I Never Realized How Much My Race Impacted My Love Life Until I Studied Abroad

by Shivani Seth
Shivani Seth

Some people say that they discover themselves abroad by backpacking or meeting new people or eating different foods. I went abroad and found out that apparently, I was hot in England. Or rather, that my love life had been impacted by race in the United States in ways that weren’t the same once I went across the pond.

I grew up in Bismarck, North Dakota. If you don’t know where that is, don’t feel bad. Almost nobody does. My high school had 1,500 students, but I was the only Indian girl, and my brother and I were two of just five people of color. People in my hometown asked if we rode tigers when we went back to India and if we were "feather or dot." The first time I wore eyeliner, a friend said I looked like Cleopatra. That was the most accurate way she knew how to describe me — as if I looked like a long-dead, Greek-Eygptian pharaoh.

The United States has a long history of celebrating Euro-centric beauty ideals, particularly among cisgender women. Bismarck, North Dakota, isn't alone in this — but because of the lack of diversity in my hometown, I didn't see any other options for what a beautiful person could look like. I only knew that in a tiny thousand ways, I felt other.

The internet helped me feel seen as something other than my skin tone and ethnicity. Online, I met my first boyfriend, made friends, and discovered that I had a decent sense of humor. But I still couldn’t get a prom date other than my platonic friends, and as a result, I was pretty convinced that I was ugly. I believed that anyone who asked me out only did so out of pity. It didn't matter if friends told me otherwise. That feeling of otherness was too deeply rooted inside me.

Shivani Seth

And then I studied abroad. Most people I knew in college chose to go to London, but I opted for Leeds in northern England. The city had an impressive concentration of Indians and Pakistanis, and the University of Leeds taught Punjabi and Urdu, two languages from my family's ancestral home that I had never learned. Studying abroad in Leeds felt like an opportunity to experience my own culture in a new place and to finally grow into my identity.

Leeds was utterly amazing from the start. I'd spent my whole life feeling as if I stuck out like a sore thumb — but here, I blended in. Nobody knew who I was. No one cared about another brown girl wandering the streets. I'd never felt so free.

I could craft my own story instead of being stuck in someone else’s.

As a result, I went a little wild (for me). I wore mini skirts and went clubbing. I went camping with medieval reenactors. I tried cider and Scotch for the first time. I even wore a sari for the first time. And I got hit on. A lot. People asked me to dance, gave me appreciative looks, and offered me massages. I even had two marriage proposals (those were startling, odd, and less fun than they sound).

The experience of being found attractive was so confusing to me that I didn't know how to process it. One night, I was at a club with some friends and a man walked up to me. I was so used to being the friend guys chatted up to get the attention of the pretty person sitting next to me — in this case, a genuinely nice friend of mine who is also white, blonde, and English. I assumed he wanted to talk to her, so I offered to introduce him. He gave me an odd look and walked away. I only realized that he was interested in me when my friend clued me in. This time, I approached him, and I asked if he was actually trying to get to know me. He asked, "If I wanted to talk to your friend, why would I be talking to you?" I was floored.

Shivani Seth

That night, I realized how much my upbringing in North Dakota had impacted my view of myself. I saw myself as a nerdy outcast who wouldn’t catch anyone’s eye. In fact, I was catching people’s eye without realizing it.

As I've grown up, I've learned that my value isn't wrapped up in other people finding me physically attractive. But that night, I finally felt so good. I felt wanted and desired, not just "the Asian girl who's really good at math" or "the best friend I'd never date." I felt free of the stereotypes that had kept me caged for so long.

That experience opened up my world. It wasn't that I was unlovable, unwanted, or unattractive. Rather, some of my peers back home couldn't see me that way because of deeply ingrained ideas surrounding Western beauty. This realization was both a relief and a turning point. I could enjoy and own my brown skin and dark eyes, instead of longing for white skin and blue eyes so I could be someone’s fantasy girl. I could be my own vision. I could craft my own story instead of being stuck in someone else’s.

Now, I look for more spaces like the one I encountered that night. I seek out places where I don't feel like an outsider and people that treat me as a person instead of as a stereotype. I now know that I have a right to leave spaces that exclude me.

I’m still on that journey, dismantling everything I was taught so young. Writing, reading, and learning more about the impact of systemic racism help. Finding an amazing crew of women of color for me to hang with made all the difference as well.

I'm glad I discovered a new perspective. I just wish I hadn't had to travel halfway around the world to find it.