label r shifted
Session B1
They Know Where I Am from as Soon as I Open My Mouth: Gender, Ethnicity and Class in the Linguistic Rite of Passage of Migrant Women in Taiwan
Isabelle Cheng
School of Languages and Area Studies, University of Portsmouth, UK

The use of language by migrants is a social borderland where state borders and cultural boundaries often overlap. The adoption of the local language is a struggle whereby here and there, past and present is simultaneously enacted by the mixed use of own language and the dominant local language. The advance of real-time communication allows this linguistic borderland to thrive. On social media, migrants are not uprooted as once believed but negotiating their rite of passage from being an outsider to an in-between. Nevertheless, as a result of their varied cultural heritages being challenged by the social hierarchy of gender, ethnicity and class, different scenarios of adoption are at play in this vibrant symbolic borderland. The pressure to acquire proficiency of local language for survival, and, in some cases, naturalisation, punctuates this rite of passage with inequality where migrants find themselves in in relation to the dominant receiving state.

Taking the experiences of female migrant spouses in Taiwan as a vantage point, this paper presents this struggle amongst migrants from China and Southeast Asia and between migrants and the state of Taiwan. In a country where Mandarin as the national language co-exists with Hoklo, Hakka and aboriginal languages used in daily life, and where English is regarded as instrumental to employment competitiveness, women from China, the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia have their distinctive linguistic transition coinciding with their acquisition of multiple identities as wives, mothers, daughters-in-law and citizens.

The simultaneity of these transitions is the borderland spaces where the state of Taiwan intervenes. In these dynamic spaces, in spite of being seen as of the 'same blood and same culture, the Chinese endure the association of their Mandarin accents with a repressive communist regime. The stress on such political socialisation is further inferred to the suspicion of their qualification of being granted membership a liberal democratic Taiwan. Although also communicating in Mandarin and Hoklo in everyday life, the Filipino hold onto English so as to maintain their self-esteem, since English-speaking is also the signifier of their socio-economic standing back home. The Vietnamese were once 'muted’ by the state for the sake of ensuring their mothering capability facilitated via Mandarin speaking. Nevertheless, speaking mother's tongue, i.e. Vietnamese, is given new legitimacy by the incumbent government's promotion of New Southbound Policy whereby migrant mothers are imagined as being cultural ambassadors for enhacning Taiwan's competitiveness in Vietnam. The Indonesian, the majority of whom are of Chinese ethnicity, have greater leeway of integration because of Hokkien or Hakka speaking. For those whose upbringing in Indonesia was immersed within diasporic sentiments, the migration to Taiwan, the non-communist Chinese society, and the speaking of Mandarin, may be seen as the realisation of their eventual return to the Chinese homeland.

Their rites of passage and rich linguistic experiences, mundane as they may seem, reflect the nation-building project of Taiwan that is constructed by self-claimed identities of democracy, prosperity and (half-hearted) multiculturalism.