Marriage, my grandma would say, is where a woman finds her happiness.

If you marry well, happiness will follow. If you marry an abusive failure of a man, no amount of talent, intellect, and beauty that you possess will save you from absolute misery and complete destruction. And that’s her contemporary interpretation of what her grandma told her, I’d imagine.

“I know, I know, times are different now,” she would conclude to nip my tirade of rebuttal in the bud. Then when she proceeds to interrogate as to why I haven’t gotten married yet, I say, “I have stuff to do.” Women today are not what they were yesterday, but are social expectations, and specifically, men’s expectations evolving at the same pace? If not, how are these expectation gaps being filled in societies where family norms have not been keeping pace with women’s emancipation? Enters marriage brokerage.

In both Taiwan and South Korea, marriage of male nationals to female foreigners of Chinese, Vietnamese and Indonesian origin through matchmaking agencies has become a prominent feature in marital unions due to local women’s reluctance to enter marriage and motherhood at the cost of educational and professional opportunities in the recent decade, leading to a shortage of wives and mothers. How does this compare with Spain? Marriage and fertility rates are rapidly declining in most developed countries, but the difference between Spain and Taiwan is that Spaniards are overall fine with singlehood. You see 40 year olds dancing in clubs and no one bats an eye. Taiwanese men, on the other hand, face immense family and societal pressure to find a wife to procreate and care for his parents, as in most East Asian countries the burden of elderly care fall on the son and daughter-in-law. In Spain, inter-mingling is the result of migration in Spain (Woody Allen fans sure remember the meet cute scene of Vicky Cristina Barcelona), yet the majority of migration in Taiwan is the result of cross-border marriages. In Spain, men and women are almost equally likely to marry a foreigner, but in Taiwan, men are far more likely to wed foreigners. Lastly, Spanish intermarriages usually involve little financial gifting from men to women, while Taiwanese intermarriage model heavily implies the payment of broker fees and bride price.

The concept of marriage brokerage never really registered in my head, until one day on a summer trip in Taiwan, a little over ten years ago, I saw a sign that read “Vietnamese bride brokerage, VIRGIN GUARANTEED” on the side of a country road somewhere in northern Taiwan. I must have been a second year student in Sociology at the University of Massachusetts, and this would have been the kind of image I wish I had captured with my 2 megapixel digital camera. In any case, it was a jaw-dropper to say the least. For starters, in my memory, the word “virgin” is rarely publically referenced, when Immaculate Conception and Mary are not the topic of discussion. Secondly, for a society as conservative as Taiwan, did they really just openly place hymen on the negotiating table? Oh, and most importantly, what is a “Vietnamese bride”?

Actively seeking a marriage partner through a broker in Asia by nature differs vastly from the Japanese group dating scheme, “gokon,” where two single individuals find other single friends to get together to sing some drunk off-key karaoke hoping  to inspire attraction from at least one member of the opposite sex, or online dating where boys and girls cyber encounter in wish of mutual celestial alignment of romantic stars. Marriage brokerage doesn’t disguise the fact that it is a business, where a woman’s beauty, fertility, and industriousness around the household are on the market for sale; and they are worth a pretty penny in traditional societies where the roles of wife and mother cannot be left unfilled. Marriage migration took off in Taiwan and South Korea in the early 2000s, in the wake of what is referred to as a “marriage strike” of highly educated women and declining fertility. Due to women’s tendency to “marry up” (marry more educated, and wealthier partner than themselves), Taiwanese and Korean men, particularly from more disadvantaged populations, were pushed to look elsewhere for women to provide elderly care, management and children bearing the men’s family names (do not underestimate the patriarchal force of the need to “carry on one’s family name” even in this day and age). Since both East Asian countries are relatively affluent in the region, the needs manifest themselves as an economic opportunity for local brokers and women from countries with more widespread poverty.

What’s a first date like? Thousands of South Korean men are reported to travel to countries such as Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and the Philippines per year to select a bride out of a group of women often easily 10 to 20 years their junior, often at a location selected and sponsored by the brokerage firm. Dr. Hyunok Lee of Yonsei University, a visiting scholar at my research center, described that women are often pressured to quickly marry themselves off, as failure to do so may incur extra cost for the agency. Although the brokers absorb the majority of the fees, leaving very little to be actually paid out to the women’s families, the families of the brides are often motivated by such arrangement in hope of receiving remittances on a periodic or regular basis from the brides. In the case of both Taiwan and Korea, women from China form the biggest marriage migrant group, followed by women from Vietnam. A study on South Korea conducted by a marriage brokerage firm revealed that Korean men find foreign women to be less picky than a Korean woman, and are inclined to be more submissive. Korean men also find skin color a primary concern in bride selection.

The result of such union is the stigmatization of cross-border marriages, often comprised of women who do not speak the language of the land, and as a result, raise children who perform worse in school than children with two native parents. Family planning authorities even openly attacked marriage brokered unions, citing a drop in “population quality” due to the immigrant women’s illiteracy and lack of knowledge on public health, as pointed out by Canadian Sociologist Danièle Bélanger. Other than linguistic and cultural differences, East Asians often consider individuals from Southeast Asia to be of lower status. According to Dr. Lee Yuan-chen (李元貞) of Tamkang University, migrant spouses face a three-fold (nationality, sex, and class) discrimination from their new family, exacerbated by the patriarchal nature of Taiwanese society, where a daughter-in-law is considered the subject of her husband and in-laws. Moreover, the wide age gap between the couples, the transactional nature of the union, and language barriers often lead to unsatisfying unions that cause emotional and physical abuse, escape attempts, and domestic disturbances.

Dr. Bélanger considers both Taiwan and South Korea as “ethnic nationalist regimes” that in the face of reality, are currently in the process of wrapping their heads around multiculturalism. It is absolutely essential that the definition of “Taiwanese” evolves, because these spouses are not just around temporarily; they are in Taiwan to change the demographic landscape, become part of the Taiwanese family system, serving as caretakers and educators of the next generation. Policy makers have begun to use the terminology “recent female immigrant” over “foreign bride” or “foreign spouse” and Mandarin classes are offered to eradicate the issue of cultural and social barrier for the immigrant women.

It would be a beautiful ending to the story if I had stopped right there, but the ugly truth is that the empowerment of immigrant women directly challenges the absolute power and control of the husbands, demotivating the men to encourage linguistic and social integration for their wives. Women may not tolerate abuse if they have a place to turn to upon the integration into local society and if they can articulate and report such offenses. Knowledge also leads to the idea of simply wanting to be equals. As revealed by the survey conducted in Korea, obedience is one of biggest draws for men to marry cross-border, and having the obedient wife able to read (Taiwanese government websites that aim to help migrant women are still overwhelmingly in Chinese. Information in English is sparse and incoherent, let alone any material in Vietnamese, or other languages) and possibly making resourceful local friends outside of the household can really put a damper on these men’s marital bliss.

The demographic reality behind mass marriage migration is that nationalism will eventually need to be separated from ethnicity. It has been thus far difficult for a Taiwanese or Korean to imagine an ethnically “foreign” person can be considered a Taiwanese or Korean like themselves. This phenomenon is not unique in Asia, but also prevalent in most non-immigrant countries in Europe, where identity is thought to be closely attached to if not completely defined by one’s ancestry. The idea of multiculturalism is new to many, who see identity as simply defined by the combination of language, appearance and last name. The reality is when intermarriage and migration take place, identity and the sense of belonging become a bit more complex. Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodian women are marrying into Taiwan and South Korea en masse, because the marriage market with its supply and demand dictates the demographic flow. I am not a fan of the commoditization of marriage, but it is a practical solution to the economic and social woes of many. Even more so than migrant workers, migrant brides directly shape Taiwan and Korea’s future generations. Stigmatization may satisfy the shallow racial or ethnic superiority of some today, but one day, they may wake up to a president who speaks Vietnamese as his or her first language. The president would have appreciated a fair childhood.

Note: the vast majority of “foreign” brides in Taiwan come from China. The ROC government does not consider Chinese brides (only referred to as “Mainland” brides) as foreign, despite the fact that holding passport of another country seems to satisfy the condition of the word “foreign.”  For the sake of being in line with reality, the author will hereby include Chinese brides as part of the “foreign” bride discussion.

(Feature photo of women in Vietnam, by Leo on Wikicommons, CC BY 2.0)

About Chiya Elle

Chiya grew up in New Jersey, but lived in Massachusetts, California and Washington, DC. While she should be dedicating more time as a researcher in social science and demography, she is perpetually distracted by animal rights, nutrition, traveling, learning new instruments and studying foreign languages. She is currently based in Barcelona, Spain.