So recently I exchanged life in a big city for life in a regional centre. From multicultural, diverse Melbourne to the Sunshine Coast, which is about as white and European as one would expect outside the capital cities. How white is it? I’ve been to an Indian restaurant and an Asian grocery store up here in which most of the staff are white; that’s how white it is here. Whenever I see a non-white face, they are most likely Pacific Islander. Here and there you see Asian faces, but after a while I noticed that there were demographic patterns emerging amongst those Asians I did see.
Most noticeably, almost all the East Asians here appear to be women. Now it’s possible that I’m not hanging out in the right places, but there are very few Asian men around. The few that I do see either seem to be tourists or international students from the local university. Last Saturday at Sunshine Plaza I counted at least 20 East Asian women and 2 young East Asian dudes who were most likely international students. The South Asians are different though; while not particularly numerous, there are at least as many males as females, and children too. And some stereotypes seem to hold true, like it or not; my local 7-11 is staffed by several Indians, as is the pharmacy, and there are plenty of South Asian medical staff at the hospital.
The ethnic make-up of Asians here is interesting too. While Chinese are the most numerous and well-established Asian group in Australia, in the Sunshine Coast they seem to be comprehensively outnumbered by Southeast Asians – Thais, Indonesians and particularly Filipinos. And these Southeast Asians are mostly women and predominantly aged between 25 and 55.
Why does this gender imbalance exist? If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that it’s at least partly caused by immigration due to the marriage of Asian-born women with Australian men. Because almost all the Asian women you’ll see here are in the company of white husbands or Eurasian children.
There are probably other factors at play as well, of course; there are many reasons people migrate here and marriage is only one of them. But it’s a gender imbalance that is reflected on a national scale. The below sex ratios of immigrants to Australia from selected countries come from the Department of Immigration’s 2006 statistics.
It should be noted that most groups of immigrants to Australia, including those from European countries, have a sex ratio that is either approximately equal or slightly weighted towards women by several percentage points. (This might reflect women tending to be more willing to move overseas for marriage; the greater expectation men face to be the breadwinner might be an obstacle in moving to a place with uncertain work prospects, as opposed to moving specifically for work.) By contrast, the figures from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan are unusually weighted towards males. Those likely represent cultures that are highly patriarchal; not only are there already more males than females in those countries due to higher mortality and gender selection at birth, but it would be more accepted for men to leave home to travel than women.
The figures for Japan, the Philippines and Thailand are startling; as the above chart indicates, there are around twice as many women as there are men immigrating to Australia from those countries. In part, this owes something to the phenomenon of so-called “mail-order brides” or similarly arranged partnerships (see also the figures for Russia as an indicator of this phenomenon). But it also has a lot to do with Australian men travelling to those countries for business or tourism, meeting local women and bringing them back here. It is also possible that of the Southeast Asians who come to Australia to study,women are more likely than men to stay due to having acquired a long-term partner. Consider these statistics from the ABS relating to Filipino immigrants to Australia: Almost 80% of men born in the Philippines are married to women also born in the Philippines. Yet only around 30% of Philippines-born women are married to Philippines-born men. And 70% of Filipino women who migrate here are the spouses or fiancées of Australian-born men.
(Note: this is not entirely a case of white men and Asian women. There are many Australian-born people of Asian heritage who marry people born in Asia.)
Now one obvious cause for this disparity is that non-Asian men seem to desire Asian women more than non-Asian women desire Asian men. You could argue endlessly about why that is, but whatever the cause, white man-Asian woman couplings seem to far outnumber Asian man-white woman couplings, even in the case of Australian-born Asians. (I can’t find definitive stats for Australia, but in the US at least, there are twice as many WM-AW marriages as AM-WW, according to the Pew Research Centre). But it’s also a matter of wealth; the average Australian woman earns substantially more than the average man from a developing country. Given that men are traditionally looked at as being the provider in a relationship, the average income disparity between an Australian and someone from Asia is more likely to be a negative for an Australian woman than it would be for an Australian man. And as one of the world’s most prosperous countries, it’s always going to be more likely that when international relationships begin, one person is going to move here rather than the other way around. Note that Japan and South Korea, two of the wealthiest countries in Asia, there is also a high rate of intermarriage with Vietnamese and Filipino women. In the case of women moving to Australia from a wealthy country like Japan, there is little obvious financial incentive, but one can imagine Australia being an easier place for a Japanese person to settle into with a new partner than the other way around.
It’s interesting that while all this goes on, we are apparently in the middle of what demographer Bernard Salt has termed a “man drought”. There are around 100,000 more females than males in Australia, which means that single women above 30 find it increasingly harder to find a partner. But the “man drought” only applies in certain age brackets, however. There are plenty of single men available when women are in their 20s, but once past the age of 35, the ratio of men to women starts to fall significantly, to around 95 men for every 100 women. This has a lot to do with men leaving our shores for work opportunities; while the UK is the obvious destination that springs to mind, it is estimated that around 12,000 Australians are currently living and working in Dubai, mostly male. While I surmised earlier that women seem more willing to move overseas to get married than men do, men appear to be more willing to move for work. The world may have largely moved on from the “husband works / wife stays home” dichotomy, but its legacy still shapes how we think and behave. And some of those men working overseas will return with a foreign-born partner in tow, which is one of the factors underlying the immigration gender imbalance.
But if Australia is truly experiencing a man drought, then unmarried men in their 30s and above should be in an advantageous position. With more unmarried women about to choose from, the odds are stacked in men’s favour. So why do so many men look abroad to places like the Philippines for wives?
It’s not hard to see how any man would find South East Asian women beautiful and attractive; but I think there are other factors at play as well.
Firstly, the man drought is also a function of internal migration. Many more women than men move from rural areas to the cities for education and career prospects. So while there are lots of single women in the cities, single rural men have an even harder time finding prospective marriage partners. Some no doubt conclude it is easier to attract foreign women to the regions than it is to get Australian women to make a tree-change.
The other reason is a bit more uncomfortable. Some men who seek foreign brides are doing so because of difficult experiences with Australian women, as they find it hard to adjust to the new gender landscape shaped by feminism and other aspects of modern life (see here for an example). As social norms have changed over the last 50 years, Australian women feel less pressure to stay in unsatisfying or abusive relationships, and have higher expectations of a man’s role in a relationship. By contrast, women from Asia are stereotyped as being more traditionally-minded, more docile, and more likely to accept old-fashioned gender roles. And in the interaction of women from poor countries with men from rich countries, there is obvious potential for power imbalance that gives Australian men advantages that they would not normally have over Australian women. (For example, it increases the opportunity for middle-aged men to enter relationships with much younger women, which would be less common in Australia.) According to Melba Marginson of the Centre for Philippine Concerns Australia, “Some Australian men seem to go to the Philippines thinking they can get themselves a submissive woman… These are men who usually cannot get partners in Australia, who cannot relate with strong women, and so they get out of Australia and get women who they think are meek, humble and domesticated.”
It also happens that men with more conservative attitudes towards male and female roles are disproportionally found outside the major cities. Which is not to say that applies to the mixed-race couples I’m seeing down at Sunshine Plaza or elsewhere. But those relationships are out there nonetheless.
This all raises lots of issues: the perception that Asian women are a kind of commodity, and their existence as a perceived alternative to “modern” white Australian women. Obviously these are not beliefs that are held by everyone; and I don’t wish to imply that anyone’s relationship is any less than loving and genuine. But these sorts of dynamics are certainly at play in a not insignificant number of cases, and have a subtle influence on how we as a society perceive Asian women. As mentioned earlier, people immigrate for many different reasons, and by the same token, relationships both good and bad can begin in a variety of different ways. The idea of the “mail-order bride” is a simplistic concept that does Asian women a disservice, yet it lingers over the way many people think about Asian women. And these are some of the issues that I’m going to explore in my next post.