Reflections from Papua New Guinea: Hi Barb its something personal bt I think u sud help me out plis… if posible plis I really want 2 make frend wit one of whom u knw who is interested with PNG girls plis im intrested. This wasn't the first time a young Papua New Guinean had asked me to help them find a white boyfriend or husband. Another companion even snuck a look at my phone while I was sleeping, and started sending flirtatious text messages to one of my contacts, whom she knew to be white, male, and single.
I found out about this much later, when he informed me, amused, of the messages he had been receiving late at night. Highlands teenagers, Simbu Province These requests are always awkward for me. I find it hard to explain that dating works differently where I'm from, and that few American men in their twenties and thirties would be interested in, or even aware of, the possibility of striking up a long distance relationship with a Papua New Guinean girl.
Most of these assumptions are simply the inverse of racist stereotypes about Papua New Guinean men which both men and women have internalized to an often upsetting degree.
Unlike PNG men, girls tell me, white men are uniformly kind, monogamous, non-violent, non-jealous, sober, and financially responsible. They never hit their wives and don't cheat with other women. Needless to say, women who've actually lived overseas or spent time in expat enclaves often have a very different perspective on white men's fidelity and sobriety.
I've lost track of the number of times I've heard young women, and even a few older married ones, declare with exasperation that they're finished with PNG men and want to find a white husband. I should emphasize here that most of these fantasies are just that: Public service announcements targeting the state of Queensland where most of the migration traffic between PNG and Australia occurs warn Australian men working in the mining industry of the health risks of sex with Papua New Guineans.
In reality, while many PNG women would jump at the chance of overseas travel—something that is accessible to only a tiny minority of the population, usually through educational exchange and, yes, marriage to foreigners—most are deeply attached to their home and relations, and understand that life in other countries might be isolating and difficult. Moreover, many of them have met women who have been married to or otherwise involved with white men, and their life stories are not always fairytale romances.
Three generations of Papua New Guinean women, Simbu Province When I interview informants, they often take the opportunity to ask me personal questions about sexuality, romance, and racial difference. After an hour-long interview with two twenty-year-old men, one of them politely inquired if I would ever consider marrying a black man.
At first, embarrassed, I wondered if he was hitting on me, but I quickly realized that he was actually asking a broader, political question about race relations: Why did they seem unwilling to establish long-term relationships with blacks? Did the thought of intimacy with Papua New Guineans disgust them? Why did they come to the country if they had no interest in a lasting connection with its inhabitants?
In this young man's account, interracial marriage was a sign of commitment to the country's well-being and a willingness to participate in reciprocity with its people—a metonym of more equal relations between nations.
Papua New Guineans know they are exploited as both a resource-rich site for extractive industries and as a dumping ground for cheap, poorly made goods. These analyses uncover an acute awareness of PNG's position in the global economy. Decades of failed development, government corruption and manipulation by largely invisible global neoliberal forces have convinced many that black men are incapable of governing themselves or taking care of their dependents.
When this political cynicism is transferred into the realm of romantic relationships, you get the false notion that white men are the answer to women's disempowerment and poverty. I describe these political and economic analyses in the same breath as young women's romantic aspirations because I have come to see them as intimately connected. Race in Papua New Guinea, as Ira Bashkow has so elegantly shown in The Meaning of Whitemen , is often understood through an idiom of consumption, and white people are known and appreciated through the goods they possess.
These analyses are upsetting to me because they misconstrue the effect of poverty as its cause,and continue the cycle of self-blame and self-hatred engendered by colonialism. In the case mentioned at the beginning of this essay, I replied truthfully that I didn't know many white men in the town where I am conducting fieldwork, and that those I did know were taken. But for some reason I couldn't bring myself to criticize her desires—what would be the use, after all, of telling her that she should be satisfied with the romantic and economic opportunities already available to her?
Her picture of a life of luxury and ease with a caring white husband might be an illusion, but it is predicated on a lived experience of dispossession that I would be wrong to dispute. At the time of writing she was conducting research on nursing education and changing gender relations in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea.