1990 / 3月
Lu Li Chen /photos courtesy of Huang Li-li /tr. by Peter Eberly
Cheng Hsin-mei met Ch'en Te-yeh back in high school, and they starting talking seriously about getting married after she finished college. Her parents thought Ch'en was a nice young man of good character; the only problem was he lived in Malaysia, and if their darling daughter really married him, wouldn't it mean sending her off to a distant land?
Hsin-mei asked her fiance if they could stay together in Taiwan, but he kept getting pressing letters from his parents in Malaysia, putting him in a difficult position.
But love conquers all, Cheng thought, and "since I love him, I ought to go with him!"
When Cheng Hsin-mei arrived in Malaysia, she found that her in-laws lived not just in another country but in altogether another world.
Her father-in-law owned a twelve-acre rubber plantation outside Kuala Lumpur, and their house was right in the middle, a full three-hours' walk from the nearest road. They had to go to bed at six o'clock each evening because there was no electricity, they had to walk half an hour to fetch water from the well, and they had to put up with being bitten by mosquitoes when they went to the toilet, which was "roadside squat-style," of course.
Even worse, her husband was sent off to Singapore for three months of job training a few days after they were married, leaving Cheng Hsin-mei, who was unable to speak the language, behind "incommunicado even to God above." It's easy to imagine how lonely she must have been.
"The happiest thing in my life back then was getting a letter from Taiwan," she recalls. "Mom tried to encourage me in her letters. She kept telling me to accept the Lord's arrangements and that all the hardships would pass as long as I was patient. . . ."
Wives in Malaysia from Taiwan, like Cheng Hsin-mei, number in the thousands, most of them having married Chinese Malaysians who studied in colleges in Taiwan.
Malaysian universities apply a quota to applicants of non-Malay origin, so many Chinese Malaysians find they have to go overseas to study. Taiwan is similar to Malaysia in its educational system and course contents and entails lower tuitions and living expenses than Europe or North America, so it often receives prime consideration among them as a place for advanced study.
Chinese Malaysians started going to Taiwan to study in the 1950s, and since Nanyang University of Singapore closed its doors in 1980, about 1,000 more graduates of high schools in Malaysia have come to Taiwan each year. There are now more than 30,000 students from Malaysia in Taiwan, among whom no fewer than 3,000 have local wives.
Most women from Taiwan who have moved to Malaysia because of marriage have received a college or high school education and would much prefer working in an office to staying at home doing housework. But if they want to go out and find a job, they have to obtain permanent resident status first, and for wives from Taiwan that takes a full five years. Some have been married to Malaysian men for ten years without being able to obtain citizenship.
Furthermore, Malaysia is a multiethnic society with a plethora of languages and dialects, especially in a big city like Kuala Lumpur. "You can usually get by with English, but if you go to a government agency you have to speak Malaysian to get anything done, and I need a minimum of Fukienese, Cantonese, and the Chaochow dialect in talking business with my clients," says Yu Mei-ling, who married a Malaysian fifteen years ago and now runs her own accounting office.
Another obstacle to finding a job is that the Malaysian government doesn't recognize diplomas from Taiwan universities. The result is, brides from Taiwan have little choice but to stay put in the kitchen.
Many Chinese Malaysians who have studied in Taiwan understand the problem about diplomas and will try to go to a country with colleges recognized by the Malaysian government for further study if their financial resources permit. Ch'en Shu-shih and Hsu Hsiu-hua are just such an example.
They were classmates in Taiwan at Chung Hsing University, married after graduation, and then went on to England for further study. A year after earning their doctorates her husband took her back to Malaysia with him. Hsu Hsiu-hua couldn't find a job, so she had to stay at home cooking and looking after the children.
When her children were old enough to go to school she went to a nearby kindergarten, where she saw fifty or sixty children packed together in one room, several of them being punished with a switch for talking in class.
"I really didn't want to make my kids go through that," she says. A friend of hers at a construction company had just suggested she buy a house, and she decided to set up her own kindergarten!"
Faced with a similar situation and driven by a similar motive, Cheng Hsin-mei opened the Le-lin School eight years ago. Besides serving as a day care center, also offers classes in music, painting, and Chinese.
Cheng Hsin-mei says that running the school has given her spiritual satisfaction as well as fulfilling its initial purpose as a place to look after her children. "My husband works several hours away and usually comes home only on weekends, so I needed to find something to do with my time."
Hsu Hsiu-hua and Cheng Hsin-mei go back to Taiwan to see their relatives each year. In name, that is. Actually, it's more like a business trip because most of their time is spent visiting schools or buying textbooks and teaching materials.
Hsu Hsiu-hua often wonders what she would be doing today if she had stayed in Taiwan. Probably living an ordinary life as a schoolteacher. "The sense of achievement I get trying to make it in a foreign country is much greater than I would by just teaching."
Aren't many Chinese who live overseas in a similar situation, trying to forge a new world for themselves?
Yu Mei-ling, an accountant who moved to Malaysia with her Malaysian husband, says that a person starting up a business there needs to know five languages at a minimum: English, Malay, Fukienese, Cantonese, and the Chaochow dialect of Chinese.
Cheng Hsin-mei says that she set up the Le-lin School in the hope of finding some spiritual satisfaction, besides being a convenient way to look after her children.
"By running a school here we also hope to develop talented personnel to help the country advance," says Hsu Hsiu-hua, full of promise and expectations.
Yu Mei-ling and her husband, Tseng Huan-ch'iang, both work in Malaysia as accountants.
The Talent Child Education Center was the starting Point for Hsu Hsiu-hua in setting up businesses in Malaysia.
Cheng Hsin-mei is all smiles displaying the school's shining record of achievements.