Sociology / Hung Cam Thai
The World Wide Wed
By Travis Kaya '10
In a world flattened by globalization, Professor Hung Cam Thai is delving beyond capital flows and trade balances to look at the landscape at a more human level. In his research on transnational marriages, the associate professor of sociology and Asian American studies traces the intimate lives of individual immigrants all too often lost in the numbers.
“So much of what we know about globalization has been framed around the large macro-structural changes in society,” Thai says. “But there is a different dimension of globalization that few scholars look at.”
In his new book, For Better or for Worse: Vietnamese International Marriages in the New Global Economy, Thai focuses on contemporary transpacific marriages connecting Vietnamese women with men living in the West. Combining extensive ethnographic data and interviews with married couples during the migration period, Thai presents some surprising findings.
Marriage migration is among the top motivators for immigration to the United States as spouses—mostly wives—leave their home countries to join their partners. While this may evoke thoughts of military- and mail-order brides, the majority of these unions, Thai found, do not fit that bill. “When people think of international marriages they tend to think of this image of a white man going to an undeveloped country for a submissive wife,’’ says Thai. “But, in fact, we know that over 70 percent of international marriages are between people of the same ethnicities.”
Thai’s research also revealed that the widely accepted notion that foreign women are looking for American husbands to support them financially is generally not so. While most men returning to Vietnam to find spouses were working-class, the women were generally college-educated and middle-class—what he calls “women of means.” According to Thai, these findings flip the so-called marriage gradient on its head, revealing that men in the international marriage market do not necessarily marry down economically. “In this case, it’s sort of difficult to identify who’s the down and who’s the up,” he says.
With the increasingly progressive attitudes of Vietnam’s post-war generation, Thai speculates that the motivation behind these marriages may run much deeper than simple finances. Looking at their counterparts in much of the Western world, women in Vietnam are beginning to demand gender equality across the board, affecting where they choose to live and whom they choose to marry.
“Many of the women who get into these marriages do not want to marry traditional men who are patriarchal, dominant, and don’t believe in equality in marriage and family life,” Thai says. “They’re looking for liberal men who believe in gender equality.”
For his research, Thai not only pored over statistics but also conducted a series of one-on-one interviews that allowed him to get into the minds of both the husbands and wives as they shared their thoughts, emotions and expectations. Starting in 1997, the study involved 69 couples and spanned two years. Thai worked with the Vietnamese Justice Department in Ho Chi Minh City to compile a list of 300 recently-married couples applying for international marriage approval—200 from urban areas and the other 100 from rural provinces. Selecting couples at random, he visited the women living in Vietnam and invited them to participate in the study, later meeting up with and interviewing their husbands in America.
“I wanted to understand the couples’ expectations for these international marriages,” Thai says. “I really wanted to look at people’s subjective explanations for the types of expectations they have about the future trajectories of their marital unions.”
Thai first became interested in the transpacific marriage market in 1997 while traveling to Vietnam to reunite with his mother, from whom he was separated as a child. The son of Vietnamese refugees hoping to escape political turmoil in the war-ravaged region, Thai, who emigrated to the U.S. at a young age, returned to Saigon as a graduate student and was startled by Vietnamese attitudes towards Vietnamese-American travelers.
"What struck me was that there was this very popular belief that so many overseas Vietnamese men were going to Vietnam to seek sexual liaisons with local women. I said that if that was the case, then I want to tell that story,” Thai says. “Through my research, I actually found that very few of the visitors were there for casual sexual liaisons.”
Since that first return trip, Thai estimates that he has traveled to Vietnam 27 times, compiling an extensive body of research on everything from youth culture to feminist movements. What’s next? Working alongside Pomona sociology students, Thai hopes to do a project comparing Indian immigrants—often working in the high-paying medical and technology fields—and their Vietnamese counterparts to analyze how differences in their migration patterns and social classes affect international marriage.
Thai’s book is garnering international attention, with the professor landing speaking engagements from Boston to China. He hopes that his readers come away with much more than just an understanding of transpacific marriage.
“My goal is to bring an intimate portrait to the very personal dimensions of the lives of immigrants,” he says. “Once we begin to understand these very personal issues, such as marriage and human relations, we can then try to understand more closely what immigration is all about.”