My Eight Marriages for the Mob

"Yeah," I said. "Who is this?"

"Um, call me Bob," he said. I didn't know many Asian men named Bob, and I smothered a giggle. "This is how it works. We fly you to China with an escort who speaks the language. We set you up in a five-star hotel, and we feed you whatever you want whenever you want! If you want to go out drinking at the clubs, we'll take you and pay for you! If you want male hookers, we'll get those for you, too! Shopping is cheap! Think about it—all of the stuff you buy here is from China anyway. Now you're buying direct! You could even bargain them down for a cheaper price. I can have you talk to some girls who've done it before, and they'll tell you how fun, fast and easy it all is!"

He was really trying to sell me on it, I thought. I hadn't realized the pent-up demand in China for single, female U.S. citizens. I don't think I could really understand—at that point—the desperate urge to leave a poor country.

"What's the business end of it?" I asked.

"There are three options," he said officiously. "You can do a fiancé trip, which means you go over there, take a few pictures and sign paperwork that says you're his fiancée. With that, he has a chance of receiving a six-month visa to the United States. The second option is the 'halfway marriage.' Essentially, that's when you actually get married—but cancel it—so that guy can receive his six-month visa with even more ease; that pays a lot more. Third option is to do it all the way. You don't want to do that. That's a headache and a hassle."

Option three is a headache and a hassle? Option one pays less? I'm going with option two! Thank you very much, unknown man on the other line!

I hung up the phone and told my mother. Quietly, she said that I was a big girl and that I could decide what was appropriate. I was nervous about going to a developing country still under communist rule. And I was excited about the money.

Two weeks of anonymous phone calls put me in a dimly lit parking lot in Little Saigon in August 2000, leaning against a tiny rolling suitcase. It was lightly packed. I had my heart set on filling it with exotic goods from across the Pacific. And I had no idea who I was going to meet. I waited beneath the buzzing sodium lights and popped my head up every time something poked out of the shadows. I had all my paperwork: a manila envelope holding a passport with a 30-day visa stuck on page 27, a birth certificate, a Social Security card and notary papers stating that I was, in fact, single. I noticed that the address and employment information—provided by Bob—were false. I figured it didn't really matter.

It took two cigarettes before a luxury Mercedes pulled up beside me. A man and woman greeted me, an older pair in their late 40s or early 50s. They looked like any Asian parents, introduced themselves (bogus names, I'm sure) and motioned me into the car. We were going to the airport.

The doubts I'd nursed in the parking lot seemed hazier, but I still curled my fingers around Bob's number. He'd said to call if I ran into any trouble. As we pulled off the 105, the woman turned around, her lean body squeaking against the smooth leather seat, and said, "Okay. You're going to fly to New York first to meet with the boss—he wanted to get a good look at you—and then you're going to receive the first portion of your share. I hope $1,000 is good enough for spending overseas!"

New York? No one said I had to fly into New York. No one said I had to meet anyone else. I was in the check-in line at LAX when I opened my mouth to protest. They shushed me before I could start, however—"There are several girls and boys that are going to do this with you. You have nothing to worry about"—and then the woman yanked the suitcase out of my hands and plopped it in front of the baggage handler.

Faking it

At La Guardia Airport, I met a youthful, round-faced Asian man—call him "Jack." After a firm handshake, we shimmied into a taxi and made our way to Chinatown. We ate bad Chinese food. The boss never showed, and we ended up at JFK, where the rest of the group was sitting in the lounge area, talking happily amongst themselves. My fears settled a little: these marriage schemes were obviously fairly routine. I didn't really want to fraternize, though. They were typical Orange County Asian kids with Tommy Hilfiger jeans large enough for four legs. The guys had nice fade haircuts, and the girls had platform shoes they'd bought at a mom-and-pop fashion store. They immediately made comments about me in Vietnamese; I let them know—in their native tongue—that I knew exactly what they were saying.

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