I Was a Chinese Child-bride
Or so everyone thought when I went to Bora Bora with my dad.
“Would you like to renew your vows on the beach with a traditional Polynesian ceremony?” is a question that shouldn’t make you feel uncomfortable in your own skin, unless it’s just been directed to you and a 64-year-old Nordic-looking man wearing a Hawaiian shirt, on to which has been embroidered a martini-drinking gecko that sits inside an even bigger martini. The man is named Stephen, and he also happens to be your dad.
“Ah — what?” Stephen asks, taking off his glasses and craning his neck, as if this would relieve the stress of his other senses. Ever since he fell into a frozen lake when he was a young boy in Kansas, he’s been hard of hearing. Stephen is a man of many hats: musician, photographer, former driver of 18-wheel-semis. But right now, in this moment, Stephen has shamelessly assumed the role of German Vacation Dad, complete with socks-in-sandals and a half-empty beer he insisted on taking with him off the plane. I say nothing, having just closed my gaping mouth.
Nervous, the concierge smiles, tucking in the plumeria that clings to her left ear. She’s young and charming and has a mole right in the center of her forehead like a third eye. Her uncomfortable grin remains fixed to her face. “Umm, would you like to renew your wedding vows on the beach with a traditional Polynesian ceremony?”
“Oh, no, no, certainly not!” exclaims my dad. “We — umm — we won’t need that at all, thank you.” He polishes his glasses on the gecko on his shirt, unsure what to say next.
“We’re not married,” I chip in, saying what my dad didn’t know how to acknowledge. “I’m his daughter.”
“Oh!” the concierge’s frozen smile melts into one of relief. “Oh, oh, very good! Not married. Very good.” She announces this last bit a little too loud, and I see all the other women working the front desk also begin to relax. “Not married!” she exclaims with glee, one last time. “Very good.”
I look around in disbelief, as if to say, is anyone else seeing this? But no one else seems to care — each couple caught up in their own throbbing, psychic gaze of love. I spin around the lobby until I see us in the mirror, a young Asian girl and her older white husband, and I think I understand where this concierge is coming from. And then all of sudden I realize it’s not a mirror at all, and I’ve confused myself with someone else; what I’m actually doing is nothing less than gawking at a young Asian girl and her older white husband, who at this moment are feeding each other spoonfuls of ripe papaya on a sofa nearby. So I look away.
My dad and I had just arrived in Bora Bora, a picturesque island in French Polynesia surrounded by brilliant blue waters and barrier reefs and the most adorable little hotel rooms in thatched huts on stilts built over the water. The one other building was a spa on the hill at the top of the island, which was accessible only by boat. Because — aside from frolicking in the ocean, drinking rum, and getting a massage — there’s not much to do in Bora Bora, which makes it the ideal place to revel in the beauty of the person with whom you’ve just decided to spend the rest of your waking days, watching the sun sparkle on their skin as your beloved lies on impossibly white sand beneath palm fronds that drape in all the right places.
In retrospect, it may seem a strange choice to come to Bora Bora with just your dad for company. But my dad had regaled me with stories of Bora Bora for as long as I can remember. In the kind of language others would call droning but which I heard as nothing less than scripture, he spoke of soft white sand and gentle seafoam waves, of homemade coconut soap and cold showers taken in wooden buckets. He told me about water clear as glass, about schools of little yellow fish that swam alongside your canoe above Technicolor jungles of coral. He knew how much I loved fish, and he told me it was just like snorkeling in an aquarium.
My dad first learned of Bora Bora from Tales of the South Pacific, James Michener’s love letter to Polynesia. Michener’s tales included the story of an American serviceman who falls in love with an island girl and a mysterious, faraway island so lovely it seemed just a dream. “To put it quite simply, Bora Bora is the most beautiful island in the world,” Michener writes. “To come back to Bora Bora at the close of the day after the long trip in a small boat and to see the setting sun illuminate the volcanic tower, massive and brooding in gold, is to see the South Pacific at its unforgettable best.”
When my dad got a job at the accounting firm Peat Marwick, he worked next to a half-Chinese, half-Swedish woman named Vicky Sperry. Every day in the office he would pass a lush 11-by-17 inch poster of Bora Bora that Vicky had hung front and center in her oatmeal-colored cubicle. It was a photo taken from a plane, revealing an oasis of green palm fronds and creamy beaches. My dad said he had never seen so many shades of blue. It was the first time he realized places like Bora Bora didn’t just exist in books, that they were very, spellbindingly real. Vicky told him all about Bora Bora, of water clear as glass, of wild bougainvillea unspooling like flowering tentacles on the island. She told him how every morning the baker would bike around the island and deliver a warm loaf of French bread to everyone’s mailboxes — after all, Polynesia was colonized by France and nobody went to Bora Bora to keep up with the news.
My dad first went to Bora Bora alone, before he met my mom. He slept in one of two twin beds in a room he shared with a Chilean soldier, and the two of them befriended a Japanese artist and young history professor from Florence. It was the furthest my dad had ever been from Pleasant Valley, Kansas. I asked my dad if he remembered when he first told me about Bora Bora, and the question seemed to catch him off guard. “I’ve been talking about Bora Bora my whole life,” he said. “Do you remember when you started listening?”
My dad, who loves to talk, would tell me these stories everywhere: in Costcos and foggy San Francisco beaches, while snorkeling in Hawaiian coves and at the DMV. Bora Bora was the closest I had ever come to a real-world myth, a legend drilled into me to pursue. Yet in all these years, he somehow always failed to mention Bora Bora’s primary purpose had become a destination for the newly wed. So I suppose it wasn’t altogether outlandish for the concierge to assume we were, like everybody else, honeymooners in the best years of our marriage. For a moment I wonder if seeing that one couple in the lobby was more of a tragicomic coincidence than anything else, a funny story I’d be able to tell my mom and friends when we returned home. Either way, I am still in this for the fish.
So, determined, we leave the lobby and lug our bags across the beach to our room. The walls and floors are all a dark cherry wood; the chairs and couch are upholstered with golden palms imprinted on linen, and, of course, dozens of red hibiscus flowers have been arranged into the shape of a heart on the one bed. Since he’s the one paying for all of this, my dad takes the bed, wiping the petals to the floor. I take the couch. We pass out in seconds, and that night I dream of fish, forgetting about the couple that looked like us, what I thought couldn’t be more than a minor stumbling block in what would become a journey of a lifetime.
The next day, however, I see them everywhere. The child brides. Frolicking on the beach, lounging in the pool, serving themselves platters of smoked salmon in the hotel restaurant. They’re far from the majority of people staying at this hotel, but they’re all I can see. I have no idea if I am actually seeing the same couple everywhere or if they are all just blending together, these old wrinkled men and their taut young partners. I wonder if any of the “normal” couples notice, or if I am the only one staring.
After all, my mom had warned me about this my whole life. Beware the white man, she said, he who will exotify you, he who will look at your face and the slant of your eyes and see something soft, exquisite, and oriental. I brushed most of this off, as you often do with things your parents never stop talking about. I interpreted her warnings as relics of a time gone by, as a cautionary tale that would never directly affect me. As someone who is both just half-Chinese and a recent but resolute lesbian, I figured I wouldn’t have to worry about how the tricky dynamics of power, race, and colonialism emerge in a relationship between a white man and full-Asian woman.
But all this time I am excruciatingly aware of the visible stereotype of my own parents’ relationship, that my white American father had married a Chinese immigrant ten years his junior. Of course, their story is a far cry from those of the child brides. My mother immigrated to the States when she was 14, later going to business school at Berkeley and working as an accountant in San Francisco, where she was set up with my dad by a mutual friend with an interest in adventure travel. It’s a story that, for all intents and purposes, passes as normal in our culture. There should be nothing taboo about their marriage, and yet there always has been and always will be.
But living in the small town of Burlingame in the Bay Area meant that I had a good many half-Asian friends, many of whose parents exemplify this stereotype in various degrees of creepy. One friend’s stepdad was just ten years older than her Chinese mom and, though a very kind man, almost a foot shorter, squat and pink. Another friend’s dad was almost 20 years older than her Chinese mom and, even worse, didn’t age gracefully. He was often mistaken for his wife’s father and his daughter’s grandfather. One time her family invited mine over for dinner, where we ordered Dominos and drank their 1964 Chateau Margaux. When we got home, my mom shook her head as she took off her coat. “How could she possibly be attracted to him?” she muttered. “He’s just so old.” She repeated this mantra over and over as my dad donned his reading glasses to flip through that day’s paper. “He’s just so old.”
In my freshman year of college, there was a boy who lived three doors down from me named John Joe. A tall white boy who reminded me of a meerkat, John Joe enjoyed things like wearing witty graphic tees, playing the flute, and giving piggyback rides to Asian girls, at least according to his Facebook photos. I once walked into John Joe’s bedroom to find two Chinese girls sitting beside him on his bed, spoon-feeding him ice cream and massaging his feet. Occasionally he would wave the ice cream away to play them a solo from the popular ’90s video game Legend of Zelda on his flute. I don’t remember what I said or how I extricated myself from that situation, but I cannot forget it. I saw John Joe a few more times in the years following, always surrounded by a happy gaggle of Asian girls. What I mean to say is that even millennials aren’t immune.
The island of Bora Bora, at least, is everything I dreamed it would be. Our room is a two-minute walk to an empty beach bracketed by a gentle cove of stones that kept harsh waves out, leaving water so clear that snorkeling almost felt like standing in some blue desert, considering how far out you could see. And the fish, accustomed to human intruders, react to me either with indifference or curiosity. A small school of threadfin butterfly fish — little yellow things with delicate black crosshatching and a bandit-like eye patch — take a particular liking to me, often following me when I snorkel out of their cove and accompanying me into deeper waters.
It’s important to know that I love fish. I love schools of fish that shimmer together in the hundreds, united by some mystic groupthink. I love ornery fish that survey the ocean alone, taking in all that blue for themselves. I love tropical fish that swim with a swagger as if they know how cute they are, and I love vomit-colored fish that bury themselves in sand with fangs sticking out of their faces. And that view: limey brains stuck on the seafloor, yawning red doilies wearing crowns of sea slugs, barnacled ziggurats spiraling toward the sun. I am often brought to tears when I visit aquariums.
This is a love that’s carried me through four different personal aquariums, a love that led me to give a TEDx talk at my college about the danger of fishbowls, and a love that got me banned from my local Petco at the age of 13 for protesting the condition of their tanks. I’ve lived in four different cities in the past year, and my periwinkle betta Ralph has made the move with me to all four.
Now in Bora Bora, I am the closest I have ever felt to fish. I am snorkeling among the brightest and friendliest I have ever seen. Some parade by me as if on some languid, briny runway, and some dart up to me and graze on my toes. I am in paradise. I have never gotten along better with fish.
Humans, however, are a different story. It becomes clear that most of the other couples at this resort are baffled by the presence of me and my dad, unsure if there is something dangerous about our relationship. They are unsure whether they should be offended by us but very sure that, whatever we are, they do not approve. We deflect strange and scornful stares whenever we walk by other hotel guests. And even the hotel’s employees, the maids and pool-boys and bartenders, serve us with plastic smiles, fear and discomfort in their eyes. They either dodge the question of our relationship or, sad and reluctant, treat us like newlyweds. “We have a special sunset kayak dinner just for couples,” our waitress tells us as we sign the check for our food. “Very romantic, we promise!”
I welcome these moments; they offer us the chance to reveal the rather mundane truth: that we are just a daddy-daughter-duo trying to see some fish.
But it doesn’t help that my dad is a photographer by trade. After leaving Kansas, he felt the urge to see the rest of the world and now spends his retirement traveling to distant lands with camera in hand. So it follows that he spends a great deal of our time on the beach taking pictures of me. This has never bothered me before. But so many other couples are doing the same thing and snapping seductive shots of their beloveds that I feel cross and sick to my stomach and tell my dad “Just be present and stop living through your lens, Dad!” a mantra he has drilled into my sister and me over the years in reference to our phones. Abashed, he puts his camera back in his bag, zips it up, and stows it under his lounge chair, beside a book that he’ll finish before the end of the day — Quantum Mechanics: The Theoretical Minimum, his idea of a beach read. “I can take however many pictures I want,” he mutters to himself, lying down and pulling his hat over his face. He’ll fall asleep here for four hours at the hottest time of day, and he’ll get a hot pink sunburn all over his body except his face, which will remain white.
Our interactions with the other guests begin to follow a predictable arc: we initiate conversation in which, like characters in a bad sketch, we try to immediately yet casually establish the fact that we aren’t husband-wife, but rather father-daughter. Like some eternally optimistic pickup artist, we approach half of the couples at the resort in the hope of befriending them. There is the muscled and sour-faced French couple on the snorkel boat. There is the kind and crunchy couple from Denver in the bartending class who will later email me to offer me an internship at their marketing agency, a promise made three mai-tais in that I never assumed would be remembered. There is Lisa Precious, the Scientologist event coordinator for Sundance, who would become our one real friend. Lisa, who has arched eyebrows and a penchant for kaftans, explained to me that, yes, the scientologists in LA were a tight-knit community but no, she had never met Tom Cruise. We get dinner with Lisa several nights in a row; she had travelled here alone after a messy divorce and, like my dad, assumed she would make friends along the way.
“I can’t tell you how happy I was when you told me you were his daughter,” she tells me the first night, hefting a forkful of lemon tuna in the air. “It just…it just felt so wrong before.” She looks at me and beams, strands of tuna poking through her teeth like fluff from an overstuffed teddy bear.
To cope with all of this, I retreat into the basement of the hotel to use the guest computer, a slow slate-colored block of a PC that happens to be the one thing on the island with free wifi. It sits on the a desk in a room almost empty save for several wooden bookshelves holding reading materials left behind by previous guests. This comprises a motley assortment of sandy paperbacks whose covers reveal lusty women popping out of their corsets whilst lusty men ogle them from afar, popping out of their breeches in the way that only men can. I sit there for several minutes while I compose what I think will be a winning Facebook status:
Sabrina Imbler with Stephen Imbler, May 29, 2014
the best things about being in bora bora with my dad:
- a vacation of a lifetime full of sunning and tropical fish and smitten newlyweds that make me believe in love
the worst things about being in bora bora with my dad:
- everyone thinks I am his Chinese child bride
Reminded by laminated signs of the computer’s 20-minute time limit, I log off and rejoin my dad on the beach. We snorkel again and my dad swears he sees a stingray that I’m pretty sure is just a rock, but his mask is so foggy and his joy so palpable that I tell him I saw it too.
I check Facebook again after sunset, and I see the status garners 155 likes and fifteen comments, making it the most popular thing I’d ever posted at the time. And I can’t help but smile, because at this time in my life such things were quietly integral to my sense of self-worth. Some of the comments were funny and irreverent, but just as many were messages of solidarity. My half-Asian friend Anna wrote, “THE WIFE THING ALSO HAPPENS TO ME AND MY DAD!!!!!!!! it feels weird and bad.” My half-Asian acquaintance and one-time romantic prospect Sam wrote,“#hapaproblems.” Even my mom commented, reminiscing about the time she went to Bali with my dad and all the tourists assumed she was a sex worker. All of this affirms me and makes me smile, like my status as a social pariah was worth it for this one great story that I’ll get to tell people at parties.
Two things become apparent as I begin to research the thriving community of online Chinese marriage agencies. First, there are sinister repercussions of my computer’s habit of keeping track of my cookies — these are, to clarify, the worst kind of cookies, the digital kind — as I peruse the internet in order to tailor my advertisements to what I might want to buy. In real-world terms, this meant when I log on to Facebook I am no longer greeted by images of shoes or sweaters that could conceivably become mine. Now, I am greeted by the soft and air-brushed faces of Chinese women who, I am enthusiastically informed, could also become mine.
Second, I realize just how many of these sites exist. All have the same name in different permutations: chinesewifes.com, chinese-brides.com, and chnlove.com. Also chinalovecupid.com, asiandate.com, and womenchinese.com. All are in broken English, and none seem more or less reputable than the next — not that I have any idea what kind of metrics of repute exist in such a sphere — but each has the uncanny ability to make me very, very sad.
The first to come up in my search is Chinesewifes.com. The site seems to have no exact name, advertised at the top as “Seek, Date & Marry A Chinese Bride: Marry A Pretty, Forever-Young Chinese Wife, Bring You A Life-Time Happiness and Enjoyment.” Every page is my worst nightmare, reading like poor ad copy with the buzzwords “sexy,” “Oriental,” and “very slim.” One page, titled “Secrets and Skills to Seek your favorite Chinese Bride” features the image of an Asian porcelain doll in a wedding dress. The text follows:
“While your new wife won’t be afraid of work, forgive her for dreaming of a life of luxury at home. She will wash your laundry (even by hand if necessary), cook your dinner, spoil you, bring you a beer and deal with you hanging out with the fellows at the local watering hole as long as you take care of her wants (which might include sending dosh home to her parents to maintain her honor) and even go as far as empowering her as custodian of the family funds.”
The entire website is written like this, a squeamish guidebook for white men seeking the Asian women of their dreams. I have no idea who wrote these descriptions. The Contact Us page of Chinesewifes.com lists the heads of the organization’s US office as Bill and Pat, whose only contact information is the obligatorily sketchy email@example.com. Tracking down the generic and perhaps fictional Bill and Pat is an impossible task because they share the names of a gay couple from Buffalo who run a modestly popular vlog. So I still have no idea who’s responsible for the writing on the site, if it was written first in English or translated from Chinese, if the content is intended to be read as a researched article or a kind of misogynistic advice column. I suppose none of this matters. But I keep wondering if the authors are men running these agencies or the Chinese women themselves, and I can’t figure out which is more depressing.
The state of marriage in China is even bleaker. In Chinese culture, to be unmarried is to be incomplete. The government legally refers to unmarried women older than 27 as “shengnu,” leftover women. It’s the Chinese equivalent of spinster, introduced in a plea against this “threat to social stability.” To be called shengnu is an unshakeable stigma in a society that sees marriage and motherhood as the highest possible achievement for its women. Not getting married is often taken as the most egregious form of betrayal of one’s parents in a society that values filial duty over any other. Sallow and unwanted, shengnu are often called yellowed pearls.
At first, none of this seems to make sense in the larger scope of Chinese history. In 1979, the one-child policy triggered a significant gender imbalance in the country. Couples unlucky enough to have a girl would often resort to sex-selective abortion or even female infanticide. By 2020, China will have 24 million more men than women. So it’s not like there’s a dearth of eligible bachelors. But many of these single men live in poor, rural villages that lose all their women to jobs in nearby cities. Many more Chinese men now choose to marry foreigners, and many more Chinese women, seizing their newfound freedom, choose to focus on their careers. So it’s hard to get married in China whoever you are. But unmarried men see none of the shame that befalls their female counterparts, who have far fewer golden years to tie the knot.
In some diluted way, I know what it is like to grow up under this pressure. Whenever I call my grandma now, she asks if I’m engaged. I have never told her about having a boyfriend, so I can’t tell if it’s old age or wishful ignorance. But it’s clear that she wants nothing more for me; when I called her to say I had just graduated college, she asked if had made sure to give my number to all the boys who were going to be doctors. I told her that I had taken an internship, and she told me that I should have been spending more time going on dates, as I would never have needed to work if I had a fiancée.
The stress of all these expectations has led to the normalization of certain things that seem absurd to anyone who grew up in the United States. There are marriage markets, public spaces where hopeful parents hang fliers advertising the photos and qualities of their unmarried children, just as you would try to sell an old bike or search for a lost cat. The ads are blunt, no frills: Good cook. Likes to read. Age: 29. They’re like farmers’ markets for single women that don’t even require the permission of these prospective wives. There are also marriage clubs, where local women can pay up to 40,000 yuan for classes that specialize in attracting an “elite foreign man.” And then there’s Chinesewifes.com.
I was surprised to learn that the mail-order bride business is still booming. Cherry Blossoms, the oldest mail-order bride service, generates 5,000 marriages and $500,000 in revenue each year. The website offers women from the Far East and the Philippines, advertising “Petit Asian girls” who are obedient, meek, and submissive. The men who run these websites are often loyal customers as well. Delaney Davis, the 60-year-old man who runs FilipinaWife.com, married an 18-year-old woman from the Philippines. Philip Ovalsen, the 56-year-old man who runs ActionPersonals.com, has a 29-year-old wife who is also from the Philippines.
In a weirdly empowered form of modern colonialism, countries in Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and China dominate the bride market. Conditions for women remain barren in these rural communities, leading young girls to seek prosperity, or even safety, beyond borders. In Ukraine, women flee prospects who might well be alcoholic, unemployed, or abusive. In China, older women flee the stigma of shengnu. Their would-be American husbands are often blue-collar men struggling to build a family, or older men seeking a much-younger bride.
It’s important to note that the mail-order business is generally not a form of sexual trafficking; these women elect to put their faces in these digital catalogs because they know what kind of opportunities can come from countries like America. In fact, everyone involved in the business resents the term “mail-order,” opting instead for the much more palatable “international marriage agency.” These marriages can be mercenary on both sides — or at least they start out that way.
I first learned about all this in a documentary called “Seeking Asian Female,” in which Chinese filmmaker Debbie Lum befriends a man with a severe case of yellow fever. Steven, a doughy and bespectacled 60-year-old American, evaluates his possible partners based on what he calls their “Chineseness.” When showing Lum a photo of Sandy, a woman he met on an online Chinese marriage agency, he exclaims with glee, “You can’t look any more Chinese than that.” Whatever that means. Sandy — a 30-year-old woman from the Anhui Province — agrees to marry Steven and flies to the states on a K-1 engagement visa. She keeps telling Lum that she wants to leave Steven as soon as she has enough money for college. It’s a story of two people who want different, somewhat unsavory things out of this marriage. While Steven wants a submissive Chinese wife who will cook him meals and take care of him, Sandy wants opportunity.
But over time the two fall in something indistinguishable from love. Sandy helps Steven begin to dismantle his one-dimensional and racist vision of what an Asian woman can be, and she starts to love him despite his faults. They build a marriage out of hard work, sacrifice, and endless communication. The learned tenderness of their relationship upended my conceptions of what such a marriage could look like. I feel almost ashamed for my false sense of moral superiority, for dismissing the possibility that love could exist outside of what we are told should constitute a real marriage, that love doesn’t have to fit the prescriptions of America’s Family Values for it to be real.
And so a documentary that starts off painful to watch now becomes something sweet, even charming. “We are two people with deliberate intentions meeting online for a common purpose,” Steven wrote in the comment section of an NPR article about the documentary. “We get along quite swimmingly. We have great chemistry. What’s your problem?”
Reading any of this, however, reminds me that my dad’s name is also Stephen.
Most of the documentary takes place inside Steven’s apartment or in various nondescript municipal buildings, but the occasional outside shot reveals a vague suburban landscape that, to me, felt familiar. So familiar, in fact, that I sometimes felt like I had seen the same dilapidated Shell gas station or Bank of America mural. Confirming my sneaking suspicion, Steven’s Linkedin page informed me that he lived in Burlingame, California.
I live in Burlingame, California.
Steven’s Linkedin also told me he went to my rival high school and later attended my local community college and that we were third degree connections. The White Pages told me he lived on 1206 Burlingame Avenue, about a ten-minute drive from my house. Meaning you only have to make two rights and a left to get from my house to his, an apartment above the Copenhagen Bakery and Café, where my babysitter used to take me. Steven’s apartment faces a Sephora, the Sephora where I bought my first mascara and got my makeup done for my junior prom. Above the sign for this Sephora hangs a dingy sign that reads “Hotel,” something that my friends and I used to talk about after buying various shades of green eye-shadow.
“That looks like a janky-ass hotel,” my friend Mimi once said.
“No, stupid, it’s probably just apartments,” my friend Rebecca retorted. As was often the case, Rebecca, who went to Harvard, was right.
This means I have lived my entire life within a two-mile radius of Steven. That I have walked along the same streets with my dad Stephen as he did with his wife Sandy. That I, more likely than not, have seen the two of them together, her 30 to his 71, and never even noticed. That they, more likely than not, they have seen the two of us together, my 21 to my dad’s 65, and perhaps saw something of themselves reflected in us. I imagine us passing each other on a sidewalk — seeing each other, assuming everything, knowing nothing.
I speak to none of the Asian women I see in Bora Bora nor their older white partners. If any of them speak English, they never do so around me. It never crosses my mind to approach these women, considering how hard I am working to distance myself from them. And even though I watch them for long spells of time, I have no way of knowing who they are, if they’re in love, or if that even matters. I’ll never know how they met, whether at a bar or a party or an online dating service or something more discomfiting. Maybe none of them are migrant brides. Maybe all of them are migrant brides. Maybe each of these couples are just two people of different races and different ages each of whom happened to find themselves in this particular circumstance, and maybe they’re all sick and tired of people like me judging them everywhere they go.
Over these seven days in Bora Bora, I live in something close to underwater rapture. I see parrotfish and triggerfish, neon hordes of damselfish and malcontented moray eels. I see a white lump of stone transform before my eyes into a bright red octopus. I see my tour guide snatch that octopus out of the water and put it on his face, the tentacles oozing off his cheeks like honey. I see another tour guide, encouraged by my staring, peel the octopus off his friend’s face and plop it on to mine, and I feel a gooey massage of dozens of suckers as the octopus drips off my face. I see a ghostly school of manta rays hundreds of feet beneath me, shrouded in the blue of deep ocean. I see one of my tour guides ride a shark, a sizeable yet languid creature too jaded to care about the human atop its back. And then, for eight bone-chilling seconds, I ride that shark myself.
But for our last day in Bora Bora, we book an extravagant-looking excursion to something called the Lagoonarium, a little deserted island with fenced-in reefs that create the sensation of swimming in an aquarium. Our tour guides are a trio of locals who claim to be brothers for their shtick, which involved relentless ukulele and complaints about how nagging “Mother” could be. Their timing is impeccable, each joke punctuated by two swift strums. Polynesian blackwork tattoos snake around their arms and calves in a way that I normally would take little notice of, but in my current state, having survived this seven-day-long honeymoon with my dad, these tattoos inflame my pent-up sexual frustration.
Bora Bora is not an ideal location for single women-seeking-women to hang out, let alone hook up. Throughout this entire trip I’ve been so overwhelmed by the natural beauty of a place that can be described in no other words than romantic, surrounded by couples as far as they’ll ever be from divorce, and all I want is to be here with someone whom I love or at least with whom I share a deep and carnal lust. But I’m still here, the one single woman on this boat comprised of honeymooners and my dad. There are, of course, child brides on this trip, enough in fact to make up most of the group if you include me and my dad. The rest of the couples are all European, speak very little English, and take turns glaring at us.
Finally we dock. We swim with sharks and feed them, a climactic experience on a trip that has dangerously removed any fear of sharks I had harbored before. Our guides feed us, cracking open coconuts with glee and heaping jerk chicken on our plates. Max, the brother on ukulele duty, speaks broken English and is missing two teeth, one top and one bottom, like two lone hotel windows shuttered in the middle of the day. He is the ham of the crew, speaking often in the third person — “Max don’t like sharks, except for breakfast!” — and erupting in riotous cackles at his own jokes.
“And now the demonstration of tying the periot!” Max exclaims, gesturing a kind old European lady toward him. With abundant flair, he ties the Tahitian sarong around her fuchsia one-piece, clapping to applaud her participation. She spins three times around, a vision in rippling cloth and cellulite. He gives all of us periots, but he doesn’t dare ask me to volunteer, unsure if I am child or a spouse or something in-between. When he is finished, all the older women and the young European woman have been ensconced in these flower-colored cloths, while I and all the child brides hold our periots in our lap, folded.
When they set us loose upon the island and my dad wanders off to photograph everything, I manage to tie my own periot, crudely mimicking the steps that came naturally to Max until I have fashioned a kind of design that dangles on my body. I approach Max to ask where the bathroom is, aware that there is a not insignificant chance that the answer resides within one of the many bushes growing on the island. He’s slicing a coconut as I approach him. To break the ice, I say to him, loud and slow, “My dad has been loving this trip.” He looks at me, looks back at the bench where my dad used to be, and back at me. He breaks out in a smile.
“Dad!” he crows, “Dad, dad, your dad!” He drops the coconut and keels over. “I must tell my brothers!” Churning up sand in my face, he runs over to the boat, where the other guides sip rum straight from the bottle. He speaks for a few moments, points at me, and then like a fuse the entire boat erupts in deranged but relieved laughter. They wave at me and I wave back.
I turn around and sit at a picnic table, the sand beneath me littered with papaya seeds and coconut hulls. I hear a slight cough behind me, and it’s a girl, my age, Asian. She gestures to the periot in her hand and then to her body, and I realize she’s asking me to tie it for her. I do, holding the edge of the cloth to her ribcage and wrapping it twice around her chest and then around the small of her neck. My breath quickens as I tie it off in a knot above her shoulder, and I realize how beautiful she is. I realize how similar we look, how short and dark, how close we are standing, how we have been brought to this tropical paradise by the money of white men older than us, and I can feel that I’m blushing. In that moment I realize that I’m Steven, or Stephen, or just Sabrina, and that the reds spilling into my cheeks could be called something like love.
Sabrina Imbler is a science journalist based in Brooklyn. You can follow her at @aznfusion