2011 / 2月
Lin Hsin-ching /photos courtesy of Lan Chun-hsiao /tr. by Geoff Hegarty and Sophia Chen
According to the latest statistics from Taiwan's National Immigration Agency, by the end of October 2010 the total number of new immigrants to Taiwan had reached 441,314, of whom more than 64% were immigrant brides from China. Others were from mainly Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam (about 19%), Indonesia (6.1%), Thailand (2%), the Philippines (1.5%) and Cambodia (1%).
Marriage for these newcomers is the same as for everyone else: a mixture of the sweet and the not-so-sweet. The success of a marriage is influenced by many factors including how the couple met (whether by chance or through an agency), the strength of the couple's relationship and their relationship with other family members, and family economic conditions. However, one critical difference for these new -immigrants is that they have to suffer alone the emotions of missing their natal families during Chinese New Year, a symbolic time celebrating family reunion.
New Taipei City (formerly Taipei County) with a population of nearly 3,900,000, is not only the most populous municipality in Taiwan, but also has the largest community of new immigrants (at 81,357). Districts such as Ban-qiao, -Zhonghe and San-chong are prime choices for newcomers as there are many intensive small and medium-size manufacturing and service industries providing employment opportunities.
Sanchong District Administration organized a welcoming program called "Integrating New Residents." As the all-female group was graduating on December 24, 2010, they agreed a few weeks beforehand to bring some "hometown specialty" dishes to the class and celebrate Christmas, New Year and Chinese Lunar New Year, which were all approaching. A long table was filled with a rich variety of dishes from different countries including Vietnamese braised pork with coconut juice, Thai fried rice, Indonesian nyonya cakes, and Taiwanese rice balls and chicken soup with clams. The relaxing afternoon was a rare moment for this group of "foreign brides" because they are normally so busy at home.
Wenna Ari, a "pure" Indonesian from Bali, was the only one of the group without a Chinese heritage, and one of the few from Southeast Asia who married a Taiwanese man without the help of an introduction agency. She cooked soto ajam (chicken soup), a key dish for Indonesian New Year celebrations. The soup was made with turmeric, curry, lemongrass and a variety of other spices, with rice-flour noodles, bean sprouts and chili added only as it was served.
Thirty-seven-year-old Wenna says that she met her husband, who is 15 years older, during his trip to Bali five years ago in a hotel that belonged to her brother-in-law, where she was working part-time. He fell in love with her at first sight, and three months later they decided to marry. As her husband's family owns some real estate and runs a taxi leasing business, Wenna has no eco-nomic concerns. And her loving husband treats her very well: she doesn't have to bear children or cook, so she has a leisurely lifestyle that many of Taiwan's local daughters-in-law would envy.
However, although she enjoys her happy marriage, she has one small regret: occasional homesickness. "When we were first married, I was very un-happy because of the language barrier, and I disliked living in an apartment because it was like being in a cage. Also the food wasn't spicy enough; it had no flavor, and it often made me feel sick," says Wenna. Although her husband takes her back to Indonesia to see her family every few months, she still cannot fully expunge her feelings of sadness missing her hometown and family.
March to April is the time of the most intense homesickness, because it's the time of the Hindu New Year. Wenna says that there are many traditional rules for the celebrations: apart from returning home to be with family, the most special custom is that everyone must fast for 24 hours on New Year's Day (a day of rest), and at night the lights cannot be turned on. Next day, people visit Hindu temples to pray. Then, at home, family members in turn from the older generation to the younger apologize to each other: "I am sorry if I did something inappropriate last year [often giving specific facts]. Please forgive me." This is said instead of traditional New Year greetings, and is symbolic of a fresh start for the New Year.
"When young people apologize to their elders, they have to kneel to be touched on their heads by the older person. Then they embrace each other and together enjoy the New Year's feast," says Wenna. During Chinese New Year in Taiwan, she and her husband return to Gongliao, his birthplace, to enjoy a feast with his family. But she always feels that there's something missing. Unlike New Year in Bali, where there is still a strong emphasis on traditional ethics, for Taiwanese it seems to be more about eating, drinking, setting off firecrackers and playing mahjong.
"I still follow the Balinese custom of apologizing to my husband at Chinese New Year in Taiwan. Somehow I feel that it's more meaningful for a proper New Year celebration!" she says.
Wenna's situation at New Year, enjoying relative autonomy and being treasured by her husband, is rare among these women. Most of the overseas daughters-in-law have to follow family customs. All they can do is quietly add their own flavors to the celebrations. Like the majority of local daughters-in-law, they are always very busy with preparations for the festival, but there are no warm arms of their families to comfort them after their labors.
Li Luan, a 36-year-old from Cambodia, married into a Taiwan family 12 years ago. She explains frankly that she had the idea of marrying overseas because life in her home country was so extremely hard. Even though her -husband is 30 years older, she doesn't care because even if she had stayed at home, she would probably have never met her ideal man. "I thought that after I married a Taiwanese man, I would have a good life eating fish and meat every day. But my husband is a vegetarian (a follower of Yi-guan-dao, the Way of Pervading Unity). Alas, this is my fate!" says she self-mockingly.
Though Li was young when she married, she had to adapt to the unusual role of stepmother. Her husband had two daughters from a previous marriage, both of them at a similar age to Li. "I became a grandmother before I was the mother of my own child!" Arguments in such marriages are sometimes difficult to avoid. Due to the language barrier and the inability to communicate easily with her natal family with whom she could pour out her complaints, she describes herself as a very inhibited person for her first six months in Taiwan. She could only weep secretly in her room every day.
"I dared step outside alone only after being here for six months, and began to take courses to broaden my horizons. My Chinese improved and my relationship with the family has become friendlier. If I have arguments with my husband now, I can pour out my complaints to his daughters; or if I'm unhappy with his daughters, I can complain directly to him. I'm much happier because I've developed channels to express my emotions," says Li.
Because of her husband's religious beliefs, a complex series of ceremonies is required during Chinese New Year. Li says that during the early stages of her marriage, her husband was afraid that she might make mistakes in the ceremony, so he did everything himself. But after a year, one day he was in a bad mood and suddenly shouted at her: "You have been married to me for so long, but you still can't remember the ritual!" She felt hurt and wanted to prove her ability, so she decided to learn by heart the complex rituals and worship offerings (at least 25 dishes of vegetarian food or fruit are offered at the New Year ceremony, and a special ritual needs to be recited during the worship). Since then, she has taken complete responsibility for conducting worship.
In addition, she had to prepare vegetarian dishes for New Year Eve. "Certainly I cooked mainly Taiwanese dishes, but I always added something different such as Cambodian-style sour and spicy salad mixed with papaya or cabbage, or added Southeast Asian spices to the hotpot. Luckily, everyone enjoyed the variations."
On the second day of Chinese New Year, it is the tradition for married women to return to their natal families. Though Li was unable to return to her family, she tried her best to welcome her daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren home, and prepared a rich feast for them so they could experience the warmth of their family. "I was feeling particularly homesick on that day. But luckily I had my husband, three daughters and a son with me. Although the first two are stepdaughters, they treat me like their own mother, and they also give me a gift of pocket money. So I didn't feel too sad on New Year's Day in Taiwan!" says Li.
Lin Thi Tham, a 32-year-old woman from Vietnam, was also a foreign bride. She met her husband, who is 10 years older, through an introduction service, but they have developed a close relationship since they were married. Lin is also lucky enough to enjoy a good relationship with her mother-in-law.
She points out that Vietnamese also celebrate the Lunar New Year. Essential local dishes for the New Year's feast are zongzi, which is steamed dumplings of glutinous rice with pork or mung beans wrapped in bamboo leaves, and braised pork cooked with coconut juice.
"Taiwanese may think that eating stewed pork at New Year is nothing special, but for Vietnamese who rarely eat meat in daily life, it is the most delicious dish!"
Her mother-in-law is in charge of cooking most of the dishes for the feast, but she would especially ask Lin to cook fried pork ribs because nobody could cook it better! Lin is optimistic by nature, and is not like the majority of "foreign brides" who often experience serious homesickness during festivals. "I talk to my mother on the phone every day, and I'm so far away from my original home, it's no use wasting time being homesick!"
For Lin, the most important New Year's wish is for the health of her husband, who is undergoing treatment for nasopharyngeal carcinoma. She prays that he will recover soon so the family can once again visit the countryside or stroll through the night markets just as they did in previous years.
"My experience of Chinese New Year is very ordinary, and nothing is particularly worthy of mention," says Lin without looking up from her craft-making, used to supplement their family income.
In fact, having an ordinary life is another type of happiness. For these women from such a rich variety of backgrounds, even though their fates in Taiwan are all different, one day in the future Taiwan will finally become their home. Feelings of homesickness may be difficult to erase, but their new home also provides new hopes for them to pursue.