Love in a (Instagram) bottle

My post-secondary life didn’t go the way I planned. While most people my age are probably in their second year and have moved out, I am still in my first year at UBC.

I still live with my parents in my suburban hometown in California. As a result, my experience with online dating has been pretty unconventional.

When I was in high school, I had some idea of how I wanted my years in university to play out: I would attend university (in the Great Lakes region), participate in campus life, make new friends and meet the person who would become my best friend turned true love.

The romantic fantasy that I dreamed up when I was 16 would go along these lines: We would meet in one of our freshman courses, preferably a subject that I am good at — United States History, maybe? — and become fast friends. He would be a member of the school’s gymnastics team and really love animals (maybe with the hope of becoming a veterinarian someday).

In the final months of my senior year of high school, I didn’t feel like I had any control. It felt like everybody else was making my decisions for me — my family didn’t allow me to apply to UBC right out of high school.

I was lucky enough that my courses and credits allowed me to transfer to a school in Canada in the fall of 2020. Although years had passed, my romantic fantasy remained largely the same — except, since there are no collegiate men’s gymnastics teams in Canada, he’d play centre on the school’s hockey team.

In November 2019, I decided I wanted to meet more people, preferably my age and from Vancouver. I didn’t really know what I wanted but if something went somewhere, I wouldn’t complain. After reading some articles on the best dating apps for students — I didn’t want to download Tinder because of the hookup culture surrounding it — I created an OkCupid account.

While I found the act of swiping addicting, it didn’t go anywhere.

I wondered if I was ‘pretty enough’ to be the kind of girl that hockey players date.

— Winnie Ha

I stayed away from actual dating apps for the next six months, preferring to meet new people on Instagram instead. I followed and messaged some hockey players — they rarely replied, of course, though most who did were quite polite, but not interested. For the most part, everything felt very one sided and conversation usually died out within 10 to 12 messages — it didn’t seem like these guys wanted to get to know me. At the time, I wondered if I was ‘pretty enough’ to be the kind of girl that hockey players date.

As time went on, I realized that my standing in life — the fact that I lived at home and didn’t attend a major university — already placed me at a disadvantage in this arena. On top of that, I’ve always been rather dorky. In real life, I read and write a lot. On my Instagram feed, I write long, thoughtful passages as captions.I post very random things on my story, sometimes with funny captions.

But in late May, I thought I finally met the one. He was incredibly passionate about hockey but on top of that, he was one of the kindest people I had ever met. We also had our culture in common. However, that day, conversation would die out because we were both busy, lived too far apart (he was in Vancouver and I was in California), and I was too short (he wanted somebody who was 5’10” while I’m just under 4’11”) — all factors I didn’t feel like I had control over.

After being quarantined for two months and done with the rejections that came with meeting potential love interests online in this way, I decided to download Hinge in June. Just like my previous experience, swiping was addictive and whenever I logged on I would reach the maximum amount of swipes. That swipe limit actually made me raise my standards on the app, but I didn’t really have much to base a swipe on, so it was mostly just on appearance.

I deleted the app from my phone before the end of summer.

In July, I founded UBC Matchmaker in an effort to add a more human component to modern online dating. Instead of swiping left or right on a dating app, students could follow the account on Instagram, then fill out a Google Form detailing their interests, self-described appearance and what they were looking for. With no pictures involved, matches would be made primarily based on personality.

The entire program ended up flopping as so much of what people wanted seemed to be based on appearance. More than once after making a match, one party (most often, it was a man) replied, “I don’t date brown/Asian girls” or “I would prefer a tall girl with long, blonde hair.”

I had no intention of using the services for myself, but I did ask my friend to find me a match and not once, but twice, guys rejected me on the basis that I am of Chinese descent.

I think that’s when I realized my race was a hindrance in the dating world. I’d considered that it might be a factor, but always rejected it. I thought that people would at least make an effort to get to know me, especially if our personalities seemed to match. But all they saw was a short, not-skinny girl of Chinese descent.

And that felt like a huge slap in the face.

I’m very much Asian American — emphasis on the American — and I’ve had a complicated relationship with that element of my identity. As a kid, I completely rejected it because it meant going to Chinese school on Saturdays and doing extra homework on Sundays and Friday evenings while other kids my age got to do fun things, like play Wii.

Although my experience with UBC Matchmaker absolutely sucked, I eventually laughed it off and moved on. However, my first experiences of trying to meet guys at UBC has stuck with me

He mentioned that he was specifically looking for Asian girls, because he was ‘done’ with white girls as Asian girls were supposedly sweet and wholesome.

— Winnie Ha

I continued to run the account with help from friends, but I felt like I was pretty much done with my own romantic pursuits. And then in August, on my personal Instagram account, I met a guy from my hometown. At the time, he was away at his university in Arizona, so all of our interactions were online. For the first time, a guy who I would rank among the top 10 most physically attractive guys in the world actually thought I was hot and kind of cool.

But when I told him about my then-recent experiences, he mentioned that he was specifically looking for Asian girls, because he was ‘done’ with white girls as Asian girls were supposedly sweet and wholesome. I laughed it off — it’s not like what he said was particularly insulting — and besides, he was kind and caring. If my race was a big turn off for other guys, was it wrong for me to want to be with a guy who saw my race and its connotations as a positive?

I fell. Hard.

But barely two weeks after we had started talking and after he was done quarantining, he told me to forget about him because he didn’t see it going anywhere. To me, it came out of nowhere, and I was hurt and sad — which I unfortunately allowed to affect my grades.

By December, I was ready to meet new people again. With encouragement from my friends, I downloaded Bumble. Unlike previous apps, Bumble did not allow me to adjust my location while on a free plan.

Again, it all felt very superficial. Almost everything was based completely on appearance which led me to reflect on how superficial I had been. In the words of one of my friends, “Winnie, not chasing after hockey players is the largest character development we’ve seen in this chat.”

In another case, I thought I found something special. We stayed up until 9 a.m. talking and laughing one night. He felt real and I genuinely wanted to meet him when it was safe to do so. But once again, I was un-added.

After another rejection, I found myself, for the first time in almost a year, crushing on nobody.

But in late January, my best friend and I were joking around on a Discord call, and he suggested I hit up random seemingly single collegiate gymnasts. In reality, the chances of me ever seeing these people in real life unintentionally was pretty slim.

But the next morning, I received a new follow request: Trevor, gymnast at a major university in the Great Lakes region, animal sciences major.

This article is part of Autonomy, The Ubyssey’s 2021 sex issue. You can read more here.