It was my third meeting with the future Mr. W. We were on a train and my friend, Elle, was traveling with us. Mr. W and I had broken into a discussion about Roman History through my bad Japanese and his not-much-better English. Despite the struggle, we were both engaged when he received a text from his company. While he was distracted, Elle leaned close to my ear and said:
I looked over my shoulder at her in confusion. She was all smiles as she added, “Remember what we talked about? Japanese guys don’t like that. You’re flirting, not giving a history lesson. You’re boring him.”
And then I felt ashamed.
This was not the first time I had been told such things.
I got ghosted a lot and rarely asked for a second date. My first crushes all chose others. At twenty I felt like something was wrong with me. I asked my female friends what I was doing wrong, and they were quick with the advice:
“Don’t ever talk about history, politics, or anything deep on a first date. Remember, it’s about getting to know each other.”
“Laugh at their jokes, even if they’re not funny. Just laugh. Guys like women who find them funny.”
“Don’t challenge them. Nod and smile. They like when you agree with them.”
“When I flirt, I like to touch their knee if I can and maintain eye contact. Try that. Make sure they know you want them!”
As Elle’s words sunk in I realized I had done it again. Mr. W brought up his love of Roman History and like an alcoholic in a bar I had jumped into the liquor cabinet. The minute he started on history, I joined in without thought. I never understood the rules of flirting. It seemed like it was anything but getting to know each other. It was mind games with a dizzying number of rules that made no sense.
My dad actually felt nauseated at some of the advice my female friends in college gave me. He commented after, “Thank God, I’m done with dating. That sounds awful.”
I desperately wanted to be myself and to be accepted for that. However, I hated feeling rejected for being myself — a history and debate junkie.
Elle had a Japanese boyfriend at the time. She had lived in Japanese longer than I and considered herself to have more expertise in the dating field there. I worried I’d make the same mistakes I did back in the US, so she advised me to avoid deep topics until a relationship was established.
“He’s not fluent in English and the topics you like might be difficult for him. He’ll feel stupid if he has to get out a translator to understand,” she had explained earlier that day. “Stick to easy things like his job and hobbies.”
When Mr. W finished his reply, he looked up and tried to continue our conversation about Roman History. I changed the topic, but he tried to change it back. Elle stepped in asked him about his job. He glanced at her, then back to me with a look of disappointment. Then he gave the usual answer to that question.
The rest of the ride went by slowly with more questions about our favorite foods, sports teams, and hobbies. After we arrived, we met with co-workers before splitting up. Elle winked at me and gave a nudge, whispering, “Go get him.”
I walked with him along the river bank as fireworks exploded in the starry sky. Japanese on tarps, eating picnics, gave “ooh” and “aaah” to every colorful blast in the sky. We ate festival food and sat on the grass.
Finally, he brought up his love of Greek History. This time, against all advice, I gave in to my weakness and joined in. The mood between us brightened as we both struggled with gestures and online translators to understand such a difficult conversation. Somehow we understood each other despite the language barrier.
For a week after our date I wondered if I’d be ghosted. I thought back to all the guys who had been repelled by my love of history and debate. I had tried to follow my friend’s advice. It did get me second dates, but there were never thirds because I could not endure the torture of “fake laughing” my way into someone’s heart and talking endlessly about safe topics.
To my relief, there was a second date, then a third, and fourth, and so on until our wedding day. Mr. W would often bring up recent events in the news and ask for my opinion on them (and still does). I never felt I had to smile and pretend to agree. We could be ourselves, even our history-nerd-loving selves around each other.
Years later, I asked Mr. W, “When did you start to love me?”
“That is a difficult question,” he answered, looking away in embarrassment. “I don’t want to say.”
“Come on. Please,” I said, fist-bumping his shoulder. “I’m curious.”
“Well,” he said, cocking his head to the side in thought. Finally, after a long pause, he said, “We were on a train going to a festival with your friend. I talked about Roman History. And you did too. I was so happy. I thought, ‘Women in Japan never talk about history. They don’t like it’, but you did. And I… well I…” He blushed and looked away. “I thought then, ‘I think I’m in love‘…”