Rich Asian Men Turn To Poor Nations For Their Brides

Changing attitudes about love and marriage in rich Asian countries such as Taiwan, Japan and South Korea are pushing many desperate bachelors to seek out brides in other, poorer nations around the region.

Many Asian men, particularly those in rural areas, tend to seek traditional wives who will stay home, doing chores and raising children, says Mika Toyota, a research fellow at the National University of Singapore's Asia Research Institute, and other experts who study the region.

An economic boom in recent decades means women have options their mothers didn't. Better educated, they can have careers - and opt to stay single until Prince Charming shows up, if he ever does.

"Most Japanese women would prefer to live and work in the city," says Jeff Kingston, author of Japan's Quiet Transformation. "A guy out there in the boonies . has a tough job selling the wonders of being a farmer's wife."

Instead, the men increasingly seek women from countries such as China, Vietnam and the Philippines, where income levels are much lower. The practice has led to some complaints of abuse and exploitation, particularly when the unions are arranged by third-party brokers, although some couples say their marriages are as happy as any other.

The men "have more bargaining power" when they travel to poorer countries, says Gavin Jones, a sociologist at the National University of Singapore's Asia Research Institute. "Some of these men are looking for the sorts of women they can't find (in their own countries) - women to wash their clothes, submissive women."

The trend marks a significant shift in countries that have long been ethnically homogenous. Some local South Korean governments, eager to improve the birthrate in an aging country, even subsidize trips abroad for men seeking foreign wives.

In South Korea, the number of marriages in which one spouse is non-Korean tripled from 2001 to 2006, the U.S. State Department reports. Overall, one in eight South Korean marriages involve a foreigner, according to the Korean Statistics Office. In rural areas such as Gyeonggi, along the North Korean border, the figure rises past 30%.

In Japan, the percentage of mixed marriages rose from 1.88% in 1986 to 6.1% in 2006, according to the government's population survey that year.

Until a few decades ago, marriages in these countries were often arranged by local matchmakers who "would show pictures to a man and say, 'Which one do you want?' ," Kingston says.

These days, cultural and economic changes mean that "media and books tell everyone the wonders of love marriage," he says.

More than half of Japanese women in their late 20s are single, up from about 30% two decades ago. A survey by the Japanese insurance industry a couple of years ago found that most single women ages 35 to 54 have no plans to marry.

Marriage brokers charge up to $20,000 to fly lonely men to places such as Vietnam to inspect potential wives, says Mary Kim, vice president of the Inchon Women's Hotline, which offers language training and counseling to foreign brides.

"They meet each other in the morning and get married in the afternoon," Kim says. "Then they go to a hotel. It's a very abnormal way to get married."

In one newspaper ad, a South Korean broker advertises "very beautiful" Vietnamese women: "100% virgins with health certificates for husbands to check."

"It's a different kind of prostitution," Kim says.

South Korea passed a law in December cracking down on unscrupulous marriage brokers, imposing jail sentences for those involved in the sex trade.

However, Kim says, foreign brides are often too confused and frightened to complain to South Korean police when they are beaten at home.

The appeal for the women involved is usually economic, at least at first. Rachelle Lim earned $210 a month as a sales clerk in greater Manila until she was paired with a South Korean suitor. They met on a Friday, were married that Sunday, and she flew to South Korea when her visa came through three months later.

She didn't know what she was getting into. Her new home was cold, the language difficult. The pungent cuisine took some getting used to. And her husband's job as a factory manager kept him away from home six days a week.

"I cannot say I am happy now," says Lim, 29. "Sometimes I think I want to go back to the Philippines."

Culture clashes are frequent, says Fe Gimarino-Kim, a Filipina who married a South Korean in 1996.

In the Philippines, women often run the household and enjoy their own careers. In South Korea, "the man runs things. If you're a Korean wife, you must serve your husband."

Money is often a problem, too: Many foreign brides want to send money to their parents and siblings back home; if their husbands refuse, they sometimes do so surreptitiously. "They keep secrets and send money to their families," Gimarino-Kim says.

Gimarino-Kim formed the Filipino-Korean Spouses Association to lobby on behalf of foreign brides. Four years ago, she successfully lobbied for a law ensuring South Korean citizenship for foreign brides who get divorced after being beaten by their husbands.

Some mixed couples try hard to make their marriages work. South Korean autoworker Kang Ho Kyu, 40, doesn't speak a common language with his Filipina wife of six months, Marilon Royo - so they often communicate using an electronic English-Korean translator.

"We try to work things out," Kang says as his wife, seated next to him, breaks into a beaming smile.

Gimarino-Kim says she's one of the lucky ones, too. She has been in a happy marriage with a South Korean for more than a decade: "It's a gamble," she says. "Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose."

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