Taiwan's Diverse Families
Finding a Haven in Close-knit Family
Lai Lixia, one of many Chinese women who have made their homes in Taiwan, has found comfort and happiness in her close-knit family even if she is not always fully accepted by others.
Finding a Haven in Close-knit FamilyBy Elaine Huang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 566 )
At an altitude of around 1,200 meters, the green mountain slopes of Taiwan's east coast in Taitung County greet the eye with large expanses of Jin Xuan and Oolong tea plantations.
Holding a bamboo hat in her hand, Lai Lixia, the 56-year-old co-owner of Dungjie Tea Garden, patrols what is the largest tea plantation in the Taitung area, falling in step with her 65-year-old husband Chen Chao-cheng, who walks in front.
Lai, who hails from Nanjing in China, married her husband 23 years ago, becoming one of the current 330,000 mainland spouses in Taiwan.
Lai graduated from the fashion design department at Nanjing University of the Arts. As she was doing excellent work, she landed a job with the first foreign invested fashion company in Nanjing some two decades ago, earning a monthly salary of 2,000 renminbi, which was considered high at the time.
Lai's husband hails from a family of tea farmers. Chen, a graduate of the Provincial Taipei Institute of Technology (the precursor of National Taipei University of Technology), is the third generation in his family to run the tea plantation. His first wife passed away, leaving the widower to raise his son and daughter on his own.
In marrying her Taiwanese husband, Lai originally daydreamed of spending her days leisurely, imagining herself sitting in front of an easel sketching the beautiful surroundings of the tea plantation. It did not enter her mind that she would exchange her Nanjing life of a limousine-riding businesswoman for the travails of a tea farmer who peddles his goods door to door driving a truck.
She had a hard time adjusting. More than once, potential customers would say somewhat condescendingly, "Oh, a mainland girl selling Taiwanese tea." Lai took the comments in stride, swallowing her pride and putting on a bright face.
Meanwhile Lai and her husband have created the largest organic tea plantation in Taitung. They even export their tea to China. Lai's stepson is preparing to take over the management of the family's tea store in Taitung, taking the family business into the fourth generation. As far as Lai is concerned, her hardships have paid off well.
In hindsight, Lai compares the course of her life to the sensory experiences one has while drinking a cup of good tea brewed by her husband – you take a sip and when you swallow, there is a sweet after taste.
The source of this sweetness is a home that is filled with the scent of good tea. "When I return to Nanjing now, I feel a bit awkward," Lai remarks. After all, Taitung is her home now, not Nanjing.
Following are some highlights from the interview:
Over twenty years ago, I lived in Nanjing. I worked at a fashion company that was the first joint venture with a Japanese company in Nanjing. I lived a comfortable life, and could not have imagined that I would marry someone in Taiwan.
In 1991, I visited relatives in Taiwan. My friends showered me with gifts so that my luggage became very heavy. On my way back, I needed to cross the border [from Hong Kong to China] at the Lo Wu crossing point in Shenzhen. My [future] husband carried only a small bag so I asked him to help me carry my luggage. Later on, I was very embarrassed about this. We passed one checkpoint after the other, walking about one kilometer before we finally passed through.
He helped me carry my luggage without the slightest complaint. Originally, he was planning to change planes in Hong Kong, but he passed through the Lo Wu border crossing for my sake. [At the time] He didn't tell me that, his friends told me later on.
The next year, I went on another trip to Taiwan and got in touch with him. The two of us began to write letters to each other, and we slowly got to know each other better. One day, he said if I was ready to spend the rest of my life with him, he would take me to his family home in Taitung. He introduced me to his son and daughter and showed me around the tea plantation.
His Daughter Called Me "Mom"
When I called his house after returning to Nanjing, his daughter, who was in her second year of junior high school at the time, called me "mom" on the line. In that moment, I felt a tinge of heartache; I was very touched.
When I toured the tea plantation with its clean air, I originally thought I could come here to draw and sing folk songs. In the first year of my marriage, I still carried my brushes and easel with me. Now I don't even remember where I put them. The way things are now, there's no time for drawing.
Early in the morning, I would go to the tea plantation with my husband. I didn't know a thing about agriculture, but when I saw how hard my husband worked, I felt I should learn how to farm.
On weekends, my daughter and son would come up to help us weed the tea plantation. The whole family would go up the mountain together, carrying the boxed lunches that we would eat sitting at the edge of the tea plantation. Though I felt physically exhausted, I was not tired emotionally.
One time, our whole family of four went to a plum orchard to shake the plums from the trees. This left a deep impression on me. We picked the plums to sell them. On top of that, I was pregnant back then. Our financial situation was not very good at the time; I remember that we sold the plums the four of us had shaken off the trees to a factory for more than NT$4,000. Afterwards, the whole family went to eat thick rice noodles with some small dishes. We felt very content.
Later on, I gave birth to a son. Since I had a small child, I went up the mountain less often, doing sales instead. With my little son in tow, I drove the truck and knocked on one door after the other like those people who do national census surveys to let people sample a cup of our tea.
First, I toured Taitung, and later I drove further north toward Hualien, slowly building up our customer base.
Sometimes the locals would point fingers at me, calling me [condescendingly] "mainland girl" because they assumed I was the wife of a veteran, as many older veterans marry mainland Chinese women. When I heard this, I put on a brave face and smiled.
My husband is very quiet; he is not the talkative sort but is very honest at heart.
Sometimes, when I told my husband that I had sold our tea at a somewhat higher price, expecting him to say that he was very happy about it, he would give me a bad scolding, saying, "This tea is for everyone to drink." Once, when I came across an elderly person who wanted to drink our tea but couldn't afford it, I sold it to him at a cheaper price. After returning home I told my husband and he said, "You were right. Let him drink our tea. It would even be okay to give it to him for free."
Subsequently, I went to China to do business; after all, I am more familiar with the mainland. I told my husband to make sure to get the money first before shipping the goods. However, he insisted [on the opposite], saying, "Why would anyone give you money if they haven't even gotten their tea yet?"
He is very stubborn, but he's also very good-natured. He believes that everyone in the world is basically good. So I didn't ask for any more payments in advance.
He had never scolded me before that time. In the end, we actually didn't receive that payment. I think [it is not fair] if you are a farmer who works hard with your own hands to grow tea and sell it to people without even being able to recoup your costs.
When I get into a fight with my husband, my daughter comes to my aid. Whenever I got angry with her father after coming to Taiwan to marry him, my daughter would always take my side and put in a good word for me.
In the year when my daughter had just landed her first job, digital cameras were still a rarity. When I went on a trip to Canada, she gave me the digital camera she had just bought for herself. Yet I had barely arrived in Canada when I accidentally dropped it. My daughter nevertheless said, "Mom, that's a good thing. Who knows, maybe you were bound for a major disaster but because you broke [the camera] right then, the disaster passed you by."
I have never told her, but I am very grateful to her for staying at my side.
I often tell my son and daughter that if a family is united, it can turn dirt into gold. If you are not of the same mind, no matter how many heaps of gold you have, the gold will all be dug away. I care about this more than anything.
When I return to Nanjing these days, I find I have grown unused to it. Although Nanjing is economically very well off, my real home is here in Taitung, because my husband, son and daughter, and our business are all here.
When I drink tea, it makes me think of my husband's hard work and realize how affectionate my children are. When I go out with my older son, people will ask, "Is she your aunt?" My son always responds, "She is my mother!" This is a very simple sentence, but it means the world to me. Our family (her voice breaks) ...is complete and whole, and we are all in this together.
Translated from the Chinese by Susann Ganz