Asian Cross-border Marriage Migration: Demographic Patterns and Social Issues

Asian Cross-border Marriage Migration

Author(s): Wen-Shan Yang and Melody Chia-Wen Lu (eds.)

ISBN:          97890 8964 054 3

Publisher: Amsterdam University Press

Year:          2010

Price:         $49,50

Reviewed by Lisa C. Fischler, Associate Professor, Moravian College, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.

Distinguishing its main subject from labor migration globally, Asian Cross-border Marriage Migration adds cross-border marriage migration as a factor to the dynamics of the commodification of reproductive labor. By examining the regional marriage market in Asia, this volume draws attention to Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand and Vietnam–the “new” sending and receiving countries of foreign brides. Factors, such as low fertility rates, high divorce rates, and skewed sex ratios at birth, combine with domestic rural-urban migration, greying societies, and shortages of care labor to shape the phenomenon of cross-border marriage in Asia. Such marriages are “a strategy for men and families in disadvantageous marriage markets to form households for sustenance and reproduction” (p. 17). Divided into three sections (introduction, demographic patterns, and social issues), the nine substantive chapters in this edited collection focus on the “local socio-demographic factors and economic developments of receiving societies” among the “new” countries previously not covered in research (p. 22). These chapters also make a significant contribution by challenging the dominant discourses and stereotypes of marriage immigrants in order to suggest changes to policies related to cross-border marriages. This contribution will be of interest to scholars in the fields of demography, sociology, and anthropology.

The first section, titled“Introduction,” contains two chapters. One of the chapters delineates the contributions, goals, and focus of the book while the other covers the topic of East Asian marriage migration in greater depth. Chapter one provides an overview of each chapter and discusses not only the demographic features of cross-border marriages but also the related social factors and policy implications. This chapter notes that the collection raises such questions as “What is a successful marriage?” and “How do we evaluate cross-border marriages?” Chapter two more succinctly lays out the current issues involved in and ways of comparing cases of marriage migration in East Asia. One key argument for studying cross-border marriages as an issue separate from labor migration in East Asia is due to the pervasive social and political anxieties engendered by this phenomenon due to the desire (even if the reality is far from this) for ethnic homogeneity as manifested in East Asian nations’ highly restrictive immigration policies. Given these highly restrictive immigration policies, marriage becomes one of few legal ways to settle in fairly closed East Asian societies. Since women are dominant in both the regional labor supply for domestic workers and in cross-border marriages, the feminization of migration is clearly a timely issue in contemporary East Asia. Globalization, in the form of both individual agency and social structures, shapes marriage migration. While there is diversity across East Asian cases, demand factors usually include lower-class men holding disadvantageous positions in their own domestic marriage markets, as well as a surplus of marriage age males and a significant dearth of marriage age females. Supply factors encompass rural economic hardship in sending societies and women’s motivations to pursue both better economic opportunities and good marriages. Of the seven propositions for making comparisons suggested by chapter two, many of them are investigated in the remaining chapters (3-10), but not with explicit cross-chapter reference.

Focused on the demographic features of cross-border marriage in East Asia, chapters three through six also address comparative issues of immigration policies, citizenship regimes, gendered migration experiences, and the contextual constructions of womanhood. By examining data sources like the census and divorce and marriage registration, chapter three finds multiple reasons for the feminization of immigration and cross-border marriages in Japan. Although it does not suffer from a national skewed sex ratio to the degree of contemporary China, Japan manifests imbalances in the marriable population between rural and urban areas such that migration by women to major metropolitan areas like Tokyo engenders incentives for rural men to seek out foreign brides. This type of “marriage squeeze” in addition to highly restrictive immigration policies for low-skilled domestic workers makes Japan an interesting case for research. Moreover, Japan’s greying society, a recent law granting Nikkeijin (foreign citizens of Japanese descent) “long-term resident status,” bursting of its economic bubble in the early 1990s, and the initiatives of local governments and private matchmaking services, among other factors, have resulted in a shift in the nationalities of foreign brides in Japan from mainly Korean (early 1990s) to mainly Chinese, with Korean and Filipino running second. Chinese and Korean female immigrants tended to be better educated than their Filipino and Brazilian counterparts; whether or not they held paying jobs or fulfilled unremunerated reproductive functions in a household depended on their education levels, nationality, and geographic location within Japan. Such diversity is not as evident in chapter four’s case of Hong Kong’s cross-border marriages because of the geographic and cultural proximity of this former colony to mainland China. Using data drawn from Hong Kong’s marriage registry, chapter four shows that a significant portion of cross-border marriages in Hong Kong are between Hong Kong men and mainland Chinese women. These women tend to be quite a bit younger than their Hong Kong husbands, who most likely have been married at least once before. These women also are of lower occupational and educational status than their Hong Kong female counterparts. In addition, their husbands do not have particularly high status either occupationally or educationally. Like Japanese men seeking foreign brides, Hong Kong men tend to enter into cross-border marriages in order to improve their social status in a domestic context wherein their low occupational and educational levels disadvantage them in the local marriage market.

Chapters five and six demonstrate further similarities and differences among countries in East Asia as regards demographic features of cross-border marriage. In the case of Taiwan, chapter five discusses the multilayered relationship between minority group status and fertility among foreign brides. In 2005, Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan passed the “Foreign Spouse Care and Counseling Fund” (Foreign Spouse Fund) in response to the increasing numbers of female marriage immigrants, particularly from Southeast Asia (waiji xinniang, foreign brides) and mainland China (dalu xinniang, “mainland brides”). Taiwan leads East Asia in the drop in total fertility rate. Therefore, the government’s support of immigration has been as a result of the decline in the domestic working-age population. Drawing of marriage registration data for foreign brides, the chapter compares native Taiwanese, Vietnamese, and mainland Chinese women. Decisions about birth-spacing among migrant women may depend on the sex of the first child. The older the migrant woman is, the higher her education level, and the more dependent on welfare services her Taiwanese husband, the smaller the number of children she may have. However, the chapter’s findings on fertility suggest that cross-border marriages to Vietnamese and mainland Chinese women will not boost Taiwan’s declining fertility rates significantly. Chapter six explores marriage and divorce for cross-border brides in S. Korea; figures for both cross-border marriages and divorces have been on the rise. A reduction in fertility rates in S. Korea, as in Taiwan and Japan, has contributed to the growth in female marriage immigrants. In addition, the feminization of immigration in East Asia, traditional preferences for age differences between husbands and wives, improvements in gender equity in S. Korea, and globalization-related economic restructuring and job opportunities have all shaped the influx of foreign brides into S. Korea. Similarly to Taiwan, S. Korea instituted a “migrant worker permission system” to cope with a domestic labor shortage in 2004 and the nationality of the largest percentage of cross-border brides is mainland Chinese. However, these types of cross-chapter explicit comparisons are missing in the volume, but would enhance the value of the overall collection’s key insights and policy recommendations.

Concerned with the social issues related to cross-border marriages, chapters seven through ten articulate the economic causes for marriage migration, the influence of foreign brides’ aspirations for modernity, acculturation and education, and social capital’s effect on educational strategies. Following the feminization of migration trend in East Asia, chapter seven delineates the economic reasons for Vietnamese women immigrating to Taiwan for marriage. With data drawn from a Vietnamese university survey, the chapter cites poverty, population growth and natural disasters in rural areas, in addition to high male mortality during the Vietnam War and mainly male emigration as reasons for outmigration despite economic liberalization and economic growth in Vietnam. The pull factors in Taiwan include a common Confucian heritage, Taiwan as a huge investor in Vietnam, and social networks (monetary and familial) created by previous Vietnamese female immigrants to Taiwan. Negative stigmatization in Vietnam can challenge these female marriage immigrants to Taiwan, but since many of their families find cross-border marriage to be the only way out of rural poverty, there are positive results as well. Derived from interviews within a Lao cultural area of northern Thailand, chapter eight discusses marriages between Thai women from this area and Western (meaning Caucasian) men as a process of negotiation between a “transnational imaginary” of modernity and personal identity. Women in northern Thailand have a gender role, defined as being responsible for providing for their households, which has engendered their outmigration. This situation is similar to some of the characteristics of Vietnamese women who marry Taiwanese men, but no cross-chapter comparison is provided. As in Vietnam, the stigma attached to Thai women marrying Western men still exists but is diminishing as such as marriage results in greater economic status for family in country of origin. Social networks, marriage agencies, and the internet served as ways to marry outside one’s home country for Thai women. In addition, interviews with Thai women revealed that they felt they benefited greatly from “exposing themselves to new ideas and practices relating to marriage, gender and sexuality of Western cultures” (p. 195). This exposure opened up a new space for Thai women who were widowed or divorced to negotiate with Thai men over gender identity and marriage domestically.

Chapters nine and ten focus on the relationship between education and cross-border marriages in Taiwan and Japan. Chapter nine suggests that, much like the marriages between Vietnamese women and Western men discussed in chapter seven, Taiwanese men’s marriages to mainland Chinese women are mostly commercially based. Domestic social status of a foreign bride’s husband is a good predictor of her better adaptation to her new culture. Hence, Taiwanese men of lower social status are more likely to have conflicts in their marriages to Vietnamese women while living in Taiwan. In addition, support from families and effective policies helped female marriage immigrants acculturate better to their adoptive societies. Using a questionnaire supported by the Tainan City Government in Taiwan, this chapter’s study found that European and North American spouses of Taiwanese partners had less trouble adapting in Taiwan. Despite language and cultural commonalities, mainland Chinese spouses of Taiwanese partners in Taiwan felt more discriminated against than Southeast Asian spouses, a pattern linked to the political situation between Taiwan and mainland China. Ethnicity, then, and nationality played a key role in adaptation by foreign spouses to Taiwanese culture. Chapter ten expands on the idea of acculturation among cross-border marriages by tracking Japanese women’s marriage to Muslim men. Fitting a rather unique pattern in this volume, these Japanese women and their children tend to live in their foreign husband’s country of origin while their husbands remain in Japan to work. With a particular focus on Pakistan, the chapter found correlations between cross-border marriages and two factors: the mainly male population of Pakistanis in Japan and the need to acquire residence visas to work in Japan. For the Pakistani men in Japan after marriage to Japanese spouses, self-employment becomes a primary avenue to employment due to language skills, social discrimination, and marginalization. Using survey data, the chapter suggests that a major reason for Japanese women’s immigration, with their children, to their Pakistani husband’s country of origin is a lack of social resources to support an Islamic education (for these children) within Japan. This diaspora of Japanese wives and Pakistani husbands creates, as in the words of chapter seven, a “transnational space” for the renegotiation of both Japanese and Pakistani identity through the use of social networks, both familial and friend-based. The comparisons across chapters in this volume have been made more explicit by this review, but readers might have appreciated greater attention to such comparisons by the collection’s authors, especially given the propositions for comparison delineated in chapter two. Moreover, quite a few of the sources referenced in a number of the chapters are not included in either the footnotes for individual chapters nor in the collective bibliography. Such additions would have made this well-researched book even stronger, but should not detract from the volume’s important significance for the emerging research field of marriage migration as distinct from labor migration.