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Romance Round The World: From Meet Markets To Covert 911 Calls

Matchmaking in the U.S. has gotten truly weird. One of the latest entrants into the business is Smell Dating, a New York-based company that asks clients to wear a T-shirt for three days — without bathing! — so swatches of the fabric can be sent to prospective partners. The idea is that folks sniff and, if they like the smell, pursue a date.

In the corners of the world that we cover in Goats and Soda, there are all kinds of twists in the dating game (although none of them involve scent). We talked to academics to get the lowdown on courtship and marriage in three cultures.

Chinese dating customs range from old school to new wave. The traditional approach leaves it up to the parents. Across China, they gather to swap stats on their unmarried kids, says Sandy To, a lecturer in the sociology department at the University of Hong Kong. The most famous spot is People's Park in Shanghai, which hosts a marriage market every weekend. Moms and dads post signs touting their children's personal details, including height and income, and then scan the hundreds of other signs in search of a good fit. For the parents, it's a practical, low-tech way to try to achieve their goal: Get their child hitched.

But it's not effective for everybody, particularly women in their late 20s or early 30s with careers. This group, called the "sheng nu," or leftover women, is a growing demographic that is the focus of To's research. Although they are looking for partners, their status tends to intimidate men. So a woman with an advanced degree and a top position at a company wouldn't want to have those things advertised on a marriage market sign. As To explains, "there's no market for someone like that."

These women are more likely to rely on an introduction from a friend or colleague. Those sorts of dates are anything but blind, To says. Before anyone agrees to anything, there are behind-the-scenes negotiations. "Chinese people are efficient [about dating]. They put everything on the table," says To, who notes it's common to reveal anything that might be perceived as negative. ("He doesn't have a house. Do you want to meet him? She has a Ph.D. Do you want to meet her?")

And then there's a very 21st century dating option for Chinese young people looking for love: reality TV. The most popular program — with up to 50 million viewers per episode — is If You Are the One, which To describes as a dating show meets American Idol. Eligible bachelors show off their talents (singing, dancing, magic tricks) to impress a group of 24 single women. If a match is made, the couple heads off. Since the show debuted in 2010, thousands of contestants have tried their luck. Now, the program is reaching out beyond China: An Australian version aired earlier this year.

Dating is a challenge in Afghanistan, where custom dictates that young men and women cannot be together if they are alone. There is no "dating" in Afghanistan, explains Alef-Shah Zadran, an anthropology professor at Kabul University.

But college students can get more than just a degree, says Zadran, who is on the faculty for the school's new master's program in gender and women's studies and who focuses on issues of equality. In his courses, young people also get the rare opportunity to study one another.

"There are 20 to 30 students sitting in the same classroom. They can see each other," Zadran says. On campus, when they walk down the street together or sit on benches to chat, "it's not shameful," he adds. "They are talking to each other as classmates."

Outside of this setting, it's quite challenging to interact with potential matches. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Kabul's emergency services number has been flooded with calls from lonely men hoping to strike up conversations with female operators. (Talking to the opposite sex on the telephone? That's completely acceptable, Zadran says.)

When couples conversing on campus want to take things to the next level, they inform their parents. Zadran says a typical young woman would approach her mother with this sort of request: "This boy is my classmate. He wants to get married. What do you think?" Then it's up to the relatives to meet up, scope each other out and make a decision.

If the reputations of the families are "good," Zadran says, the couple typically gets the green light. That's what happened to two of his students last year. They started talking in class and persuaded their parents to OK the relationship. "One month ago," Zadran says, "they got married."

Finding a date is not hard in Tulum, Mexico, says Ana Juarez, an associate professor in the anthropology department at Texas State University. She has followed the lives of several generations of the Caste War Maya women who live in the region, just south of Cancun. Juarez says that even just walking down the street, women can expect to encounter multiple suitors.

But the common pickup lines are probably not what most women would like to hear. Juarez says men often try something like, "I'm married and have eight kids, but I love girlfriends."

That's not such a shocking statement in the area, where people accept the culture of "la casa chica." The phrase means "the little house," and it refers to the notion that a married man can have families with other women, Juarez says.

So when it comes to dating, it's no wonder that relatives of young women often insist on chaperoning "any kind of going out," Juarez says. But many women manage to evade their escorts. And in most cases, the courtship period is relatively short. According to Juarez, a couple will typically date less than six months before deciding to take the plunge.

You think the plunge is marriage, right? Well, sort of. Juarez explains that what has become popular is moving in together and taking on a status similar to common-law marriage — it's called "juntados."

"There's a lot of conflict around the issue," Juarez says, noting that these couples are often moving in with one of their families. "Relatives try to stall the process as long as possible. Mostly unsuccessfully."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vicky Hallett