Sat, Mar 09, 2002 - Page 11 News List

Helping strangers in a strange land

In the Shihlin District Office, the Taipei City Government has established a unique center for the area's large community of foreigners

By David Frazier  /  STAFF REPORTER

Taipei's Shihlin district established a special desk on Feb. 20 to help its 8,000 foreign residents navigate government bureaucracies and get in touch with the services they need. At present, the service is completely staffed by volunteers as it has no city budget.


Above the elevators inside the western entrance of the Taipei City Government's Shihlin District office, there is a very institutional-looking sign printed in both English and Japanese. It reads: "Information Service for Foreigners." But there is no floor number either on the sign or in the elevators, and in the utilitarian entryway there is no reception desk at which to ask directions.

The Information Service for Foreigners turns out to be at a long desk on the building's seventh floor, and hanging above it is a sign similar to that on the ground floor, only newer. An adjoining glassed-in conference room serves as a second facility, doubling as both a classroom and a lending library. Its book collection is sporadic -- among other things it contains at least 59 copies of Le Lys Dans la Vallee, a French novel by Honore Balzac. In total, there are two stacks of Japanese books, two stacks of French, two shelves of English and -- the most dog-eared of the lot -- two shelves of Vietnamese books, including Chinese textbooks for Vietnamese speakers.

Other material resources consist of a rack of English language newspapers, two computers and rows of brochures. The brochures include everything from a tourist guide to the National Palace Museum to a 118-page manual entitled Vietnamese Wife: A Mother and Child's Living Handbook" (越南新娘生活手冊), which is basically a Vietnamese-language guide for newly arrived brides adapting to life in Taiwan.

Shihlin's foreigners' help center was formally established on Feb. 20, and is Taipei City Government's first information center designed exclusively to cater to foreign residents. It is brand new, running on donations and volunteers, and only beginning to develop its programs.

Foreign population of Taipei as of the end of February:

Indonesians: 20,001

Filipinos: 8,079

Japanese: 6,731

Americans: 4,926

Thais: 4,030

Vietnamese: 3,086

Malaysians: 1,703

Koreans: 1,206

British: 875

Canadians: 781

Burmese: 750

French: 555

Germans: 458

Australians: 458

New Zealanders: 133


It is also discovering that it is two different things at the same time. On one hand, the service is a goodwill gesture and communications link to a community of bourgeois Tienmu expatriates. On the other, it is a fledgling outreach program -- and one of Taipei City Government's first -- for Taiwan's relatively voiceless foreign populations, including Thais, Indonesians, Filipinos and especially Vietnamese brides.

Among the desk's more practical services is the opportunity to schedule a free consultation with a volunteer lawyer and have a second bilingual volunteer interpret at the meeting (such legal services were previously only available to Mandarin and Taiwanese speakers).

The Shihlin district office also distributes a few useful and little known English-language publications, including a short handbook of useful agencies and addresses in Shihlin, and a guidebook for diagnosing and reporting dangerous mountainside erosion or crumbling.

Mostly through its telephone lines, the service is also able to handle many other kinds of questions. If a volunteer speaking a certain language is not available at the time of a call, referrals can be made to other volunteers. This will likely happen with most European languages, as well as Vietnamese and Indonesian.

Programs that are largely social in nature include a tuition-free introductory Mandarin class (Mondays 9:30-11:30am) and a Wednesday morning coffee and tea club (same hours).

The volunteers at the desk, mostly middle-aged housewives, can be very eager to help. Upon seeing me, a foreigner, two new volunteers, who found out about the program in recent Chinese newspaper reports, didn't hesitate to ask what exactly they should do that would help the most. I told them that most North American or European foreigners had enough resources, skills or friends to solve most of their problems by themselves.

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