The Good Daughters of Isaan (3) – Marriage to a Western man, an act of empowerment for Isaan women?

Cover photo by Henrik Bohn Ipsen / Heartbound – A Different Kind of Love Story

Members of the Thai middle-class and Bangkok dwellers tend to look down on Isaan women who marry Westerners at the same time they don’t support policies that could benefit the marginalized in Isaan. But some academics argue that these women are in fact empowered by their marrying a Westerner, giving them access to international experiences, finances to take care of their families, and an “international” status that in many ways threatens Thai gender and class distinctions. How does status as a mia farang open new opportunities for Isaan women, threaten the status of local men, and help us understand the very notion of love?

By David Streckfuss

Isaan women and the Western men they marry are involved in a kind of “status exchange.” The man gets to reassert his patriarchal status of being the provider for the family and creating a family in Isaan, often taking on step-children the woman has brought from previous relationships with local men. They might also fulfil orientalizing fantasies of marrying an Asian wife which idealizes her role as a caring, intimate partner.

The woman is enabled to reach outside limited local options by marrying a Western man. Her action can often be an act of empowerment, giving her a legal and financial status that allows her to take a key role within her matrilineal family and the community as well as becoming part of an international class.

Paul Statham has recently published an article looking at the long-term effects of Isaan-Western marriages, especially for those women who marry older Westerners. He points out that the growing number of these relationships in Isaan has “importantly transformed the social fabric of the transnational localities” and the lives of those involved. The phenomenon has also been “transforming the social structure of many villages in rural regions, as well as changing women’s aspirations for achieving social mobility.”

For our purposes here, what is worth noting is that Statham’s research of Isaan women who had been in a relationship with a Westerner for more than seven years shows a changing demographic. While research done in the late 2000s showed only nine percent of these women had finished high school and only three percent had a college degree, this more recent research indicated that half had a university-level education.

Many of these mia farang are middle-class government officials, teachers, or hospital workers, but also lower middle-class or poorer women who found “opportunities for upward social mobility ‘blocked’ in Thai society…due to a combination of lifecourse, financial and family pressures.” For those who were divorced from a local man and had children, the outlook for remarriage was bleak.

Statham points out that there was an initial “very clear structured power imbalance” in these marriages as the men tend to have much greater access to wealth while also benefiting from “their national and male imaginaries of superiority, relative to women from poor backgrounds.” The man’s “desire for a ‘Thai wife’ is driven by imaginaries of Asian women as hyper-feminine, exotic, sexual, submissive, docile and willing to provide intimate and care services.”

But these women, Statham argues, are far from “desperate victims.” Though they may remain to a “significant embedded power imbalance relative to the man” and subject to gender and certain cultural expectation, the mia farang has agency borne of varying combinations of “emotional aspirations and cultural values…alongside economic motivations.”

Especially for women from a poorer background, marriage to a Westerner comes with “rights that are potentially empowering.” The woman then can realize “individual rights for international mobility, work and residence abroad, and, as a spouse, potentially access to long-term social welfare, pension, and health rights.” Mia farang legally obtain some level of ownership over her husband’s capital and property in Thailand, as well as inheritance rights.

A matter of Isaan men vs. Western men?

As some eighty percent of mia farang were previously married to Isaan men, the role of the latter can not be overlooked. It’s quite possible that the mia farang phenomenon might not ever have become so prevalent had Isaan women felt they could depend on their erstwhile Isaan husbands. How can this important cultural aspect behind the mia farang phenomena be explained?

Patcharin and Thompson have examined how research on the “striking social phenomenon” of mia farang has largely excluded the views of (Isaan, sometimes, Thai) local men.

One Isaan mia farang makes a common, unfavorable comparison between Western and Thai men:

“I want a good man who is generous and warm-hearted, who is responsible for his family, accepts and supports my children and cares for my parents as well. My previous relationship [with a local man] taught me how life would be if the man doesn’t take this family seriously.”

A local man whose wife left him for a Japanese man seems to indicate that he just felt he couldn’t compete:

“I feel sorry that I couldn’t earn enough to satisfy her and to support our child… It’s good for my daughter to be under her mother’s care; she can have a good education and a good life. It’s good for my wife as well. She can have what she wants, jewellery, nice clothes, a house and car…I don’t blame her.”

Many local men feel these relationships “are determined by material logic, rather than affection.” They talk about Isaan women marrying foreigners “solely on economic terms” and ignore failings in terms of “human emotions” or “the behaviour of local men in family relations” as a cause. As such, some local men “feel threatened by transnational marriage because it offers the women in their community an alternative to the traditional marital relationships available locally.”

And why not, many Isaan women feel so? One 48-year-old Isaan woman told researchers that “having a farang husband is like having a personal ATM” and warned, “Some women would be happy to divorce their Thai husbands and go straight to Pattaya, Patpong or Phuket to work in the bars and get themselves farang lovers or husbands.”

Many scholars acknowledge that the motivations of mia farang “are multiple and complex, extending beyond material relations and romantic love.”

Both Isaan men and women hold the patriarchal gender view that the “cultural ideal of breadwinner/provider is central to the notion of masculinity,” perhaps “the most fundamental foundation of masculine identity,” and forms an important mainstay in “men’s standing and reputation.”

Poorer and less educated Isaan men, just like Isaan women, have been faced with the common challenge of how to get consistent income. Many have little choice but to work as day laborers locally or migrate to improved opportunities in central Thailand or abroad. For men, especially those remaining in their rural home communities, there is little prospect for generating the kind of income needed to make them attractive prospects for marriage.

One man living some seventy kilometers from Khon Kaen city, laments:

“I don’t earn much; I’m not able to make ends meet. It’s difficult to get a job with good pay… I go out with friends almost every day…It’s good to meet and talk to friends who are in a similar situation [unsecure/no job or low/no income]. …To marry, we would have to have a secure job and earn enough to support a wife and family, but we don’t.”

Older local men who had successfully raised a family feel sympathetically to younger local men who have a greater challenge to improve their situation in a more materialistic era.

Unable to succeed the status of “breadwinner masculinity,” these young local men find it hard to compete with the greater financial wherewithal that Westerners tend to be able to provide. They are “aware of the shift in gender power relations regarding marriage” posed by the option of transnational marriage. The awareness, though, results more often than not in “anxiety” and “profound pressure,” relieved

At the same time, transnational marriages are not really a liberating option for many mia farang as they also “reproduced patriarchal privilege” with Westerners playing “the role of provider.” In this sense, both local men and Western men aspire to a “patriarchal gender relationship” and “hegemonic male sexual privilege.”

But there is also one aspect that puts both foreign and local men in a disadvantaged position in Isaan where “matrilineal kinship systems and the practice of matrilocal residence are widespread on the village level.”

For local Isaan males who typically move into the wife’s home, at least at first, the “matrilineal rules and practices…are sources of female social power within village society.” The woman has “considerable control over household resources and budgets” as these men are often unable to “exert power in the family” as they “are dependent on their wives’ families and the authority of their wives’ parents.”

As Bowie has recounted in a similarly-patterned northern Thai society, males often suffer from “isolation and pressure” and turn to drinking as a way to cope with “pressure and conflict with their wives’ matrilineage.” Matrilineality demands “praise orientation” in taking care of their wives and family, as compared to the masculinity created by “status orientation” of patrilineal societies.

Disadvantaged local men are limited in their ability to be good breadwinners, which diminishes them in their masculine role as provider and inadequate to “matrilineal cultural ideals.”

“Love vs. economic security” or “love and economic security” ?

Scholar Patcharin Lapanun has been advocating that we rethink how the issue of “love” is understood culturally in terms of the mia farang phenomenon. The Western stereotype of love-based marriage,” she writes, is that romantic love cannot be bought and sold, love cannot be calculated.” Instead, true love must spring forth spontaneously and pure, mysterious and irresistible. This notion creates a “binary opposition between romantic love and material motivation” and affects the way that we view transnational marriages.

Patcharin advises that we look at the complex process in which men and women perceive their experiences and make decisions within the context of transnational relationships. By viewing these relationships through the prism of “the logic of desire,” we can avoid oversimplification and better appreciate “how emotion/passion, material motivations and marriages are intertwined.”

Indeed, love as an outcome rather than the starting point is reflected in the experiences of many Isaan mia farang. One recounted, “My relationship with Sven [her Western husband] started with money. I needed to support my two children and pay back a loan I had borrowed to pay the contract for my former husband to work overseas. It ended up with love.”

When mia farang talk about “passion and love,” writes Patcharin, they speak of “care, trust, and reciprocal support–which involves financial support from their husbands.” There are different ways that cultures understand “money in relation to love.” In Western societies, “love and money are considered mutually exclusive, whereas in Thai society they overlap somewhat,” a place where “affection, tender caring and love” co-exist with financial concerns.

The Thai value of bunkhun (gratitude) plays an important role for Isaan women. The women show gratitude to her parents by taking care of them. For mia farang, these dutiful daughters, they repay their parents by securing marriage to a Western man. For the support they receive from their husbands, they show gratitude by caretaking, building trust, and showing affection and respect. And with time, such feelings often grow into love.

For these reasons, Patcharin concludes:

“The common assertion that women marry because of material benefits and that men marry for romantic love is thus an oversimplification that does not capture the diverse and complex motivations feeding into the logic of desire shaping marriage choices and the decisions of the women and men concerned.”

Men from care-deficient countries in the West to care-surplus Isaan?

A persistent aspect of the accounts of the Western men who marry Isaan women is the perception, idealized or not, that their Thai wives take good care of them.

An often-repeated sentiment, “Thai women know how to take care of their husbands.” One Nordic man said that his Isaan wife always took good care of him. Especially when he encountered health issues, he confessed, “I can’t imagine living without her. Without her, I would die.”

Indeed, mia farang themselves highlight their role as caregivers “as a way of reciprocating their husbands for financial support.”

Are Western men moving from the “care-deficient” West to “care-surplus” Thailand? Stepping back and looking at a longer arc of the caretaking economy might be a way of approaching the issue.

The most recent trend is not merely that Western men are marrying Thai women but rather than taking them back to the West for good, are deciding to ultimately move and settle in Thailand.

Recently, observers have pointed out the “care deficit” or “crisis of care” in developed countries. One scholar defines the deficit as “the declining inability in developed countries to provide quality care to meet the needs of people” caused by more women in the workforce at a time when the population is aging. The problem is particularly acute for women who must find ways to be at once the breadwinner in the family and take care of their immediate families as well as aging parents.

The International Labour Organization also points out that the problem is compounded in a period when Western states are seeking “to limit the financial burden on the State” for caregiving.

Many Western men that settle down in Thailand recount failed marriages with Western women where one, for instance, recounted how his wife had been too busy working to have time to take care of him.

From 2010 census data, there are a number of nationalities of Western men living in the Northeast that “overrepresented” (proportion of their numbers in Isaan as compared to the population of their home country): Norway (represented seven times greater than proportion of home country population), Switzerland (almost seven times greater), Denmark (six times greater), Sweden (five times greater), and the United Kingdom four times greater).

Are Isaan women providing a surplus of “intimacy and care-giving” available to Western men, especially older Western men, coming from countries where “care” is growing scarcer?

Conclusion

Our first article highlighted the scale of the mia farang phenomenon, providing a somewhat dated but clearer demographic and sociological picture of the Isaan women and Western men involved. We also gave some solid numbers showing the shift between marriage migration that took women to the West and a more recent trend of Western men coming to settle in the Northeast with their wives.

Our second article showed how the state has taken notice, with some concern, of dynamic phenomena and has taken some rather misdirected actions. But a survey of academic work on the mia farang shows a much more nuanced, complex situation. These Isaan women are less viewed as victims and instead capable of taking agency in their own lives, improving their situation, and fulfilling their role as responsible daughters.

In this third and final introductory article, we reviewed how the mia farang phenomena plays some role in transforming Isaan social and cultural patterns, ranging from a higher status for women married to Westerners and exerting greater power in their marital relationships, in their relationships as matrilineal leaders, and as influential persons in the community. Along the way, we suggest that gender relationships between Isaan women and men have shifted and a reconsideration of how “love” can be understood. We finish with a reflection on whether the exodus of so many Western men to Thailand might be explained by a look at the care-deficit West compared to the perhaps “care-surplus” of Thailand.

We hope that these introductory pieces provide our readers with a larger framework to understand the context of the pieces in this series present.

Tomorrow we bring you an opinion piece by Pintong Lekan, a women’s right activist, who filed a lawsuit for defamation against the author of a recent column by a Matichon columnist deriding Isaan women who marry foreign men. Pintong writes about the lifelong stigmatization she has been facing as an Isaan woman.

Works consulted:

Bowie, Katherine, “Standing in the shadows: Of matrilocality and the role of women in a village election in Northern Thailand,” American Ethnologist (2008), 40 (1), pp. 136-53.

Patcharin Lapanun, Love, Money and Obligation: Transnational Marriage in a Northeastern Thai Village (National University of Singapore Press, 2019).

Patcharin Lapanun and Thompson, Eric C., “Masculinity, Matrilineality and Transnational Marriage, Journal of Mekong Societies (2018) 14 (2), pp. 1-19.

Statham, Paul, “Living the long-term consequences of Thai-Western marriage migration: the radical life-course transformations of women who partner older Westerners,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies (2020) 46, pp. 1562-87.

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