Written by Nguyễn Thị Thanh Hà and Isabelle Cheng.
It has been more than three decades since Southeast Asian nationals began to work and establish their families in Taiwan. Men and women from the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia fill the labour shortage in construction, fishing, manufacturing, care and agricultural industries, whilst the women became members of Taiwanese society because of their marriage and family formations. This ongoing regional migration flow has enriched the socio-cultural landscape of Taiwan, where multiculturalism becomes the prevailing normative value that respects and appreciates differences. Nevertheless, this development has not been smooth or unchallenged. The incident of Nguyen Quoc Phi, an undocumented Vietnamese migrant worker, shot dead by the police in August 2017 is a critical reminder. In the meantime, migrant spouses from Southeast Asia continue to be seen as either materialistic ‘gold diggers’ or miserable victims of an abusive marriage. I am in a unique position that I have experienced life as a migrant worker, and I am also a migrant spouse. As someone who believes in gender equality and women’s rights, I would like to share my experiences here not only showing how these labels have affected our life but also hoping multiculturalism can take roots at home amongst family members.
I am from Vietnam—a place where it is challenging to grow up as a woman. Confucianism continues to affect society even after its independence from French colonisation and its adoption of a socialist system. Under Confucianism, girls are not treated as permanent family members since they will leave home for their husband’s family after they get married. After getting married, a wife is expected to produce children, particularly sons, since only sons can continue the family linage and only sons are entitled to inheritance. If she fails, she will be treated with disrespect, and her husband may use this as an excuse to get a divorce or have an affair for the sake of bringing a son to the family.
Take my family as an example. My mother gave births to three girls, and I am the second daughter. My mother was not planning to have another child after me, but the fortune teller said she would have a son, so she got pregnant. This was against the family planning law, and this made her ineligible for the Communist Party membership. Nevertheless, it was a girl again. After that, she underwent a contraceptive procedure, which meant she could not give birth again. Although this did not lead to my parents’ divorce, it remained an issue between them. My father is not particularly close to us.
From my perspective, son preference, and the resultant pressure on women to produce sons, is a form of gender-based violence.
Vietnam is a patriarchal society, but people in Taiwan believe Vietnam is a ‘matriarchal’ society (母系社會). I was really puzzled by this. Many thought a so-called ‘matriarchal’ society meant that not only do women work outside of the home, but also have to do housework and look after their children, parents, and husbands. If matriarchy means a woman has many responsibilities, then the society of Taiwan is also a ‘matriarchal’ society! In fact, in Vietnam, a successful woman is one who shoulders both her public and private responsibilities. If she is successful in the public domain but cannot establish her family or look after her family well, she would be seen as a loser.
If a Vietnamese wants to be the decision-maker of the family, she has to work really hard. A women’s place is at home; it is her responsibility to look after the children and do all housework. Her husband does not know how to do this; moreover, he is not willing to do it. If she wants to secure her status in the family, she has to be financially independent, which is also to protect herself. If she loses her marriage or is abandoned by her husband, her natal family will not look after her. Although much progress has been made regarding this phenomenon, it is still a long way from reaching gender equality.
Fortunately, economic growth driven by labour-intensive industries has taken place in Vietnam. For women, this is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the demand for women’s labour in the manufacturing sector is high. It is labour-intensive work, and it pays little, so men will not do it. However, the statutory maternity leave is six months and, to bypass such laws, some businesses ask women to sign a contract that forbids them from getting married or getting pregnant for a certain duration. Business owners do not want to waste their training on women who will soon leave the job. This puts women in a dilemma: they need to get married and are pressured to give birth, but also, they need a job.
For the Vietnamese, education is most important. However, people do not see this importance in relation to girls. If a woman is literate, it is good enough. High school education is sufficient for girls to find a job. My father is not particularly supportive of our education. He did not spend money on us going to a cram school. Still, my younger sister and I passed the university entrance exam, so we went. However, little would I know that I would become a migrant worker at a factory in Taiwan.
It is important to note that Taiwan employs migrant workers from Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and starting in 2000 from Vietnam as well. In Taiwan, working on the assembly line at a factory only requires secondary-level education, but brokers could bring university graduates from Vietnam. After graduating from Vietnam National University, Hanoi with a BA in French Literature, I initially failed to find employment. Eventually, I spotted a Taiwanese job advertisement, and I told my father about it. He was not worried: he thought if this were human trafficking, they would look for pretty girls, not me! I worked at an electronics factory and was put in the night shift. My co-workers were middle-aged Taiwanese women who had only primary or secondary-level education. They were surprised that I had a university education. I saw that Taiwanese universities were giving scholarships to foreign students, but I was not entitled to this because I was a migrant worker.
I am always interested in learning languages. To go to Taiwan, I packed in my luggage dictionaries and Chinese language learning materials – that was all I had, plus I was brave to talk with a lot of gestures and broken Mandarin. Gradually I could recognise Chinese characters, and I passed a Chinese language test at B2 level. I thought with this certificate – along with my work experiences in Taiwan – after returning to Vietnam, I could find work at businesses run by Chinese people. Eventually, I met my future husband, we got married, and I returned to Taiwan as a wife. I also enrolled in a postgraduate course. My husband was supportive, but the extent of his support was limited. Taiwan may have reached a higher level of gender equality, but that does not mean that your husband will do housework. He belongs to an older generation who thought men need not do that.
To look back, I think I have been on all statuses conferred on foreigner: I was a migrant worker, a migrant spouse, and a foreign student. I am also an academic of foreign nationality, and I used to run businesses. Each of these identities has brought inspirations and ideas to me. When I was a migrant worker, I thought my job could be classed as a type of temporary suffering. After I got married, I realised I was going to reside in Taiwan and gain roots there. I was also studying History for my postgraduate degree, so I felt like I knew Taiwan more as a member of the society, and I needed to introduce the country to those who do not know her. Besides, I am a Vietnamese mother. I cannot let my children cut off with my Vietnamese culture. So, I have been trying to bridge across two cultures. I think I have been doing well. My children speak Vietnamese, and they love my cooking of Vietnamese cuisine!
I do not see myself as an activist. I am just telling those I meet my life stories and my ideas. My master’s degree has helped me a lot. Before I acquired it, I was nobody. After that, I have got a professional title accredited by a good university. I started my education around 2007-2008 when the Taiwanese government had already offered orientation classes for migrant spouses. More recently, the government began to see mixed children as a Taiwanese asset, so funding is given to support the teaching of Southeast Asian languages spoken by migrant mothers. I know Taiwan is multicultural, but I also know that some are unfriendly towards foreigners and discriminate against Southeast Asian people. I hope to change their mindset so that they will know that not all migrant spouses are victims of abusive or sham marriages. Everyone has the right to pursue happiness. If their marriages do not go well or end in divorce, it is not their fault. Home is everyone’s safe haven as long as the family is a place for an equal and sincere relationship. However, home-building is not a one-person job; marriage is a commitment between two people. So, we must start from respecting human rights and treat each other as family members rather than outsiders. By doing this, the family can be seen as a place for mutual support. When all families are in such a place, we can build a harmonious and equal society.
Nguyễn Thị Thanh Hà is a PhD candidate in History at the National Cheng Kung University, Taiwan, and an activist defending migrant women’s rights, including their right to speak our languages to our children.
Isabelle Cheng is Senior Lecturer in East Asian and International Development Studies at the School of Area Studies, History, Politics and Literature of the University of Portsmouth. Her research focuses on migration and the Cold War in East Asia.