HOW THE INTERNET GAVE MAIL-ORDER BRIDES THE POWER
March 4, 2019
In September 2015, Leonor Cabigon, a 38-year-old Filipina mother of two, returned early from a trip to find a young woman sleeping in the bed she shared with her American husband Dan in Valencia, a remote mountain town in the Philippine island province of Negros Oriental. A self-described wellness expert, Dan first claimed to be treating the young woman for a stomach ailment, before admitting they’d been having an affair. Divorce is illegal and socially taboo in the Philippines, but Leonor realized she would have to leave her husband. She had followed a well-worn script when she and Dan met in 2001: beautiful young Filipina meets old but rich Western man. Yet even as she went through the paces of partnering with him, Leonor found herself wanting to rewrite the script—and Dan’s betrayal became her chance to try again.
For decades, Western men picked Filipinas out of catalogues, selecting from rows upon rows of hopeful women’s pictures printed on cheap paper, like a strange yearbook or police lineup. That dynamic was just beginning to change in 2001, when Leonor became one of the first Filipina women to meet a Western partner online. For the next 15 years, Dan provided her with a more comfortable life than she could have expected, but one where her own needs always took second place.
When she decided into trying online dating again, a month after she and Dan separated, Leonor was determined to make a wiser choice. Unlike in 2001, when she and Dan exchanged emails and scanned pictures over a slow connection, Leonor had a robust set of online tools — video chat, social media, messaging apps — to help her find the right man.
She registered on FilipinoCupid.com and, over the last year and a half, has corresponded with several suitors. Unlike the first time, when she got together with the first viable man who came along, she vetted the men she met through their Facebook accounts, chatted with them on Viber and WhatsApp, and then eventually got on Skype with the ones she felt most serious about.
In the 15 years since Leonor and Dan met online, some things haven’t changed. Men are still seeking out beautiful women who would be “out of their league” if they weren’t poor, and Filipinas are still looking for men who can provide for them and take them to the more prosperous West. But a power dynamic that for decades favored Western men has steadily tipped toward Filipina women, largely because of technologies that level the information gap that used to separate the two parties. Filipinas no longer need to sit around and wait to be chosen, and they now have much more access to these men’s complex lives before making a choice of their own.
In one sense, the leveling of dating power between Filipinas and Westerners is the fulfillment of the global internet’s promise to equalize relations between disparate places and people. Yet even as Filipinas and Westerners face off as equals online, the world of dating exposes the ultimate limitations of the web. Virtual connections must eventually be realized in physical space, where real-world politics, money, and bodies intervene. For the earnest among these internet searchers, the hope is that in the midst of these complexities, a real, lasting love can bloom.
She may not have many things, but Leonor has always had hope.
Leonor grew up in a rural area of the southern province of Davao, a town with only one house that was made of concrete and boasted appliances like a refrigerator and washing machine. That house belonged to a woman who had married an American man she met through the mail. “To marry a foreigner was really my ambition since when I was young—to have handsome and beautiful kids and also to have a comfortable life,” said Leonor.
In 2001, at age 23, she found her way to a fledgling internet cafe in a nearby city and registered at Cherry Blossoms, the oldest and most established mail-order bride service in the world. Cherry Blossoms began publishing catalogues of international women looking for husbands in 1974, charging foreigners a fee in exchange for a woman’s address. In 2001, the company shifted its entire operation online—and Leonor started receiving emails from an American in his 50s living in Thailand, named Dan McKee.
Dan was a rail-thin, middle-class man. When he came to the Philippines to visit her, the woman he met was beautiful in the ways Western men imagined island women to be, with long straight hair, high cheekbones that taper toward a delicate chin, and smooth, dark skin. Leonor also distinguished herself with good English and an indefatigably optimistic, life-embracing attitude.
“I like you,” Leonor recalled Dan saying one day, less than a week after they first met in person. “You can come with me.” She was startled by his speed, but she packed some clothes in a duffel bag and joined Dan in Thailand. Leonor was hopeful he might eventually whisk her off to a new life in America. She didn’t see any other way to make that dream happen.
They’d only been living in Thailand for a month when Leonor found herself pregnant, and at first Dan didn’t believe the baby was his. After Aaron was born, Dan complained that he couldn’t sleep through his cries, and ordered Leonor to sleep in a tent outside their house while Aaron was weaning. After she got pregnant with their second son Zen two years later, Dan got a vasectomy without consulting Leonor, only calling from the hospital afterward to get picked up.
Instead of taking Leonor to the US, Dan poured his energies into building a wellness center in the mountain town of Valencia outside the provincial capital of Dumaguete City, a cool area in that perennially hot country that was beginning to see some tourism. In addition to raising his children Dan expected Leonor to run the center day to day, coordinate with helpers and gardeners who did not speak English well, and do a lot of the cooking herself. Like the worst stereotype of foreign men who come to the Philippines, Dan treated native women as accessories to the lives they envisioned for themselves. But Leonor nurtured ambitions of her own, and she struggled with the fact that Dan had no respect for her desires. So when she found out about his infidelity, she was disheartened but not entirely surprised.
“We didn’t really know each other,” she concluded. “It all happened too fast.”
So Leonor did what an unfailingly optimistic woman would do: She decided to try again.
This time around, Leonor’s top priority was finding a partner with the ability to provide for her and her two children. But money is a charged topic in the Westerner-Filipina online dating game.
Multiple online forums and review sites warn men against sending money to Filipina women they meet online until they’ve confirmed a real identity and forged a substantial connection. They report that scammers often post pictures of other women, and pretend they can’t video chat because they don’t have a camera. One reviewer describes Cherry Blossoms as “a vacuum cleaner for foreign money,” and another reports that Western Union informed him the woman he’d been sending money to “had been sent money by 30 parties.”
Leonor wasn’t shy about presenting her real-life identity and chatting over video, which reassured men that she wasn’t a scammer. For Leonor and other Filipina women looking for foreign husbands, a man’s readiness to send money quickly is an important sign of his potential. It’s often the expected beginning of the online mating ritual.
The act signals both a foreign man’s ability to provide and his generosity, qualities that Filipina women consider highly valuable. Just as an American woman on the dating scene might specify characteristics like “broad shoulders” or “a sense of humor” as prerequisites for a potential mate, Filipinas in search of foreign husbands tend to prioritize material resources.
Leonor got involved online with a number of men, but rejected ones she felt were either mainly interested in sex and asked her to show them her body over the internet, or who didn’t seem particularly interested in her children. She came close to meeting a man from Baltimore, but found him too aggressive and controlling once they tried to work out how to get together, barking orders for her to arrange legal papers. But in October 2016, Leonor got a message from a recently divorced, 51-year-old truck driver from Essex, England. His name was Jonathan Etheridge, and he presented himself as Christian and family-oriented.
Leonor during a video chat. Photo by Meredith Talusan.“I told him about how I was the only one supporting my two kids after my husband left, and he started sending me money only one week after we met,” Leonor said. Jonathan’s willingness to ignore all the warnings about sending money to potential Filipina scammers endeared him to Leonor, who felt that it demonstrated both his concern for her family and his financial resources. In November, Jonathan felt confident and trusting enough in his connection with Leonor that he sent her 2,000 pounds—more than 120,000 pesos—and then sent her 300 pounds more as a Christmas present to her and her family. According to the IMF, the average Filipino person made around 150,000 pesos in 2016, about the same amount Jonathan has sent Leonor since meeting her in October.
Several of Leonor’s friends expressed their approval when she shared the story of Jonathan’s immediate generosity at a party. Many of them avoid younger, conventionally attractive foreign men, because they’re more likely to cheat and not have stable incomes. “I’m attracted to younger men, but I prefer to feel secure with older men who can provide for me,” said Leonor’s close friend Jelia, a woman who married a man in his 70s and was widowed; she then married another man of the same age and got divorced when he returned to America for medical care. Jelia’s manner seems designed to attract foreigners, with her waist-length wavy hair and penchant for cutoff jeans and heels. Yet her coquettish demeanor turned serious and reserved as soon as she switched to her native Visayan to talk about a new boyfriend she met recently.
She had just started dating a man from the Netherlands named Hans, who had stayed at Leonor’s guesthouse with a woman he met online. Jelia recounted how he was disappointed that that woman was fatter than he had expected from the photos she had sent. He happened upon Jelia when Leonor gave him a ride one day, which included a stop by her friend’s house.
Hans’s experience was far from unusual — in fact, the shift between online and offline power is one of the major dynamics at play in modern dating among foreigners and Filipinas. Before a man comes to the Philippines, the woman has the advantage, because only a fraction of Filipina women have the technological capability and English knowledge to meet men online. Video chat may seem like a rudimentary requirement, but it’s not trivial to set it up in remote parts of the Philippines, as women either have to pay for expensive computers or smartphones with fast internet connections and no bandwidth restrictions, or go to internet cafes, which are also cost-prohibitive. But the tables turn once the foreigner arrives in the country. The cost of technology is no longer an obstacle, and he suddenly has many more eligible women vying for his attention.
Yet despite this tenuous beginning to the mating dance — with all its economic, political, and aesthetic complexities—the couples I met in Dumaguete were largely content (Leonor and her failed marriage excepted). Generally speaking, the man has found a beautiful woman happy to take care of their home, and the woman is living a more comfortable life than she could have otherwise expected. As an online commenter simply noted as a reminder to foreign men seeking Filipina wives online, “We are trading economic security for youth/beauty.”
As Leonor got to know Jonathan, the British truck driver, they began to video chat on Skype at least twice a day. Since his divorce, he had taken a night shift at his trucking company so he could take care of the family dog during the day. He and Leonor usually Skyped in the early afternoon, Philippine time, as Jonathan came back from work in England, and then again before Leonor went to bed and after Jonathan woke up from sleeping during the day.
Jonathan welcomed Leonor’s adolescent children when she introduced them over video chat, and he in turn introduced her to his own children, who are in their twenties. Jonathan also gained favor by not asking for nude pictures or for Leonor to talk dirty with him, as Western men are prone to do with Filipina women they meet online.
As 2017 began, Jonathan and Leonor embarked on their plan to meet in earnest. It’s standard for the interested foreigner to visit the Philippines, because there are no tourist visa restrictions there for Westerners. But because Leonor wanted to settle in the West and Jonathan couldn’t take too much time off work, the pair decided that Leonor should visit England. Jonathan paid for a lawyer to get Leonor a tourist visa, and the British consulate asked her to submit all her personal correspondence and proof she had funds in the bank — most of which Jonathan had given her—to show that she wasn’t just a poor woman hoping to work there illegally. “He offered to also pay for my children to visit England but I refused,” Leonor said. “I don’t want to owe him so much if things do not work out.”
“Our story is like Beauty and the Beast,” Jonathan said when Leonor passed me her iPhone 5 as we sat in the living room of her guesthouse. The man on the other side of the screen was far from ugly, with an expressive, open face and ruddy cheeks so plump that the bottom of his tortoise shell glasses hit them as he smiled. He rubbed his eyes because he was up past his bedtime. Leonor had mentioned he was self-conscious about his weight. I told Jonathan he was too hard on himself.
“What do you mean? I’m the Beauty in the relationship,” he replied as Leonor cackled next to me.
Leonor and Zen. Photo by Meredith Talusan.The two tried to keep up their spirits after Leonor learned that her visa petition had been denied. The British consulate told her in a letter that it did not consider online relationships to be real, and that it would only consider granting her a visa if she and Jonathan met in the Philippines first.
But in a stroke of good timing, a package that Jonathan had sent more than a month earlier arrived two days after Leonor got the bad news. Leonor motioned to dozens of DVDs on top of her TV set that were part of the package, and told me proudly that Jonathan also sent over laptops for both of her kids, as well as a PS2.
“And,” Leonor said as she held out her left hand to show off a gold band with a small solitaire diamond on the ring finger, “he sent me my engagement ring.”
“Pre-engagement ring,” Jonathan corrected on the tinny speakerphone as Leonor laughed. He’d made it clear he didn’t want her to feel pressured to marry him out of gratitude, even as he seemed entirely sure of his attachment to her.
It was later in the afternoon than Leonor’s usual call, and Jonathan complained that she’d kept him awake. She told him that she had gotten her hair done and done some shopping in the city.
“For someone who doesn’t have money you sure do a lot of shopping,” Jonathan teased.
“It’s because you don’t send us enough.”
The two of them continued to banter about money until Jonathan’s tone grew serious when he told her he would give her a credit card once they settled in England, so she wouldn’t need to worry about running out. Leonor told me that one of the things she values most about Jonathan is that he never tells her she asks for too much, and turns thorny topics into jokes they can both laugh about.
Because Leonor’s visa was denied, Jonathan decided to come to the Philippines so he and Leonor could fully get to know each other. “My company wouldn’t give me a month off, so I quit,” he said. He decided to stay for two months, given that he didn’t have a job to go back to; meanwhile, his daughter took care of the beloved family dog.
Leonor didn’t seem concerned that her potential future husband would soon be unemployed. If the two of them settle in England, she figured she can sell her guesthouse in the Philippines, which would give them a financial cushion while Jonathan looks for another job. Jonathan’s smiling face on her iPhone has replaced her initial image of the generic Western provider, as she has steadily come to believe he has rare qualities that other men lack.
“We’re the Romeo and Juliet of the internet,” Jonathan said of his relationship with Leonor and the obstacles they continue to overcome as they try to meet in real life. “But we’ll find a way to be together.”
Still, Leonor got more nervous as Jonathan’s arrival grew near. Though she wasn’t particularly concerned about his physical appearance, she started dieting and hiding her stomach in photographs, concerned that Jonathan wouldn’t find her sexy. She was also aware that Jonathan would find many other women on these islands when his plane landed, and might end up tempted by them. The closer virtual interactions come to the real world, the more the details that couldn’t be captured online gain outsized importance when two people finally meet in person.
Jonathan landed on the neighboring island of Cebu on March 12, where Leonor met him, and they took the five-hour ferry ride back to Dumaguete together. They have just begun to discover whether the bond they formed online is also meant for the real world.