In the mood for love

Ola Zdzarska says Beijing is full of attractive and interesting men and women who are just waiting to meet a partner. “There are plenty of fish in the sea, especially in Beijing. The biggest difference in Beijing compared to other cities in Europe is that more women speed date than men. Chinese men are too shy,” she says.

But when Zdzarska landed in Beijing five years ago, operating a speed-dating business was far from her mind. After graduating from University of Warsaw in international relations and cultural anthropology she had planned to move to England.

“But I met my future husband and fell in love,” she says.

“We wanted to do something different, and China seemed to be the place to be.”

When she first arrived in Beijing, Zdzarska worked as a journalist for China Radio International and later joined Microsoft as a software language expert.

She soon befriended Allison Johnson and Pilar Busto, who had a company called The Speed Dating Specialist, which catered to expats.

Most clients were single teachers working at international schools in Beijing but soon the gatherings grew and different types of people began showing up.

The business was renamed “Fishbowl Events”, and Zdzarska became more involved.

“Chinese men are now starting to participate, and more people are joining our events, which are becoming more open and relaxed,” she says.

But like any business, sometimes there are bumps on the road.

Zdzarska recalls one night when two participants cancelled at the last minute.

She was forced to race to the closest coffee shop and handpick a couple of Chinese women to fill the vacancies.

“We told them about the situation and convinced them they would have a great time in getting to know new people. They agreed at once,” she says.

“That would never have happened in Beijing 10 years ago. People today are more open to experience new things.”

But she says there are participants who have a serious agenda.

“Some Chinese women want to find their future husbands and take speed dating very seriously,” she says.

“One woman brought her computer and typed all the answers she got from her questions. She was creating a survey.

“We are not a matchmaking company. We don’t work that way because there are plenty of Chinese websites that already do this.

“We don’t ask for information about salary, pictures, health issues or future plans. A Fishbowl event is more relaxed.”

Zdzarska says the Chinese people who come to her gatherings have already have had an interaction with Westerners. They have been exposed to a Western lifestyle, been abroad and have foreign friends.

“For some Chinese woman it can be nice to meet a Western man who doesn’t feel threatened by a woman who earns more than him, like some Chinese men do,” she says.

The gatherings are held twice a month and the price of admission costs 150 yuan (16.6 euros), which includes a drink and snacks.

Under the Fishbowl format, 14 couples attend the meetings and every six minutes the men and women rotate. Everybody does their best to make a good impression in an effort to be categorized as “datable”.

The next day, attendees receive an email, which reveals if they have attracted any admirers.

Interestingly, Zdzarska’s own experience of speed dating is nonexistent.

“When I was young, speed dating wasn’t popular in Poland. And by the time I came to China I was married,” she says.

“On the other hand I was always the matchmaker among my friends. When I started my speed-dating career in China my friends back in Poland laughed. They told me that I had finally become a professional matchmaker.”

Even though the gatherings are designed for singles, there have been occasions when married men and women have attended.

“We had a married man who was even wearing his wedding ring and still wanted to speed date,” she says. “We asked him why and he just answered that he wanted to see if he still had a chance out there.

“We made sure that the other guests knew this and he was never included on our list again.”

For each event, Zdzarska tries to mix age, personality, profession and interests. The average age is about 35 years old.

“Diversity is very important, but age also matters. We don’t want to have 60-year-old men connecting with women in their 20s,” she says.

For Zdzarska, there has been memorable moments and successful stories to tell, like the tale of Eric Tan from Hong Kong. He met his girlfriend after just one date.

“I moved to Beijing from Hong Kong six months ago, when I saw the ad and I thought, ‘why not’?

“And now I am dating this Australian girl who I like very much.”

But he says the first Fishbowl event was the hardest.

“I was confident but slightly nervous,” he says. “You can find your potential lifetime partner in one of this events, but you never know.”

For him, speed dating was more appealing than trying to find a partner in a club or bar.

“An individual’s intention is clear from the beginning on a speed date. At a bar, you don’t know if the girl you find attractive has a partner, or is just out with her girlfriends, or she actually wants to meet a man.

“So it’s easy to appear awkward or nervous in those situations.”

Zdzarska says speed dating is for people living in Beijing that have courage to have an adventure in their lives.

Operating the Fishbowl club is a hobby for Zdzarska and her American partner Johnson, and during the day she works as an office representative for a private company.

Fishbowl is now planning to hold a charity auction and develop new social activities for singles in Beijing. Zdzarska says Fishbowl is not just about dating, but also about making good friends and developing long-time relationships.

“Now we have cooking sessions for singles called “Hook and Cook”, we have “speed networking”, and also have a “creative people networking” group.

And what are her plans as a happily married woman?

“To start a family, that’s my future plan,” she says.

“We are definitely staying in Beijing, but for how long, I don’t know.”

Source: China Daily

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