While marriage migration presents a set of similar challenges to all migrant women, details vary in different localities, and the ways in which women make sense of them also differ depending on each individual’s personal and cultural background. Some foresee challenges and subtly negotiate with their fiances, as in the case of a well-educated Filipina in Suzuki’s study (2004: 493) whose husband later funded her postgraduate study abroad: he had promised to do this when she had suggested postponing their wedding because she wanted to advance her education. Those who marry through introduction are often barely acquainted with their partner, and partly because of misleading information given by the intermediaries, the women in these marriages often experience profound disillusionment, citing the living standards, the husband’s conservative views on such issues as gender roles and the low status assigned them as daughter- in-law, among other reasons for their unhappiness (Freeman 2005: 89—90; Burgess 2004: 234; Nakamatsu 2003: 188).

Different codes of household practice create tensions in the home in such areas as household chores, finances and child rearing. The situation is worse when there is not a shared common language. One salient issue that makes the family life of marriage migrants complex is the extended family setting. The multigenerational household has been decreasing in East Asian countries (Soma 2012), but marriage migrants still often find themselves living with in-laws. The women are initially put under the surveillance of the husband’s parents and have to earn their position in the family. The in-laws may sweepingly regard all migrant women as bearers of uncivilised practices from underdeveloped countries (Freeman 2005: 96; Nakamatsu 2003: 189—90). Korean-Chinese, whose ethnicity was an important factor in the South Korean government’s ethnic reunification framework, were described as Chinese when they did not meet the expectations of the family (Freeman 2005: 96). Local practices could be seen as demeaning: in the northern part of Japan the handling of the husband’s salary by his mother demoralised the foreign wife’s sense of autonomy: ‘Every time I needed some money like for cosmetics, having my hair done or going out, I had to ask my mother-in-law for money… I felt disgusted… I am an adult, married woman’, said one wife (Nakamatsu 2011: 28). A case in Taiwan suggests that some Vietnamese marriage migrants were treated poorly, as daughters-in-law cum foreign domestic workers, expected to perform free reproductive labour including childbearing and rearing, housework and care work for family members (Tang and Wang 2011: 435—36).

Among various ways of bargaining and making compromises with the husband, the use of a rhetoric of cultural difference works at times for some Chinese and South Korean women in Japan to get the husband more involved in daily domestic work, along the lines of ‘husbands do housework in China’ (Nakamatsu 2003: 189). Suzuki (2004: 499) finds that among the Filipino wives of Japanese men, social and personal backgrounds such as the ability to speak an international language like English sometimes put the women in a better bargaining position when they demand that their husbands take a fairer share in household chores and child care. When living with in-laws, negotiations are much harder and the husband’s support for the wife becomes essential to mitigate the in-laws’ influence. Wang (2007: 719) points out that Vietnamese wives rely on their intimate relationship with the husband to achieve a favourable outcome against the in-laws’ wishes. The reason for the effectiveness of this, Wang (2007: 720) notes, is that the son has more say about his marital life in a commercially organised marriage than in a traditional family-status matching arrangement; and that a foreign wife can situate herself and is situated outside Taiwanese and Vietnamese kinship norms. Migrant women may resort to the threat of divorce or separation as leverage to bring about a favourable situation (Freeman 2005: 91; Nakamatsu 2003: 190; Wang 2007: 719—20) — for example, to live separately from the in-laws.

Some migrant women establish their position in the family by fulfilling the role expected of them, such as through their physical and economic contributions to the family farm or business. Some South Korean women in Japan use their experience in small business back home to commercialise farm products, and as a result become the main decision makers in the household (Nakamatsu 2003: 190—91). Faier’s study of Filipino wives in rural Japan (2009: ch. 5) reveals that this form of agency becomes more successful when expressed through the performance of what the local Japanese consider as the duties of the ideal, traditional wife and daughter-in-law of a farming family. At the same time, for many of the wives who are engaged in stigmatised employment in bars, ‘being a good wife, mother and daughter-in-law was part of what it meant to craft a feminine self as a woman, a Catholic, and a Filipina’ (Faier 2009: 180). Their practices resonate with the Japanese community’s ideal image of a married woman, making them appreciated in the community. Elsewhere in remote farming areas of South Korea, some Korean-Chinese accept their roles as dutiful wives and daughters-in-law as part of the fate that brought them into their current relationships, and carry out daily lives of hard farming labour, chores and child rearing (Freeman 2005: 89—90).

While some may decide to leave their husbands and in some cases their children, others stay on in marriage. The family can be a site of multiple oppressions, where the matrix of gender, ethnicity, economy, culture and religion plays a part; simultaneously it can be where women establish their lives through a series of mundane negotiations in everyday life as a wife, a mother and a daughter-in-law.