Backstory: A town of foreign marriages

Taiwanese men, unable to find local brides, turn to brokered unions – with mixed results.

From the busy street outside, Tsai Huang-jin's one-room noodle shop looks like any other no-nonsense eatery in this tiny village. It has metal tables, grimy condiment jars, and rotating fans that cut through the air that smells of chicken stock and diesel emissions from passing trucks.

But to the Vietnamese wives in this mountain town, it offers a taste of home: dark-roasted iced coffee blended with sweetened milk, chased by a steaming bowl of "pho," or Vietnamese soup. It's where they go to relax and share stories of married life in Taiwan, their new home, before going back to their daily routines of cooking, cleaning, and caring.

Over the past decade, 187 sons of Shihding (population: 7,800) have brought home a foreign bride, part of a wave of marriages that is reshaping Taiwan's demographics and sending ripples through a monocultural nation more accustomed to outbound than inbound migration. For the wives, who are expected to bear the children that this prosperous society increasingly lacks, it's a path out of poverty that is strewn with hazards, from isolation to subjugation.

Last year, 1 in 5 marriages in Taiwan were to a foreigner. Most were to women from China, Vietnam, and other Southeast Asian countries who met their husbands through marriage brokers. Dozens of agencies in Taiwan offer foreign tours for men to pick a bride; marriages can be arranged on the spot. Since 1987, Taiwan has registered more than 370,000 marriages to foreigners, and their share of national births has doubled in the last five years.

"In a traditional Taiwanese family, the men have the responsibility to carry on the family line," says Ke Yu-ling, executive director of the Pearl S. Buck Foundation, a nonprofit that helps foreign brides and their children. "They definitely need to have children, so when they reach 30 [or] 40, they're under a lot of pressure and might look for a foreign wife."

***

Set amid undulating mountains a half hour south of Taipei, Shihding is a town of squat concrete houses. Once a coal-mining town, it is mostly agricultural today, with fields of green tea climbing steep hillsides. Life is languid here. Traditions run deep. Inside his noodle shop, Mr. Tsai explains how he met his wife, Tran Kieu Thanh Thuy, on an arranged trip to Vietnam. Seven years on, they have three children who live with them and Tsai's extended family, across the street from their restaurant. He says that he went to Vietnam after failing to find a mate locally.

"Taiwanese women are too difficult," he says. "They won't take care of my parents when they get old. In Vietnam, it's more like Taiwan was in the 1960s – the traditions are still strong."

In recent decades, Taiwan's expanding economy has absorbed a female workforce that is increasingly educated and assertive, particularly when it comes to relationships. Women are delaying getting married – the average bride is 29 – and having fewer children. Taiwan's birthrate is among the world's lowest: 1.2 births per woman.

As a result, fewer women want to marry into traditional families in rural towns like Shihding. Childless men are instead traveling overseas to find a bride who will keep house and bear children without complaint. "Taiwanese women are well educated and have good jobs," says Tsai Chao-lan, a marriage broker in Taipei. "They have high demands and criteria for husbands, and I think it's difficult for men to keep up."

In the 1990s, marriage brokers began matching tens of thousands of young foreign woman with older Taiwanese men. But concerns over cases of Vietnamese women sold into prostitution spurred Taiwan last year to tighten the rules on marriage visas. Ms. Tsai used to average 40 to 50 marriages in Vietnam a month. Today she steers almost all her clients toward China.

Once in Taiwan, foreign brides must contend with culture shock, family politics, and social isolation, as well as homesickness. Some struggle to send money home to their families, often rebuffed by their husbands who control the purse strings.

Huang Vu Tuyet moved to Taipei in 2000 with her husband, a factory worker, and quickly felt the sting of her mother-in-law's tongue. Her cooking and laundry were criticized, and she felt unwelcome in a family that doted on her husband, an only son. She missed the warmth of Vietnamese life and its more egalitarian ways.

"The first year was very difficult for me, it was so hard to adjust. In Vietnam, women are very independent. We don't just serve men," she says.

After seeking counseling from a Vietnamese priest, Ms. Huang stuck it out in Taiwan. Three years ago, she gave birth to twins. She says her mother-in-law ignores the couple's daughter and insists on caring for their son.

Friction between foreign brides and their extended families is common, particularly if they don't speak a common language. By one estimate, 40 percent of the marriages break down within five years. Local governments have begun offering free Mandarin language classes to non-Chinese immigrants. The Pearl S. Buck Foundation runs hotlines for abused wives, counsels those seeking divorce, and helps local officials teach cultural adjustment. The Taipei government offers classes, too, including child-rearing. "We want to make sure that these brides are capable of taking care of their children," says Hsieh Ai-ling, director of population affairs at the Ministry of Interior. "These are children of Taiwan; they're our future."

***

Duong Nghinh Bao's experience as a foreign bride has been positive. The young Vietnamese woman met her husband, Hsu Shu-tien, at a friend's wedding. Mr. Hsu wasn't looking for a wife. But he had tried many Taiwanese women, and "none of them worked out," he says. The couple courted for seven months before getting married. Today they have two children and live above Hsu's teashop here.

"I had a special feeling when I arrived at [Taipei] airport," says Ms. Duong. "I knew I would adjust to this new life."

Other unions are far less romantic. Shihding officials say that some families refuse to let the wives even leave the house, for fear they may run away. In a cluttered shop house on the edge of town, Mong Thuy recalls meeting her husband, a shoemaker, via a marriage broker in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Within a week they were married, despite the objections of her father. She had two friends who married Taiwanese and figured it was an escape from privation.

"I just thought to myself, I only live once, so why not give it a chance," she says, sitting at a table, preparing betel nut wraps.

Her first plane ride ended at Taipei's international airport, and then she was off to Shihding. "On the way, I was thinking, Oh no, this is terrible, this doesn't feel right," Ms. Mong says, blinking back tears. At the time, few other Vietnamese lived here, and she felt cloistered at home and resented by her in-laws. The tensions increased when Mong couldn't conceive.

Today, she finds solace from her Vietnamese friends, who get together regularly to sing karaoke and cook their favorite food. Still, she has few illusions about her loveless marriage. "I want to run away, but I can't," she whispers.

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