University of California, Santa Barbara
Case Method Website

Choices And Chances: Becoming a Mail Order Bride
Paulette Haban

Abstract Case Text Teaching Notes
This case study is a composite character sketch based on the author’s interviews with Filipina mail order brides and their husbands. Remy Santos, a Filipina overseas contract worker in Hong Kong, has been writing to a man she met through a pen pal club. She is faced with an impending decision. Does she become a mail order bride? Does she secure a new contract? Does she return to the Philippines and go through a retraining seminar supported by women’s empowerment groups? This case study is meant for students to exercise their sociological imagination and to see how structural agency operates in what appears to be a "no win" situation. There are no clear cut answers. The uncomfortability with whatever decision that the class comes to is meant to replicate on a minute scale everyday life. This case may be used in classes that deal specifically with or touch upon the following topics: migration, multiple forms of domination (race, class, gender, sexuality, etc.) in domestic and international contexts, women’s studies, and Asian/Asian American issues.

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Hong Kong International Airport (voice over the PA system)

"Philippine Airlines flight 231 to Manila is now boarding at gate 7."

The sardine-like seats of the 737 are slowly filling up with Filipino, American, and Chinese passengers. The chaos of finding the right seats and placing various items in overhead compartments or underneath seats and the din of multilingual pre-flight chatter fills the stale cabin air. Among flight 231’s passengers is Remy Santos, an attractive thirty year old Filipina overseas contract worker who is going home to visit family in her hometown of Sampaguita Village. Remy settles in her seat and awaits the deadening roar of the plane’s engines, signaling their departure from the runway and from Hong Kong.

As the plane ascends and the seat belt sign clicks off, Remy looks at the small stack of handled envelopes in her bag, their content awaiting another perusal. She methodically turns the knob in front of her and lets the tray fall from the back seat. Fortune had smiled upon her by leaving an empty seat next to her. She abruptly spreads out her stack of letters in the unoccupied seat and begins to search for the first one requiring attention. Remy Santos looks noticeably apprehensive due to a decision that has occupied her mind since boarding the plane.

As she sifts through the envelopes, Remy unfolds a letter that she has read several times:

Ramos Placement Enterprises
3722 Jose Rizal plaza
Makati, Philippines

Remy Santos
15 Blossom Lane
Hong Kong

Dear Ms. Santos,

We are informing you of the impending expiration of your contract with Sunrise Group. Your contract officially ends 2 months from the above date. Your performance for the past 2 1/2 years with this placement agency has been consistent in terms of the job description, although it is unclear whether they will renew your contract for another two years.

We are committed in assisting you with future overseas contract work. The possibilities for renewing your contract may depend on Sunrise Group or placement with another employer.

Please contact us if you would like to reapply for a new contract in Hong Kong or other countries affiliated with our services. Any further inquiries or information should be made to the above address.

We look forward to hearing from you and wish you the best in whatever decision you make.


Mr. Claro Natividad
Head of Personnel


Remy slowly mulled over her possibilities while she gazed out of her window seat.

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The Economic Setting

The Philippines is an archipelago consisting of approximately 7000 islands surrounded by the North and South China Seas and the Pacific Ocean. Unlike China, Japan, and other newly industrializing countries, the Philippines has remained part of the economic periphery in which participating in transnational ventures supersedes independent development. Hence, development practices and the country’s economic peripherality have meant "separation from and subordination to the dominant industrial economics which have developed" (Clapham, 1985: 182). This is exemplified by the US occupation during the pre- and post-war era.

With US interest in the natural resources and strategic military position of the country, macro economic policies such as the "green plan" were meant to precipitate agricultural industrialization with the assumption of increasing the Philippines’ monetary base. Instead this plan, as others before it, had the effect of uneven growth and unbalanced regional population distribution. Since the late 1970’s, the Philippines’ economic policies have made a transition from dependence on export based agricultural products to its current top three exports – remittances from overseas contract workers, electronics, and garments. All three have sustained and contributed to the Philippine economy in significant ways while also altering the country’s demographics through a concentrated industrial presence in export processing zones.

While export processing zones provide an industrializing infrastructure and waged jobs for Filipinos, labor export provides an important crux for the country’s economy. Remittances from labor export is a reliable source of income for the families of overseas contract workers who, in turn, contribute to the Philippines’ economy. Part of the reliance on labor export as a sound economic policy stems from the Philippines limited labor pool and economic infrastructure. Rather than completely shutting its educated masses out of the labor pool and suffering the effects of "brain drain," labor is contracted to other countries who need skilled or semi-skilled niches filled. It is not uncommon for educated Filipinas to enter contract agreements in which their occupation demonstrates little correlation to their educational level.

Unlike the previously male-dominated migration, the face of international and national migration is changing. Remy Santos is among the estimated three hundred thousand overseas contract workers whose main destinations are the Middle East, Europe, and other Asian countries. Not only is her face among many other Asian women partaking in the feminization of an international and mobile workforce, but her body also occupies a space that moves within national and international boundaries as domestic helpers, nurses, and "entertainers."

Remy places the letter from Ramos Enterprises on the tray and proceeds to sift through the envelopes and glances at an unopened air mail letter from her friend in the US, Gemma Thompson. As she worked open the envelope with her left index finger, her other hand busily rummaged through her bag for the walkman/recorder that she had stowed a few hours previously during her trek to the departure gate. The cassette recorder was a gift from a man that she had been corresponding with for a little over eight months; a man that she had met through a penpal agency which introduces American men to Asian women. She places her headphones on to once again hear his voice and proceeds to read Gemma’s letter at the same time:

My dearest Remy,

Kamusta Ka? I hope that everything is going well and that you are in good spirits. I cannot begin to tell you everything that is running through my mind or the things that I have seen. It is true that this country is rich and that there are opportunities available. I long to talk to you on the phone and tell you in Tagalog everything, but Chris wants me to practice my English so that I can talk and write better. Besides, I must be careful with my phone calls to the Philippines. Chris is already so generous. Ay nako (colloquial equivalent to "Gosh!!"), hindi ako hirap ng hirap (my life is no longer hard). Everyone has cars here, and there’s not as much pollution as in Hong Kong and the Philippines....

(Male voice on tape) Remy, I am extremely excited that you might accept my proposal and move here to the US. Included in this package are pictures of our future home. It is a modest home but I’ve installed all the latest appliances. I even had the kitchen remodeled so that the counters and cabinets would be within your reach. My promotion at work has allowed me to pay for the remodeling. I cannot express how much I am looking forward to showing you America, often I see the world around me through tired eyes that do not comprehend the beauty of my country. I want so much to see the world through your eyes, Remy. When I hear the excitement in your voice at the pictures that I send of my town, I too share in your wonderment.

Fading in and out between the voice through the headphones and reading the letter, a stewardess walks by and momentarily steals Remy’s attention. After deciding what she wants to eat she returns to Gemma’s letter: 

AND the restrooms all have toilet paper. Remember the times we had to get up so early prepare the food, clean, watch the Sir’s children and sleep so late only to wake up early again. Even if I do wake up early, it is because I enjoy taking care of Chris. He wants me to learn English so that I can earn a little bit of money. Sweet, di ba? He’s also helped me enroll in a typing class and bought me my own typewriter. I am so lucky to have a man like him. I am indebted to him. I don’t mind cooking and cleaning. Besides, he takes me out for drives and buys me nice things. In two years I will have my permanent residency...

Did you receive the package that I sent? I sent a few extra items for you to send to your family in the Philippines. I also included a little extra money for you to buy yourself something that you want. I know that most of your wages get sent to your family and I want your hard work in Hong Kong to be rewarded. Please use the money to treat yourself.

By and by na lang, is Madam still crazy and strict? When your contract is up, you should get out of it and maybe then you will have a better chance of joining me in the States.

Oh, are you still writing Nathan? He’s a good man Remy. He takes care of you even though he is thousands of miles away. Y’know Rita’s pen pal doesn’t really ask about her work. At least Nathan is concerned about you. Besides, he is an accountant and has lots of money. Why else would he send you flowers and tape recorders and have taken you to restaurants we were only servants in when he came to visit? Unlike other men, your age doesn’t matter. And even after you told him what happened to you a long time ago he still loves you. Isn’t that all that matters?

I have met other couples who met through correspondence. In fact Chris’ friend has joined Cherry Blossoms. I am helping him narrow down his letter writing. Despite all the news stories about someone getting killed and locked up in their house, I can only speak for myself. Remy, my life is so much better here... 

Remy, I am concerned. The last picture that you sent showed your smiling eyes, but it seemed that you didn’t have much to smile about. Is your employer still causing you problems? Is that why you look ill? You must take better care of yourself. I wish that I could do something for you, but I am helpless. I can only offer words of comfort.

I don’t have to worry about my contract ending or getting placed in the "entertainment" places. I hope that soon I can use my commerce degree as I had intended. But of course, I’ll have to get a working visa and speak better English.

I hope that you have decided upon Nathan. I liked him when us girls met him in Hong Kong. He’s good for you. Since he is only 15 years older than you and not overly handsome you don’t have to worry about him being with other chicks.

I hope that the next time I hear from you, it is good news about your impending marriage. 

Remember, I do love you. I will try and call you on Saturday. I hope that it is enough time for you to make a decision. If you need extra money to tide you over and for immigration papers, please do not worry. I will take care of everything.

Much love and God Bless,


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The Colonial Legacy

With US military assistance, the Philippines was able to defeat the Spanish in 1898 and soon Filipino Rebels declared the Philippines an independent nation. The US government – who had been given the Philippines in the Treaty of Paris – replied by sending troops under the guise of manifest destiny. Hence, the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902. Flash forward to the present: although the last military base closed down in 1992, American ideology and culture made itself known in Philippine social institutions and everyday life. The US symbolized a land of prosperity, its men "enlightened" by the women’s movement and a considered a "good catch." Currently, American presence and the Philippines’ exposure to the US is still felt in businesses, upper class culture, remnants of the effects of military culture, and multinational corporations. For example, in response to Filipinas meeting GI’s in clubs or other service type industries, certain government agencies responded by putting up "bride schools" which taught Filipinas about American geography, cooking, history, as well as the demands of being a military wife.

The presence of hundreds of thousands of young well paid, at least in Philippine terms, servicemen in an economically depressed area had predictable results. Life on military bases demonstrated one of wealth and prosperity in that the commissary was always stocked with relatively affordable food, the area had running water, electricity, and decent sanitation. R&R (rest and recreation) became a primary source of entertainment for military men and a primary source of income for women and businesses. Moreover, it introduced American men to depictions of Asian Femininity.

(This is your captain speaking. We are beginning our descent to Manila International Airport. For your safety we ask that you remained seated until the plane comes to a complete stop)

Jesulita and Connie search for signs of Remy’s presence among the mass of strangers leaving the platform. Remy sees her mother Jesulita and sister Connie through the glass window. As she crosses the platform with her luggage, the humidity is already making her skin sticky with beads of sweat. She longed for an air conditioned car, much like the one Nathan rented in Hong Kong. As Remy approaches her family, the three women embrace. Through their hugs, each woman tries to convey some emotion. Remy doesn’t want to trouble her mother with her impending decision, knowing full well that Connie would have told mom the reasons for her visit.

Remy’s mother says with concern and affection, "anak, you look so skinny. Oh, you eat and by and by we will talk and you can tell me why your eyes are so sunken. I’ll be back, I am going to fetch your Tita and help her with some things."

Remy notices the small feast placed before her, the food that her income helps to provide. Small dried fish, garlic fried rice, and KanKung - a green leafy vegetable.

Connie and Remy are filling their plates with their mother’s cooking. Before Remy places the first bite of food in her mouth she turns to Connie, "how is your schooling at the college going? Are you maintaining your grades?" Before her sister could answer, she raised her left eyebrow and chuckled, "hoy, remember boys aren’t important right now."

Connie smiles; glad that her sister is home, if only for a few days. "School is fine. I might be able to get a scholarship next semester which should help out the family since they will be raising our tuition by fifteen percent. At least then your remittances will go to other things and not only my schooling. But how are you? I’m worried about you. You seemed so unhappy with all the work that your employers are having you do, and you HAVE lost so much weight. Oh, I told mom about your contract and about this man, Nathan’s, proposal. Y’know how mom is. Well, we are both concerned. Mom would rather you renew your overseas contract. Mom, honestly believes that God will repay you for your loyalty and hard work with the employment agency. She says at least there are guarantees regarding the remittances if you stay with overseas contract work. You are an important contribution to the family income. Soon, I’ll be able to finish school and then help with our younger siblings. She also doesn’t want you living so far away from the family. At least if you are in Hong Kong, then you are still closer to home. Mom says that if Nathan were a proper man he would visit the family here in the Philippines. You’ve already been shamed once. She doesn’t want you to get married and move to the US without any family there. She keeps saying that you must think a thousand times before you get married because you mustn’t bring hiya (shame) upon the family."

As Remy listens to her mother’s concern through Connie’s lips, she couldn’t help but think of the secrets she has kept about her working conditions and the abuse she has suffered since the labor laws were not strictly enforced but rather left to the discretion of the employer. She was required to put in 15-18 hour days with only rotating Sundays off. She would fulfill duties that were not a part of her job description and was often excessively reprimanded by her employer’s wife for minor things such as missing a dirty spot on the floor. Remy also had to constantly put off her employer’s advances. By the grace of God, something always interrupted him from fully entering her maid’s quarters. If only her mother and sister knew what she had to put up with as part of her family responsibility. Remy’s mind drifts to thoughts of marrying Nathan. "If I get married to Nathan, I might be able to use my college degree. Then, I will be able to help with a combined income."

Remy is pulled away from her thoughts by her sister’s palm upon her hand. She asks in an inaudible whisper, "but what about my happiness?" Remy looks to her sister, "Connie, what should I do? I received a letter from the employment agency that says they cannot guarantee a job and finding work here in the city is difficult. My friends in Hong Kong have met Nathan and say that he is a good man, that he appears to be genuinely concerned for me. Many of the gifts and extra money that I send you are because of his generosity. Despite my age and unfortunate experiences, he is still willing to be my husband and I want to be married...."

Connie interrupts her sister. On the one hand she understands her sister’s position but cannot ignore what she had heard just days earlier. "Ate, I know that mom has always taught us that eventually we must get married to a good man; someone who will help with the family. And while I agree with mom, it is not necessarily for the same reasons. Yesterday in one of my lecture classes, a woman affiliated with GABRIELA came to talk about something she called the mail order bride industry. This woman only confirmed my suspicions of this Nathan - the man you want to marry. Every now and then I read horror stories in the paper about Filipinas being abused, deported, even put into prostitution in the States and in Europe. Why take that risk?"

Remy interrupts Connie and states firmly, "But you are talking about other women, not me. I’ve met Nathan and we have been corresponding for eight months...."

Connie continues, "remember when the bases were still here and the Red Light districts were teeming with white men fondling Filipinas in public and then leaving their offspring behind? These white men think we exist to serve them hand and foot. Who will protect you in the States? Why leave your family? You don’t know what will happen when you do arrive in the States. Who will you turn to if he decides he can hit you?

Here, I took some brochures. I don’t know what to tell you except that only you can make the decision." Connie picks up her and Remy’s plate and proceeds to the kitchen.

Remy glances at the brochures left on the table. Snippets of press reporting on thin photocopied paper flash bold letters which hold her gaze: Texas: JACK REEVES SUSPECTED OF MURDERING HIS FILIPINA MAIL ORDER BRIDE. Another snippet: Seattle - In a divorce proceeding Timothy Blackwell shoots his wife of only 6 months......a Filipina mail order bride. The defense claims immigration fraud. Another quote from a pamphlet holds her attention: "Correspondence clubs are merely cover ups for a widespread international marriage market which exploits Asian women in order to fulfill the demand of traditional supportive wives. It is an unequal equation. The women involved with pen pal agencies are uninformed about their commodification as "Oriental Butterflies."

Connie comes back into the room and interrupts Remy’s stare upon the table. "Ate, why must it be a decision between marriage and overseas contract work? I know that you haven’t mentioned much about your working conditions, but there are women’s groups who can help. Kalayaan , a feminist group offers skills training and small cooperatives for business ventures like running food stalls...." As her sister’s voice trails off, Remy sees a pamphlet: "MIGRANTE provides legal services and counseling to trafficked women or migrant women who are victims of abuse."

Overwhelmed by the information placed before her, her family’s concern, her familial obligation, and her desire for happiness, Remy leaves the dining table and decides to take a ride to see the new MegaMall in Manila. She needed time to think. She must make a decision soon. As Remy finds a seat on the air conditioned bus, she looks out the window and sees the chaos of cars, jeepneys, and buses making three lanes into five or six. She hears horns honking in unison. She sees the shanty towns along the highways and rivers. Remy closes her eyes, "Do I renew my contract and try to find a better position? Do I start over in the Philippines? Or do I get married and migrate to the States?"

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Teaching Objectives

The goals of this case study will vary upon the context in which it is used. The goals of this case study are as follows:

  1. To demonstrate how structural factors - economic policies, neo-colonialism, race, gender, etc. - affect and influence the decisions that people (specifically women, Filipina mail order brides) make.

  2. To examine the disempowerment of women who are trafficked and the avenues through which these very same women have created opportunities.

  3. For students to grasp the complexity of the mail order bride debate; that it is not as clear cut as we would like to think. This complexity is, in part, due to the multiple registers that race, gender, colonialism, and nation status within a world system occupies.

  4. Forces us to question our own assumptions about the choices imaginable for these women and what risk factors are exchanged for new ones.

  5. Lastly, I hope my case study contributes to our increasingly sophisticated understanding of the shifting effects of global relations on women’s subjective lives.

Teaching Notes

On page 8, the nature of Remy’s "unfortunate experience" is left open for the facilitator or class to decide. Options for naming what the unfortunate experience is can be any of the following: Remy might have been previously married, had a child out of wedlock, raped, had a relationship with a GI and then left behind. Depending on the context in which this case is used and what name is given to Remy’s unfortunate experience will direct the nature of the discussion and highlight very different concerns. Engage the imagination!

Role Play

There are 4 positions to be played:

  1. Jesulita (mother) argues for renewal of overseas contract work.

  2. Gemma/Nathan present information that lean towards Remy becoming a mail order bride.

  3. Connie/Gabriela present large scale concerns that center around the exploitation of women and they’re disempowerment ideologically and personally.

  4. Remy: this role should be played by the facilitator or a student who can argue her position effectively. That is, this role requires understanding some of Remy’s motivations. This role requires outside reading.

Option 1: If it is not convenient to have small groups of 3 students to each position. Select or have people volunteer to play each role for the larger class. A total of 2 students to each position (round table max: 8 people). Remy will begin the discussion by asking "What should I do?" At any point in the discussion the different positions can respond to one another by responding to Remy. For example, Connie may highlight the unequal relationship in terms of information. How much integrity does Nathan’s letters have? To which Remy might respond that all her friends approve and he has been nothing but caring and nice. Jesulita might pipe in and mention that she doesn’t want the family to be shamed in any way.

The "audience" should follow the logic of the different positions. What issues are raised? What should Remy’s concerns be? Depending on what decision is made, what risks are exchanged for what? What are the larger constraints placed upon Remy? Everyone should also keep in mind if there are other alternatives that aren’t raised and discuss those in the debriefing session. The audience’s role will actually more difficult than the role play itself since it requires exercising the sociological imagination in 3 different and possibly conflicting ways; that is, examining the pros and cons of each decision.

Option 2: if the class is small enough to have 3 groups of 4 people. The facilitator will play Remy and guide the discussion by posing questions to Jesulita, Gemma/Nathan, and Connie/Gabriela. This option will provide an opportunity to experience the decision making process in a more intimate and focused way.

Questions to think about:

  1. What are the pros and cons of each position? Do they speak to or challenge a different position? If so, how?
    * What should Remy take into account in making her decision to marry Nathan? Conversely, what might she take into account regarding a new overseas contract or staying in the Philippines?

  2. How should the concerns of each position be prioritized? Why?

  3. What might Remy’s motivations be for becoming a mail order bride?

  4. How much integrity is there behind meeting someone through correspondence clubs? Are there equivalent experiences in the US?

  5. What subjective positions does Remy occupy? In what ways does she give a face to ideological constructs?

  6. What arguments might be more convincing for Remy?

  7. From Jesulita’s perspective, why immigrate to a country where you won’t have family and where you might not be able to find a job? Why put yourself in a vulnerable situation
    * How does Jesulita’s concern raise the notion that other risks are replaced with new ones?

  8. Why not get married through this kind of arrangement?

  9. How does Remy’s "unfortunate experiences" change the direction of the story, and ultimately her decision?

  10. If there are mail order brides migrating to the US, what kind of social policies might you support or draft? What concerns would need to be addressed? What might this group of immigrant women need?

  11. How does racialized and gendered expectations influence migratory labor? How do these same expectations operate within an international marriage market? How aremade viable as choices?

To be left uncertain and uneasy, but to be able to argue and stand firm upon one’s ground, is a good beginning. Through the role play and debriefing, I hope it becomes apparent that old risks are replaced or reinterpreted as new ones - each choice with its own set of constraints and opportunities.

This site is maintained by John Foran
Last update: June 2002.

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