It started with a stereotype.

A young, attractive Filipina sat in an internet cafe videochatting with a COWM. A Creepy Old White Man.

Yeah. We expatriates living in the Philippines had, in true Filipino style, given the phenomenon an acronym.

The COWM is most frequently sighted in Filipino shopping malls, those bastions of air-conditioning and public restrooms and American-style sooperkrazyconsumerism. He is most often fiftyish with graying hair, though we had documented COWMs as old as eighty and as young as twenty-five. More often than not he has a sizable paunch, he dresses in tacky bermuda shorts and t-shirt, and his emotionless face vacillates in hue between dissipation yellow and sunburn red. Strolling next to him, usually half his size and–key to the whole picture–half his age, dressed in what borders on scandalous in the Philippines (spaghetti straps, short shorts, extra high heels), the girl. She is not a prosty. She is his wife.

“Yes, I’m listening honey,” the girl in the internet cafe said into her headset. She was at most thirty. Svelte. Strikingly attractive, even if she hadn’t been wearing all the makeup. The gold hoop-earrings that dangled in front of her shoulder-length hair would be visible on the webcam. The cheap rubber band which held her hair back would not. The girl leaned toward the screen. “I’m listening. Take your time, hon. Take your time.”

From where I was sitting I could only make out that the man she was talking to was indeed white, indeed old. It was enough for me. The prosecution refers to Exhibit A: COWM!

In our minds, the COWM was the contemporary embodiment of the Ugly American. The story we’d constructed was that here was a man of modest means who had discovered that if he came to the Philippines he could live like a king (we imagined abandoned wives and kids in Kansas). And he had discovered that his money could buy more than just cheap beer: in a nation with 30% unemployment and comparable poverty, he could have his pick of desirable yet desperate maidens. And he could treat her as he pleased.

“That’s why I’m late yesterday because. I. It’s okay. As I told you…” the girl coughed delicately. “Last night. I just want to…I want to calm myself because if I’m always thinking about it I’ll go crazy.” The girl coughed again.

We found the COWM abhorrent partly because he seemed classically exploitative and partly because he made us, the “good” Americans, look bad. The COWM seemed to sense this. When you passed in a mall, both parties knew better than to make eye contact. Which only reinforced the myth: since we were too righteously indignant to talk, we could only conclude that the facts must match our fiction. He was so abhorrent that sometimes after innocent flirtation with younger Filipinas I tasted rust in my mouth. He was so abhorrent that it made me think that even if I fell in love with a Filipina, even true and honest head-over-heels lovey-dovey stuff, I would then become a COWM myself. And I would lose all self-respect.

In short, our sympathies were with the Filipina. So when I heard the girl in the internet cafe say, “The doctor says there will be another injection of fat on Monday,” my overactive imagination had no problem constructing the backstory: here was a COwM who had somehow convinced his destitute, soon-to-be Filipina bride to get breast enhancements before he would agree to marry her. Maybe he was financing the plastic surgery. Even so, she was going to some back-alley place in the dirtiest part of town, risking infection, disfiguration, even death–all for this lousy COWM. Abhorrent.

The problem, as I would soon find out, is that as with all stereotypes, the reality is far less…well, stereotypical. For instance, almost every Sunday, I saw a COwM and his wife attend church at the local chapel. First, his churchgoing habit grated with my stereotype. And then there was the fact that his Filipina bride was not much younger than him.

Or what about the Filipina who lived across the road from my host family? She had married an American years ago, his money built them a massive house, she mothered two children by him, and then he prompted died. She had remarried a Filipino and now lived comfortably in a house that dwarfed my host family’s.

Or what about Darryl, one of the few COWMs I’d actually talked with? After a few months’ of online chatrooming, he had come to the Philippines to marry his bride. She was about his age–fiftyish–he assured me. And yet, when he had arrived and the woman discovered he had less than a month’s supply of cash, she scorned him. At the time I spoke with him, he was in limbo in Manila, hoping that the U.S. embassy would finance a flight back to America.

Oddly enough, thanks to that lovely, annoying psychological tick, cognitive dissonance, I refused then (and still refuse) to give up my blanket prejudice against COWMs despite facts to the contrary.

Even in that internet cafe, eavesdropping unforgivably, even when I heard this:

“…but because of you my son is now surviving. And I won’t forget that. Really.” [Laughs.] “I don’t want to cry again.” [Laughs.] “Honey, you are working so hard. So how’s your day? I miss you for two days. I think you are going out because your line is off. Ah…I’ll send you…I’ll send you. Thank you so much and I’ll be fine…We will be at peace. We will be at a peace after that.” [Laughs. Coughs.] It’s okay hun…It’s okay don’t worry. I’ll fix it. I already spoke with that girl…and I asked her for a loan. It’s okay. It’s okay. The most important is…” [Trails off]

My overactive imagination had gotten it wrong. This wasn’t plastic surgery. This was a sick child. And though the relationship of the COWM to the child wasn’t yet apparent, he was clearly financing the hospital stay.

“I will fix it, I already asked a friend for a loan. Do you know how much it is to stay in the hospital until Monday? 28,000 pesos…And then there’s my salary” [Pause.] “6,200.” [Sniffles] “That’s why last night I asked my friend to have a loan for me, but she said she’s not sure for that…And then I asked another friend and she is not sure about it.”

I hadn’t been wrong about the woman’s lack of money. 6,200 pesos per month isn’t much for a mother with a child. It’s about how much the U.S. government gives Peace Corps volunteers. But suddenly the exploitation didn’t seem so clear cut. I didn’t know what the COWM was getting out of this cyber-relationship, but the woman was getting something, too.

“Listen honey. I love you a lot. And you are working so hard…And God is always helping.”