TAIPEI – A woman derided as a “foreign bride” after her cash-strapped Cambodian family married her off through a broker is set to make history in Taiwan’s parliamentary elections this week.
Lin Li-chan is running for lawmaker in the vote, which will be held alongside the presidential election, and is expected to win, making her the island’s first “new immigrant” legislator.
The term refers to those who came to Taiwan after the first wave of migration from China post-1949, when the island split from the mainland following a civil war.
“I had never thought about going into politics. In Cambodia, democracy was not a familiar concept,” Lin said in an interview. “It’s unbelievable how life turns out.”
Now 38 and a Taiwanese citizen, she was set up by her mother with a Taiwanese husband via a profit-making brokerage at the age of 20.
She moved from the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh to become one of Taiwan’s tens of thousands of immigrant spouses, mainly from Southeast Asia and China.
Their vulnerability has been highlighted by abuse cases in recent years, and Lin wants to draw on her own experiences to improve that.
“My father had passed away and my mother was struggling financially at that time. She decided to marry me off, and the relatives on my father’s side were angry, thinking she sold me to Taiwan,” Lin said. ” ‘Foreign brides’ like us were labeled as products and looked down upon.”
Unable to speak a word of Chinese, Lin was racked with homesickness but determined to adapt.
She picked up the language as she took care of her two children and helped at her husband’s small hardware factory.
But when her children doubted she could help with homework because of her Chinese, Lin decided to go to college. She went on to get a master’s degree before becoming an award-winning campaigner for new immigrants.
“I took my graduation robe to Cambodia when I went back to sweep my parents’ graves and tell them the good news, and I cried,” Lin said.
There were more than half a million foreign spouses in Taiwan in 2015, with many marriages arranged by matchmaking brokerages.
Demand for the service is partly driven because there are more men than women of marrying age in Taiwan, and more Taiwanese women are delaying marriage until later in life.
Taiwan banned profit-making brokerages in 2009 and allows only government-authorized organizations to provide international matchmaking.
The move came after a string of high-profile abuse cases, including one of a Taiwanese man who enslaved and tortured his Vietnamese ex-wife for seven months. He was imprisoned for just four and half years.
Campaigners say the situation is improving, and the term “foreign bride” is now deemed derogatory. But discrimination remains.
“There is still negative public perception that the women are bought and they come to Taiwan to make or con money,” said Hong Man-chi, a spokeswoman of TransAsia Sisters Association, a support group for overseas spouses.
Some employers offer low wages or demand they work overtime without pay, Hong says, knowing they are unfamiliar with labor laws.
A number of politicians have also been criticized for making derogatory public remarks about the women.
“Lin’s nomination symbolizes some progress,” said Lisa Huang, a spokeswoman for Taiwan International Family Association. “But it remains to be seen whether hers is an isolated case of success or an overall improvement.”
Lin is No. 4 on the list of “at-large” candidates for the ruling Kuomintang, seats allocated to a political party based on vote share.
At-large candidates tend to be political novices with expertise in academia or social advocacy.
With the party expected to win around 10 such seats, she is almost guaranteed a place in parliament.
Looking back, Lin — who is still with the husband she married at 20 — says she does not bear any animosity to her mother. “I was a naive young woman, and I didn’t think too much about it. I just obeyed my mother’s decision.”
Now she wants her experiences to make a difference.
“I hope I can do more for new immigrants as a lawmaker,” said Lin, who now considers herself Taiwanese.
“I think I have a mission to come to Taiwan . . . that a foreign woman who didn’t speak or read a word of Chinese can go this far. I think it’s fated.”