Friday, February 2, 2007

Notes on Nicole Constable’s Cross-Border Marriages: Gender and Mobility in Transnational Asia

The Text

Nicole Constable edited Cross-Border Marriages: Gender and Mobility in Transnational Asia. University of Pittsburgh Press, chapters 1, 7, and 9 (by Constable, Suzuki and Constable).


The Author (Editor and Contributor)


Nicole Constable is a professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. According to her university website, she "received her MA and PhD degrees from the University of California at Berkeley in 1989. She is a sociocultural anthropologist whose interests include the anthropology of work; ethnicity, nationalism, and history; gender, migration, and transnationalism; folklore; and ethnographic writing and power. Her geographical areas of specialization are Hong Kong, China and the Philippines. She has conducted fieldwork in Hong Kong on constructions of Hakka Chinese Christian identity, and on resistance and discipline among Filipina domestic workers. Her current research involves Chinese and Filipino immigrants to the U.S. and U.S.-Asian correspondence marriages." Her prose, unfortunately, is marred by repetition, excessive anecdotes and frequent misuse of the phrase "begging the question."

Ch 1: Introduction: Cross-Border Marriages in a Translation Hakka Hypergamy (Constable)


Like Tawada Yoko, who in her novel "Missing Heels" challenges the one-dimensional stereotypes of transnational marriages, Constable too seeks to debunk the misconceptions surrounding mail-order brides in her book, Cross-Border Marriages: Gender and Mobility in Transnational Asia. Constable's stated goal of the book is to "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."

The stereotypes associated with the notion of "global hypergamy" -- i.e., using marriage as a tool for global social mobility -- are challenged throughout the book by each of the included essayists-- Ellen Oxfeld, Emily Chao, Louisa Schein (who looks at cases of Miao women marrying Hmong men in China), Caren Freeman, Nancy Abelmann and Hyunhee Kim, Nobue Suzuki, Hung Cam Thai, and Nicole Constable, each of whom addresses, in some way or another, the following three questions:

1. Why do some women leave and others stay?
2. How important is social location in determining who stays and who goes?
3. And how important of a role does a "global imagination" play in this process?

Though addressing a variety of topics, each writer seems to arrive at a similar conclusion, namely, that "women do not simply marry up because of material logics; [rather,] other sorts of desires [i.e., local, global, cultural, physical, geographic, sexual, ideological] also come into play."

As Constable points out, one of the great ironies is that "mail-ordered" brides often see transnational marriage as a way to escape from the patriarchal system at home, while the men see the marriage as an attempt to reclaim their lost sense of patriarchy, which was wrenched from them by feminists of the last century.
Previous research on the subject (e.g., the works of Claude Levi-Strauss and Rubie Watson) tended to underestimate the extent to which agency (i.e., 可自由動力・自由意思・自由選択) played a role in the decisions and behaviors of the female subjects. Constable argues throughout her two essays that agency is indeed a factor in the women's lives, and that this factor must not be overlooked. (That said, Constable concedes that these women are in possession only of limited agency -- when is agency ever unlimited?-- and that this agency does not guarantee success.)
In examining these cross-border marriage cases, one is reminded of the "delicately constructed cultural categories and the hazy areas that blur what are often assumed to be rigid distinctions between marriage and prostitution, agency and coercion, romantic desire and exploitation" (10). Constable seems to imply here that these categories are for the most part arbitrary constructions, not only in the case of transnational marriages but for sexual relationships in general.

Ch 9: A Tale of Two Marriages: International Matchmaking and Gendered Mobility (Constable)

This chapter is Constable's "critique of reductionist stereotypes of so-called mail-order marriages" (176). Such stereotypes saturate the media (one example cited is a 2002 summer episode of Law and Order), and are propagated by many well-meaning "feminists, activists, anti-trafficking sources." (166) Constable's two objectives in this chapter are a) "to provide an overview of the process of introduction and correspondence among Filipinas, Chinese women, and U.S. men, and to depict the men and women involved in such courtships as real people whose lives and experiences challenge many common stereotypes and images" (i.e., desperate wife, naive or pitiful man, evil agencies) (167), and b) "to question the common assumption that such marriages are hypergamous" (i.e., marriages sought for the sole purpose of raising one's social status).

In the first half of the chapter, Constable examines the early stages of cross-border correspondence by looking at some of the stereotypical images and descriptions that fill the brochures and web pages of the various match-making companies (e.g., Goodwife.com, Cherry Blossoms International, China Doll, etc). Constable notes that the administrators, customers, and husband-seeking females involved with these companies all object to the "mail-order bride" label, which "blurs the boundaries between marriage, prostitution, sex tourism, and forced labor, implying that the distinction are of little relevance that all such women are similarly 'trafficked'" (173). By citing numerous statistics and examples, Constable convincingly demonstrates that the "mail-order brides" have both agency and mobility, both before and after marriage.

Constable also challenges the stereotypes associated with the notion of hypergamy— namely, that the women almost invariably come from extreme poverty and are in desperate need of a way out. Though the overwhelming majority of cases involve a woman relocating to an on-the-whole wealthier nation, Constable points out that the economic factors must be seen in relative terms. For example, a middle-class Chinese woman could relocate to a rural town in the mid-western United States only to find herself worse off than before. Such cases, according to Constable, are in fact quite common.

In the second half of this chapter Constable relates the cases of two women, Ping and Rosie, whose marriages challenge the one-sided depictions of marriage-migrants as either victims or ruthless hyper-agents. Constable met Ping first in Beijing in the 1990s, and followed her case for almost a decade. When they met, Ping was in her 50s, divorced, with one son, and was about to marry an older American nudist-intellectual named Elvin. Constable and Ping corresponded through the first two years of the vicissitudinous (変遷的)marriage until she finally received her K-1 visa. Despite many problems, the marriage can be described as a "success story," since in the end she chooses to stay with the sometimes over-bearing but generally decent nudist husband named Elvin.

Rosie, a Filipina with one son, Paul, from a former "marriage" – she was actually impregnated by a wealthy employer's son, to whom she was officially married— marries Ben, an academic, who is twice her age. They move together to the midwestern United States, but soon tire of it and relocate to the East Coast where there are more Filipinos. The two plan to stay in the U.S. until Ben's retirement, after which they hope to live in the Philippines.

Constable concludes that a) although there is a preponderance of cases involving a "patrilocal postmarital residence pattern," the women almost always have a fairly high degree of mobility and agency, and b) although cases of spatial hypergamy (i.e., women moving from poorer to richer country) make up an overwhelming majority, when measured in relative terms it becomes clear that a great bulk of these women are often in fact moving downward.

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