The politics of "Maria" in Taiwan

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During the last few days, there has been a huge furor over this sentence spoken publicly by the Mayor of Kaohsiung City, Han Kuo-yu (Daniel Han):

"Mǎlìyà yīxiàzi zuò wǒmen Yīngwén lǎoshī 瑪莉亞一下子做我們英文老師" ("Maria suddenly becomes our English teacher")

Newspaper articles describing the incident, which is now being referred to as the "'Mǎlìyà' shìjiàn「瑪麗亞」事件" ("'Maria' Affair"), may be found here (in Chinese, with video clip) and here (in English).

Mayor Han is notorious for his errant, flippant manner of speaking, but this instance — which he later claimed was a "joke" — quickly came back to haunt him.  To understand why this is so, we need to take into account a number of factors.

First of all, in recent years, there has been a big push to promote English throughout the country:  "English as an official language in Taiwan" (12/8/18).  Kaohsiung, in particular, aims to become a bilingual city in the near future.  Consequently, in the rush to learn English, a conspicuous shortage of qualified English language teachers has become apparent.  Mayor Han's quip may have been prompted by the fact that more than 90% of Filipinos in Taiwan speak fluent English, albeit often with a special accent:

Watch also here and here.

Filipinos form the third largest national contingent of migrant workers and account for about one-fifth of foreign workers in Taiwan as of April 2011. There are about 77,933 Filipino workers in Taiwan, with 53,868 of them working in the manufacturing sector and 22,994 people working as caregivers.

As in Hong Kong, where there are even more Filipina maids, most of the Filipinos in Taiwan are domestic helpers and caregivers whose social status in general is lower than that of the local inhabitants.  As such, people who want to learn English may find it somewhat unsettling to have a Filipino as an English teacher.

A large proportion of the domestic Filipina domestic helpers are named "Maria" (see below for more information about the name "Maria" among Filipinas).  To use "Maria" as a blanket designation for all Filipina migrant workers is considered to be politically incorrect, demeaning, and discriminatory.  This accounts for the uproar over Mayor Han's off-the-cuff reference to "Marias" becoming English teachers for Taiwanese.

Foreign labor was illegal until 1992 when the Taiwan government formulated its first policy to permit the importation of workers from abroad. According to Prof. Lucie Cheng's survey (see the Table below): (1) Filipino and Thai workers dominated the makeup of all foreign labor throughout the decade 1991-1999, and (2) Thai labor (most are male) decreased and Filipino labor (most are female) increased. While Thai workers are found in large numbers in public construction work, most Filipinos are in domestic and care-giving work.

image.png
Lucie Cheng, "Transnational Labor, Citizenship and the Taiwan State," in East Asian Law: Universal Norms and Local Cultures. Eds. by Arthur Rosett, Lucie Cheng and Margaret Woo. London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003, pp. 85-104.

Since the 90s, large numbers of female Filipinos have been employed in Taiwanese households, and many of them have the name "Maria."  Maria is one of the most popular names in the Philippines (influenced by Spanish colonization, 1521-1898).  (For more information about the name "Maria" for female Filipinos, see this article.)

"Maria" has gradually become like a nickname or a code name in Taiwan, with stereotypes — someone who is a female servant in a house, who takes care of elders, has darker skin, with a Filipino English accent…, etc.

Due to population aging, the need for domestic and care workers has been on the increase. In 1999, the need accounts for more than half of the large increase of Indonesian workers. However, people are in the habit of calling all of them "Maria," regardless of their country of origin.

A Taiwanese colleague described the attitudes of many Taiwanese toward the Filipina domestic workers thus:

Because of a famous commercial, Maria (瑪莉亞) has become a synonym for foreign laborers from the Philippines. It even stands for doing housework and being a servant. Therefore, it has a derogatory meaning, especially toward the Filipinos. In this context, it means that people in Taiwan usually think of the Filipinos as foreign laborers, serving and doing housework at home, so they think, "How could they be our English teachers?"  When Mayor Han blurted it out, it was discriminatory and politically incorrect because it means we Taiwanese think we are superior to and better than the Filipinos and think that the Filipinos are only capable of doing housework, not teaching English. It also shows that Taiwanese people think that hiring English teachers from the U.S., U.K., or Australia will be better than hiring Filipinos.

One Taiwanese citizen whom I asked about the "Maria incident" had this to say:

Yes, it is a discrimination and an insult.  Many Taiwanese endeavor to uphold fairness and justice, but some stupid City Mayor, like Han Kuo-yu (who supports a one-China policy 一個中國政策, that is, Taiwan is one province of China), can destroy all the good efforts of everyone else in a second. Honestly, I don't like him. When the local election in 2018 was decided and Xi declared on January 3, 2019 that he wants progress on China's decade-long quest to win control of Taiwan, I was very anxious. I feel there is nowhere to go — because I am a Taiwanese, I was born in Kaohsiung and grew up in Tainan, I have to stay here.

Another Taiwanese citizen remarked:

It's because there are many Filipino women working in Taiwan as maids and Maria is a very common name for these ladies. Mayor Han was criticized for stereotyping these women and discriminating against their English skills because many of them speak English with strong accents. I believe Han made this comment in response to the suggestion that we could have these Filipino maids teach Taiwanese kids English. Nowadays in Taiwan, it is very easy for public figures to be accused of discriminating against women. However, many supporters of Han also believe that it's just purely political attack from his opponents since Han has become a huge political star and might be a potential presidential candidate in 2020.

N.B.:  The current President of Taiwan is Tsai Ing-wen, the first female President of the Republic.  She is up for reelection in 2020.

The stakes surrounding "Maria" are high, both for English-language instruction and for presidential politics.

[Thanks to Yongmin Lee, Melvin Lee, Sophie Wei, Chia-hui Lu, and Mark Swofford]



18 Comments

  1. Bathrobe said,

    March 18, 2019 @ 9:48 pm

    I don't understand the context in which the mayor said this. It could easily be interpreted as meaning, "We should stop discriminating against the Filipinas in our midst and start regarding them as legitimate resources for studying English". If that were the case, this would be anything but a discriminatory statement — unless you happen to ascribe to the discriminatory mindset of many Taiwanese.

    But apparently this is not what the mayor meant, but it's impossible to tell without context.

  2. Kate Gladstone said,

    March 18, 2019 @ 9:56 pm

    How will you solve the problem of "Maria"
    Teaching a tongue you know you need to learn?
    How will you solve the problem that "Maria's"
    The only one on hand, to whom to turn?

    Many a job you'd rather see her doing —
    Many a blow she gives your sense of pride —
    Just by knowing what she knows!
    You cannot presuppose
    That to learn from her is ever dignified …

    Oh, how do you solve a problem like "Maria"?
    Her competence at English should be banned!

  3. Laura Morland said,

    March 18, 2019 @ 10:51 pm

    @ Kate Gladstone —

    BRILLIANT!

  4. AntC said,

    March 19, 2019 @ 2:05 am

    I think I'm right in saying that up to a century ago, Philippines was wealthier than China, and rich Philippine families employed Chinese maids as domestics. (This was admittedly mostly under Spanish then American colonial rule.)

    Half a century of corrupt self-rule post World War II has turned the Philippine economy into a basket-case, and reversed the trafficking in domestics.

    From my experience living in HK early '90's: yes the Filipinos have a "special accent"; no I didn't find any difficulty understanding them; in fact their English was fluent and easier to understand than most HK'ers, of whom it was only a small business/international elite who were fluent in English.

    With respect to 'Foreign workers in Taiwan', I'm surprised not to see Vietnamese mentioned. Travelling in the country, I encountered as many Vietnamese as Thais, and very few Filipinos/as (perhaps they're not visible because they're slaving away indoors). Contrast that Filipinas were very conspicuous in HK as 'amma's taking children to/from school and into the parks to play. I also remember the deafening Tagalog 'twittering like birds' in Statue Square on their Sunday day off — which the PRC government has now closed down.

    Vietnamese are distinctive by their sing-song accent, even when speaking putonghua.

    Interesting that Han Kuo-yu's star is waning already. When I was there only a few months ago, you'd think from the TV coverage that he was the President.

    supports a one-China policy

    What I don't get is why the KMT? Aren't they the cohorts that fought against the CCP and refused to negotiate/reconcile with PRC? Can't they see what is happening with the PRC takeover of HK? I'm reminded of the Woody Allen gag: 'the lamb shall lie down with the lion'; but the lamb won't get much sleep. The only political demonstrations I saw in Taiwan, were exactly against one-China: "Taiwan is not Chinese Taipei". KMT are dreaming if they think they'll ever be part of a government of China. PRC wants back the treasures and gold that KMT spirited out of the Forbidden City.

  5. George said,

    March 19, 2019 @ 3:10 am

    I'm trying to square the reference to "77,933 Filipino workers in Taiwan, with 53,868 of them working in the manufacturing sector" with "most of the Filipinos in Taiwan are domestic helpers and caregivers". It's either one or the other, obviously, but if we assume that the assertion backed up by actual numbers is the correct one, isn't it telling that there should be such a difference between the stereotype and the reality?

  6. Michael Watts said,

    March 19, 2019 @ 3:59 am

    I'm trying to square the reference to "77,933 Filipino workers in Taiwan, with 53,868 of them working in the manufacturing sector" with "most of the Filipinos in Taiwan are domestic helpers and caregivers".

    Those numbers claim to be from April 2011; it seems possible that if Thai laborers have decreased and Filipina domestics have increased, Filipino laborers may also have decreased over the past 8 years.

    For example, the table of statistics from the 1990s indicates that there are over 122,000 Filipinos in Taiwan; 77,933 in 2011 is already a pretty sharp step down.

  7. John said,

    March 19, 2019 @ 5:21 am

    Indonesians form the vast majority of domestic migrant workers in Taiwan currently (here is a Chinese news article late last year giving the percentage as 80%: https://udn.com/news/story/7266/3535754 ). However, the first domestic migrant workers back in the 90s were mostly Filipino, so the stereotype has stuck.

    The context of the quote was a meeting with local business leaders, where someone asked about the possibility of allowing Filipino white-collar workers. Han's reply was:

    菲律賓取才這個
    "When it comes to recruiting from the Philippines
    我想高雄市民
    I think the feelings of the citizens of Kaohsiung
    跟台灣人民這個心理狀態
    and the people of Taiwan
    一定會有很大的衝擊
    will be greatly impacted by this
    怎麼瑪麗亞一下變我們老師了
    How come Maria is suddenly our teacher now?"

  8. Krogerfoot said,

    March 19, 2019 @ 6:22 am

    Whatever the context, majority/elite group members referring to outgroup members by a stereotypical name or occupation is insulting when you're on the receiving end. All the more so when people, sincerely or not, profess not mean anything derogatory by it.

    I remember vividly after performing with a band in Tokyo (where I've lived for a long time), the group after us mentioned "that Nova-teacher's band" onstage several times. It was really upsetting, even though English teachers are generally afforded most every privilege foreigners can get in Japan.

  9. cliff arroyo said,

    March 19, 2019 @ 12:39 pm

    "in recent years, there has been a big push to promote English throughout the country"

    Why? What do they concretely hope to gain that they can't get in the current status quo?

    The fact that the Asian country (aside from maybe Singapore) that most invests in English is also so much poorer than Taiwan should be a warning sign that English-at-all-costs is not the way to go….

  10. AntC said,

    March 19, 2019 @ 5:03 pm

    The fact that the Asian country (aside from maybe Singapore) that most invests in English is also so much poorer than Taiwan …

    There are very clear reasons why Philippines is poor (corrupt politics, geography/climate, lack of natural resources). It has nothing to do with how much English they do/don't speak. But come to that, consider how much poorer they'd be if the 'amma's weren't educated to High-school level or the filipinos who form the backbone of cruise ship crews couldn't speak to the passengers.

    Taiwan can't compete with mainland China or Thailand/Indonesia on terms of cheap labour. It's not big enough to have much natural resources. It can't compete by being an entrepot or communications hub like Singapore, because of the dominance of PRC. It can only compete by being high-tech, through its well-educated labour force. There is a huge emphasis on educational achievement.

    The high-tech industries are mostly based around Taipei/northern end of the country. Kaohsiung is seen as a port city for exporting agricultural produce and for dirty/low-tech manufacturing. (On a recent trade mission, Han Kuo-yu was promoting pineapples aot. There's lots of (petro-)chemical plants; perhaps they're why the pineapples are so tasty. ;-) Han Kuo-yu is trying to take the city/region up-market.

  11. Don Keyser said,

    March 19, 2019 @ 6:12 pm

    with apologies for nostalgia cum frivolity …

    Amusing … but perhaps the estimable Mayor Han viewed West Side Story when he was a mere youth … that being one of the few films during the Martial Law era that passed muster as not being (1) 紅色的 — communist-influenced (2) 黃色的 — pornographic (3) 黑色的 — dealing with criminal or other unsavory activities (4) 灰色的 — provoking depression/melancholy about the present and the future or (5) 綠色的 — causing envy or jealousy, especially about "thy neighbor's wife" and such.

    Those were the days. When I arrived in Taiwan summer 1968 to begin two years of language study at the Stanford Center, the film pickin's were slim except at the US Military Assistance Advisory Group [MAAG] compound if one cared to brave the sentries and walk in. In 1969, though, I did view "The Thomas Crown Affair" at a local theater in 西門町. It was regarded by Taiwanese as especially daring, and a sign of mild liberalization in the martial arts regime, given that the plot involved a bank heist [黑色的] and the relationship between Steve McQueen (Thomas Crown) and Faye Dunaway (the insurance fraud investigator) got pretty steamy [黃色的] by prevailing standards. But it was most memorable because while the version released in the U.S. had Thomas Crown flying off to freedom, a successful heist accomplished and the proceeds stashed safely offshore, the version I saw in Taiwan had a subtitle instructing viewers that when Thomas Crown arrived at his destination he was immediately apprehended by Interpol, returned to stand trial, and jailed for many years.

  12. Martha said,

    March 19, 2019 @ 8:34 pm

    This reminds me of how white ladies – ones who make frivolous and aggressive complaints to service workers and/or will call the cops on black people for minding their own business – are referred to as "Karen" on (American) social media.

  13. cliff arroyo said,

    March 20, 2019 @ 1:51 am

    "There are very clear reasons why Philippines is poor (corrupt politics, geography/climate, lack of natural resources). It has nothing to do with how much English they do/don't speak"

    Well it's reasonable to assume that the use of English in government helped create and maintain corruption. Language can be an iron wall of division between the governing and the governed…

    "are referred to as "Karen" on (American) social media."

    I thougtht she was a Becky…. did something change?

  14. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 20, 2019 @ 6:35 am

    Use of a first name thought stereotypical of the group as a jocular-to-pejorative label for the group as a whole is not uncommon in English. Examples that come to mind include (as well as the fairly recent "Becky/ies" noted above): "Mick(s)" in (at least) AmEng for "persons of Irish ethnicity," "Guido(s)" in more recent AmEng for "a specific deprecated social type that is characteristically Italian-American, although narrower than that whole group," "Fritz" as WW1-era BrEng slang for "German soldiers." Although then you've got the Aust&NZ "sheila" meaning more or less just "woman" or perhaps (to get the register right) "chick," whose etymology is unclear to me. Did it start meaning "Irishwoman" or "woman behaving in some stereotyped-as-Irish way" and then spread out?

  15. F said,

    March 21, 2019 @ 5:45 am

    I imagine Karen is 55 and Becky is 30 (and any other differences between them stem from this.)

  16. ouen said,

    March 22, 2019 @ 1:48 pm

    As you've said before, in Taiwan white foreigners are 外國人

    As for southeast Asians in Taiwan, they very often get called 外勞 (foreign labourer), just by virtue of being from Southeast Asia. In a fast food restaurant with a Thai classmate before the waiter asked who to give the order to and the chef said 那個外勞

    The phrase is also often used to describe caregivers from Southeast Asia even though that type of worker isn't usually called a labourer, and certainly wouldn't be a labourer if it was a Taiwanese person doing the work.

    外勞 is bad enough, but when I first arrived it was most common to hear people to use 泰勞 (Thai labourer) to describe anyone from Southeast Asia, despite the fact that Thai people were not even the largest group of southeast Asian migrants in Taiwan at that time. I remember it very clearly, I was visiting an language exchange partner I'd met online in Taichung. There was a group of southeast Asian men in the station who we walked past and u didn't take much notice of, but once we'd walked by he commented that the smell of their cologne was overpowering. He claimed authoritatively that 泰勞 don't shower much so they wear a lot of cologne to cover up the smell. I hadn't smelled anything. I had also heard the same theory from a racist in Europe describing Turkish migrants, so it's interesting that racists have similar imaginations around the world.

  17. ouen said,

    March 22, 2019 @ 2:09 pm

    Another aspect of discrimination against south East Asians in Taiwan is that overseas Chinese from SEA who settle in Taiwan usually manage to avoid it. You won't be called 外勞 or 泰勞 if you're Chinese Malaysian for example.

    Interestingly a DPP politician who is of a Taiwanese aboriginal background says she was called Maria as an insult when she was younger

  18. Rodger C said,

    March 23, 2019 @ 10:37 am

    He claimed authoritatively that 泰勞 don't shower much so they wear a lot of cologne to cover up the smell.

    My parents authoritatively told me the same thing about Europeans.

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