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Mail Order Brides

Saturday, July 7th, 2001

During the first large wave of Asian immigration in the twentieth century, many Japanese and Korean women came to the United States as picture brides. The picture bride system, according to author Yen Le Espiritu, was a form of “arranged marriage facilitated by the exchange of photographs.” A Japanese or Korean immigrant man would look at a photograph of a potential wife back home and, if he “liked what he saw,” send for her to join him in the United States. Some Japanese and Korean women volunteered to become picture brides, seeing migration to the States as an adventure as well as a chance to escape the restricted life women frequently led in their homelands. As one Korean woman put it, “then I could get to America… that land of freedom with streets paved with gold!”

Nearly a century later, picture brides have been replaced by mail order brides. But the two practices diverge in a substantial way. Whereas Korean and Japanese picture brides generally married men of the same national background, the mail order bride system involves men seeking wives, and women seeking husbands, from ethnic groups other than their own. The homelands of modern mail order brides also differ from those of yesterday’s picture brides. The majority of the former come from the Philippines, Thailand, Latin America and the former Soviet Union, with a smattering of women from North and sub-Saharan Africa. Most of the men who “order” these women live in developed regions, such as Australia, North America, Western Europe, and Japan.

Feminists and minority activists have attacked the mail order bride system as racist and sexist. That it is sexist seems beyond question; after all, the only “mail order groom” site on the Internet turned out to be a joke, featuring one man who wanted a wife between the ages of seven and fifteen and another who couldn’t use the family car without his mother’s permission. Some women’s rights advocates point out that mail order brides are vulnerable to domestic violence. The case of Susana Remerata, a Filipina in Seattle who was murdered by her American husband, is cited as an example.

The charge of racism is not far behind, especially as most of these women come from the Third World. White men who seek mail order brides are often accused of subscribing to stereotypes about the supposed “submissiveness” of non-Western (particularly Asian) women. In her essay “Recipe,” Chinese-Canadian writer C. Allyson Lee gives a humorous description of a fictional client’s search for a submissive Asian woman. She writes: “Attractive Straight White Male, middle-aged business executive looking for that special little China Doll, preferably short, petite and obedient. Object: to fulfill typical fantasies of the stereotype of Oriental ladies anxious to marry a Canadian in order to get out of Hong Kong or the Philippines and willing to do anything to pamper and please her man.”

Mail order bride agencies on the Internet frequently do have something to say about the ethnic traits of the women they feature. For instance, one venue declares that unlike modern-day American women, Filipinas are completely devoted to their husbands and families. The same characteristics are attributed to Latinas on another website. An agency based in Italy states that Filipinas are still “good Catholic girls” — which Italian women apparently no longer are. Some organizations play minority women against each other, touting the superiority of one group. According to an American outfit, women from the Philippines are more beautiful than their counterparts from China and Japan, so much so, the site adds, that Filipinas are often hired to play Chinese and Japanese roles in the movies.

While it’s easy to condemn such pronouncements as sexist, many mail order bride agencies don’t shy away from commenting on the men from these women’s homelands.

But they don’t paint a very flattering picture of them. One site featuring Filipinas purports that Asian men, in contrast to their Western peers, don’t hold doors for women (this certainly wasn’t true of the Asian students at my old university). Another claims that Latin American husbands typically come home drunk and beat their wives. The purpose of such bad-mouthing, of course, is to convince potential clients that by choosing an American (or Australian or Western European) husband, these women are getting a far better deal than what they’d find in their country of birth and will be grateful as a result.

In the end, however, the mail order bride racket can’t be boiled down entirely to race. A good portion of the women signed on with these agencies are white, generally from the former Soviet Union, and some of the men who “order” brides via such venues are not. Among the frequent destinations of Filipinas, for example, is Japan. As well, some American clients who seek wives from the Third World and Eastern Europe are black or Hispanic. The movement of mail order brides is less a flow of women from non-white to white countries than from poor to rich ones. There probably aren’t too many mail order brides going from Japan to Romania, for instance. Though Romanian men may very well hold the same stereotypes of the “passive Oriental lady” that other white men do, the fact that at the moment Romania is a poor country and Japan a rich one effectively stops the flow of brides between the two nations in its tracks. The predominance of economics over race can also be seen by looking at individual countries. When the mail order bride phenomenon first caught the public’s attention in the 1980’s, most of the women in question were Asian. Yet a glance at any mail order bride website’s headings for industrialized Asian nations such as Singapore and Japan will show that the women featured are primarily Filipinas working there as domestic servants. Japanese and Singaporean women don’t need to go abroad as mail order brides.

In addition, the fact that a mail order bride transaction is intraracial rather than interracial doesn’t mean that ethnic stereotyping isn’t involved. Some agencies supplying Filipina women to Japanese men, for example, contrast the former’s traditional devotion to home and hearth to the modern Japanese woman’s supposed rejection of marriage and motherhood. Others depict Russian women as uncontaminated by the militant feminism that has allegedly infected America’s female population (why Russian women would be considered June Cleavers is somewhat curious, as at least during the Soviet regime most of them worked outside the home). And just as mail order bride venues often portray Latino and Asian men as boorish compared to their white American counterparts, Eastern European men are described as slobbering drunks who don’t know the meaning of the word “provider.”

In the same way I’m hesitant to reduce the mail order bride business solely to the issue of race, I’m also sceptical of labeling potential or actual brides themselves as deluded victims of racism and/or patriarchy. That’s the viewpoint of many feminists and minority activists. But Carlos Butalid, a Filipino community leader living in the Netherlands, points out the dangers of treating such women as victims. He cites an incident in which Philippine feminist associations berated Filipinas for corresponding as pen pals with European men and asked them how much they were being paid to marry Europeans. The women in question took offense, feeling that “after struggling so hard to earn the respect of their colleagues and their community, all of a sudden they [were] portrayed by Philippine progressives as cheap playthings.”

The feminist groups’ behavior reflects in some sense the general attitude of some progressive Asians toward Asian women becoming involved with white men, mail order brides or not. As I’ve mentioned in previous essays, well-known Filipina-American activist Karin Aguilar-San Juan speaks of Asian female partners of white men as “splaying themselves” at the latter’s feet. She essentially portrays them as C. Allyson Lee’s fictional white male in “Recipe” does. Undoubtedly some Asian women might find Aguilar-San Juan’s description of them insulting, even if it’s meant in their best interests, in the same way I would take offense at Spanish so-called feminist Ana Perez del Campo’s statement that by trying to keep their children, divorced women are driving them into a life of poverty. With friends like that, who needs enemies?

Some Asian women feel compelled to explain their choice to go the mail order bride route, and their reasons for doing so aren’t necessarily that they want to act as geishas for white men. In some cases, they actually perceive Western men to be more egalitarian than their own male compatriots (whether this perception is correct or not is another story, of course). One Filipina who runs her own marriage agency explains that “in the Philippines, a man can beat his wife.” In a similar vein, a report on Brazilian women allegedly exploited by European sexual tourism claimed that these women’s European husbands treated them better than their “macho” boyfriends at home.

I nonetheless don’t take an entirely benign view of the mail order bride business. For one, many women get involved in it because of unfavorable economic and/or social conditions in their homelands. Feminists and minority activists are also right to say that women who go abroad as wives of men whom they may hardly know and who wield such enormous economic and often psychological power over them are easy targets for abuse. Finally, I do believe race, and racial stereotyping, play a role in the mail order bride system. Yet the reduction of the system to racism is not necessarily the whole story either.

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