Expat Chat: On being a Western Wife: Part 1 of 2

A Taiwanese mate is a good mate!

When I told people that I’d married a “PingDong Man”, a huge smile would break out on their face and almost invariably they’d exclaim, ‘Ah, Taiwan xifu!”

What’s a Taiwan xifu? I wondered.

It means “Taiwan daughter-in-law”. But it has another, very positive connotation — of total acceptance in this culture, and of having entered the big family that is made up of all Taiwan people.

Being a Taiwan xifu, to me at least, is kind of like an honorary membership, having citizenship without the passport — with a touch of being a mascot or trophy wife. “Ah, you’re one of us now, you’ve joined our ranks!” they seem to be saying.

We Western wives certainly are a rare bunch. A majority of ‘foreign wives’ here are Southeast Asian women that marry Taiwanese men, seeking a better life and propping up the world’s lowest fertility rate. Western wives make up a tiny fraction of foreign women who tie the knot with a Taiwanese guy.

Some find it refreshing to hear of an intercultural couple (I happen to cringe at the terms ‘mixed race’ or ‘interracial’), that is the other way around. For a change, it’s not just another Western man “taking” one of their women!

When I would walk down the street hand-in-hand with my Taiwanese man, I’d get the distinct impression Taiwanese people really liked and approved of this relationship. It sends out the message that Taiwanese men are desirable, and attractive, and sought after as mates. Perhaps the Taiwanese lack confidence in themselves… for some reason! It is positive reinforcement.

But, we may ask, why is this so rare? After all, male or female, a Taiwan mate is a good mate, right? These are good people!

And from a Western woman’s perspective, Taiwanese men can be attractive for their ‘old-fashioned’ qualities of honesty, gentleness, a touching sweetness; and their work ethic is impressive. The Taiwanese man’s traditional bent, in the sense of wanting (and expecting) to be the head of the family, the responsible provider and main breadwinner, is something that commands respect, in my view (statistically, Taiwanese work harder than anybody in the world, at least longer hours than even the Japanese).

As a feminist — and this may seem quixotic to some — I thought I’d found a man who wanted to ‘take care of me’ (and, he said, my family, and would be interested in starting one). I loved this sentiment, not because I needed to be taken care of, or wasn’t self-sufficient, because I am very much so; but he wanted to ‘take care of me’ because he cared for me. And in this culture, that is what you do — if you love someone, you take care of them. That is so right!

In the West, men today tend to glorify promiscuity and ‘playing the field’. That jaded Western attitude and inability to enter a committed relationship, or to be true to one’s feelings about someone special was ultimately a huge turnoff, to me at least — and a characteristic Taiwanese men usually don’t possess, fortunately! There’s nothing wrong with valuing loyalty and fidelity, in my book!

This aspect is rarely discussed, but sometimes Taiwanese men do dream of marrying a Western woman. Maybe you could call it ‘White Fever’! I know of Taiwanese men who really would like to get together with foreign women, and they think Taiwanese women are “too Hello Kitty”!

Plus, they get certain social prestige and positive attention from the experience of seeing a laowai woman; for example, they get respect/’face’ in the workplace (where they are generally urged to have good English skills); or in their hometowns, for the novelty and exoticism marrying a foreigner brings them.

Western women don’t usually come to Taiwan for the men, whereas this is usually one of the top reasons for Western males to show up on these shores! In fact, foreign women often complain that the men here are painfully shy, ‘effeminate’, lack confidence (which doesn’t help the obvious language barrier problem). Foreign women also complain that men here rarely if ever make the first move; perhaps they are intimidated by our freedom-loving Western women! Culturally, for example, going out to the pub is something almost everyone and their dog (literally) in England does. Here in what’s described as more ‘socially conservative’ Taiwan, only ‘bad girls’ do so.

In fact, the ‘traditional’ values held here dictate that Western women’s freedom-loving nature, our great independence in lifestyle and expectations of equality in relationships, may be difficult for Taiwanese men to understand or accept – at least at first! Our wide network of male and female friends may seem a bit overwhelming to them, when their social network is relatively quite small and restricted to classmates or colleagues. Issues of jealousy and possessiveness may arise but can be worked out, though, with some patience and understanding.

Taiwan is a place where most young people stay at home until they marry. Often this is one unappealing aspect to foreign women, if the men lack independence from their parents. Interestingly, they have this in common with Italian men, who are also considered ‘mama’s boys’, staying home until they’re married. However, the positive side to this situation is the Taiwanese cultural devotion to the family and parents, and they’re deeply respectful to not only their family but yours, too. They are expected to care for / send money to their parents, for instance, especially if the ‘fumu’ (parents) are say, farmers, as in my case. But I see this Confucian element of Taiwanese society as a positive. It’s a touching contrast, really, to have such respect for one’s parents; and the erstwhile dreaded ‘mother-in-law’ problem no longer seems to be such a dilemma in this society.

The point here is that a man who lives with his parents and thus under their control, may not, initially at least, be attractive to the independence-minded woman who has travelled across the world to work here, all on her own, which is commonly the case for Western women in Taiwan.

But the stability of marriage with a Taiwanese is appealing for those of us who wish to live here and make a life here in Taiwan – and it’s a good life. As one of my friends Biff once dryly observed, “If you want to stay in Taiwan, sooner or later you’ll have to get married.” This applies to Western women, too. The constant immigration hassles eventually wear us down!

I had no plans to marry, being deeply skeptical of the institution, as well as not wanting the loss of my freedom. But it’s not so bad being married, and this is of course a huge understatement, especially when it comes to paperwork!

Getting married Taiwan is astonishingly simple – it involves going to the local household registration office, filling out some paperwork, shelling out 200nt (about US$8), and a week later, voila, you get the marriage certificate and make the Last Visa Run (ahhh… bliss!) to change your status to ‘permanent residency based on marriage to a Taiwanese’.

These words are music to the ears of your prospective employers, since it also saves them so much hassle in filing paperwork! It also is proof that you’re not just one of the many foreigners who are here today to make a quick buck, and gone tomorrow. You’re the safe bet on whom to hire today, because your family is here.

There are many other bennies, as well – no more bloody visa runs, you can work if and where and when you please, you can work several jobs at once, freelancing, all absolutely hassle-free; or quit your job if your boss is being an anus — all without having to deal with all the bureaucratic red tape, or rushing to get another official employer to sponsor the dreaded and fairly useless ARC (Alien Resident Certificate).

Then, after five years according to the current immigration rules, you can apply for a permanent residency based on marriage. You can even get a divorce if you need to, and still retain your permanent residency — and the same blissful freedom in employment status.

Ah, the charmed life…!

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