(Note from John Rabe: This is the short version of David Haldane's full-length article, "My Imported Bride," in Orange Coast Magazine.)
I’m pouring drinks when a police officer arrives at my house in 2011. It’s a Saturday afternoon and we’re hosting a baby shower in our open garage. “We got a complaint from your neighbor,” he says, looking around at all the dark-skinned people eating a pig roasted whole. After he leaves, I approach the neighbor who complained, a woman in her 60s who has lived here for many years. She says, “Your personal life is so messed up,”
I understand the reaction. I’m a 63-year-old white man married to a beautiful young woman from the Philippines. My neighbor is just saying openly what others say with stares. That’s the hazard of living in Orange County with a “mail-order bride.”
Once upon a time, my neighbor would have loved living next to me. I was married to a woman roughly my own age with a similar ethnic background. We had two kids. The most exotic island we ever visited was Santa Catalina. It was the suburban dream and we assumed it would last forever.
Then everything fell apart. It was my fault. One day I realized I’d become an American stereotype: the middle-aged husband who imagines something better over the next ridge. It became my preoccupation and led into the bottomless pit of an extramarital affair. Because she is a forgiving person, our breakup was not as acrimonious as some. But for me it was the beginning of a long, dark journey into self-recrimination.
When I finally emerged around 2000, I was a different man; one who’d learned a painful lesson about family and commitment. But in the roughly twenty-five years since I’d been single, relations between the genders had changed. Many women now had priorities other than finding the man of their dreams. So I wandered without a compass in the dating desert, chalking up a string of failed flings.
I don’t remember specifically when it first occurred to me to look elsewhere for a mate, but one night I impulsively Googled “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. It felt strange at first, but then I began noticing how friendly the women were. And eager to commit to someone like me.
I changed from an invisible older man into a rock star. Of course that appealed to my ego, but on a deeper level it appealed to my need for stability in a world in which the love I wanted seemed impossible to find. These women seemed to have traditional values, were open to matrimony, and dreamed of blissful lives in American suburbs. I understood that part of their incentive was economic – they wanted the American dream. 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 idea that two can live better than one. These Filipino women were looking for something I could provide—a better life in the U.S.
I started spending evenings on the website chatting with interesting women. I quickly learned to ignore anyone who brought up sick relatives with unpaid hospital bills in the first conversation, and gradually narrowed my search over the next several months. One night, glancing at my screen, I saw 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.
Ivy was then almost 24 to my 57, and I was stunned by her detailed responses. Two weeks into our talk, I confessed I was looking for someone to stay with me the rest of my life. She wrote back, “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.”
There were 33 years between us; had I completely lost my mind? What would my friends and family think? “You say that I am young,” Ivy wrote, “but I am fixed in my mind and know what I want. Most important is that I meet a real person who can be trusted and loved.” Sometimes I wondered if I was just being played, but her message remained consistent. And so I decided to go to the Philippines to find out.
Several weeks, two flights, and a ferry ride later, Ivy met me with a chaperoning cousin in tow. Before we could talk, she hustled us aboard a boat laden with pigs and bananas for a three-hour trip. We were headed to Ivy’s thatched-roof village on an island off the coast of Mindanao famous for its mangrove forests and white-sand beaches.
It was not love at first sight. Ivy, so effusive in her emails, was too shy to even look me in the eye, but her mother wasn’t shy at all. “So,” she said, getting right to the point after showing me a seat, “you want to marry my daughter.” We hadn’t made any such plans, but I didn’t want to be disagreeable. “Well,” I responded, “what would you think of that?”
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? Eventually they let Ivy go alone with me on a stroll. We weren’t alone for long; on the beach we got a second round of questioning, this time from a large group of smiling locals. Obviously, the town was not going to let one of its favorite daughters—or any of its daughters— be whisked away by just anyone.
I was awakened at 6 the next morning by the scream of a pig being slaughtered. That afternoon the family and most of the neighbors enjoyed a feast of lechon, the roasted pork traditionally offered only on the most special occasions.
But this was just the beginning—not the end—of our discussions about the future. I made several more trips to the Philippines during the extended courtship that followed. Once I sat behind Ivy on a 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, I asked Ivy to be my wife. She said she shared my feelings and immediately agreed.
On Feb. 3, 2008, nearly two years after our first meeting online, my fiancé arrived at LAX, and we were married two months later.
I vividly remember Ivy’s first impressions of America. She had never seen streets so wide, never had operated a microwave. And, accustomed to crowing roosters, barking dogs, and squealing children, it was so quiet in our neighborhood that she often complained, “It’s as if we have no neighbors!”
We filled that silence with friends much like us. Absent the Philippines’ large family structures, we have created a substitute community. There are, after all, nearly 700-thousand Filipino-Americans living in enclaves such as Anaheim, Cerritos, Carson, and Long Beach. Our group is mostly American men with younger Filipino wives and, increasingly, their children. Today, Ivy and I probably socialize with more than a hundred mixed couples scattered across Southern California. Like us, most met online. Many also have age gaps, though not always as great as ours. And almost all of us are misunderstood by our neighbors.
I guess they assume I’m abusing Ivy, or that she’s using me for money. But while it’s certainly true that some women enter the US as fiancées pretending love to sidestep immigration laws, I believe they’re the exception, not 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 these marriages often succeed.
For me, it boils down to this: traditional Americans don’t consider us legitimate. In a society that practically invented love as the only valid basis for marriage, anything even suggesting other motives is suspect.
Our son Isaac, who was born in November, 2010, has changed a few minds. My daughter from my first marriage, now 27, never voiced moral or ethical objections to my second marriage. But, having inhaled generous whiffs of local “wisdom” that it could never survive, she delayed meeting Ivy for more than a year … saying, “I’m just not ready.” But Isaac was evidence that we intended to see this thing through. My skeptical daughter fell in love with her little brother. And even 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 neighbors. To that end we have a plan. For our fourth anniversary, we’ll have another party with lots of foreign-born friends, an open garage and a big roasted pig on the table. But this time, I’ll call the police to assure them of our intention to follow the law … and print up a batch of invitations for the neighbors.