why, then, do many expat women not move back to the West? One reason, Ms. Vidaurre says, is that “your career track can be quite rewarding in Asia. When you go back, you are one among the many. It’s harder to do special things.”

     

    Despite her issues living in Bangkok, Ms. Sleva wouldn’t consider asking for a transfer back to Canada or the U.S. She counts as very strong assets a satisfying job and a chance to immerse herself in a new culture. She says she has accepted psychologically the liabilities of being in Asia: the absence both of a man in her life and the possibility of having children. “My friends assume I’m going to meet Mr. Right, and I answer, ‘Never here,’ ” she says. “Many years ago I wanted children, but my career interfered with that, and I compensated by having dogs.”

     

    Still, the acceptance of reality doesn’t stop a recurrent dream. “I’d like to meet somebody at least as worldly as I am,” she says, “who also loves to experience exotic cultures. I’d like the one grand passion in life I’ve never had.”

     

     

     

     We would love to start a discussion on our forum (members only).

     

Comments

4 comments
  • Laura Dal Farra
    Laura Dal Farra this is the thailand i know (other than the career references as i haven't purused a career here).
    April 24, 2012
  • Kimberly Fravil
    Kimberly Fravil I am one of the single career women here and I would say not much is changed. I don't feel anyone stares at me and I never feel unsafe. But getting a date just is not going to happen when Western men consider us "high maintenance" compared to ...  more
    April 26, 2012
  • Erica C
    Erica C Personally I've found as more Thai men become 'Westernized' to an extent, they become more attractive mates for Western women in terms of being open-minded, willing to approach/flirt/chat, well-traveled, etc. From the article it's difficult to tell if Ms...  more
    April 30, 2012
  • admin
    admin Hi ladies, The comments for this blog have been closed for further replies. It would be great if you could you also comment on the forum topic. You can find the link on the bottom of this blog post. Thanks! :)
    April 30, 2012