The feature on Dong An Elementary School in yesterday’s edition of the Taipei Times serves as a prime example of how Taiwanese can embrace diversity and take advantage of the cultural resources and opportunities new immigrants bring to the nation.
While Taiwan has a fast-growing Southeast Asian population — whether they be students, migrant workers or new immigrants — there is still much mistrust and discrimination against them in society, despite the efforts of government and civic organizations to bring both sides to a better mutual understanding.
The avenues through which these migrants arrive in Taiwan will only increase, not just through foreign policy, but demand: For instance, a shortage of agricultural workers has led the government to allow dairy businesses and farmers’ groups to each hire 400 foreign workers for up to 12 years, with 300 arriving in the next two months.
Although the situation has improved over the past decade, the treatment of migrant workers by Taiwanese employers continues to make headlines and garner international attention, marring the government’s and public’s efforts to boost the nation’s profile.
Last week, Taiwan reclaimed its spot on expat networking Web site InterNations’ ranking as the best place in the world for expatriates to live, and it is one of two satellite nations hosting the Oslo Freedom Forum this weekend.
The Federation of International Human Rights Museums has also announced that it will be opening its Asia-Pacific branch in Taiwan, with federation president David Fleming saying: “Taiwan has diverse cultural and ethnic groups, and works hard to promote human rights.”
Before celebrating these achievements, Taiwanese should take a hard look at how they view diverse cultural and ethnic groups, as the government and civic groups working on their behalf can only do so much.
Dong An’s case is inspiring, but it also started with mistrust. With a significant Aboriginal and new immigrant population, the school’s enrollment rate floundered as parents worried that their children would be exposed to an “academically inferior environment.”
While this was seven years ago, these beliefs die hard.
Instead of trying to cater to the majority of parents, the school embraced its diversity and created a multicultural education program from scratch that encouraged students to learn the Vietnamese and Indonesian languages — something that has only been available to schools recently through the government’s language policy.
Today, Dong An is a popular school where not only children of immigrant parents can feel proud to speak their mother tongue, but where Taiwanese are also eager to learn the languages. It proves that given the right environment, children can learn to respect and appreciate the benefits of diversity, instead of succumbing to the cycle of ignorance perpetrated by adults, who often question the need for their children to learn these languages.
This negative attitude is often carried by the new immigrant parents themselves, as statistics show that only 2,513 out of about 6,000 first-grade children of immigrants plan to sign up for the new language courses at school in the new academic year.
If more Taiwanese embrace diversity and are willing to treat the new immigrants with more respect, then these parents would feel more comfortable having their children embrace their culture.
With the Southeast Asian economy rapidly expanding and modernizing, Taiwanese students who learn these languages now will only find them even more useful in the future.
Dong An was successful in taking a negative environment and making it a place where students receive a first-hand experience of cultural diversity at a young age. This is the direction Taiwan should be taking as it continues to shift toward a multicultural society.
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