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Taiwan's Indonesian Immigrants

Unfamiliar Family Members


Unfamiliar Family Members


They are the neighbors, helpers and family members of the Taiwanese, yet to many they remain strangers. The single largest group of foreign nationals in Taiwan, Indonesians face many challenges fitting in.



Unfamiliar Family Members

By Judy Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 510 )

Located near Jakarta's international airport, Yonasindo Intra Pratama is one of Indonesia's largest manpower recruitment and training companies. As we enter the agency's doors right after flying in from Taiwan, a receptionist in a green T-shirt embroidered with two national flags – one Indonesian, the other Taiwanese – greets us shyly.

Every month more than 100 Indonesian workers participate in training courses here as they prepare to take jobs overseas. Among the skills taught are cooking, first aid, caregiving, housekeeping, and simple language courses.

"At the home of my employer, I must be: diligent, obedient, attentive, proactive, considerate and honest…" some thirty trainees read aloud, with strong Indonesian accents, from the Chinese-language textbook their teacher has written.

The latest statistics by the Ministry of the Interior show that as of the end of September 2012 as many as 187,000 Indonesian nationals worked in Taiwan, serving as domestic helpers, caregivers and factory hands, and accounting for 42 percent of all foreign workers. Not only do Taiwanese employers favor Indonesians as guest workers, but Taiwan also ranks high on Indonesian job-seekers' destination wish list.

In fact, as many as 27,000 Indonesians have married into Taiwanese families. They are Taiwan's largest group of foreign residents, roughly the equivalent of half of the population of Hualian County on Taiwan's east coast.

Liao Yun-zhang, deputy editor-in-chief of Lih Pao Daily, which has been following the foreign worker community for many years, notes that Indonesians are known for their gentle and warm nature and that the ratio of Indonesian workers who run away from their employers is quite low in comparison with other nationalities.

"When they run away it's usually an act of desperation because they can't bear the work load they've been assigned by their employer anymore, or because a friend talks them into taking a better-paying job outside the home," explains Liao.

But once without the protection of the host family or employer, workers on the run face many risks. There have been cases of workers being cheated, taken advantage of or even being exploited by human traffickers. Even if they are rescued by police, they will have to spend time at the detention center and often sustain physical or mental scars from their ordeal.

Anny Ting, who hails from Indonesia and volunteers for the Taiwan International Workers' Association, occasionally appears in court on behalf of Indonesian workers who have been beaten by their employers or forced to work excessively long hours. In quite a number of cases she has had to ask police for help to free foreign workers who were mistreated or locked up by their employers.

For Anny Ting, blending into Taiwanese society has proven to be a difficult process requiring resolve, persistence and constant hard work.

The Hard Road to Becoming a "New Taiwanese"

Twelve years ago Ting lived in her native town of Semarang, the capital of the Indonesian province of Central Java. Like many other foreign workers from Indonesia, Ting had the dream of finding work in Taiwan.

"I was 22 years old at the time and wanted to try out how life is overseas. Back then Indonesia didn't have many job opportunities, even fewer for girls, and the pay was not good," she recalls.

Ting's family was adamantly opposed to her working abroad, because they feared she would be cheated. It took all her powers of persuasion to win parental support for her plans to go to Taiwan. Ting's first job was looking after an old man who was bedridden in hospital. The man's grandson often came to visit and the two gradually fell in love and eventually became husband and wife.

Adopting her Taiwanese husband's family name, Anny Srihandini became Anny Ting. Yet, as her status changed from foreign caregiver to foreign spouse, she all of a sudden felt discriminated against.

"People won't give you a strange look when they see you working as a nurse at a hospital," remarks Ting, her previously level voice suddenly turning emotional. "But since I got married, there have actually been people who've asked me whether I married my husband for the money. That's not the case at all. Hearing such comments makes me really angry."

Ting works half-days as Indonesian-language editor at 4 Way Voice, Taiwan's only publication for Indonesian, Thai, Vietnamese and Filipino guest workers and foreign spouses. In the evening she attends school to get a senior high school degree – and she has still found the time to also pass the Level C Chinese Culinary License. Ting enjoys going to school and has consistently been at the head of her class. Upon graduation she plans to attend university.

The slender, tall Ting always sports a sweet smile. She is enthusiastic and committed in whatever she does and is known for her caring attitude toward friends and family.

"Many children with foreign mothers lack self-confidence, some to the extent that they don't even want to admit that they have a foreign mother," Ting observes with a frown on her face. Ting's own daughter is a first-grader in elementary school. Four or five in the class of 27 children have a foreign mother, a quite substantial ratio.

"Society doesn't understand foreign spouses, so foreign spouses should work even harder to fit in," Ting insists resolutely.

Ting walks her talk. In the 2012 Taiwan Rice Expo, held by the Council of Agriculture in mid-October, she just won the first price in the "new immigrant cuisine" category with an Indonesian fried rice dish.

"Taiwanese rice is stickier than ours, so it's not easy to successfully make Indonesian-style fried rice with it," Ting says. Yet she used her culinary skills and ingenuity to pair Taiwanese red scallions, garlic, vegetables and seafood with Indonesian sweet soy sauce and hot chili sauce for a dish that stunned the jurors.

If Taiwan can allow its more than 200,000 Indonesian workers and new immigrants to blend into mainstream society – as Indonesia's savory sauces have mixed with the local cuisine – the result is bound to be a sensational flavor.

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz