- Romance on a Global Stage: Pen Pals, Virtual Ethnography, and "Mail-Order" Marriages
The mail-order bride business has expanded from an advertisement section found at the end of adult magazines into a multimillion-dollar industry, with upscale agencies, glossy catalogs, novel dating clubs, and idealized personal ads. It has also become a highly profitable business enhanced, in part, to the increase in rapid communication and lower cost of air transportation, all of which have contributed to making inter-country marriages more practical and more imaginable than ever. Still, many Americans remain highly ambivalent toward correspondence marriages. Americans are quick to note that these kinds of marriages are not based on love as much as they are based on a quid pro quo exchange: Women trade their youth for financial security. This explanation is invariably invoked [End Page 228] whenever there is a significant age difference between the spouses. In her new book, Nicole Constable reveals a keen ethnographic ear to point out that the "status/youth" marriage is an incomplete characterization of a complex phenomenon. Her research found "mail-order" brides are neither helpless victims of controlling men nor shrewd foreigners out for a green card. In a series of investigations (conducted in the United States between the late 1990s and early 2000s), she explores some of the underlying motivations of Filipina and Chinese women, and the occasional foreign man, for wanting to enter into a mail-order marriage. What she uncovered was a greater motivational complexity than that voiced in popular culture.
The women involved in correspondence relationships were not merely pawns of global political economy, victims of labor exploitation, or victims of Western sexual imperialism. She also disagrees with the interpretation that the presence of age difference is evidence of a power inequality in the marriage. Her research found that Filipinos and foreign fiances/spouses are roughly equal to their partner. Constable's profile of the American men who entered into correspondence marriages is similar to an earlier 1988 survey in the United States, which found that 94 percent were white; most were highly educated, two or more years of college was common, politically conservative, with an average age of 37, and 84 percent lived in metropolitan areas.
The idea that marriage should be based on conjugal love has never been culturally universal. Today, around one-third of all non-foreign correspondence marriages in East Asia are brokered marriages where romantic love is presumed to be absent. The fact that many of the correspondence arrangements are loveless does not mean that they stay that way for the duration of the marriage. Constable finds evidences of individuals falling intensely in love once they entered into a long-standing exchange. She infers that people in a correspondence arrangement fell in love as a consequence of yearning for a commitment. Her analysis of the text of correspondence finds personal choice, love at first sight, fate, and vivid memories of their first meeting to be recurrent themes.
Although a woman's decision to correspond with and marry a foreigner was often shaped by her personal situation as well as by her ideas about life in the United States, other emotional and personal factors were also present. Women seldom chose the first person that asked to marry them. Moreover, "love, attraction, chemistry, respect, and practical and individual considerations" were important in the women's desire to marry a foreign man (84). Constable found that women strove to help their husbands more out of love than blind obedience to some form of early childhood gender socialization.
Still, there are material realities that are powerful factors bringing together these individuals into a correspondence marriage: The women were poorer than the men they married. Without this enormous structural [End Page 229] difference, the correspondence business simply would not exist, at least not in its present form. American men are aware of this reality and, for the most part, are as defensive about the pragmatic aspects of their relationships as they...