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The Sad Truth Behind the Smiles

'No More Migrant Workers Will Ever Be Deceived Again, I Wish'


'No More Migrant Workers Will Ever Be Deceived Again, I Wish'

Source:Chenhui Liu

Behind a humble birthday wish lies countless heart-breaking stories of the always-smiling migrant workers in Taiwan.



'No More Migrant Workers Will Ever Be Deceived Again, I Wish'

By Chenhui Liu/Nuevaidee
web only

Editors' Note: This article is translated from an op-ed from Crossing

Taitung City, with its large population of elderly residents and its high demand from the fishing industry, has become the "home" of many young Indonesian migrant workers.

A space allowing these migrant-workers friends to escape some time from reality and sing to their heart’s content can be found upstairs in an Indonesian store on the streets of the City.

That day, with a table sitting in the middle and a white light bulb glowing dimly above, the space was turned into a classroom where a couple of Taiwanese high school teens and I taught some dark-skinned adult students Mandarin phonetic symbols.

This was not a service-learning course from school, nor was it related to the government’s New Southbound Policy. The goal of these teens was to do what they can, with passion and a little apology, within a short 90 minute class each week to help these kind-hearted “students” to improve their tough life conditions.

Chinese class ongoing

As the bridge between the workers and us, the owner of this humble-looking Indonesian shop was also a recruitment agent who never lets her Indonesian friends “get the short end of the stick.” In the eyes of the migrant workers, she is the most caring “Mother.”

That day after class, I bought a cake to celebrate her birthday. She made one wish—“I wish no more migrant workers in Taiwan will ever be deceived again.”

This made me and my Taiwanese students blush and sweat with shame. Nevertheless, we were deeply moved by the humble wish that could never be more simple, more sincere, yet at the same time more heart-breaking.

The story began from a head scarf, three years ago.

A Head Scarf that Warmed the Head and the Heart

Three years ago, when I was traveling to Indonesia as a backpacker, a couple of friendly young Indonesian girls who just finished their 3-year contract helped me practice my Indonesian during our flight to Jakarta. When I reached Yojarkarta, I bumped into a tour guide who had just led a group of students from Sumatra to this city by boat for a graduation trip. Upon knowing I was from Taiwan, she bombarded me with Chinese, and then quickly switched back to Indonesian to share her stories and encounters in Taiwan with her students. I can never forget the sparkling eyes of the Indonesian students, wide with wonder as they listened attentively.

The next day, I took a bus into the mountains nearby to visit Ullen Sentalu Museum. Since the unreliable bus service seemed to have refused to carry me back, I had no choice but to trot down from the darkening, drizzling mountains.

As I galloped down the path with my hands clung to my backpack straps, a small "rolling store" pulled over in front of me, and off hopped a thin-bearded young man named Ricardo, offering to help. Though we could only use fragmented English to communicate, his sincere smile was assuring.

So off we went, and our first stop turned out to be a noodle restaurant. Before I could say anything, Ricardo promptly ordered for me. Watching him genuinely sharing with the other tourists in the restaurant how he “picked up this friend of his,” I gradually let go of that “shyness” of a Taiwanese tourist and joined in the hearty laughter.

Before driving me back to my home-stay, Ricardo dropped by at his place to pick up some goods. As a new father-to-be, he has been commuting between Yojarkarta and Surabaya to do business—selling Magic Headwear for cyclists. He insisted on giving me two head scarves of my choice after learning my next stop would be Gunung Bromo in East Java. He kept on reminding me that it would be very cold up there.

Gunung Bromo volcano, Java, Indonesia

Three years since then, every time a cold air mass sweeps down over Taiwan, I would put on this gift from Ricardo. Though the colors have gone off a bit after so many washes, it can never be replaced by other scarves, with the warmth it gives to my head and my heart.

Building Another Taiwanese-Indonesian Friendship in Taitung

The unforgettable Indonesian-style friendship experience urged me to keep coming up with ways to give my students an opportunity to learn more about Indonesian culture. After some struggles and endeavors, I finally brought my students, along with some Indonesian dishes and love songs, to a fishing harbor to let them have “their first encounter” with our migrant worker friends. With the great help of the “Mother,” the owner who allowed us to use her Indonesian store for free, this Southeast Asia Books Library run by students successfully opened its doors!

Time flies. Since the launch of the library that opens only on Sunday afternoons, six months have passed, during which the number of student volunteers have grown from two to a dozen. Every Sunday afternoon, we would see many merry young Indonesian workers leaving their stress of work behind and coming here for a hearty chat, some traditional snacks, or even a little dancing.

The making of Indonesian Salad

Feeling recharged, they would pick up a novel from the library to bring back “home” ──the swaying cabins on waves where they have been living for years. It may be a berth shared by 6-8 fishing workers, or a storage room less than 10 square meters, where working hours are way higher but payment is way lower than the minimum wage set by the government.

Nevertheless, these young Indonesians would spread their arms to their Taiwanese friends who are eager to learn about their culture, inviting us over and shouting us meals of Indonesian cuisine, just as what Ricardo did that day. Sometimes, on a whim, they would dress our girl students into “Ladies of Indonesia,” and ask us to join them for a dance along with some Indonesian EDM.

Their incredible generosity and passion that no Taiwanese can ever imagine leaves an indelible impression in the minds of the high school teens.

A month and a half ago, after deciding we were trustworthy, the owner of the Indonesian shop and a couple of new female immigrants who spoke fluent Mandarin and Taiwanese expressed to us an eagerness to learn practical written Chinese for reading bank and post office documents. At last, one night at the end of 2017, following a great deal of negotiation and adjustment, our class finally kicked-off.

Yet, at the very same night, the course faced its first significant fundamental change.

Students dressed as 'Ladies of Indonesia'

A Chinese Course that Had to Change Its Target Students at the Very First Day

That night, as soon as we arrived, the shop owner did not hand us any bank contract papers for teaching materials as expected. Instead, she carried out some books about Mandarin phonetic symbols, some stationary, and a whiteboard.

She led us upstairs to the “open-mic bar,” where sat about 7-8 young migrant workers, greeting us with their radiant smile as usual, but more with a bright-eyed, eager-to-learn look. “Teach them first. It matters more. Please,” the shop owner turned to us.

The two 11th graders immediately understood. They nodded to the shop owner, put their prepared materials aside, and picked up the phonetic symbol books.

As total beginners in Chinese, our migrant worker friends had a long way to go. They struggled with their pronunciation, but they never grew impatient, constantly staying focused on their learning.

Tones──the biggest stumbling block for all beginners. Third tone for the word 跑 (run), forth tone for the word 倒 (pour)──to make the tone stick to each vocabulary, my students would pronounce the tone while at the same time demonstrate the verb. Then, our migrant worker friends would jump to their feet all of a sudden, shouting these verbs. Thanks to the translation of the shop owner, we realized that these verbs were exactly what their employers had often been shouting at them.

Later, I couldn’t help but ask the shop owner why she suddenly changed the target of this course. With tears brimming in her eyes, she answered me with a heart-breaking yet not uncommon story.

Who Would Stand for the Rights of Migrant Workers?

Two weeks ago, when she returned to Indonesia for a visit, a young Indonesian migrant worker in Taitung, who couldn’t stand working over 24 hours straight for days, had a quarrel with his employer, who later hired five gangsters to beat him up.

The case was hastily closed, for she, the area’s translator and defender of migrant workers’ rights, was not there at the moment. Without anyone to translate and stand for him, the young man was “fired” and sent back to Indonesia right after some brief treatment in a hospital in Kaohsiung.

“If this young man could speak Chinese, he could have explained his situation better and perhaps things wouldn’t have turned out like this…so, I’d really like to thank you for teaching them…” said the shop owner, dolefully.

This reminded me of the Taiwanese employers’ brutal treatment I've read about before in the book Fraudery, Exploitation, and Floating Sweatshop (血淚漁場). I started to worry whether that worker had finally cleared his debt for that unreasonable agent fee, whether my migrant worker friends, who come to the Library with a smile every weekend, had also been faced with such treatment before, and whether they in fact saw learning Chinese as a necessary means of self-defense in this frightening foreign territory.

Before class was dismissed, we brought out the cake we prepared for this “Forever 18 Mother.” First, she wished big. “I hope everyone standing here will make a fortune!” Then, she wished small. “I wish no more migrant workers in Taiwan will ever be deceived again...” She said in a whisper.

It was a mind-blowing lesson, not only for my students but also for me. It was also a story unfinished, and we will strive to bring it to a happy end.

Winter is leaving. Spring is on its way. May the next generation in Taiwan can take on a broader world view for the future, and be granted with more opportunities to meet and know more about these kind-hearted migrant worker friends.

Translated by Sharon Tseng.

Additional Reading

'Staying in Taiwan is good, But Returning to My Homeland is Better'
Migrant Workers Should Get the Day-Off
Unfamiliar Family Members