Reflections from Papua New Guinea: Making ‘friends’ and the desire for ‘white men’

Not long ago, I received a text message from a young woman, a minor acquaintance I'd only met a couple of times:

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. sicret u and me.

Though she didn't spell it out, the type of person she wanted to make “friends” with was, I knew, a white man. This wasn't the first time a young Papua New Guinean had asked me to help them find a white boyfriend or husband. On my first visit to the country in 2008, I found myself being asked to take carefully posed photos of 15 and 16 year old girls in their smartest, most fashionable clothes, which they subsequently directed me to show to my “brothers and friends back home.” Since then I've had many young women inquire about whether or not my male friends in America would be interested in being matched up with Papua New Guineans. As with my text messaging acquaintance, these requests were supposed to be “secret you and me”—these young women didn't want their families or other people to know that they hoped to “befriend” foreigners. 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.) These girls are hardly “gold diggers” or loose women; most are churchgoing “good girls” with dreams of upward mobility and international travel that are tragically inaccessible to most Papua New Guineans.


Highlands teenagers, Simbu Province
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. The fantasy combines a very Papua New Guinean approach to courtship, in which an intermediary establishes contact between two people with the hope of making a match, with a series of assumptions about how romance, sexuality, and love work in “the white countries”. 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. They don't drink, or if they do, they “know how to drink well and don't get drunk.” Even when they leave their wives, they do it better than Papua New Guineans do: “white people know how to divorce properly,” a woman in her fifties once informed me. (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. Many ask me about immigration opportunities, fantasizing out loud about, for example, going to pick fruit in Australia and nabbing a man at the same time, or going on a tourist visa to America and “just staying forever”.

I should emphasize here that most of these fantasies are just that: a way of expressing frustration with male behavior and marital restrictions on PNG women, as well as the unfair limitations on international migration and travel that Papua New Guineans face. The politics of migration in the Pacific are defined and policed by Australian authorities—for most Papua New Guineans, “overseas” means Australia, their former colonial overseer, and Australian media regularly expresses terror at the thought of masses of Papua New Guinean “boat people” crossing the Torres Strait. In these accounts, Papua New Guineans are often depicted as vectors for infectious diseases like cholera, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS, threatening Australian public health and the solvency of the Australian health care system. 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. In many cases, desire for “white men” is actually desire for an imaginary life of leisure and plenty known primarily through TV, movies, magazines, and observations of the lavish lifestyles of tourists and other expatriates.

Three generations of Papua New Guinean women, Simbu Province
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, he continued, did white people in PNG “keep to themselves” so much? 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. The desire for connection with whites has parallels with the populist analyses of regional political economy, in which the commodities readily available in Papua New Guinea are derided as “rubbish from China,” and Australian, European, or American goods are imagined to be of superior quality. 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. Girls often compliment my athletic sandals not in terms of their being attractive or fashionable (which, in my opinion, they are not), but as being “strong.” They link this “strength” to their overseas origin, and often complain in the same breath that “we Papua New Guineans wear rubbish sandals that break quickly, because they're made in China.” They request gifts—usually phones and shoes—“from America”, apparently assuming that goods on the American market are not made in China. These analyses uncover an acute awareness of PNG's position in the global economy. What is highly disturbing to me is when this populist hatred of Chinese “exploitation” and derision of Papua New Guinean lifestyles combines with retro-colonial nostalgia for white supremacy. 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 (2006), is often understood through an idiom of consumption, and white people are known and appreciated through the goods they possess. People slip easily between discussing the qualities of commodities and the nature of the persons who use them—sometimes arguing, for example, that Papua New Guineans are poor because they spend all their money on “Chinese rubbish” and thus have trouble saving up to improve their lives. 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.

So what do I do when my informants ask me to help them find a “white man”? 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? She shouldn't be. 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.

Barbara Andersen is a PhD candidate in the Anthropology Department at New York University. At the time of writing she was conducting research on nursing education and changing gender relations in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea.

20 Responses

  1. Great article. It clearly dipicts what the life is like at the moment in PNG. Well written, keep up the good work

  2. A politician in the Solomon Islands retecnly announced that poverty breeds corruption'. The latest audit of government finances found that across the board, SBD$433 million (approx. AUD$64 million) was missing' from the government coffers. I think that the politician has the wrong end of the stick. Corruption breeds poverty.

  3. I am a white American man living in PNG and the "American Dream" to these girls is real. I've dated many PNG girls and all would love to be married to a white American. Though our values are somewhat different the girls are loving, caring and make great companions.

  4. I've worked and lived in 25 countries and every country where there is poverty, real poverty/not what the USA calls poverty, the women want out and seeing a white man and his life style are their tickets out.
    PNG people as a whole are not racist. The usual question is not your race but where you are from. This is refreshing coming from a country where the promoters of racism are the government and media.
    The safety fear broadcasted by the media that PNG is not a safe place is somewhat correct. It depends what part of the country you are in. In the USA you could get killed at a movie theater, elementry school or by a mailman going postal. You just need to know where and where not to go.
    PNG is one of the most beautiful places in the world. It compares to Alaska and mountians in Columbia. I would have no problem with calling PNG my home, mostly because of the people and the nature.
    God Bless PNG

  5. Papua New Guinea as is a unique paradise. Each and everyone of us human beings have dreams for greener pastures where all is well but as you go out there you will find that home beautiful Papua New Guinea is still the best.
    We are put here for a purpose and this we will have to meet up to then and only then we will realize where our dreams are a reality.
    You my brothers and especially sisters are very beautiful people, we belong to PNG but if we know who we really are this place will be be different, Paradise already it is. I love my village, my people, my PNG it is a beautiful place.
    Thank you.
    Kind Regards.
    Clement Paime.

    1. Great and beautiful comment.What you`ve stated above is totally correct.Thank you and God bless you and your country too.

  6. Poverty in PNG is simply driven by laziness.

    Those women who fantasize to marry white men to live happy life are those who think that life is that everything to be at their disposal.

    In life you have to make things happen for yourself to live a happy and prosperous life.

    Fantasizing of some white men angels from America come to marry them and then they can live a enjoyable and meaningful life is useless and wasteful imagination.

    1. That’s so true. This is a great article. Im from PNG myself and I can truly say that ALL PNG girls think that white men are bettter than PNG men mostly because of their politeness and respect
      Most of these women want mixed raced babies. All the reasons Barbara listed a re so true. This is such agreatarticle. Ive dated a white guy in highschool and we were steady for two years. I can honestly say that he was better than any black guy I’ve been with only because he was a good listener and was humble. Black men are proud and arrogant. Anyway Im not going to compare because the truth is black or white it dont really matter each has their faults.
      Chinese products really is a problem because Asians especially Philipinos are EVERYWHERE in PNG buying land to build stores only to sell cheap copied items. Sigh now im sounding like a typical PNG girl complaining about Asian junk. Lol Love this Article, great stuff

  7. Nice Article, I am New to PNG and I am in Lae. I seen people complaining about the products available here, and about the desire of women to go for Expats.

    From my view, these people are straight forward, Strong, and very friendly. Still respecting nature and letting it be in the way as it is.

    Flaws are there in all countries, its just their 40th Independence. and they got a long way to go. Education is the only key

  8. Thanks Barbara for a great article and an interesting read.

    Everything mentioned is correct to a large degree and its true. These ladies (girls & women) have the right to dream for a better and rewarding life. As rightly put its the travel complications engineered by Aussies that makes most PNGeans unable to travel far.

    Each country has its own problems and PNG is no different. Only with proper educational awareness and realization of self importance in each of the communities or towns one endures will push this country up and everyone can live their dream lives whether it be a wishful imagination for a long distance love affair or for one to travel freely without major complications.

    Finally, education is the key to help us achieve these things.

  9. Yes the article written is very true all about PNG. I am local PNGn attending university. PNG is a great and friendly country even though our girls are wanting whites for luxuries life. The real problem to the country is rewarding to the failure of the government/ politicians who said they want PNG change but yet they do steal money which is suppose to be helping PNG to develop. Corruption is the very factor that is pulling the country back wayback.

  10. Im patrick from south africa every country has its own problems.i wish png people to trust education as their only sucess. Education is a key to a better life that no one can give you. Education,education,education – thanx

  11. I worked in PNG for two years. I formed a relationship with a PNG girl and later took her back to Australia. She fell pregnant and our daughter was born. At this time I was working in Indonesia and my life had taken a different turn. Fortunately my former girl friend had money and was able to raise our daughter without financial hardships. I married another women but today our daughter is 17 years old and we are in touch constantly. My wife accepts my daugher and stays in contact with her on Facebook. She is doing exceptionally well in school and we are working to get her into a university in Australia. My ex girlfriend has never married again and has concentrated on bringing up our daughter. PNG coastal girls are beautiful, peaceful and loving, mountain girls are different and often violent.

  12. These doesn’t portraye most of PNG your to focust in the New Guinea Highlands region, you haven’t seen the girls in the Papua region down Coastal, which most are married to foreign man cause of their beauty even man from the highlands ask me to help them find girls with every specification they can imaging. I don’t like PNG girls that much cause they put allot of burden on the man and sometimes they involve sorcery like my cousin sister who is half British were his dad died cause of some reason. But today I see PNG girls getting independent and I’m happy about it its just uncivilized png man can’t accept the reality that these is the future. I never had a PNG girlfriend most were foreign I just find them fascinating in many ways. Well its my opinion.

  13. Really great article but, isn’t it kinda weird these people need match makers for them? Is it like their culture for someone to be their match maker or are they doing this to foreigners only?

  14. Yeh that culture was practiced a long time ago when you and I were still floating in space. Now everythings change since white man came to PNG. Anyway PNG still has a long way to go, education should be a priority in order for PNG to move forward.

  15. I absolutely LOVE this article. There is an instance that I ‘thought’ you were going to erode the heart of it, but you prevailed (thinking the PNG male was hitting on you). Your PhD has served you well. More than I can express regarding my ex-wife!

    Lastly, if I may be so bold as to request, would you be open to submitting a letter of reference for my stepdaughter for admission into NYU? She is humble, driven, passionate, and dreams of becoming an educator. She would like to study Early Childhood Education. She, and I, would be most appreciative of your attribution. Her email address is

    Whatever your decision, you’ve certainly earned my respect with your brief, but unbiased, synopsis of the PNG ‘romance’ culture.

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