Blame it on Mills and Boons, an english romance novel publication that was very popular among high school girls like me back 20 plus year ago. I started reading them when I was 13. I was convinced that a tall, dark and handsome (also brooding, arrogant and very much older thrown in) guys makes for an ideal romantic hero. I was destined to get married to a man just like that, many times I told myself. Blame it on colonial mentality, I was also attracted to mestizos (of caucasian mix). Girls went ga-ga over the very pinoy chinito (filipino chinese) looks of Romnick Sarmienta, but he wasn’t my type. Prince Andrew of Wales was the hot dude for me.
I could remember distinctly when I was in my early 20s my tita Sefing (aunt Sefing) and I were grocery shopping at Rustan’s Cubao I saw this really goodlooking couple with a toddler in tow. The wife was a classy tall, long haired morena (brown skinned), wearing white polo, jeans and heels while the man was even taller, fit, around her age and caucasian. I wished fervently to have a family just like that one day.
But where was I going to find this man? I lived in a small non-touristy city where foreigners seldom wandered over. The only way I could meet them was have my bio and pics published in a penpal catalog (there was no internet then). That would be too cheap, I inwardly protested. I wanted a meeting that would be spontaneous, had drama and fireworks like bumping into this unsuspecting man in a bookstore or in our office. But pen pals?
The word penpal brings an image of tiny, dark scantily clad filipinas with too much make-up clinging to pot-bellied, white haired or balding westerners wearing YMCA shorts, singlets and rubber flip-flops in the shopping malls. Certainly miles apart from that Rustan’s couple. Would I really want MY love story to be lumped together with women who take this route as a desperate move out of poverty?
Except for the fact that I was on the verge of spinsterhood by filipino standards (late 20’s; no joke) I didn’t fit the stereotype of women resorting to online international dating: I was hardly small, I dressed conservatively (though I have a fondness for wearing shorts), I had a thriving career and art business on the side so I wasn’t poor either, I didn’t have anyone to support and I certainly didn’t want to leave my country. It may be hard to believe but back home I had my small bouts of patriotism, I did my share of political rallies and NGO volunteer works. Sure, I dreamed of seeing the world, which was difficult with a filipino passport, but not that bad to marry a man from another country. It just so happened that I felt my Mr. Right wasn’t anywhere in the vicinity where I lived.
Filipinas marrying penpals though considered fortunate by those from hard-up families, are generally regarded with disdain by filipinos from the middle and upper middle class. It really wouldn’t matter if you try to expound or differentiate the details of how you met whether by chatting, online dating, by clubs – to the filipino man on the street you are still essentially a Mail Order Bride.
Before I published my profile and picture to a dating site (not a catalog – yes, there is a difference if we have to nitpick) I did ponder on the possibilities of what my families, classmates, friends, co-workers etc. reaction would be once they learned that I have a pen pal. To be honest, I felt saddened by a remark of a friend when informed that I was expecting a visit from a pen-pal. In his way of being supportive he said, “Good for you. Life in the Philippines IS hard. If I were a woman I’d do the same too.” Marrying somebody from the internet was almost always synonymous to marrying somebody for money. Is it really hard to believe that there are filipinas who do go online searching purely for love? As news of “my foreigner” spread around it became clearer to me who among my friends knew me well and who didn’t.
And if I did marry a foreigner what will Tom’s family think of me? What about the people I will meet in this foreign land. Will they see me as an alien with the words “gold digger” stamped across my forehead? But after Tom’s first visit, I couldn’t care less what the answers to those questions were. I just wanted to be where he was.
And all my concerns about judgment were for naught. The americans that I have met didn’t assume right away that I was fresh off the boat. Maybe it’s because that america really (at least the big city of Chicago) is a land where immigrants and people of different colors abound. Whenever I tell them that I am a filipina married to an american I met in the internet, I don’t get that guarded look and assumption that I was a mail order bride, something I get more from the filipinos not in fil-west relationship both in the Philippines and here in the US. This may come as a disappointment to a lot of filipinos but many americans don’t even know where the Philippines is, much less think of us as a nation with women who are MOBs, hookers and maids as what is always bewailed back in our native country.
In fact, when I asked Tom what his father’s reaction upon being told that I was coming over as a fiancee, he replied that his Dad’s only question was if I was a Catholic and that was all his father cared about. Tom’s family never made me feel anything else but at ease with them. I even think that my being a filipino helped me get the job I have now simply because the “filipino community” in our office were highly regarded in the same way they are well thought of in Tom’s workplace, the reason why Tom had a good impression of filipinas – impressed enough to look online.
We have been married for almost 4 years this year and we are happy even if we don’t fit the stereotype of a penpal couple (except for our 16 years gap). I don’t have stepchildren to contend with, nor ex-wives, we don’t support my parents or siblings (except for small gifts here and there), we don’t regularly send balikbayan boxes (only once) nor are we having a house built in the Philippines as a future retirement home.
Online dating worked for Tom and I so much that we didn’t really have major marriage adjustments typical of newly married couples. At his stag party Tom’s friends were sharing how being married in the first year was pretty rough, Tom surprised them by saying ours (we were 8 months civilly married then) was relatively smoothsailing. I think that the years of communicating with written words helped us know each other better than if we dated in person for the same amount of time.
It also helped that I came to the US as a fiancee. In the more than 3 years that Tom and I have lived together I think the second month was the toughest for us, as we learned each other’s idiosyncracies (those that can only be discovered by living together) we still had the freedom to decide if these quirks were workable or not. I think it would be very difficult to judge a potential husband’s character when he is in your home country for a few weeks. It’s only natural that he will put his best foot forward for the most part of his stay. Don’t expect that husbands will be as accommodating when in their turf and they hold all the cards (read: money to support the immigrant wife) especially when the honeymoon period starts to wane. Will he still regard the filipina as a partner and an equal even if she comes from a poor country, without a college degree, speak broken english and little knowledge of the western ways? At least being a fiancee she gets 3 months to see of what it will be like married to the man up close and how she will be treated by him.
Meeting a marriage partner in the internet is not for everyone – particularly not for a filipina who thinks that it is a ticket to easy life especially if she wants having children. As another blogger puts it, there is always a trade off. True, materially we are not wanting. We are always assured that there will be something to eat and we don’t have to wait for birthdays or Christmases to buy a simple watch or clothes. But living in the US we are on our own, we can’t depend on parents, siblings or relatives to help us out even on what would be very simple stuff in the Philippines, like babysitting.
The term “one-armed cook” to refer to moms was coined for a reason. Being a mother here you have to learn how to do everything with one arm while carrying the baby on another. During my vacation to the Philippines I was somewhat bemused at wherever way I turned there was always a hand to help me with Evan. If I had to open a can of formula while making Evan’s milk my father would instantly appear at my side to carry Evan for me. Or when I eat breakfast, my mom would eagerly snatch Evan up to play with him in their bedroom. That not every parents buy a stroller or car seats in the Philippines for their babies speaks for itself. Taking care of a baby is still very much a communal effort. Knowing this was how things were in the place where they grew up just makes coping in an individualistic society harder for the filipinas to adjust to. Four years in the U.S. and I’m still adjusting to it.
Still, it shouldn’t be any surprise if I hold the internet as the greatest invention ever. It made possible for this filipina to meet the love of her life from 8,000 miles across the globe. I’m sure a lot of filipinas will say the same even if we still miss the Philippines badly every so often.
First posted on July 1, 2007