Blending In or Standing Out: Immigration and the ‘Cultural Quality’ Problem in Taiwan

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Why you need to know

Are the dazzling traditional gowns and tours in native languages just a weak attempt to distract Taiwan’s newest arrivals from institutionalized discrimination?

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From when her Taiwan-born daughter was a one-year-old to when she started kindergarten, Indonesian Linda Tjindiawati Arifin would take her to visit the National Taiwan Museum each fortnight, exploring the century-old building and the surrounding 228 Peace Memorial Park.

Twelve years later, Arifin is back at the museum giving tours in Bahasa, showcasing the place she spent so much time in with her young daughter to a new wave of migrants.

The museum, located in central Taipei, is a place of personal significance to Arifin. She gives the tours as part of a publicly-funded program designed to welcome new immigrants in Taiwan and engage them in local society. Arifin feels a sense of responsibility for teaching fellow immigrants about Taiwan’s history and culture. Giving the tours is not about simply dressing in traditional clothing and gossiping in her native tongue.

Arifin told The News Lens she wants to highlight “what the Taiwan government can offer [migrants] and that Taiwan has this beautiful building.”

According to the National Immigration Agency, there are more than 630,000 Southeast Asians among Taiwan’s 23.5 million people. That is around one new immigrant for every 40 Taiwanese. Today, the Taiwan government is again looking to Southeast Asians as the key to unlocking a new phase of economic growth and is committing millions of dollars to bridge the divide between cultures.

But do these cultural programs really help the many thousands of immigrants from countries like the Philippines and Indonesia? Or are the dazzling traditional gowns and tours in native languages all just a weak attempt to distract Taiwan’s newest arrivals from institutionalized discrimination?

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Photo Credit: Shannon Lin/The News Lens
Linda Tjindiawati Arifin leading a tour at the National Taiwan Museum.
The 'cultural quality' problem

Sociology experts say that Taiwanese see Southeast Asians as desirable workers but undesirable citizens.

This is in part due to the lower socioeconomic status of most ASEAN countries, Hsia Hsiao-chuan (夏曉鵑) a Taiwan sociology professor told The News Lens.

Hsia recalls an interview with an official from the National Immigration Agency in the early 1990s when she was asked bluntly, “How can we stop them from coming?”

Arifin, who immigrated to Taiwan on a marriage visa in 2003, acknowledges that “Taiwanese still feel that whoever comes from Southeast Asia are lower than them.” She first came to Taiwan in the late 1990s to study Mandarin at National Taiwan Normal University and holds an MBA from the University of Southampton.

Hsia points to a “cultural quality” problem: Taiwanese give higher cultural status to countries with stronger economies.

As Taiwanese hold other East Asian countries like Japan and Singapore in high esteem, they look down on many Southeast Asian countries. Take the difference between South Korea and Vietnam. South Korea has a GDP of more than US$1 trillion, eight times more than Vietnam’s GDP of US$142 billion. While many Taiwanese will gladly sit down to watch hours of the latest South Korean television drama, few are willing to tune-in to a series on Vietnamese immigrant brides produced in Taiwan.

Photo: Vietnamese Migrant Workers and Brides Office in Taiwan
Living quarters of Vietnamese workers in Taiwan.
Quality of life

Increased scholarship opportunities and relaxed visa policies have contributed to a 25 percent growth in the number of tourists from ASEAN countries in the six months to January 2017. Yet, these improvements are offset by continued human rights abuses.

An exploitative brokerage system and migrant worker policy, discriminatory immigration laws, physical abuse of caretakers and factory workers are just a few examples that point to a systemic issue.

Last December, the Control Yuan reopened the investigation into the death of Indonesian migrant worker Supriyanto, who died while aboard a Taiwanese fishing vessel in August 2015. He was reported to have been hired by illegal brokers in Taiwan and Indonesia. His family was also reportedly tricked into signing an agreement not to pursue legal action.

An April 2016 report published by Greenpeace detailed that Taiwan had no regulations in place to protect the rights of fishermen. Contracts did not specify minimum wages or working hours, among other issues.

This case is just one example of migrant workers being exploited by brokers, employers, and the Taiwanese court systems.

In an interview with The China Post, director of Serve the People Association Lennon Wong recalled, “I once saw a case that unfolded like this: a Filipino seafarer spoke in a long-winding sentence in his local dialect, however the interpreter, translating through a video conference, only said two sentences. That’s a definite misinterpretation of the truth.”

Language is often cited as the biggest barrier to assimilation. In Taiwan, children with Southeast Asian parents have been subjected to controversial research.

Hsia cites what she considers “eugenic” studies that have suggested children of Southeast Asian descent were academically inferior because their parents spoke “imperfect Mandarin” at home leading to inarticulate speech in later years.

In a 2006 study conducted in Pingtung, southern Taiwan, researchers suggested that children of Southeast Asian descent demonstrated slower cognitive and verbal development due to the lower education level of their Southeast Asian parents. Follow-up studies showed that researchers failed to interview students themselves, instead focusing on testimonies of teachers and administrators.

According to statistics from the Ministry of Education, children with Southeast Asian parents account for 62 percent of all elementary school students with foreign-born parents. Today, 200,000 out of about 2 million – or one in every 10 – students in Taiwan are the children of new immigrants.

Having tracked this development for the past 20 years, Hsia does not buy the “lip service” of government officials.

She says, “Just a few years back, these children were not of ‘quality’ and suddenly they are praised as the ‘frontiers of Taiwan’ and the underlying discourse is that their mothers should teach them their native language so that they can be of advantage but the fact is they weren’t encouraged to speak their mother tongue and suddenly you expect them to be fluent in Southeast Asian languages?”

Similar prejudicial sentiments are reflected in the reformed Nationality Act implemented in March. The act now allows foreign nationals to apply for dual citizenship but only those deemed as “high-level professional talent.”

In addition, foreign spouses no longer have to provide evidence of financial or professional stability for naturalization. Yet, if a foreign spouse wishes to divorce, they cannot stay unless granted child custody. Even if granted, they must leave once the child is of legal age unless they can once again prove that they will not be a liability.

Recent records from the National Immigration Agency show that as of March 2017 almost 3,800 foreign spouses from Southeast Asia resided in Taipei alone, a 7 percent increase from 2016.

Hsia questions the government’s lack of regard for foreign spouses when she asks, “What do they mean by 'contribution?' Marriage migrants live in Taiwan, they contribute a lot by taking care of the family, raising the second generation, yet it’s not considered 'contribution.'”

Critics also disparage the act for imposing a domestic value on foreign spouses by attributing their sole value to being wives and caretakers.

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Improving relations

In the months leading up to the presidential election in January 2016, now-Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) vowed to promote policies that would benefit new immigrants. She introduced the New Southbound Policy which seeks to lessen Taiwan’s trade reliance on China and emphasizes building an extensive network of new business and cultural relationships between Taiwan and ASEAN countries.

Similar efforts in the past, such as Lee Teng-hui's (李登輝) “Go South” policy, pigeonholed Southeast Asia as providers of cheap land and labor which lead to limited success.

Patchwork classes in Wanhua, handicraft classes in Datong, family and parenting classes in Neihu, and lion's dance lessons in Beitou. These are all “life adaptation and enrichment workshops” provided by the Taipei City government. The goal is for new immigrants to become more familiarized with their community while enhancing their professional capabilities.

Public institutions such as the National Taiwan Museum have also followed suit. Since 2014, the museum has trained Southeast Asian immigrants, like Arifin, through their New Resident’s Service Ambassador Program to provide tour services in their native languages.

Deputy Director Lin Hua-qing (林華慶) told Chinese-language CommonWealth Magazine, “since cultural diversity is in the DNA of the Museum, Southeast Asians as Taiwan's latest wave of immigrants, cannot be ignored.”

Program Director Emily Yuan (袁緒文), echoes the sentiment.

“Even though we want to recognize that we are a culturally diverse society, the fact is that we are just one culture, one language,” she tells The News Lens.

The fallacy of a mono-ethnic, mono-cultural Taiwanese identity is slowly being realized. As The Diplomat reports, in 2014, the number of first and second-generation immigrants living in Taiwan exceeded the population of the country's indigenous people.

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Skeptical of progress

Speaking at a conference on Southeast Asian Studies at a university in Taipei last year, President Tsai said the “people-centered” New Southbound Policy “focuses on building wide-ranging links with the nations of Southeast and South Asia, to create mutual benefits.”

“What we hope to achieve, ultimately, are abundant mutual benefits, win-win situations, and stronger mutual trust and a sense of community in the region,” she said.

Many, including Hsia and Yuan, are skeptical.

“The [New Southbound Policy] is framed from a cultural perspective meaning that we will encourage cultural exchange, mutual understanding, but in reality, it’s still very economical […] it’s not only superficial but also hypocritical,” Hsia says.

“They say we should have mutual understanding and collaboration but the fact is that Southeast Asian people living in Taiwan including migrant workers and marriage migrants are still maltreated […] if the government is really concerned with their welfare, then why not change the policy?”

Yuan adds, “The immigration bureau’s purpose is also to help immigrants to ‘blend into society’ but it is not fair; their culture is equally as important as Taiwanese culture so ‘to blend in’ is just a politically correct phrase.”

However, Liao Chu-ying (梁組盈) of TransAsia Sisters Association believes that the “New Resident Program” is nevertheless “a good channel for [new immigrants] to be able to build up their confidence and also offers opportunities for them to share their own experiences.”

Any opportunity for cultural exchange dissolves misunderstandings between immigrants and native Taiwanese because distrust arises from misconceptions, Liao says. These programs not only offer immigrants a platform to showcase their culture but also help to build confidence leading to better economic opportunities.

Others, like Wong, believe the government only has business in mind.

He told Post Magazine, “[The DPP] might say sometimes, ‘We need to introduce more culture from the Southeast Asian countries.’ And some­times they do say, ‘Yes, we need to be more friendly to the workers in Taiwan.’ But that’s only an [excuse]. Their focus is always money.”

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A new culture

Hsia believes that cultural exchange can be a tool to mitigate societal tensions but it requires more than just passive participation. Immigrants should be invited on stage to share their ideas not just to dance and sing.

“If we really see immigrants as equals we should see them as producers of a new culture as opposed to programming them to fit our needs,” she says. “They have their own needs, they have their own voice which they can voice through different cultural forms [...] if we are really concerned about cultural exchange it should be that way not treating them like tokens.”

To avoid this kind of tokenization, the TransAsia Sisters Association apportions two-thirds of its directorial positions to members of Southeast Asian descent. The by-product of direct curatorial control can be seen in their newly released album titled “I Do Not Want to Wander”; they will also hold a promotional concert on June 3.

National Taiwan Museum is spending NT$300,000 (less than US$10,000) on its “New Residents Program” for the 2017 year. The New Southbound Policy has a 2017 budget of NT$4.1 billion.

Yuan is the sole organizer but she is helped by 20 group members hailing from Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, and Myanmar. They act as tour guides and cultural advisors on behalf of the museum, assisting with translations and exhibitions such as the upcoming one on Southeast Asian spices. It is set to open to the public in July at the Nanmen Park Exhibition Hall.

While the National Taiwan Museum is the first to initiate such programs, others have followed suit. The National Palace Museum provides electronic audio guided tours in Vietnamese, Thai, and Bahasa Indonesian.

The Southern Branch of the National Palace Museum which has a holistic focus on Asian art includes Javanese sarongs and a Vietnamese blue-and-white porcelain Hanuman in its permanent collections. The branch is located in Chiayi County, which has a population of 11,400 new immigrants; roughly half of whom are Indonesian, a quarter Vietnamese, and 10 percent Filipino. Its Children’s Creative Center features interactive installments such as a mock-Vietnamese market selling toy-like Bánh tro or Vietnamese-style glutinous rice dumplings. In the textile center, children can try on Indonesian Kebaya while learning about the harvest of hemp, used by the Bagobo people of the Philippines.

Further south in Tainan City, with an immigrant population of 55,550, the National Museum of Taiwan History is currently hosting an exhibition titled “The New Tai-ker: Southeast Asian Migrant Workers and Immigrants in Taiwan”; the exhibit ends early November.

In a promotional flyer, the museum raises two thought-provoking questions: “What will the future of Taiwan look like? If the future is built by our joint endeavors, are we making enough of an effort?”

Future steps

Arifin believes new immigrants are increasingly comfortable entering the museum and being in a Chinese-speaking environment.

Close to her second year as a guide, Arifin says she is proud to represent the museum and often brings Indonesian snacks such as Durian biscuits to share with the staff.

Arifin’s now 13-year-old daughter has moved from the museum to the ballet studio where she spends much of her time. Similar to her mother leading tours in her native Bahasa, she retains her own Indonesian identity by practicing a traditional Balinese dance known as “Tari Cendrawasih” or the "Bird of Paradise."

Arifin says they often discuss issues of ethnic identity and racism as she believes, “discrimination is everywhere whether it’s in Taiwan or Indonesia or even Western countries.”

She adds in Mandarin, “Discrimination is something that simply exists but it’s the degree of harm done that we must take note of.”

Located behind the museum is the 228 Memorial Monument. Erected in 1995, the four cubes symbolize the major ethnic groups in Taiwan: indigenous people, Hoklos, Hakkas, and Han Chinese; they also serve as a reminder to never let ethnic tension divide Taiwan again.

Twenty-two years later, it is unclear whether Taiwan will continue to exclude or begin to include their newest ethnic group.

“It is not only the responsibility of the museum but also for wider society to eliminate discrimination,” says Arifin.

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Photo Credit: Shannon Lin/The News Lens

Editor: Edward White

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