Tina Xie /photo by Kent Chuang /tr. by JR Lee
(photo by Kent Chuang)
There are quite a few children in Taiwan who grow up being looked after by caregivers from Southeast Asia. After being together for long periods of time, they become like family to each other despite differences in language and culture. These strong emotional bonds do not end when it comes time for the caregivers to leave. When these children grow up, they express their longing for their “second mothers” by learning about Southeast-Asian cultures and following topics related to migrant workers. Their experience offers another perspective from which we can see what the lives of migrant caregivers in Taiwan are like and what challenges they face.
Thanks to both Taiwanese and Indonesian media, in April of this year third-year high-school student Hsu Tzu-han was able to meet up online with Dwi Setyowati, the caregiver with whom she had lost contact some ten years earlier. Not long afterwards, Hsieh Pei-yu, a sophomore in college, managed to get in contact with her caregiver Le Thi Thu with the help of a Vietnamese Internet celebrity.
Family, not servants
Hsu Tzu-han, who liked watching the anime Cardcaptor Sakura when she was younger, always called Dwi “Sakura,” the protagonist of the show and the name by which the rest of the family then called Dwi. Hsu, meanwhile, thought of herself as Cerberus, Sakura’s teddy-bear-like companion and one of the guardians of the Clow Cards. Every morning when Hsu woke up, if her parents were not home Dwi would call them on the phone so she could hear their voices. When coming home after kindergarten, Dwi would take her on walks around the neighborhood. At night, Dwi would pat her back to lull her to sleep.
But one morning, Hsu Tzu-han woke up to find that Dwi had disappeared. Dwi, who had fulfilled her employment period, decided to leave without saying goodbye because she feared the child would not be able to take the shock of separation. However, not having the opportunity to express her feelings about Dwi’s departure closed off a door in Hsu Tzu-han’s heart. In later years, when her parents worked overseas, she would bury her sadness about their leaving and deal with the emotions on her own.
Over the past decade or so, the thought of searching for Dwi often crossed Hsu’s mind, but she was slow to take action because she didn’t think it would work out. Then one day she read an article titled “The Most Important Thing” that made her think of the teddy bear Dwi had given her and their time together. By the time she reached the end of the article, tears were flowing down her cheeks. From that moment on, she started having frequent dreams about Dwi, with the coronavirus pandemic only deepening the feelings for her that had been growing over the past years. Upon seeing news about the increasingly serious epidemic in Indonesia, Hsu became more and more concerned. At last she decided to search for Dwi.
Speaking up for the silent workers
Hsu Tzu-han and Dwi’s story was translated into Indonesian and published on Opinion, an online platform for CommonWealth Magazine. The story later made local Indonesian news with the help of a Central News Agency reporter stationed in Indonesia. Some serious headway had finally been made in a plan which had seemed to have very little hope at first. As if destined by fate, Hsu Tzu-han and Dwi finally got to see each other by video call on Mother’s Day.
“Tzu-han, how you’ve grown!” Upon seeing Hsu, Dwi kept asking if she had eaten enough. During this virtual reunion, the two of them chatted for four hours and often cried at being apart from one another. Knowing that Dwi no longer uses Chinese, Hsu Tzu-han had to express herself with simple vocabulary. She also realized that Dwi would say “Yeah!” when she didn’t understand, so Hsu would rephrase her sentence. The two of them promised to meet up in Indonesia when the pandemic is over.
After finding Dwi, Hsu Tzu-han felt a greater sense of responsibility toward Southeast-Asian migrant workers in Taiwan. Her interest in law had previously led her to think of working from within the system to speak up for migrant workers who suffer inequalities. But her experience looking for Dwi has also opened her eyes to the power of the media and the written word.
Hsieh Pei-yu and her grandmother reminisce about the days when Le Thi Thu lived in Taiwan. They view Thu as one of the family. (photo by Kent Chuang)
A child’s obstinacy and dependence
Hsieh Pei-yu’s family saw Le Thi Thu as a member of the family. They not only ate together with Thu, they also treated her like a daughter. Hsieh’s grandmother often bought Thu clothes, and Hsieh’s mother would take her to get her hair done. One time, Hsieh’s mother even took Thu to the hospital to get an IV drip when she got sick. Despite being the one to spend the most time with Le Thi Thu, young Hsieh Pei-yu, on the other hand, was disobedient and ill-mannered when speaking to Thu, and would even pull pranks on her.
“I would get angry whenever Thu didn’t understand something in Chinese. One time when we were eating, I even climbed onto her back. I wasn’t expecting her to stand up, so I fell off.” Hsieh Pei-yu says she may have been imitating the way her father treated Thu. Her father, uncouth in both personality and appearance, would often say hurtful things to Thu like, “Well, you’ll be gone eventually anyway!”
Even though Hsieh Pei-yu was unkind to Le Thi Thu, she was more emotionally reliant on her than on her own mother. At night when she wet her bed, she would always go to her younger brother’s room to wake Thu to help her so that she didn’t disturb her mother next to her. One time in kindergarten, she was suspected of having stolen something and no one believed her when she said she hadn’t. Hsieh feels sure that had Le Thi Thu still been in Taiwan, she would have stood up for her because she had always accepted her unconditionally.
Respect every hardworking caregiver
“When I was older, when sleeping alone or just spending time by myself I would often think of Le Thi Thu.” Having been raised in Keelung, Hsieh Pei-yu thought about Thu often when she felt lonely at school in Taichung. But it wasn’t until she saw the story about Hsu Tzu-han and Dwi that she decided she had to see Le Thi Thu again no matter what.
Thanks to help from Vietnamese Internet celebrity Pham Thao Van, she found Le Thi Thu in less than one day.
During their video call, Le Thi Thu seemed to remember more about the Hsieh family than even Hsieh Pei-yu and her mother. After Thu returned to Vietnam, she often wore the houndstooth dress that Hsieh’s mother had given her whenever she went to sing karaoke. The news of Hsieh Pei-yu looking for her “second mother” turned Le Thi Thu into something of a local celebrity. Her neighbors now ask her when she will go to Taiwan to reunite with the Hsieh family.
Thanks to Le Thi Thu, Hsieh Pei-yu found warmth to cling to in her loneliness. She also became more interested in Vietnam and more sympathetic to the plight of migrant workers. “Not all migrant workers are treated well. Many people still look down on them.” Using the exposure from her search for her “second mother,” Hsieh Pei-yu takes the opportunity to remind parents with foreign caregivers to be mindful of how they treat them so their children do not pick up negative attitudes.
Migrants have feelings too
Liao Yun-chan, director of Opinion and founder of the “Finding Long-Lost Second Mothers” program, helped Hsu Tzu-han and Hsieh Pei-yu tell their stories. The program has given her the chance to reflect on the fact that Taiwanese people generally underestimate the value of emotional labor, despite the fact that caregivers are the most important source of support for the family members who receive their care.
“They are not objects. They are family.” Liao Yun-chan thinks this is an opportunity for Taiwanese people to reconsider the relationship between employers and caregivers. Both the government and the public need to understand that migrant workers have feelings too. Employers should not only concern themselves with a caregiver’s salary, but also their emotional health. By way of example, Liao cites a case where an employer invested in a restaurant to help their Filipina caregiver stay in Taiwan. Liao Yun-chan hopes that stories like these will be more common in the future. She also hopes migrant workers from Southeast Asia can find both love and respect in a place far away from home.
Liao Yun-chan thinks that finding these “second mothers” is an opportunity for Taiwanese people to reconsider the relationship between employers and Southeast-Asian workers.