MANOEUVRING IN THE LINGUISTIC BORDERLAND Southeast Asian migrant women's language strategies in Taiwan

Isabelle Cheng

Alien wives who speak foreign languages

Transnational marriage migration occurs when one spouse moves across state borders to be united with the other spouse in another state. Such migration is premised on the recognition of a citizen’s right to enjoy a family life. Empirically, as part of the féminisation of migration in East Asia, marriage migration has taken the shape of women in Southeast Asia and China marrying men in better-off countries, such as Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, or Singapore (Yang and Lu 2010). Major originating states, such as Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Cambodia, are known for their rich ethnic diversity. Elowever, the women’s major destination states (excluding Singapore) are largely considered to be ethnically homogeneous states (Bélanger et al. 2010). Take Taiwan, for example: As of February 2020, 559,638 men and women residing in Taiwan have the status of local citizens’ spouses; over 92% of these non-local spouses are women (NIA 2020a). With regard to origin, 63% of these non-local spouses are from Mainland China (excluding Hong Kong and Macao), 19% from Vietnam, 6% from Indonesia, and 2% from the Philippines, with the remaining 10% from other neighbouring areas and beyond (NIA 2020b). In other words, if Mandarinspeaking China is excluded, more than a quarter of migrant spouses in Taiwan are from multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and middle-income countries in Southeast Asia.

Despite being inter-ethnic, transnational marriage migration defies the presumption that inter-ethnic unions will result in the fusion of the cultures of different ethnic groups. In the practice of marriage migration to Taiwan and other Asian Tigers, the opposite is true (Chen and Yu 2005). Their courtship is expected to be a ‘fast track’ in the sense that soon after the women's meeting with, and being chosen by, their suitors on trips to the women’s countries organised by matchmakers, the women are married to them and embark on their migration on their own

(Wang and Chang 2002; see Tseng 2015 for a critique of commercial matchmaking). Their husbands return to Taiwan and await their reunion, while matchmakers continue to assist the women in applying for their spousal visa, which entitles them to reside in Taiwan. Matchmakers also include short-term Chinese-language orientation for the women as part of their services.1 Such services give an impression that there is no need on the part of Taiwanese husbands and in-laws to commit themselves to communicating with the women in their own languages.

An obvious signifier of this lack of mutual understanding after the women’s migration is the challenge of communicating with their in-laws in the private home. Stigmatised as underclass rural women of limited education, they are believed to be materialistic and to see their marriage as the means to rid themselves and their families of economic hardship (Hsia 2007). Likewise, their husbands (and, sometimes, in-laws as well) are also believed to be at the bottom of the socio-economic hierarchy and therefore less acculturated for civility or lacking resources to embrace globalisation in the form of cultural exchange (Cheng 2017; Keng 2016). This everyday challenge also extends to the women’s contact with the general public outside of the home in the context of employment, motherhood, or exercising citizenship. These women encounter the challenge of the host society’s under-appreciation of their cultural inheritance embedded, arguably, in the ethnic homogeneity of that society. Faced with these biases, how do migrant women negotiate their communication with their in-laws? Considering that their life course will evolve and they will acquire social roles performed outside of the home, e.g. as workers and citizens, how does their use of language become part of the process of their socio-economic integration?

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