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“I know I am a stereotype”: Valerie and Her Border-crossing Journeys

“I know I am a stereotype”: Valerie and Her Border-crossing Journeys

Isabelle Cockel
University of Portsmouth

The following narrative was constructed by Isabelle Cockel, based on an interview that she conducted with Valerie, an Indonesian professional worker in Taiwan.

I am an Indonesian professional worker currently living in Taiwan with my European husband and our Eurasian son. We were married in Indonesia. After our marriage, I acquired a Master’s degree in Indonesia then moved to the US to be reunited with my husband, who was studying there for his  degree. Some of my Indonesian friends who marry foreign husbands only have Bachelor’s degrees from Indonesia; they had difficulties to find good jobs abroad and picked up jobs declined by local people. One such friend was a shop assistant working in the night shift in a small shop at a petrol station. Higher education is an important asset for people living across state borders, therefore I decided to pursue my Master’s degree before moving to the US. Thanks to my Master’s degree, I was accepted for a part-time job in a university library.

Before moving to Taiwan and taking up our new jobs, we  lived in several countries. When living in a Southeast Asian country, I had an unforgettable experience helping with the burial of an Indonesian migrant worker whose identity I did not know at all. That was about six years ago and what happened to her that led to her death remains a mystery. She passed away in her sleep in her room. There was no regular health examination required of migrant workers in this country, so if she had suffered from some illness, it would not be found out. She was said to be a Christian from North Sulawesi, but her marriage with her Muslim husband would have converted her to Islam. The marriage was not a happy one and she most likely entered this Southeast Asian country illegally and stayed with an Indonesian man. She seemed to have reconverted to Christianity. The corpses of deceased people should be returned to Indonesia, but this could not be arranged for her since nobody knew her family. Nobody wanted to deal with her corpse because nobody wanted to get into trouble should there be police inquiries.

But there were people who were willing to help. We were a group of foreigners in this country and each of us did one thing for her. My task was to arrange flowers for her funeral. Someone found an old white dress of hers and a pair of shoes to dress her in. Another one provided a pillow to be laid underneath her head in her coffin. A volunteer provided make-up. She looked graceful in her sleep. The priest provided a very beautiful coffin; we, and the Indonesian embassy, paid for her burial ground and attended her funeral at a chapel in the Indonesian community cemetery. It was raining really hard when I drove to the cemetery; as you would say in English, the heavens opened. But the heavy rain stopped when we arrived. At the service, the priest asked if we knew her, but nobody did. By her grave, the priest said the prayer and laid her coffin into the grave. I left flowers on her coffin. It was a good service and we felt very sad. However, we were also happy that we gave her the dignity she deserved. Losing her life when she was so far away from her hometown, she was buried properly like a human being.

When I was living in this country, an Indonesian domestic worker came work in my house once a week. I liked to listen to everything she said about herself. I felt close to her because we were both Indonesian and she wanted to share her life story with me. Her husband ran away with a young woman, leaving her with their two young sons. She had to bring them up without their father, who did not care about the boys’ future. She decided to work abroad. Before she was working for me, she had already been in another country as a domestic worker. Some Indonesian mothers would leave their sons at a Pondok Pesantren, an Islamic boarding school, before taking up overseas employment, but her sons were too young to go to a boarding school. So, she left her two sons aged two and five with her friend, who acted as their guardian. Since a contract for a domestic worker is valid for two years, she returned home to visit her sons once in two years.

In the country, she stayed with an Indonesian man. Indonesian workers over there often rent a house together and each couple or each person uses one room in that house. This is also how she stayed with her partner. She got married to her partner; unfortunately, he left her for another woman. She found that some women in the house they lived in would use their own room for sex work when they were off work. One day she told me she was really angry at her sons’ guardian. She saved money for her sons and paid fees to the guardian, but the guardian only left a little for her sons, grabbing most of the money for herself. She felt she had no options and would have to carry on using the same guardian. She was an orphan and poor; she felt guilty for leaving them when they were little and needed her care, but she also wanted to give them good education and a life better than hers. She has returned to Indonesia for her sons after working abroad for nearly ten years.

In this country I joined a small community of the wives of diplomats, business people or university lecturers. We had morning coffee together when our children attended the same school. We usually dressed well and applied makeup when we hung out together. One day, my friend who married a European husband told me that she was mistreated by an officer at the school when she and her husband were asking for information. She thought because of her plain look, she was mistaken for being a migrant worker. She was very upset. In fact, when I went out with my friends from China, Italy and Austria, an Indonesian shop assistant asked me if one of my friends was my boss. To avoid such problems, I learned to always wear nice clothes, accessories and apply makeup.

Since my marriage, I have travelled across continents because of my husband’s education and work. He and our son have a European passport; I have an Indonesian passport. European passport holders can enter most countries without a visa; an Indonesian passport holder has to apply for a visa and will be intensively scrutinised, or at least this is how I experienced. We are always prepared for the prospect that complications will happen to me. International travel is stressful for us; it introduces me to a world where passports of different nationalities bring privileges to some and cause discriminations to others.

When I met my parents-in-law the first time, their relatives and neighbours were very excited to see me. It was so funny that some of them touched my natural long black hair and my tanned skin with amazement because they had never met an Indonesian before. After a few weeks staying with them, my husband and I travelled to the UK by ferry. Before boarding the ferry, passengers had their passports checked. My husband did not need a visa to enter the UK. I had a proper visa but they still checked my passport thoroughly. My husband was furious. It did not need to be like that. Don’t Indonesian people also travel?

Once I travelled alone with my 4-months-old son from the US to Europe. At the airport in the US, when going through the security check, I found most people were told to go through a lane different than mine; I was asked to queue in another lane. Quickly people were processed through, but I had been kept waiting. I asked a female member of staff, ‘why am I asked to stay here, is it because I’m Indonesian?’ The woman told me, ‘wait here for a moment, I’ll check with my superior’. Later she came back and told me it was because I was carrying a baby. I would not let them be unfair to me. If you let this happen once, it will happen again!

After staying for in Europe for a few months, my baby son and I flew to Asia to meet my husband, who were there for research. The travel agent who booked my flights for me mentioned that other women who married European men felt it necessary to have the children’s birth certificates with them when travelling, so I also did that. When you are travelling with a son who does not look like you, you could be mistaken for having kidnapped him. The fact that we do not have the same surnames on my Indonesian passport and on his European passport could also make matters worse.

Before we moved to Taiwan, we had to undertake a health examination. My European husband and son were exempted, but I had to take a stool examination. I know it is to protect the people in Taiwan, local or foreign, for their health. And I would also hope to be protected by such requirements. Nevertheless, it still felt humiliating. We lived together as a family and they ate the food I cooked, so why would they be exempted but I had to be checked? Mistaken by local people for a migrant worker, I met Indonesian migrant workers in Taiwan, who thought I was also a migrant worker. But when they realised that I am a professional worker, they thought I did not belong to their group.

Because of my look, I have many identities. Prejudice and discrimination are not an extraordinary experience for me. Having a tanned skin and ordinary look, I am mistaken for being a maid, if I dress myself too casually. Marrying a European husband, I am mistaken for being a prostitute, if I dress myself too much. I know I am a stereotype inside or outside of Indonesia. I know I am always somewhere in between; but this is what it is.  


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.

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