by Kat Kelley
Sitting in a booth at TGI Fridays is a young Filipina, sipping a mango smoothie through a red straw, hands in her lap. Across from her is an American man, with a receding hair line, thinning and turning dull, in the way that only light brown hair does. She is startlingly thin, in deep blue skinny jeans, a tight black top, and flip flops. He wears an oversized white tee shirt, just hinting at a belly, and olive green shorts, as he leans in towards her. She looks sixteen, but could pass for up to nineteen; he looks sixty, but could pass for as young as fifty.
I clench and unclench my jaw, making eye contact with my friend Lydia. We shake our heads and return to the menu, debating Filipino vs. American portions, shrimp quesadillas vs. mac and cheese.
We return to the menu, because despite our discomfort, our borderline disgust, we are not phased. This is nothing new. We learned that this is just the way it is when visiting a sports bar geared towards expats, which apparently means middle aged Western, and primarily white, men. The bar was full of these pairings. No age gap between the Western men and their respective Filipinas was less than a decade, and most were more than two. We are reminded that this is just the way it isevery time we step out of our apartments. The vast majority of Westerners we see are middle aged men, and the vast majority of them walk arm in arm with much younger Filipinas.
Initially, in my attempts to learn more, I broached the subject with colleagues, and even the occasional taxi driver, and while my assessments were reinforced, I felt uncomfortable discussing the ‘plight’ of Filipina women with Canadians, Romanians, and other Americans.
The conversations followed scripts with which I am quite comfortable. We discussed ‘power dynamics,’ free and coerced choices, and the patriarchy (well, my conversations with taxi drivers were bereft of such academic feminist jargon). Consistently, these Filipina women were positioned as victims, subject to the whims of fathers and foreign men, in need of a savior in the form of first world feminism.
These conversations- with intellectuals, many of whom self-identify as feminists, who have traveled extensively, who are immersed in the field of public health- took the agency away from these Filipina brides.
Because of course these beautiful young Filipinas don’t want to marry old white men! They are clearly being coerced by their fathers, maybe even their brothers, really just the general patriarchy. Even if they choose to enter these marriages, it isn’t really a choice; they’ve been indoctrinated to want this.
Which is all valid. However, these women aren’t just brainwashed by the patriarchy, and they aren’t just indoctrinated to want to marry old white men. These women want more for themselves and for their families.
These conversations with colleagues have come from places of privilege. As WHO personnel, if we did not come from backgrounds of privilege, we have since attained the privilege of excellent educations and promising job prospects. We have the privilege of security and comfort, which allows us to seek love above all us in marriage.
For these women, security and comfort are exactly what they have to gain in marriage. These women want financial security and stability for themselves and for their families, and they want men who were raised in cultures where women are seen and treated as equals (relatively).
This is not unique to Filipinas, and this is an internal struggle I myself have had. Regardless of how a man treats me as a partner, I know that I would struggle to marry a man from a culture where women are not regarded as (once again, relatively) equal as they are in the United States. As is, I already struggle to find men within the Georgetown community who don’t see my raging feminism as problematic. I’ve consistently been involved with men who feel uncomfortable with how vocal I am. They find themselves infatuated with who they think I am, seeing my feminism as a “pet project” in order tohandle it.*
However, I am privileged enough to not need a man, and I am privileged enough to hold out for someone who is right for me. I am privileged enough to prioritize love.
When these women look for partners, they have much bigger concerns.
In a perfect, post-patriarchy society, these women will be able to prioritize love and they won’t have to endure encouragement or even coercion from relatives to marry for money. In the meantime, who are we to take the agency away from the narratives of resilient women wanting more for themselves and their families than merely love?
*The personal reflection piece here is primarily based on a conglomeration of experiences I’ve had. For those who know me personally, please do not make any assumptions regarding which men these experiences are or are not based on. No one with whom I am currently involved is guilty of this.