Culture

Taiwan’s cross-border marriages: Discrimination via the discourse of love

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Written by Hong-zen Wang and Mei-hua Chen.

In the old days, the purpose of marriage in traditional Han Chinese society was to establish a relationship between two families, not two married persons, no matter whether it involved two adults, a child bride (tongyangxi), or an adoptee son (zhaozhuihun). Marriage decisions were made by the parents of both families.

When, then, did love “conquer” Taiwan, and the parents were no longer decisive in their children’s marriage?

In other words, such interviews in the name of preventing fake marriage or human trafficking are full of gender, racial, and class prejudices.

Survey data from 2001 shows that 55% of the interviewees who were born before 1950 got married through arrangements made by matchmakers or parents. In this group only 16% met their partners by themselves. However, after a high economic growth period in the 1960s, traditional arranged marriages by matchmakers or parents (17%) gave way to a more modern individual way of courtship (44%). After the 1970s, love discourse becomes so powerful that other non-conforming marriages are often excluded, like arranged cross-border marriage in Taiwan.

Taiwan’s cross-border marriages reached their peak in 2003, when one out of three marriages were a cross-border marriage. A lot of news reported these as “fake marriages” and “human trafficking.” The government decided that for family reunion visas to have face-to-face interviews for Chinese spouses in 2004, and the policy was applied to Southeast Asian spouses in 2005.

However, the face-to-face interview policy and processes are full of racial, gender, and class bias.

The following is a transcript from an interview in a documentary film:

(O: Taiwanese Officer; TWM: Taiwanese Man; VNW: Vietnamese Woman)

O (in Mandarin): The questions I’m going to ask you have no right or wrong  .      If your answer to a question is different from hers, I will continue to ask why there is such a difference. When did you first meet her? Where?

TWM: At her family.

O: How many times have you been to Vietnam?

TWM: Twice. This is the second time.

O: You communicate with her now. (Turning to VNW). You, speak Chinese to   me now. What is your name? Speak Chinese.

VNW (nervous, in Vietnamese): Can you say it again? I didn’t hear you.

O: What is your name?

VNW (in Vietnamese): Sir, you speak too fast. I cannot understand.

O: How old are you?

(VNW shakes head, nervous)

O: How do you communicate with each other?

TWM: By telephone.

O: Now you both chat with each other. Show me. You say you communicate by telephone, but how?

TWM (turning to VNW): You, talk to the Sir. Tell him how father and mother are doing.

O: Don’t talk to me. You chat with each other.

TWM (to VNW): What did you eat for breakfast?

(VNW shakes head)

TWM (again): What did you eat for breakfast?

(VNW still shakes head)

TWM: Don’t be nervous. Calm down.

(VNW nervous, body shaking)

O: See? You cannot even say one word to each other, not even one word.

TWM: She is too nervous.

O: Impossible. Try to chat with each other.

TWM (turning to VNW): Don’t be nervous. Calm down.

O: You have been to Vietnam only two times and then you want to get married, despite not being able to communicate? Do you have any other proof to show me?

TWM (taking out a telephone communication record and giving it to the officer)

O (turning to his Vietnamese assistant): Tell her to speak all the Chinese words she knows.

TWM: This is our communication record.

O: How could you communicate? You cannot even exchange a word here.

(Extract from Chang Cheng-Wei, 2006, Farewell Vietnam, Farewell Taiwan)

When I was teaching ethnicity in an introductory sociology course, I played this three-minute film and asked students, who were at the age of 19 or 20, “if you were the interview officer, would you give the green light to this married couple and allow the Vietnamese woman to come to Taiwan?” In a recent class, only three out of sixty students said “yes”. The most cited reason is that “people who cannot communicate will not be able to enjoy a happy family life.” A student even predicted that if a visa were issued, the marriage would be doomed to fail.

But when I asked them, if I were to apply, would I pass the interview? The students burst out laughing and said, “Of course. You are a professor, and you can speak Vietnamese.” The fact that they laughed at my question implies that a professor with high social status would never marry a Vietnamese.

Next I asked them, if the applicant were a tycoon, would he get the visa? Again, the students laughed loudly. My last question was: “If a Taiwanese man married a Japanese woman, and they could not speak any common language, would you give them the visa?” Most still insisted “No.” But by current law, Taiwanese marrying Japanese do not need to take face-to-face interviews.

In other words, such interviews in the name of preventing fake marriage or human trafficking are full of gender, racial, and class prejudices. Gender bias, because the official only demands the woman to speak Mandarin but not the man to speak Vietnamese; racial bias, because such a practice only applies to specific countries in the third world; class bias, because the underclass without economic or cultural capital are excluded, as one officer in Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Vietnam told us blatantly, “If the applicants are engineers or civil servants, we will have no trouble issuing them the visa.”

University students have been conditioned by Taiwan’s mainstream ideology, and their answers reflect the predominant ideology of love, marriage, and discriminatory attitudes in society. They fully identify with the Taiwanese officer’s questioning, based on the unfounded worry of “fake marriage” and the false assumption that true love, and by extension, a successful marriage, is contingent upon communication.

Love discourse becomes a powerful tool to legitimize gender, racial and class discrimination to exclude non-conforming cross-border marriages in Taiwan.

Hong-zen Wang and Mei-hua Chen (corresponding author), are both professors in the department of sociology at National Sun Yat-sen University. Wang’s long-standing research focuses on the issues of migration between Taiwan and Vietnam. His current research focuses on industrial relations in Taiwanese factories in Vietnam.  Chen’s research focuses on sex work and sexual consumption in Taiwan. Her current focus is on sexuality and migration. Image credit: CC by Kumon/flickr

 

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