[Larry Lesser, a retired FSO, served as DCM in Bangladesh and Rwanda and as deputy executive director of the Department's NEA Bureau. Other overseas tours were in Belgium, Burkina Faso, India, and Nigeria - the latter as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Since retiring he has been a re-employed annuitant, chiefly for the Office of Inspector General, as an editor of human rights reports for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL), and teaching mediation at the Foreign Service Institute. Lesser has been an OSCE supervisor or observer for numerous elections in eastern Europe. He was an appointed member of the Foreign Service Grievance Board 1997-2003, and an elected member of the American Foreign Service Association board of governors 2005-07.This piece appeared in American Diplomacy. They gave permission to republish it. ]
Marry an Asian Woman
by Larry Lesser (Nigeria 1963-65)
I’m thinking about a man I saw when I was a consular officer in the American Embassy New Delhi back in the ’60s. He was an American citizen; I’ll call him Abner Strong. He came in one day and told our able Indian assistant that he’d like to talk to an American consular officer. He sat down in front of me with my desk taking up space between us. (I was a newly-minted Foreign Service Officer and didn’t as yet have the poise to come out from behind my desk to talk.)
Abner was slightly built and fair of complexion. He had an eager look. He had a short relatively light-colored haircut that stood up an inch or so above his scalp-longer than a crew cut. He was wearing a short-sleeve shirt with narrow vertical stripes-light red as I recall. Jeans. I’d put his age as early-40s. He didn’t make eye contact when he spoke; he looked down almost as if he was talking to himself, and he spoke quietly and quickly. It was a little difficult to catch everything he was saying.
He told me he had come to India to obtain a bride. He was on the engineering staff (not the faculty) of a great American university in New England. He had been working there for a number of years. He lived on a farm that he owned out in the countryside. He told me he was telling me this to establish that he was a responsible and stable person.
Once Strong started talking there was no stopping him. He told me he had been married more than once to American women and it didn’t work. American women don’t make good wives, he said. Then he stopped because it occurred to him that he needed to clarify something before going on. He asked me if I was married. Yes, I answered. “Is your wife American?” he asked. “Yes, she is,” I replied. “Well I’m not saying it’s impossible to have a happy marriage with an American wife,” Abner said, “but the odds are against it.” He elicited the information from me that I had been happily married about five years and that my wife and I had two small children.
Abner’s point was that American women are too independent, too demanding, too selfish. They don’t pay enough attention to making their husbands happy, attending to their husbands’ wishes. They argue too much. They can be very frustrating.
Asian women on the other hand know how to take care of their husbands. Strong had done a lot of research. He was determined not to make another mistake. He had concluded that his best bet was to marry a young Asian woman who would depend on him to teach her everything she would need to be a successful wife with a satisfied husband. Women from anywhere in Asia would meet his criteria but he had decided - based on assiduous research because he wasn’t about to go lightly into something as serious as getting married again… he had decided that taking all the relevant factors into account his best bet was to marry an Indian woman. A young Indian woman. He would bring her back to the States to live with him in his farmhouse in the remote countryside. And she would serve him impeccably in the ways he would teach her.
I didn’t much like what I was hearing from Mr. Strong. In fact I thought he was pretty far off-base -maybe even a little nuts: certainly creepy. Being as charitable as possible, I thought maybe he had a rich interior life but didn’t connect well with other people. It wasn’t hard to imagine why his former marriages-to those American women-hadn’t worked out.
At the same time I thought Abner Strong’s story and hypothesis were pretty interesting. And it was my job to be helpful and friendly. (Remember this was back in the 1960s.) “How are you going to do it?” I asked him.
Strong told me he would be visiting places where young women of marriageable age were gathered and he’d work it out from there. He had written ahead to some places. He would work out the arrangements and then he would be coming back to New Delhi for his new wife’s immigrant visa. He wanted to know whether I had any helpful advice that would expedite the visa process.
It was the first time I had encountered a situation like this. I supposed it was OK even though I didn’t much like it. I was indeed happily married to my American wife and I didn’t mind actually that my wife talked back to me and didn’t always do things the way I preferred; indeed she didn’t always do what I preferred at all. But I chalked that up to the normal give and take of intimate relationships-not knowing any better, you could say: Abner Strong probably would say that. What is the natural order of things after all? I thought about that after my conversation with Abner. I thought about it quite a bit. Maybe I had set my goals too low in life and in my marriage. Maybe I should have expected my wife to concentrate all her efforts on making my life a perpetual pleasure and settled for nothing less. But that idea had no resonance for me. I couldn’t shake the conviction that my life was the happy one organized along workable principles while Abner Strong’s life was probably not so happy and would never be happy as long as he persisted with his unrealistic and illegitimate notion that the central function for his next wife would be providing for his happiness.
A couple of months later Abner Strong reappeared at the embassy-with his new bride. They were ready to advance through the immigrant visa process. The process isn’t especially complicated but it is onerous especially for someone unaccustomed to bureaucratic processes-which was clearly the case for Abner’s bride. The two of them were escorted into my office by our able south Indian assistant Mr. Sundaram. I was the fledgling consular officer who nevertheless held all the cards and was presumed to be the one with a firmest grasp on how the world works.
The girl-she was more girl than woman-was 16 or 17 years old. She was very pretty. Strong had found her at a Christian orphanage in Kerala state in south India. She spoke and understood Malayalam, the local language, plus a little English from the classroom. But she had never heard a native English speaker until Abner Strong came along. Abner of course did not speak or understand Malayalam at all. He and the girl- I’m calling her Indrani-could not yet have an intelligent conversation with one another. I wanted to be sure that Indrani understood what was going on so I asked Mr. Sundaram to interview her and confirm that she was OK with the marriage and with her forthcoming emigration to the United States. Mr. Sundaram reported back to me that he liked the girl very much and that Indrani had been a foundling and was raised by the sisters and had been taught such domestic arts as sewing and singing and comforting the afflicted, but she really had no marketable skills. Her only hope for a good life was to marry well-or else to become a nun of the order herself. Mr. Sundaram told me that Indrani understood well enough what was in store for her and was going into it with her eyes open and with a positive attitude.
Meanwhile I was listening to Abner Strong describe the successful conclusion of his quest for an Asian bride who would minister to his needs and be a comfort to him as he grew older. He told me he liked Indrani the moment he set eyes on her-and she had locked eyes with him from the outset too, meaning that she was similarly drawn to him and was prepared to place her life in his hands. He sensed that animal attraction that is vital to a relationship between a man and his wife, Abner told me. He sensed that Indrani was quite smart and would be a fast learner. That would include improving her English. The sisters at the orphanage had a high opinion of her as one of their star students, and one of their best-behaved. And you can see how pretty she is. And so they were married. Abner pronounced himself very well satisfied with his journey to India.
Strong told me he had sensed in our first conversation that I was skeptical that things would work out so well. He admitted that he had a bit more doubt himself than he had let on in that conversation; it had been important to have only positive thoughts about what he was endeavoring. He recalled that he had maybe hurt my feelings by saying that American wives are no good and Asian wives are preferred, considering that I had an American wife and seemed to be satisfied with my marriage. He remembered all that.
I encouraged Strong to tell me how he planned to introduce Indrani to life in the U.S. He said he had given that a lot of thought. Indrani would live with him in his farmhouse in the countryside. Abner would teach her the rudiments of managing a modern American house: cooking, cleaning, operating appliances. There was no public transit along their rural road, and Indrani wouldn’t have a driver’s license or access to a car. When they would need to go shopping for food or clothing or whatever he would take her in his car and they would do it together or he would do it himself. Indrani’s only social contact with other people would be when Abner would take her with him. But she would have the TV and the telephone in the farmhouse to keep her occupied when she wasn’t doing household chores. And she would have access to books-in English-to improve her knowledge of the American language.
When Abner and Indrani were both in my office I took a closer look at Indrani to get a better idea about whether this whole thing was OK according to my own inchoate standards of how human relationships ought to be conducted and how individual human beings can fulfill their own highest aspirations and achieve self-actualization. (This idea can also be expressed in less lofty terms.)
Indrani was very pretty; that’s the first thing when I looked at her. The second thing was that she looked very young and, by extension, ‘unformed’. She had been brought up in a protected environment and had practically no experience of the great world. The third thing was that she looked intelligent; she was taking in her surroundings and you could almost see her making calculations based on what she saw and the facts and conditions of her new circumstances.
I became convinced-in my own mind, irrespective of outside influences-that for Indrani this was the opportunity of a lifetime. She had picked a winning number in life’s lottery (and until then I wouldn’t even have thought that life had a lottery). Instead of being doomed to a life of drudgery as a lowly person in a traditional culture, she would suddenly be projected into a modern society and creature comforts. She was as lucky as a south Indian female foundling could be…
…provided that Abner would treat her decently. Would he do that? I had not seen anything suggesting otherwise, except that his worldview seemed off-base. Under U.S. law Indrani qualified for an immigrant visa and I was the consular officer who would issue it.
At this point-unless I’ve already offended readers beyond redemption-I better re-emphasize that this happened almost half a century ago. That means my memory of exactly what happened may not be entirely accurate. But more important, the world has changed a lot since that time. In those days Indrani was of marriageable age. In India marriages were made for practical reasons and not because two people fell in love and decided to get married. Parents selected husbands for their daughters. But Indrani had no known parents and she had no prospects of rising from the disadvantaged start of her life except for the remarkable circumstance of Abner Strong discovering her and seeing something about her that drew him to select her and negotiate with the responsible missionaries to obtain her as his next wife… and Indrani had agreed. It was entirely legal and in no way fraudulent. Was this a thinly disguised case of trafficking? We didn’t use the term in those days and we weren’t so sensitive to the concept of trafficking of persons, but I was reasonably confident that Abner’s objective was exactly what he said, and only that. It wouldn’t work according to my own value system… but my job was to carry out the immigration process according to the law and regulation, not according to my personal values. I thought I had done my due diligence and had established that there was little likelihood that Indrani would become a victim of abuse by marrying Abner and immigrating to America.
It was a risk but a risk worth taking-because Indrani’s life if Abner had not rescued her from it was going to be so unsatisfactory (by my standards).
I pictured Indrani learning English. Watching television. Meeting people, even though Abner was monitoring her social contacts. But he was bound to take her to places and occasions where he would introduce his wife to people, and sooner or later one of the women Indrani would meet would like to get together with her apart from their husbands… surely there would be occasions like that. Maybe not the first year or the second but by and by Indrani would become more like other American wives; like the wives she would see in the soaps on TV during dark winter afternoons when Abner was working at the university and wouldn’t be home for a few more hours.
Probably they would have a baby. Indrani would meet doctors and nurses and inevitably other young mothers.
Make no mistake: it would only be a matter of time before Indrani would become an American wife more or less like Strong’s previous wives. More or less like my wife. And then the joke would be on Abner Strong.
We processed Indrani’s immigrant visa with no complications. I shook hands with the American husband and his Indian bride-immigrant and they left the embassy.