"This is Natasha. She is from Yoshkar-Ola. And this is Bill, her husband. They have a big house. Bill has two big cars"
If stories about their own nation help people develop a sense of who they are and how they are situated within a larger collective of people, stories about other nations are of equal importance – as positive or negative counter-images – for narrating one's self-identity, but also have relevance as a source of knowledge for potential migrants, and as a stimulus to keep up flows of people from nation to nation. As soon as I arrived for a year of teaching German at Mari State University in Yoshkar-Ola, the capital of Mari El, one of the national republics in Russia's Volga region, I started hearing about travel and its possible destinations: the U.S.A., Finland,135 Germany, and ways to get there for temporary or permanent sojourns were very much on the minds of people I met. A fifth-year student, ordered by his mother, a colleague of mine, to practise his German and entertain the foreign guest, showed me pictures from a trip to the U.S., where he had first worked as a cook at summer camp, then traveled around, staying mainly with women from Yoshkar-Ola now married to U.S. citizens. The important role of international marriage – often arranged by agencies operating over the internet - in the life-aspirations of women from Yoshkar-Ola became obvious to me at many points: A staff member of the university's international office told me that there were 26 marriage agencies – often functioning as parts of travel agencies – in this city of 250,000 people, adding that he knew of many successful matches that resulted from their services. Many women I met – colleagues, students, or personal acquaintances ranging in age from 19 to their mid-forties – sooner or later turned out to have their picture on the internet somewhere, and to be corresponding more or less intensively with one or a number of foreign men, partly while at the same time working for an agency as interpreters. During the year I worked at Mari State University, three students of our department got married to American and Mexican men, and elderly university instructors would comment approvingly on how yet another student had managed to ustroit'sia. Disconcertingly for me, my own knowledge of American and German culture and language soon came to be in demand by friends who wanted emails translated, or a student who wanted to know what her American friend meant when he asked for "measurements" in order to buy her a gift at "Victoria's Secret".
Having lived and studied in Frankfurt-on-Main, one of the centers of trafficking in women from Eastern Europe,136 I associated what I was used to calling the mail-order bride business mainly with media reports on women who were lured to western countries with promises of marriage which either turned out to be false or, given a foreign wife's dependence on her husband for legal status of residence, meant entering a position in which the wife was forced to do the husband's every bidding, from household drudgery to prostitution. The positive attitude toward arranged international marriages expressed by many of my acquaintances in Yoshkar-Ola disturbed me, but I quickly saw that it was not based on a complete denial of the risks of this particular way of emigrating, but on an assessment of the alternatives – or lack of them – at home. The letters from various friends' would-be bridegrooms did little to dispell my negative image of the sort of man who would look for a Russian wife over the internet: constantly recurring questions about "measurements", not-so-subtle hints that a photo in a bathing-suit would be welcome, and explanations that one was looking for a Russian wife because women there were said to be still feminine, tender and mindful of men's and women's separate roles, different from the women of one's own country. Nonetheless, I became intrigued by the gender issues behind such statements.
The conversations I had in Yoshkar-Ola with women looking for a foreign husband were private, neither intended by me to be ethnographical interviews nor understood as such by my interlocutors, and when I was shown letters it was in connection with a request for translation. That is why I will refer to such material only in general terms, hopefully keeping individuals unrecognizable. Not having studied the mail-order bride business in Yoshkar-Ola in its complexity, I mainly want to draw on it to illustrate ways in which (inter)national narratives – about, among other things, the comparative qualities of men and women in different countries – assume a very serious practical relevance in a globalized world characterized by increased mobility of people, ideas and images as well as by attempts of the governments of rich nations to immobilize people from poorer countries by way of restrictive visa practices. Such narratives might be called the fruits of prejudice or of a naive belief in myths, but I will try to take them more seriously: as people entrust their future lives to relationships mediated by the internet and fueled by expectations drawn from circulating stories and stereotypes, they may even know that their expectations are likely to be disappointed, but they need to act on the basis of these very stereotypes and hope that their prospective partners will do the same, or they lose their chance of escape from an unsatisfactory present.
Many studies of trafficking in women directly equate the mail-order bride business with trafficking in prostitutes. Hughes calls the business one "route into the sex industry", which "can take several forms. The recruiters may be traffickers or work directly with traffickers. The woman may meet with a man who promises marriage at a later date. The man may use the woman himself for a short period of time, then coerce her into making pornography and later sell her to the sex industry, or he may directly deliver the woman to a brothel".137 Such crimes doubtlessly occur, and a woman coming to join her foreign husband or "bridegroom" in his country can do little to escape such a situation, since her status as legal resident depends on the man's willingness to marry her and stay married for a number of years. However, probably not all the "Bills" and "Natashas" posing on the young traveler's photographs were concealing the violence of forced prostitution behind the image of a normal married couple. Internet sites where American men can select foreign partners for correspondence, or find advice on how to meet and marry a foreign wife, appear to address men who want a partner for their own life, not a prostitute to rent out to others, even though the actual motives of users and makers of these sites may be more diverse. As Bettina Beer remarks in a study of German-Filipina couples – many of whom had also met through the services of marriage agencies, contact ads, or other conscious efforts to find a foreign partner, – authors and activists demonizing mail-order marriages draw too easy a division between such arranged relationships and "normal" ones, as if the latter were never based on unequal power relations or false preconceptions of the partner.138 Two authors in a German feminist journal delineate a more useful way to think of the common context of international trafficking in wives, prostitutes and maids: in a situation where women in western countries increasingly refuse to take sole responsibility for the work of nurturing and care-giving traditionally thought of as female, but men are not at the same rate taking up their share of it, a new "international division of labor between women" occurs – the work of cooking, cleaning and child-raising remains female-coded, but is in part taken over by women from economically disadvantaged countries or communities, freeing a number of middle- and upper-class western women to devote themselves exclusively to formerly male-coded work.139 Indeed, many men whose letters I read – U.S. and German citizens – wrote that the women of their countries were too emancipated, no longer believed in differences between men and women, could not show or receive tenderness etc. An internet "advice column" for men looking for a wife in Eastern Europe presupposes a similar attitude towards American women among its readership: after a harrowing description of the hardships of going out to meet your pen pal in the former Soviet Union – you will need a visa, and may have to take a train from the nearest airport to the city where she lives, a perilous journey during which you will have to watch your luggage very closely and make sure you bring your own toilet paper, and forget about calling home or finding a nice restaurant! – comes the question: "Is a woman from the Former Soviet Union worth the trouble?" The answer is clear: "Yes! Not only are they some of the most beautiful women in the world... they have strong character, devotion, and intelligence. They believe a man should be a man... and a woman should be a woman. They believe in being treated like a lady...not one of the boys".140
Disappointment with women of one's own country, or refusal to accept the changes brought by the feminist movement, are also a motive commonly given by western men who seek Asian brides.141In many ways, stereotypes of Asian women – beauty, mystery, femininity, submissiveness, domesticity – are being transfered to "Russian" women (many women who seek husbands through international marriage agency are actually Ukrainian or of various other nationalities of the former Soviet Union; in Mari El, many are Mari or Tatar) since they have become accessible with the fall of the Iron Curtain. Ads for Russian brides in Alaskan newspapers which I saw in the summers of 1998 and 1999 routinely emphasized the women's high level of education, possibly as a positive contrast to popular images of Asian women. One could also imagine that there are North Americcan and Western European men who prefer a "white" woman as companion and potential mother of their children.
On this "demand" side of the mail-order bride business, a man can visit a sheer endless number of websites, either specialized in women from specific countries or regions, or offering worldwide contacts. He will be able to browse women's photographs, click on those that catch his eye to enlarge them and receive information such as the woman's name, age, height, weight, profession, and the kind of man she is hoping to meet. He can then decide to write emails to one or more of these women. The sites I visited142 offered these services free of charge for the men - it is the women who pay to put their pictures on the internet and receive emails through an agency.
On the "supply" side, the agency's role may be far greater than just putting a woman's photo and personal information on the web. The biggest marriage agency in Yoshkar-Ola offers such a wide array of services as its own photo studio, translation of correspondence, language classes, visa assistance for visiting grooms, and money transfer by which men from abroad can pay for their friend's correspondence and English classes or simply send her a present. The firm also includes an employment agency offering jobs in Russia and abroad, and publishes a newspaper with stories about happily married couples and different countries of destination. As a whole, the mail-order bride business is an important source of employment in Yoshkar-Ola, especially for people with foreign-language skills: students and faculty of the foreign languages departments of the town's university and teachers' college earn much-needed money working for these agencies as translators or language instructors.
The language of correspondence is generally English – the women present themselves in English on the web, and men write in English even from Germany and Italy. Knowledge of English and ownership of a computer are among the requirements for access to international internet culture which many of these women lack – unlike the men who, presumably, surf the web from their own home. The agencies compensate for these handicaps by providing computer access and translations.
Gaining access to the internet is not the only problem these women have to solve before they can enter the world of international mobility and opportunity that has become tantalizingly visible since the fall of the Iron Curtain and advertises itself everywhere, but remains out of reach for most of them because they lack the financial resources and hold the wrong passport to travel or work abroad easily. If it was not one of the few feasible ways to leave the country, using the services of a marriage agency would not be considered a desirable way to meet a husband: in a survey conducted (on a very small-scale, with about 100 respondents) by a psychology student among her fellow students at Mari State Technical University, only a small fraction replied that they found a marriage agency a good way to meet their future spouse, the vast majority prefering venues where people meet in person based on some common interest, such as classes, clubs and discos, or work.143 As it is, neither women looking for a way to emigrate nor those determined to stay have trouble naming reasons for leaving Yoshkar-Ola: the difficulty of finding a job, or, even if one has one, of making ends meet, the impossibility of acquiring an apartment of one's own and living away from one's parents, the lack of perspectives for oneself or one's children, the corruption and mafia presence making it pointless even to exert oneself. Young university graduates are also likely to mention the limited opportunities for ongoing education in Yoshkar-Ola and the difficulty for someone from the provinces to enter educational institutions in Moscow or St. Petersburg.
None of these problems is unique to Yoshkar-Ola, and neither is the mail-order bride phenomenon. People in Yoshkar-Ola are aware of this, but claim that compared to other Russian regions, the economic situation in Mari El is especially bad and the number of women marrying abroad especially high. I was unable to check the latter claim, and, as far as the former is concerned, can only say that the local press repeatedly cited federal statistics according to which Mari El was among those subjects of the Russian Federation with the lowest standard of living in the fall of 2000, and that Mari El, lacking mineral resources and with an industry formerly focused on military production, had the highest unemployment rate of the republics of the Volga region in the mid-nineties.144
While these difficulties apply to men and women, women – both young, unmarried ones and older, divorced ones – frequently had an additional complaint: A lack of suitable marriage partners. Most "good" men, the oft-repeated opinion was, either left Yoshkar-Ola or had married long ago, leaving only drunkards and good-for-nothings who would add to the problems in a woman's life, rather than to her well-being and security.145 In the West, on the other hand, there seemed to be many single men who – even though they might be somewhat old – had desirable qualities such as a steady, well-paying job and a sense of responsibility. The marriage agencies are doing their share of reinforcing and channeling women's expectations: A woman I knew was taking the English class of the largest agency in Yoshkar-Ola, in which she was learning to translate sentences like: "Jim is coming to visit Tanya for the New Year. He will bring many presents. They will go to a fine restaurant." Another lesson they were yet to cover was "love in bed". In little messages at the top of email-printouts, this agency also encourages women to tell their penpals their New Year's or birthday wishes and ask them to send money through the agency. A man's willingness to make presents becomes a major criterion for seeing if he is a desirable husband, and in half-joking conversations, hierarchies of men of different nationalities are set up: Americans, I was told, are the most desirable because they are more generous than stingy Germans, a view which, incidentally, was also found by Bettina Beer on the Philippines.146
In this way, the motivations of Russian women looking for a foreign partner echo those of western men looking for a Russian wife – both associate negative traits with their compatriots of the opposite sex, and believe that these traits are absent in other nations. The classical case of ascribing to the Other traits one denies, or wishes for, in oneself is modified here: Remote Others are ascribed those qualities American men and Russian women perceive as lacking in their "own", or closer, Others: Russian women are seen as the opposite of threatening, man-eating American feminists, and American men as the opposite of lazy, improvident Russian drunkards.147
It is not a special characteristic of mail-order or even international marriages that each partner has preconceptions of the other based on images of his or her gender, social class, ethnic group etc. more than on personal acquaintance. And, even though in both Russian and American culture there is a folk distinction between marriage po liubvi and po raschetu – for love and for hope of material gain – it is hard to imagine a couple where each partner is not hoping to gain something from the other: If not material advantages, then emotional security, sexual fulfillment, offspring, an easier life through the sharing of tasks and responsibilities, or any number of benefits; and such hopes can be part of the feelings a person has for another rather than indicating an absence of feeling. Psychologists and social scientists asking what it means when people say they "love" each other have come up with concepts such as the theory of complementary needs, according to which people choose partners who are significantly different from themselves in order to gratify needs they cannot fulfill themselves (a quiet, shy person might feel drawn to an outgoing, talkative partner and vice versa), which, in studies of interethnic couples, translates into the concept of compatibility of gender role preferences of individuals from different ethnic groups (a man who feels that women from his country expect him to be always the strong macho, but that he cannot live up to the ideal, might turn to more self-reliant women from somewhere else).148
This would take us back to myths and narratives, because a person who believes that all men or women of a certain nationality are most likely to conform to her or his expectations of the opposite sex necessarily bases this assumption on some form of mediated narrative. When people consciously search for a foreign partner via the internet, these narratives – of what a Russian woman is like who offers herself in an internet catalog and why she might do it, and of what an American man has to offer and what he is looking for in a wife – become the only thing that makes initial correspondence possible, suggesting themes to structure the writing. What is special, but not unique about binational couples brought together via the internet are the assymetrical expectations that link the man and woman: His expectations center on her, but for her he is part of a new life in new circumstances, at a new place. While finding a good husband was on the minds of most women I talked to, part of what makes a near-stranger who is often considerably older seem „good“ is that he offers a way out of Russia into a country of big houses, big cars, functioning hospitals, financial security for the woman and her children. To get to that country, the women need western men to believe in the myth of beautiful Russian women offering qualities western women lack, just as the men, unable or unwilling to find a partner in their own country, need Russian women to believe in this vision of good life with a western man. It is perhaps this mutual dependence on the other's belief that gives both myths – that of the beautiful Russian homemaker and the golden west – a reality beyond any questions of "truth" or "falseness", or even beyond the question whether the couples themselves "really" believe that they will not be disappointed.
Needing to believe is not the same as being free of all doubt, of course. Women in Yoshkar-Ola often raised the question why western men looked for Russian wives, but although they often laughed at letters in which western men expressed their hope that Russian women were softer and more gentle and loving, they generally shared these men's negative view of western feminism and their belief in natural, ineradicable differences between men and women. Whereas for me, the men's admission that they did not want a wife from their own country because those women demanded too much equality was a sign that these where the last men whom I would want to entrust myself to, many Russian women I talked to found this a reassuring answer to the puzzle of why it should be that there are so many apparently well-situated and healthy bachelors in the West. These women felt confirmed in their assumption that feminism was at best a naive (based on the illusion that women would be happier if they attained equal access to the workplace, and that men and women could be made to change their nature) and at worst a destructive ideology (destroying human warmth and emotional bonds with endless haggling over who should do the dishes). Many associated feminism mainly with the fight for women's integration into the workforce, and looked at this from the context of women's wage work in the Soviet Union, which had become a reality far earlier and in far greater percentages than in North America and western Europe, but had often simply meant double and triple stress as wage laborers, child rearers, home makers, and participants in various "informal" or subsistence economic activities.149 A colleague of mine at the university thought that the men were often mistaken, that Russian women would sit at home for one or two years, learn the language and acclimatize, but then wanted to get a job or found a business or do other things they were not able to do in their home country. I am not sure whether she was speaking about couples she knew from having worked as an interpreter for an agency and as an au pair in Germany, or if she was making assumptions based on what she thought she would want to do herself. But I met no one who considered the motivations given by the men as false or alarming.
I have not read what women wrote their prospective grooms to explain why they were looking for a foreign husband, but found warnings on the web that one should not choose a woman who asked for too many presents,150 suggesting that some women marry abroad for love, others for material gain, and that care is necessary to distinguish between them. There is a preoccupation with possible deceit on both sides, along with a wavering between play and emotional engagement: One acquaintance's American penpal requested, when she asked him to pay for her English classes, that she take her picture off the internet and stop corresponding with anyone but him. A woman whose son had once run a marriage agency proudly told me how he had written eloquent love letters for a barely literate woman, and in such way "sold" this "low-quality item" to an Italian – who, by the time he actually met her, was too impressed with her good looks to probe her intelligence too much. Although she herself had been corresponding with other men all the while, a 21-year-old woman who had been promised an invitation by a German hotel owner aged 51 was deeply hurt when he wrote her he would not invite her because he had had another woman come already and was sleeping with her.
Even though both sides can be disappointed, the women risk more because they are leaving their country and family trusting in this relationship based on shared belief in asymmetrical myths. The issue of forced prostitution and dependence on a virtual stranger, which I raised in a discussion with students, was dismissed by them, somewhat lightly, with the remark that after all, the men came to Russia and married the women there.151 When the 21-year-old corresponding with the German hotel owner was asked by an older woman what she would do in a foreign country, not knowing the language, having no one to communicate with, the younger woman answered: "I prefer not to think about that".
In this "I prefer not to..." lies much of the difficulty in myth-debunking: People may know that the myth is not true, but they still have too many reasons to believe in it. Or half-believe, but still act on the belief. Like Luhmann's audience that knows that advertisement is supposed to deceive them, but still buys the products,152 these men and women do distrust each other's motives, and suppose that the other must also distrust theirs, but prepare to build their future lives on their relationship.
When people act on myths, they do not necessarily do it from a naive belief, but because distrust is part of a state of not- or half-knowing which means that there are possibilities as well as risks. A woman getting ready to join her foreign husband or groom may be more or less aware that life in the West is not all golden – but there is more room for hope there than concerning life in Russia, where an interlocking web of lived experience and media narratives convince her that she knows all too well not to expect anything good of the future. It may be those couples who have kept a balance of belief and distrust in the myths they follow who best adjust when it becomes impossible to prefer not to think of the problems of their new life together.