Sunday, August 28, 2005

Californians, and "mail-order bride" as slur

"From the sound of it, had I stayed in California I might have joined a cult or at the very least practicing some weird dietary restriction."

I read this memorable line more than a decade go, when Donna Tartt's wonderful novel The Secret History first came out, and I'm sure it came to mind again earlier this summer, when an old friend from Los Angeles arrived at a St. Helena spa to prove that he was indeed a Californian. I mean no disrespect to my friend. I'm no different. I bit into the offered peach and lit a stick of incense at the Transcendental Meditation Center in Malibu. I dabbled in veganism and learned to prefer buffalo meat and wild salmon to store-bought chicken and beef, considered food combining, cured the sugar blues, and to this day refuse to eat any and all artificial flavors and colorings.

I say all this to introduce an anecdote. While picking up my friend from the Hoffman Institute, I was introduced to another young man who'd been through the same program of self-improvement -- a Hungarian spoken-word artist/poet who'd recently put out a CD of songs made on some four-track that spoke to our need to save the environment and find God, if I recall correctly. Anyways, this spoken-word artist/poet/singer/environmental-evangelist wanted to know a little something about the Fulbright Program, as my friend had told him I was going to Ukraine -- and why Ukraine? he asked, at which point my friend laughed and said something about my having a mail-order bride over there. I must've looked at him as if he'd just said he planned to shoot my mother, because his next words were quick and sputtering and apologetic. "What? You've got a girl over there, don't you?" At which point I said yes, there was a girl over there, but we had met in Davis -- while she was here on a business internship -- and then seen each other again in Moscow the previous summer. I didn't know what she was. Friend didn't seem the right word, though the alternative didn't either. "But she's not a mail-order bride," I said. That much I knew.

There's something awful about the term. I even tried to remove any reference to it while writing my grant application. Internationally-brokered marriages. Internet marriage agencies. Modern-day matchmaking. But no matter how I try to disguise it, I end up bringing it out in the end, again and again. "Oh, you mean you're going to be writing about mail-order brides?" "Yes," I say. "Mail-order brides."

Some words do heavy-lifting, others look right only on the front page of a congressional report.

Anyways, I thought of all this again, how it's so easy to consider the "mail-order bride" tag a slur, when I read the following this afternoon:

An Australian state Opposition leader has got into trouble for calling the premier's wife a mail-order bride. (She happens to be from Malaysia - actually highly unlikely to be a source of women using paid online marriage arrangement services, since it is far too wealthy.) It left me wondering why "mail-order bride" should be considered, as it undoubtedly is, a nasty term of abuse?

Perhaps the suggestion is that anyone who is a "mail-order bride" is little better than a prostitute (an uncomfortably obvious exposure of the traditional economics of marriage) and anyone who marries them can't get a "proper" woman - a slur on his manhood indeed. I wonder, if you called such women "economic refugees", would they get better treated?

More on the story that inspired the above quote can be found here.