From foreign bride to first 'new immigrant' lawmaker in Taiwan

Ms Lin Li-chan arrived in Taiwan from Cambodia in 1997 and raised her two children at her husband's family home in central Changhua county. Since becoming a lawmaker, she has lobbied successfully for restrictions to be eased for foreign spouses to be
Ms Lin Li-chan arrived in Taiwan from Cambodia in 1997 and raised her two children at her husband's family home in central Changhua county. Since becoming a lawmaker, she has lobbied successfully for restrictions to be eased for foreign spouses to become citizens and get jobs.ST PHOTO: JERMYN CHOW

Ms Lin Li-chan was 20 years old when she first arrived in Taiwan in 1997 to be married off to a Taiwanese man.

The young Cambodian woman knew not a word of Mandarin or even where the island is.

"My only knowledge of Taiwan came from drama serials that my mother made me watch before I came here. But it was nothing like what I saw in the shows," said Ms Lin, whose family lived in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital.

Nearly 20 years on, she made history in last year's parliamentary elections when she became Taiwan's first "new immigrant" lawmaker from the opposition Kuomintang.

But the transition was not easy for Ms Lin, who was labelled a "foreign bride", meaning a woman willing to be married off to a foreign land in order to escape poverty at home. The marriages are commonly arranged by matchmaking agencies for a fee.

Today, Taiwan has about 500,000 foreign spouses, including foreign men who settled here after marrying Taiwanese women.

"Initially, I felt as if they (Taiwanese) looked down on me and others like me and I wanted to prove them wrong," Ms Lin, 39, told The Straits Times.

In the early years of her marriage, she lived with her self-employed husband's family in central Changhua county, helping with household chores and bringing up her two children. She also picked up minnan yu, or Taiwanese Hokkien.

In 2004, she enrolled herself in university to learn Mandarin to help her children with schoolwork.

She did volunteer work, such as at a community club for the elderly, and became involved in many grassroots groups to help fellow new immigrants settle in, by breaking down cultural and language barriers.

"I wanted to try to ensure other new immigrants did not have to go through what some of us did in the past," said Ms Lin, who concedes that certain negative stereotypes and suspicions about foreign spouses still persist.

Since becoming a lawmaker, she has lobbied successfully for restrictions to be eased for foreign spouses to become citizens and get jobs. It took her two years to get citizenship.

Ms Lin believes more can be done. "It will take time to change mindsets but things are definitely better," she said.

" I was able to overcome obstacles to become a lawmaker and now have the platform and resources to push for more reforms and make a difference."

Jermyn Chow

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 29, 2017, with the headline 'From foreign bride to first 'new immigrant' lawmaker in Taiwan'. Print Edition | Subscribe