My Imported Bride

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0412ImportedWife1

I’m an older O.C. divorcé with a young Filipino wife I met on the Internet, and I know what you’re thinking. Can’t say I blame you. But you’re wrong.

I’m pouring drinks for my guests when the police arrive. It’s 3 p.m. on a Saturday and we’re hosting a friend’s baby shower in our open garage. The two officers survey the scene carefully before striding toward me with bad news. “We got a complaint from your neighbor,” one of the officers says with a nod.

After they sort it out and determine we’re not committing any crimes or posing a public nuisance, I approach the neighbor, a woman in her 60s who has lived in this quiet Los Alamitos townhome complex for many years. She’s not a bad person, but she’s unaccustomed to seeing garage parties here, especially attended by large numbers of dark-skinned people eating pigs roasted whole on a spit.

“Your personal life is so messed up,” she informs me.

In a way, I appreciate her honesty. And I understand her reaction. I’m a 63-year-old white male married to a beautiful woman from the Philippines more than three decades my junior. We met on an Internet dating site aimed at fostering international marriages. My neighbor is expressing openly what others convey with scornful stares. But then, that’s just one of the hazards of living in Orange County with a “mail-order bride.”

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I haven’t always raised the eyebrows of my neighbors.Once upon a time, I too fell well within the cultural norms of America and Orange County. Married to a woman roughly my own age with a similar ethnic background, we had two children—a boy and a girl—whose presence in our household hardly warranted dramatic attention. About the most exotic island we ever visited was Santa Catalina. And, like most couples living the suburban dream, we assumed it all would last forever.

Then everything fell apart.

To be honest, it was my fault. I’m not proud of this, but one day I awoke to the realization that I had become the embodiment of an American stereotype: the middle-aged husband who imagines something better over the next ridge. Unfortunately, it was not a passing fancy but, increasingly, the dominant preoccupation of my life, ultimately leading me into the bottomless pit of an extramarital affair.Gradually, of course, my marriage unraveled until the ignominious afternoon when my wife, overhearing a hushed telephone conversation between me and my paramour, rightlysent me packing.

My last day in the house is etched into memory as if it had happened this morning: Me standing forlornly in the front yard as she screeched off in her car. Later I sat in a nearby park feeling a whole new kind of emptiness as I contemplated what was to come. By evening I’d been exiled to the spare bedroom of my brother’s home in La Palma.

Because my former wife is a forgiving person, the end of our 15-year union was not as acrimonious as some. But for me it was the beginning of a long, dark journey into self-doubt and recrimination that took years to overcome.

When I finally did emerge, I was a different man. I had learned late in life a painful lesson regarding family and commitment. For a while I held my own counsel, tenderly licking my wounds. Then I tentatively started testing the wind.

What I found was that,in the time I’d been out of circulation, relations between the genders had changed. In this post-feminist age, many women had priorities other than finding the man of their dreams. As a child of the ’60s, I certainly understood and appreciated their increasing independence. But the pendulum had swung so far that almost every man I knew desired a committed relationship, and almost every woman, well, wasn’t so sure.

So I wandered without a compass in the dating desert. Casual encounters certainly weren’t hard to find. But anything more serious seemed out of reach, a reality that left me disheartened.

For a while I stuck it out, chalking up a string of failed flings. One fellow divorcée, a woman in her 50s, ultimately decided that she’d rather be single. And a younger girlfriend eventually departed to travel in Australia. Of course, it occurred to me then—as it does now—that maybe men in general didn’t leave them uninspired. Maybe it was me.

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I don’t remember specificallywhen it first occurred to me to look elsewhere for a mate. Because I was deeply frustrated by my dating experiences in America, I one night impulsively did an Internet search for “Asian women” and up popped filipinaheart.com. Aimed at fostering long-term relationships between Western men and Filipino women, the site allowed any man willing to pay a modest fee to advertise, respond to women’s ads, or engage in live video chats.

Initially, I admit, it all felt strange. Then I began noticing the stunning friendliness of the women I found there. More important was their willingness—no, eagerness—to commit to someone like me.

It was as if I had been magically transformed from an invisible older man into a rock star whose company women craved. Of course that appealed to my ego. On a deeper level, though, it appealed to my need for stability in a world in which the love I wanted seemed impossible to find. Here was a culture in which women seemed to have traditional values, were open to matrimony, and even dreamed of blissful lives in American suburbs. I understood that part of their incentive was economic. But marriage has always had an economic component; throughout most of history—certainly in America, and especially in the Third World—part of what seals the deal is the perception, and sometimes the reality, that two can live better than one. What stood out here was that the Filipino women actually were looking for something I could providea better life in the U.S.

Still, the online flirting began as a lark. I started spending evenings on the website chatting with interesting women. Some were obviously looking for handouts; I quickly learned to ignore anyone mentioning sick relatives with unpaid hospital bills in the first conversation. Most, however, seemed like decent folk with good family values, honest about what they were seeking.

My search gradually narrowed during the next several months. One night, glancing at a chat box on my screen, I saw the image of a young woman resting her head on a desk at what looked like an Internet café. What got my attention was that she wasn’t trying to get my attention. And so our conversation began.

What impressed me immediately about Ivy, then almost 24 to my 57, were her detailed responses to the questions I posed. Rereading them now, I’m struck by the directness of our initial emails. “I’m looking for someone who will stay with me for the rest of my life,” I confessed barely two weeks into thetalk.

The next day came her reply. “David, we have to realize that love is not enough to make a relationship work; we need trust, respect, time, effort, and total commitment … I believe you can fall in love after you marry because … we should not let passion but wisdom decide.”

Part of me thought it was crazy to even consider someone so young. There were 33 years between us; had I completely lost my mind? What would my friends and family think? I raised the issue with Ivy on several occasions. “You say that I am young,” she responded, “but I am fixed in my mind and know what I want. Don’t worry about the age gap because it doesn’t matter; most important is that I meet a real person who can be trusted and loved.”

At times I wondered whether I was just being played. But as the discourse continued, her message remained consistent. And so I decided to go find out.

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If you were to put a map of the Philippines on a wall and throw darts at it, the chances of one sticking anywhere close to Caridad would be minuscule. That is, of course, unless you happened to be an excellent dart thrower and know exactly where it is, which few people—even in the Philippines—do. Like them, I had never heard of the thatched-hut village on Siargao Island. In fact, I had never heard of Siargao, a remote tear-shaped spot of land comprising about 170 square miles off the eastern coast of Mindanao, a region known among other things for its nascent Muslim insurgency. Fortunately, Ivy’s home island is more famous for its excellent surfing, large mangrove forests, and gorgeous white-sand beaches. When the time came for us to meet, though, I had some serious travel planning to do.

Here’s how it shook out: a 16-hour plane ride to Manila, followed by a shorter flight to Cebu, then an overnight ferry ride to a small city where she met me with a chaperoning cousin in tow. Before exchanging even a dozen words, the three of us had boarded a boat laden with pigs and bananas for the three-hour trip to the island.

I can’t honestly say it was love at first sight. The truth is that Ivy, so effusive in her emails, was too shy in person to even look me in the eye, supporting my hunch that people who meet online often are less bold when face to face. Her cousin graciously took up the slack during awkward lulls in conversation. But as we approached the pristine shore of the beautiful place where she was born, the look of the world began to change.

The first thing I noticed about Caridad, one of several rural villages on the island and home to about 1,800 souls, was its multitude of children. They were everywhere, playing amid water buffalo-drawn carts. Nobody seemed overly concerned with where each child belonged. When they got hungry, they knocked on a door and were fed; it was simple as that. Several, in fact, were doing just that at Ivy’s home when we arrived.

“So,” her mother inquired, getting right to the point in halting English after showing me a seat, “you want to marry my daughter.”

The truth is, we hadn’t made any such plans. “Well,” I responded, not wanting to be disagreeable, “what would you think of that?”

It was then that I noticed the crowd outside, perhaps 30 people of all ages grinning at me through open windows and doors. “Who are they?” I whispered to Ivy.

I wasn’t prepared for her response: “They’ve never seen a foreigner up this close.”

The rest of the conversation passed in a whirl. What were my goals? Where did I live? Who were my relatives? What did I do? And—my favorite—what had gone wrong in my first marriage that would be fixed this time around?

The questions, all from Mom with Dad and several relatives looking on, were merciless. As much as they made me squirm, however, they also commanded respect; here was a family that took seriously the admonition to protect its own.

I must have passed muster because Ivy, referred to locally as “black beauty” because of her lovely dark skin, eventually was allowed to accompany me alone on a stroll. We weren’t alone for long, though; on the beach we encountered a second round of questioning, this time from a large group of smiling locals represented by a teacher who conveyed their inquisition in English. Obviously, the town was not inclined to let one of its favorite daughters—or any of its daughters—be whisked away by just anyone, or without serious scrutiny.

The next morning, safely ensconced in a small bedroom with Mom, Dad, Ivy, and her three siblings, I was awakened at 6 by a bloodcurdling scream, the cry of one of her father’s pigs giving its life for some crazy visiting foreigner—me. That afternoon the family, along with the majority of its neighbors, enjoyed a feast of lechon, the roasted pork traditionally offered only on the most special occasions.

In truth, this was the beginningnot the end—of our discussions about the future. While already an adult who had left home and finished college, Ivy was required by Filipino custom to get her parents’ blessing before proceeding further. She did, and I made several more trips to the Philippines during the next two years of courtship.

Once I sat behind Ivy on her father’s motorcycle as she gave me a tour of the island. During that  ride, with the smell of the ocean and her long black hair streaming back across my face, I believe I fell in love. Later, on a stretch of white sand once owned by her grandfather, we built a crude wooden shelter with a heart carved into its ceiling. And finally, at the end of a long pier called Cloud 9, I asked Ivy to be my wife.

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On Feb. 3, 2008, she arrived at Los Angeles International Airport, an event followed within minutes by a loud bang. That’s because, driving home on the 405 Freeway, I couldn’t help paying more attention to the lovely young woman beside me than to the car in front of us. It stopped and we didn’t. So my fiancée got her first glimpse of Orange County from the cab of a lumbering tow truck dragging my crumpled Mazda behind.

Despite this inauspicious beginning, we were married two months later.

I vividly remember Ivy’s first impressions. She had never seen streets so wide; for a time, she was afraid to cross. Operating a washing machine and microwave were skills she had to acquire. And, accustomed to the continuous sounds of crowing roosters, barking dogs, and squealing children, her most difficult adjustment was to the pervasive silence surrounding our house.

“It’s as if we have no neighbors,” my wife often complained.

We filled that silence with friends much like us. In the absence of the large family and community structures of the Philippines, we have created a substitute family here in the wilderness of America. That hasn’t been difficult given the West Coast’s proliferation of Filipino Americans, including nearly 700,000 in Southern California, with enclaves in Anaheim, Cerritos, Carson, and Long Beach. 

Consisting mostly of American men with younger Filipino wives and, increasingly, the children they have produced, our group—which began when some of the women connected on the Internet—has evolved into an active, though informal, association with frequent gatherings at various homes.

Today Ivy and I probably know more than 100 mixed couples scattered throughout Southern California, including many in Orange County. Like us, most met online. Many also have age gaps, though not always as great as ours. And almost all of the couples, at one time or another, have been misunderstood by their peers.

Like any family, this one has its share of squabbles. But it also forms the core of our social life, functioning much like Ivy’s village back home. Within this circle we celebrate holidays, baptisms, birthdays, and baby showers. When one woman has a baby, the others take her food. And on the rare occasions that tragedy strikes, we grieve with them as one.

We are acutely aware, of course, that others outside our group often look at us askance. We have theories as to why, but mine boils down to this: They don’t consider us legitimate. In a society that values—no, practically invented—love as the only valid basis for marriage, anything even suggesting other motives is suspect. And though online dating has become increasingly popular, many still don’t approve of relationships that seem arranged. There’s a reason some people persist in calling them “mail-order brides,” a term most of us find deeply offensive. True, some men and women have literally found their mates in catalogs, but that process bears little resemblance to the reality we know.

For starters, U.S. immigration law prohibits bringing a foreign fiancée to America without proof that you’ve actually met. More to the point, modern transportation and the advent of the Internet have put such relationships well within reach. Today it’s not only possible, but practical, to get to know someone intimately across several continents.

I’m not saying there aren’t transgressions. Everyone has heard of cases in which women “imported” from abroad have been seriously abused. Or, conversely, the women pretended love just to sidestep immigration laws or get a green card. I believe those are the exception rather than the rule. Most transnational couples we know enjoy real relationships marked by genuine affection. And, while establishing economic security is certainly a motive for many women from underdeveloped countries, there’s evidence that the resulting unions often succeed. (See Page 92.)

For Ivy and me, of course, it’s all very personal. Like any couple, we’ve had ups and downs. Many of our disagreements turn out to be misunderstandings caused by the language barrier. And contrasting cultural backgrounds occasionally become a source of conflict.

For the most part, though, I find the differences appealing, and each day still seems new. That has been especially true since the birth of our son in November 2010. As children will, Isaac has brought whole new dimensions to our lives. We are doting parents, to be sure. But our baby also seems to have conferred new levels of acceptance and respect among doubters in ways we never foresaw.

One of the many who has come around is my daughter, now 27. She never harbored moral or ethical objections to the marriage. But, having inhaled generous whiffs of local “wisdom” that it could never survive, she did have concerns for her father’s future, serious enough to create some reticence about meeting his new bride. “I’m just not ready,” she told me several times for about a year.

Though she eventually did visit us, I could tell she still had her doubts.Then along came Isaac and the needle gently shifted. Here, apparently, was evidence that we intended to see this thing through. My skeptical daughter fell in love with her little brother. And even her mom—my former spouse—is now Isaac’s gushing godmother.

All of which brings us to the present. At last, after some dark decades, I am once again part of a happy American family.Ivy and I have lots of dreams; later this year we hope to take Isaac on his first visit to the Philippines, and one day we’d like to build a little beach house on that gorgeous stretch of white sand.

We’d also like to stop being a nuisance to our Orange County neighbors. To that end we have a plan. This month Ivy and I will be celebrating our fourth anniversary. There will be another party with lots of foreign-born friends, an open garage and, yes, a big roasted pig on the table.

This time, however, we will do things differently. First I will call the police to assure them of our complete intention to follow the law. Then we’ll print up a batch of invitations for some of our neighbors. We sincerely hope they’ll come.

This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of Orange Coast magazine.

 

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