Are foreign spouses from Southeast Asia Taiwan's second-class citizens?
This was the question posed by academics, social activists and government representatives at a seminar last Wednesday.
With the increasing influx of Southeast-Asian foreign spouses, they said, the government and society at large can either ignore them and hope that they will sooner or later be assimilated into Taiwanese society; or Taiwan can strive toward becoming a future ethnic melting pot and welcome these new immigrants with open arms.
"While Taiwan's diplomatic position makes us wish that the international community would treat us fairly, Taiwanese people look down upon their own minority groups -- there should not be any second-class citizens in Taiwan," Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Michel Lu (呂慶龍) said.
Lu is also the vice-chairman of the non-governmental Association for International Affairs.
According to statistics released by the Ministry of the Interior, as of September this year there were approximately 115,000 Southeast-Asian female spouses living in Taiwan.
"Of last year's registered marriages, 31.9 percent were interracial marriages and 13.4 percent of last year's infants were born to foreign mothers. Many issues may stem from these interracial marriages: communication [difficulties] among the in-laws, adjustment problems and so on," said Lin Wan-I (林萬億), a professor in social work at National Taiwan University.
Lin said that foreign women who met their husbands through commercial matchmaking services tend to be considered "less worthy" daughters-in-law in the eyes of their new in-laws.
"There is a connotation that a bride has been sold and bought, and it definitely affects the way she is treated by her mother-in-law, sisters-in-law, and even by her husband; such a spouse may be treated as if she belonged to a lower tier in a familial hierarchy," Lin said.
Some attendees at the seminar said that children born into such interracial families may face learning impediments.
"These foreign spouses, who are often the main caregivers at home, have little idea about how to raise their children. The impact of cultural differences slows down the learning process of these children; they may have difficulty in expressing themselves verbally and imitating and achieving the same vocabulary as other children of the same age," said Kathy Ke (柯宇玲), chief executive officer of the Pearl S. Buck Foundation.
Ke said there is often an aversion among foreign mothers to communicate with their children in the mother's native tongue.
"There seems to be an impression that Chinese is better than their native tongues. Therefore, these mothers are generally unwilling to teach their children to speak their native languages," she said.
From a legal perspective, Taiwan's immigration policies and regulations are definitely not on the side of foreign spouses: They are required to have lived in Taiwan for three years before they may apply for naturalization, and have to give up their original nationality. After applying for naturalization, a spouse has to wait for another year before citizenship is granted.
"Meanwhile, there is a one-year period where this spouse literally has no citizenship in any country. Before she becomes a Taiwanese citizen and receives a national ID, she is unable to exercise her legal rights in difficult situations, such as domestic violence," said Lai Shiu-ling (