A woman derided as a “foreign bride” after her cash-strapped Cambodian family married her off through a broker is set to make history in the legislative elections on Saturday.
Lin Li-chan (林麗蟬) is listed in the fourth place by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) among the party’s lineup of legislator-at-large nominees, whose seats are allocated based on the party’s vote share.
With the party expected to win about 10 such seats, she is almost guaranteed a place in the legislature, making her the nation’s first “new immigrant” legislator.
The term “new immigrant” refers to those who came to Taiwan after the first wave of migration from China after 1949.
“I had never thought about going into politics. In Cambodia, democracy was not a familiar concept,” Lin said. “It is unbelievable how life turns out.”
Now 38 and a Republic of China citizen, she was set up by her mother with a Taiwanese husband via a profit-making brokerage at the age of 20.
She moved from the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, to become one of Taiwan’s tens of thousands of immigrant spouses, mainly from Southeast Asia and China.
Their vulnerability has been highlighted by abuse cases in recent years and Lin wants to draw on her own experiences to improve that.
“My father had passed away and my mother was struggling financially at that time. She decided to marry me off and the relatives on my father’s side were angry, thinking she sold me to Taiwan,” Lin said. “‘Foreign brides’ like us were labeled as products and looked down upon.”
Unable to speak a word of Mandarin, Lin was wracked with homesickness, but determined to adapt.
She picked up the language as she took care of her two children and helped at her husband’s small hardware factory.
However, when her children doubted she could help with homework because of her Chinese, Lin decided to go to college.
She went on to university and did a master’s degree before becoming an award-winning campaigner for new immigrants.
“I took my graduation robe to Cambodia when I went back to sweep my parents’ graves and tell them the good news, and I cried,” Lin said.
There were more than half a million foreign spouses in Taiwan last year, with many marriages arranged by matchmaking brokerages.
Demand for the service is partly driven because there are more men than women of marrying age in Taiwan and more Taiwanese women are delaying marriage until later in life. Taiwan banned profit-making brokerages in 2009 and allows only government-authorized organizations to provide international matchmaking.
The move came after a string of high-profile abuse cases including one of a Taiwanese man who enslaved and tortured his Vietnamese ex-wife for seven months. He was jailed for four-and-a-half years.
Campaigners said that the situation is improving and the term “foreign bride” is now deemed derogatory. However, discrimination remains.
“There is still negative public perception that the women are bought and they come to Taiwan to make or con money,” said Hong Man-chi (洪滿枝), a spokeswoman of the TransAsia Sisters Association, a support group for overseas spouses.
Some employers offer low wages or demand they work overtime without pay, Hong said, knowing they are unfamiliar with labor laws.
“Lin’s nomination symbolizes some progress,” Taiwan International Family Association spokeswoman Lisa Huang (黃麗莎) said. “But it remains to be seen whether hers is an isolated case of success or an overall improvement.”
Looking back, Lin — who is still with the husband she married at 20 — said she does not bear any animosity to her mother.
“I was a naive young woman and I did not think too much about it. I just obeyed my mother’s decision,” she said.
Now she wants her experiences to make a difference.
“I hope I can do more for new immigrants as a lawmaker,” said Lin, who now considers herself Taiwanese. “I think I have a mission in Taiwan ... that a foreign woman who did not speak or read a word of Chinese can go this far. I think it is fated.”
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