IT started with an image on a screen. She was just one of several young women in the Philippines hanging out on a dating site called Filipinaheart.com. Ivy sat resting her head on a desk, nonchalantly busying herself with something I couldn’t discern. The irresistible attraction was that she wasn’t trying to get my attention. “Hello,” I texted. “How are you today?”
And so, it began.
The thing that impressed me right away were her detailed responses to my many questions. I was an older American, recently divorced and desirous of a female companion. She was a recent college graduate in a country where opportunities were few.
“I’m looking for someone who will stay with me for the rest of my life,” I confessed in an email barely two weeks into our talk.
The next day came her reply. “David,” she wrote, “we have to realize that love is not enough to make a relationship work; we need trust, respect, time, effort, and total commitment. I believe you can fall in love after you marry because we should not let passion, but wisdom, decide.”
She seemed wise beyond her years. And yet, I feared what people would think, especially given the considerable age gap — more than three decades— between us. I raised the issue with Ivy frequently.
“You say I am young,” she responded, “but I am fixed in my mind and know what I want. Don’t worry about the age gap because it doesn’t matter; most important is that I meet a real person who can be trusted and loved.”
I wondered whether I was just being played. But as the discourse continued, her message remained consistent. We had already discovered many shared values and dreams. And so I embarked on a journey to see if she was real. It was a trip that would change my life.
My most vivid impression of the tiny Siargao Island village in Northern Mindanao, where Ivy had frolicked as a girl, came on our first night together. We spent it in a tiny room with her and two sisters sprawled on the bed, their brother and parents crumpled at its foot, and yours truly lying prone on the floor, holding the dark-skinned beauty’s hand.
“Toto,” I remember thinking, “we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
The next morning, a series of terrified shrieks from outside our window awakened me at 6 a.m. “Oh my God,” I thought, “Islamic jihadists are cutting off heads,” when, in fact, the only damaged head belonged to a pitiful pig being slaughtered in my honor.
Before the feast, however, came the interrogation. It was conducted by Ivy’s mother in the presence of her father, siblings, aunts, uncles, and a bevy of cousins. Oh yes, and several dozen townspeople intently peering in from all directions through the windows and doors.
“Ivy,” I whispered in her ear, “who are all those people?”
“Well,” she explained matter-of-factly, “they’ve never seen a white man this close before.”
Then came the first question. “So,” Mom sternly began, nodding towards the woman I had just met and barely spoken to. “You want to marry my daughter.” And so it went.
In the end, I somehow passed muster, though I’ve often wondered why. Eventually, after several more visits and a formal proposal on the island’s famous Cloud Nine pier, the new woman-of-my-dreams-whose-parents-were-younger-than-me, arrived in Southern California with a fiancé visa in hand.
A few months later, we got married at a little chapel near Las Vegas. That was more than 15 years ago, and a lot has happened since then. And it’s all been good.
To begin with, we now live in the Philippines, not far from the tiny village wherein that stern interrogation took place. We have two children, a 13-yearold boy and a three-year-old girl. I’m also the envy of my friends or the butt of their jokes, depending on how well they know me.
What they may or may not know is that both my wife and I are the happiest we’ve ever been. And that we didn’t end up there by chance. No, the story of how it all happened began one day when I walked into the newsroom of “The Los Angeles Times,” where I’d worked as a staff writer for 23 years.
“Let’s take a walk,” my editor said as he led me down the same long hallway I’d traversed many times. This time, though, that ominous path led directly to the Human Resources office. And the closer we got, the more I felt like a prisoner being led to his execution with fellow inmates banging metal cups on their bars as he passed. Except, on this day, there were no bangs, only bars. “You probably know these are hard times for newspapers,” the editor began in a speech he’s undoubtedly repeated many times since. “I’m afraid we’re letting you go.”
And so, just four months after my new bride left the life she knew to embark on a new one in America, I had to tell her that, well, a recession was on, and the new life we’d planned may no longer be in the cards.
That’s when we first conceived the notion of migrating to her native land. A few other things had to happen, though, to push that tiny embryo towards fruition. One of them was the reaction to a magazine piece I wrote several months later called “My Imported Bride.” It told the same story I’ve related here; how Ivy and I met, fell in love, and embarked on a new life together in America.
Neither of us was prepared for the dramatic reaction the article engendered.
“If I were him,” a reader warned, “I’d sleep with one eye open. His new little honey may not think this ‘arrangement’ is so wonderful.” “Wow, so sad,” wrote another. “She married him for the US, and all he wants is a trophy wife and hot sex.”
And, finally, there was this: “Oh My God, he looks like her GRANDFATHER!! I wouldn’t let that shriveled thing near me for any amount of money.”
The next few days passed like a California wildfire. The piece went viral, generating several newspaper articles and blog posts, along with hundreds of vile attacks. I was asked to do a reading on California Public Radio. And, through it all, a common theme emerged.
I was a loser, the narrative maintained, unable to attract a woman in the “normal” way. So, I’d resorted to preying on vulnerable young females in a developing country. I was not only exploiting Ivy but also providing aid and comfort to human traffickers everywhere. Bottom line: I was a sexist male chauvinist capable of happiness only with a weak woman who subordinated her own needs to his.
“The key to this story,” one reader thoughtfully offered, “is ‘traditional values,’ which is barely disguised code for accepting a subservient position in marriage.” At first, I was stunned.
“Just stop reading the comments,” my wise young wife counseled. “None of these people know us, so why should we care?”
But then, gradually, the whole truth dawned on me. What they were really calling me, I realized, was a spoiled old white man trading on his racial
privilege to take advantage of a poverty-stricken, subservient, non-white foreigner. What other choice did the poor girl have but to spread her legs and comply?
Would the reaction have been the same had I been black, brown, gay, or trans? Or if she had been white? I doubt it. Thus, something I’d long suspected was confirmed: that the allegedly tolerant land of my birth had enormous holes in the blanket of its tolerance.
And so, our escape plans took shape. Picking up roots and moving to a new country is difficult, something my wife already knew. Frankly, it took us a while to get here. I formally retired from full-time newspaper work and started freelancing. Ivy became a dual US/Philippine citizen and embarked on a medical career, earning more than I ever had in my life. And, gradually, the embryonic dream of a different life descended through the birth canal of fate toward its entry into the world’s brighter light.
Today, we live at the northernmost tip of Mindanao in a house with many windows overlooking the sea, paid for almost entirely with retirement.
funds. I write a weekly newspaper column and have published several books. And Ivy—unwilling to abandon her career entirely—returns to California several months annually to work as a certified clinical laboratory scientist.
We have friends, family, connections—in short, a good life.
It’s not all perfect, of course. Sometimes, we—or, more accurately, I—squabble with the myriad of relatives sharing our house. I occasionally get annoyed at the appalling lack of supplies, services, and conveniences available in our remote province. And braving traffic here can be a life-threatening exercise in balancing courage vs. foolhardiness.
All that said, though, I love my new life in the Philippines. Philippine culture, unlike America’s, values and respects growing old. Children routinely greet elders by pressing the older person’s hand to their foreheads in blessing. The language itself is rife with titles by which younger people respectfully address those whose age exceeds theirs. And not once— I repeat, not a single time—has anyone disparaged my young wife’s choice of such a hobbling, wobbling old husband.
Unless, of course, you count the times people have mistaken my daughter for a granddaughter. “Oh, you’re out with grandpa,” someone—usually a foreigner—will say. It used to make me wince, but not anymore.
We were already living in the Philippines when she was born, an event I’d never have predicted. And yet, that little girl has become the light of my life. In keeping with local custom, she shares our bed, occupying the spot held so long ago by Ivy’s sisters. And so, I’ve become accustomed to the feel of tiny feet exploring my beard in the dark of the night.
I am not incognizant of what’s to come. I’ll be much older when she graduates from high school and older yet after four years of college. And on my daughter’s wedding day, I’ll probably be in a wheelchair as I accompany her (or she pushes me) down that sacred aisle. I am determined to be there for all of it.
So, what does my story have to teach? What, you might wonder, is the lesson of the strange, off-kilter path my “twilight years” have taken? The usual cliches apply, of course: it’s never too late to change, age is just a number, and love conquers all. There is value in each of them, but I have a favorite: never presume to predict how your life will turn out. Because heck, you just never know.
Editor’s note: David Haldane is The Manila Times Lifestyle’s newest addition to its pool of distinguished columnists. A most delightful, insightful, and remarkable addition at that, this American writer is a prize-winning journalist whose career spans over four solid decades. As he writes in today’s cover story, his most recent full-time post was with “The Los Angeles Times,” where he was a prized staff writer for 23 years. His byline has further appeared in various publications worldwide, including “The Los Angeles Times Magazine,” “Orange Coast,” “Islands,” “Penthouse” and “Salon” to name a few. Likewise, an award-winning book author, he counts four published titles to date: two memoirs titled “Berkeley Days” (2004) and “Nazis & Nudists” (2015); a compilation of short stories called “Jenny on the Street;” and a collection of essays on his life as an expat in the Philippines titled, “A Tooth in My Popsicle and Other Ebullient Essays on Becoming Filipino” (2023). His column, “Expat Eye,” appears every Monday on Lifestyle’s Expats and Diplomats page, and since debuting in January, has rounded up the weekly spread of embassy stories highlighting the Philippines’ sound multilateral ties with a unique and much-needed personal touch, as he wonderfully shares stories from meeting everyday Filipinos to movers and shakers, and most especially, from devotedly strengthening his bond with his most precious Filipino family. May today’s beautiful cover story and Valentine’s special be just the first from our David, who can wonderfully capture any subject across any season to enlighten and entertain The Sunday Times Magazine’s dear readers.