Friday, January 24, 2014

I Was Once A "90-Day Fiancee"

There's a new show on TLC called 90 Day Fiance and it follows the lives of four engaged couples, where the women are all coming from overseas.  The women enter the United States on a K-1 visa (Fiance Visa) and they must marry their American fiances within 90 days upon entry.  If the couple fails to do this, then the woman/ fiancee would have no other choice but to go back to her home country.  (If you haven't seen the show, the four women are from Colombia, Brazil, Russia, and yes, you guessed it, 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 Fiancee Twice

Yes, I was once (somewhat of) a 90 day fiancee and am definitely no stranger to international dating. The (amusing) fact is, I've only had two boyfriends in my entire life (and that includes 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 and we accidentally met on ICQ.  (I probably made myself sound so ancient by mentioning that and 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 to say that we fell deeply in love very quickly, got engaged, filed our papers at the British Embassy office in Manila so I can 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 and it's 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' in the sense that 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 either with the language and as I've repeatedly written on this blog site, 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 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 US 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 in the U.S. Just like one of the women in the t.v. show, self-scan at the grocery store was totally new to me.  I didn't know either how to gas up on my own 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 when I last visited around 6 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 point that draws me to the TLC show is that I think 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 because it was a stereotype and maybe even labeled me a mail-order bride?  These are the same 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.  But it's even further complicated when it involves two strangers from two different races and cultures.  I think it would be interesting if the t.v. show featured the women's families' side of the story, 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 5 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 would end.  I don't know if some of the couples would end up parting ways and realize that the differences are insurmountable.  But I 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 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.  But 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.


  1. I would probably secretly watch this like I watch Say Yes to the Dress and The Bachelor. Our 1st Aussie series ended with the Bachelor and the lovely Anna finding love, and it was so sweet. I actually resisted the lure of the show till near the end, then I was sucked in hook, line and sinker.

  2. 'Other people will always have things to say'...That's so true, Joy, and I love this line. And don't you think that it is part of the problem? I have learned to ignore the opinion of the 'others'. After all, you only live once!

  3. Just hate how TLC shows the 90 day period as " trial and error" stage.


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