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I was in denial for a long time that I had a “type” when it came to dating. What’s a type, if nothing more than a limiting schema through which to view attractiveness? I thought that those who strictly abided by a “type” simply lacked the requisite free will to detach themselves from whatever Freudian mechanism led them to finding appealing certain traits, physical or not. Not I. All throughout high school, I watched my friends and loved ones fall victim to the familiar lanky, emaciated-looking, “I’m different” white boy ruse. All the while, I swore to them that if they just discarded their undying attraction to the same highly specific demographic, all their dating issues would evaporate like mist, and happiness would be theirs.

So, for the longest time, I insisted that my proclivity to date men who were quite a bit older and consistently not American was a product of chance, a necessary result of my living in New York City and owning a fake ID. My friends from home watched incredulously and a bit worriedly as my romantic endeavors veered from the intense, futile crushes of my high school days, to a streak of romancings with older, foreign men. At school, I regaled my peers with endless anecdotes about the phenomena of dating outside both our tiny Columbia sphere, like experiencing unprosecuted microaggressions, and our massive American sphere, like rampant tobacco use. Still, my denial about there being any underlying mechanism to my romantic globetrotting remained airtight. If anything, I felt that my preferences indicated an appreciation for maturity, an ability to connect with people from other countries thanks to my worldliness—I swore they were a product of my savoir faire.

As with most people who display obvious patterns of behavior, I refused to acknowledge any personal agency I had in the matter. After all, it’s not as if I was purposely seeking this demographic out: I can count the times I’ve been inside the School of General Studies lounge––our campus locus of aged foreigners––on one hand. The paradigm of older non-American man vs. young American me was one that felt almost inherent to me, as my parents were separated by 13 years and vast cultural differences. So, in my hasty defensiveness, I was convinced that my dating pattern was genetically immutable and Freudian-ly predestined, and that I had no personal responsibility for its striking consistency.

It took me a good deal of Carrie Bradshaw-esque “and I couldn’t help but wonder” moments to realize that perhaps my gravitation toward foreign, older men was less a facet of adventurous worldliness and more one of its polar opposite: It was a gravitation motivated largely by fear.

There exists an undeniable chasm between myself and all the expatriates I have ever fraternized with, one created by age difference and broadened by linguistic and cultural gaps. And though I have often felt that my ventures into that unknown space are admirable and intrepid, much like when the USSR launched Sputnik, I find that in reality, that distance serves me more as a protective shield that I unwittingly and consistently duck behind.

In associating myself with men who are older, I am able to bridge the chasm between myself and them by integrating my youth—and all the positive associations women enjoy from it—into the fiber of my identity. My age becomes inextricable from the dynamic of the relationship, whereas it would be a non-factor if I dated a fellow Gen Zer. As such, any and all discussion of my university life and schoolwork—things of years past to my romantic partners—become testaments to my youthfulness, my academic prowess, my intellectual curiosity. Rather than having to demonstrate such attributes in a personalized manner, I allow for my youth and studenthood to speak for themselves.

I don these identities like a life vest, things outside myself that nonetheless keep me afloat. This surreptitious mode of self-preservation allows for basic facts about my existence to fill in for a lot of the dirty work involved in being close to someone. I reap the detached benefits of being young, of going to school at Columbia, and in doing so, I effectively withhold that terrifying giving of self that lies at the root of vulnerability.

The same goes for my Americanness. When dealing with those not fantastically fortunate enough to claim the Land of the Free as their native country, my Americanness becomes a tenet of my personhood, at the expense of more nuanced elements of my identity. Add in the various elements of my cultural heritage, the basic elements of who I am—hardly enough to construct a compelling Tinder bio—and voilà, I have a neat little pre-packaged identity that I can easily slip into without divulging more personal pieces of self.

The truth is, I am terrified of college-aged men. I am terrified of having my little inflatable pool floaties ripped from me, and having to keep afloat via the strength of my own body. In a shocking deviation from my normal patterns, I once briefly dated a Columbia student who was not only close to my age, but also had the same ethnic mix as me, and his birthday was literally a day from mine. In that scenario, I didn’t even have being a goddamn Taurus to hide behind. Throughout that entire relationship, I couldn’t shake the feeling of being a magician whose sleight of hand was finally revealed. It was terrifying.

So, for all the waxing poetic about boys and relationships and cheese and whatnot I have had the privilege to do in this column, I am glad my final piece is a bit of a confession. And in confessing my fear on the World Wide Web, I am doing exactly the thing that I so skillfully dodged in the past––making known the unsavory, unpicturesque tidbits of my innermost self. If the most exposed I have ever felt with a man has been with one who mirrored me in all ways I usually seek contrast, it is those tidbits themselves—that innermost self—that lie at the bottom of my well of fear.

With this confession, if you don’t hear any stories from me involving a French this or an Israeli that, maybe I found a nice, appropriately aged, American Columbia boy for myself. But if we’re going to be realistic, I’ll be attempting to re-establish the boundaries of my comfort zone, from massive distance to radical closeness. If that closeness must be achieved by unwavering honesty and––horror of horrors—vulnerability, then I will be sure to incorporate those qualities into my most demanding relationship—my relationship with myself.

Arielle Isack is a sophomore in GS majoring in American studies. This piece certainly does not mean she’s barring international affairs from her repertoire. Acquire internally: aai2123@columbia.edu. Not A Relationship Girl ran alternate Fridays.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

Americanness comfort zones identity older men
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