National Policy Advisor Ho Thanh Nhan (photo by Chuang Kung-ju)
Ho recalls that when she was first asked to serve as a national policy advisor, she asked in return: “What would I be doing? What do I have to offer?”
They explained that she would have the opportunity to meet with the president from time to time and speak up for the immigrant community. “Then I realized that I would be able to assist my fellow countrymen and the immigrant community, so I decided to do it,” she says. “This was an opportunity to express people’s opinions and aspirations directly to the president.”
Welcomed with open arms
Taiwan’s first national policy advisor representing the immigrant community hails from Vietnam. She has lived in Taiwan for over 11 years. Originally she left home in Vietnam to take up work at a Taiwanese-owned factory in Saigon, where she stayed for six years. At a loss as to what to do next, she decided to give Taiwan a try.
Ho and her husband, Xu Zhicheng, were introduced by a marriage broker, and on the first day they decided to apply for a marriage license. Soon after, they started a new life in Taiwan. Her husband’s family was supportive. “My mother feels that if someone has come so far to be with her husband, we should treat her like our own daughter,” Xu says.
Ho’s mother-in-law took her under her wing, taking her shopping and teaching her how to cook local dishes.
Ho is studious by nature, and she studied Chinese and computers, took a course on police and court translation and obtained certification for Chinese cooking. She completed the elementary and high school curricula in Taiwan and is now preparing to start college. Through all of it, her family has been extremely supportive.
Finding her voice
The Juridical Association for the Development of Women’s Rights in Pingtung (JADWRP) launched Ho’s career in public service. For many years the association has been concerned with issues of immigrants’ human rights. In 2011 they began recruiting immigrants to join their team, and Ho was one of those recruits. With funding from the non-governmental Hao Ran Foundation, the Taiwan Stock Exchange, and other sources, the JADWRP has given immigrants the opportunity to work, study and grow together. “At the outset I used to have them listen to recordings of various meetings and type them out verbatim,” says JADWRP director Tsai Shun-jou. “It wasn’t easy for them, but it gave them the opportunity to practice their Chinese comprehension and word usage.”
Naturally the participants sometimes made comical errors with the words they were learning, like mistaking the local “Wàndān” Township for wándàn (“done for”), which sounds the same except for the different tones. But the training allowed the immigrant women to make rapid progress.
Tsai also had Ho write program proposals and practice taking up a microphone and expressing her opinions in front of an audience. The day we first met Ho, she was hosting the JADWRP-organized “Wa! New Immigrant Fair”—a community-based multicultural event that gave immigrants the opportunity to showcase delicacies from their home countries. On that day she could be seen with Hsieh Lye Lye, an immigrant from Indonesia, weaving through the fair, introducing different stalls and visiting participants. The two kept up a lively banter and held their own as hosts in the happy atmosphere. Ho often turned the microphone over to the immigrant women so that they could introduce the cuisine of their homelands.
Ho is now an experienced public speaker, but she admits that the first time she took to the podium and addressed an audience of teachers, she was trembling, her voice quavered, and her mind went blank. Her debut was a nightmare, and even with the help of her notes, she barely made it through the lecture. But she progressed with each performance and improved her delivery. “Nowadays even after she’s been speaking for three hours, we can’t get her off the stage,” Tsai says with a chuckle.
“My lecture style is a little on the humorous side,” Ho says. “I try to hold the audience’s attention.”
On first impression, listeners find her syntax and word usage a little quirky, but this has become Ho’s hallmark. It suits her endearing personality and keeps her audiences laughing.
Teaching cultural diversity
In order to change public stereotypes about immigrants and foreign workers, Ho and other cultural diversity lecturers give talks and courses in schools and various communities. Hu tailors her teaching style to suit different audiences. When she visits elderly audiences, for example, she will highlight cultural similarities and differences between Taiwan and Vietnam. Vietnam shares many of the same traditions, such as the Dragon Boat Festival and the making of wrapped rice dumplings, though they are made slightly differently. Fried pancakes are also popular in southern Vietnam just as they are in Taiwan. This helps seniors better understand the native culture of their daughters-in-law.
When Ho first began this work she was saddened to see that the children of immigrant mothers often felt embarrassed and looked down on their mothers’ cultures. She wondered if her own child would feel the same. So in her multicultural training programs, she invites the children of immigrant mothers to share their experiences of Southeast Asia with the class to help them build confidence and help other classmates understand the benefits of cultural diversity.
Whenever possible Ho brings her own son and daughter to work with her to let them meet people of various ethnic backgrounds and see that people are all different. “Perhaps after meeting different people through my work, they will not try to hide their mother’s background, but instead say proudly that their mother is Vietnamese,” Ho says.
Aside from lecturing in the hundreds of cultural diversity courses offered each year, Ho also guides students who need her help, hoping to cultivate new teachers from among the immigrant women. Taiwan’s efforts at creating a multicultural society rely on the immigrant community to promote mutual understanding. “If the people of Taiwan and the new immigrants mix together, won’t that lead to new understanding and cultivate new talent?” she asks with sound logic.
Ho says that she has always loved to talk and to get involved in other people’s lives, so she naturally fell into the role of looking after other immigrant women. Straightforward by nature, she is unafraid to speak up when something needs to be said.
She never imagined a public service career or becoming a national policy advisor. When she first came to Taiwan, she was a young woman longing to see what life held in store. Today she stands fearlessly as a representative for the immigrant community.
Ho admits that she has found life in the complicated world of politics somewhat exhausting, and she sometimes misses the simplicity of her old life. But who would speak up for the interests of her fellow countrywomen if she didn’t do it?
Ho has no regrets about choosing to live in Taiwan. She feels that it was both destiny and a self-chosen path. And she’s not looking back.