International Marriage: Herr and Madame, Señor and Mrs

10 Dec

Research at last begins to cast some light on the extent, causes and consequences of cross-border marriages


The excerpts about Taiwan are as follows:

Asia is the part of the world where cross-border marriages have been rising most consistently. According to Gavin Jones of the National University of Singapore, 5% of marriages in Japan in 2008-09 included a foreign spouse (with four times as many foreign wives as husbands). Before 1980, the share had been below 1%. In South Korea, over 10% of marriages included a foreigner in 2010, up from 3.5% in 2000. In both countries, the share of cross-border marriages seems to have stabilised lately, perhaps as a result of the global economic slowdown. The country with the biggest share of such unions is Taiwan, where 13% of wives in 2009 were foreigners, about the same level as in 1998, but a big fall from the peak in 2003, when 28% of all weddings involved a foreign-born wife. Chinese citizens are not considered foreigners in Taiwan and if you include marriages in which they are one of the spouses, the proportion is still higher. International marriages have played a significant role in modifying the ethnic homogeneity of all these East Asian countries.


Asia is different. In Europe and America, marriage tends to follow migration. In Asia, people marry to migrate. Marriages in South Korea, for example, are often arranged by a broker in an unromantic process that takes two or three days and costs the Korean groom $20,000-30,000. Similarly, Taiwan has many marriages between its male citizens and Vietnamese women. The growth began when Taiwanese companies started investing in Vietnam.


Local men in such countries, Mr Jones argues from Singapore, look for foreign brides for two reasons. First because of the so-called “marriage strike” affecting some East Asian societies. In the richer countries of East and South-East Asia, like Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan, a third or more of local women are not marrying; and those who do wed late, at 31 or 32. This is causing some men to look to foreign shores for potential mates. The other reason—specific to a few Asian societies—is because a combination of traditional preference for sons and the availability of sex-selective abortion skewed the sex ratio at birth 20 years ago, leaving too few native-born women now. South Korea is an example. In 1990, it had 117 boys born for every 100 girls. Men are looking abroad to plug the gap in their local marriage market.


Vietnamese girls are seen in much of Asia as the paradigm of the submissive foreign bride. But a study of their role in Taiwan by Ms Bélanger shows that many are married to men whose companies trade with Vietnam—and they are vital to the companies’ future. As one man told her, revealingly: “I have six trusted subordinates. One is my wife. One is her younger sister. They will not betray me.” Remittances to their families help keep the practice alive in Vietnam, even though many young men there dislike it and say they have been driven out of their villages by the shortage of brides and forced to migrate to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Similarly, marriage abroad is seen as so desirable by the Punjabi diaspora that the press in Punjab is full of advertisements offering to arrange marriages abroad.


Most demographic trends are irresistible forces. It is rare that government policy can make a big difference. But international marriage is sensitive to public policy. In the mid-2000s, Taiwan’s government, for example, took alarm at the number of foreign brides coming into the country. It did not slam the gates but started to wrap the marriage process in licensing and permits, insisting on better treatment of immigrant women. This reduced the number of foreign brides by more than half between 2003 and 2010.


Governments impose restrictions in the belief that cross-border marriages can destabilise their societies. Sometimes, their fears are understandable. In Taiwan, the share of international marriages doubled in five years. But such rapid change is highly unusual. By and large, marriage between people of different nationalities has grown more slowly than immigration. In the past few years, the increase in marriage has slowed further, probably reflecting global economic problems.




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