Well-researched and easy to follow, Patcharin Lapanum’s Love, Money and Obligation: Transnational Marriage in a Northeastern Thai Village is a powerful reminder of how interconnected the world has become—and how love can emerge between the most disparate of individuals.
Though a work of academic anthropology, based mainly on Patcharin’s PhD research, the book is highly readable. The communities in the Isan region of Thailand, the women who inhabit these spaces, and the western men who end up sharing their lives with them are communicated with a non-judgmental clarity and sincerity. Patcharin’s meticulous examination of the lives of Thais in one village, some of whom have opted for marriage with foreign partners, makes for a fascinating and very contemporary ethnography.
Patcharin’s central argument is refreshing in that she does not want to bend the evidence to fit any narrative that denies women their agency in how they use their sexuality. The researcher is direct in saying that she is less interested in following many of her colleagues, who may be too quick to dismiss these relationships as a “gendered orientalizing project”, and more concerned about allowing the empirical evidence to speak for itself. Focusing on the “victimisation/oppression perspective” exclusively is often detrimental to “our understanding of the complexity of the current transnational phenomenon.”
This book goes against currently popular theories that wish to equate transnational marriage as nothing more than a front for sex trafficking. The research captures numerous moments of this bias, particularly by Western women, who may be inclined to emphasize a material—or even more crudely a transactional—interpretation of these relationships. As one Thai woman, who is married to Dutchman and works in a grocery store in the Netherlands, described in her own words:
Yes, my co-workers sometimes tease me about this. Once I was asked how much my husband paid to marry me. I didn’t take it seriously, but this is the way they think about us.
Patcharin stays true to the complicated nature of any marriage, whether it be one that crosses an international border or not. These women have agency, they have strength, and they have the creativity and courage to make a nontraditional pairing. And as the title of the book indicates, dimensions of love, money, and obligation comingle easily in these women’s choices. To focus on one dimension over another would say more about the researcher than the people themselves. Patcharin’s argument is that they are all causally efficacious—that they all matter.
Within the subfield of social scientific work on marriage and transnational marriage, Patcharin’s contribution is fourfold. The first is her refutation of any bimodal view of these mixed marriages as simply one of materiality or intimacy. Rather, she presents evidence for a more nuanced view that considers the peculiar blending of local and Western cultural norms of gender and marriage. Secondly, Patcharin’s insight into the role of individuals in the women’s “natal village” is enlightening and novel. Her third contribution is about the consequences on the “local end” of these marriages. The researcher traces how these women have carved out a new social grouping within their village because of these cosmopolitan relationships. Patcharin contends
that women married to Western men constitute a new “class” determined by their consumption patterns and lifestyles, which set them apart from the traditional village elites.
Patcharin’s final contribution to the literature is her deft placement of these marriages within Thailand’s history of international relationships. She does well to illustrate the similarities and salient differences of East-West marriages from the era of Portuguese traders in the 1600s to the “Vietnam War” years of American soldiers based in Thailand, culminating to the contemporary where these cosmopolitan marriages are a viable option across social levels.
It is hard not to come away from this study with a realization that it is an absurd luxury to conceptualize any marriage from an overly simplistic, and perhaps puritan, idea of love. For over ten-thousand years of settled agrarian society, this was not the default view on the union of man and woman. Love, money, obligation, and probably a few more concerns have always animated any decision to wed or not to wed. In the West—and particularly in America where over half of marriages now end in a divorce—it is a rare type of privilege to be able to look down on an international union because there may be a discrepancy in age or the spouses’ bank balances don’t equal each other on the day they say, “I do.” As Patcharin correctly points out:
the phenomenon of transnational marriage is far more complex than a simple shortcut to wealth. Rather, these marriages are situated in the processes of social transition and reproduction in the face of local-global encounters, in which gender, class, lifestyles, norms and practices regarding marriage and family are put to severe test, along with imaginings about a better life for all concerned.
Empirically sound and equally enjoyable for the lay reader as for the academic, Love, Money and Obligation is an eye-opening read on the complexities and realities of international unions in our globalized world.