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Elusive BelongingMarriage Immigrants and "Multiculturalism" in Rural South Korea$

Minjeong Kim

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780824869816

Published to Hawaii Scholarship Online: September 2018

DOI: 10.21313/hawaii/9780824869816.001.0001

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Loving Strangers

Loving Strangers

(p.54) Chapter Three Loving Strangers
Elusive Belonging

Minjeong Kim

University of Hawai'i Press

Abstract and Keywords

Chapter 3 focuses on relationships among the married couples. The chapter begins by asking, “How do couples who met and married in a matter of days become husbands and wives?” By telling the stories of four couples who develop and share emotional commitment, love, and affection, the chapter shows how emotional relationships can be forged even with strangers through prevalent “heterosexual scripts.” It also pays attention to how marital intimacy is infused with the issue of remittances, which is an inevitable part of international-married couples. In discussing the couples’ gender relations, the husbands’ stories challenge stereotypes of Korean rural masculinity. This chapter shows that Filipina-Korean couples’ relationships can be troubled and challenging, but conjugal intimacy anchors Filipinas’ sense of belonging.

Keywords:   Heterosexual scripts, Marital intimacy, Remittances, Masculinity

The first time I met Filipinas together with their Korean husbands was three weeks into my fieldwork, when I joined a two-day trip for families of marriage immigrants organized by the local community center. This trip took place in summer of 2005, before the Korean state launched its top-down multicultural initiatives the following year, but the government’s interest in these families was already percolating. The event, obscurely titled “Historical and Cultural Experience for Foreign Wives’ Families” (Oegugin Chubu Kachŏng Yŏksa Munhwa Ch’ehŏm), was organized by Hyowŏn Cultural Center (Hyowŏn Munhwa sentŏ) and sponsored by various governmental units.1 Addressing the participants, the director of Hyowŏn Cultural Center explained that the trip included visits to different tourist and historical destinations such as national parks and Buddhist temples and that the purpose was for foreign wives to experience Korea’s natural scenery and history.

This was one of three trips I joined in the first six months of my fieldwork. Each was organized by a different agency—including Hyowŏn County and a district of a nearby city—but all three were intended to provide Hyowŏn marriage immigrants and their families with Korean cultural and historical experiences and education. These trips evidenced the growing attention and funding paid by the central government to immigrant wives’ families, or, as they would soon be called, multicultural families.

This first trip with Hyowŏn Cultural Center drew more participants than other community events, allowing me to meet Filipinas I had not seen in other settings as well as many husbands.

(p.55) Born and raised in a city, I was unfamiliar with rural Korean customs, so I approached this trip apprehensive about breaking local cultural norms.2 I was especially nervous about meeting the husbands. This nervousness was compounded by local Koreans’ stories and comments. The locals often reproduced a popular discourse that treated the husbands of marriage immigrants as either hapless farmers or, as Jin-Suk—a government officer and my initial contact—called them, boorish “thugs” (kkangp’ae) who abused “miserable” (pulssanghan) wives from the Philippines.

Locals’ views of the husbands of immigrant wives mirrored a deepseated social division among rural residents based on occupation, socioeconomic status, and gender. The rift between the Korean government and agricultural sectors produced a general discord between local government officers (who viewed farmers as cantankerous) and farmers (who distrusted government officers). The local discourse was also conditioned by middle- and upper-class locals’ partial experiences with marriage immigrants. Most of the locals I had spoken with were women social workers and education volunteers. As such, they were mainly interested in marriage immigrants’ hardships, but few actively approached husbands to learn the men’s viewpoints and experiences. One social worker quietly shared with me that Filipinas came to her to seek help with marital issues, including those related to conjugal sex. With her supposedly concrete evidence, the social worker bemoaned that many were having a difficult time in their new homes and marriages. In this manner, the discursive framework that posited immigrant wives as the pitiable victims of insensitive and possibly abusive husbands was deeply embedded in and reproduced through daily encounters.

As I anxiously waited in front of Hyowŏn Cultural Center’s modest building, families arrived one by one at the meeting place—some in cars or trucks and others on foot with babies on their backs, toddlers in hand, or children in tow. In total, about twenty-five families attended, including a few Filipinas whose husbands did not attend. As the families gathered, I exchanged smiles and quick greetings with the Filipinas I had already met. Before we left, the director of the cultural center said a ceremonial greeting to welcome the families and introduce the volunteers, including me, who was introduced as a translator and photographer. Soon after we climbed into the two buses, we were on the road.

During the first few hours of the trip, I was preoccupied with figuring out who belonged to which family. Sometimes the families were easy to discern, but not in every case because some couples did not walk side by side (as when a husband walked ahead of his wife, who was monitoring (p.56) the children). When I started taking family photos, I was able to identify each family with a little more ease. Some families posed with big smiles; others had a more serious look as they struggled with uncooperative children. Overall, all of the families seemed to enjoy this distraction from daily routine.

As the day went by, I noticed that the boundary that separated nuclear families was more permeable among these Korean-Filipina (han-p’il) families. Because a few Filipinas attended without their husbands, sometimes other husbands gave a hand to these women, serving as extra eyes to look out for their children. When we went to a restaurant to eat, individual families did not necessarily sit together. Instead, people sat wherever they could find seats. Still familiar with a gendered division of labor, the Filipina wives automatically helped arrange the dishes on the table. Some chatty Filipinas bantered with whomever was near in the pidgin Korean I was still trying to get used to. Korean men, however, responded as though they had no problem in understanding this form of speech. Over time, I came to feel that the entire group behaved like a big family. Indeed, the han-p’il families shared experiences unfamiliar to other Korean families—the transnational matching process, the cross-cultural ceremonial events, and the process of negotiating their different backgrounds and expectations. For the couples in the room, one of those shared experiences involved marrying and loving a stranger.

Love and Heterosexual Scripts

The dominant discourse regarding international marriage insists that many of these families are unsuccessful because of the quick matching, their cultural differences, and the language barrier. Critics of international marriage ask, how can a couple love each other when only a few days or even hours passed between their first introduction and the wedding? How can they build affection when they cannot communicate properly? How can couples get along when their cultures are so different?

I do not claim that Filipina-Korean marriages are always filled with love. In my fieldwork, I met a Filipina who was physically abused by her husband. Another Filipina met her husband by chance and married him for both love and economic security, but ultimately fell out of love after struggling with a difficult familial situation. As I show in this chapter, some Filipinas were content to live in Korea without particularly strong romantic relationships with their husbands, and others had close bonds of affection. Filipina-Korean marital experiences are as heterogeneous as other marriages; their mode of marriage and apparent cultural and linguistic (p.57) differences cannot be the only or even main measure of these couples’ well-being. Instead, I pay close attention to the emotional relationships of these couples.

This shift to emotional relationships reflects a recent call for an “emotional turn” in migration studies (Mai and King 2009, 295). Both popular and academic discourses have a “tendency to overlook or even discount the role human emotion plays in these marriages” (Freeman 2011, 150) because the study of migration and mobility has primarily “focused on costs and benefits” such as socioeconomic push-pull factors (Mai and King 2009, 297). Thus, even when love and intimacy are considered in international marriages, they are assessed based on a very specific understanding of the acceptable economic transactions that can be associated with love (Friedman 2015; Zelizer 2005). For example, in her research on Korean husbands and their immigrant wives, Hyun Mee Kim juxtaposes the constructions and practices of intimacy with couples’ negotiation and actualization of remittances, arguing that “the love between spouses in an international marriage is often created and maintained by remittances” (2015, 36).

This chapter attends to emotion among the husbands as well as among their wives. As in Hyowŏn, dominant public discourses in Korea portray the Korean husbands of marriage immigrants as abusive or insensitive “buyers” of women. However, these men are themselves subordinated by socioeconomic status or rurality, and operate under the cultural authority of compulsory marital heterosexuality, seeking their spouses abroad. A close examination of husbands’ emotions can destabilize essentializing presumptions about masculinity, in particular, East Asian men as excessively domineering and patriarchal.

To better understand the development of conjugal intimacy, I consider the influence of “sexual scripts” on the process of international marriage. The scripting theory of sexuality developed by John Gagnon and William Simon argues that bodily acts become meaningfully sexual owing to an effective sexual script (2005). Operating on three levels—the intrapsychic, the interpersonal, and the cultural—sexual scripts enable actors to attribute appropriate meanings and to organize specific sexual acts. Scripting reveals social-psychological factors (erotic or intimate meanings or feelings) in the sequence from physical actions (sex or encounter) to subsequent responses or actions (Gagnon 2004). I argue that scripting theory is useful to understand the development of emotional relationships between women marriage immigrants and their husbands. Contrary to the common view of matchmaking as involving two passive strangers, heterosexual scripts are embedded in the matched partners’ individual minds (p.58) and their interpersonal exchanges. These scripts generate dramatic interpretations, guide exciting gestures, and induce potent emotional experiences that are not directly observable to others. Scripting theory supports the examination of how cultural scenarios of heterosexual encounters, romance, and marriage guide the motives for international marriage and the intimate exchanges of marriage immigrants and their husbands. These scripts make possible dynamic emotional interactions even in the face of linguistic barriers.

Of the dynamic emotions experienced in marital relationships, love has been an elusive topic for scholars, many of whom viewed it as “too sacred for serious sociological study” (Swidler 2001, 2). Yet, ideologies of romantic love and the entitlement to engage in romance have been a site of political tension with regard to class, race, gender, sexuality, and global hierarchy (Mai and King 2009). In Talk of Love, Ann Swidler points out the contradictory elements in love-based marriage: while “love is viewed as a voluntary choice,” it is also “a commitment, a bond that is no longer purely voluntary” (2001, 26). Love is a double-edged sword, especially for heterosexual women charged by a gendered division of spheres with the task of fostering love. In Transformation of Intimacy, Anthony Giddens argues that in modern Western society,

Ideas about romantic love were plainly allied to women’s subordination in the home, and her relative separation from the outside world. But the development of such ideas was also an expression of women’s power, a contradictory assertion of autonomy in the face of deprivation. (1992, 43)

On the one hand, women’s pursuit of free, romantic love (within dominant heterosexual intimacy) is culturally resonant as expression of individual autonomy, women’s agency, and personal growth (e.g., in romantic novels). On the other hand, romantic love, especially marital love, which is often fused with motherhood, has confined women (and women’s sexuality) to the domestic sphere, presenting a vexing feminist dilemma (Giddens 1992). Similarly, marriage immigrants cross borders for marriage with a fantasy and desire of achieving economic betterment, emotional fulfillment, and social respectability as married women. When the authenticity of mediated marriages is called into question, immigrant women’s genuineness is validated only by feminine submission—performance of domestic carework with emotional maturity and sophistication and devotion despite challenging hardship (Friedman 2015).

This chapter tells the stories of four couples with different personal backgrounds and familial situations. In focusing on the couples’ emotional (p.59) relationships and intimate reciprocity during their meeting and through their marriage, I complicate the dominant discourses pertaining to marriage immigrants and their husbands and make sense of their commitment to marriage, even as these marriages were fraught with tensions, conflicts, disappointments, and distractions. Simultaneously, I argue that their commitment to marriage and marital bonds based on emotional intimacy paved the ground for women to develop a sense of inclusion—namely, feeling at home.

Cynthia Gonzales and Lee Sŏngjin: An Ideal Match

Cynthia Gonzales had wished to marry a foreigner and live in a foreign country since she was young. She once saw a Filipina shopping in a department store with her white “American” partner and hoped to find one too. Her aunt suggested that she find a pen pal, but writing was not her “thing.” She dreamed of a chance meeting with a soulmate from abroad.

Originally from Mindanao, Cynthia lost her father at the age of nine. To support her widowed mother and three younger brothers, she went to work after finishing high school. When Cynthia was working at a factory, her roommate from the boardinghouse took her to the Unification Church (UC). Even though marrying a Korean man would be different from her dream of marrying an American, Cynthia was intrigued. No matter the nationality, this was an opportunity to marry a “rich man” and move to a more developed country. She attended an introductory seminar and a few days later traveled to Manila for free. Upon arrival, Cynthia, age twenty-two, was introduced to Sŏngjin, thirty-two.

Lee Sŏngjin was the third of four brothers, but his eldest and youngest brothers had died young. After his second-eldest brother moved to the city, Sŏngjin knew that he would inherit his family’s large-scale farming business. Sŏngjin was in his early twenties when the issue of bachelor farmers hit the newspaper headlines. Having concluded that Korean women would not want to participate in physically demanding farm work, this good-looking man with a high school education went to find a wife from the Philippines as soon as he learned of the UC’s matching service. His intention was more sincere than just finding a woman who could work on the farm, however. Sŏngjin looked forward to playing the role of romantic hero and winning a woman’s heart.

On the trip to meet his future wife, Sŏngjin brought an English book for travelers, determined to communicate directly rather than relying on a translator. His acquaintance had put in a good word with the UC people, (p.60) so when he arrived in the Philippines, the UC contact whispered that he had saved the best-looking woman for Sŏngjin. However, he had not been impressed with this initial match; Sŏngjin related half-jokingly, “even though she was prettier than [his] wife [Cynthia].” He did not feel that this petite woman could endure the physical work required for farming. The UC contact was irked by Sŏngjin’s refusal of the first woman, and warned Sŏngjin that if he refused Cynthia—his second match—that he could not see any other women. Seeing Cynthia’s healthy look and “big smile,” Sŏngjin happily agreed to the match.

Cynthia was pleasantly surprised that Sŏngjin chose her over the pretty woman she saw leave the room right before her. She did not know what to say to Sŏngjin, who was tall and broad-shouldered, projecting confidence, because she did not speak a word of Korean. But Sŏngjin took out his book and stammered something in English, which made her smile and warmed her heart.

With other newly Blessed couples, Cynthia and Sŏngjin spent two days on a group tour of Manila before returning to their respective homes. In the months before leaving for Korea, Cynthia spent most of her time at the local UC center learning Korean. Sŏngjin courted her by calling her every day. He tried to speak in English, but he could not say much. She did not know what he was saying so she just replied, “yes, yes [ne, ne].” Their daily phone conversations were short but reinforced their commitment. Cynthia was infatuated with Sŏngjin and excited about her impending move to Korea, but she did not know how to break the news to her mother, who had no idea of her marriage.

One day, Cynthia, who had been living in a boardinghouse, went home to visit her mother. Her mother handed her a “strange package from Korea” addressed to Cynthia. It contained Sŏngjin’s letters, handwritten in both English and Korean, which again thrilled Cynthia. It was then that Cynthia told her mother that she married a Korean man through the UC.

Cynthia’s mother was incensed that her daughter had married without telling her. Cynthia tried to ease her mother’s mind by saying that the wedding did not feel real because it was so “quick and dirty.” She stressed that she did not think the wedding was legal and that she assumed she could cancel it if she did not feel like continuing the relationship. But Cynthia had yet to find a reason to spurn Sŏngjin, who charmed her with phone calls, letters, and gifts. In the face of her daughter’s determination, Cynthia’s mother angrily said, “It’s your life!”

On a cold December day in 1999, three months after the Blessing, Cynthia arrived in Korea and moved into the UC in Hyowŏn. She was one of (p.61) the first Filipina brides in Hyowŏn, and staying at the church allowed her to continue learning the Korean language and customs. Sŏngjin took Cynthia out on weekly dates. She gleefully recounted the first time she received a bouquet:

On Christmas day, in the morning, I was in the bathroom and someone called me, saying that there was a delivery person with a bouquet of flowers. I was like, “Someone sent me flowers?” It was so unexpected. Everybody was envious. … There were more than twenty stems. Twenty-two or twenty-three? Anyway, it was the same as my age [laughed]. They were roses. … One friend said, “Cynthia’s husband is really good. He is a real man, bringing her flowers.” Other women then asked for flowers from their husbands [laughed].

The gift of twenty-two stems of roses sealed Cynthia’s commitment to Sŏngjin, and after their delivery, she became a devoted wife and daughter-in-law.

In the beginning of her story, Cynthia mentioned that she had hoped to find both a soulmate and a rich man. Although her narrative started with her desire for geographical and economic upward mobility, her fantasy of economic betterment was not without an expectation of emotional attachment. She continued to describe Sŏngjin’s courtship with excitement and pride, demonstrating the significance of his romantic gestures to the development of her emotional attachment:

My mother-in-law told me that when my husband wrote a letter to me, he was in his room all day. He even skipped his lunch [laughed]. My husband never said that to me [she stood up to show me a book titled How to Write Letters to a Pen Pal in English]. This is one, but there was another one. When I first got here, I didn’t know about this book. It was above the cabinet. He never told me that he used this to write to me. After the first baby, when we were moving out, I found this book. When I asked him what [it was] for, he just smiled.

This touching discovery demonstrated the effort that Sŏngjin invested to cultivate their relationship, strengthening Cynthia’s affection.

This story illustrates that Sŏngjin also did not see love and intimacy as extraneous to conjugal relationships. In many Asian societies, the circulation of cultural images of romantic love in Hollywood films, romance novels, and contemporary television shows has modified heterosexual scripts. Traditional arranged marriages where parents decide the partners have fallen out of fashion. For those seeking marriage partners, a (p.62) modified form of matsŏn (initial meetings for arranged marriage) persists. The matches are still arranged by parents, but matsŏn is now considered more as a blind date, after which the couple can enjoy a dating period for as long as they desire prior to the wedding. During this period, the couple is expected to grow love and affection, and profound emotional connection (chŏng) and loyalty are expected to deepen over time, even after the wedding.

As was conventional in Korea, Cynthia and Sŏngjin first lived with his parents after moving in together so that she could learn his family customs. With the support of her husband, Cynthia studied diligently to learn Korean and worked assiduously on the large family farm, which included both rice fields and orchards. After a year, the couple moved out of her in-laws’ home in a remote village and made a home of their own in central Hyowŏn. They chose a home where she could enjoy the company of her Filipina friends, even though this meant a forty-five-minute commute to the family farm. Cynthia joined Sŏngjin on the farm during the busy seasons from spring to fall. As described in the introduction, Cynthia had a close relationship with her father-in-law. After he passed away, Cynthia was even more devoted to her bereaved mother-in-law and visited her often.

Cynthia was satisfied with her upwardly mobile life in rural Korea and had more consumption power than other Filipinas in town. During the time of my fieldwork, she was the only Filipina who was able to bring her own mother from the Philippines to help provide postpartum care. This practice was more common among Korean working mothers in cities, but was rare in rural areas, especially for Filipinas, most of whom had limited resources to bring their mothers from abroad. Cynthia, Sŏngjin, and their children also regularly traveled to the Philippines, which was expensive for a family that would grow to include five members. Cynthia was also the first Filipina in town to obtain a driver’s license. The better life that most Filipina marriage immigrants dreamed of—with economic security and a devoted partner—fully materialized for Cynthia.

Cynthia earned this better life with her own significant contributions to the family. When I asked her what was most challenging about living in Korea, without hesitation she said “farming.”3 In a farming household like Sŏngjin’s, it was difficult to distinguish women’s domestic labor from productive labor because farming was included in the labor women performed as wives and daughters-in-law. Only by successfully performing this full range of tasks could rural wives maintain harmonious family relations. A wife’s refusal to participate in family farming was often interpreted as disobedience by her parents-in-law.

(p.63) Cynthia and Sŏngjin also provided her mother and three brothers in the Philippines with financial assistance for special occasions (e.g., graduation or wedding) and significant projects rather than sending monthly remittances. When she needed to send remittances, Cynthia had to ask Sŏngjin to prepare the money and wire it. Cynthia said she felt a little hesitant to ask her husband for money, but Sŏngjin never denied her requests. In this way, Cynthia and Sŏngjin’s relationship resembles an economic exchange. Hyun Mee Kim argues that “remittances are a form of economic compensation offered in exchange for marriage immigrants’ contributions to the family through reproduction,” and, in Cynthia’s case, their contribution to the family economy as well (2015, 38). On the surface, then, Cynthia may look like a submissive immigrant wife who worked hard for her husband’s family to earn money to help her family in the Philippines.

Yet a straightforward interpretation of Cynthia and Sŏngjin’s relationship as economic exchange overlooks the couple’s conjugal intimacy and Cynthia’s agency in this patriarchal bargain (Kandiyoti 1988). Cynthia and Sŏngjin’s household operated under a gendered division of labor such that Cynthia was the primary caregiver for their children and had little involvement with the business side of the family farm. To Cynthia, “asking for money for her family” was a delicate process. Sŏngjin discreetly expressed that he was once irritated by the significant number of gifts that Cynthia bought for her extended family members prior to a trip to the Philippines, but he rarely voiced his complaints. Both Cynthia and Sŏngjin were well aware of the importance of her productive and reproductive contributions to their Korean family and her entitlement to a share of the household finances. The couple did not understand these remittances as provided by Sŏngjin in exchange for Cynthia’s economic and reproductive contributions. Rather, remittances were meted out from the couple’s money.

A gendered division of labor that the couple maintained as the optimal status quo should not be taken to mean that Cynthia ascribed to a gendered hierarchy. When we discussed what she learned from the UC seminar, she said,

[The UC] said they were going to teach the ideal family, but … [sarcastically] they said that the wife should follow the husband. “The husband is sky and the wife is earth.”4 [with a look of distaste] They said something like, “If you want to keep your family happy, you should not argue with your husband.” Who still says that?

(p.64) Cynthia did not see herself in a subservient role. She felt she had equal standing with her husband. Regardless of an objective assessment of gendered power dynamics in their relationship, Cynthia’s statement implies her refusal to ascribe to outmoded gender relations and her agentic stance toward her marital relationship.

Pamela Cerezo and Chŏng Kihwan: A Match Made by Arranged Marriage

Pamela Cerezo and Chŏng Kihwan were the newest couple on the trip with the Hyowŏn Cultural Center. Pamela had arrived in Korea only a month earlier, so it was no surprise that she and Kihwan acted like newlyweds on a honeymoon—inseparable and smitten.

Pamela was a vibrant young woman who dreamed of becoming a dancer. Her family was so poor that Pamela, the third of eight siblings, did not receive a proper education until she was thirteen, when another family agreed to pay her tuition in exchange for her live-in domestic work. Pamela grew up believing that the only way to ever be truly free from poverty was to go to another country. Because she loved to dance, Pamela dreamed of going to Japan to work as an entertainer. Her passion for dance was clear even at the time of our first interview. When I casually asked, “oh, you like to dance?” she immediately stood up for a demonstration without music, clapping and swaying her hips with one hand on the side of her head and the other beside her waist.

When Pamela was nineteen, her parents separated, leaving the older siblings to care for the younger ones. Pamela worked as a maid and babysitter—difficult work that provided only a meager income. Pamela wished to go abroad, even as a maid, but did not know how. Hoping to find a man who could sweep her away from her bleak situation at home, Pamela tried pen-pal services and corresponded with men from France and Greece. But it was not easy to find a man she could trust. Like many other Filipinas, Pamela asked the men to come to the Philippines. The request was both being cautious about international romance and adhering to the dominant heterosexual script in which the man is expected to make the first move. But none of her correspondents was willing to travel to see her.

Finally, an opportunity to go abroad came from an unexpected place. Gloria Reyono, Pamela’s friend, contacted her out of blue to ask whether she was interested in meeting a Korean man. Gloria met her own husband through a personal introduction by a Hyowŏn Filipina named Rosario Peralta about two years before. Pamela, who was already twenty-seven, saw this as a golden opportunity. She did not need to coax the man (p.65) to come to the Philippines either. As soon as she said “yes,” he boarded a plane to meet her.

Chŏng Kihwan was thirty-eight years old when he married Pamela. When I asked where he was in the birth order, he responded in the traditional patriarchal fashion that he was the second, despite having an older brother and an older sister.5 As in many rural families, Kihwan’s parents supported his elder brother’s education so that he could make a life in Seoul and Kihwan stayed in their hometown with his parents and later his widowed mother. Kihwan had a high school education and managed the family’s small-scale farm in addition to holding a full-time job at a large company in town. Initially, Kihwan scoffed at the idea of marrying a foreign-born wife as something only “losers” did (ojuk motnatssŭmyŏn) and believed that his high school education and steady income were good enough to find a Korean wife. However, over the years, he realized that his rural residence was a greater detriment to his marriage prospects than he had imagined.

Rosario ran a corner store in Kihwan’s neighborhood. To many Koreans, Rosario was a model Filipina who was not only friendly with customers but also devoted to her Korean family. When Rosario started matching couples herself, Kihwan, who did not want to bother with the hassle of dealing with the UC, began to consider marrying a Filipina. To his mind, this kind of matching was little different from the arranged marriages of the older generation. He said,

Nowadays, people frown upon arranged marriage between people who never met before the wedding day. But if you think about it, they lived well. Their divorce rate was much lower than people who are now married just for love.

Once his mother was on board with the notion of him marrying a Filipina, they together asked Rosario to find a wife for Kihwan.

Once Pamela said, “Yes, I’m interested,” they exchanged pictures. Eager to meet, they quickly proceeded to arranging a face-to-face meeting. Pamela remembered how nervous she had been before meeting Kihwan. When they finally met, his tough, masculine demeanor intimidated Pamela a little, but she was also attracted to him. To Pamela, Kihwan was a dashing knight. Kihwan was also very pleased with Pamela, who had big eyes and a bright smile, and who was eleven years younger than he. Even more beautiful and lively in person than in pictures, Pamela exceeded his expectations. The couple cleaved to heterosexual scripts, including a “marriage gradient” that prescribes that the husband should be older and (p.66) act as the protector and provider, so the difference in their ages and their attraction to the other’s appearance sparked excitement in each that developed into romantic affection.

In March 2005, a week after Kihwan arrived in the Philippines and met Pamela for the first time, they married in front of Pamela’s family. Then Kihwan returned to Korea and waited three months for Pamela’s legal paperwork to be processed. Pamela arrived in Korea in June and they had a Korean wedding in November, a mass wedding organized by Kihwan’s company.6

Unlike Filipinas matched through the UC, Pamela did not have a transition period at a local church. So Kihwan did what many Korean husbands did: he provided his wife with rudimentary Korean language books and posters designed to teach children basic Korean letters. With her husband’s encouragement, Pamela regularly attended the Korean class offered at the Hyowŏn Catholic Church where I volunteered. At home, Rosario also helped Pamela learn tidbits of Korean language and customs. Early in their marriage, when the couple could not understand each other, they simply called Rosario to help them communicate.

Pamela did not know that she was going to live in the countryside because the only images she had seen of Korea depicted the Seoul skyline. When she arrived in Hyowŏn, Pamela was surprised by the rustic scenery, but it also felt familiar to her, reminding her of the mountainous area she was from. Like many Filipinas, Pamela enjoyed watching Korean television shows, which helped with her language comprehension, but her spoken Korean did not improve easily. She felt little motivation to sit alone, studying Korean—it was more fun to hang out with Gloria and Rosario. Chatting in Tagalog with her fellow Filipinas alleviated the suffocation she felt at home where her stern mother-in-law often “shouted” at Pamela. After a year, Pamela and Kihwan, like many Filipina-Korean couples, could communicate with a mixture of gestures, signals, and some Korean. They appeared to develop a language of their own.

Overall, Kihwan thought that Pamela was comfortable with her life. According to him, this was because “rural areas were more relaxed without much competition or comparison about material consumption than in the cities.” The couple had a baby girl with big eyes like Pamela’s, and she devoted her time to taking care of the baby and Kihwan occupied the role of provider. Kihwan and Pamela’s lifestyle mirrored that of a traditional arranged marriage. They were initially excited and smitten, and over time, they became gratified by and committed to their marriage, following the normative gendered division of labor. Kihwan valued the romantic ideal expected of traditional arranged marriage, where the love involves (p.67) affection that matures and deepens over time in contrast to passionate love, which is considered to quickly fizzle and die. In practice, he believed that fulfilling his masculine duty as the provider would be sufficient to keep Pamela’s affection. His life ran like clockwork, going to work each day and taking Pamela out for occasional outings on weekends. Kihwan opened a bank account for Pamela in which he deposited an allowance that she accessed freely. She saved half of the monthly allowance and sent the sum to her family in the Philippines every three months. Kihwan’s affection for his wife, his financial capability, and his moral conviction that he should be a good, fair husband also compelled him to add what he calls “a small amount” of money to her remittances (in total, $300 every three months). When I asked Pamela whether she loved her husband, she replied, “I don’t know.” She then added that she liked her husband for helping her family in the Philippines. Pamela, however, seemed to want more excitement, dreaming of visiting Seoul one day.

Pamela and Kihwan’s matchmaking process was more similar to the many international marriages mediated by commercial agencies than the process of UC couples involving the Separation Period. After eighteen months of marriage, Pamela was hesitant to publicly declare love for her husband, yet her appreciation for Kihwan’s assistance shows that remittances were an important parameter of intimacy that supplemented the lack of spousal romance in their marriage (Hyun Mee Kim 2015, 36). Despite her gratitude and affection, under Rosario’s watchful eyes, Pamela occasionally flirted with other men online through a social networking site. Pamela did not seem capable of pursuing a transnational dalliance; instead, this form of distraction provided her with a stealthy form of rebellion against being left alone in the domestic battle with her mother-in-law. Nonetheless, Pamela appeared to feel that she belonged with Kihwan and their daughter, especially when she and Kihwan were at Rosario’s, in the company of fellow Filipina-Korean couples.

Doris Tijido and Lee Chŏngsam: Nothing but Love

The day of that first trip with the Hyowŏn Cultural Center was a hot and humid one. But Doris and Chŏngsam did not seem to mind the sticky weather as they strolled around a Buddhist temple holding hands. Doris Tijido was under five feet tall and plump and Lee Chŏngsam was only an inch taller and stout. The expression “two peas in a pod” seemed to fit this couple. When they were not holding hands, Chŏngsam stretched his (p.68) arm across Doris’ shoulders to embrace her. Chŏngsam then turned his head and discreetly put his lips on her temple, a move I thought rather daring in the sacred space of a temple. A coy smile never left Doris’ face. When Chŏngsam whispered something into her ear, she burst into laughter. They seemed to be in their own romantic world. When I later asked Doris what he said to her, Doris replied with a giggle “oh, just, I love you” [a-i, kŭnyang saranghae].

Doris and Chŏngsam’s newfound love followed a long and bumpy journey toward marriage for each partner. Doris was from Manila. Her parents separated soon after she was born. She had an older brother and an older sister as well as another set of siblings from her father’s subsequent relationship. Doris was raised by her maternal grandmother until the grandmother’s death when Doris was twelve years old. She was then sent to live with her aunt and uncle, who could not afford to send her to school. As soon as she turned eighteen, Doris started working, first at a factory and then at a massage parlor doing manicures and pedicures and giving foot massages. After Doris’ older sister married, Doris split her time between her aunt’s home and her sister’s to help with her sister’s children. She gave each half of her wages, living off only the tips she earned at the massage parlor.

Because she did not have a close male relative to look after her, Doris was “afraid of meeting a man” or developing a romantic relationship. Instead of trying to find a “proper provider,” she contented herself with working and providing for her family members. After she turned twenty-five, friends and relatives began to call her an old maid. Doris wanted a family of her own but did not know how and where to meet a man. Then Doris’s half sister visited the UC and almost overnight married and moved to Korea. Calling regularly from Korea, she encouraged Doris to attend the UC. Her words were enticing: “If you go to the UC, you can be matched to a Korean man. Here the pay is really good. You can make more money than in the Philippines.”

A skeptical Doris toyed with the idea of marrying a man abroad, but knew—recalling a friend who was unhappy with a German husband—that a happy ending was not always guaranteed. Her half sister also seemed to be having a tough time adjusting to the Korean climate, often getting sick. Doris used her mild allergy as an excuse to put off responding to her half sister’s persuasion. Yet the idea of earning more money in Korea lingered. Doris imagined helping her aunt and her sister more and even providing support for her mother, who was now alone and destitute. But it was daunting to make such a life-altering decision without greater assurance of a happy outcome.

(p.69) Then, one day, Doris’s half sister and her family traveled from Korea to visit the Philippines. Her half sister’s Korean husband was kind and attentive to his wife. Her half sister really seemed to be living a comfortable and happy life. This visit finally compelled Doris to go to the UC, but her experience was very different from her half sister’s. She spent the next eighteen months working for the church and fundraising in Manila and Antipolo. Then, unlike most Filipinas who were matched in the Philippines, Doris traveled to Korea to be matched to men who were unwilling to travel abroad. She met many men, but the meetings did not lead to a match. One man was interested, but she was not drawn to him. He worked both night and day and would have “no time to spend with family.” After rejecting this match, Doris received a warning from the UC—if she did not accept the next man who “approved” her, Doris would be sent back to the Philippines without a chance to return to Korea. That man was Chŏngsam.

Lee Chŏngsam was the third child in a small farming family. Like Kihwan’s family, Chŏngsam’s parents devoted their financial resources to the eldest son’s education in Seoul so that he could achieve geographic and socioeconomic upward mobility. Chŏngsam’s older sister also moved after marriage to one of the satellite cities outside Seoul.7 Chŏngsam, who was somewhat developmentally challenged, remained at home with his parents in a typical rural dwelling in central Hyowŏn. Chŏngsam’s father became physically disabled and Chŏngsam could not hold a job for very long, so the family relied on the allowance Chŏngsam’s mother received from his older brother for taking care of her grandchildren in Seoul. When Chŏngsam’s mother was in Seoul, his younger sister—who lived in town—took care of Chŏngsam and his father.

When the UC matching service became an option for rural bachelors, Chŏngsam’s parents were convinced that the only way for their son to marry was to find a foreign-born wife because they believed his appearance would not appeal to local Korean women.8 With assistance from their eldest son, they scraped together the funds to have Chŏngsam matched through the UC. Chŏngsam initially traveled to the Philippines and was matched with a woman, but his family was shocked and hurt when the bride ran away after living with him for just a few days.9 About a year later, a UC pastor called Chŏngsam’s family to say that Chŏngsam should consider meeting a Filipina at a branch near Seoul. Because the trip was short, Chŏngsam felt he had nothing to lose, so he and his parents traveled to meet Doris.

When the two met, neither Doris, thirty-one, nor Chŏngsam, thirty-two, could afford to say no. Both were under pressure to marry from family members, the UC, and societal norms. But neither were ready to settle (p.70) for a loveless marriage. Many Filipinas in my study talked about the small gestures or expressions that emotionally drew them to their husbands; Doris said that it was Chŏngsam’s shyness that captured her attention. Here, Doris’ sexual scripting worked differently than for Pamela, who was excited by a more macho image. Because Doris was easily intimidated by masculine dominance, Chŏngsam’s inability to look at her directly during that first meeting made Doris feel “strangely” comfortable and signaled that he was a “good man.” However, despite her comfort with Chŏngsam, cautious Doris did not jump into married life. After the Blessing (the UC wedding ceremony), she spent seven months in three branches of the UC, hoping to build an emotional connection with Chŏngsam. After she moved to a UC branch near Hyowŏn, her husband came to see her every other week. At first, Chŏngsam showed up after work reeking of his bachelorhood and construction work. Doris complained about his coming to meet her “dirty,” and afterward Chŏngsam never missed a shower before meeting her. When she said he should not drink, Chŏngsam stopped drinking. Although Chŏngsam could not give up smoking, Doris was happy to see that she had a positive influence on him and that Chŏngsam appreciated her care. In this respect, their relationship followed a discernible heterosexual script where the woman “tames, softens and alters the seemingly intractable masculinity of her love object,” which affirms mutual affection (Giddens 1992, 46).

Doris eventually moved into Chŏngsam’s home. Chŏngsam lived with his parents but in a separate unit with a small bedroom, a kitchen, and a bathroom. As in a typical Korean master bedroom, one wall was taken up by a large wardrobe. Unlike most newlyweds’ rooms, a mattress (without a box spring or headboard) occupied the middle of the room.10 Against the other wall sat a television set, which was usually on when the couple was home, and a computer, which Filipinas considered a necessity to communicate with family in the Philippines (and, for Doris, to shop online as well). Doris was diligent about keeping their home clean and was dexterous. Whenever I visited their home, new handcrafts Doris made at the community center adorned their room. Chŏngsam cherished these crafts, wrapping each in a transparent plastic wrapper to keep them clean and proudly showing them off.

Doris’ place was near my homestay, so I visited her place often. When Doris was in the kitchen preparing snacks for me, Chŏngsam often sat quietly. When we talked, I sometimes could not understand his words because he mumbled or used incorrect forms of speech. At first, he seemed uncomfortable with my presence.11 However, once Doris came back, Chŏngsam’s face lit up, and he always sat right next to her.

(p.71) Doris once told me, with a mixture of a grimace and a smile, that Chŏngsam “loved her too much.” When I asked her what that meant, she blurted out that “he wants sex all the time.” This statement was followed by a pause (accompanied by a look that said, “I can’t believe I just said that!”) and then laughter and another grimace. With concern, I asked whether she had to do anything that she did not want to do, but she assured me that this was not the case, adding that he loved her a lot. When I asked her whether she loved him, she seemed ambivalent as Pamela had, responding, “I don’t know.”

Her marital situation left Doris with many unfulfilled wishes. Doris found out that she could not have the baby she had longed for because Chŏngsam was infertile.12 Doris was disappointed but never said a word about it to Chŏngsam and accepted it as her “destiny.” She had hoped to help her family in the Philippines, but there was little extra money to send. Chŏngsam occasionally found odd jobs and gave all his money to Doris, but his working days were much fewer than his days without work. Mild-mannered and easygoing, Doris never openly complained to her husband about not working. She was willing to work instead, but it was not easy to find a job in the rural town. Like many Filipinas who faced economic hardship in Korea, Doris shifted her focus away from her natal family and onto her and Chŏngsam’s livelihood as a couple.

Doris’ situation represents the path of many marriage immigrants who are channeled into low-income or poor families. When I asked Doris what was most important in a marriage, she said, “Love. Loving husband.” Doris seemed to have that with Chŏngsam, who was a doting husband. In fact, Chŏngsam spent more time with Doris and her friends than he did with anybody else. In a cultural scenario where a man’s declaration of love and affection is appreciated as a rare expression of tender emotion, Doris had the most precious form of a man’s love. Doris’ loyalty, whether it is based on love or pity, may look like feminine submission rather than an exercise of agency because it subjected her to patriarchal confines without opportunities for self-development (Cancian 1987). Yet Doris affirmed her subjectivity with moral conviction by turning her attention to the less fortunate. Her Facebook page was filled with religious messages emphasizing “sacrifice” and “endurance” and describing the grace of people who faced extreme hardships (such as terminal illnesses).

(p.72) Celia Sering and Ahn Chaeyŏng: Love at First Sight

Celia could not hide her excitement when I visited her new house in December 2006. Even though she moved only a few doors down from her in-laws’ place where she had lived for almost seven years, she was thrilled to make her own home. Compared with her in-laws’ home, Celia’s new place provided a much brighter ambience, with light-colored wallpaper and large florescent lights in every room.

I sat down in the main bedroom, where Celia’s three children were playing in a corner. I noticed that picture frames hung on the wall. I had seen their wedding pictures in the old house, but one of the new pictures caught my attention. It was a magazine cover that featured Celia in a white nurse’s uniform. When I asked her about it, Celia smiled shyly and mentioned that even though she was a novice midwife, she had been selected to appear on the cover because of her tall height (“And pretty face,” Chaeyŏng later added). She did not remember what the article was about though. The picture seemed like an affirmation of her past as a fledgling professional, distant from her current status as a farming housewife whose linguistic ability earned little respect from Korean residents.

Celia was from Manila and, with an associate’s degree, was on track to develop a promising career in nursing. She also proudly fulfilled the role of dutiful daughter by entrusting her earnings to her parents. Her sense of adventure was stoked, however, when a friend invited her to the UC to meet a “rich Korean man.” After a one-week seminar, twenty-one-year-old Celia was matched with thirty-two-year-old Ahn Chaeyŏng. She said of the meeting,

It was … what do you say? Love at first sight! [laughed] It was so weird, teacher [sŏnsaengnim]. I cannot explain it, but I knew he was the one. I was so excited. I went home and told my parents that I wanted to marry him. But my parents said no. Especially my mother did not like it.


  • Why?
  • CELIA:

  • You see, we heard about Filipina wives who were beaten up by their foreign husbands. My parents did not want me to marry him because he was Korean. We had a huge fight. I cried. I cried so hard [laughed]. Next morning, my mother was still against it but I packed my bag and went to the UC for the Blessing.
  • Of all the Filipinas I met, Celia provided the most dramatic description of the initial meeting with her husband. Despite the setting where (p.73) they first met, Celia’s story follows the contemporary scenario of love at first sight. She was straightforward about how she wanted a husband who could provide a comfortable life, but it was undeniable that her feelings for Chaeyŏng were strong as well. Her elation reminded me of the heroine in a romantic film after an electrifying chance meeting with the hero. Her efforts to be reunited with Chaeyŏng after their initial meeting evoked another cultural repertoire of love, that of love conquers all (Swidler 2001).

    To be clear, Celia later explained that her parents’ objection was based not only on Chaeyŏng’s Korean nationality but also on their suspicions about the UC wedding process, which excluded the bride’s family. However, they could not stop their daughter’s passionate pursuit of love. The excitement Celia felt on that first meeting with Chaeyŏng stemmed from more than just her hope for financial security. When I asked her what about Chaeyŏng initially attracted her, eyes sparkling, she reminisced that it was his face. Chaeyŏng was more fair-skinned than other tanned, rough-looking farmers, had a graceful walk, and his taller-than-average height matched hers. Taking him in, she was immediately smitten.

    Chaeyŏng was the second son of four siblings (three sons and one daughter). He completed middle school, the average education level for his rural area. His older brother was a professional soldier, which left Chaeyŏng as the next in line to manage the family farm with their parents. Chaeyŏng had a neurological disorder, which made him especially shy and careful, so talking to women was difficult. Like Sŏngjin, Chaeyŏng gave up on finding a Korean wife early. In the late 1990s, when the UC knocked on the doors of farmer bachelors, Chaeyŏng decided to seize the opportunity and travel to the Philippines. There he met Celia, who stood out to him for her height and charming appearance.

    After the Blessing and Chaeyŏng’s return to Korea, Celia was determined to reunite with him. She participated in a series of UC workshops, starting with the full twenty-one-day seminar followed by a six-month stay in the UC center, during which she participated in fundraising, food collection, and witnessing. During the wait, Chaeyŏng, with the help of Filipina neighbors, wrote three letters to Celia and called her frequently.

    Chaeyŏng expected that it would take about three months for them to meet again, so the delay in Celia’s arrival frustrated him. Eager to live with his bride, Chaeyŏng devised a plan to circumvent the UC Separation Period in Korea. When Celia’s flight to Korea was scheduled, Chaeyŏng decided to pick her up from the airport himself. The couple then traveled by bus to Chaeyŏng’s hometown. Celia recalled being greeted by Chaeyŏng’s sister at the bus terminal before they all traveled to Chaeyŏng’s (p.74) home. The next day, however, Chaeyŏng got a call from the UC asking Celia to observe the final Separation Period at the Hyowŏn UC.

    Celia spent an additional four months at the Hyowŏn UC. The UC said they wanted a longer Separation Period for Celia because she was a young bride. But they allowed a shorter one for Cynthia, who was the same age as Celia. The arbitrariness of their decision angered Chaeyŏng, who wanted to live with his wife and who could not understand why he had to keep paying monthly “donations” to the UC to cover Celia’s lodging expenses.13 When his efforts to reason with the church failed, Chaeyŏng devised another plan. Celia said,

    When we went to Seoul to attend a [UC-organized] mass wedding on February 14, my husband asked the [UC] leader if I could visit some of his relatives in Seoul. The leader said “Okay, go ahead. But only two days. After two days, Celia has to come back to the church.” But I didn’t come back. I stayed at his aunt’s for one month. Of course, the UC pastor asked about my whereabouts, but my parents-in-law said I was in Seoul. Then I stayed with [Chaeyŏng’s sister] for another month. Then, I came to the Hyowŏn home. By then, they lost interest in me.

    This cat-and-mouse game between the new couple and the UC pastors was unusual. However, it was not uncommon for couples to break the abstinence requirement during the Separation Period, even under the pastor’s watchful eye. A few Filipinas recalled with giggles that their weekly “dates” during their stay at the local UC also included a visit to a motel, illustrating the early excitement of these newly married couples. For Filipina-Korean couples who were not committed UC members, the UC’s rules appeared only as a barrier to their union, not as a spiritual obligation to be observed. The ordeal that ended with Chaeyŏng “saving” Celia from the UC strengthened their commitment to each other.

    Celia’s life in Korea was not easy, however. First, the reality was very different from what she had been led to expect at the Blessing.

    When I learned a little bit of Korean, I told my husband, “You are a liar.” When I first came here, I wondered, “Why we ride a bus when he had a car?” I thought he had a car and a house. But he didn’t have a car and he just had a room in his parents’ house! When I was able to say it in Korean, I told him that [laughed].


  • What did he say?
  • CELIA:

  • He just laughed [laughed]. Then he said, “I didn’t say that” [chuckled]. He blamed the translator. My husband said things truthfully but the (p.75) translator exaggerated things [looked serious]. At that time, [Filipinas] could not know because we didn’t speak Korean.
  • 14

    This initial disappointment did not deter Cynthia from committing herself to the new family. Like Cynthia, Celia participated in family farming. In Chaeyŏng’s words, Celia was “a better worker than any Korean.” In the spring and summer, she worked from 4:00 a.m. until 7:00 or 8:00 p.m. alongside her Korean family members. Understanding Celia’s workload, Chaeyŏng did not stick to a gendered division of labor. Celia was in charge of not only cooking for family members, which later involved moving back and forth between two households, but also tending to the cows. Chaeyŏng shared the housework by cleaning the house and washing their clothes (by hand because they didn’t have a washing machine).

    However, unlike Cynthia and Songjin who managed the finances of their family’s farming business, Celia and Chaeyŏng received an allowance from Chaeyŏng’s father, who managed the household finances. Also, Celia managed the couple’s finances, an uncommon arrangement in Filipina-Korean households. Like many Korean wives, Celia was in charge of budgeting their spending and planning long-term savings for their three children’s education. When Celia sent remittances, she talked it over with Chaeyŏng as she did with other major expenses, but they also viewed the money as coming from the couple rather than as a gift from Chaeyŏng. Because the financial responsibility rested in her hands, Celia said that she was more apprehensive about sending remittances because she could not just think about helping her family in the Philippines. Thinking about her conjugal family’s livelihood and her children’s future grew her sense of rootedness in Korea.

    Without hesitation, Celia said that she loved her husband and her three children very much. Chaeyŏng cared for Celia and said that he “had no complaints about his hardworking wife.” To an outsider’s eyes, the introverted Chaeyŏng who liked to write poems and the extroverted Celia complemented each other well. On the night that I first saw their new home, Chaeyŏng arrived late. He looked tired but greeted me with a warm smile. After saying hello to their three children, he asked Celia to bring him a coffee. Celia said that she was talking to me so she would bring one later, but he insisted that she bring it right away. This was unusual for Chaeyŏng. While Celia was in the kitchen, Chaeyŏng scribbled something on a piece of paper and pushed it toward me. It was a poem he wrote about his love and longing for kŭdae or tangshin, an unspecified “you.” When Celia returned, she saw me with the paper and asked if it (p.76) was one of his poems. When I said yes, she laughingly said that he wrote a lot of those to her, but she could not appreciate them. At her teasing, one side of Chaeyŏng’s mouth turned up, but he looked rather sadly down at the floor. Although on the surface, their banter had a light tone, I wondered if their love was being tested again by a pernicious friction between Celia and her parents-in-law. Despite their struggles with Chaeyŏng’s father, who demanded absolute obedience and submission from his strong-willed and active (namely, unfeminine) Filipina daughter-in-law, it was undeniable that Celia and Chaeyŏng deeply cared for each other.

    The Costs of Love

    This chapter tells the stories of four Korean-Filipina couples. To escape a reductionist view of marriage migration, it looks beyond the initial condition of the match and closely examines the emotional intimacy that develops between couples, even though their lives may not necessarily mirror idyllic fairy tales. Although their matches were mediated and verbal communication was difficult, these couples developed romantic feelings derived from heterosexual scripting that imbued their physical exchanges with vivid meanings, generating excitement and guiding their determination to commit to each other. All four Filipinas admitted that they initially thought they would meet “a rich Korean man” (a description propagated by the UC and by commercial matchmaking agencies), but ultimately sought a partner who gratified their emotional desires. In their accounts, the Filipina wives evoked different tropes of romantic heroes—Prince Charming, manly knight, and caring husband—and various cultural repertoires of heterosexual romance—love at first sight, virtuous, redeeming love, or love conquers all. The UC’s Separation Period allowed time to process immigration paperwork, but also provided a courtship period during which UC-mediated couples engaged in international phone calls, gifts (including romantically symbolic flowers), letters, and dates (sometimes with secret sexual excursions). This allowed the couples to sustain their initial excitement. Some Filipinas circulated stories of how their parents opposed their match due to serious concerns about the UC or the possibility of trafficking or domestic abuse, but they were emboldened to defy their parents by their emotional, romantic enthrallment. I argue that scripting theory explains the emotional intensity of the initial stages of internationally mediated relationships. But this should not be taken to mean that I romanticize these relationships or valorize heterosexual love.

    (p.77) As their married lives unfolded, the couple’s experiences diversified. Cynthia’s life was fulfilling, with an openly affectionate husband, Sŏngjin, and financially healthy family farming business. Pamela and Kihwan’s marriage began with a spark but fell into a subdued, clockwork-like pattern. Whereas Pamela’s economic needs were met with support from her conscientious husband, Doris only had Chŏngsam’s love, presenting an age-old question, “is love enough for marriage?” And after falling in love at first sight, Celia and Chaeyŏng instantly formed a unified front as a couple. These stories illuminate that internationally married couples, like unarranged couples, experience complex, heterogeneous realities, and inconstant feelings, which are difficult to capture in a unified, straightforward narrative.

    Considering the husbands’ viewpoints allows not only a more sympathetic look at the men who married marriage immigrants, but also an interrogation of the intersecting power structures in which they are embedded. Compared with their wives, most husbands were less verbally expressive of the supposedly “feminized” feeling of love (Cancian 1987). Nonetheless, my observations and interviews reveal that the husbands also followed cultural scripts as they sought to be loved and cared for (Chŏngsam) or to play the romantic hero (Sŏngjin).15 Highlighting the men’s emotional involvement and romantic desires is to humanize them but many husbands (like Kihwan) attempted to compensate for their class and regional disadvantages by establishing patriarchal dominance at home (Minjeong Kim 2014).

    More important, a close look at conjugal intimacy of the couples is also intended to reveal its role in political projects of belonging pertaining to marriage immigrants. First, the discursive trope of idealized heterosexual love and marriage has been used to relegate marriage immigrants to the category of Others (Carver 2014; Myrdahl 2010). For example, in Western countries, the emotional authenticity and genuineness of mail-order brides and their partners are questioned because of how they meet (Constable 2003). A belief in romantic love as the foundation of marriage has a relatively short cultural history even in the West, beginning as recently as the nineteenth century (Giddens 1992). Yet interwoven with ideologies and practices of modernization and cultural civilization, this hegemonic notion of romantic love helps construct the West’s moral and civic superiority through a binary distinction between marriage based on passionate love and arranged marriages, which are perceived to be loveless.16

    Second, the question about the presence of genuine love in internationally mediated marriage counterposes love and economics. In general, it is difficult to distill conjugal affection from the economic transactions (p.78) involved in the matchmaking process. In Korea, and more broadly in East Asia, where romantic love is increasingly valued culturally, people are critical of the business of international matchmaking as perpetuating the commodification of women. This underlying suspicion of international matchmaking caused the Korean public to accuse chosŏnjok of being runaway brides without attending to events that occurred after the wedding (Freeman 2011). This stereotyping of earlier marriage immigrants also affected Koreans’ views of Filipinas.17

    Third, the discourse that discriminates against marriage immigrants under the ideology of romantic love is also germane to their noncitizen status. Korea’s multicultural policies have expanded marriage immigrants’ social citizenship primarily based on motherhood (Minjeong Kim 2013a). Despite this, their commitment to marriage is still questioned because, unlike maternal love, which is taken for granted, marital love is deemed fickle or messy, and for internationally married couples, absent or even irrelevant. As noncitizens, the burden of proving love almost always falls to immigrant women. In Korea, where the presence of affection at the time of matching is less of an issue than the wives’ long-term loyalty and commitment, marriage immigrants are still under pressure to prove that their practical and economic concerns are separate from their emotional attachments, even though economic concerns are the primary reason that Koreans postpone marriage. As a result, many women have to endure poverty and abuse in their marriages. In effect, evaluating marriage immigrants’ emotional commitment against the dogmatic myth that marriage should be based on “true love that lasts forever” (Swidler 2001) or on unwavering commitment to husbands and Korean children and in-laws, works to tame immigrant wives into subordinate subjects—as women and as ethnic migrants—that Korean families and the state can control.

    Recent scholars have challenged the exclusivity of love and money and argued that marriage immigrants’ practical or economic concerns should not be ignored. Indeed, the matter of remittances was an important part of Filipina marriage immigrants’ lives and conjugal relationships. As Hyun Mee Kim argues, marital intimacy is infused with material transactions (2015). Kihwan’s willingness to send remittances maintained Pamela’s emotional attachment to him, and Cynthia’s carework and contributions to the family economy motivated Sŏngjin to send remittances. In this exchange model, the husbands perform the role of provider and the wives settle into the role of caregiver. However, the gendered division of labor heeded in many of these families should not be taken as evidence that all immigrant wives are passive subjects (p.79) of patriarchy. Women’s actions did not always buttress a feminist objective of challenging patriarchy and gender inequality, but attention to women’s emotional and cognitive approaches to their marriages revealed their agency. Cynthia followed a gendered division of labor in her marriage but resisted a gender hierarchy. Against her husband’s sober lifestyle, Pamela’s hidden resistance involved occasional online flirtations.

    A closer look at conjugal intimacy reveals potential alternatives to heterosexual marital configurations as well as the persistence of patriarchal dominance and gender hierarchy embedded in the exchange mode and traditional gender ideologies. Doris had yet to send remittances to her family and was willing to take on the breadwinner’s role. Celia and Chaeyŏng did not adhere to a traditional gendered division of labor, Celia taking charge of the household finances and Chaeyŏng sharing in the domestic labor. Though their roles were not reversed, they blurred a gendered boundary. In particular, Celia’s and Chaeyŏng’s marital affection and egalitarian relationship (to a lesser extent, Cynthia’s and Sŏngjin’s) offer a new remittance-intimacy mode: the source of remittance is not the husband’s generosity but the couple’s shared resources.

    Hyun Mee Kim argues that sending remittances is indicative of a couple’s stability and bonds, especially among settled couples with children. Conjugal intimacy, which is often fused with material connections, enables marriage immigrants to feel established in the marital family and to develop a sense of belonging to the host society. For childless women like Doris, emotional connections to their husbands are especially important. This relationship between remittances and marital stability challenges the perceived competition of Filipina’s loyalty between natal families and marital families; that is, it challenges the notion that Filipinas’ sense of obligation to send remittances means that they are less loyal to their marital families. As this chapter’s stories show, Filipinas who are absorbed into low-income families often reset their future orientation toward their marital families and especially their children, another indicator of their sense of belonging.

    The couples in this chapter were enchanted by romantic love early in their marriages. This fact does not diminish later experiences of conflict or domestic abuse; rather, it reveals the full emotional weight invested in situations of tension, anger, or disappointment between partners. Understanding these couple’s emotional relationships helps us appreciate the stakes in their efforts to maintain stability in times of marital struggle instead of viewing marriage immigrants simply as “victims stuck in (p.80) unhappy marriages” (Hochschild 2012). Likewise, when marriage immigrants choose to leave, their decisions should be understood in terms of the hard choices they make, weighing emotional and practical concerns, rather than as the easy escape of women who never married for love in the first place.


    (1.) They include the Korea Prime Minister Lottery Commission (Kukmuch’ongri Pokkwŏn Wiwŏnhoe), the Korean Ministry of Culture and Tourism (Munhwa Kwangwangbu), the Korea Arts & Culture Service (Han-guk Munhwa Yesul Chinhŭngwŏn), and the Federation of Korea Cultural Center (Chŏn-guk Munhwawŏn Yŏnhaphoe). The names listed here were the organizational names in 2005; some have since changed.

    (2.) This sense of apprehension is also common among Korean Americans entering Korean society, where it is not uncommon to scold others for their ignorance (Nadia Kim 2008).

    (3.) Most women said “language” or “dealing with in-laws.”

    (4.) This is a traditional Korean saying that refers not only to different roles for the two genders but also to the hierarchical relationship among them that is at the core of Confucian patriarchy.

    (5.) The traditional, patriarchal way of counting birth order excludes daughters. Kihwan’s use of this form of counting evinced his strong patriarchal conservatism.

    (6.) I attended this mass wedding (haptong kyorhonshik) organized by Kihwan’s company. In Korea, social welfare agencies or major companies sponsor mass weddings for couples who lack financial or social resources (Kendall 1996). Kihwan decided to participate in the mass wedding because of its practical benefit of sparing the cost of a private wedding.

    (7.) Many rural parents encourage their daughters to marry out to make a marital home in city (Freeman 2010).

    (8.) Giving up on marriage altogether was not an option because doing so would be considered a shameful failure by both parents and son.

    (9.) This kind of failed match creates a discrepancy in how the husband and the wife count the husband’s marriage experiences. Doris referred to herself as Chŏngsam’s second wife because of the Filipina wife who briefly lived with him. However, Chŏngsam did not see Doris as the second wife because he did not consider the first marriage a valid one.

    (10.) A bed is not a traditional piece of furniture in Korea. Low-income families who cannot afford to buy a full bed set opt to have just a mattress. In 2014, they finally got the full set.

    (11.) Over time, Chŏngsam became much more comfortable around me. Doris told me that it was not just me he avoided. His mother mentioned that marriage had changed Chŏngsam from being extremely shy to more open to socializing with others.

    (12.) At first, Chŏngsam’s parents assumed that Doris was infertile because of her age. Only after she was found fertile was Chŏngsam tested and found to be infertile.

    (p.179) (13.) The standard UC practice was that the younger the age of the wife, the longer the Separation Period. But Chaeyŏng (and other men) speculated that the pastor was stalling to extort more money.

    (14.) Like Celia’s translator, Koreans and their Filipino associates tend to emphasize men’s economic resources in the initial meetings with Filipinas. Filipinas do not contest this emphasis because it is important to have a husband who can properly support them and bring them economic upward mobility.

    (15.) Some husbands explicitly presented themselves as devoted husbands. For example, when I first approached Sŏngjin for an interview, he responded, “Ask my wife. I do everything my wife tells me to.”

    (16.) The expectation of romantic love in a unarranged marriage obscures the pragmatic socioeconomic considerations that exist in all marriages. Conversely, to the public and to scholars, marriage immigrants’ apparent pursuit of material betterment obscures their search for intimacy and affection. Constable contends that suspicion about cross-border marriages may be designed to fend off the threat that these marriages will reveal tensions related to money and power that most “marriages more easily ignore or mystify” (2003). In her research on love and marriage among middle-class Americans, Ann Swidler (2001) found that many of her subjects expressed “skepticism or outright disdain” toward the mythology of romantic love, but also repeatedly used the phrase “the movie image of love” in their talk, showing incoherence about love.

    (17.) This stereotypical view of immigrant wives is often held by the husbands as well, reflecting husbands’ insecurity about wives’ affection and emotional commitment. The husband’s beliefs about immigrant wives may or may not harm the conjugal relationship.