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Familial migration strategies and the cultural logics of desire: a case of Asian-U.S. correspondence marriages

[Editor’s note: this article formed the basis for one chapter in Nicole Constable’s book, Romance on a Global Stage, which was published by University of California Press in 2003.]


The final decades of the twentieth century reflected unprecedented growth in the scale and pace of women’s international migration. Much of Asian women’s migration has been linked to labor (e.g., Constable, 1997, 2001; Kelson and DeLaet, 1999; Parrenas, 2001; Simons, 1999; Tyner, 1994, 1996), but there has also been a sharp increase in international marriages.[1] Since the 1980s, it has become increasingly common for women from the People’s Republic of China and the Philippines and men in the United States to meet and correspond via Internet or mail with the intention of marriage.[2] Scholars, feminists, and many in the U.S. popular media often gloss such relationships as “mail order marriages” and criticize them as a form of “trafficking in women” (Glodava and Onizuka, 1994; DOJ, 1999; Scholes, 1999; Barry, 1979). Many scholars point to the ways in which “mail order bride” businesses and catalogues commodify and objectify women (Halualani, 1995; Tolentino, 1996; Tsing, 1993; Villapando, 1989; Wilson, 1988). Yet as Kathryn Robinson powerfully argues, capitalist analogies and metaphors are of limited value (2001). Although many analyses reveal important insights about structures of patriarchy and gender inequality, and about particular “power geometry” whereby poorer countries are disproportionately the source of migrant workers and wives and richer countries are their destination (Massey, 1994 p. 149), they can also obscure or overlook women’s agency, and the complex personal and emotional motivations of those involved in correspondence relationships.[3]

Based on first hand research among Filipinas, Chinese women, and U.S. men involved in correspondence relationships, this article builds on my wider analysis of correspondence courtship and marriage (Constable, 2003). The aim here is to (1) point to the link between political economy and the corresponding transnational cultural logics of desire through which such relationships become viable; (2) illustrate the ways in which men and women involved in correspondence relationships articulate a discourse on love and its significance as opposed to simply pragmatic or material considerations; and (3) consider the limitations of perspectives that highlight the material and practical benefits of such relationships, view them as primarily a migration strategy for women, or express skepticism about the possibility of love and its ideological importance.

Although Chinese women and Filipinas with whom I spoke often stressed the importance of love, they rarely objected to the idea that their intimate relationships with western men are related in part – or on some level – to political relations and the global flow of capital. For them the stark realities of political economic inequality did not raise the specter of bogus marriages or marriage fraud. U.S. men, in contrast, often became defensive in discussions of the political context in which their relationships with Chinese women or Filipinas took place. Like many people in the U.S., men found it distasteful to connect politics with their personal lives and intimate relationships, or to propose that love may not be an essential ingredient of marriage. Yet despite men and women’s objections, popular and scholarly sources often assert that women “sell themselves” or marry Americans “just for the green card,” and that men “buy” Asian women as subservient wives and sexual partners who will care for home and children (Glodava & Onizuka, 1994).

Below I consider women’s and men’s ideas about their relationships, and ask where a rhetoric of love fits in, what role it serves, and how love may be culturally constructed in different ways that may be compatible with practical and material desires. Conceptions of love, romance, and marriage are always linked (sometimes subtly) to money, class, and power. Cross-cultural correspondence relationships between U.S. men and Asian women are further complicated by ideas and expectations (accurate or not) about gender, family, nationality and race. A key question is how political economy can be used to further our understanding of correspondence relationships and the resulting Asian transnational families without reducing men and women to opportunistic actors or eliding the issue of emotion.

Political Economy, Transnationalism, and Everyday Lives 

Scholars argue that political economy should not be treated as simply a backdrop for studies of transnational processes that involve complex and multi-directional movements of people, capital, objects, and ideas across the boundaries of nation-states (e.g., Appadurai, 1996; Constable, 1999; Guarnizo and Smith, 1998; Ong, 1999). Nor should the local be conceived of as cultural, the global as political-economic, the former subsumed within the latter. Rather, the local and global are intertwined as human agency and cultural meanings are produced and negotiated within the current milieus of globalization and late capitalism. And while many have pointed to diminishing spatial boundaries and territorial sovereignty in relation to increased time-space compression (Appadurai, 1993; Basch et aI., 1994; Harvey, 1989), couples involved in correspondence relationships provide a vivid sense of both the fluidity of borders (as they imagine and correspond with foreign partners) as well as their solidity (as they negotiate the complex bureaucratic processes of immigration). They point also to the gendered imbalances in the power geometry of such marriages (Constable, 2001; Julag-Ay, 1997; Ordonez, 1997).

Here I am concerned not simply with economic and political factors that underlie correspondence relationships, but with what Aihwa Ong calls “the cultural logics” that make particular actions “thinkable, practicable, and desirable” (1999, p.5). Ong’s study of “flexible citizenship” successfully merges cultural and political-economic analysis in discussions of the lives, and the negotiation of residences, investments, families, states and citizenships of Chinese global capitalists. But when her focus briefly shifts from Chinese global capitalists to working class Chinese women and their attraction to overseas Chinese men “in charge of mobility” (women whose lives do not so explicitly revolve around markets and finances), her analysis of the cultural logic of desire appears more simplistic (1999, p.53). Ong notes that the Chinese men from Hong Kong and overseas are perceived as “good catches” and as “a vision of capitalist autonomy and a source of new ‘network capital'” (1999, p.154).

Road-trip Romeos from Hong Kong can be an irresistible catch because he literally and figuratively embodies the guanxi [social networks] (ideally through marriage) that will lead to the dazzling world of overseas-Chinese capitalism. Marriage to a traveling man enables one to expand one’s accumulation of network capital and can also benefit the members of one’s family, who eventually may migrate to the capitalist world, where their desires for wealth and personal freedom can be met (1999, pp.155-56).

Ong writes, “mobility, wealth, and an imagined metropolitan future, rather than love or class solidarity, account for the lure of family romances” (1999, p.156). The romance of mobile capitalism,” she argues, “conjures up a felicitous brew of imagined personal freedom and wealth, a heady mix that young women imagine traveling men can provide the passports to” (1999, p.156).

Ong’s ideas about Chinese women’s attraction to overseas Chinese entrepreneurs ring true and apply more broadly to correspondence relationships between U.S. men and Asian women. Yet this leads us to ask whether such relationships are best (or fully) understood as providing a “passport” to personal freedom and wealth, a bridge to the west for kin, or whether this emphasis eclipses other salient aspects of the cultural logics of desire. While Ong’s discussion highlights material/practical forms of desire and familial strategies of migration, it downplays more emotional dimensions of desire and flatly dismisses the possibility of love as part of what might make certain actions “thinkable, practicable, and desirable” (Ong, 1999 p.5).

In contrast to Ong’s examples of “family romance” that take little notice of love and emotion, I ask how love and emotion can be intertwined with political economy through cultural logics of desire. Political economic approaches that neglect the possibility of emotion risk reducing an individual’s life-altering decisions to seemingly “rational” calculations that fail to recognize the humanity and sentiment that exists in even the most ruthless and seemingly pragmatic acts (Rosaldo, 1989; Lavie et aI., 1993; Turner & Bruner, 1986). To separate politics from intimacy is to reify a western divide between the personal and the political (Enloe, 1989). Given a western tendency to characterize Asians as cold and calculating, it is important to consider emotions alongside pragmatics of desire.

Network capital, a “bridge to America,” and the imagined potential of greater wealth and freedom, are certainly attractive to many Chinese women and Filipinas and to their kin. But these attractions do not preclude love – or other deep emotions – as Glodava and Onizuka (1994) and other critics of international correspondence marriages as “trafficking in women” assume. The idea of a “market” in women, or the “traffic” in women obscures women’s agency and the possibility of men and women’s emotional concerns. We might posit that Filipina and Chinese women’s understandings of U.S. men and of the imagined America they represent are part of the cultural notions of desire that are made thinkable, desirable and practicable by a wider political economy. In contrast to the view that men’s pragmatic motives exclude the possibility of loving and enduring relationships (Glodava and Onizuka, 1994: 26), I propose that love may be no less of an integral concern in correspondence marriages than in other U.S. marriages. What is distinct is not that these relationships involve pragmatic and practical concerns (all marriages do), but that they allow the apparent contradictions and paradoxes surrounding pragmatics and emotions – practical issues and the illusions and delusions of love – to become apparent. Correspondence marriages thus threaten to reveal tensions that other marriages more easily mystify.

Philippine-U.S. Relations 

Space does not permit a detailed analysis of U.S.-Chinese or U.S.-Philippine relations. My aim is to highlight some key sociohistorical factors that help situate correspondence relationships. Philippine-U.S. relations are informed by the Philippines’ status as a Spanish colony from the mid-sixteenth century until 1898 when Filipinos fought for independence. The U.S. then declared war on Spain and assumed colonial rule amidst strong Filipino opposition (Espiritu, 1995 p.2; Aguilar, 1987). U.S. sovereignty continued until 1946, when following Japanese occupation the war-torn territory was granted political independence, only to enter a new period of political-economic dependency that continues into the 21st century. In the 1970s rebellions and internal conflicts threatened stability and U.S. military and economic aid helped fend off the apparent threat of communism. Ferdinand Marcos established martial law, his dictatorship backed by the U.S., until the People Power movement toppled him from power in the 1980s.

Economic crises of the 1970s and 1980s set the scene for Marcos’ “labor export policy,” (Leahy, 1990, p.27; Constable, 1997, p.33). Hundreds of thousands of men and women from the Philippines sought jobs abroad as seamen, construction workers, domestic workers, and other types of contract laborers. By the 1990s one in five Filipinos was supported by economic remittances from abroad (AMC, 1992c, p.19). According to observers, migrant labor has grown from being a “stop-gap measure” to becoming a “vital lifeline for the nation” (Rojas 1990, p.10).

In contrast to overseas contract workers who are hailed as the nation’s “new economic heroes” (AMC, 1992c, p.20, Tyner 1996), marriage to foreigners constitutes another important, yet less openly honored, pattern of migration. By 1999 an estimated 2.5 million Filipinos made permanent homes abroad (CFO, 2001). In the 1990s an average of 17,000 Filipinos went abroad annually as the spouses or fiancé(e)s of foreigners. About 92 percent of the Filipino fiancés and spouses of foreign nationals were women, and the largest number, 70,828 (close to 40 percent), were married or engaged to U.S. nationals (CFO, 2001).

In the 1990s, when the last of the U.S. military bases in the Philippines were closed, base regions still catered to the interests and entertainment of foreign men (Enloe, 1993; Aguilar 1987). Most U.S. men who seek wives via correspondence, claim to avoid women who work in “base areas,” yet they are nonetheless influenced by their impressions of Filipinas from their own military experiences, from men they know who have served in the armed forces, or by friends, coworkers, or relatives married to Filipinas.

Contact with the west, associations of white skin or American residence with power, equations of foreign men with wealth, and media images fuel desire on both sides (Ordonez, 1997; cf. Stoler, 1997). For men, western notions of the Philippines as an ex-colony, a “third world country,” or as “underdeveloped,” contribute to a belief that Filipinas are “more traditional,” “less modern,” less influenced by the feminism and other “ills” of western culture, and therefore more devoted to marriage and family than western women (Wilson, 1988). Rescue narratives, Asian images of sexuality and innocence, or images of nurturing Filipino nurses, feed into ideas of Filipinas as desirable spouses (cf. Rafael, 1993). Strong commitment to family and marriage was one of the most common reasons I was given for men’s interest in “Asian women.” Men – who are mostly Christian themselves – cited the attraction of Filipino Catholic and Christian values, a legacy of the Spanish period. They also mentioned women’s English language ability and their assumed “familiarity” or receptivity to western culture, both legacies of American colonialism. American popular cultural images of Asian women as exotic, sexy, and submissive are certainly influential as well (see Tajima, 1989; Wilson, 1988).

For Filipinas, who often consider men (and women) with fairer skin and more western features “more attractive” and more influential, there is no question but that politically and historically situated logics of desire – as embodied in notions of race, nationality and gender – come into play. Such an observation is not to reduce these relationships to artifacts of political economy, to rob them of their authenticity, or to question individuals’ complex motives. It is to suggest that love and desire are constructed within a wider historical context of power relations and “internalized colonization” (Ordonez, 1997, p. 123; Stoler, 1997).

Chinese-U.S. Relations 

Relationships between U.S. men and Chinese women must be understood within the framework of several historical and political-economic changes during the last several decades. With the exception of Hong Kong and Macau, mainland China was not colonized, yet 19th and 20th century western imperialism established foreign rights to Chinese treaty ports and markets following Chinese defeat in the Opium Wars. Relations between the U.S. and mainland China were severed when the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949. For several decades China and the U.S. maintained a rigid closed door policy. Following the death of Mao in 1976 and the “post socialist” open door policies and economic reforms introduced by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s came a thaw in U.S.-China relations. The establishment of Special Economic Zones in the 1980s marked the beginning of a period of foreign investment, joint ventures, and cultural and academic exchange. Burgeoning private enterprises, incentive systems, and international investment led to a phenomenal increase in standard of living for many Chinese. Urban migration increased as a result of employment opportunities and decreased controls on internal migration (Dutton, 1999). The loosening of state control over popular culture and the arts, alongside new consumer opportunities led to greater exposure to the west (Schein, 1997).

The U.S. is a desirable destination to many Chinese and Filipinos. Chinese citizens pursue legal immigration to the U.S. by way of student visas, relatives’ sponsorship (including spouses), and fiancé(e) visas. China’s opening up has meant greater visibility and communication between two countries whose citizens are now less apprehensive or suspicious of the labels “capitalist” and “communist” or “socialist.” For many Chinese, the U.S. is viewed as a place of freedom, wealth, and opportunity.

Unlike U.S. men who expressed an interest in Filipinas, interest in Chinese women was not so directly influenced by military experiences. Few men had friends or acquaintances married to Chinese women before establishing their own relationships. A few mentioned travel to China, educational exchange programs, or business excursions as factors that promoted their interest and made marriage across cultural borders imaginable. Most had never been to China before visiting a pen pal. Most stressed the “family values” of Chinese women – regardless of whether they are from Hong Kong or the PRC – and many said they had “always been attracted to Asian women” (see China Bride, 2000).

A few men said they were drawn to Chinese women because they have “no religion” or because they were “Buddhist” or “spiritual.” Several noted that Chinese women are bright and educated. Men’s descriptions of their Chinese pen pals, wives, or fiancées, often reflect women’s willingness to work hard, high educational attainment, and “go getter” attitudes — many of the features of the Asian “model minority” image in the U.S. Men also reported “falling in love” with China. They raved about food and warm welcomes from future in-laws. Many “missed” China upon return to the U.S. Men who wrote to Filipinas, in contrast, often identified themselves as Christian and stressed women’s Catholicism, simple way of life, and conservative family values (including virginity and disdain for divorce) as attractive features.

Simon and Xiaoli 

Simon’s description of meeting Xiaoli illustrates the blending of emotional and practical considerations into a relationship that was thinkable and attainable. A 50 year-old investment banker who was developing a new career in education, Simon had been married to Xiaoli, a 43 year-old high school teacher, for almost a year. Simon was previously married for 15 years and divorced for 10 when he decided that he would like to remarry if he met “the right person.” Xiaoli had also been married 15 years and was divorced five years before they met. Xiaoli had a 19 year-old daughter in China, and Simon had grown up children in the U.S.

When asked why he decided to look for a partner through correspondence, Simon explained:

My own choice to find a foreign woman started with practical considerations of the cultural type. In other words, I knew if I fell in love with someone who tended to view a husband as “competition” or “an obstacle to success”, we’d have big problems. I was once in love with someone … who had an ingrained belief (or feeling) that she was a victim and all men were basically perpetrators. I actually tried to marry her, but just couldn’t take being the “bad guy” 24 hours a day. So, my decision was to find a woman who would be really good for me, and let me be good for her, even if it were someone I had to “learn” to love.

At first, Simon took a very pragmatic approach toward meeting women.

I originally wanted to collect 4 or 5 “prospects”, based on what I could tell of their personality and character, then choose the one with whom I had the best interpersonal “chemistry”. That plan didn’t come to pass because [Xiaoli] bowled me over completely after our first meeting.

Commenting on his early motivation to meet women abroad, Simon noted,

[U.S.] culture has some barriers to successful relationships. I wasn’t meeting anyone I was interested in here, so I decided to look abroad, via the Internet. After corresponding with several people from different countries, I decided that in general, women from China had an outlook and upbringing that seemed more supportive of happy long term relationships, so I focused on China about 2 years ago.

Simon began by looking at the listings of women of various nationalities, but quickly developed a preference for Chinese women.

The first difference I noted about Chinese women showed up in the way they write their classified ads! When describing their characteristics, they overwhelmingly noted “devoted to family”, “soft”, “kind”, “virtuous”, and so on old-fashioned “feminine” virtues which don’t get as much prominence in ads from other countries. Also, they were seeking men with the virtues of “kindness” and “good habits” more than anything else such as wealth, age, ambition and so on.

Simon corresponded with “some really nice women, but most of them were almost twenty years younger than me.” Then he got “sidetracked by a local girlfriend” and lost track of the women to whom he had written. A year and a half ago, he resumed his “search” and

wrote a letter to one woman who was older and not as gorgeous as the rest, but whose face seemed to have a lot of character. That did it! One of [Xiaoli’s] … students had posted a net ad for her on a dinky local service with not-so-hot photos, but once we got into an e-mail correspondence, the relationship took off. We started calling, and I went to see her [five months later]… We hit it off even better in person, and started to plan for the K-l visa process. There were a few snags, and I went to China again this [spring] to help her with paperwork and family matters, and finally got her through the interview at the Consulate, and flew back to America with her [early in the summer].

Early in the process Simon thought that he would meet someone he would “learn” to love. Recalling his earliest encounter with Xiaoli, however, he felt “lucky that I didn’t have to learn to love anyone, we just jelled right away, and she happens to have the strongest character of any of the women I corresponded with.”

According to Simon, Xiaoli was “seeking an American man not so much for the economic opportunity (she’s pretty well-off herself), but because they have a reputation for being romantic, democratic husbands, and because as a divorced [woman in her forties], her chances of a remarriage in China were pretty slim.” Simon stressed the importance of love (even as he approached it with a practical attitude), alongside other considerations that he associated with “Chinese culture.” As Simon explained,

I hope I made myself clear: I wouldn’t marry someone I couldn’t love, but this time around I wanted very much to do my first “screening” based on the practical aspects of a long-term relationship … could I respect her in every way, is she tender and respectful to her mate, do we agree on the purpose of a marriage, is “a happy home” the top priority, and so on. The Chinese idea of marriage is much like the America of 50 years ago, and I like it.

Returning to the tension between “pragmatic” arrangements and love marriages, Simon concluded, “I’ve also heard that arranged marriages work out better than we in America would expect … something about the older folks having more sense about who’s good for each other than the young ones in the throes of heat.”

True Love? 

Although it is impossible to measure the presence or absence of love, Simon’s account is one of many that seem to contradict the claim that men who meet women via correspondence do not want “an enduring and loving relationship.” (Glodava and Onizuka, 1994 p.26). Like many women I met, Xiaoli had a successful career, a high income, and a good standard of living in China. Although we did not hear it in her own words, she does not appear to support the assumption that “mobility, wealth, and an imagined metropolitan future, rather than love” account for Chinese working women’s attraction to overseas Chinese or foreign men (Ong, 1999 p.156).

Both scholarly and popular representations of correspondence relationships seek to separate cases of “true love” from those that are motivated by material or pragmatic considerations. This polarization of the two issues, viewing them as discontinuous, reflects a particularly western perspective and bias. Underlying such a dichotomy is the belief or illusion that “true love” is somehow selfless and “pure,” incompatible with and also diametrically opposed to pragmatic or practical concerns.

Practical considerations and opportunism (the idea that a man or woman can benefit materially or practically from such a match) can call true love into question and imply that it is false, impure, or legally constitutive of marriage fraud. Western critics of arranged marriages implicitly or explicitly base their moral claim to superiority on the idea that a “love match” is superior, more “modern” or more genuine. This dichotomy implies that love is or should be a required ingredient of all marriages. It also implies that love is antithetical to arranged marriages, that love is either present or not from the beginning, rather than an emotional bond that may take different forms and may grow and develop after marriage. It also presumes that love is measured by universal rather than cultural standards.[4]

As “Ellen,” a Chinese manager of “China Miss” introduction service explains to prospective clients, expressions of love vary cross culturally (CM!, 2001).

Chinese seldom use the word “love,” and we never use it as casually as people in the U.S. seem to. To us, love is not demonstrated by a word, but rather by how we treat our spouse, our family and each other. Usually, you will wait a long time before you hear a Chinese girl say, “I love you!” This has nothing to do with how she feels, or whether she truly cares for you. It’s a cultural difference.

In China, (yuen) the concept of “romantic love” is thought of more as “devoted commitment” … When “yuen” is present between you and a Chinese girl, you will know that she loves you by the way she treats you. And likewise, she will judge how much you care for her not by what you say, but by what you do. There is an old saying that goes: “It’s easy for someone to move their lips, but keep your eyes on their feet.” In other words, actions speak louder than words.

Men often cited the 50 percent divorce rate in the U.S. and, like Simon, hoped to form relationships with women from cultures they believed placed a greater value on enduring marriages and familial commitment. Ricky, a 40 year-old, told me of his divorce four years earlier from his American wife of six years:

I thought we had a good marriage. We were happy and we had two great kids. But we ran into a rough spot … [and] she left. Just walked out … If it was up to me we’d still be married. I thought I’d never marry again. But later, I started thinking I want to get married, but to someone who is as committed to marriage, someone who believes in their vows, and thinks marriage is sacred… I had a co-worker who had been happily married to a lady from the Philippines for ten years. So I got the idea of joining a pen pal club and started writing to some ladies there.

Many men said they had “failed at love,” and many blamed this on feminism, the unreasonable demands” or “lack of commitment” of western women.[5] Love American style did not bring the long term and stable marital relationships these men desired, and underlying the desire to meet Asian women was often a concern for a relationship “that will last.” One 45 year-old, twice divorced man, who described himself as a politically conservative, born-again Christian was attracted by an ad that described Filipinas as “Women who believe in the Ten Commandments every day of the week, not just on Sunday.” Mick, twice-divorced, engaged to a Filipina who worked as a domestic worker in Singapore, explained, “My understanding was that Filipinas held to a higher standard, traditional family and marriage values. I was correct.” Jimmy, after five years of marriage, came to the sudden realization that his U.S. wife “didn’t want kids and would have made a bad mother anyway.” He decided that his chances of finding someone who shared his familial goals would be better among Chinese women.

When I sent an email message to an Internet group of 30 U. S. men corresponding with Filipinas whom I had known for over a year and asked them, “How [do] different people see “love” fitting in? … Is love a necessary ingredient in your relationship?” I received a variety of responses. Mick answered,

I found that last question objectionable. I’m not offended really, but I am surprised that you asked if “love was necessary.” To me, that implies that a Filipino-American relationship does not require “love” to succeed … Is that what you meant? I can’t speak for anyone else but love is of primary importance to me. Without love, there is really is no relationship.

JJ also commented about the importance of love in correspondence relationships and marriages. The absence of direct discussion of the issue among the Internet group, he said, may be misleading.

I hope that the attitude I display when I write to fellows regarding issues with courting a Filipina does not mislead you. I talk about a lot of issues, but I don’t talk about love much. It is not that I consider it off topic, in fact the bottom line is that this is really the number one topic. I write with the attitude that of course they love the women so I don’t need to question that.

The only exception to his silence regarding love, JJ wrote, based on his experience on two lists with several hundred members, “is when someone has displayed some sort of ‘ugly male syndrome’ and it is obvious that they have bit into the ‘Mail Order Maid You Can Have Sex With’ scenario. Or something along those lines.” Yet hinting at the “pressure” that men may exert on one another to conform to the idea that “love” is the single key ingredient, JJ also points to the way in which the list discourages discussion of blatant pragmatic or practical concerns.

How often it [the ‘ugly male syndrome’] really happens I have no idea because if someone joins the list and reads for a while before posting it will quickly become apparent to them that their attitudes would not make them a favorite if they open up honestly. Of the two that spoke up, one was stupid enough to just assume we were all the same … The other did not realize what he was like until we all took great care to point it out to him. But I don’t think most people are that unconscious so I’m sure we have missed a few more, probably helped them on their nasty way by giving them lots of good info and helping them to refine their masks.

He continues,

I can’t say that others dance around the love subject on the list for a similar reason that I do, but it seems most avoid direct discussion until their relationships have flowered to the point that they can confidently proclaim that they do love the woman, and that she loves him.

Several men mentioned their physical attraction to Asian women, which is of course influenced by popular images of Asian women in U. S. mass media. As I have argued elsewhere, however, although the issue of sexuality is important it has been emphasized by scholars at the expense of other factors (Constable, 2003; Tolentino, 1996; Halualani, 1995). Men and many introduction services tend to emphasize women’s “family values,” sexual modesty, purity and innocence rather than their sexual availability. Their “feminine qualities” as Simon put it, often refer more explicitly to their prospective roles as wives and mothers than as lovers. JJ described a U.S.-Filipina couple who were divorcing: “They were about the same age, the man was looking for some wild Asian sex and married a very proper girl who is not very adventurous in bed.” Images of Asian women’s sexual attractiveness play an important role in the cultural logic of their desirability. Like love, sex is often explicitly “off limits” as a chat-group topic mainly because it threatens to undermine a concerted effort to represent and construct such relationships as respectable and based on love, and to raise the specter of what JJ called the “ugly male syndrome.”

A Bridge to America?

Many Chinese women seemed pragmatic about the appeal of foreign men and their desire to live abroad. Yet they turned down offers to meet men and would not write to “just any” foreign man. Some Chinese women said they had first considered writing to overseas Chinese who would share their culture and background. Two Chinese women I interviewed concluded that overseas Chinese are more picky (“they want women who are very young, very beautiful and have never been married before”), and more controlling (“they want a very obedient and traditional wife”), so that western men of non-Chinese origin might be preferable. Several women described men they stopped corresponding with because their “personalities were unsuitable” or they were men they “could never love.”

The promise of life abroad appealed to women for different reasons. Some spoke of migration as a way to better provide for their families or as beneficial to their children’s future. Others suggested in contrast that going to the U. S. was a way to escape familial controls and obligations, rather than a way to mobilize “network capital” for the good of the family. The vast majority of Chinese women I spoke to who hoped to meet U.S. men were divorced. Because of the stigma associated with divorce in China, like Xiaoli, they expected greater tolerance and greater opportunities for remarriage abroad. Divorced women and women in their thirties who had never been married spoke of western men as more open-minded and less-controlling than Chinese husbands. Some thought foreign men were more romantic, open and expressive, and knew how to treat women “like ladies.” Some said western men are more cultured and intellectual than Chinese men. Many Filipinas thought their marriage prospects were slim in the Philippines. Divorce is officially illegal there, but a woman who has had a child, an intimate relationship with a man, an annulment or legal separation is considered an undesirable marriage partner.

In contrast to common assumptions about the direction of migration — from a poorer country to a richer one — some Chinese women, and many Filipinas I met expressed a preference to remain in China or the Philippines with a foreign husband, and many couples had plans to return for prolonged visits or to settle permanently in Asia. Chinese women often expressed a desire to meet a foreign man who worked in China or was familiar with the language and culture so they could feel at home in either location. Many Filipinas hoped to settle permanently in the Philippines; some were familiar with such cases, and many expressed ambivalence about the difficulties (e.g., loneliness, isolation, food, climate) of life in the U.S. Several Filipinas who had experienced married life in the U.S. opted to return to the Philippines with their spouse and children. Among their reasons, they were closer to family, and they could afford household help and a better lifestyle.

Filipinas referred to foreign men as handsome, kind, and as men who know how to “take care of” their wives. Foreign men are said to continue to be romantic after marriage. American men have light skin, and they don’t keep mistresses on the side as do Filipinos. Marriage to a foreigner might mean greater social freedom for his wife than many Filipino husbands allow (Carlos, 1997). As one Filipina explained, a foreign husband in the Philippines means that you are envied, but also that you must be careful of other women who are interested in your husband because of his assumed wealth.

It is impossible to “prove” that love is present or absent in these relationships, even when the individuals involved claim “it is there.” My point is not to assert its absence or presence, but to argue that the appeal of foreign partners, their possible association with wealth and symbolic and “network capital,” does not preclude the possibility of love. Indeed, the perceived “attractiveness” and desirability of foreign partners may be or become the basis of love. The association of foreign men, regardless of their actual socioeconomic standing, with wealth and personal freedom, or the simple fact of a man’s light skin (in the Philippines) or his passport (in China) and his role as a bridge to America, may be the initial basis of interest and attraction, but this does not necessarily rule out, and indeed may provide the basis for real or imagined emotional bonds. For men, the belief in a partner’s feelings of love, helped cancel out concerns about women’s pragmatic motivations. As such, love served as a way for men to deny the significance of wider global inequalities.

Men sometimes expressed concern about a woman’s sincerity and love. In an email message to the group, R wrote of his concerns about his Filipina fiancée:

I was not sure if she was sincere about being in love with me. As long as I know she does love me I am willing to be patient and understanding. I told her from the beginning that we would have problems, everyone does, but if we loved each other and were honest with each other we could work anything out.

JJ replied,

And it is so difficult to find out if she does love you. I don’t know about your fiancée but asking did not fill me with warmth and security. :) Has she told you she does much? I have heard from many that it is not part of the culture to say ‘I love You’… But [my wife] has become accustomed to it in our house, in this culture and she kind of likes it. :).  But while we were courting all I could ever get out of her was a very low spoken, sheepish verbal admission.

Filipinas and Chinese women sometimes avoided the topic of love, but other times volunteered that they loved their husbands or fiancées. Some gave me letters or emails to read in which both partners professed their love. Although verbal expressions can be learned in the process of correspondence and marriage, love and romance are not foreign concepts in China or the Philippines.

Malou is a Filipina who corresponded with “D” for two years before marrying him two years ago. She responded passionately to Charlie’s assertion on a Filipino-American chat group that pen pal relationships are not based on love. Charlie wrote,

I’m wondering how much is love and how much is infatuation among age difference men ladies. if a man is 40+ he probably is going through mid life crisis. we start thinking of death. most of our life is over. then some 20 year old filipino lady comes into our life well man oh man who wouldn’t jump at the chance to marry and say your in love with someone that nothing sags on? … my wife and i know and have admitted we didn’t really love each other when we married. i liked and was infatuated with her. i talk about old versus young here but i would probably marry a kid too. but what happens when the man gets hard of hearing or some cancer etc? probably all of us know some filipino lady who divorced or had extra marital affairs etc. they are people with the same desires etc as any other woman. if there’s big age difference they will someday maybe hate the aged husband. love or infatuation? ticket to the usa? a better job for the family back home? who knows the answers? (sic.)

Malou replied,

[I asked D how much] he loves me. [He rated it] 8 out of 10. (not enough for me). As for me …I don’t know, maybe more than your mind can reach … “WE” (Filipina) are just woman too. We think of men (Just as you guys think of women), we like that “knight in shining armor type” a suit and tie type, sporty, and “prince charming” type. But the thing about it is we are already MARRIED … For myself … “love” is something you feel only once and when you feel it you don’t know that it is called “love” … the thing is if it take me almost 2 years to know A LITTLE BIT of my husband and still wonder if he really loves me. How long will it take to trust and know this new person??? I have locked my mind in believing that it take’s a lifetime to really know a person, and if that’s the case one man is enough to spend my life with getting to know him. With this theory in mind you will never hate an “aged husband.”

Malou criticized Charlie’s cynical and binary view of love versus pragmatism.

[You ask ‘love or infatuation”?] Infatuation turn to a real love! [Ticket to the USA?] In most cases true! Goes both ways. A 40 year old man marry a 20 year old virgin Filipina bring her to the US let her work for the two of them. She has the right to help her family. She dammed work hard. It’s part of the culture. You know that beforehand. A sadist and abuser husband … He deserved to be cheated!!! [a better job for the family back home?] True! that way when your husband treat you bad you have a family to come home to …

Malou’s concluding remarks illustrate a notion of love that lacks disjuncture between emotional and material/practical considerations. Love, in her view, is linked to – but not subsumed by – issues of race, work opportunities, and possibilities of familial migration.

I marry my husband because I love him, marrying him means beautiful kids, moving to the US is not that bad compared to having a career in the Philippines (But I didn’t realized it is too until I started working at McDonalds part time), petitioning family to moved to the US (if this is what you want to hear), why not, life is a lot better in here than in there when it comes to material things. But when it comes to relationship, morals family relationship, parent children relationship. It [the US.] has nothing to be proud off That’s why most choose to marry a Filipina because, you guys know after examining [them] there is nothing wrong with “our” intentions of coming over here instead of convincing you to move to the Philippines. (sic.)


When I described Frank, a heavy-set, retired state trooper in his mid-50s, and Angel, his lovely 22 year-old fiancée, to Filipino friends, one woman asked, “She never finished college? Girls like that are only interested in him because of his money.” “Many Filipinas are pretty desperate,” said another. “Have you seen the women in the mall hanging around waiting to meet any old foreign men? They think foreign men are rich or can help get them to the U.S.” Yet two young women were more empathetic, “Filipinas can fall in love very easily, it’s true. If he pampers her and treats her well, she can convince herself she loves him. And maybe she really does.” Questioning my characterization of the couple, one woman asked, “Why is it so hard for you to believe that she loves him, Nicole? So what if he’s ugly, as long as he treats her well?!”

U.S. men often assumed that the women they wrote to in China or the Philippines would be happy to hear from Americans because they thought (often mistakenly) that the women are in difficult, dire, or desperate financial situations. Men claim that, “Foreign women care less about age,” “Don’t care if you aren’t handsome,” “Don’t care if you aren’t rich.” They are often aware that their wives’ families (especially in the rural Philippines) appreciate their financial contributions. Yet when it comes to their own relationships, they are reluctant to believe that money or the wider political-economic context might be a factor. Men depict their own relationships in terms of love and romance. Only a few men (like Charlie) suggested a different balance wherein love was neither the premise nor necessarily the ultimate goal. Most men considered love in a vacuum – using it to attest to the “purity” of their own and their partner’s intentions. As such, it allows them to turn a blind eye to issues of power and inequality.

Women were sometimes cynical about other women’s motives but they also believed that their own relationships were “solid and sincere,” not based solely on “money.” For Filipinas and many Chinese women, love seemed largely inseparable from – and a product of – a man’s ability to “provide” or “treat a woman well.” Frank’s masculinity is embodied in his ability to provide for Angel, or at least to potentially improve her circumstances. Old age, poor health, or a large physique matter less as long as a man can provide. Whether it be through his own financial resources or his ability to offer potentially improved circumstances in the U. S., men were flattered and attracted by the idea that women would value them “for themselves.”

Men’s circumstances of course vary enormously (e.g., a wealthy corporate manager versus a factory worker) and women demonstrated different degrees of understanding of men’s actual financial and social standings. Yet U.S. men share gender and national identity. For many Filipinos, despite overt critiques of foreign imperialism and ex-colonial powers of Spain and the U.S., an (ambivalent) admiration of western food, styles, light skin, and “modern way of life” persists. Filipinos with more European features are often considered more attractive, and such features come to represent western culture, wealth, and modernity, regardless of a man’s actual circumstances.

Men are attracted to the idea of “Asian women’s family values,” but as Cecilia Julag-Ay observes, commitments toward her natal kin may later become a source of marital conflict when a man feels his wife’s family draws resources away from his own nuclear household (1997). Another problem is that men may look to China and the Philippines for “traditional wives,” but some women look to the west for “modern” lives and husbands, and a way to escape the constraints of their familial obligations. Just as there are significant differences between U.S. men, so are there significant differences between the aims and desires of Asian women.

To connect the minutiae of everyday life with wider patterns of power and culture without reducing them to some rigid mold or draining them of their life, flexibility, and uniqueness is one of the challenges posed to scholars of transnationalism. Men’s assumptions about Asian women’s commitment to marriage and their assumed appreciation and attraction to western men are linked to political, economic, and historical connections and inequalities between the U.S., China and the Philippines, and also to transnational flows of ideas about gender, marriage, and family.

I have argued that political economy should not be viewed as simply a “macro” backdrop for studies that deal with power on the “micro” or local level. Building on the work of Ong and others, I maintain that cultural logics of love and desire are rooted in complex and subtle renderings of power. Modem and rapid forms of communication and transportation and relationships between nation-states make marriages between U.S. men and Asian women more practical and more imaginable. Women may desire wealth, opportunity, freedom, citizenship, marriage or a better way of life conceived of in an almost infinite variety ways. Men’s desires are also complex and varied, involving visions of domestic order, enduring relationships, modesty, femininity, sexuality, and an “old fashioned division of labor.” These overlapping desires – intertwined as they are with structures of power and inequality – create the basis upon which transnational families are imagined and realized across borders.


Grants from the Asian Studies Center, Chinese Studies Program, the Hewlett International Small Grants Program, and a Chancellor’s Distinguished Research Award, from the University of Pittsburgh made this research possible. This paper was first prepared for the “Migration and the’ Asian Family’ in a Globalizing World” Conference, organized by the Asian MetaCentre for Population and Sustainable Development Analysis, and the Family Studies Research Programme, National University of Singapore, 16-18 April, 2001. I am very grateful to Brenda Yeoh, Verene Koh, and the other conference organizers. I also thank Nancy Abelmann, Joseph Alter, Paul Boyle, Frayda Cohen, Elspeth Graham, and Nobue Suzuki for their suggestions. To the women and men who generously shared their views and experiences with me, I owe a debt of gratitude.



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  1. [1]Within Asia, some of the better known recent cross-national marriage patterns involve Filipinas and Japanese men (Cahill, 1990; Piper, 1997; Suzuki, 2000a, 2000b); Chinese-Korean women and South Korean men (Freeman, 2001), mainland Chinese women and overseas Chinese men (Clark, 2001, Shih 1999). Much has also been written on Filipina-Australian marriages (e.g., Cahill, 1990; Cooke, 1986; Holt, 1996; Robinson, 1996,2001).
  2. [2]Ethnographic research conducted between 1998 and 2001 included detailed interviews in the PRC and the Philippines with 40 women involved in correspondence relationships, and informal conversations with numerous others. I interviewed and corresponded with several recently married couples, and over 50 men with Filipina or Chinese girlfriends, fiancées, or spouses. This project included participant-observation on Internet chat-groups involving U.S. men involved with Filipinas or Chinese women, Internet communication with women listed by correspondence clubs, analysis of introduction services texts, and interviews with individuals familiar with such relationships.
  3. [3]Numerous scholars have argued against the simplistic view of “poverty” as the sole motivating force for Filipino labor or marriage migration to Japan. Nicola Piper points to patriarchal factors in the Philippines (1996), and James Tyner (1996, 1997) points to government and institutional factors (see also Constable, 1997, 1999). Scholars have begun to question and criticize depictions of “mail order brides” as passive victims or commodities (e.g., Constable, 2003; Julag-Ay, 1997; Ordonez, 1997; Robinson, 2001; Suzuki, 2001).
  4. [4]For discussions of the cultural specificity and history of the notion of romantic love, see Jankowiak (1995), Jankowiak and Fischer (1992), Rebhun (1999), Giddens (1992).
  5. [5]Many scholars have pointed to western feminism, and men’s sense of threatened masculinity and patriarchal authority as factors that motivate western men to seek marriage partners abroad (e.g., Holt, 1996; Ordonez, 1997; Robinson, 1996; Simons, 1999; Wilson, 1988).

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