Carmen Li has worked in Taiwan since 1999. She currently works for an electronics factory in Taoyuan County. Carmen also volunteers during mass as an usherette, lay minister, and in the CAIF, El Shaddai, and Lectors and Commentators programs. Carmen has told the story of her experience as a migrant worker for the documentary series, “The Migrant Worker’s Face.”
By Carmen Li
Edited by Hannes Zetzsche
When I met my husband, in 2002, I was not interested in marrying, or even dating, him.
Friends from the Philippines had warned me against marrying a Taiwanese man. They told me cautionary tales of friends they had known to suffer through Taiwanese-Filipino marriages: one Filipina who went crazy living with her in-laws; another who wanted to leave her husband when she learned of his infidelities but couldn’t justify the financial burden of leaving. I valued my independence and respected myself too much to marry a cheater!
So when I began working in Taiwan, in early 2002, I really wasn’t interested in any romance even as I began working with a good-looking Taiwanese man, about my age, at a television-satellite factory in Taoyuan. Some of my facial features make me look like I could be Han-Taiwanese and he would speak to me—in English once he realized how little Chinese I spoke. He seemed like a nice man and, as I continued to work with him, I decided to trust him.
By the end of 2002, I had begun to reciprocate his feelings for me and we began dating, eating dinners as a couple and spending time together on rest days away from the factory. I was falling in love and it felt so good!
But our job at the factory was very bad—our boss paid too little and treated us poorly—so, in 2003, I returned home to the Philippines and my romance was left budding.
I was born and raised near Manila, in the Luzon Province of the Philippines.
My parents were excellent teachers to my siblings and me. From an elementary age, I learned about Jesus from my mother. She would use the examples of Jesus’s life to show how goodness, kindness, and generosity looked and how we could incorporate such virtues to our lives. She lived this too; whenever my mother cooked, she would always call neighbors first and offer them food. Hungry neighbors often joined our family dinners.
My father was a great role model as well, a man of patience. We were a poor family in a poorer neighborhood, a status which would occasionally lead to neighbors’ jealousy and vilification of our family. Sometimes neighbors would even chastise my father in person, as I watched, but my father would maintain his composure and just smile.
To my siblings and me, my father would teach, “If you follow what Jesus wants, then you are doing right. Then, when you do right, you can wait for the good time and Jesus will provide. Wait for the good time and He will give what you need.” I always thought I wanted to marry a man like my father.
Of my siblings, I am the only who has married. My brother and sister are both younger than I am, and we were all very close when we were little. My sister is the family’s youngest and she lives at home still, taking care of our parents.
My brother is now a Franciscan Friar, working and praying in a monastery in the Philippines. When he told my family he planned to join the Franciscan religious order, my parents worried; after all, he was their only son and they knew Friars must vow to accept poverty and to never marry. My parents worried who would take care of them in their old age.
My brother had for years attended the local mass daily and spent much of his time with the parish priests, and he had made up his mind. My brother told us, “It’s okay. I am serving God, so don’t worry about me.” He’s a very good man.
I graduated from high school to my first factory 24 years ago this month, in June 1993.
I didn’t go straight to college after high school, because I wanted to work to earn money for my family. A Japanese company had built a factory near my house, in Luzon, and they hired me to work along their cell-phone assembly line. I didn’t mind the work and its proximity to my home allowed me to save money as I lived with my parents rent-free. My savings helped to support my siblings in high school and to provide for my parents.
While I worked, I also studied education at a college in Manila. I thought I might like to teach someday, so I would read and write for college courses during evenings after work. I studied and worked like this for more than six years until, on a whim, I decided to apply to work for a similar company based in Taiwan, where I knew I could earn much more.
I arrived in Manila for the interview, yet unaware of my application’s slim prospects. Because of the company’s prestige, 1,000 Filipinos had applied to work there, though only 250 of us would be hired. During my interview with the company, I realized I didn’t even meet the required height specifications to work there; I was 10 centimeters too short. But God helped me and I was hired.
My life in Taiwan began with three years of hard work. From 1999 to 2002, I assembled LCD screens for televisions and computers. For the first time in my life, I was paid bonuses for overtime work and, in each of my first few months, I earned more than NT $30,000, more than double what my monthly salary had been in the Philippines. I was working long hours, but the pay felt very rewarding and I began to fall in love.
The man who would become my husband must at first have thought I looked Taiwanese. We worked the same shift, among migrants from the Philippines and local Taiwan workers, and he tried several times to speak with me in Chinese. Though I didn’t understand what he said in his initial entreaties, I admired his charm. When he understood I am Filipina, he changed his tactic, speaking to me in simple English. I worried still about falling in love with a dishonest Taiwanese man so I tested him, waiting to see whether he would take advantage of me; he didn’t and I kept falling.
Once I recognized he was a man I could trust, I became like a 16-year old schoolgirl again, spending much of my time talking to him and more of my time thinking of him. We lived in separate dormitory buildings attached to our factory, and our dorm supervisors observed strict curfews at eight o’clock every night, but our nightly phone calls would often last until late at night. He treated me very well and introduced me to his parents; my Chinese was still very poor when I introduced myself to the Taiwanese couple who would become my in-laws, but my boyfriend helped me. His parents didn’t want him to marry a foreigner, fearing their grandchildren would lose Taiwanese tradition, but they liked me and seemed to give their blessings to our relationship. Throughout 2002, my mindset had been changed—no longer did I fear marrying a Taiwanese man, I prayed I would.
The next year would mark a sharp departure from the growth and prosperity I had experienced throughout 2002.
I returned dejectedly in 2003 from migrant work to the Philippines, prepared to end my relationship and stay home. After working three years for my first Taiwan company, in the LCD factory, I had transferred to another employer based nearby. My first three years had felt lucrative and I was eager to continue. But soon after transferring, I realized I could not expect the same quality treatment in the new company; there, I worked much less, no overtime hours, but earned much less as well, as little as NT $5,000 per month. After earning more than six times that amount for three years, I knew I was being cheated, and my coworkers and I complained. Already unhappy in my new environment, I decided to leave early once I heard rumors the company would go bankrupt. In 2003, less than a year after beginning my second three-year contract in Taiwan, I returned home to the Philippines, intending to stay.
Amidst a low point of my life, even as I felt disillusioned with migrant work in Taiwan, I still believed God was in control and intended great things for me.
Near the end of 2003, a broker reached out to me and implied there might be an opportunity for me to return to the Taiwan, to a good company. I knew the normal repercussions for migrant workers who had ended a contract early—they would be blacklisted by employers as unreliable and not again hirable. Few returned. But as I learned more from my broker, he offered me a position on an LCD-assembly line in a sister company to my generous first employers in Taiwan. I accepted.
Though my now-husband and I were no longer afforded the luxury of working together and living in neighboring buildings, we quickly reconnected and resumed our relationship. I was again very happy with my work, long hours and fair overtime wages, and my boyfriend continued to treat me very well.
After my third contract, in 2006, my boyfriend asked if he could join me for a visit home to the Philippines, to meet my parents. I didn’t understand why he would pay so much just for a brief trip, but I thought it would be good to spend more time with him. Over a glass of wine after dinner one night, he proposed marriage to me.
I remember not being very engaged in the conversation. It had been good to introduce family, friends, and my home to my then-boyfriend, but marriage was far from my mind; I had toyed with moving to Canada for my next contract of work. Then, to my father in English, “I would like your blessing to marry Carmen.”
After brief thought, my dad consented. Still in shock, I didn’t completely understand the exchange and didn’t hear my dad say yes. But we were married soon thereafter.
I love my husband for the many qualities he shares with my father.
A patient man, he loves me very well and he works to provide me a life in Taiwan. My husband is the third-oldest son in his family and thus we live on our own, away from his parents. (It is customary in Taiwan for the oldest son to live with his wife, children, and parents.) Though we may be wealthier if we lived with my in-laws, I did not marry my husband for wealth; I married him for his heart.
We both work near our apartment—he, for a rubber-manufacturing company on the edge of Zhongli, and I, for a USB-electronics company near my church—but we ride together to and from work every day. I don’t like to drive, but I could take a short bus ride to my work site every morning; instead, my husband insists he drive me on his motorbike and drop me off, even though the trip with me complicates his normal route to work. After my workday is finished, I can always count on him waiting for me outside the factory. He has a very good heart.
My husband is not Catholic, though he supports me in my faith. Often, on Sundays, I spend the entire day at church, among Filipinos praising God. I volunteer as a lay minister or altar server during Sunday-morning mass and then spend time at church activities during the afternoons. In the evenings, I usually don’t return home until eight o’clock, after I have attended the evening mass, but my husband waits patiently. He was raised Buddhist, but helps me to support Jesus.
I pray Novenas every night, a devotional 3 a.m. Catholic prayer, because it helps me to focus on Jesus and hear God’s voice undistracted. Often, though, when I am too tired, I do not awake in time to begin my prayers. Oversleeping my alarm, I will drowse on until my husband rustles me awake, reminding me to pray. Though he doesn’t join me in prayer or at mass, I feel that he supports me very well in my faith.
As good a man as my husband is, marrying a Taiwanese has not always been easy.
When my husband and I first returned to Taiwan to live, after marrying, I became lonely for Filipinos. When I had lived in Taiwan before, I had been surrounded by fellow Filipinos in my factory and I could relate well to them in my daily life. But now, married to a Taiwanese, I spent most of my time among friends and coworkers who were Taiwanese also; I was the only Filipina worker in my factory. I missed adobo and Tagalog. Though my Chinese had improved, I struggled still to express my feelings across a persistent and challenging language barrier. I loved my Taiwanese husband, but I hated the smell of Cho Tofu!
El Shaddai, at Hope Workers’ Center, afforded me the Filipino outlet I sought.
Since moving to Zhongli, with my husband, I had attended mass at the Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish, attached to the Hope Workers’ Center. I had volunteered wherever I saw a need—as lector, lay minister, usherette, in CAIF—but I hadn’t yet found my community. One Sunday, Sister Diosie announced during mass that a new group called El Shaddai would form among parishioners. The group would meet Sunday afternoons for charismatic-Catholic worship services. It felt so good to find my people!
It is a blessing to sing and dance every week with my fellow El Shaddai members. The group attracted my heart because of its focus on getting to know Jesus intimately, in small groups. I have been able to relate to Filipinas, although I now inhabit a world of mostly Taiwanese. Most of all, I have been able to relate to people who share my passion for Jesus.
I am very content with my life now. I am happy to be married to my husband and I thank God that I didn’t listen to my friends who told me never to marry a Taiwanese man. Certainly there are trials, but I believe when you have love you overcome trials.
“If you follow what Jesus wants, then you are doing right. Then, when you do right, you can wait for the good time and Jesus will provide. Wait for the good time and He will give what you need.”
This reflection by Carmen Li has been published by the Hope Workers’ Center as an entry to “The Migrant Worker’s Face” documenting project. The Hope Workers’ Center continues to seek stories like Carmen’s with which we can add detail to migrants’ intricate face. There are two ways that you can help us. If you are a migrant worker and would be willing to share your story, we want to hear from you directly! You can read instructions about how to participate here. If you are not a migrant worker, then we ask you to continue supporting our project: read our stories weekly and invite others to do the same.
The Hope Workers’ Center is dedicated to supporting migrant workers in our community. Through this project, we hope to appreciate the beauty of each person’s life while fostering recognition among a wider audience of the struggles that migrants regularly encounter in their work. Thank you for your support!