I Was Once A "90-Day Fiancée"
There's a new show on TLC called 90 Day Fiance that follows the lives of four engaged couples and the women are all coming from overseas. The women enter the United States on a K-1 visa (aka the "fiancée visa") and they must marry their American fiancés within 90 days of entry. If the couple fails to do this, then the woman/fiancée would have no other choice but to go back to her home country. The four women in the show are from Colombia, Brazil, Russia, and the Philippines.
Only two episodes have aired so far -- but weeks prior to the airing of the show's pilot episode, I had already made sure that my DVR was all set to record the series. Why? Well, it's not as simple as just being curious and playing a voyeuristic role (as is true for most of us who watch reality television). It's probably more because I knew deep down that there's a part of me that could relate to these women and the need to compare my experience with theirs is just too strong to resist.
A Fiancée Twice
Yes, I was once (something of) a 90-day fiancée, and am definitely no stranger to international dating. The (amusing) fact is that I've only had two boyfriends in my entire life (including my husband), and both of them are "foreign." I guess I should also admit that I got engaged to both.
My first boyfriend is British. We accidentally met on ICQ. (I probably made myself sound so ancient by mentioning that; if you are not familiar with that computer program, you can knock yourself out and just Google it. This was back in 2001). He popped up on my screen asking for some information about Asia, particularly Thailand, because he was considering a vacation at that time. We talked; I answered some questions and clarifications, and I guess he found me interesting. Actually, it was easy for us to hit it off almost instantly, because we are both extremely cerebral. Suffice it to say that we fell deeply in love very quickly, got engaged, and filed our papers at the British Embassy office in Manila so I could join him in the UK on a fiance visa -- but obviously, things didn't end up as planned. It wasn't that the fiancee visa application was denied. We parted ways as a couple way before my interview date at the embassy got scheduled, for reasons much too private and complicated to discuss.
Fast forward to late 2002, when I first met my husband as he visited family in the Philippines. Yes he is Filipino by ethnicity, born in the Philippines, but he migrated to the United States by age 7. He's what you'd call a Filipino-American (Fil-Am), and though he's tried to retain as much "Filipino-ness" in him, by virtue of his basic socialization experiences, he's actually quite American. The beauty of it is that he has a good balance of both cultures: He knows enough Tagalog to survive basic conversations; he definitely loves Filipino cuisine; we have similar family values; and though we came from somewhat different worlds, we weren't complete "strangers" -- we had somebody in common in our lives who actually introduced us (one of my good friends, who happens to be married to a cousin of his).
So, unlike the women in the TLC show, I didn't have as much of a struggle migrating and starting a new life here in the U.S. given that my husband and I share the same ethnicity. I didn't have any difficulty with the language, either; and, as I've repeatedly written on this blog, the Philippines is very well exposed to American culture, so the culture shock for me was kept to a bearable level. I suppose it also helped a lot that I knew my parents had a visa, so they can come and visit me if I really needed it. The year I migrated was also not my first time in the U.S. since I'd visited three years before as a tourist.
That said, all of these positive points that might have made it a bit easier on us when we first got married, still didn't make the whole experience a walk in the park. I entered the U.S. as a tourist in April 2004 with no plans of marrying -- but love happened, and by July we were married. So, yes, it did feel like I was a 90-day fiancee even though I entered with a tourist visa, and the difficulties of adjusting went on for years after my date of entry into the U.S. Just like one of the women in the TV show, self-scan at the grocery store was totally new to me. I didn't know how to gas up on my own either, because in the Philippines, gas station employees do that for you.
Driving around still causes me anxiety especially when it means going to unfamiliar places or driving through freeways. I still get overwhelmed with the serving size of dishes at restaurants, and I do get particularly shocked at the drink sizes. If memory serves me right, the small soda here in the U.S. when we go to fast food places is the equivalent of a large one in the Philippines (at least, it was when I last visited around six years ago).
Don't even get me started with even more serious things such as filling out your tax forms, buying a home, etc. I still struggle so much with a lot of the financial side of things and it's embarrassing. Not only did I not have to do much of that by myself when I was in the Philippines, the government and financial systems are of course also quite different. Different societies, different norms.It's just a fact of life and one that any migrant has to seriously deal with.
The Foreigner and the Significant Others
Another thing that draws me to the TLC show is that it makes me wonder how different it would have been for me, had I ended up in Britain. Would I have found it even harder to fit in and be accepted by my ex's family and friends, because I'm of a different race? Would they have also assumed that I only married for money or a visa, a "better" life abroad, just because it was a stereotype? Would they have maybe even labeled me a mail-order bride? These are the things that the women on the show are dealing with.
I find it so offensive that most of the families and friends of the men featured on the show just easily give in to their fears that the marriage would be a sham; that the foreign women are only in it for a chance to live in the United States. I know these fears are rooted in reality. Yes, they do happen. But I suppose there's an element of race inequality that I find so strongly implied in their protestations. Some of the women struggle with the language. Most, if not all of them, appear to be economically disadvantaged compared with the men they are engaged to.
Though all these factors (and others) probably come into play, what I feel as the strongest influence to the stigma directed at these brides-to-be is the fact that they are foreign, they are different, and therefore the unknowns are further multiplied.
Any marriage is a coming together of strangers, if you think about it. It's even further complicated when it involves two strangers from two different races and cultures. I think it would be interesting if the television show featured the women's families' sides of their stories, or how the women dealt with their families and friends after they revealed their future plans. I bet they are just as apprehensive as the men's families and I know this because I lived through it, especially with my ex.
He's not Filipino, and what made it "worse" was that we met online. It was bad enough that they (my family and friends) didn't know who he was; they also questioned the authenticity of our relationship. When they finally met him, somehow it alleviated some of their apprehension. At least then they knew he wasn't some kind of Mr. Snuffleupagus, either a figment of my imagination or someone fake. But the sadness over my leaving the country and anxieties over how my life would be like abroad, alone and alienated from everything familiar, was still there.
A lot of people who knew about my engagement also wondered if it would or could work out given the cultural differences. At the time, I spent an insane amount of energy trying to defend my relationship to others, trying to justify my choices and assure them that I knew exactly what I was getting myself into. Though this person and I didn't end up together, in a way our redeeming truth is that we've managed to remain very good friends. And though much of our relationship is/ was virtual (we only spent almost five days together physically, face-to-face), our friendship remains one of the most real and lasting ones I have to this day.
From Someone Who's Been There and Still Here
I don't know how the series 90 Day Fiance will end. I don't know if some of the couples will end up parting ways, realizing that the differences are insurmountable. I do know that I'm rooting for love, being the hopeless romantic that I am. I know better than to say that the challenges these couples are facing are easy or can just go away over time. However, I will say and hope that they believe enough in love and commitment, and understand how those two need to go together. It's not just a feeling. It's constant and never-ending effort. The men on the show need to be supportive and patient like they've never been before or thought possible. The women are giving up so much, practically their entire lives, and they deserve someone who is willing to ease them through the transition and make it as painless as possible.
Most of all, it has to be clear that they are a team and will always be on the same side of the fence. Other people will always have things to say, doubts to spew. Living through all that is more bearable as long as you are certain that you are in this together, and no hand shall be let go, no matter what. This, I do know.