Taiwan's Diverse Families
I Call Taiwan My Second Home
Dang thi phuong lan, who is preparing to return to her native Vietnam after working for the same family for eleven years, recalls the highs and lows of her time in Taiwan, and how she came to see it as her home away from home.
I Call Taiwan My Second HomeBy Elaine Huang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 566 )
There are currently over 510,000 foreign migrants working in Taiwan, far away from their homes and families. They endure the prolonged separation because they hope the money they make in Taiwan can improve the lives of those back home.
In Taiwan, they blend into their employers' families and take care of the old and young. For many, the island becomes a second home. Dang thi phuong lan, 42, is one of them.
As Dang thi recounts her life in Taiwan, tears well up in her eyes, streaming down her tanned face.
She has been working in Taiwan all by herself for eleven years now. This September, when her current contract is up, she will be able to return for good to the home she misses so much – Vietnam's Phu Tho, a province known for its tea and pomelos.
Her glistening tears are fueled by the knowledge that the day when she can go home is drawing closer as her contract nears its end. At the same time, she is also reluctant to leave. "I do not want to leave grandma; I hate the idea of parting with my employer's family," she notes, choking up.
Dang thi holds two laminated photographs tightly in her hands. One shows a dilapidated mud-wall house with blackened roof tiles and no doors or windows. "On rainy days water would leak into the house…this was the ‘home' that my husband, our two children and I shared before I came to Taiwan," Dang thi remarks. The other photograph shows a brick building with red tiles. This is the house that she had built for her family to shelter them from the rain and wind. The house became possible because her employer lent her the necessary money.
Back then, though she was only in her third year working as a domestic helper in Taiwan, she had already realized her dream to build a house for her family.
For the past eleven years, Dang thi has continuously worked for the same employer, and now she looks after the now 95-year-old grandmother. The grandmother relies on her for company since the employer is often abroad on business. He trusts in her diligence and honesty. He even encouraged her to take Mandarin classes. Dang thi has also formed a dance troupe with other foreign helpers called "Pink Lotus." The women practice and perform regularly, and they have even won two outstanding achievement awards for their efforts.
Dang thi proudly reveals that her oldest child, a son aged 23, is studying in Japan. Her younger daughter is a university student in Hanoi. Dang thi has paid a high price, however, in missing out on her children's childhood. She has sacrificed the best years of her life for a "family" in a faraway land.
"This has already become my second home," she declares as she tries to reconcile conflicting feelings – fond memories, a reluctance to leave and happy anticipation of her return home.
The following are some highlights from the interview:
I was 31 years old when I came to Taiwan for work. When I had just arrived I didn't understand a single word of Chinese and couldn't read anything either. I felt very sad, as I missed my family and children and couldn't communicate with other people. In the evenings, I would cry in secret.
My employer, the grandpa and grandma all cared about me a lot. The grandfather would tell me, "Ah-Lan, you really need to learn (the language)." They taught me step-by-step, writing my name on my hand and reading it out for me, "My name is Dang thi phuong lan." I practiced a long time before I was able to say it in Mandarin.
When the grandfather wanted to drink some water, he would first say, "Drink water," and then he would grab a bottle and put it to his mouth as if he was drinking from it. That's how I slowly learned the language.
One time, there was a fire in the basement of the Guanghua Market, which is right below our home. I told grandpa and grandma to get up. Grandma wanted me to run out right away. But I refused, instead grabbing two wet towels to press over their noses. Trying not to choke on the smoke, I helped them escape from the building.
Many people say domestic helpers must not eat at the same table with the employer or sit on the sofa with the family. However, grandpa and grandma won't have any of this. I have my own armchair, and we eat together just like a family.
We had three armchairs in the living room, one for grandpa, one for grandma and one for me. In the evenings, the three of us would sit in our chairs chatting, cracking jokes and having fun.
After grandpa passed away, one armchair was left empty. During the month after his death, I cooked dishes in the morning and evening for offerings to the deceased. I was very sad; the three of us had had so much fun chatting together. Since I was afraid that grandma would dwell on our loss, I did not let her go into the living room in the evening. Instead, I took her to her room and chatted with her there to prevent her from getting sad.
Ah-Lan, You Need to Study Harder!
My parents in Vietnam had eight children. Since we were poor, there was no money to send me to school. After my employer's family heard about this, they told me, "Ah-Lan, if you want to learn, you can go to school." After taking care of grandma in the evening, I would tell her to stay home and be a good girl. Then I would ride my bicycle to Yongle Elementary School, some 40 minutes away, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings, returning home after class around 9 p.m. I loved to learn. After returning home, I still didn't feel like going to sleep but continued to read Chinese books.
I went to school for many years, and I have earned a Taiwanese elementary school degree.
I don't have to work on weekends because grandma's children take turns looking after her. On my days off, I visit the culture center on Dihua Street to take computer and dance classes.
I have also participated in Chinese singing contests and speech contests. Unfortunately, the culture center has recently been shut down. However, our own group, the "Pink Lotus," which brings together domestic helpers, meets regularly on Sunday afternoons for rehearsals and performances. We have had a lot of fun. I also took my camera with me to take pictures for everyone.
When I returned to Vietnam the first time, my employer gave me some extra money, telling me to buy more shoes and clothing for my children.
Eight years ago, when I had been in Taiwan for about three years, my employer lent me enough money to build a house after he heard about my family's situation. He didn't even ask me to sign an IOU.
Later on, after grandpa passed away, I said, "Grandpa is gone, what am I going to do?" At the end of my three-year contract, I would have to temporarily return to Vietnam. What if I were not allowed to come back to Taiwan? I had to find a way to return the money that grandpa had lent me. However, my employer only said, "Don't worry; just pay back the money when you can. You are like a member of the family."
I have worked in Taiwan for 11 years now. I have a house and a motorbike, and my children attend university. I have realized my aspirations. I don't know whether my children will show me devotion when I am old, but that doesn't matter as long as they are good and study diligently. It also doesn't matter if I've had to make some sacrifices in raising them.
Now my whole family is scattered in four different locations. My husband remains in Phu Tho Province, while I work in Taiwan, my daughter attends university in Hanoi and my son studies in Osaka in Japan. My daughter sent me a message saying, "Mom, we are all very far apart."
Although I come from such a far-flung place as Vietnam, my employer's family has treated me like a member of the family. After returning (to Vietnam) in September I won't be able to come back to see them again.
I will probably cry uncontrollably on the day of my departure. I find it hard to leave because this has become my second home.
When I am no longer here in Taiwan, I hope grandma will stay healthy; she must be even healthier than she's been during my time in Taiwan. Grandma cares about me a lot; I find it hard to leave her. I hope the person who is going to take care of grandma in the future will do a good job, and not cause her any grief but make her happy.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz