Beat, Our Migrant Hearts
A guest essay from Bonny Ling considers our common origins as migrants. Plus, photos from readers, including a garage-turned-church-plus-soup kitchen in Seattle & a capoeira group in Mozambique.
Michelle here! Hello from Taipei, where the weather is uncharacteristically glorious. I complain frequently about the constant rain, and so on sunny, breezy days like today Albert gets very smug and I very quiet.
There were many sign-ups in the past week—thank you! In the coming months, we will share stories on the revitalization of rural areas, adult education, migrant workers, disinformation, indigenous language learning, and experimental schools. Don’t hesitate to write in and introduce yourself. (Just reply to this email or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Some logistics: We publish our English version on Sundays and Chinese on Thursdays. If you’d like to opt out of the Chinese version, go to “My Account” and unclick 開闊之路. This past Thursday, we published a Chinese-language interview with Val Kalei Kanuha, a feminist pioneer in anti-domestic violence movements, with a shout-out to Dawn Shih for her wonderful translation. (The original interview is here.)
We are delighted to share our first guest essay from Dr. Bonny Ling. In this intimate and passionate essay she shares the migration journey of her family, questions the distinction between “migrant” and “expat,” and calls for solidarity and policy changes towards the 700,000+ migrant workers from Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam in Taiwan. “If we probe and listen,” she writes, “we will often hear such tales of migration and hardship in our own families.”
“Beat, Our Migrant Hearts”: Guest Essay from Bonny Ling
There is a family story that is seared into my mind, except I no longer know if it is my own memory or if it is derived from photos or snippets I picked up. The day is when my father left to study in the U.S. in the summer of 1980, and his entire side of the family went to Taoyuan Airport to bid goodbye. My father is the eldest son of my grandfather, himself also the eldest son. Four generations of family went to see him off, with hopes heavier than his luggage. In the photo, there were rows deep of relatives, all dressed in their finest. My brother and I were little, and we stood next to our father, smiling, not fully realising the enormity of the occasion or how the burden would fall on our mom.
My grandmother cried. She had sown money into his shirt the night before, for a mother’s heart meant that she worried about him being alone in a strange land. My mom too, while the men in the family played stoic. Everyone waved until our father disappeared after the departure checkpoint. I wonder what my great-grandparents thought, as they watched him leave. It is strange now to imagine, but my great-grandparents were born in last years of the Ching (Qing) Dynasty and lived through nearly a century of turbulent events.
For those working at Taoyuan Airport during these years, the same scene must have played out several times each day. Families that looked out of place, for whom a trip to the airport was itself a novelty. The lone graduate student that goes off to America, the promise land, with all the hopes and trepidations that come with embarking on something so audacious. All the silent prayers whispered to keep their loved ones safe and return with the academic degrees in Latin letters, ensuring the uplift in family trajectory.
My father grew up in the countryside. Life was hard, but the family was tight knit in a village where almost everyone shares the same two last names. Oral history has it that our ancestors, two men with the two surnames, came from eastern Guangdong some three hundred and fifty years ago. They sailed through the Strait in 15 days and landed in Taiwan after a perilous journey in high winds and waves. Master and servant went through survival and hardships together, so strong was their bond that grievance against one is held as also against the other.
Years later when I married, I found out there was an unspoken superstition against a Ling marrying a spouse of a certain surname (I forget which one). An intergenerational grudge meant the marriage would be unblessed and eventually sour. When I heard of it, I joked to my parents it was good that I marry a half-Brit whose last name had to be romanised, therefore we were in no danger of such a curse. My mom didn’t laugh, for she already foresaw a life of migration for her eldest daughter, away from her. And she cried.
Glory and Hardship
When my father returned for visits from the U.S., he brought mementos of America’s wealth and power for us. Glorious things that spoke of wealth, tasted like gold. Chewing gum whose sharp flavours stung, but we kept chewing because it was a taste of America. He told us such incredible tales. Things like yellow school buses that could command traffic to stop. We couldn’t believe him as we contrasted that with our own experience of crammed buses that took us to and back from school, zigzagging through the traffic as if speed signs were invisible.
During my own university studies, I started to build a fuller picture of my father’s graduate studies abroad in conversations with my parents. Every once in a while, a tale of hardship would slip through. He took more classes than usual in a semester, so he could come back to Taiwan earlier. He stayed in the library until very late, taking the last bus home. Discrimination of course came up too, at a time when the American South was grappling with the aftermath of racial desegregation. He spoke of a friend, who was shunned for marrying a Black man.
One time, I don’t remember how we came to the topic, he showed me how to properly fold a cloth napkin. The thick linen cloth felt so odd to my touch, but it was even stranger to see him fold it, like an origami master, into complicated shapes. I was astounded and asked how he knew. He said he tried to earn spare income, so there would be more left for us in Taiwan. He temped in a Chinese restaurant, working in the back, folding napkins and refilling tiny soy sauce bottles. “So hard!” He pulled a face to show how difficult it was not to spill soy sauce.
Debt and Migration
Children are oblivious to so many things, yet also so aware. While our father was in the U.S., it was tough on our mother. She worked so hard. My brother and I were latchkey kids. Our mom would call us after school to make sure we were fine. Later we understood that my father had received a scholarship to study abroad, but it required that he return to Taiwan to work for the government for a certain number of years. During his studies abroad, he was offered entry and full financial support into the doctoral programme in the U.S., with a great and supportive mentor. My father asked those in charge of the scholarship if they would allow him to delay his return by a bit, so he could do the doctoral coursework.
A brisk answer exacting a heavy price. Either he returned then or he would need to pay back the scholarship, plus penalties, some two-fold its original amount. This was a huge sum back then in Taiwan, when one US Dollar went up to above 40 NTD. Like all true forks-in-the-road decisions, my parents agonised, turned back and forth weighing short-term versus long-term costs and benefits. In the end, they took the plunge, sheer faith, that a doctoral programme was too good an opportunity to pass up. So my heroic mother worked, raising children by herself in the city, to repay the scholarship. It is now only as a mother myself that I can begin to fully understand how herculean of an ask this was of her. How draining it must have been to live every day with a debt that holds the promise of a better life for the family. No wonder she never relaxed.
There is Only Us
In colloquial language, expats and migrants are two different existences. Once I replied as a shorthand when someone asked where I am from, “I am a migrant!” The person helpfully added, without malice, “You mean an expat. Not a migrant.” And this short exchange got me started on a long habit of not using the word ‘expat’ to describe myself. It is not a term based in law, but colloquially it persists on classism and our prejudice about whose work is valued and whose stay is welcomed. The discrepancy is played out in exchanges, long and short, in different time zones.
When Switzerland voted in 2014 to limit its immigration into the country, spearheaded by a campaign that used images of white sheep kicking out a lone black sheep, I remarked that I worried about the effects of such anti-migration messaging. What that would mean for my obvious, very non-white sheep family. Someone I knew was quick to assure, out of benevolent intent, “No, the posters don’t mean people like you, at universities. They mean other people.” If the remark was to reassure, it failed. I saw no difference. There is no us and them. There is only us.
Expat sounds of privilege and a welcomed stay. It sounds like protection from arbitrary treatment, of expulsion. It sounds like Hemingway in Paris. Whenever I get the chance in my talks, I drop in a reference that we should stop using the term ‘expat’ and use ‘migrant worker’ instead, defined by the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, article 2(1), as “a person who is to be engaged, is engaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a State of which he or she is not a national” – without any distinction as to class or type of work.
Sometime the reference flops. Other times it sticks for a bit. But last month, when I gave an online talk to a group of business students in Norway, I saw screens of heads nodding when I spoke of my personal gripe with the term. My host, a prominent thinker, sent around an essay that he wrote years ago, speaking the same of this arbitrary distinction. Later, we had an exchange about the fluidity of the migrant experience: how he set dining tables and worked the dishwashers on multiple weeknights when he was a student, and how my father folded napkins and refilled soy sauce bottles before he became known.
If we probe and listen, we will often hear such tales of migration and hardship in our own families. They precede the later celebratory parts of graduations and individual prosperity that together built our modern, global Taiwan. These stories feature in different communities, in the diaspora that stayed abroad but whose heart never left Taiwan, those who returned, those whose children returned, those who came to love this impossible rock – all life chapters punctured by staccato of glory, hardship and migration. There is no border between expats and migrant workers. The bell tolls, and we know for whom it tolls. It tolls for all of us.
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
“For Whom the Bell Tolls” by John Donne (1572-1631)
Migrant Workers Speak
I first met Michelle in 2018. I was in the audience as she skilfully interviewed the famed Vietnamese-American writer Viet Thanh Nguyen on stage. It was the reunion conference of the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans, a litany of famous New Americans. (Some of us wonder how we ever got in). Something he said that day struck a deep chord, especially in the context of a fellowship that celebrates immigrant excellence. He asked, something to the effect of “Can we, as immigrants, just be ordinary? Is that good enough?”
During these past two years of the pandemic, I have often returned in my mind to this question of immigrant excellence. What is “excellence” when our idea of key workers was turned upside down during the pandemic? What of those who stocked and delivered food? What of those who cleaned hospitals? What of those caring for the elderly in homes, shielding with them from COVID? Whose notion of excellence and by which matrix: title, salary, profession—the conventional seizing up—or can it be something more inclusive and profound?
In Taiwan, what of the 700,000+ migrant workers from Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Viet Nam? Are they not essential and excellent keeping our semiconductor productions going, caring for the elderly and the young in families across the island, catching the fish that allows Taiwan to claim the title of the world’s second largest distant-water fishing fleet? What of their glory and hardship, and what of their debt and migration?
Our Migrant Workers Speak in A Broad and Ample Road will feature migrant workers to Taiwan, narrating their own experiences, aspirations and migration journey. This is the starting point to complementary pieces that analyse elements of their essays and frame these aspects in the context of international migration and employment. The broad hope, in featuring them speaking on their terms, is to narrow the divide that exists in viewing migrant labour through the lens of class and privilege.
As in other migration corridors, low-wage migrant workers to Taiwan often pay what is known as recruitment and recruitment-related fees to secure their employment in Taiwan. This amount can vary from the USD 1245-4145 paid by Filipino workers up to the average USD 6500 paid by workers from Viet Nam. Migrant workers pay this, borrowing the huge sum in advance, because this is currently the dominant system of migrant recruitment. It holds the promise of a better life for many migrants.
This system of recruitment for low-waged workers has existed for decades, but it stands in sharp contrast to higher-waged migrant workers, the professionals, for whom there is no expectation to bear the cost of their own job recruitment. Low-wage migrant workers, on the other hand, pay back their recruitment debt through their own monthly pay, on top of monthly service fees charged by labour brokers in Taiwan.
The uncomfortable reality is wage deduction at practically every point where money can be siphoned off, lowering the amount they have left to remit home. The system is legal but is fundamentally unjust when those who are the least able to pay bear the cost of their own recruitment. Reforms are needed to bring in one common system of recruitment, without distinction in wage or class, and employers pay for recruitment. These challenges are not unique to Taiwan, but many believe Taiwan can help to usher in this new system of migrant recruitment, the same way it progressively led on same-sex marriages in Asia.
Featuring migrant workers in their own voices is our effort, amongst those of many other individuals and organisations, to build more momentum for migrant recruitment reforms in Taiwan, starting from listening to their stories that paint the full complexity of their lived experiences. It is our constant whisper, a nod, to all those who have worked to build the Taiwan of today: We see you. We hear you. And we can feel the beat of our own pulsating migrant hearts.
Dr. Bonny Ling is Executive Director of Work Better Innovations, a research consultancy with a community service mission working on new ideas for a responsible economy. She is Research Fellow with the Institute for Human Rights and Business and Advisory Board Member of Human Rights at Sea, an international NGO that raises awareness of human rights abuses in the maritime sector. She worked for the UN in Geneva, Bosnia, Cyprus and Liberia and also for international civil society. She holds a Ph.D in Law from the Irish Centre for Human Rights, M.Phil in Criminology from Cambridge University and MA in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School. She has served as an international election observer in East Timor and for the OSCE. She writes on human rights, migrants, business responsibilities and international development, and is a contributing writer for Ketagalan Media, New Bloom, Taipei Times, Taiwan Insight and The News Lens.
We Welcome Essays, Photos, Poetry, Art on Migration
As part of our Migrant Workers Speak project, we welcome essays, poetry, art, or testimonies on migration from people of all walks of life. And to hammer home the message of Bonny’s piece, we mean “migrant worker” in the broadest way possible. If you’re interested, please submit a piece from 100 to 1,500 words or any other artistic work. Please send to Albert, Michelle, and Bonny at email@example.com.
Call for Volunteers at Vietnamese Migrant Workers’ Shelter in Taoyuan
If you’re feeling inspired by this post and live in Taipei or Taoyuan, you can volunteer at a Vietnamese migrant workers’ shelter (the Vietnamese Migrant Workers and Immigrants Office), which is run by a Catholic diocese. Michelle is coordinating volunteers. We’re looking especially for people who can teach courses requested by shelter residents, including law, meditation, yoga/tai chi, and music. We’re also looking for those familiar with website design.
Please get in touch with Michelle at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos from readers around the world
We’re so happy to receive your photos from around the world. This week, we share photos from Calvin Chen, an old friend and pastor who started a church from a garage in Seattle, and Basia Diagne, a former student who lives in Mozambique. Please write to say hello and keep the photos coming!
A year and a half before the pandemic hit, my co-pastors and I (Geoff, Ashley, and me) started Church on The Ave in the University District of Seattle. Our vision was to build an inter-generational and multi-ethnic community that would serve the neighborhood (including its most vulnerable), university, and the larger Seattle community. Not a great time to start a new church—but we've been blessed by a few things. First, the open-air garage space enabled us to worship in a relatively COVID-safe manner. Second, Friday Feast—the longest continuously operating soup kitchen in Seattle—needed COVID-friendly space to operate and they asked us about using our garage. So every Friday our garage is used as a soup kitchen.
In its own way it makes the space feel very "worshipful." It's become a very beautiful partnership with our church members and students from the ministries. Our little church's presence in the neighborhood has served as a conduit for partnership between neighborhood organizations like Friday Feast, our local shelter, and neighborhood businesses. The teriyaki joint down the street provides us with at-cost meal cards to provide to the hungry and intentionally stays open on cold and snowy days for those who need warmth. A few weeks ago when Friday Feast was under-staffed, the ramen shop next door closed down for the night to provide nearly 200 meals. A student ministry we partner with provided all of the volunteer help we needed.
Our former student, Basia Diagne, shares from Mozambique:
If you haven't heard of capoeira before, it is a Brazilian martial art originating from Brazil's state of Bahia, and combines elements of dance, singing, intense acrobatic strength and rhythm. Historically capoeira emerged as an art form by enslaved West Africans who were brought to Brazil by Portuguese colonists and prohibited from celebrating their cultural customs or practicing martial arts. Capoeira is believed to have emerged as a way to bypass these two imposing laws.
It has been incredibly healing to be a part of such a lovely and encouraging community while honoring this 500 year old tradition. I am physically fitter than I have ever been!
Here's a link to one of my favorite capoeira videos:
Book Club Updates
It was a joy to talk to you about Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other. Our conversation touched on our favorite characters, mother-daughter relationships, the politics and form of the novel, Hazel Carby’s Imperial Intimacies, and the controversial ending (some of us hated it, others liked it). We’re on hiatus for December but shall return in January. Since we are terribly indecisive people, we have not yet decided on the book (but shall do so soon). If you’d like to join, reply to this email or write (email@example.com). All are welcome.
Last night I was watching the movie Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong and Jamie Chung’s character discusses her annoyance with the use of expat vs immigrant. Thanks for sharing the insight of the words expat and migrant worker today.