Every Wednesday this past spring, Xu Xiao-wei, a third grader at Pingtung County’s Gongguan Elementary School in Pingtung County (eastern Taiwan), arrived on campus at dawn so she could participate in a Vietnamese culture class. Classes like those in Vietnamese at Gongguan Elementary School are a part of the National New Immigrant Torch Plan. During the 2012 school year, classes were launched at more than 300 elementary schools across the island to cultivate a sense of multiculturalism.
After greeting her teach, To Ngoc Anh, in Vietnamese, Xu joins 16 other students. They might sing a Vietnamese children’s song, practice their pronunciation or learn other aspects of Vietnamese culture. For instance, do you know that the Vietnamese zodiac is almost identical to the Chinese zodiac, except that the Vietnamese have a cat instead of a rabbit?
At a graduation ceremony held at the end of the semester, her teacher gave Xu an award and complimented her on her excellent Vietnamese pronunciation. In the audience was Xu’s proud Vietnamese mother, who has spoken Vietnamese to her daughter from a young age. Her mother said that the opportunity to study Vietnamese at school has allowed her daughter a greater command of Vietnamese writing and phonetics. She told Taiwan Panorama, she hopes this will spur her daughter to study by herself and use the Vietnamese dictionary.
Taiwan’s growing multicultural society
According to the Ministry of the Interior (MOI), Taiwan currently has 130,000 immigrant spouses from Southeast Asia and 320,000 from mainland China. In almost all cases, they are women married to Taiwanese men, noted Taiwan Panorama. These immigrants began to arrive in large numbers in 1998, peaking in 2004. At present, there are 161,821 children of immigrants in elementary schools and 41,525 in junior high schools.
Over the past nine years, the total number of elementary and junior high students fell from 2.84 million to 2.22 million, while the proportion of children of immigrants attending those schools rose from 1.6 percent to 9.2 percent. It is estimated that by the year 2030, 13.5 percent of all 25-year-olds in Taiwan will be the children of immigrants.
Su Hui-wen, chief of the Immigration Counseling Section at the National Immigration Agency, told Taiwan Panorama that in light of the increasing global trend toward transnational marriages, cultivating a sense of multiculturalism among the next generation is essential for creating an open, peaceful and competitive society.
With that in mind, the MOI and Ministry of Education launched the National New Immigrant Torch Plan in May 2012. The plan calls for local governments to select focus schools – elementary schools with at least 100 children or where 10 percent of the students enrolled are children of immigrants. Under the plan, teachers make visits to immigrant households, language classes are provided in the immigrants’ languages, summer camps are offered for both parents and children, and training given to volunteers.
In Pingtung County, where the children of immigrants number nearly 100,000, long before the Torch Plan was implemented, a group of women with the Juridical Association for the Development of Women’s Rights (JADWER) began to visit the county’s elementary schools located in the mountainous or remote areas, campaigning for multiculturalism in schools.
At Pingtung’s Gongguan Elementary School, all students are targeted for the Southeast Asian multicultural classes, explained To, a JADWER partner who teaches Vietnamese at the school. The classes are not confined to book learning, but incorporate interactive and fun lessons by using Southeast Asian traditional clothing and accessories, toys, photos and maps. Sometimes the teachers demonstrate how to cook Southeast Asian dishes in class. In addition to whetting the students’ appetites, these experiences are truly memorable experiences.
Ho Thanh Nhan, a Vietnamese woman who married a Taiwanese man, said she visits schools to promote multiculturalism because she wants to help children of immigrants adjust and be confident. As an example, she told a story of a boy whose parents had divorced. Three years ago the mother returned with him to Vietnam. This past year, the father brought him back to Taiwan to live with his family. However, by then, the boy had forgotten his Mandarin and was regularly excluded. He became an easy target for bullies who referred to him as a “Vietnamese idiot.” His teacher was at a loss about what to do.
Upon learning of the situation, Ho visited the child’s class and told his classmates that the student had forgotten his Mandarin while living with his mother in Vietnam, but living abroad can broaden our knowledge and teach us independence. She then invited the boy to the front of the class and had a conversation with him in Vietnamese. Witnessing the boy’s fluency in a foreign language and his confident manner, the door to his classmates’ acceptance was opened. After a couple of months, the boy’s Mandarin was much improved. He could joke with his classmates and mingle with others.
Learning their mothers’ native tongue
Taiwan Panorama pointed out one reason why many children of immigrant mothers perform poorly at school is that their home environments might not be as supportive of their education. Their mothers do not understand Chinese and are busy working all day long, and the fathers likewise do not offer much support. Often, it is the illiterate grandmothers who spend all day with the children. Under such circumstances, it is no surprise it becomes hard to supervise and support their schoolwork.
Ho said that immigrant mothers also understand that education is their children’s only path to advancing in society, but their husbands are not willing to take on any more responsibility by monitoring their children’s education. Consequently, it’s essential that children participate in supplementary instruction after regular school. Furthermore, government and school support ought to be extended to help immigrant spouses in their daily lives via language study, skills development courses, career guidance, and even marriage and family counseling. It also helps the development of children of immigrants to learn their mothers’ native tongue.
Su noted that if the mother’s language is valued, the mother’s status within the family will rise. She believes this will be the most direct effect of these classes. In the long-term, language is a part of the mother’s culture. If children of immigrants can pick up the torch of their Southeast Asian culture and language, it will also have a positive impact on their personal development and self esteem. In the future they will become the much-needed bilingual talent for expanding trade with ASEAN countries and increasing tourism.
Tsai Shun-jou, JADWER director, said that Taiwan society has long held prejudices against Southeast Asian cultures and languages. Quite a few immigrant mothers and their children, when they find that strangers and in-laws do not value their heritage, simply give it up. Yet if children are to inherit their mother’s language, it will depend on the mothers and children communicating through the inherited language in their daily lives. Mothers must be courageous and secure in their status, and school must foster an atmosphere that encourages multilingualism, reported Taiwan Panorama.