Imperialism of the Heart
Weir, Fred, Canadian Dimension
MOSCOW -- She looks into the camera. Her eyes wander nervously at first, but gradually steady into the frank, self-assertive, slightly saucy gaze that seems so characteristic of Russian women.
"My name is Valentina Yaroshenko," she begins in halting English. "I am 22-years old. I am professional economist. I work in office as manager. I like my work. I also like volleyball, tennis. I want to travel. I love Russian literature and art. My favorite authors are Bulgakov, Pasternak, Theodor Dreiser...I like to read, I like cinema ... and (aside in Russian) oh shit, how do you say 'theatre' in English?"
Valentina has come to Moscow's Sverdlov Square, near the Kremlin, to have her personal message videotaped for a new "international dating service" called America-Russia Matchmaking. She is one of almost 600 Soviet women who have signed up so far in hopes that this will lead to landing an American husband.
By all accounts, she has a good chance. Mail order brides from the Philippines, Taiwan and other Asian countries have become a huge business in the United States. A certain segment of American middle-class, usually middle-aged, males seem to have decided that American women have "priced themselves out of the market," and have opted to replace them with cheap, obedient wives from the exotic Orient.
It has been called "imperialism of the heart." The same processes by which wealth concentrates on our planet divide not only individuals but also whole nations into "winners" and "losers". For many of those who feel they were born under the wrong star, finding the ways to change geographical residence or citizenship is synonymous with upward mobility in today's global, but profoundly unequal economy. The psychological effects of all this range from the obvious to the surprisingly subtle.
Valentina seems quite sincere in wanting, as she tells me, "an honest and good man who will love me ... One who will support me with laughter and a strong shoulder in difficult times." It is just that everything she thinks she has learned about the world convinces her that, if Mr. Right is out there, the odds are he is an American.
Indeed, the couple of dozen women of varying ages who have come out to be videotaped on this sunny June morning all seem flush with romantic hope. Listening to them talk, it is clear that they long to be swept off their feet and carried away to Disneyland -- and they will probably not be too picky if the Prince is losing his hair or a little paunchy.
Some discrepancy here
It had to happen sooner or later. As the Soviet market has opened up over the past couple of years, various cooperatives and joint ventures have begun aggressively looking for ways of doing profitable business with the West. In the absence of a convertible currency, the trick of this is to find an elegant idea: some mundane Soviet commodity that can be turned into a lucrative hard-currency export.
It was only a matter of time before someone hit upon Soviet women. About a year ago a cooperative called "Nakhodka" (Discovery), which runs an internal dating agency, began to advertise "international contacts and matchmaking services" in the pages of the English-language weekly Moscow News. That didn't take off; apparently not too many prospective customers are readers of Moscow News.
Enter Eugene (Genya) Kantor, 45, a former Soviet who emigrated to Canada 17 years ago. Genya settled in Vancouver, but found it "too small" for him, and moved on to Los Angeles, where he presently lives. A few months ago he returned for this first visit to the USSR since his emigration and met up with the "Nakhodka" people, who made him an "extremely timely and interesting proposition."
I interviewed Kantor on Sverdlov Square as he supervised the videotaping of his "applicants." I found him, well, surprisingly frank and direct, as well as quite analytical in his own way.
KANTOR: When I returned to LA after my visit here, we did some market tests on this "international dating" idea. We did some surveys, a little test advertising in a few publications -- and the results were overwhelming.
It's a decent proposition we're offering people: friendship, building contacts, perhaps leading to matrimony or at least improved relationships. Initially I got excited by the humanitarian aspects of it. I didn't even think in terms of profit, well, obviously I thought that would come into the picture. But now I see it's potentially very profitably. I have studied the market, as far as dating services in the US, I know the price structure by now, and know that with a certain minimum of members you can certainly make it a profitable operation.
CANADIAN DIMENSION: These international dating services would appear to have been quite successful in matching women from East Asia with American husbands. Why do you think it is that many American men want foreighn wives?
KANTOR: I think that a certain percentage of American men do not fully accept the process of feminization that is going on in the States. I know that maybe 20 per cent or so of American men resist this process, when women are too independent, they say "I really don't need you, I have my own plan, may own career," and so on.
On the other hand, Oriental women are totally different.
Different cultural values. She belongs to the home, and should be alongside her husband. It's not servitude, necessarily, but it's a certain position in the family structure.
Soviet women may not be as drastic as that, but it's also a very traditional structure. Progressive Russian women, culturally bred, always feel like women should cook, do the laundry, etc., even if she works the same amount of hours (outside the home) as the man. I see some deficiencies in this way of thinking, or course, but that's the reality. This is very attractive to a lot of guys.
CANADIAN DIMENSION: From a market point of view, what advantages would you say Soviet women have over, for instance, Filipino women?
KANTOR: First of all, Soviet women have high standards of education. Education has a high priority in Russia so, by and large, they are all very well-educated.
This would not appeal to everyone, of course. Maybe this is not for a, say, coal miner in Kentucky, but for those with more cultured backgrounds, more, well, yuppies, I would say. People who are inquisitive, travel-oriented. A certain level of wealth is implied, I suppse. Age range, 25 to 55.
Compared with Oriental brides, I would say, there is some discrepancy that does not exist here, because (Russians) are how shall I put this? -- racially they are of different stock. The reality of life, again, is such that not every white man is looking for an Oriental woman, necessarily, a white woman would probably be a better candidate for them.
CANADIAN DIMENSION: You are a former Soviet yourself. What would you suppose to be the motives of these women in seeking American husbands?
KANTOR: Oh, there's lots of things. There's economic motives, for instance. There's cultural interest in Americans. I know, I experienced this myself when I was 28-years old and came to America. So, you have an immediate edge if you're American, it creates some immediate attraction, because cultural interest is tremendous toward American values. Then there's the economic incentives. These women would like to try it somewhere else, that type of thing.
I've talked to some of them, and they feel generally that American men are more attractive. Maybe it's because there are some underlying factors such as I've been talking about, maybe those determine their attitudes, but they feel that American men are generally more well-groomed, more civilized.
CANANADIAN DIMENSION: How will you make your money?
KANTOR: On the Soviet side, applicants will pay their registration fees to "Nakhodka." For us, the scheme of things is this: People will subscribe to our service. The basic fee will enable them to come to our office in LA and have a chance to look through the file -- picture, bio, video. If they want to make contact, and they need translation services, that will be extra. The big item we are looking at is travel. People will want to come over here, to meet and make arrangements.
Illusions at market
After this conversation I chatted with the youngest applicant, Regina Shoykhet, 18, who is waiting for her turn to be taped. She tells me much the same things, about really liking Americans, and so forth.
Regina is Jewish, but says nothing about anti-Semitism or wanting to emigrate. If her main motive were to leave, she would presumably have other routes than this.
She is talking about her excitement over recently discovering the poetry of Anna Akhmatova, when her turn comes.
Regina does her video spot in Russian, with Genya helpfully translating. Again I am struck by the apparent lack of calculation in her manner. Her eyes reflect hope, belief in a better life, more than a hint of Tolstoyan romanticism.
It she is political at all she probably sees herself as a kind of pioneer, renouncing enemy-images, smashing old stereotypes, that sort of thing. Afterwards I ask her what sort of man she hopes will answer her appeal. "... a loving person, optimistic, sociable, a good father," she recites.
Is he aware, I hesitantly ask, that many of these transnational mail-order marriages have been known to end badly, in battering or abandonment? She shakes her head and looks uneasy. But I can see that she is mainly annoyed with me: what is this, her eyes say, some line of Brezhnevite crap about the dangers of contamination by foreigners?
I stifle the thought of sharing with her an observation I have frequently made. It is that Soviets, who accurately perceive that standards of general prosperity, social infrastructure and technology are considerably higher in the West, usually assume that levels of culture and human qualities are also correspondingly higher. It is a fundamental mistake.
Unless she is extremely lucky, Regina's future husband will not share her interest in poetry, ballet and fine arts. The TV set that she gazes into will reflect back into her face endless reruns of Newhart and Geraldo, and is unlikely to ask her any question more stimulating than, who killed Laura Palmer?
And, although it seems disagreeable to say so, there is a large chance that the dream will crash into a very ugly reality. In the final analysis, this is not a tale of true hearts seeking each other across oceans, and iron curtains, but rather of illusions heading to market. As in all markets, there is a buyer and a seller, and a very cruel discipline for those who fail to play by the rules.
However, at the moment, at least in Moscow, it all seems like freedom, love and light at the end of the tunnel. Everyone I talk to is horrified at the thought that any bans or prohibitions should be imposed on businesses like this. "That's just the sort of thing we're trying to get away from," they say.
My own friends divide between those who see this mail-order bride thing as an inevitable evil and those who are prepared to defend it as a Good Thing.
That is unlikely to be the end of the story. Here is a brief but intensely relevant news item which crossed my desk while I was preparing this column. It is out of the Philippines, dated June 14, 1990.
MANILA (Reuter) -- President Corazon C. Aquino signed a law on Wednesday banning a growing trade in mail-order brides for foreigners, saying she wanted to halt the exploitation of Filipino women.
Mrs. Aquino said young women from the countryside were lured "by sweet talk and grandiose promises," and that they often found themselves heart-broken and devastated in a foreign land. The law would prohibit "the commerce in women under the guise of legitimate marriage," Mrs. Aquino said.
The bill does not bar marriages between foreigners and Filipino women. But it bans advertising for wives for foreigners and bans clubs or associations that are designed to match foreign nationals with Filipino women.
Fred Weir is Canadian Dimension's Moscow correspondent.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Imperialism of the Heart. Contributors: Weir, Fred - Author. Magazine title: Canadian Dimension. Volume: 24. Issue: 6 Publication date: September 1990. Page number: 40+. © 2009 Canadian Dimension Publication, Ltd. COPYRIGHT 1990 Gale Group.
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