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Thicker Than Water

Vocational high school students dressed in light blue shirts watch as staffers work on a car during a trip to Taiwan enterprise Phuc Lap Motors Co. in Vietnam held under the Ministry of Education’s Program for New Resident Children’s International Workplace Experience. (Photo courtesy of K-12 Education Administration, Ministry of Education)

Vocational high school students dressed in light blue shirts watch as staffers work on a car during a trip to Taiwan enterprise Phuc Lap Motors Co. in Vietnam held under the Ministry of Education’s Program for New Resident Children’s International Workplace Experience. (Photo courtesy of K-12 Education Administration, Ministry of Education)
 

Government projects are connecting the children of new immigrants with their parents’ heritages in Southeast Asia.

 

A smile lights up the face of Chen Kuan-chang (陳冠璋‬) whenever he recalls the summer of 2019. Chen had not visited Thailand for many years growing up with his parents in Taiwan, where his father is from. When the opportunity arose last year to visit his mother’s hometown in the Southeast Asian country’s Phitsanulok province, he was quick to accept.

“I sat in on Thai language classes at my mom’s old school, played basketball with my cousins and visited historical sites,” Chen said. “The experience has made me even closer to my mom and opened my eyes to the wonders of Thailand,” he added.

Chen’s experience is one mirrored across Taiwan as the children of new immigrants look to their parents’ home countries for inspiration and an understanding about their own identities. Such was the case for Cheng Huai-en (程懷恩‬), a finance major at Lunghwa University of Science and Technology in northern Taiwan, who visited his mother’s home country of Vietnam in 2017. Taking a seven-day trip to Binh Duong province north of Ho Chi Minh City, Cheng visited five Taiwan enterprises with a group comprising 30 other high school students.

“I learned a lot about how to grow a business in Vietnam and what sorts of challenges a foreign enterprise can face,” Cheng said. “It was really eye-opening, and not something your average high school student gets to experience.”
 

Chen Kuan-chang takes a selfie with his mother during a visit to a temple in Thailand. The trip was funded under the Ministry of the Interior’s Cultivation Program for Second-Generation New Residents. (Photo courtesy of Chen Kuan-chang)

Chen Kuan-chang takes a selfie with his mother during a visit to a temple in Thailand. The trip was funded under the Ministry of the Interior’s Cultivation Program for Second-Generation New Residents. (Photo courtesy of Chen Kuan-chang)
 

Helping Hands

As children of transnational marriages, Chen and Cheng made the trips to their mothers’ homelands under the auspices of two government projects designed to strengthen ties between the descendants of new immigrants and their parents’ countries of origin: the Ministry of the Interior’s (MOI) Cultivation Program for Second-Generation New Residents and the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) Program for New Resident Children’s International Workplace Experience, respectively.

Young people with Southeast Asian ancestry are the main participants in these projects, and they are considered key to successfully implementing the government’s New Southbound Policy (NSP) launched in 2016. A major national development strategy, the NSP seeks to deepen Taiwan’s agricultural, business, cultural, education, tourism and trade ties with the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) member states, six South Asian countries, Australia and New Zealand.

According to the MOI’s National Immigration Agency (NIA), approximately 180,000 foreign nationals married to Taiwan citizens are from Southeast Asia, about one-third of the total and the largest group after those from China. The ASEAN member states are also second only to China in attracting inbound investment from Taiwan, with Vietnam being the top destination. The country is home to nearly 60,000 Taiwan businesspeople, more than any other nation in the region.

To date, the MOI project has helped around 500 young people visit their parents’ home countries. Participants travel with their immigrant parent, sometimes accompanied by teachers or social workers who provide support when necessary. Each individual receives a subsidy of at least NT$20,000 (US$666) to finance the trip, ensuring no one misses out due to financial hardship.

For teachers and social workers who interact with immigrants and their children on a daily basis, the program offers a chance to better understand cultural differences while finding out about each family’s personal circumstances, said Lee Ming-fang (李明芳), a senior executive officer with the NIA.
 

Chen’s itinerary included lessons in the Thai language. (Photo courtesy of Chen Kuan-chang)

Chen’s itinerary included lessons in the Thai language. (Photo courtesy of Chen Kuan-chang)
 

Business Benefits

The MOE’s Program for New Resident Children’s International Workplace Experience funds and organizes trips to Taiwan-owned enterprises in Vietnam for high school students who speak Vietnamese, spotlighting the potential economic benefits for young people with an immigrant background. From next year, Indonesia will be added as a destination, substantially increasing the number of potential beneficiaries.

“Businesses owned by Taiwan investors are very active in Southeast Asia and are always on the lookout for talented individuals with knowldege of the region,” said Tsai Chih-ming (蔡志明), an official with the MOE’s K-12 Education Administration, which oversees the project.

The program certainly proved inspirational for Cheng, who is now hoping to put his language skills to good use after graduation by working for a Taiwan company in Vietnam. Among the businesses he visited was Foming Bicycle Parts Co., where he subsequently interned after his freshman year of college. “I never considered working in Southeast Asia until I had this experience,” Cheng said. “Vietnam is developing very rapidly, and there are a lot of opportunities available.”

Tsai expects individuals like Cheng will continue to develop Taiwan’s ties with NSP target countries in the years to come. “These young people are at the vanguard of Taiwan’s grassroots diplomacy. They’re in a great position to enhance mutual understanding between nations.”
 

Huang Huai-hsien, left, prepares Vietnamese food together with her mother, center, and grandmother. (Photo courtesy of Huang Huai-hsien)

Huang Huai-hsien, left, prepares Vietnamese food together with her mother, center, and grandmother. (Photo courtesy of Huang Huai-hsien)
 

Multicultural Future

According to Tsai, both the MOI and MOE projects go hand in hand with the government’s language education policies, which aim to cultivate a truly multilingual society in Taiwan. This includes seven Southeast Asian languages—Burmese, Cambodian, Filipino, Indonesian, Malay, Thai and Vietnamese—as an option for elementary and junior high school students.

“Children with a parent from Southeast Asia sometimes hide this part of their identity in Taiwan due to discrimination,” Tsai said. “They can lack self-confidence, so teaching these languages helps remove any perceived stigma and makes them feel a sense of pride in their heritage.”

Huang Huai-hsien (黃懷嫻‬), who took part in the MOI project in 2018 when she visited Vietnam’s Hau Giang province, is happy that classmates can now learn her mother’s native language. The 13-year-old realized during her trip the importance of cross-cultural communication. “It made me want to work extra hard at learning Vietnamese, and I’ve been looking for opportunities to speak it with my mom on a daily basis.”

Following the success of the MOI and MOE projects, Lee is confident the children of new immigrants will ensure the long-term success of the NSP. “Given an opportunity, these young people can become very valuable assets for Taiwan,” she said. “Young, adventurous and adaptable, they have all the tools needed to succeed in their careers and expand the country’s outreach.”