When a person marries for romantic love, that’s modern. When children marry the individuals chosen for them by their parents, that’s traditional or premodern. But when two people, total strangers to one another, get married after being paired by a radio program, we say that’s probably postmodern.
A couple in Sydney, Australia did just that recently. Glen Emerton and his bride, Leif Bunyan, saw each other for the first time at their wedding, and then went to a reception for hundreds of guests they had not known or met before. Microphones were hooked to their clothes so that an anonymous mass audience of radio listeners could eavesdrop on their first day together as a married couple.
But they looked very pleased with one another, said a news report, that also described the whole affair as “bizarre”. The entire set-up was a promotional gimmick of a radio station, that announced that it was looking for an ideally-matched couple. Hundreds of men and women responded by sending entries from all over Australia. A team of astrologers and psychologists, together with the program hosts, went through the entries and first chose the groom. They then shortlisted the bridal candidates, and, from this final list, asked four close friends of the groom to pick out the perfect bride.
On the surface, because of the intrusion of mass media and the methodical manipulation of chance to forge a marriage, the Sydney wedding may look like the ultimate postmodern relationship. In fact, however, it may be as traditional as most marriages. Traditional couples get married and live together. Modern couples may choose to live together without the benefit of a contract or the ceremony of marriage. Postmodern couples stay married but do not live together.
I know many Filipino couples working in Hong Kong who are married to one another but, to save on rent, stay in with their respective employers. They meet and date on weekends like perpetual lovers. Others in the Middle East may not get to meet their spouses oftener than once a year because of the distance, but their relationship is sustained by voice tapes and letters. Globalization has reshaped marriage and the Filipino family in ways no one would ever have anticipated.
Every year, countless young Filipino women find their way into Internet websites that catalogue their endowments and match them with prospective grooms from across the globe. For them, this is not a joke or a gimmick, but a serious and novel way of finding one’s stars in a world governed by contingency.
I once sat beside two Pinays from Iloilo on a plane from Frankfurt to Oslo. Both high school graduates, they traveled to join their would-be Norwegian husbands whom they were meeting for the first time. I was on my way to attend a conference, and the women had anxiously begged me to wait for them at the immigration counter at Fornevu airport. They had heard of stories about prostitution syndicates that use the mail-order bride system as a cover for the trafficking of women, and wanted to make sure their intended husbands were not just fronting for these syndicates.
But how would we know? I asked them. There are men who offer marriage with the sole intent of prostituting their wives. By dangling promises of a dream marriage to women from poor countries, they succeed in acquiring a servant, a sexual partner, and a livelihood all rolled into one. None of the conventional cultural expectations that women nurture about marriage apply in these circumstances. These arrangements are as open-ended as anything one can find today in a globalized postmodern world.
I never found out what happened to the two Filipino women. At the Oslo airport, I tried to intervene for them when they were stopped by immigration authorities. The Norwegian government had been alerted to the activities of a syndicate preying on Third World women. As a precaution, the airport officials insisted on checking the background of the husbands they were supposed to meet, but they assured me the women would be all right, and that the Philippine embassy would be contacted. When I called the embassy later, I was told they had not received any report. I was filled with terror for these young women, but I became unsure if it was better for them to have been deported or allowed to enter on the slim chance of a fulfilling marriage in a foreign land.
This scene is probably replayed almost everyday at Japanese, Australian, and European airports. Women from poor countries, seeking escape from hopelessness and the stifling authority of domineering men, are lured into a reckless adventure full of uncertainty, hope, and danger. They leave behind identities that shackle them to traditional roles. The global bridal and labor market, for all its risks, affords them a chance to recompose their lives. Many of them are not innocents waiting to be exploited; they are strong, are aware of the hazards on their path, but will not be deterred. They are, in every way, postmodern – nomadic, resilient, self-creating, and free.
When a woman stays home to take care of her husband and children, that’s premodern. When a woman finds paid work or pursues a career while taking care of her husband and children, that’s modern. When a woman goes away to find her own life and earn a living, leaving the husband behind to take care of the children, that’s postmodern.
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