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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Americans and Cross-border Relationships in France and Japan

A few days ago on Facebook someone posted a link to a blogpost where an American man described his "discovery" of European women and then went on to rant about American women and how he didn't think much of them.  Similar articles can be found all over the Internet.  It took me about 10 seconds find this one.  Such anger, resentment, and specious comparisons.  These gentlemen are definitely not "bien dans leurs baskets," I say to myself and then I move on.

When I come across this sort of thing, I have to get past my visceral reaction to paint these guys as idiot adolescents and admit that I am very poorly placed to criticize someone who looks for love across borders. If this American man didn't marry a compatriot, well, neither did I.  And while I certainly don't write angry posts about the failings of American men (nor am I carrying some sort of grudge against them) I dated, married and had two children with a European, not an American.

So I need to check my reaction and be sure that I'm not the pot to their kettle.   Looking at it more broadly, I do think there may be a double standard operating here.  Or at least a kind of refusal to look at the larger picture.  I've lived and worked in two countries where I think I see it.  Perhaps you see it differently but let's have a look together.

When I moved abroad I moved to France and married a Frenchman.  But even before I left the US, my friends, family and the women at work (many of them married) had pretty much the same reactions:  "How romantic!" they said.  And there was a lot of talk about how lucky I was to be actually living their fantasies of being swept off one's feet by a charming sensual Frenchman and going off to live in France, a country where women were adored and treated with Old World courtesy combined with passion and romance.  In those reactions were there not judgements and stereotypes? Absolutely.  And in those first few years in France I noticed there were quite a few American women married to French men, but relatively few American men married to French women.  I think that has changed somewhat in 25 years, but the pattern is still more American women with French men and not usually the reverse.

Fast forward a decade or so and I found myself in Japan and found a completely different cross-border marriage pattern back in the first decade of the 21st century.  In Japan (and in Asia overall) one is more likely to find an American man married to an Asian woman.  Fair number of sterotypes and judgements operating there too with some men in the US congratulating these fellows on their luck at finding women who are sensual and know how to treat their husbands or boyfriends right.  My goodness, change the gender and doesn't that sound familiar?

And here too the pattern has changed a bit with more North American and European women marrying Japanese men and settling in Japan. Or Thai men which is actually a return to an older marriage pattern.  Eric Cohen notes his essay in Sex and Tourism:  Journey of Romance, Love and Lust that "Until the 1960's, intermarriage of Thais with Westerners was limited in extent, 'except for those involving members of the Thai elite' (Smith, 1971:128).  Such marriages typically involved Thai men and foreign women (Smith 1971:128) rather than the opposite, currently dominant pattern."  So American men who extol the virtues of Thai women versus American women on the Internet should be aware that Thai men have a long history of finding American women to be very attractive marriage partners. A bit ironic, isn't it?

So here we have Americans abroad and two countries with very gendered 21st century cross-border marriage patterns. There are some interesting  dynamics going on here that merit further research.

Clearly, education and socio-economic status are (or were) important here.  I have never met an American woman married to a Frenchman who didn't have at least a university degree and I've walked into women's clubs where there were quite a few women with Masters degrees or even PhD's. The American men I have met in Japan are far more diverse with a range from a high school diploma to some college to a university degree (usually a BA).

Most of the American men in Japan that I've met found their wives while they were in the military. The civilians on the other hand came as English teachers or academics during the Japanese economic boom, and they met their spouses while they were on short-term teaching contracts.  This is also true of the civilian women I know in Japan who are married to Japanese men.  The American women married to French who live in France usually met their husbands at university or in study abroad programs, or as tourists, or when their future spouses were expatriated to the US for business or study.

The global hierarchy of nations is also, I think, a factor here. France, Japan and the US are all rich developed OECD nations and there is a lot of tourism, international student migration, and labor migration going on among them.  Yes, much of the labor migration falls into the Highly Qualified Migrant category but that's a very broad label that includes someone with a four year degree - something that doesn't buy a graduate as much as it did in the US. In this hierarchy France probably wins the race since both Americans and Japanese have a very high opinion of French culture.  Also Japan doesn't have that "American in Paris" imaginary that makes for successful expat novels and memoirs.  I think the "American in Tokyo" does exist but it's fairly recent and may have reached its apogee in the Japanese boom period.

Perhaps I am making too much of this but I notice that when an American abroad says that he or she lives in France, the reactions are very positive and other Americans abroad or in the US don't ask why that person is living in the Hexagon - it's just assumed that it is a great place to be and isn't that person lucky to be there?  Japan is seen as exotic and interesting but long-term American residents get more questions about why exactly they would want to live there for so many years.

And finally, let's talk about race - the American Original Sin.  I think some of that is at work here as well.  American women and men who marry French men and women are assumed to be European-Americans marrying Europeans.  And that means fewer comments and criticisms because it's taken for granted that like is more or less marrying like and the only differences are cultural which can easily be overcome by an effort at integration. Asian-Americans, African-Americans, Native-Americans  are invisible.  Which is ridiculous.  African-Americans have been "Americans in Paris" for a very long time.  Centuries, in fact.

In Japan and the United States race is perceived to be one of those major differences that make American and Japanese couples kind of problematic.  They are certainly far more visible and I think that they face much harsher judgement, or at least much more scrutiny.  When Americans talk about marriage fraud, for example, (someone marrying an American citizen to get a Green Card) the foreign spouses are almost always said to be from Asia or Latin America.  In contrast to the articles that I mentioned earlier in this post about the attraction of Asian women compared to American women, there are also quite a few articles that sternly warn the men that they are being taken for a ride by their Asian girlfriends or wives and their only value to these women is their money, their exoticism, or their access to the United States.

Frankly, I have never seen a headline in a major American newspaper insinuating that Western Europeans pose this sort of problem or threat.   Or that American women marrying Frenchmen should be extra careful lest they be taken advantage of.  In that light, could we not view some of the articles by American men about the superiority of relationships with Japanese (or Asian) women as a defensive maneuver?  They, unlike American women who marry French men, must explain themselves and justify why they are in relationships with women of a different culture and race.  At its ugliest some comments and perceptions come perilously close to viewing American women who marry Europeans as marrying up, and American men who marry Asians as marrying down.

To those who argue that Japanese are well-perceived in our time and what is the problem, let me remind you that there is a long and terrible history of discrimination against Japanese in the United States and I personally think that anyone who says that this has completely disappeared is dreaming.  It's probably much better than it was in the 20th century, but I would argue that it is still not completely gone. Especially on the American West Coast.

Those are a few of my thoughts on this based on what I've observed living in both Asia and Europe.  Feel entirely free to disagree with me.  It's something I am genuinely curious about and try to make sense of from time to time.  More information or a different perspective would be very welcome.

What makes me concerned is that I see a kind of American gender war carried abroad.  There are judgements being made about cross-border relationships based on hierarchies of nations, race, and socio-economic status. It is really dangerous to say that a spouse of this or that nationality is superior in some way to other nationalities or even one's own, and that one derives (or loses) some sort of status based on some very racist, sexist, and class-based sterotypes about one's wife or husband.

Perhaps American men and women abroad might like to work on this one together.  Fundamentally, we all have very similar problems when we marry outside our culture:  problems with language, deskilling, divorce, custody battles, legal residency, bi-cultural families and the like.  It is truly unfair to cast aspersions on, question the motives of, or exalt a fellow American just because he or she married this or that person and lives abroad.  It is also not helpful to tell someone whose cross-border, cross-cultural relationship went down in flames, We told you so.

How about we all start with making a very different assumption?   That our compatriot has met an individual man or women who is not a stereotype, a representative of his or her nation, but a person.

How very fortunate, we could say, he or she is to have found love so far from home.  There may be disappointments and challenges along the way but isn't that just as true as of marriages that don't cross cultures or national borders?

And then we simply wish both of them a long and happy life together.


Andrew said...

Nice reflections!

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Thank you, Andrew. This was a brain dump and not at all an academic exercise. I tried to write from experience which I am more than happy to admit is entirely subjective and that it would be dangerous to take my word for it. That said, I think there is something here worthy of attention and further research. There is an important intersection here between nationality, race/ethnicity, class and gender that I would like to be able to articulate better. I hope to challenge my perceptions as I continue my studies and we'll see where it takes me..

I would like to recommend a very good book about marriage migration, it's called Global Marriage by Dr. Lucy Williams. I read it a couple of years ago but I didn't take notes and I didn't remember much of the material. I am re-reading it for a paper (and taking many notes) and it really is a fine work.

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