The Filipinos: There are also people who can't speak English

One of the most frequent comments given by Filipino women about their actions in the borderland is: ‘It's difficult for us to adjust here because of language’, as pointed out by Jo (the author’s interview, 29 January 2010, Pingtung). In her late 40s and a mother of two school-age children, Jo had resided in Taiwan for 15 years at the time of the interview. As well as running a grocery shop, Jo was a caregiver at a hospital in Pingtung. Her comment resonated with Kelly, a former caregiver and now a spouse and activist in Taipei working at a migrant shelter. However, as mentioned by Kelly, a critical resource available to them is the English language, since their husbands are willing to communicate with them in English (the author’s interview, 13 August 2019, Taipei).

English-speaking ability and college-level education are forms of cultural capital that Filipino women are widely known for in Taiwanese society. Searching ‘Filipino workers' online reveals that placement agencies advertise English-speaking as Filipino workers’ competitive advantage.2 It has been argued that English-speaking supports Filipino migrant workers’ self-esteem because ‘They (Taiwanese employers) have more money but I speak better English’ (Lan 2003). Grinning at this comment, Kelly also reminded me that stressing English-speaking was part of the Philippine government’s ‘propaganda’, which lauded the Philippine nation for being ‘global workers’. Associated with modernity (Del Rosario 2005), English-speaking marks the boundary between the educated and the uneducated in the Philippines. As pointed out by Andrea, a high school graduate from Cebu, ‘In the Philippines there are also people who can’t speak English because they didn’t go to school’ (the author’s interview, 27 January 2010, Pingtung).

Speaking English is not only a matter of practicality and self-esteem but also aided the women's exercise of citizenship. If language is a barrier for other Southeast Asian women to access information about public affairs, locally produced English-language newspapers or TV programmes provide Filipino women with information. An illustrative case is 65-year-old Virginia. Virginia was the second oldest student in the evening Chinese class in Taipei where I conducted participant observation. Before migrating to Taiwan, Virginia was a primary school teacher and activist in Manila. She fought for pay rises for schoolteachers; one of the large-scale protests in which she participated resulted in the arrest of her colleagues. In Taiwan, she was a member of the Filipinos Married to Taiwanese Association (FMTA), an organisation founded by a Filipino marriage immigrant (Philippine Daily Inquirer 2009). As a citizen who had been living on the island for 18 years at the time of the interview, she made use of local English-language newspapers and maintained the habit of ‘carefully analysing the different policies of political parties in order to find out which party serves the people better' (the author’s interview, 18 May 2009, Taipei), a ‘habit' that was also shared by Jennifer and Peony in Pingtung. When answering how they decided whom to vote for in the general election of 2008, Jennifer mentioned a local English-speaking TV channel as one of her sources of information and Peony pointed to an English-language newspaper sold at her shop. All three of them stressed that English-language sources of information were critical for their decision-making independently of their husbands' influence.

Despite the convenience and advantages of speaking English, it may reduce their incentive to adopt the Chinese language, which restricts their room for manoeuvre in the borderland. For those interviewees who went to the Chinese-language course in order to be eligible for naturalisation, speaking Chinese remained secondary in their daily lives. A lower level of Chinese proficiency can have an impact on the choice of entrepreneurship, such as the grocery shops (‘Sari Sari’ in Tagalog) run by Jo and Peony in Pintgung. Helping out at the Sari Sari, Jo’s children were praised for speaking Tagalog by their Filipino customers and thus their speaking of Tagalog was accepted by their Taiwanese father. Unlike the bilingual shop signs of Vietnamese or Indonesian eateries (e.g. Mika 2008: 24), the signs at Jo’s and Peony's shops did not show Chinese characters. Arguably, this is because, unlike Vietnamese or Indonesian cuisines, which have a wider market appeal, products sold at Sari Sari are less appealing or relevant to the daily consumption of Taiwanese buyers and thus there is less contact between Filipino shop owners and Taiwanese buyers.

Although English is universally associated with Western cultures, transnational mobility, and job competitiveness, in Taiwan it is strongly associated with white

Caucasian ethnicity (Lan 2011), which does not include the Filipinos. In the disadvantageous power relation between the discriminated-against Filipino women and their Taiwanese in-laws, the former’s use of English is not appreciated. While Caucasian mothers or English-speaking American-born Chinese (‘ABC’) mothers are encouraged to speak English rather than Chinese to their children (interview with an ABC mother, April 2009, Taipei), Filipino women, such as Annabelle, were discouraged from speaking English (and Tagalog) because of their in-laws’ fear of being excluded or bad-mouthed.

Thus, when the linguistic borderland is situated in the private home, there is a limit on how far English can be used for family life. As Kelly reflected upon her own transition, when she was a migrant worker she had no incentive to speak Chinese; after she got married, she had to communicate with her in-laws in Chinese, a transition that Hd Minh Mai had also gone through from being a factory worker to a wife-mother. In practice, Filipino women developed a division of labour between English, Tagalog, and local languages. To communicate with families and to be employed outside of the home, they spoke a degree of Mandarin and Hoklo. For those who were housewives, lacking regular social contact with other people outside the home decreased their exposure to the local linguistic environment. It is common that Filipino mothers speak English to their children, who then reply in Mandarin or Hoklo. Peggy and Clare were keen to teach English to their children, but their children were not interested.

English-speaking, with a degree of comprehension of local languages, did not contribute to the intimacy between mothers and children. As part of their motherhood duties, they are responsible for assisting with the academic performance of their children and are required to communicate with the school. Mostly lacking Chinese reading comprehension, Filipino mothers sign their children’s communication logbooks without sufficiently understanding the content (for logbooks, see Chen 2011). Thus, Annabelle told her daughter that the girl had to look after herself for her schoolwork because Annabelle could not offer much help. The linguistic limitations also constrained Annabelle’s ability to transmit Filipino culture in full to her daughter, who needed Annabelle’s help to complete a specific school assignment on this topic. When asked about whether they were inclined to speak either Tagalog or Visaya to their children, Filipino interviewees shrugged off the speaking of ‘mother tongue’ and were sympathetic, saying that their children had a heavy workload. Most of all, they felt there was no practical advantage in learning Tagalog. Although it was for their children's benefit if they spoke good English, it was up to their children whether or not they would want to learn English from their mothers.

 
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