Monica Manlin Cai is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the University of British Columbia. Her research focuses on family and work, gender, migration, and social inequality in Chinese and Canadian societies.
She has recently published a first-authored paper “Mate Preferences and Platform Choices Among Chinese Immigrant Online Daters in Vancouver” in the Canadian Review of Sociology. The paper discusses how people find love in our digital age, specifically the emergence of “cyber-Chinatowns” and their implications in our multicultural society. We talked to her about her work on this article.
How did you get interested in the idea of “digital ethnic enclaves” in online dating, and how did you come to write this paper?
I was working with my advisor, Dr. Yue Qian, to assist with interview transcription for her project about Chinese immigrants’ online dating experiences in Metro Vancouver. Dr. Qian encouraged me to familiarize myself with the interview data and freely explore possible research ideas. I read every interview transcript closely and jogged down memos about what I found interesting. During this process, I identified some salient themes and patterns of partner preferences in these Chinese immigrants’ narratives. With these themes in mind, I re-read the transcripts multiple times and had multiple research meetings with Dr. Qian to discuss possible directions. Connecting “ideals” to behaviours, we discovered that online daters’ partner preferences profoundly shaped their choices of online dating platforms. Particularly, we found that many Chinese immigrants congregated in dating apps specifically oriented toward Chinese people. Then we started to dig deeply into what the clustering in these digital “Chinatowns” means at both theoretical and practical levels.
What do you think is the long term significance of the rise of these “cyber-Chinatowns within the context of Canada’s multicultural society and immigrant integration?
“Cyber-Chinatowns” in online dating help users find a match more easily. However, the emergence of such ethnic online communities, extending beyond the dating scene, may further exacerbate racial/ethnic segregation and reduce interactions across different cultural groups.
This is worth attention especially under the rise of anti-Asian racism in Canada since the pandemic. Will Chinese immigrants have a stronger tendency to turn to “cyber-Chinatowns” for love and companionship? Ideally in Canada’s multicultural society, immigrants can preserve their ethnic cultures and attain a sense of belonging without living in the margins. But our road to achieving this ideal has a long way to go.
What are the main trends that emerged during your research, and what were you most surprised by?
We discuss Chinese immigrants’ partner preferences under three themes: race/ethnicity, permanent residency status, and age at arrival in Canada. Chinese immigrant online daters show strong preferences for dating people of Chinese ethnicity. They highlight permanent residency status and similarity in age at arrival when evaluating potential partners. I was surprised by the importance attached to permanent residency status in partner preferences and how this status is often taken for granted. We may have known that undocumented immigrants encounter various barriers to relationship and family formation in the host society, but in Canada, non-permanent residents can also be marginalized in dating and forming relationships.
What are some avenues for further research in this field? Do you plan to explore any of them in particular?
Broadly speaking, I think the implications of technology for family life are yet to be fully explored. For example, will the thinking of rationality and efficiency, explicitly or implicitly promoted in the online dating context, affect how people understand the meaning of love and intimacy? How do relationships initiated online unfold and transition to the offline world? How do daters actually fare in the dating process? Continuing to work on the same project, Dr. Qian and I are developing another paper that focuses on the online dating processes and compare the experiences of Chinese immigrants and Canadian-born Chinese. We are particularly interested in the notion of the Internet efficiency—whether the Internet facilitates or complicates the process of finding love.
What was the biggest challenge you encountered in completing your research?
Writing is always hard, and there is no magic. Sometimes I encountered self-resistance to writing, and sometimes I was stuck on one paragraph for hours. The only solution is to hold on, sit down, and write. Luckily, thanks to my advisor who has always supported me and cheered me on, I overcame the resistance and made it!