Cross-Border Marriages

Explores the patterns of marriages of Asian women, including the legendary "mail-order bride."

Cross-Border Marriages
Gender and Mobility in Transnational Asia

Edited by Nicole Constable

2004 | 232 pages | Cloth $65.00 | Paper $28.95
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Table of Contents

1. Introduction: Cross-Border Marriages, Gendered Mobility, and Global Hypergamy
—Nicole Constable
2. Cross-Border Hypergamy? Marriage Exchanges in a Transnational Hakka Community
—Ellen Oxfeld
3. Cautionary Tales: Marriage Strategies, State Discourse, and Women's Agency in a Naxi Village of Southwestern China
—Emily Chao
4. Marrying out of Place: Hmong/Miao Women Across and Beyond China
—Louisa Schein
5. Marrying Up and Marrying Down: The Paradoxes of Marital Mobility for Chosnjok Brides in South Korea
—Caren Freeman
6. A Failed Attempt at Transnational Marriage: Maternal Citizenship in a Globalizing South Korea
—Nancy Abelmann and Hyunhee Kim
7. Tripartite Desires: Filipina-Japanese Marriages and Fantasies of Transnational Traversal
—Nobue Suzuki
8. Clashing Dreams in the Vietnamese Diaspora: Highly Educated Overseas Brides and Low-Wage U.S. Husbands
—Hung Cam Thai
9. A Tale of Two Marriages: International Matchmaking and Gendered Mobility
—Nicole Constable

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


The narrator and protagonist in a surrealistic short story by Yoko Tawada (1998) entitled "Missing Heels" is identified as a Japanese "mail-order bride." The story opens with her arrival in an unspecified European country to live with the husband she has yet to meet face-to-face. In an attempt to learn more about the local culture, she recruits the help of a woman teacher. The interaction between the two women encapsulates some of the stark contrasts between perspectives of and about foreign brides. The story, told from the bride's first-person perspective, also hints at some of the paradoxes of the idea that women aspire to and often achieve upward mobility through such marriages. The bride recounts how the woman teacher carefully looked her over and then informed her that

recently women of an inferior sort were being brought into the country from poorer parts of the world, and since far too many of the men were interested in them, marriage opportunities for her more liberated countrywomen were becoming more and more limited. She sat there waiting for my reaction.
"I didn't know that," I replied.
"These are people who marry only for money," she went on, "who come from poor villages, and get divorced and go back to them when they've saved up enough. They're uneducated, which makes it extremely difficult to teach them what living as man and wife really means...."
"But I'm not like those women," I declared. "I gave this decision lots of thought, and came here of my own free will."
"Poor people have no will of their own," she said in a scathing tone of voice. "Whatever they do, they have no choice in the matter—poverty drives them to it." Having spoken her mind she sat, perhaps in anticipation of a counterattack, with her hands in lightly gripped fists and her chin thrust slightly forward, waiting for an answer.
Although I'd never made up my mind about anything before, this marriage had definitely been my own decision, so being told that poor people have no choice in anything was more than I could stand. "What do you know about someone you're meeting for the first time?" I fired back (Tawada 1998:104-5, emphasis added).
This fictional interaction between a bitter European teacher and an immigrant bride is noteworthy not only because it neatly elucidates many common stereotypes of foreign brides or so-called mail-order brides but also because of the bride's refusal to accept such claims. The passage complicates common assumptions about the connection between poverty, opportunism, women's mobility, and the assumed "lack of free will" or lack of agency of foreign women who marry local men. It draws attention to ideas about global patterns of inequality that are thought to pressure poor women to immigrate to richer countries, where their marriages deprive "superior" local women of husbands. Yet it simultaneously suggests the limitations of such views, since the bride is from Japan (a wealthy and "advanced" nation) and has married into a small and seemingly remote European town of her own free will, as she insists. European husbands are depicted as scarce and desirable instruments of mobility, who are eager to marry "inferior" but available foreign women, and who in so doing upset the local status quo. Yet the husband also emerges as a complex figure, despite the fact that he remains invisible throughout most of the story. He provides his wife with shelter in a large house and leaves her a daily allowance. She hears him move about, imagines him in various forms in her dreams, and occasionally glimpses him watching her. Only in the last scene does he finally appear, in the bizarre form of a dead squid.

This story is remarkable for the way in which it challenges prevailing assumptions about "mail-order brides" as simply victims or trafficked women. It allows the bride to speak for herself, assert her self-determination, and tell her own story. Her voice as narrator simultaneously denies her the lack of agency and the victimhood that the local teacher and others attribute to foreign brides. Ultimately, we know little about her background or that of her husband, but what we do know is enough to disrupt the popular logic of the passive and desperate Asian bride who escapes from poverty and backwardness to a wealthy and advanced West.

The chapters in this book draw on stories, conversations, interviews, vignettes, and ethnographic descriptions, as well as materials from the popular media, introduction agencies and marriage brokers. The authors examine the varied perspectives, motivations, and experiences of brides and grooms—and, in some cases, their family members—as they imagine, enter into, resist, or promote particular sorts of cross-border marriages. While our modes of writing differ from Tawada's, our purpose is in some ways similar: collectively, we question many of the bald assumptions about the passivity or desperation of foreign brides; disrupt simplistic notions about upward marital mobility; and offer close ethnographic scrutiny and deep analysis of the local and global processes that make such marriages imaginable and realizable. We seek to convey the variety of experiences among a diversity of Asian women. Like Tawada, several contributors question the popular stereotypes of foreign brides as mail-order brides, commodities, or trafficked women. Yet while we stress the existence of women's and men's agency, we also recognize the limits and different degrees of agency they exhibit, and in some cases the presence and pressure that may be exerted by parents, siblings, and children. We also consider the varied and uneven ways in which economic factors, familial obligations, cultural fantasies and imaginings, and personal motives may come into play. Collectively, we call to mind the multiple ways in which international cross-border marriages are linked to wider regional, national, global, and transnational processes, while at the same time we acknowledge many of the ways in which such international marriages are not entirely new. Drawing on ethnographic studies of marriages that span geographically from China's hinterlands, the Philippines, Vietnam, South Korea, and Japan, to India, and to Canada and the United States, we consider what types of borders are crossed, how, and by whom. How are such border crossings gendered? How are such marriages initiated, arranged, or negotiated? In what sense can these marriages be considered "hypergamous" (upwardly mobile for women), and what are the paradoxes of marital mobility that might simultaneously be considered upward, downward, or lateral, depending on whether we consider class, lifestyle, education, social status, or geographical mobility? As we suggest, greater distances may be associated with new forms of empowerment and also disempowerment for women. Moreover, we pay special attention to how such marriages build on brides' and grooms' contradictory transnational fantasies, desires, and imaginings of marriage, tradition, and modernity.


In recent decades, amid new and expanding forms of globalization and capital flows, increased time/space compression facilitated by rapid electronic forms of communication, and the emergence of what Arjun Appadurai calls a "global imagination" (1996), marriages that cross the borders of nation-states have become increasingly common, although they have—until recently—captured relatively little scholarly attention. Such marriages are especially interesting because they do not represent a global free-for-all in which all combinations—regardless of class, nationality, ethnicity, or gender, for example—are possible. Rather, they form marriage-scapes that are shaped and limited by existing and emerging cultural, social, historical, and political-economic factors. They are also shaped by what Patricia Pessar and Sarah Mahler call-building on the work of Doreen Massey-the "gendered geographies of power" that underlie all transnational migrations (2001:5).

Recently emerging transnational marriage-scapes undoubtedly reflect certain broadly gendered patterns. A majority of international marriage migrants are women, and most of these women move from poorer countries to wealthier ones, from the less developed global "south" to the more industrialized "north"—from parts of Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and the former Soviet Union, to Western Europe, North America, Australia, and wealthier regions of East Asia—echoing some of the common patterns of women's labor migration (see Ehrenreich and Hochschild 2002, Piper and Roces 2003).

The Philippines is a popular place of origin of marriage migrants, as it is for labor migrants. Immigration figures from the Philippines clearly illustrate one facet of the gendered pattern of marriage migration. Of the over 175,000 Filipinos engaged or married to foreigners between 1989 and 1999, over 91 percent involved Filipino women. The geographic distribution of the foreign partners is not surprising when we consider the historical, colonial, and postcolonial ties between the Philippines and the United States and Japan. Approximately 40 percent (over 70,000) of the foreign partners are from the United States; 30 percent (over 53,000) from Japan; 8.8 percent from Australia; 4.2 percent from Germany; 3.8 percent from Canada; and 1.9 percent from the United Kingdom (Commission on Filipinos Overseas 2000). The remaining 11 percent represent marriage partners or fiancés from other parts of the world, mainly Europe or Asia. Several chapters in this volume reflect the diversity of destinations and experiences of Filipina brides. Nobue Suzuki writes about marriages between Filipinas and Japanese men; Nancy Abelmann and Hyunhee Kim look at a failed marriage—arranged through the Unification Church—between a Filipina and a South Korean man; and Nicole Constable describes the range of Internet introduction services that facilitate introductions of Filipinas and Chinese women to U.S. men.

Women are disproportionally represented among immigrants to the United States, especially among marriage migrants. Marriage migration to the United States almost tripled between 1960 and 1997, increasing from 9 percent to 25 percent of all immigration. Out of almost 202,000 legal marriage migrants to the United States in 1997, 61 percent of those who married U.S. citizens and 85 percent of those who married permanent residents—presumably many of whom were their co-ethnics—were women (USDOJ-INS 1999a). Hung Cam Thai's chapter describes a pattern of intra-ethnic, familially arranged marriages between women from Vietnam and Viet Kieu men living in the United States.

Gendered patterns of marriage migration are also striking in Japan. Between 1965 and 1970, the small number of Japanese international marriages were between Japanese women and foreign men, but after that, especially after the late 1980s, the number of marriages between Japanese men and foreign women increased dramatically (Piper 1997). According to the Japanese Welfare Ministry, there were 5,000 marriages to foreigners in Japan in 1970, 10,000 in 1983, and 20,000 in 1989, and almost 27,000 in 1993 (Sadamatsu 1996, cited in Piper 1997). Out of over 50,000 Filipino-Japanese couples overall in the late 1990s, all but 1 percent are said to involve Filipinas and Japanese men (Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare 2000, Suzuki in this volume). In 1993, 75 percent of Japanese international marriages were between foreign women and Japanese men. Filipina women accounted for 32 percent, North or South Korean women 25 percent; Chinese women 23 percent; and Thai women 10 percent (Piper 1997, see also Nakamatsu 2002, Suzuki 2003a).

In the People's Republic of China, we see other gendered patterns of marital migration, which are clearly linked to recent political and economic changes in the post-Mao period. Rural de-collectivization, labor surplus in the countryside, booming cities, and declining enforcement of the household registration (hukou) system have led to dramatic increases in the rate of rural-urban migration since the early 1980s. Domestic marriage migrations have also followed suit, with vast increases in the number of women who marry across greater geographic distances (Fan and Huang 1998, Gilmartin and Tan 2002). With China's "opening up" to the outside, the number of women marrying foreign residents also began to increase. The first post-Mao marriages between Chinese and foreigners in the 1980s involved mainland Chinese women and overseas Chinese men in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and elsewhere (Kang 1998, see also Clark 2001). The number of Chinese international marriages increased dramatically after the mid-1980s, with approximately 20,000 Chinese marrying abroad each year until 1990; over 30,000 per year in the early 1990s; 50,000 a year by 1998; and almost 80,000 in 2001 (China Statistical Yearbook 2002). The increased popularity and visibility of marriages between mainland Chinese women and men in Taiwan is attested to by a limit imposed in 1996 on the number of brides who can legally enter Taiwan (A. Huang 1996, cited in Scholes 1997:3). The quota for Chinese migrant partners in Taiwan is 3,600 per year, a fourth of the total applicants, thus propelling the market for brides from Vietnam and elsewhere (Wang and Chang 2002:111). Growing public and social concerns about the rapid increase in such international cross-border marriages are expressed in the Taiwan, Hong Kong, and U.S. overseas Chinese popular media (see Shih 1998 and 1999, Li 2001).

Several chapters in this volume reflect the diversity of marriage patterns involving women in or from the People's Republic of China, and collectively they suggest some of the wider national and global implications of increased marriage mobility, as women marry into more desirable locations within and beyond China's borders, creating a shortage of brides in more remote rural regions (see also Fan and Huang 1998, Gilmartin and Tan 2002). Emily Chao analyzes the highly publicized cases of "kidnapped" rural brides within China and of Naxi minority women from the minority region of Lijiang in southwestern China, who have recently begun to marry across more distant borders. Chao examines the changing meanings of elopement (paohun) and kidnapping (guaihun) within the Naxi context and suggests that marriage strategies have been influenced by China's family and population policies and by the uneven pattern of development that characterizes the post-Mao period of reform. Louisa Schein looks at two recent forms of out-marriage undertaken by Miao minority women. The Miao, a large minority group from southern mountainous agricultural regions of China, have historically tended to be endogamous (to marry within their group). In recent years, however, Miao women have been courted and wed by two different kinds of suitors: Han Chinese men from more populous coastal regions of China; and occasionally, Hmong co-ethnics who emigrated from Laos to the United States in the post-Vietnam War era. Ellen Oxfeld traces a pattern that involves Hakka Chinese women from the Hakka community in Calcutta, India, who marry Hakka men in Toronto, Canada, thus creating a marriage shortage for Hakka men in Calcutta, who increasingly turn to the Hakka "homeland" in rural Mei Xian in Guangdong Province, in South China, as a possible location in which to find Hakka women as brides. The contemporary pattern, Oxfeld argues, is not entirely new, but represents in some ways a marked continuity with older, prerevolution patterns of marriage. Collectively, these three chapters and the following one, by Caren Freeman, illustrate how different patterns of marriage mobility within and beyond China are interconnected and how the bride generally has a much more active say in choosing her own marriage partner than was once the case. But that is not to say that these marriages do not at times recall certain continuities with the past, especially with regard to the importance of marriage for creating familial networks and alliances, as Oxfeld's case reminds us. Nor is it to say that the brides do not experience new forms of disempowerment in the new settings.

Caren Freeman describes a pattern in which tens of thousands of Chos?njok women (ethnic Koreans from the People's Republic of China) have emigrated to South Korea since the early 1990s as part of an officially sanctioned government effort to relieve the rural bride shortage (see also Abelmann and Kim in this volume). Marriages between women in China and men in South Korea began in the 1990s. The annual rate increased each year until 1997, with 1,463 such marriages in 1993; 7,683 in 1995; and over 10,000 in 1996. In 1997, the number dropped to just over 7,000, and in 1998 decreased again to just over 6,000, the drop most likely attributable to the Asian financial crisis (Kang 1998; Caren Freeman, personal communication). The marriage of Chos?njok women into South Korea in turn created a shortage of Korean brides for Chos?njok men in China, who have looked to North Korea as a possible source of marriage partners. An estimated ten Chos?njok-Korean marriages per year are between Chos?njok men and Korean women, again illustrating the severely skewed gender imbalance of marriage migration.


Whereas many contemporary marriage-scapes fit the pattern of brides from poorer countries and grooms in richer ones, it is important to stress that such migrations are shaped not only or simply by economic geographies but also by "cartographies of desire" (Pflugfelder 1999) or what Margaret Jolly and Lenore Manderson (1997) describe as "sites of desire" that are formed by confluences of culture, border crossings, exchanges, and fluid terrain, rather than simple unidirectional flows of power or desire. Recent marriage-scapes both reflect and are propelled by fantasies and imaginings about gender, sexuality, tradition, and modernity.

Men's openly stated assumptions about the "traditional" moral values and character of Asian women as well as their less openly expressed ideas about their erotic sexuality, and women's assumptions about "modern" outlooks, power, or attractiveness of Western and other foreign men are factors in their motivations to meet and marry. Chinese women, Vietnamese women, and Filipinas are among those who express the desire to marry men from foreign countries so as to escape local patriarchal gender expectations. Many women expect foreign husbands to have embraced more modern and open-minded ideas about gender roles than local men at home. While much has been written about "America" as a site of desire (Cannell 1999, Constable 2003a, Kelsky 2001, Manalansan 2003), these essays indicate some of the ways such desires expand to Japan, South Korea, India, Canada, and other "modern" sites that are also associated with fantasies of modern husbands and modern marriages.

While women may look for modern husbands, many men turn to Asia for traditional wives. White, middle-class U.S. men look for Asian wives whom they imagine to be more "old-fashioned" and committed to family values than U.S. women (see Wilson 1988, Constable 2003a and in this volume). Similarly, the Viet Kieu men described by Thai turn to Vietnam for prospective marriage partners whom they imagine will be more traditional, less demanding, and less liberated than their U.S. counterparts. Men from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore are motivated to look for wives in mainland China for similar reasons (Li 2001). Hong Kong women—like their U.S. counterparts—are described as spoiled and demanding, too materialistic, too feminist or career-oriented, and less committed to their families than mainland women. The paradox of such marriages is that while the men seek what they imagine to be traditional wives, the women often seek and hope for more modern husbands and marriages than are possible in their homeland (see Freeman, Thai in this volume). As Schein observes, young Miao women are clearly part of Hmong men's fantasy of "homeland women," but to the dismay of the women and their kin, few of the intimate and sexual relationships between Hmong men and Miao women actually result in marriage.

Men may thus be drawn to cross-border marriages because of the presumed values and qualities of foreign women versus local ones, who are believed to be too liberated, demanding, or independent in their outlook. Men—or their families on their behalf—may also look for foreign partners because their local opportunities for marriage are limited or because they are low on the local marriage market. Min, the South Korean rural farmer in the chapter by Nancy Abelmann and Hyunhee Kim, is doubly disadvantaged on the local marriage market because he is a poor farmer and because he is disabled. Min's mother thus seeks to find him a Filipina bride whom she imagines will be less liberated and less independent than South Korean women; furthermore, Min's mother imagines that the Filipina will be more attracted to the marriage because South Korea—even by way of marriage to a poor and disabled man—promises upward mobility from the "less developed" Philippines. The decision to move and marry, however, is not so simple as this imagined geographic hierarchy might suggest. Although she claims to be committed to Min, his fiancée does not show up for the group wedding ceremony, thus casting doubt on her own and her natal family's possible marriage motives.

Just as Min's mother expects Filipinas to share more traditional familial values, so do many men assume that Filipinas take marriage more seriously than do Westernized or urban U.S., Japanese, or Hong Kong women. This may be true of some Filipinas, since they have been raised in a Roman Catholic country that officially and legally prohibits divorce, but it is clearly not true of all Asian women, or of Filipinas who leave the Philippines (see Constable 2003b). Men are sometimes surprised to find that gender stereotypes of Asian women are more imagined than real. And women, among them Chos?njok and Vietnamese brides, may be surprised to find that husbands and in-laws from "modern" countries often embrace conservative and "old-fashioned" gender outlooks and familial expectations. Several of the Chos?njok brides in Freeman's chapter use the threat of divorce to negotiate with South Korean in-laws and husbands who will not allow them economic independence or to work outside the home. Ping, the Chinese woman whose story is told in Constable's chapter, considers returning to China or divorcing her husband, who, to her dismay, despite his education and cultured background, has very unenlightened ideas about marriage and women's roles.

In addition to common desires for traditional wives and modern husbands, we collectively consider many other discourses and stereotypes about foreign women against and in relation to actual marital experiences. Stereotypes of subservient Asian women and discourses about prostitutes, sex workers, and trafficked women do not accurately reflect the experiences of most of the women described in this book. Yet in many cases, such discourses and images are not far from the surface and inform many common ideas about foreign brides. Such images, inaccurate though they may be in the particular cases we describe, nonetheless contribute to the sense of loneliness and alienation experienced by immigrant women (on sexual images, see Tajima 1989, Wilson 1988, Constable 2003a, Suzuki 1999 and 2003b, Tyner 1996). Freeman illustrates the complex realities and actual experiences of Chos?njok brides in relation to the overly simplistic South Korean discourses on Chos?njok brides in the 1990s as the government-endorsed "saviors of the Korean countryside," and the later more critical discourse on foreign "runaway brides" who, motivated by the promise of migration and citizenship, actively deceive and abandon vulnerable Korean men. Abelmann and Kim locate the notion of international marriages of Korean men to foreign Asian women alongside the increasingly negative images of marriages between Korean women and non-Korean (mainly U.S.) men, and more recent images of Southeast Asian sex workers. In the cases of Miao or Chinese women who are mistresses or secondary wives, but not first wives, of overseas men, the presumed distinctions between "prostitutes" and "wives" is more difficult to maintain (Schein, Oxfeld in this volume). Chao's chapter also suggests that we need not look far into local Naxi discourses on marriage to discover the blurs and tensions between coercion and agency, kidnapping and elopement. Such examples doggedly remind us of the delicately constructed cultural categories and the hazy area that blurs what are often assumed to be rigid distinctions between marriage and prostitution, agency and coercion, romantic desire and exploitation.


As noted above, marriage mobility commonly involves the movement of brides from more remote and less developed locations to increasingly developed and less isolated ones, and globally from the poor and less developed global south to the wealthy and developed north. This pattern might aptly be labeled "global hypergamy." It is global in the sense that it involves men and women from different regions of the world. It can be considered hypergamous—building on the conventional anthropological definition of "hypergamy" as women marrying up into a higher socioeconomic group—if we conceive of "up" as referring to a hierarchy or a chain of geographical locations, or what William Lavely has called "spatial hypergamy" (1991, see also Fan and Huang 1998). The concept of global hypergamy is useful, however, only insofar as it can be used to raise questions rather than to foreclose on them. Thus we must ask what the existing global patterns are and why certain regions of the globe are excluded. Not all regions of Asia are represented, nor are all equally represented as the place of origin or the destination of brides. Hypergamy begs the question of how, for whom, and in what sense such marriages represent upward mobility. As Freeman keenly observes, patterns of marital mobility entail a number of paradoxes, including those of nationality/ethnicity, gender, geography, and economic class. To assume that such marriages are simply upward is to overlook the contradictory and paradoxical social and economic patterns that are not necessarily linked to geographic mobility and to overlook interesting underlying questions about gender.

Most contemporary marriage-scapes involve women who move to marry; rarely is it the men. Contrary to popular assumptions, the brides are not necessarily poor, nor do they categorically marry men who are above them on the socioeconomic ladder. Even though the women may appear to be moving up from a less developed country to a richer or more developed one, they do not necessarily move "higher on the chain of economic resources," as Oxfeld argues is the case for the Hakka women she describes. Many brides—including some of the Chinese, Filipina, and Vietnamese women described in this volume—are professional and well-educated women who would be considered middle class in their countries of origin. They may be from countries with low aggregate economic indicators, but where a middle-class income can afford them meals out, maids, entertainment, and other luxuries that are far more expensive and difficult to come by in the United States, Western Europe, or Japan.

Suzuki describes Filipinas who have learned to adjust their fantasies and earlier expectations to the realities of life in urban Japan, but whose relatives back home find it hard to believe that Japan's streets are not "lined with gold." Her description of "Millie" illustrates striking contrasts and contradictions between Millie's intermittent visits to the Philippines (where she lives as a privileged "se?orita" in luxury with household help and has earned familial respect for her remittances) and her life in urban Japan as a hardworking and isolated housewife. In a striking example of downward class mobility, Thai describes the marriage between Tranh, a highly educated woman from an elite family in Vietnam, and Minh, a Viet Kieu low-wage earner in the United States. Tranh and Minh constitute part of a wider pattern of Vietnamese-Viet Kieu marriages in which the bride's standard of living can be expected to decrease significantly after marriage and migration.

Most of the chapters in this book thus call into question scholarly and popular assumptions that women who migrate to marry, marry up socially and economically, to men who are wealthier and better educated. The grooms' social and economic statuses vary, as do those of the brides. Japan, South Korea, Western Europe, and North America, for example, are generally considered higher on the ladder of economic development than the Philippines and China, but many Japanese, South Korean, European, and North American men who seek foreign brides are poor by local standards. As rural bachelors, South Korean or Japanese men may find it difficult to find local wives, so they seek brides from other poorer regions of the world. Suzuki's chapter tells the less well-known stories of Filipina marriages to urban Japanese men, and of Japanese-Filipina couples' shared "fantasy of reversal" in which they may one day retire in the Philippines and live elevated lives. U.S. husbands of Asian women also span a spectrum. Some are well above average in terms of education and income, whereas others work at low-wage jobs and their lifestyles represent a step down for their foreign wives (Jedlicka 1988, Constable 2003a). Such examples suggest that whether, and in what sense, such marriages can be considered hypergamous remains a key question.

Women do not simply marry up because of material logics. As mentioned earlier, other sorts of desires also come into play. Some women count love among the factors that motivate them to marry. Several Hakka women mentioned in Oxfeld's chapter opted to marry local Mei Xian Hakka men of their own choosing rather than marry wealthier Hakka men in Calcutta. Other women actively seek to marry farther afield not to find a husband in more desirable locations or because they prefer to live abroad but because of local constraints on their marriage opportunities. Some women are less marriageable locally because they are considered too old, too educated, divorced, or too experienced by local standards to be considered good wives. As Constable observes, Chinese women who are over thirty or divorced consider their opportunities to marry better with foreign (non-Chinese) men. Thai finds that Vietnamese women who are "too successful" or over thirty-two may choose—as did Tranh—to marry up globally to a U.S. low-wage worker, rather than remain unmarried or marry down locally. Filipina entertainers or single mothers may be considered marriageable by foreign men but not by local Filipinos (Suzuki 2003a and 2003b, Constable 2003a). As several of the women described in the following chapters illustrate, pragmatic or practical considerations in cross-border marriages do not necessarily preclude love and nonmaterial forms of desire (Abelmann and Kim, Freeman in this volume, see also Constable 2003a, Suzuki 2003a and 2003b, Jolly and Manderson 1997).


All marriages cross borders of some sort, and marriages in many parts of Asia have often involved a patrilocal postmarital residence pattern in which a bride is, under normal circumstances, expected to relocate to her husband's home or community. Yet Oxfeld reminds us that there have long been exceptions and variations to this rule in the context of older Chinese international marriages. In nineteenth- and early twentieth-century marriages between Chinese women and their overseas Chinese husbands, the wives often remained in China with their in-laws while their husbands lived abroad. In other cases the women emigrated as well, thus more closely resembling the transnational marriages of today.

Despite some similarities, many of the international marriages we describe are—both quantitatively and qualitatively—new and different from their older manifestations. By the late twentieth century, the distances crossed were often greater, and women were geographically farther away from their natal kin. The technology and transportation were faster and more widely available. Even in very rural and poor communities, as Schein observes, distances were sometimes bridged by telephones or even computers and the Internet, which allowed even women in rural and otherwise isolated villages to communicate with their natal kin in even more remote areas of China and with prospective overseas suitors. Greater distances from their natal kin can provide women with greater freedom, but as Schein and Chao so vividly illustrate, it can also render them more isolated and vulnerable within their new communities.

The older anthropological literature took such movement of a bride from her natal community into her husband's community as an indication of her lack of agency, her necessary obedience to marriage arrangements, and her assumed subordinate status and vulnerability among her in-laws. Claude Lévi-Strauss's classic work on the exchange of women insightfully reflected the ways in which the exchange of women among bride givers and bride takers create and reinforce social ties (1969, see also Rubin 1975). Yet Lévi-Strauss's approach regards brides as objects of exchange, overlooking the bride's perspective and agency. Within the Chinese context, Rubie Watson has stated that "patrilocal residence has been singled out as one of the major reasons for women's continuing oppression in postrevolution China" (1991:351). Schein and Oxfeld both suggest, however, that we carefully rethink the significance and possible varied meanings of women's postmarital mobility within particular contexts. Schein argues that in the contemporary context, patrilocal marriages can offer women certain advantages and disadvantages. As Oxfeld observes, the older Hakka women she interviewed may have followed the dictates of their kin, expressed little choice or say in the matter of whom they married, but the younger Hakka brides she knew expressed far greater agency, initiating their own marriage plans or declining to marry against their will.

Overall, the chapters in this volume contribute to a critique of the notion of wives as simply objects of exchange, and highlight instead women's agency in relation to wider structural constraints. Many of the women described herein made their own marriage choices. Even in the more coercive examples of Naxi women in southwestern China who are kidnapped or who elope, Chao clearly illustrates how women try to use marriage to maneuver for themselves, to achieve residence in more desirable locations, to escape the confines of local patriarchal marriages, or to lead what they envision as more modern lives. Such mobility is not simply or necessarily a familial strategy, as most Chinese marriages once were, but may serve in some cases to reduce or escape familial control. That is not to say, as chapters by Thai, Freeman, and Suzuki clearly illustrate, that women's imaginings and hopes about modern marriages or more leisurely lifestyles will be achieved or that they necessarily marry to escape familial commitments and obligations. Nonetheless, Naxi women sometimes use marriage to escape familial controls and to marry by what they see as more modern means, and, like Miao women who marry Han Chinese men, they can use marriage as a means to move to more desirable locations, instead of waiting, as Chao describes, for the Chinese state's promise of rural development and prosperity to reach the isolated regions of the country.

Abelmann and Kim's chapter on a failed Filipina-South Korean marriage is less concerned with the perspective and agency of the bride or groom than with that of the prospective groom's mother. The authors document this would-be marriage in its familial, national-historical, and transnational context and draw on interviews with the rural mother and the unmarried son's sisters in order to examine the diverse (even within a single family) ways in which a poor man's rural plight and the possibility of transnational marriage are variously signified. Abelmann and Kim argue that this case is important for what it tells us of the Korean mother's agency as expressed in her attempts to achieve "maternal citizenship"—by arranging the most favorable marriage imaginable for her only son. Her ability to travel to the Philippines with her son and to contemplate a transnational marriage (regardless of its failure) calls for theorizing beyond market logics, raising the issue of this mother's social location within a modernizing and globalizing South Korea that made her efforts possible in the first place.

That women express agency and choice is not to idealize the resulting marriages. As several contributors suggest, a woman may actively pursue marriage to an outsider or a foreigner and she may actively choose one man over another, or she may decide to marry a local man and remain at home. But none of these choices guarantees that her marriage will be happy or successful. Nor do greater border crossings guarantee that the marriages will be "upward" in the ways that women may imagine. Moreover, as the chapters by Abelmann and Kim, Suzuki, Oxfeld, and Thai so vividly remind us, women's agency and choice should not blind us to the varied influence and pressure that may be exerted in certain cases by parents, siblings, and even children.


Doreen Massey's notion of "power geometry" suggests that we consider not only who moves but also how people are differently located in relation to access and power over the flows and interconnections between places. As Massey writes, some people "initiate flows and movement, others don't; some are more on the receiving-end of it than others; some are effectively imprisoned by it. . . . [There are] groups who are really in a sense in charge of time-space compression, who can really use it and turn it to advantage, whose power and influence it very definitely increases. . . . But there are also groups who are also doing a lot of physical moving, but who are not 'in charge' of the process in the same way at all" (1994:149).

This volume builds on and questions some of Massey's ideas. Massey's work begs the question of why it is usually women who move by virtue of marriage and not men, and whether this means that women are simply, and across the board, on the "receiving end" of mobility that is controlled by men and their kin. As the story of Min's mother suggests, some women are empowered to arrange marriages for sons who have little say in the matter. The following chapters also illustrate that women, by virtue of their social positioning, can take advantage of opportunities for mobility that are sometimes unavailable to men. As noted above and demonstrated in the chapters that follow, marriage can be used to achieve upward geographic mobility and independence (Freeman, Schein); to provide economic support for families back home (Suzuki, Oxfeld, Constable); or to escape less than ideal marital opportunities or gender constraints at home (Constable, Thai). It can also serve as a critique of the state or a means to resist the state's family-planning policies and unequal development schemes (Chao). As Freeman observes, brides may not be "in charge" of their mobility, in the sense that they may depend on marriage brokers, government policies, and prospective grooms and in-laws for their mobility. Correspondingly, men are not necessarily in charge of this process, nor are they necessarily the only ones on the receiving end of such mobility. Whereas Massey's work implies a certain linear pattern to mobility, or one in which some are beneficiaries and others are not, such a clear-cut pattern is not borne out by the localized paradoxes of mobility on the ground.

In their work on "gendered geographies of power," Pessar and Mahler have built on Massey's work and pay close attention to people's "social location" or their "positions within power hierarchies created through historical, political, economic, geographic, kinship-based and other socially stratifying factors" (2001:6). Herein we illustrate some of the varied ways Asian women's social locations are linked to their ability or inability to meet foreign partners and their decisions to marry or not marry across particular borders. The number of Chinese women marrying outside of China decreased during most of the Maoist period and increased during China's period of economic liberalization, and Chinese-Korean marriages decreased in the late 1990s because of the downturn in the Asian market; these facts point to the relevance of politics, economics, and history to people's social locations. Such large-scale patterns are important, but they do not tell the whole story.

Pessar and Mahler also consider the "degrees of agency" that people are able to exert in their particular social locations (2001:7). As they observe, agency is "affected not only by extra-personal factors but also quintessentially individual characteristics such as initiative" and "cognitive processes such as the imagination as well as substantive agency" (2001:8). Such considerations help to explain why someone occupying a particular social and geographical location might initiate change or imagine the possibility of cross-border marriage and migration whereas another person in the same position might not. Women may choose not to leave home even when the opportunities present themselves (see Abelmann and Kim, Oxfeld), whereas others might eagerly embrace such possibilities (see Freeman, Suzuki). Men might wish for their own opportunities for marriage migration but find that such opportunities are mostly available only for women (Constable, Freeman).

In the chapters that follow, we deal with different but sometimes overlapping gendered patterns of marriage mobility. Each story of cross-border marriage illustrates the importance of social positioning, imagination, and initiative, as well as political, historical, social, and cultural logics. While most of the cases are of men and women who marry across geographic and social borders of various sorts, we also ask about those who do not. To what extent does social location (including gender) influence one's ability or inability to initiate correspondence or courtship across borders? To what extent does a global imagination-and the global fantasies and desires of brides and grooms and their family members-influence, as Appadurai suggests, one's ability to dream and imagine oneself in a different social and geographic location? In the cases we examine, women are expected to cross borders when they marry. Although men cross borders to meet prospective spouses, women usually cross them more permanently. Relatively few men have the option of becoming marriage migrants themselves, and men at the lower end of the global and spatial hierarchy are unlikely to have the power and ability to facilitate the mobility of wives. Marriage mobility can be used by women—sometimes in accordance with their family's wishes, sometimes in opposition to them—to their own advantage. Greater distances can mean greater vulnerability as women are separated from their natal communities, but they can also mean greater freedom and opportunity. Insofar as transnational global marriage-scapes are concerned, sometimes it is difficult to tell which way is up.