The following narrative was constructed by Isabelle Cockel, based on an interview that she conducted with Thiên Thanh, a Vietnamese spouse and farmer.
I was very young when I heard my friend was getting married to a Taiwanese man. She was going to take a flight to Taiwan. A flight! We were a poor rice farming family in Sóc Trăng. One of six children, I am the youngest daughter, with three sisters and two brothers. As soon as I finished primary school, I started work in my family’s rice paddy, where I saw aeroplanes flying overhead in the blue sky. What if, one day, I sat in the plane and went somewhere? My friend told me her marriage was arranged by a broker and she was going to move to Taiwan. I went with her and met the same broker in Ho Chi Minh City.
The broker introduced a fruit farmer, my future husband, to me. In fact, his family grew water bamboos, but I did not know the broker had lied to me. Brokers took commissions when they successfully arranged marriages, so they were keen to make it happen. Otherwise, they would lose money. I was only 18 years old; I was so naïve and silly. My parents did not know about my plan until I took my future husband to meet them. They went to the airport to see me off. They cried a lot but I I told them to go home, and I would call them after I arrived in Taiwan. I was just a child. Although not speaking a word of Chinese, I was very happy.
Little did I know that my misery would begin when I arrived in Taiwan. In a difficult marriage, I got pregnant soon after my arrival. I spent my early pregnancy sick and became pennilessness in my late pregnancy . During every stage, I experienced intense loneliness. I suffered severe morning sickness, even vomiting blood. Nothing stayed in my stomach but I missed jackfruit very much. That is what we eat in Vietnam, but it is very expensive in Taiwan. With the little money given by my husband, I could not afford it. I walked to the market to watch people selling jackfruits. I had to go quite early because they were popular. I stayed until they were all gone. I went to the market next morning again to watch my jackfruits being sold one after another.
I had to work to survive, but, on foot, I could not go very far. In the middle of the night, after my daughter fell asleep, I took a bike out and trained myself to ride. I began to work and my first job was at a restaurant. With a little money saved, I bought a seat to be fixed onto my bike and a baby walker so I could take my daughter with me to work, but my restaurant boss did not pay me. I went to work at another restaurant until I was pregnant with my son. No employers wanted to hire a heavily pregnant woman, so I went to work for a shop. My boss said my monthly salary was 18,000 dollars, but he paid me only 8,000 dollars. I asked why and was told ‘Nobody would hire a pregnant woman - take it or leave it’. I took it.
When my son was two-year-old, my in-laws sold the house. I left their house with my son in my arm and holding my daughter’s hand. I told them that, one day, mummy would buy a house and we would have a place for all three of us. I got divorced when my son was four and my daughter was seven. The Lunar New Year came soon after my divorce. Having nothing to my name, my children and I had instant noodles for our New Year’s Eve feast. Some people told me I could ‘go down to the sea’ (xia hai) and become a sex worker. Some people actually speculated that I was one – a divorced Vietnamese single mother must be a sex worker. I do not want my children to be looked down upon. I told myself I had to stand on my own feet.
I went to pick mushrooms. I began work at 4.00 am and finished at 9.00 am. Afterwards I cut mushrooms and, between 3.00 pm and 4.30 pm, I packed them into boxes. I went to pick up my children, left them at home and went to work at a restaurant from 5.30 pm to 2.00 am. I went home, slept a bit, and got up to pick mushrooms again at 4.00 am. I told myself I had to stay strong so that I could pay all the bills: food, rent, tuition fees, labour insurance, National Health Insurance, and everything else.
At the restaurant, we got three days off per month. Other employees got three days off, but my employer asked me to clean their house on my third day off. They asked me to clean their four-storey house not with a mop but with a piece of cloth, from the top floor to the ground floor. I left their house usually around 2.00 am on my third day off. I said nothing to my parents. It was my own decision to come to Taiwan and I was responsible for that.
I am a farmer now, renting 0.1 hectare for growing vegetables. I started by growing things for myself, or ingredients used in Vietnamese cuisine. I grew courgettes last December, then cabbages, which took 70–75 days before harvesting. I sold all of my cabbages last month. I plan to grow pumpkins afterwards. I leant from experienced farmers about fertilisers and pesticides. If I saw something unusual, I took pictures or videos of them and sought advice from suppliers of agricultural chemicals about these problems.
I like to work in the field – so much more relaxing than working in restaurants. If their business went well, they were busy, short-tempered, and told me off. If their business was down, they were not busy but unhappy and they told me off, too. In my field, I am free and my working hours are flexible. I can find a part-time job when I do not need to work in my field. My friends and I work in a group. If we do our job well, we can work for different farmers and everyone gets a job. Farmers appreciated our hard work and were happy to pay us, unlike business owners.
My daughter is 20 and my son is 17 now. I am happy I can help others. If I know of any jobs, I will take them and pass the information to those who are in need of it. If they cannot communicate with their employers, I will translate for them. For migrant workers who were deported by the government, I gave them a ride to the airport, or I booked a taxi for them. During the pandemic, I booked vaccination slots and took those who cannot speak Chinese to get their vaccines. I helped them in ways I could and within my ability.
We moved to a house three years ago. I felt a strong sense of achievement. I survived, and all of my hardship is over. To look back is very painful, but I like to look to the future – there is a lot we can look forward to.
Isabelle Cockel is Senior Lecturer in East Asian and International Development Studies at the School of Area Studies, History, Politics and Literature of the University of Portsmouth. Her research focuses on labour and marriage migration in East Asia. Her recent research interests are the Cold War in East Asia, specifically the use of women’s voices for propaganda broadcasting.