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Digital love: Rice students navigate romance during the pandemic

Illustrated by Ella Feldman

By Sumin Yoon     9/22/20 10:55pm

When Karen Martinez Perez first met Daniel Ling in person after spending countless hours talking on FaceTime, she was relieved to find that the person she had been calling every night wasn’t a catfish. But Martinez Perez was mostly shocked, she said — she did not expect the familiar face on her phone to be 6 feet, 3 inches tall, towering over her 5 feet, 5 inches of height.

“It was really awkward because whenever you are on FaceTime it’s just a little screen, like it’s just your phone and that’s all you see,” Martinez Perez said. “I knew he was tall, but I didn’t mentally prepare myself for how tall he was.”

Although the pandemic and social distancing guidelines have shrunk the dating lives of many, Martinez Perez — a freshman at McMurtry College living on campus — is a lucky outlier. She met her tall companion, Baker College freshman Ling, through Instagram direct messages in early April. Their relationship has blossomed despite the challenges posed by the pandemic.

“We usually eat breakfast together or something like that,” Martinez Perez said. “It’s not like we can go to the movies … [but] we went to the park together [to walk] his dog.”

Martinez Perez said that a lack of physical interaction and natural body language are the two most challenging aspects of in-person dates. Due to social distancing guidelines and masks, Martinez Perez can’t hug Ling or read his facial expressions. 

“I’m very much of a hugger, but obviously with COVID you can’t really be doing that as much anymore,” Martinez Perez said.

While Martinez Perez and Ling are not used to dating six feet apart, Thomas Ryu is — the Will Rice College junior is usually 1,200 miles apart from his girlfriend, who goes to school at Washington and Lee University, anyways. 

Ryu turned his high school relationship into a long-distance relationship throughout his years at Rice. Although Ryu notes that social distancing guidelines made it more difficult for him to visit his girlfriend over the summer, he said not too much has changed.

“It’s kind of tough that I won’t really be able to visit her and she really won’t be able to visit me during the school year,” Ryu said. “At this point, like I said, I’ve been doing this for two years now, doing long distance, so I’m pretty used to living like this.”

Ryu’s long-distance relationship has turned him into a virtual-date expert. To anyone who is seeking a new relationship, Ryu said he doesn’t see the pandemic as a major obstacle and recommends that people take advantage of virtual platforms provided over the Internet.

“We live in an age where we can still talk to people online and have really long conversations over the Internet … Before I started dating [my girlfriend], we would just talk for a really long period of time over Discord,” Ryu said. “When you see someone in your Zoom call, just shoot your shot.”

However, not all Rice students have been as successful finding romance in the age of COVID-19.

Yash Shahi, Lovett College freshman, is single and said he is not currently looking for a relationship due to the difficulty of starting a romantic relationship without having in-person interactions and the potential health risks of meeting someone new. 

“The logistics just don’t work out,” Shahi said. “Like, I’m not living on campus. I only see people on Zoom calls.”

Similar to most social events, dates and meet-ups in the pandemic are moving into virtual spaces. However, for students like Shahi, who spends most of the day on online classes, participating in virtual dates could be exhausting and may contribute to Zoom fatigue

“The last thing I want to [be doing] is getting on some app, getting on some technological, electronic device, when I’m on Zoom classes all day for eight hours straight,” Shahi said. 

In addition, for remote students who live with their parents, going on in-person dates may endanger their whole family. Shahi, who lives off campus with his family, said he is reluctant to look for potential partners out of fear that he will spread the infection to campus and to his family members at home.

This year, Rice Program Council is adjusting Screw-Yer-Roommate, their annual blind dating event, to account for students like Shahi who don’t want to risk meeting someone new in person. The event will have both an in-person and a remote component, according to RPC’s social committee chairs Yasmin Givens and Amy Barnett. 

In person, the event will look similar to past Screws with added precautions to comply with social distancing rules. Participants will be told in advance where to meet their match to ensure that no more than 50 people gather in one place, and physical distancing and mask-wearing will be enforced. Remotely, students will participate in a speed dating event over Zoom, which will allow them to meet a number of fellow Rice students.

“We know that it’s harder than ever for students to find opportunities to meet each other, especially new students, so we wanted to provide a chance in the fall semester for students to experience a traditional Rice event and meet others students in a safe environment,” Givens, a Baker junior, said.

Dating apps such as Tinder and Bumble also seem perfectly equipped for students fearing such risks to their health, as they were built to connect people virtually. However, the apps don’t always meet expectations. That was the case for Saloni Cholia, a sophomore at Sid Richardson College who said she is “single and ready to mingle.”

“In the end, it was just like, small conversations that didn’t really lead to anywhere ... I never hung out with anyone I talked to on Tinder. It was just too impersonal,” Cholia said. “They just say all of these crappy pick up lines and I’m just not about that.”

Martinez Perez and Ryu echoed this sentiment, and said that Tinder is not an effective medium to look for long-term, serious relationships, as many people use it for short-term hookups and relationships. 

Saloni said she is now focusing on herself instead of looking for a potential partner.

“This semester I’m going to focus on self-development,” Saloni said. “And then that way, if you do want to find your partner, you are the best version of yourself.”

Features editor Ella Feldman contributed to this report.

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