We’re all nostalgic for time past, regardless of whether we’re the buzzkill boomers or the hyperconnected zoomers. On Valentine’s Day, this yearning takes on a new hue. The faint whiff of handwritten love letters still lingers for the more old school lovers among us; the charm of lazy walks by the beach remains unparalleled for many; and saving enough pocket money for that monthly cinematic experience with your lover proved that money could buy you a little more love.
Modern dating tools continue to be aggressively debated. And the horror stories on dating apps still continue to chill us. The recently released Netflix documentary Tinder Swindler exposed a serial dater and conman and only further heightened our collective fear of finding out the insanely hot girl you’ve been cyber sexing for the past six months is actually a ten-year-old boy from Nebraska. A recent study published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behaviour, and Social Networking found increasingly worrying links between social anxiety, depression and the use of dating apps.
So, do we go back to the old school ways of dating – the ones that were sometimes painfully slow but seemed way more rewarding than the experiences of most people around us today? Does the frantic pace of dating, fraught with catfishers and creeps, call for greater introspection into the way we find love? Was it a way better time when googling your date was not an option, you were not easily and instantly reachable, there was no engineering of matches using AI and such shit, and anticipation was still alive?
We asked eight people from different countries who’ve dated before and after the internet took over our lives.
Rinko Ganeko, Japan
Back in the day, the common friend would always be the cupid. I remember how in high school, I’d wait with bated breath for my partner to come on time so that he could sit near me. Because, in the absence of phones, the classroom was the only space where love could blossom.
Also, in Japan, Valentine's Day was the most important day of the year for single women. And I’d always have a crush on someone or the other. But in Japanese tradition, the woman proposes to her crush with either a letter or a dessert she’s prepared. If the boy likes you back, he will respond with his own dessert one month later, on March 14, which is known as White Day. Now, this doesn’t happen much. The only bit that I didn’t like about the old days was that I couldn’t stalk online.
Balram Vishwakarma, India
We had 2G and GPRS connections back then, so you had to rely on card and gifting companies such as Archies and Hallmark [to woo your crush] and on material objects such as teddy bears that might seem cringeworthy to many but it was all we had. Even the calls were metered because we had to pay by the second. Now, people can talk for even four to five hours without any monetary guilt.
The surveillance by parents didn’t help either, so we would often change our partner’s name on our phones. For example, my date would change my name, Balram, on her phone to Bhavika. Even then, when you called, you waited until your date spoke first lest you ended up getting caught by her parents. For the longest time, we could only send 100 SMSes per day. That had to be rationed too, like keeping maybe 40 for college work, 20 for your parents, and the remainder for your date.
Andri Sumihar Simbolon, Indonesia
In the 90s, my partner, now my wife, would send me letters twice a week on Wednesdays and Thursdays. This was a source of great joy for me. I even knew the exact time when the postman would deliver her letter. Whenever I’d see him arriving, I’d call out impatiently. And when he knew it was my letter, he’d do the same!
And, of course, the phone was a luxury. I remember standing in long queues in public phone booths. When my turn would arrive, I knew I’d only have a few minutes because the billing metre was right in front of me. It was funny how the more honestly I expressed my feelings, the more aggressively the billing metre would run. So, I’d make mental notes about the things I had to talk about just in case I’d forget.
Anjuli Saba Flamer-Caldera, Sri Lanka
Online dating apps are like a supermarket, but they just aren't for me. I have always been a traditionalist. I have long believed in the concept of organic dating – meeting people at the bar or through common friends. So, the element of not customising your preferences and the thrill of the unknown was exciting to me.
Back in the day, I’d work on something called “action packs.” I’d curate an entire surprise package for my date. So, if my date loved wildlife, I’d wake him up at four in the morning and take a surprise trip to the woods, followed by breakfast amidst the trees. Now, I don’t think this comes naturally to people because we’re all glued to our phones.
Muktadir Rashid, Bangladesh
I remember how we’d wear clothes with vivid colours back in Dhaka – the whole idea was to be innovative with your gifts too. In 2006, I once gave my then girlfriend and now wife a dress that I’d actually prepared for her, so it was all about actually putting in the effort. In Bangladesh, Valentine’s Day has always been a two-day extended celebration. So, February 13 would usually coincide with the Basant (spring) festivities. Many couples would go fully traditional on the 13th, wearing traditional Bengali clothes, eating local delicacies, and singing folk songs. And on the 14th, things would be a little more western.
Back in the day, colleges would also be safe spaces for couples who’d seek refuge from the moral policing outside. Now, moral policing has only increased. Things have become more rigid. Even my wife says that perhaps I’m not the same person I was back in the day. But then, during the pandemic, a date simply means meeting over coffee. I miss the colour and energy of the old days.
Colt Delorge, USA
My dating story starts right out of high school, 2006 to be precise, which is when I graduated. It would all be based on mutual friends – you’d meet someone through a reference, meet them coincidentally at another party, hope to hit it off, and that was that. I remember writing poems too, but then I realised quite early on that it was a skill I did not possess.
And then came the first popular dating website, Myspace. It was launched in 2003 but I was a late adopter of the service. It had its own strange quirks. I remember meeting a woman [over Myspace] and calling her over. When I opened the door, she was pregnant – nine months pregnant, I’d later find out! And she just casually told me later that she didn’t bother putting up her pregnant pictures on the website. After getting over the initial shock, we proceeded to have a sweet time though. She wasn’t married, so that was a relief.
Eileen Pai, Taiwan
I miss true connections. Dating apps are like a convenience store. You don’t end up taking things seriously. You end up moving on and on to the next person who can compensate for the boredom of the last date.
In Taiwan, back in the day, going for karaoke together was a big thing. This would happen in those neon-lit places referred to as KTV karaoke parlours. Just singing together with your date was special. We would also be very adventurous and move beyond just restaurant dates. I remember going on dates to the high mountains on scooters, and taking in the whole view together. This could be with friends too.
Pan Wenqing, Singapore
The dating culture in Singapore was nearly synonymous with other South Asian countries. There was an emphasis on cycling, going to the movies, and actually taking the time out to go outdoors. The pager days were also quite fun. A pager, for those of you who do not know, was a device through which you could communicate but only using the alphanumeric language. So, that was sweet – you had to express your feelings in numbers. In the Chinese context, because that’s my heritage too, 5209 could translate to “I love you.” This was popularly known; it wasn’t a secret code. We really had to measure our words and ensure everything was succinctly conveyed.
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