The concept of a ‘mail-order bride’ or 'internet bride', with its implication of consumerism, has given rise to a lot of controversy. This concept is analysed by Irma Maini with special reference to Nell Freudenberger’s novel, 'The Newlyweds'.
Call it what you will: mail-order bride, picture bride, internet or E-bride, correspondence marriage, pen pal courtship, transnational E-marriage, or wife import, all these terms and their implied meaning have given rise to a lot of controversy. Methods of finding a marriage partner by means other than one-on-one dating and romantic love have been used since time immemorial. Typically, marriages were arranged by parents or elders so as to find the best fit for their children; other times it was to form family, business or political alliances. In fact, the concept of marrying for romantic love came into vogue only in the 18th century in Europe with the rise of individualism as Anthony Giddens points out in his book The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern Societies (Qtd in Constable 117). Over the years it has gained a lot of currency, particularly in Western societies and is seen as the superior, and for some the only, way of finding a marriage partner. But other than the traditional arranged marriages (though this concept too is not homogeneous) and the romantic love marriages, finding a partner through a marriage/dating agency, catalogs, via correspondence, and now on internet websites is increasingly popular. However, often these methods are fraught with problems of fraud and exploitation. For example, the concept of ‘mail-order bride’ with its implication of consumerism, of buying and selling, raises troubling questions about the inequity of gender, race, class, nationality, and even geographic location.
The issue is that when non-western women, particularly Asian and Russian, seek Western men as marriage partners, the assumption often is that they are being pawned in the marriage market as commodities. Part of the reason for this belief is the history of exploitation of some vulnerable women from Asia and recently from Russia as well, who could end up being sex slaves, domestic workers, abused and violated, or forced into doing things against their will by their American “husbands.” Western feminists have sought to bring attention to this form of patriarchal colonization and neo-orientalism of Asian women in particular by western men. They often equate this to trafficking of women and modern-day slavery under the guise of marriage. The media too in recent years has been highlighting stories of victimization of these women though often with a sensational angle. Whereas one cannot minimize the importance of exposing the plight of women who suffer because of this system of marriage, it is equally important not to essentialize the experiences of all such women and to paint these marriages with the same brush. In recent years, scholars such as Nicole Constable have undertaken a re-examination of the concept of mail-order brides or correspondence marriages as she prefers to call them. In her book, Romance on a Global Stage: Pen-Pals, Virtual Ethnography, and “Mail-Order” Marriages, she critiques the binary notion of western men as oppressors and Asian women as the oppressed and tries to deconstruct “hegemonic images of ‘mail-order brides’ or of men and women who meet through correspondence” so as not to perpetuate that orientalist image of the submissive Asian woman.
Nell Freudenberger’s novel, The Newlyweds, examines the representation of internet marriage within the context of power and control, taking into account cultural notions of love and desire, tradition and modernity, political economy and transnationalism. The protagonist, Amina Mazid, a young Bangladeshi girl, believes she can control her own destiny and is determined to carve out a better future for herself than offered to her in her home country. She and her mother are convinced that Amina could fulfill her dreams only if somehow, she managed to go to the U.S. When she is unable to secure the funds for studying in a college in America, the next clear option is to marry a U.S. citizen. In this world of quick technological communication, the obvious choice is to use the internet to find the right groom. AsianEuro.com, a dating website, offers Amina the opportunity to check out and correspond with several potential candidates. Finally, she zooms in on George Stillman, an engineer in Rochester New York, who seems trustworthy, has a stable job, and is not “bad looking." After emailing off-and-on for eleven months, Amina comes to Rochester and marries George. What follows is a tale of adjustment and compromise, of lies and deceit, of love and promises as Amina learns to live with a man, she knows only through emails even as she tries to figure out the countless cultural differences between Bangladeshi and American society. In fact, the term “cultural difference” becomes a catchall phrase that the characters in the novel use frequently to explain any awkward situations; so much so that Amina pities those couples who can’t access it as it was "a phrase so useful in forestalling arguments."
At one point, Amina, wryly observes, that her marriage to George was more like the traditional arranged marriage of her grandparents than the “love-marriage” of her parents who had gone against tradition by falling in love before getting married. Only later does she realize that was a false assumption for in an arranged marriage like that of her grandparents, the matchmaker would have known everything about the two families down to the smallest details like their favorite foods. The past would not have remained hidden (as it is in the case of George) from either family and there would not have been any room to pretend to be what one was not. Instead of a matchmaker, George and Amina had “trusted their introduction to a machine, something made of metal and plastic, blind and dumb, which approximated human knowledge with an electrical alphabet only two characters long.” Amina asks herself, “was it any wonder they struggled to understand each other now?” While intimate knowledge about one’s marriage partner is clearly no guarantee of a happy marriage, it does bring up the issue of trust in a relationship if certain important information is not revealed prior to marriage.
Even though deception is the oldest trick in the game in any type of marriage, the method of finding a marriage partner from overseas through correspondence via the internet or through a marriage agency, is a more fertile place for some people to hide their past and create illusions about who they are. This was true even in the case of picture brides who came to the U.S. in large numbers in the early part of the twentieth century mainly from Japan and Korea (1908- 1920, over 20, 000). The vagaries of the U.S. immigration laws put obstacles for Japanese and Korean men to go back to their home countries, as a result Japanese and Korean women were often married to the picture of the man who they later joined in America only to find that they had been deceived about their age, looks, wealth, job, among other things. (Examples of this are in the novel Picture Bride by Yoshiko Uchida and the film of the same name). The deception though was not only by the men but could also be by the women like in Hisaye Yamamoto’s short story, “Seventeen Syllables,” where Tome hides the fact that she had given birth to a stillborn child as an unmarried girl or the protagonist, Riyo, in the film Picture Bride, who does not reveal that she could be carrier of the tuberculosis virus that had killed her parents.
The question that often intrigues people is why would white American men look for Asian wives and why would Asian women (majority of who are Filipinos, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese) participate in being mail-order brides or engage in correspondence marriages? Mila Glodava and Richard Onizuka in their book, Mail-Order Brides: Women for Sale attribute American male desire for Asian brides to the men’s belief in the submissive and docile nature of Asian women, which would allow them to remain in control and have power in the family. As for the women, Glodava and Onizuka see them as victims of their situations, largely because of poverty, who are ready to do anything to get to America. On the other hand, Nicole Constable, a sociocultural anthropologist who interviewed hundreds of Filipino and Chinese women as well as American men engaged in correspondence relationships and marriages found that the answer to the question was much more complicated. Many of the women in her research who sought such relationships were not poor, uneducated, or desperate. They had shown initiative, made choices about who to correspond with, and exerted control in terms of what they were willing to give up for that relationship. Their reasons were varied. For instance, for some women in China who were educated and had jobs but were divorced, with a child/children, or over 30 years, the option of finding a Chinese husband was limited and so they had considered American men. However practically all these women believed that western men were more modern than Chinese /Filipino men and were attracted to the U.S. for its modernity.
Interestingly, the top reason, says Constable, for American men seeking Asian women was to find a woman with traditional values, someone who was unspoilt by Western feminism, who would be happy with the traditional gender roles. As one man put it, “equal but separate”. These men were disappointed with American women who they saw as “materialistic, spoiled, lazy, and unwilling to work in or outside the home”. That Asian women were looking for modernity while American men for more traditional roles in a marriage is a contradiction, to say the least, yet, the individual definitions of traditional and modern could very well come together and coalesce in the centre.
This happens to some extent in The Newlyweds, as Amina and George try to live up to each other’s expectations. As mentioned earlier, Amina is a self-driven young woman who wants to make something of her life and shows determination when she studies on her own and successfully completes the ‘O level exams’ after she had to quit school at age thirteen due to her father’s financial problems. When her dream of studying in an American college is dashed because of the huge expense involved, she, in consultation with her mother, decides to marry a U.S. citizen. While her failed attempt at an American education might be seen as the impetus for her decision to marry abroad, it would be incorrect to say that Amina is “a calculating fortune seeker” as Michiko Kakutani asserts in her review of the novel. Many a time Amina expresses her frustration at the paternalistic attitude of majority of men in Bangladesh and rebels against the limitations imposed on women. She too is attracted to American men for their modern outlook. She had always dressed in western clothes, albeit covering herself modestly, asserted her right to an education, and had done “everything her own way”.
As for George Stillman, Freudenberger doesn’t flesh out his character and in fact, that is one of the weak spots of the novel; the result is that readers can only surmise his motivation for being drawn to an Asian wife. In the beginning, George tells Amina that he was a “romantic” and that he had been “waiting for a special connection.” At thirty-seven, he was keen for a long term relationship, wanted to marry and have children, a sentiment that Constable found to be common in the large majority of the American men she had talked to during her research. Like George, these men had often “experienced failed relationships with U.S. women” and they now wanted “enduring relationships” and marriages with children. This view is very different from the prevailing stereotype that these men only want their Asian brides to be their sex slaves, domestic servants or nurses.
George’s cousin, and one time lover, Kim, tells Amina later in the novel that George had been very keen to settle down, but she wasn’t ready even though they were living together, and she was expecting their baby, which she chooses to abort. She had urged him to find a “real wife” and as a sort of “game” had looked at ‘Match’ and ‘eHarmony’ with him but had settled for ‘AsianEuro’ as they didn’t have to register or log in and could “look at the girls for free.” If Kim’s explanation is true, though she is not a trustworthy source as the novel indicates several times, then George was simply playing Kim’s game in choosing ‘AsianEuro’ even though he was desperately in love with her. Amina is mortified when she learns of this and wonders “if it had been a game, then hadn’t it also been a kind of foreplay between them— looking at the desperate girls halfway around the world together?”. Ironically, one reason George gives Amina for liking her instantly is that she was straightforward and did not play “games” or used ‘superficial charms’ the way American women did. Despite George’s lack of honesty about his past, he is a kind husband and does not fit the common stereotype of an abusive American man who simply wants to control his docile Asian wife. Even though Amina is not a docile woman, yet it’s important to note that the balance of power in their marriage, particularly in the early years was tilted more in George’s favor. There is no question that his identity as a white male educated middle-class American gave him an advantage over Amina who as a woman of color and a new Bangladeshi immigrant was dependent on him for everything, from the house she lived in to filing the papers for her citizenship to negotiating the daily obstacles of life in a new country. One example of George’s assertion of his will is when Amina brings up the topic of bringing her parents to America to live with them, which was a given as far as she and her parents were concerned for as an only child it was her obligation and duty to take care of them. For George, however, this was an outlandish idea and he politely tells Amina, “I’m sorry I can’t ask them to live here … We’d never have any privacy again.’’ Later on, however, there is a shift in the power in their marriage toward Amina after she confronts George about lying to her regarding his past relationship with Kim. In an effort to appease Amina and make amends, he suggests that it would, indeed be a good idea for her parents to come and live with them!
One might argue that such negotiations could very well occur in any marriage and are not limited to those where the spouses have different cultural expectations and experiences as in correspondence marriages. Thus, the issues and conflicts in correspondence and internet marriages, while unique in some ways are at the same time similar to other types of marriages.
The great mystic poet Rumi, said it best, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”