The New-Age Asian Woman

The focus of this blog is to analyze the ways in which media portrays how Asian women are brought to America assuming the role of a house wife. Looking at the films Bride and Prejudice (2004) and Picture Bride (1995) I will analyze the situations that led  Lalita, and Miyo to marry and how it affected their social statuses and their agency as individuals. I will analyze the women in this film in relation to Mila Glodava and Richard Onizuka’s book Mail-Order Brides: Women for Sale which focuses on the multi-million dollar mail-order bride industry. 
 

Picture Bride

The 1995 film Picture Bride is filmed to take place between 1907 and 1924. During this time there was influx of Japanese, Korean, and Okinawan women immigrating to Hawaii. These women became the wives of men they only  met through photographs and letters. These women became known as “picture brides”. Matchmakers and families began using the modern invention of photography to entice men and women in separate countries to marry. The main character Niyo, is a young Japanese woman in her early 20’s who follows her aunt’s advice to marry Matsuji. In his letters and photographs, Matsuji appears to be a prominent, handsome, romantic, Japanese farmer from Hawaii. However, upon arrival Miyo experiences disappointment with her new life as a wife.

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The following are a few pictures of actual “picture brides”

Japanese Picture Brides at Immigration     blog pic 5

 

Bride and Prejudice

The 2004 comedy Bride and Prejudice is a Bollywood rendition of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. The film centers on Lalita and her four sisters living with their parents in Amritsar, India. Lalita and her four sisters are constantly under pressure by their parents to marry wealthy and respectable men. Despite Indian tradition, all Lalita cares about is marrying someone she loves. In the film, the eldest sister Jaya, falls in love with wealthy Indian Balraj, who is visiting from London with his sister and friend Darcy for a wedding. Darcy and Lalita begin a love/hate relationship as she challenges his notions of India and marriage.

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Cultural Factors

The film Picture Bride is based on the immigration of Japanese and Korean men into Hawaii to work temporarily on sugar plantations through labor contracts between 1886 and 1924. However, a lot of men never returned to their home countries due to debt to plantation owners. As a means to encourage their permanent stay, plantation owners encouraged laborers to marry, which would also help limit gambling, drinking and prostitution. The Gentlemen’s Agreement  of 1907 which prohibited the immigration of more Japanese laborers, also contributed to immigration of “picture brides.” Japanese men could either go to Japan and get married, or ask family members to find them brides (Glodava & Onizuka).

This film captures the ways in which photography made arranged marriages overseas easier. For example, Niyo used it to her advantage since it allowed for little investigation of family background, given that family lines were a very important aspect of marriage in Japan. The fact that Niyo’s parents had both died of tuberculosis, it had tainted her chances of ever finding a husband in Japan. Although it was not explicitly stated in the film, I assume this was particularly shameful because there was a chance she too would have tuberculosis and no men would want to wed her.

In the film, there isn’t much background about Japanese arranged marriages, other than the use of a matchmaker that pairs the couples and is responsible for delivering the letters and pictures. In the first and only letter that Niyo receives from Matsuji he describes Hawaii as a beautiful paradise where “money is earned with ease” which we later come to realize is very far from the truth. Glodava and Onizuka explain that this type of description was common and strategically used to reinforce the perceived mysticism of the West, which would explain why young women would leave everything behind and enter a foreign country to marry. Glodava and Onizuka describe that another reason why “picture brides” were allowed to leave Japan in large quantities was because it would “relieve the countries population pressure” (p.36). This can be understood by looking at Asian women’s role in their respective countries compared to men. Two of the reasons why they are undervalued is because they lose their family name upon marrying, they don’t make financial contributions to support the family before marriage like men do, and men take care of their parents in old age. Women also carry the  pressure to give birth to a male heir. All of these circumstances have lead scientists to believe they are the reason for the rise of female infanticide and wife abuse (Glodava & Onizuka, 40).

All of these institutional factors facilitated the transmission of all of these women from one country to another, and for whose benefit? Men. You might think, ‘No, it also benefits countries like the U.S. and Japan.’ I would argue that the answer is still, men given that in this period males made up the majority of government positions. From a racial power dynamic perspective, it was a way for the White men to control the Japanese and Korean men in the plantations. From a gender power dynamic, it was a way to exercise power over women on a transnational scale. The decision to allow these women to immigrate to the United States was not to improve their life chances like one might assume just by looking at the film at face value.

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The focus of the film Bride and Prejudice is on the Indian tradition of arranged marriage in the 21st century. It is framed in a positive light given that the bride and groom now have a choice in the matter. However, the modern arranged marriage seems to place more importance on the economic assets than on the  character of the individual. We can assume that the reason why such emphasis is placed on wealth is because Lalita’s mom equates it to high class and culture. However, we can see that Lalita demonstrates more refined manners and etiquette compared to the financially stable, Mr. Kholi, who eats with his mouth open.

Another reason why the Bakshi family is so consumed by the need to marry off their daughters is due to the dowries that are paid to the groom’s family. It is an Indian tradition where the bride’s parents gift  the groom for taking their daughter and relieving them of the financial responsibility. In other words, they are marrying their daughters out of need since they don’t make enough to support all four girls. Glodava and Onizuka refer to the dowry as problematic since it places a monetary value on women, thus the woman can be seen as property that can be bought or sold (39). A cultural tradition like the the dowry reinforces the unbalanced power dynamics between men and women.  Glodava and Onizuka describe that in India “a baby girl is born with a curse of being neglected; women’s bodies are exploited, abused, sold, aged and burned” (41).

Such violence and hate towards women can be seen in the recent gruesome rape of a young woman in India:

It is absolutely mind blowing to think that after gaining the courage to speak out and try to prosecute your rapist, a police would suggest you to marry him! If I were a woman in India I would feel scared to death to speak out against my rapist. I would lose my voice.

However, hate towards women in this country is not a thing of the past.

As we can see, the hateful remarks and death threats Zerlina Maxwell received after speaking out against gun control being a solution to rape, very much support her argument like she said. It is a perfect example that highlights how sexism, racism, and gender inequality still persist. The fact that she is a woman of color makes this issue much more complex given that women of color are highly sexualized. I think that if  Zerlina would have been a White woman the degree of verbal violence would have been dramatically less intense.

Mobility or Reproduction of Inequality?

In the film Picture Bride Niyo travels to Hawaii to meet and marry Matsiju.  Upon seeing his old age, she expresses confusion and demands the clerk to verify whether he is her Matsiju in the picture. As the clerk looks over the picture, Matsuji explains that he did not have a current picture to send her. Niyo looks shocked and extremely disappointed once she hears that he is really 43 years old. Immediately after, all the women and their soon-to-be husbands gather in a storage room by the docks where a priest marries them on the spot. There was even more disappointment once Niyo reached his house, which was a wooden shack hidden in sugar cane fields.

Niyo lived in a city in Japan so she had never had to do any laboring tasks such as tilling the fields, which became her official job aside from cooking and cleaning for Matsuji. However, given that she felt betrayed by Matsuji she decided she would end the marriage as soon as she could save enough money.  She needed $300 to pay him back for bringing her over and another $300 for her ticket back. However, even with a second job washing laundry she quickly learns that earning that much money is going to take longer than she expected. For example, working in the fields and washing clothes only got her $11 the first month. This exemplifies the little to none upward mobility that women were able to achieve.

According to Glodava and Onizuka this experience of surprise and shock was quite common among “picture brides”. For example, men commonly sent pictures of their younger selves and often exaggerated their success to convince young attractive women to marry them. In fact, a  lot of these women came to the U.S. and lived in worse conditions than in their home countries (34). It is important to note that despite the fact that it seems that her living conditions are meager, she actually enjoys the privilege of not living in the workers camp where there is little privacy.

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In the film Bride and Prejudice the main character Lalita refuses to marry a wealthy man like her mother, Mrs. Bakshi, would like her to. In fact, her mother tells her show won’t  speak to her ever again if she refuses to marry Mr. Kholi, who is a middle-class, Indian, green card-holder living in Los Angeles, willing to marry her. Mrs. Bakshi tries to convince her by telling her that for her and Mr. Bakshi, it was marriage first and love second. In that scene Mr. Bakshi tells Lalita that he won’t ever talk to her if she does marry Mr. Kholi.

Later on in the film Lalita and Mr. Darcy commence a weird relationship given that they are both attracted to each other physically but their social statuses get in the way of their love. For example, she sees Mr. Darcy as being a neo-liberal, capitalist, business man looking to exploit India. She states, ” you want people to come to India, without dealing with the Indians…that’s what all tourists want, 5-star comfort with a little bit of culture thrown in.” She also challenges his assumptions of Indian women to be simple and traditional, which she sees as patronizing. She’s in an interesting place, given that on the one hand her mother tells her not to sound “too intelligent” yet this is the characteristic that is attractive to Darcy.

In terms of agency, interestingly enough Lalita has more choice over who to marry compared to Darcy.  Even though Darcy has more economic mobility, his mother controls who he dates which is ironic since he had said arranged marriages were “backwards.” Even after he is sure of his feelings for Lalita, he is worried that his mother won’t approve of Lalita’s low social status. However, in the end love is triumphant, and they end up marrying in India without his mother. Although it does not state whether or not they moved to the United States, her upward mobility is implied since he is a millionaire. However, in this story, Darcy not only gained a wife, but also gained a voice through Lalita. This story is obviously fictitious, but it does highlight cultural gender expectations in India, specifically marriage- as a means of upward mobility.

When are you going to get married Alex?

Although I am not an Asian-American woman, I am a woman of color with distinct gender expectations. I am a Mexican-American heterosexual woman with a traditional Mexican upbringing. Even though I was born in the U.S. I was raised in Mexico up until I was 12. As a result, I carry expectations similar to those of the female characters in the films described above. Ideally, my family would expect me to marry a respectable man, have kids, and tend for them by cooking and cleaning. However, living in the 21st century I am now also expected to go to college and have a career on top of everything else. Although, in my family there isn’t a history of arranged marriages like in India, I feel much like Lalita in the sense that I have expectations of who and when I want to marry yet at the same time I feel the pressures from my family to marry someone soon and have kids.

My father has expressed a desire to have grandchildren at his age, but at the same time he also wants me to get a job so I can be financially independent. The part of him that wants me to marry and have kids I believe is rooted in his “machista” upbringing. This type of thinking is based on the disparate worth of a female compared to a male. Gender roles are strictly enforced and rigid. A woman is expected to stay home and tend for the household by cooking and cleaning. The man is expected to go out and work to provide for his family. Upon returning from work, his wife must feed him promptly and be at his service for the rest of the day. Given that Mexico is primarily a Catholic country, the women have little access to contraceptives and thus spend most of their time pregnant or child-rearing. As a result of this type of thinking my father places more importance on my brothers . He has explicitly stated that he must support them by funding their education because my two brothers will have to get a good job to support their future families. My sister and I, on the other hand, will get married to someone who will support us financially. For this reason, he explained he would give priority to my brothers’ education and my sister and I would come second.

The reason why I titled this post with this question is because I have been asked this question more in recent months. I think it’s due to the fact that I’m about to graduate college but also because for other people like my family it is an event that is overdue.

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Meme’s seem to be today’s medium of popular information. The following are memes about society’s understanding of mail-order brides:

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This meme is significant given that it is a white man instead of any other ethnicity. Glodava & Onizuka cite The Japanese American Citizens League who characterize the men who order “mail-order brides” to be “white, much older than the brides they choose, are socially alienated, experience a feeling of personal inadequacy, are politically conservative, frustrated with the women’s movement, and find the traditional Asian value of deference to men reassuring.”  The way certain men describe their “successful” mail-order bride marriages,  reveals that some men just care about having “control and power” over their new wives and do not really desire a “loving and enduring relationship” (29).

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This meme is very literal in the sense that it is mocking the term “mail-order” as if women could really be delivered through the mail. This shouldn’t be confused with the fact that women can literally be ordered through catalogs with ads of women selling themselves. According to Glodava and Onizuka the reason why most women agree to it is because they are escaping a life of poverty and oppression. In fact women from the Philippines make up more than 50% of the mail-order brides worldwide given the horrible economic conditions, corruption, and militarization, among other things in the country (47, 48).

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This meme implies that it would be extremely sad to be divorced by a mail-order bride only because the man went through the trouble of bringing her to the U.S.. However, it fails to acknowledge that each party has certain expectations of one another which reality can quickly shatter. In certain cases, women can become the victims of spousal abuse. In a lot of cases, the women are too scared or ashamed to seek help and become isolated from the rest of society (Glodava & Onizuka, 64). The notion that the brides owe to the men can  reduces their agency as individuals and affect their decision to speak out and seek help. It could lead to the endurance of more abuse and could even lead to death.

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References

Glodava, Mila and Richard Onizuka. Mail-Order Brides: Women for Sale. Fort Collins: Alaken Inc., 1994. Print.

“Picture Bride.” Wikipedia. Website. March, 13th, 2013.

Picture Bride. Dir. Kayo Hatta. Miramax Films. 1995. Film.

Bride and Prejudice. Dir. Gurinder Chada. 2004. Film.