WRITING OFF FOR MARRIAGE
More and more Americans like getting their wives by post.
Pico Iyer hears their stories IT IS, in its way, a classic all-American story. Lou Florence was 41, just separated from his wife of 23 years, and lonely.
Ever pragmatic when it came to romance, he decided that the best thing to do was place an ad in several Asian newspapers soliciting correspondence from 'marriage- minded' ladies. The first of the 450 answers Three months after the first letter — though it felt, as Mrs Florence rather ambiguously re- calls, like 18 months Lou proposed to her over the phone, sight unseen. 'I said yes,' she remembers, 'and he was dumbfounded. "I hope you are not marrying me just for a passport," he said. And then I cried because I already had a passport. Then he rang again and said, "What are you doing?" "I am crying," I said. Then he apologised.' Be- fore there could be any more tears, Lou brought Tessie over to the US and moved to Las Vegas, where marriage laws are notoriously loose. At 9.45 one night, his divorce came through; by 10.15, he was a married man again.
The Florences were so delighted with their experience that they wanted others to share in their good fortune. So Lou, whose previous business experience was as a project manager for the Apollo space trip to the moon, simply took the names and addresses of the 449 girls who had written to him in vain, and sold them as a catalogue to other American men in search of Filipino brides. Before long, the for- ences were bringing in $250,000 a year. Their 'consultant services' were featured — as their bulletin modestly notes — on 100 television and radio programmes, and the happy couple became — as another of their documents states — 'fantastic inter- view and platform personalities'.
Though Lou died in 1985, five years after their marriage, Tessie still felt driven by evangelism. An archetypal Filipina tiny, effervescent, engaging and very attractive — she now runs the American- Asian Worldwide Services out of an up- stairs room in her home in Orcutt, Califor- nia, a dry little community of 'Church of Christ' buildings and suburban homes 50 miles from the nearest city. From this unlikely base, equipped with a computer, a printer, a secretary, an attorney and a sign listing the four major credit cards she accepts, Tessie is presently fixing up 4,000 clients with the Asian wives of their dreams. Already, the agency has made more than 3,500 marriages, and the num- bers are rising fast.
Tessie's has become, in fact, one of the largest of the more than 100 'introduction services' that have suddenly sprung up across the US; by now, ads for 'Pacific Overtures' and 'Asian Sweethearts' stud the small print of every American maga- zine from Harvard Magazine and the Atlantic Monthly to Hooker and Boobs. And though the agencies ostensibly offer nothing more serious than pen pals and cross-cultural friendships, they are clearly achieving something more: the number of Asian girls receiving K-1 'fiancée visas' in the US has risen since 1970 by a factor of 100.
The 'mail-order bride' system, as prac- ticed by AAWS, is sim- plicity itself. Its heart is the catalogue of photos, names and addresses of 320 Asian girls — mostly young, mostly pretty, and mostly Filipino culled from more than 1,000 applicants and put out by Mrs Florence six times a year. Pay her $500, and you will re- ceive an issue of the catalogue every two months until you are wed. You will also get a personal ad placed in two national, English- language newspapers in Malaysia, Thailand or the Philippines; a sub- scription to Tessie's monthly bulletin; a copy of her own 100-page booklet (now in its sixth edition) called the Marriage, Visa and Travel Guidebook; and unlimited assist- ance on everything from immigration law to epistolary etiquette (the day after I visited her, a young businessman who owns two companies was flying 3,000 miles from Boston to spend a week in the area getting Tessie's assistance in drafting letters to his Asian pen pals). Those who want only a catalogue can receive a single issue for a mere $30; those who crave something even more deluxe than the executive-class 'life- time membership' service can pay $1,200, and get a girl found to custom specifica- tions.
In theory, mail-order services merely give American men the particulars of foreign women, and the rest is history — or chemistry, at least. Tessie, however, prides herself on her peripherals: for $50, she will deliver red roses to your Miss Write, and for a 50 per cent discount, she will produce a special custom-fitted wedding-dress sewn by her mother. She will arrange plane tickets, hotels and transportation for men who visit the Orient to meet their pen pal-ettes, and she also runs a kind of safe-house in Manila to accommodate the girls while they are going through the paperwork of emigra- tion. She even boasts a '24-hour hotline' to deal with post-marital tristesse. Best of all, as the middlewoman in the courtship pro- cess, she will send a special eight-page `personality evaluation' form to each of her client's 15 top short-listed choices, and will evaluate each one's publicly notarised answers 'to test the honesty and sincerity in her quest for a life partner'. This form is, without question, a curious document. It begins, like any application for a job or university, by asking for references, employment history and the like. Soon, however, it embarks on 105 multiple-choice questions of a more per- sonal nature. `Do you polish your toenails?' What size of breast do you have?' What imperfections do you have (pimples/acne, false eye, false teeth, de- formity of legs, varicose veins...)?' Other questions probe even deeper. 'What kind of lover are you?' What underwear do you like to wear?' It is said that black is beautiful. Are you willing to marry a black gentleman?'
Presumably, the girl who answers 'No' to the query, 'Would you treat your fiancé's children as if they were your real children?' or the girl who announces that she is willing to marry a handicapped man `so long as he is rich' or `so long as he can get me a visa' (two of the five possible answers) is not regarded as an ideal mate. Nor, one would think, would high scores be given to a woman who is looking for a snob, describes herself as aggressive and answers 'How did you learn about sex?' by ticking 'From x-rated motels'.
There, however, one would be wrong. For Tessie's form is full of cunning sur- prises. All three of the characteristics in the last sentence of the last paragraph are rewarded with very high scores. Mean- while, a girl who likes opera, or prefers `stage plays' to 'shows', or does 'sculpture' instead of 'writing poetry' scores very low. At times, in fact, the scoring system seems positively delphic. In answer to the search- ing question, `Do you care for others' feelings?' a girl who answers 'No' gets two points, while one who says, 'I don't care' gets only one. A girl who chooses :domineering' as a desirable characteristic in her mate earns two points, but one who chooses 'a dictator' earns only one. And in response to the fairly crucial question, 'What is your concept of sex?' a prospective bride who ticks 'Dirty' gets five, while one who ticks 'Healthy' gets only one (one who responds 'I don't know' gets two). Yet in the very same section, five points are given to the young lady who says she is active sexually, only one to the girl who says she is not! The ideal woman, according to the test, is one who thinks sex is dirty, is sexually active herself, has a small body and full breasts, wears high heels and a bra and half-slip, does not like living with relatives and will not allow small children to sleep in her bedroom. The entrance exam for the FO seems positively simple by comparison.
Yet if the questions are startlingly direct, and the scores paradoxical, the girls who answer them are even more so. In one typical form, for example, Purissima, a 39-year-old travel agent from Manila, is asked to describe her ideal husband. He should be more than 6 feet tall, she states, and should weigh more than 220 lbs, or roughly 16 stone (quite a surprising choice for a girl who is herself only 5' 2" and less than eight stone). Purissima also decrees that her perfect man would be a born-again Christian, an engineer and a widower. And, the young lady adds, he must be more than 66 years old! Purissima herself is a devout type (her top three hobbies are `reading the Bible, attending fellowship and watching 1'V programmes about Bi- ble') who strongly disapproves of pre- marital sex in both theory and practice.
But in answer to the question, 'Are you sexually active?' the self-professed virgin answers 'Yes'. In choosing adjectives to describe herself, she ticks both 'passive' and 'active'. And the only instrument she knows how to use, she carefully types, is a `Typewriter'. At the end of the form, Tessie Florence adds a terse appraisal of the computer-graded candidate: Purissima has an average personality. . . . She pos- sesses good qualities to qualify as a candi- date for a life partner.' Apparently, that is praise enough. Just two weeks later, the AAWS bulletin lists Purissima's marriage to a retired engineer from Pahrump, Neva- da — presumably a tall, fat born-again Christian in his dotage. If so, Purissima's man is quite unlike the
'Freeze! Social Services.'
average consumer of mail-order brides.
For, according to the only survey taken on the subject, the man who woos by mail is by no means a syphilitic hunchback on parole. On the contrary, the survey found, there is good reason for believing that catalogue courtship is, in fact, the thinking man's choice; the average mail-order cus- tomer is 37 years old, and well above average in income, education and employ- ment. Most of the men are well-heeled professionals — doctors, lawyers, journal- ists, even a former Congressman. Only half are divorced. Nearly all, however, are wistful, slightly wounded casualties of the battle of the sexes whose ads reassert again and again their longing for 'family- oriented' and 'traditional' women, girls `with no vices', or 'homebodies' — ladies, in short, who are quite the opposite of the selfish, grasping and promiscuous harri- dans they seem to have met in the US.
AAWS is inundated with unsolicited jeremiads railing against the vices of American women (Tye seen them flexing their muscles in a body-building contest on television,' writes one not untypical cus- tomer. 'I have seen them as police trying to break up a fight between three 200-pound- plus men, only to get swatted away almost like a fly. I have seen more and more of them walking arm-in-arm, hugging and kissing one another on the street. I have seen them collecting garbage, auto- mechanics, truck and bus drivers, lumber- jacks and construction workers. But I ask you, what decent man wants to associate with a woman that smells the same or even worse than he does?'). In Asia, by con- trast, the men are sure that they will find compliant models of sweet femininity On general, I would have to say that Asian women will accept and love a man for what he "is" — not merely for what he "HAs," and this is the way "GOD" meant it to be!'
writes one excited client, liberal with his capital letters and quotation marks. 'I didn't realise things could be so "real" when one spoke of love.') The women who gain admission to the catalogue — simply by sending Mrs Flor- ence pictures and biographical informa- tion, free of charge — are also, claims Tessie, highly educated and very eligible (though she later tells me that none of her male clients cares a fiddle about education and many actually request illiterate girls from the rice-fields). On their side too, however, wishfulness is never wanting.
One typical applicant, 30-year-old Vivien from Kuala Lumpur, describes how she has worked for six years under an English boss in an insurance broking firm. 'Though I may have found contentment in my career, however,' she continues, 'I feel that life is meaningless if there isn't a special someone to share my life, and I his. I longed very much to have someone who's terribly nice and very much in love with me and vice versa. Someone who could give me atten- tion, care and love all the time. . . . My favourite colours are red and blue. Flower — is rose always. I trust the above biodata is sufficient information to enable you to pick a closely suitable Mr Right.'
Most of these girls, as in Mrs Florence's own case, are from the Philippines. That much can be ascribed, perhaps, to manifest destiny. The Philippines, after all, were subject to Western rule for 450 years and even now its people are at once surfeited with American pop culture and hungry for more. Filipinas generally speak English, are good Catholics and are, in many cases, both God-fearing virgins, and, in their hacienda exoticism, dazzling beauties. They also have good reason to escape from a country where seven out of every ten people are living below the official poverty level, and even those lucky enough to hold jobs seldom earn more than $50 a month.
The madonna/whore complex might almost have been invented for the Philip- pines indeed: in modern Manila, most young girls are forced either to seek a position abroad, generally as a housemaid in Hong Kong or Singapore, or to take a job in one of the country's countless massage-parlours, go-go bars or all-girl restaurants (in the American base town of Olangapo City, at least 16,000 of the 255,000 residents are prostitutes). Small wonder, then, that Manila is crowded with places like the Kangaroo Club and the Old World Steak House, which offer Filipino brides to foreign men (whom they attract with such subtle come-ons as, 'Now on Sale! Filipino Companions. Pretty, intelli- gent, faithful and can make passionate love'). Small wonder too that tourist maga- zines such as What's on in Manila are scented with the evergreen hopefulness of ads placed by local girls: 'I would like to meet an American. Looks are not impor- tant, but he must be kind and cheerful.' And small wonder that more than 50,000 girls have already signed up with Mrs Florence.
Here, in fact, is the ultimate marriage of convenience, a perfect mating of needs, a classic matching of cultures. That is not, of course, to say that the system is free of problems. The Manila papers are full of horror stories of mail-order girls who flew off to their husbands only to find that they were pimps, midgets, homosexuals or bigamists. Many men have their own cautionary tales of girls who came over, took their money — or residency cards and ran. The dangers are even greater when both parties are simultaneously courting a host of different candidates, and both have an exact sense of what they want.
Even in the application process, Mrs Florence is forever sniffing out deviants like the Texan businessman who, in his introductory letter, asked his blushing pen pals for nude pictures of themselves, or the man who wrote, 'I like animals,' and went on to describe his pet crocodile, snake, tiger and lion. Among the 12 women featured in the 'Con Artists' section of this month's AAWS bulletin is one girl who wrote to her suitors under three different names and, by way of a picture of herself, sent snapshots of a glamorous Filipino actress (she also began her form letter by declaring 'I am a virgin at the moment . . . but I do have wonderful sensations and orgasms' and numbered among her accom- plishments climbing coconut trees and winning big at roulette in Monte Carlo). And there is never a shortage of operators offering their services as sub-agents including, most recently, a Manila priest who volunteered to perform non- denominational marriages and went on, more surprisingly, to offer his services for wedding photos, videos and legal assist- ance. Finally, in a postscript he added, 'We can also supply you with pictures of women! Very beautiful women!' At that, the ever vigilant Tessie said, 'This is smell- ing very fishy!'
Nonetheless, the redoubtable Mrs F. has no time at all for feminists and others who accuse her of 'what is that word they use . . . exploitation?' Her service, she says, provides nothing more and nothing less than what it promises. For that reason, she also has little patience with customer complaints. The AAWS strongly advises clients against marrying their loved ones before they have met them, and also offers other practical warnings ('If you are black or physically handicapped, do not mention anything about your colour or your defect in the first letter'). That done, it offers no money-back guarantees. And what if the girl finds that her home or her husband is radically different from what she was led to believe? 'That is her own fault,' Mrs Florence replies sternly, while her mother patiently sticks labels onto envelopes in the next room. 'They failed to ask more details about the gentlemen.' She cites, by marked contrast, her own case. 'When I was writing to Lou, I asked him, "Will you sleep with a dog in your bed?" ' Lou said yes; Tessie told him that the right answer was no. But what about loneliness or homesick- ness? 'Oh yes,' Mrs F. answers brightly. 'They are always a problem.' But here too she is more than ready to act as marriage counsellor, ombudswoman and lay therap- ist. 'I tell the husbands, "Amuse her by taking her to different places. Extend your honeymoon. Go picnicking. Go to Disney- land. That is a way to help her adjust to this culture. When you are there you can teach her the little things — like how to eat hot dogs." ' Besides, she adds, there is a kind of safety-catch warranty in the system in the form of the fiancée visa, which stipulates that a foreign girl can stay in the US for only 90 days before getting married. 'If you don't like her,' Tessie advises one typically uncertain customer, 'send her back; if you think she's good, follow your heart.' Ene- mies of the system point out that girls whose husbands do not even allow them to dial their own phones or go to the shops alone are unlikely to file for divorce, however much they are abused. Mrs Flor- ence, however, is undeterred: no more than ten per cent of all her marriages, she claims, end in divorce.
Indeed, her biggest problem, she says, is that her couples are so delighted with their success that they want to get into the business themselves. These young rivals she regards with a kind of noblesse oblige. 'One man, for example, was 50 years old. He was just withdrawing from drugs and alcohol. He looked terrible — his eyes looked as if they were ready to pop. But he came here in a Corvette! And he was ready to get married!' After consulting with Tessie, the customer decided on a 15-year- old girl. At first, the judge in the Philip- pines refused to authorise the marriage, but Mrs F. deftly overruled her by citing the new Philippines constitution, and the girl came over. 'She looked so young,' the marriage-broker recalls. 'She looked as if she was 11 years old. But after one year the man wrote to me, "Tessie, I am getting old. I just want my wife to have something to do when I pass. Would you mind if we did something like what you are doing?" ' In a society where one in every two marriages ends in divorce in any case; where pre-nuptial agreements and pali- mony suits have made even the most regular of 'love matches' a matter of legal bartering; where many women have sloughed off traditional roles without find- ing anything else to replace them; where many men are too shy or too busy to wish to trawl in bars, hang around 'singles' meetings or advertise for friends in local papers; and where more and more of the best goods are foreign, going abroad for a spouse makes all the sense in the world. If Japanese cars and Hong Kong toys, why not Filipino wives? Immigrants, after all, are the subject of nearly every all- American story.
Mr Iyer works for Time magazine.