Cross-cultural Research – About the ‘Mia Farang’ of Isaan

Research on transnational marriages has been conducted in the provinces of Udon Thani and Khon Kaen. In total the research focused on 159 Thai women married to foreign husbands there. The men hailed from 21 different countries, mostly in Europe.  This is an abridged version of the research conducted by Patcharin Lapanan.

“If you ask the average Thai person about the wives of foreign husbands or mia farang, they would most likely say thatthe mia farang married their husbands for money rather than true love. Some would assume that the mia farang simply grew tired of a farmer’s life, and would much rather live a life of ease overseas”, say Lapanan.

Prior to his recent research in Isaan (north-east Thailand), Lapanan was studying in the Netherlands, where he also had the opportunity to interview many married Thai women living there.  “There was a strong common denominator for many of them; their Dutch (or otherwise foreign) colleagues in their various workplaces had all asked them why they had married their Dutch husbands, and how much money their husbands had to pay for them. It was clear that these people reasoned that money must have been the reason the mia farang had married” he says.

“If you ask the people in their village or their parents about why they married and moved abroad, you’d be told that they were good daughters who hadn’t abandoned their families back home, and sent money back without fail.”  The local officials of the village and municipality view the mia farang and their husbands as an important resource for their communities.

Without the mia farang and their foreign husbands, these officials say, there’s no way that many communities would be as prosperous or well-developed. You wouldn’t see such large and beautiful houses nor would you see cars cruising up and down village streets. But the mia farang identity is a complex one.

Among the cultural differences between Thais and Westerners, the mia farang’s insistence on sending money to their families back in Thailand is perhaps the most prominent.   “All interviewed subjects in my study made it quite clear that the ability to send regular remittances was one of the main incentives for marrying a foreigner.”  

Despite the considerable cultural, linguistic, and lifestyle differences–which they readily acknowledged as being quite difficult to bridge, there is a sense of filial piety which must be satisfied.  This is a value based on principles of hierarchy, obligation and obedience which involves taking care of and being good to one’s parents; exhibiting respect, courtesy, support, reverence and loyalty to them. They must also support any children they’ve left behind.

Contrary to what many believe, most of these women do not go abroad to lives of luxury. They must work hard and save every penny in order to have money to send back home in Thailand.

The lucky ones have husbands who understand, or at least accommodate their imperative to send remittances. But not all are so lucky. Since nuclear families consisting of a father, mother, and children are the cultural norm in the West, it can sometimes be challenging to include grandparents.

The women say that a lot of negotiation is involved in sending money back to Thailand. One of the main reasons for sending money back is to support the children that they often have from previous marriages–usually with Thai men–who are in the care of their parents.

They want to improve the lives of their children and parents. Yet, many of them are stressed and dismayed by the seemingly endless demands made on them by their families in Thailand.  That may include a new motorcycle, a new pickup truck or even a new house. Then this person or that person falls ill and needs to go to the hospital.  Sometimes, the burden is almost unbearable for these women who are working hard in a foreign land.

Thai men also have an important part to play in this situation.  Of the 159 mia farang, 100 of them had children from previous marriages with Thai men. In Isaan culture, it is customary for newly wedded husbands to move into the households of their wives. When they divorced, the men completely left the woman’s homes and their lives. The raising of their children became the sole responsibility of these women.

When you consider the gender roles of men and women in Isaan, it becomes clear the expectations of responsibility for men and women are a key factor.

Many Western husbands are left wondering why these Thai men have abandoned their children. Why are they not supporting their own children and contributing to the burden of raising them? Why has it fallen completely to the women to do this? The entire situation is quite at odds with the cultural norm for these Western men. Where they come from, it is often customary for both parents to contribute monetarily or otherwise–rigorously enforced by court order if necessary–regardless of which parent has custody of the children.

But in Thailand, these legal mechanisms and arrangements are next to non-existent. The burden of raising these children often falls to the mother. This is another key factor that drives these women out into the world to seek their fortunes.

One thing that stands out with these mia farang is how they often become benefactors to their home villages. Communities with mia farang often stand out from other communities because they are more developed. There are larger, more extravagant homes there. When these women return home from abroad, they often make donations to schools, temples, or public facilities in their communities.

This often causes families with no one who has gone overseas in such a manner to feel a sense of inequality. It often falls on the community leaders to find a way to manage or distribute the resources gifted by mia farang so as to maintain harmony in the community.

Anyone who’s interested in transnational marriage should gather as much information as possible before making the leap. We often hear of the many successes but fewer people are willing to broadcast the problems they face; such is human nature.