Meet Some New Immigrants

Elizabeth Yeh (Philippines)

Today Elizabeth Yeh is well known among many of Taichung’s international travelers as the owner of the Elizabeth Travel Service, a future that never would have occurred to her as a young girl in Manila. After earning a degree in medical technology and moving on to medical school, she had to give up her studies to help support her family after her father passed away.

With her good English and Chinese skills, she was hired by a Taiwanese pharmaceutical company in the Philippines. But in pursuit of a higher salary, she began looking for jobs in countries like Canada. Taiwan wasn’t even in her “wildest dreams” until her mother suggested she ask her company about working there. The answer was no, not without a Taiwanese ID. But the very next day the manager called – “Do you believe in fate?” he asked – and told her that he had just met a Taiwan Provincial Government official who had come looking to hire a nanny for his children.

She arrived in 1989, when the Taiwan economy was booming and everyone seemed very busy and hardworking – but friendly. Being ethnically Chinese, she was able to apply for citizenship, and eventually went on to other jobs, including secretarial work for a Japanese company, then with a travel agency, and eventually founding her own agency. She married, coincidentally, a student of the very same manager who had helped her in the Philippines and started teaching English after returning to Taiwan.

While she herself didn’t face many challenges in her life or marriage due to being an immigrant, she spoke at length about the challenges her friends from Southeast Asian countries often face.  Some Taiwanese look down on Southeast Asians, and that – combined with the conservatism of many Taiwanese men – can create marital problems, she said. Specifically, some husbands are reluctant to share access to the family finances with their Southeast Asian wives, forcing the spouses to work for themselves – a situation that causes friction and often leads to divorce.

Elizabeth, however, is happy in Taiwan, enjoying the way of life, safety, cleanliness, and convenience here. When asked if she missed anything about the Philippines, she at first said “nothing,” but on reflection noted that she is disappointed at the lack of an English-language environment in Taiwan for her daughters to improve their language skills.

Wong Sai Cheong (Hong Kong)

With a strength built of hard work and a ready wit, Wong Sai Cheong has for many years run a Hong Kong-style duck restaurant with his wife, mainly serving workers from the towering office blocks on Taichung’s Taiwan Boulevard. During a lull between lunch and preparing for dinner, he spoke with Taiwan Business TOPICS in fluent, barely accented Mandarin.

In the wake of the United Kingdom’s agreement to hand over Hong Kong to China, 22-year old Wong was one of many who left the city, nervous about the future under the Chinese Communist Party. Arriving in Taiwan in 1988, he was impressed by the flourishing economy but startled at how chaotic Taiwan seemed compared to British-ruled Hong Kong, especially the traffic.

He found a job with a restaurant, and after getting used to life in Taiwan, marrying a Taiwanese wife, and drawing a good salary, he lost any interest in returning to Hong Kong. Wong speaks positively about many aspects of living in Taiwan, particularly how relaxed it is in contrast to the stressful working environment in Hong Kong. He also appreciates the friendliness of the Taiwanese, and says he has never felt any sort of discrimination or lack of acceptance as an immigrant.

He did note, however, that before he secured his local identity card (at the time it was relatively easy for Hong Kong citizens to get ROC citizenship), it was often difficult to handle many procedures or obtain government services. Today, he says the only thing he misses about Hong Kong is family, whom he visits annually during the Lunar New Year. He has one grown child, who is currently – ironically considering the reason Wong came to Taiwan in the first place – living in China.

Pham Thi Huong (Vietnam)

Pham Thi Huong is the proprietor of a frequently bustling Vietnamese restaurant selling classic dishes like pho and baguettes to a crowd of largely Vietnamese workers and spouses near the Taichung Industrial Park. Shifting effortlessly between roles as no-nonsense business owner and friendly, smiling, and engaging hostess, Pham has done well since arriving in Taiwan in 2009.

Speaking with Taiwan Business TOPICS in fluent, only lightly accented Mandarin, she took some time off after her busy work day to share her story. Like many Vietnamese, she came to Taiwan because of her marriage, which she said – when asked – remains the top reason for her staying in Taiwan today, suggesting her marriage has avoided the pitfalls that Elizabeth Yeh noted plague some other cross-cultural marriages.

Pham had a good impression of Taiwan from the beginning, noting that on arrival she was impressed that the people were friendly and enjoyed a good lifestyle. Commenting on the differences between Vietnamese society and Taiwan, she noted that in Taiwan she feels very safe, and that if any problems arise the hospitals, police, and others in Taiwan are genuinely there to help – something she is less certain of in Vietnam.

In answer to a question, she conceded that there are also some problems and challenges in Taiwan. With some frustration showing, she commented that some people in Taiwan don’t seem to like to listen to or deal with Southeast Asians. Still, she remains committed to her life in Taiwan, only missing family members in Vietnam, whom she visits several times a year.

Gilana Bulakon (Thailand)

Joined by her genial husband and briefly by phone by her English-speaking son, Gilana Bulakon, a practical and hard-working woman originally from Bangkok, spoke to this reporter while all were perched on stools around an office desk.

She came to Taiwan in 1988 at age 25 to take a job at a shoe factory, at the time a massive industry centered in Taichung. Within a year, she was married to her boss, and began putting down roots in Taiwan. Today, she and her husband run a small Thai restaurant and supply shop, serving up excellent pad Thai and providing a comfortable hangout for both residents of the local neighborhood and for Thai workers from the factories in the area looking for a place to relax after work.

Given to short, to-the-point answers, Gilana speaks fluent Taiwanese (Hoklo), with Mandarin very much her second choice for communicating with the local population. These days she shuttles back and forth between Taiwan and Thailand, spending about half the year in Thailand, where her son is currently working.

Asked about the current differences between the two countries, her answer was a simple “about the same.” But she emphasized that there were big differences when she first arrived in Taiwan. Taiwan then was “good for making money – lots of work, lots of factories,” she noted.

After a pause, she added that the people in Taiwan are very good, and that medical care is much more convenient in Taiwan than in Thailand, where there is usually a long wait to get to see a doctor. When the topic came up of whether she had ever faced any challenges or difficulties as an immigrant in Taiwan, her answer was “no.” However, after a pause she came up with one very practical challenge she faced as a new immigrant: “I had less money.”