By Caroline Wray
“Vietnamese single ladies are not only pretty and nicely slim, but their faithfulness to their husbands makes them even more attractive.” So promises Rosebrides.com’s “Vietnamese Brides” webpage, a website where paying members can browse through online photos of hundreds of potential wives. “Femininity in this culture is often defined in terms of self-sacrifice, respect, [and] keeping one’s self alluring,” the site also attests. “Bad habits are unusual and unacceptable to most Vietnamese ladies.”
J&N Viet-Bride Match-making Agencies, a Singaporean company, promises that its clients will enjoy the “shortest & [most] hassle free search possible for a wife at our surprising competitive & full packages.” One such package provides a five-day, $4550 USD trip to Singapore, during which time clients pay for the opportunity to meet a “wide variety of village Vietnamese girls which are gentle, affectionate, beautiful, lovely, caring and commit-minded.” After meeting several of these women, the client may choose one. He is assured that he will ascend to a lifetime of domestic bliss—after, of course, he receives the results of his future wife’s thorough “health examination,” and she completes a 30-day language course.
The practice of purchasing a bride across international borders dates from antiquity; today, in a globalized Asia, the custom occurs with increasing frequency. Vietnam is an especially popular “sending country,” or a nation that sources potential brides to send abroad. Most Vietnamese brides marry Taiwanese clients and move to Taiwan, but in the last five to ten years nations like South Korea and Singapore have joined Taiwan as top “receiving countries.”
But pinning down the “typical” Vietnamese mail order bride is difficult, and the global media has responded by classifying her as either an objectified victim of trafficking or as a money-seeking harlot. Her marital fate, perceived as either alarmingly successful or horrifically tragic, is equally confounding to observers.
Both the client and his bride place a tremendous amount of faith in one of countless third-party brokers such as J&N Viet-Bride. These brokers have agents in Vietnam and in the receiving country. Agents in Vietnam recruit potential brides by visiting poor, rural villages and promising that international marriage will provide wealth and happiness to single women and their parents. Agents in receiving countries promise beautiful, submissive wives to potential clients and their families. Often the views of one or both parties are sorely distorted, leading to grave, sometimes catastrophic, misunderstandings.
One situation to consider: a girl might be persuaded by an agent and taken to Ho Chi Minh City, where she will, like a pig at the market, be herded and lined up among dozens of others at a large “wedding auction.” Georges Blanchard, the founder of Alliance Anti-Trafic in Vietnam, has worked tirelessly to free thousands of women from coerced sex trafficking. In one covert expedition, he posed as a client seeking a potential bride: “I could have ordered them as though off of a shelf…from teenage to older, virgin or not virgin, educated or uneducated.”
An even harsher scenario: a man (who typically has paid between $7,000 USD and $10,000 USD for a package that includes his trip to Vietnam to select a bride) can select three or four women from the mass to speak with and get to know, and then examine them naked and either order or perform a “virgin check.” This invasive procedure can be performed by a doctor to “prove” the girl’s virginity, or, in order to confirm her purity, the client can just have sex with her himself. If it’s unsatisfactory, he can claim that during their encounter he “discovered” she was not a virgin, and discard her.
A careless broker might then send the chosen woman abroad without proper legal documents, making her an illegal resident in her new nation. Undocumented, she is left entirely at the hands of her new husband and his family.
Even with less malicious third party brokers, the cultural differences alone can be enough to destroy a marriage. For example, a study published by the Institute for Social Development Studies (ISDS) noted that the “patriarchal Taiwanese family system puts emphasis on the parent-son relationship,” meaning that sons are both more highly esteemed than daughters, and that a married woman in more indebted to her in-laws than to her own parents. In Vietnam, the opposite is often the case.
In fact, in her study “Marriage Migration Between Vietnam and Taiwan: a View from Vietnam,” Dr. Nguyen Thi Hong Xoan, a sociology professor based at Vietnam National University, Ho Chi Minh City, found that two-thirds of the 635 migrating brides that she surveyed listed their main reason for the marriage as “to help the family” or “to make [her] parents happy.” They married with the expectation of providing for their families back home, a foreign concept to their Taiwanese husbands, who traditionally expect their wives to care for their husbands’ families over their natal ones.
Furthermore, most wives go abroad without knowledge of the culture or the language. The subsequent isolation is crippling. In the worst scenarios, women face prolonged and intense mental, emotional, sexual and/or physical abuse. Without documentation, they cease to exist legally, they become nameless, and are paralyzed; it is impossible for them to either legally return to Vietnam or divorce their husband.
So why is it that governments, academics, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) all agree: women are leaving of their own volition?
According to the United Nations (UN), 80% of single women in the Mekong Delta would prefer to marry a foreign man to a Vietnamese one.
The truth is that the cases of abuse are relatively rare. A 2001 study by Dr. Hong-zen Wang, Professor and Director of the Graduate Institute of Sociology at the National Sun Yat-sen University in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, reported that over 90% of Vietnamese women married to Taiwanese men—many of whom were originally “mail order brides”—were satisfied with their marriages.
Most of these women are sending money home (according to Xoan’s survey, enough to raise the vast majority of their families up at least one socioeconomic group), both gaining agency and respect within their natal families and improving the lots of younger women in their villages. “[My daughters] want to marry foreign men,” one mother told ISDS. “They insist on not marrying Vietnamese men…in the past, since my family was poor, they might not have dared to be picky like that.”
“In our village there are nearly no spinsters left,” another survey participant said. “The majority of young, beautiful women have already been selected by foreign men; whereas, the rest are married to Vietnamese men.” These “beautiful women“ have become, by way of marriage, the main breadwinners in their families.
Dr. Le Bach Duong, the director of ISDS, said that there are two kinds of women immigrating for marriage. “The women who are willing to participate in migration are those who have an adventurous mind,” he said. “They’re not purely submissive or victims.”
The smart and adventurous bride is beautiful, and many men at home would have liked to marry her. She is a participant in global hypergamy, meaning that she “simply thinks that life in other countries is superior or better than in Vietnam,” and considers her marriage an act of “social upward mobility.”
And she knows that her marriage may not be domestic bliss. “She considers it as a trial,” he explained. She has a “very clear strategy: to stay married until she receives her permanent residency, her language skills improve, her social networks are better, and she is accustomed to the culture. Then she will divorce, and become independent.” All the while, she will be either earning her own income or receiving money from her husband that she can send home to her family.
While it’s impossible to know just how successful or prevalent this plan really is, data shows that nearly 1 in 10 divorces in South Korea in 2012 were between a man and a foreign-born woman; in 2009, 33,000 men married foreign brides, which comes out to about 1 in 10 of all Korean marriages that year. Meanwhile, in Taiwan, divorce almost certainly leads the woman to lose custody over the couple’s children.
Clearly, this plan is by no means foolproof, and the women face a real risk of being sold into prostitution if their new families are unsatisfied, or if their matchmaking agency is a front for a prostitution ring. “They might end up as victims as opposed to beginning as victims,” said Vu Thi Thu Phuong of the UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP).
There seems to be consensus amongst experts that improving education within at-risk areas, such as low-income districts in the Mekong Delta, is the best way to go forward. At the end of the day, said Blanchard, “the education of the population is the only way to solve problems in the population.”
“Education is the beginning,” said Xoan. “You can see the difference [in international marriages] between educated and uneducated women—the educated ones understand, and they end up in much better situations.”
The UN’s focus lies in attempting to provide greater support to Women’s Unions in Vietnam, where potential migrants can access legal services, organized support networks, and help with languages and cultural divides. Xoan and Phuong each said that the funding for such programs remains insufficient.
At the same time, pointed out Phuong, education alone may not cause change: “Just because someone is aware does not mean that they change their behavior.”
While one generation of Vietnamese women finds a risky new voice through global hypergamy, another is lost in the Southeast Asian landscape. So how should policymak- ers respond; should the trend be allowed, even encouraged, to continue as many women find new opportunities? Or should it be curbed, in an effort to prevent more troubling cases of abuse and suffering?
Is the acquired agency of the majority of international brides enough to justify the acute suffering of the minority?
Many, like Duong, believe that selling oneself in an international marriage is “a real option for many poor, and even well off, people who want to improve their situation by any means.” Others, like Blanchard, have witnessed too many tragedies. He’s tried to help repatriate women sold as wives into prostitution; he’s had to try to “prove that [these women] even existed.”
The trade continues. Sometime this week, maybe today, maybe right now, a newly wedded Vietnamese bride is boarding a plane to Taiwan or Seoul. She is waving good-bye to her family. She might be thinking about them. She might be thinking about the stranger who is now her husband. She might be thinking about the alien place that is now her home.
She is almost certainly thinking about her future.
Caroline Wray ‘17 is in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact her at caroline.wray@yale.