On dating sites, Asian men can have it particularly sad. A frequently cited OKCupid study, from 2014, reported that Asian men were one of the least messaged demographics on their app. (Conversely, Asian women are the one of the most messaged demographics.) EastMeetEast is making a wager that correcting that particular race-based inequality will help Asian-American culture, at large. “Representation is desirability, right? If you don’t feel desirable, it really affects your confidence,” Yamazaki said. But on EastMeetEast, Asian men are able to feel as though ” ‘I can be the main character in this movie.’ Once you are confident here, you are confident in other things, too,” Yamazaki said. He paused and continued, smiling slyly: “Of course [people] can reject you for other reasons—maybe you make less money or whatever, your job is not good, at least you aren’t rejected for your ethnicity.” On the other hand, Asian women can perhaps can be assured, that they aren’t being accepted solely because of theirs.
Over the years, a dating landscape with its own peculiarities and logic began to emerge within the walls of the EastMeetsEast app. There were patterns in the data scraped from the more than half a million users filling out the app’s questionnaire, flirting with each other, and revising their details and photographs. For example, women on the app were more particular than their masculine counterparts when it came to level of education and type of employment. Cities with small populations of Asian-Americans, such as Denver, had much higher match-rates than big cities with many Asian-Americans, such as New York and L.A. (likely because there are fewer users, and thus fewer choices). Asian-American users love to chat about food: “Ramen” was one of the most popular words used in chats between potential partners.
Data culled from the most unique metric offered by the app, in their questionnaire, was particularly revealing. Alongside dropdown menus for “Ethnicity,” “Occupation,” and “Marital Status,” EastMeetEast encourages users to fill in their “Age Arrived” in the United States, and allows its members to filter potential matches based on how long they have been in the country. Internally, the app’s team refers to this metric as a user’s “fobbiness,” level. (A user’s perceived “fobbiness” increases with the age they arrived in the country, those who were born in the States designate their age as zero.) The adjective is derived from what was once primarily a pejorative acronym for those who haven’t quite assimilated into dominant culture: F.O.B., pronounced like the key to a keyless car, short for “fresh off the boat.” More recently, the term has been reclaimed as a celebration of immigrant culture, but EastMeetEast utilizes it in a way I hadn’t quite encountered before: as a neutral quantity. It’s neither bad or good to be fobby, the app seems to suggest, it’s simply another reflection of who you are, no less fraught than your decision, say, to become a doctor rather than a lawyer.
Of course others can judge, and they do. On EastMeetEast, Asian-American women are particular about their partner’s fobbiness—American-born Asian women are less inclined to match with partners who are fobbier than them. Asian-American men, on the other hand, are not at all picky about fobs—American-born men were just as likely to date a fully-assimilated American as they were a person who was still, essentially, culturally of her native country.
“I know Asian is an artificial concept in this country,” Yamazaki said. “But looking at the data, there is more commonality than I expected.” He pointed to the common enthusiasm of Boba tea and food culture, as an example. As I listened skeptically to him boil down Asian-American identity to a love of pho, I realized how hard it was for any of us to say definitively what connected Asian-Americans, because we are still somewhere in the process of inventing and articulating what Asian-America is, exactly. And as unlikely as it might be, EastMeetEast has unwittingly created a direct line into observing those who identify as this diffuse, shifting identity and who are, moreover, interested in finding life-partners who identify similarly. EastMeetEast is a way of watching the concept of Asian-America develop in real time.