Tuesday, July 18, 2017

I just creamed my pants over this article in The Diplomat

No, really, this is excellent:

The Chinese Cult of Cairo

This is what people who have actually studied Taiwanese history have been saying for years. This is a truth that, while fairly well-known by those who know Taiwan, is rarely put in print for easy reference. It is a thing of beauty - clear, precise, accurate.

I quite literally gasped when I read it. I haven't seen something this clearly lay out the 1943-1952 history of the region...well, ever. Maybe I wasn't looking hard enough, but honestly, such work is hard to come by.

Even "Accidental State", which covers this period of history ending with Dulles' final agreement with Chiang Kai-shek, gives only one paragraph to this complex string of treaties which seem opaque to many (but actually aren't), and doesn't fully explain them.

It fully explains certain myths, like the idea that Cairo and Potsdam are legally binding (wrong), that the Treaties of San Francisco and Taipei unequivocally give Taiwan to China (wrong), that the ROC has been the sole legitimate government of Taiwan since 1945 (wrong), and that international law/ the UN / the United States / the goddamn Cookie Monster considers Taiwan to be Chinese, or even settled as "the ROC" with no other interpretation needed, that the ROC believed Taiwan to be "returned" to them (false) or that these powers intended for Taiwan to be a part of China (nope), that Taiwan was "returned" to China at all (wrong) or any other manner of stupid claims.

We need more work like this to drown out China's sound and fury which signifies nothing.

For once, I have nothing to add. That should tell you all you need to know.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Delta vs. Masters Throwdown

I've only been at Exeter for a few weeks and haven't started the assignment writing part of my course yet, so I may come back and edit this at some point in the future. However, I do feel qualified to comment on what it's like doing a modular Cambridge Delta compared to doing a Master's degree in TESOL.

In the introductory section on the first day of my MEd program, I walked into the classroom remembering this completely preposterous exchange on Facebook: the admin of a CELTA-specific group grew inexplicably angry when I ventured that a Delta was likely just as challenging as a Master's, and a Delta holder will have learned just as much as a Master's graduate (although they may have learned some different things, and certainly in different ways).

"A Master's is a one-year or several-year high-level program. A Delta can be completed in 12 weeks. There is no way a Delta can compare to a Master's," the admin insisted.

Although I had not yet started a Master's then, I was basing this suggestion on anecdotes from friends and colleagues who have done both, many if not all of whom feel Delta was actually harder. I was also considering the Ofqual rankings, which award Delta the same level (7) as a Master's. Surely they wouldn't do so for no reason. I was also considering my Delta experience, which consisted of deep and intensive exposure to the academic and practical corpus of research into teaching and learning English, from the fairly unacademic, somewhat beginner 'How to...' series all the way up to dense analyses in Applied Linguistics. Most of our work was self-directed, with the expectation that we would, after Module 1, create thoughtful and worthwhile output rather than a regurgitation of our reading.

For this insolence, I was banned from the group, but whatever. I was mostly amused by the other person's complete certainty that the Delta was the cakewalk and the Master's was the rigorous training program. I am not certain the holder of this deep and anger-inducing opinion held either degree.

That's a part of why I'm writing this - there are a lot of opinions out there, mostly by people who have taken one course or the other (but not both), or who have done neither. I'm not sure I'm better qualified than those people quite yet, but I have some experience and an 'Edit' button for future thoughts, so I figure it's worth having a go. Don't take this as my final opinion on the matter: my thoughts on this are very much a work in progress.

I also want to take some time to discuss which one is the better choice if you want to teach English in Taiwan.

The short version of my opinion is that, in fact, those who compare the Delta unfavorably to a Master's: my original supposition that they are roughly equal in difficulty and content learned seems to be holding up. The Master's program feels easier now, but I suspect that will change. What will certainly remain constant is that the way of transmitting knowledge and its intended application is very different indeed between the two types of program.

The Delta is hard. It took me three years; it's not at all true that "it can be completed in just 12 weeks". First of all, for those who do take that option, that 12 weeks is more intensive than anything you'll encounter on a Master's with the possible exception of the final stretch of thesis writing. Spread out to create a workload more similar to that of a Master's - say, completing the modular courses in quick succession rather than taking one per year as I did - a Delta will take at least a year, and likely more given the breaks between when the modules are offered. If you take Module One in September and finish in December, the next module is likely to be starting in March of the next year, finishing in June. You may have to wait until September again to take the third one, finishing again in September. Your workload will be similar during those times as that of a Master's.

That sounds an awful lot like the amount of time it takes to complete a Master's in the UK (generally one year), and nearing the amount of time it takes to complete one in the US. There is no basis for dismissing Delta on those grounds. In fact, if you contrast that to my current program, it will take me three years (exactly the amount of time it took to do a Delta), with a much more spread-out workload and likely less crying into a pillow overall (though ask me about that again in 2019).

Even if one does take the 12-week course, you are not done in 12 weeks. In that time, you crash-study for the Module 1 exam, which you generally take when the intensive program ends. Your Module 2 is complete. You receive a crash course in how to do Module 3, but you don't actually do it: that is completed after the intensive course ends and can take up to another full semester. Two semesters' worth of work, one of which is highly intensive? Again, that sounds similar to a Master's program.

As for the content, so far it's much the same. If anything, I feel sympathy for my non-Delta-holding classmates who are currently taking Language Awareness. I remember having to learn that, and what I learned is not that different from what's being taught in the core module, although I tended to focus more on pure mechanics (e.g. the actual phonology system of English including use of the phonemic chart, manner of articulation and the like rather than ideas of what phonology is and how one might teach it). The basics of testing, approaches to teaching and issues in teaching  are also much the same, and it seems as though principles of teaching and syllabus design will be similar, as well. The same names - Richards, Nunan, Krashen, Thornbury, Kumaravadivelu, Kachru, Vygotsky, Tomlinson to name a few - pop up in both.

That said, the application of the content is radically different. Master's programs vary, but the Exeter MEd TESOL leans more toward the cerebral end. That's a compliment: it's exactly what I wanted after the relentless practicality of Delta. Or, as we discussed on the first day, programs like this are a part of teacher development. They are not teacher training. Teacher training is about making teachers more immediately effective in the classroom, whereas teacher development is about cultivating the knowledge that informs what one teaches in the classroom. I've had teacher training - I did a Delta. Although professional development - like learning a language - is never really over, I don't need another program like that. I needed, and found, a program focusing on the theoretical underpinnings of what I did in that program.

A few examples of what I mean when I say Delta was training, whereas the Master's is development:

On Delta, we did have to do background reading but what really mattered was how we executed our ideas in class, or how well we built a syllabus as a result. For Module Two, the written assignments mattered, but what really made or broke a candidate was their assessed teaching. You could know all the theory in the world and it wouldn't matter if enough of your classes sucked (ahem, were deemed substandard in execution), whereas you could pass the written assignment with an imperfect grounding in theory and still do well if your classes were amazing as rated against the course specifications.

On the Master's, there are no practicums. Nobody is going to assess my teaching - I'll mostly be assessed based on my written work. On one hand that's a shame, as I find observation and feedback to be the most efficient route to improved teaching. On the other, I'm relieved because I've been through it already, and what happens in a one-hour class as per Delta specifications cannot fully capture the depth and breadth of what goes on in a real class over time. In either case, having walked over that bed of coals, it will be good to immerse myself more deeply in theory without necessarily having to stop when I reach a point that a grounding in it is sufficient for me to teach a given one-hour class. It's not a benefit that is as immediately apparent, but over time I do feel it will grow to inform my work in valuable ways.

The assessed lessons were far and away the hardest - yet most practical - part of the Delta. There are ways in which I am sure a Master's will be more challenging, however. The closest you get to writing a thesis on Delta is your Module Three assignment. However, the main paper is capped at 4500 words, with everything else going in appendices. Although my final product easily topped 100 pages, the main paper only took up 17 of them. I can't imagine a passing Master's thesis with that ratio.

I also suspect - and I am usually right about these things - that our assignments will be judged to a very high standard. Once my blissful month in England is over and I hit the books in Taipei, I suspect what seems very interesting but basically easy now will become much harder extremely quickly. The British educational system, especially at the Master's level, places a high value on self-directed reading and output. It only makes sense that the input sessions, then, would be the breeziest part of the course, but are not at all indicative of what will be expected of us once we start producing. I have a suspicion that, academically speaking, much more will be expected of our written work in terms of depth and breadth of research covered as well as ideas birthed from that process than Delta ever expected. The trade-off is that we will not be expected to demonstrate our ability to actually write a lesson plan or teach a class (we do, however, have to demonstrate our ability to create materials, conceptualize a teacher development or training course and critique as well as write a test).

That said, I can't deny that these past two weeks have felt more like a lovely vacation with some interesting TESOL classes, in a way that Delta never did. Delta was pure - and purifying - pain. An intensive Delta (or even CELTA) is several weeks of all-day input with further work on the weekends. You don't get a day off, ever. "Intensive" summer input sessions for a Master's are four, maybe five days a week where only occasionally does one have more than three hours' of class to attend, with some reading that is not onerous. Yesterday we went to the seaside town of Beer. Today we'll go to Powderham Castle and have cream tea. It's so very intensive.

I'm still surprised I never descended into functional alcoholism on Delta, whereas here at Exeter, if I drink too much it will be because of all the pub-crawling students in Britain do, not because the course is particularly stressful. We'll see how I feel about that when I actually start writing, however.

I am learning a lot, though. For example, what I had thought the term 'construct validity' meant turns out to be not at all what it means when considered in depth. We'll be going more deeply into the concepts of validity and reliability than I ever had to on Delta. Delta Module One had one section on issues in ELT, whereas this course offers a whole module on it (and the issues - such as culture clash in the classroom, the native speaker myth and others are pertinent and worthwhile). Delta only touched on materials development in that you had to create or adapt materials, with no background reading on how to do so necessary, whereas I'm now taking an entire module on exactly that.

Another benefit of actually studying TESOL at a university is that I am an educator by profession. Training in how to execute my work better is important, but an educator who doesn't herself seek higher education feels like an oxymoron of sorts. It will also loop back to training in that eventually I am likely to find myself teaching EAP classes to non-native-speaking graduate students. How can I claim to be qualified in teaching a graduate student how to absorb content and then write and present it if I have not done a graduate program myself?

It is also important to repeat something I pointed out in my last post: I have learned more from my classmates, most of whom are non-native speakers, and had more productive discussions with them in two weeks than I have in ten years of interacting with mostly average, often unqualified teachers in Taiwan who were mostly hired on the basis of their being native speakers rather than their having any training (or in some cases ability) in teaching. It's cruel but true. If you only focus on the practical, you begin to treat education as a purely practical channel. It then becomes about market forces - students become clients, teachers are hired based on optics more than ability, and the goal is a happy customer, which is not necessarily an educated customer despite education being the ostensible goal. I've heard more justifications for this practical approach than I care to consider, including defenses a lack of qualifications on the part of both teachers and school owners (not principals, not head educators - owners), with little emphasis on what is actually learned if that is not necessary to create happy clients. I appreciate getting away from all that.

Delta never advocated such an approach, but the idea that learning should only ever be immediately practical (being specifically trained for some kind of job, without actually knowing much beyond that in any deeper way) eventually brings one to that logical conclusion.

I'm happy that I did Delta first, though. If I had done the MEd first, I'd be getting a lot of developmental input with not as much guidance as I'd like on how to actually use it. I might have started to question why I was doing it at all. What I needed when I did Delta was exactly what it provided: practical and efficient training to be better in the classroom. Having that, it's time to dive deeper - something Delta doesn't offer. If I'd never done the MEd, I'd be fighting a nagging feeling of hollowness, that there is so much more to how we teach that I never touched upon because it was not immediately necessary, regardless of whether it might be someday.

I have to say I also appreciate the access to academic journals that I get as a real live student, rather than a sort of in-limbo person in training. Delta was difficult, in part, because I needed academic references but didn't always have access to them. The Distance Delta attempts to remedy that, but ultimately the online library is insufficient.

A final note on Master's programs that is worth mentioning: more than one person I've talked to regarding more than one program has mentioned that many of them are full of a certain cohort. The students are mostly young women and mostly inexperienced - mostly candidates who might struggle doing a Delta, if they are accepted on a module at all. They mostly have to get the basics down of TESOL theory and practice. Yes, they are mostly from China, but that shouldn't be a point against them (I only bring it up because it's a recurring theme in conversations I've had with those familiar with MA TESOL programs in several institutions, including some quite prestigious ones).

This is not at all specific to Exeter - in fact, the person who first mentioned it to me did so in the context of a completely different university - and certainly does not apply to the summer intensive program I am currently doing. That is to say, if that's the common denominator you are teaching to, someone who comes in with a Delta and a wealth of experience might feel that the work is not sufficiently challenging. In fact, the person I talked to told me straight-up that I would be disappointed with the academic rigor such a program and it's a major reason why I applied to this program specifically.

I'll end with a short exploration of which path is right for someone who wants to make their career in Taiwan. I wish I had an easy answer, and could just shout "Master's!" or "Delta!" and have that be it, but as with most worthwhile issues, it's more complicated than that.

If your goal is to simply be an excellent teacher, and you have a good work situation in which teaching well is generously remunerated and which doesn't require a Master's, get a Delta (it should go without saying that I recommend you get a CELTA regardless). The Delta is training, and you will be well-trained. You'll have exactly the amount of theory you need to do your job effectively, but not much more. Get a Delta if you want to go into teacher training as well, if you don't have a teaching license of PGCE - you can train teachers without one, but you are not likely to be a great trainer.

Keep in mind, though, that the Delta is not recognized by the Taiwanese government because they have some who-knows-what-dunce in charge of foreign language education policy. You get Delta to better yourself, and it's a good filter for separating good employers from bad when interviewing (pro tip: a good employer will recognize the value of a Delta and reward you accordingly. A bad one will not know or care what a Delta is and why it matters - if you have a Delta, don't ever take a job with a school that doesn't care about it unless you're desperate).

If, however, your goal is to explore employment opportunities outside of the deeply exploitative cram school industry (although good cram schools do exist - I teach classes through two of them), get the Master's. That is your entree into university teaching, may help you get into international school work and should be sufficient for public school teaching if you have permanent residency or a marriage visa (for everyone else, a teaching license is specifically required). A Master's degree is recognized, and therefore matters more for this type of advancement. If you do, though, I'd recommend getting a CELTA or Trinity TESOL certification as well, simply for the practical component. I know Master's degree holders who have done that and said it was worthwhile, as their graduate programs never actually taught them how to teach in the way that a series of practicums with targeted input sessions can.

If you've had good training, with a solid teacher trainer who took the time to observe you and help you grow as a teacher as you gained experience, get the Master's. Do this especially if you are interested in the theories and ideas that inform your beliefs and priciples as a teacher.

Do not, however, mistake being trained in one school's specific - and potentially not-research based - 'house curriculum style' for actual training. If you have unbiased, outside feedback saying that you are already effective in the classroom - perhaps you have a CELTA or equivalent and did a lot with it, or received good but informal training - get the Master's.

If you think you might leave Taiwan someday, and you want to teach but are worried about how to get a good job doing it in another country, get the Master's, or a teaching license if you want to work with children. It's an unfair but true fact that outside of Europe - if you can get a teaching job there, which as an American is nearly impossible - and possibly the Middle East, the Delta just won't be widely recognized enough to help you.

If that's never happened and you'd be going from "online TEFL certification and being thrown in a classroom without guidance" to "Master's student", get the Delta (or at least get it first).

If you think you'd like to do both, get the Delta first. It will not only give you the practical framework  that helps make sense of the theory in real contexts, but many programs will give you credit for it which will reduce your overall workload and fees on the Master's.

If you need something you can start from Taiwan, and want to start as soon as possible, get the Delta. You might have trouble finding a Module Two tutor, but everything else can be done with minimal problems from Taiwan. That's not true for a Master's. Although some Taiwanese universities do offer graduate programs in TESOL, I am not convinced of the quality or international portability of any of them. It is similarly hard to put together the time and money to do a full-time program abroad and then come back, but options like the program I'm currently at at Exeter are available. 

If you not only want to expand your career horizons but dive into both training-by-fire and deep theory, get both.

After all, nobody except the twin devils of money or time ever said you had to choose.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Teaching English in Taiwan: some ethical issues

I'm sitting here in my dorm near the graduate campus of the University of Exeter, listening to birdsong and trees rustling in the wind out my open window. It's July but I'm wearing my new Exeter hoodie, because England apparently does not have any season which can be properly called 'warm'. This is quite different from Taiwan where I'd be wearing as little as possible and still sweating, possibly even with the air conditioning on, and outside my door would be a cacophony of human sounds that would be welcoming in the way that they ward off isolation.

We've just had a seminar exploring two topics: varying perceptions towards native and non-native speaker teachers first, followed by CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning, in which a subject course is taught in a foreign language, with the primary goal of subject learning with the hoped-for added benefit of improvement in foreign language proficiency).

A common theme developed in my mind as the discussions of both of these issues rolled on.

When one thinks of teaching English from an ethical standpoint, if they think about it at all, the two most common issues they tend to come up with are some form of "linguistic imperialism" - the idea that by teaching English we are somehow 'ruining' or forcing 'Westernization' on a local culture - and racism in hiring practices as well as pay. I'll explore these first, although I have to admit that the issues I discuss later are the ones I find meatier, or simply of greater interest.

These are of interest to me, and I'll explore them below. However, they feel a bit warmed-over, and I'm more keen to talk about the issues I explore later on. Not because these two aren't important, but because they feel so done.

That said, I'd like to say a few things about each before moving on.

There's little merit to the first opinion - while teaching a language does require some transmission of cultural knowledge (regardless of what some governments may mandate), simply being an access point to one of the cultures of the English-speaking world is not itself enough to destroy a culture any more so than Americans learning a foreign language, or living alongside speakers of languages other than English, are doing harm to American culture, regardless of what some less thoughtful people might believe. If anything, we are a resource for the non-privileged to learn the language of the comparatively well-off English speaking world, and therefore offer them the possibility of entry into it. You can't create equality by denying the less privileged access to the cultural touchstones of the more privileged.

The second, however, does make a fair point. I'm a white native English speaking American. The privilege inherent in this is striking when I hear about how my Black friends who teach in Taiwan are treated, not to mention the lower pay and sub-par working conditions offered to Taiwanese teachers. My classmate is Taiwanese and going for the exact same degree I am, and yet you can be sure that I will probably end up earning more over the course of my career. This is absolutely not fair. I am not 'better' because I'm a 'native speaker', that's ridiculous.

The ethical question is, of course, is it acceptable for me to continue teaching in a context where I know I have at least some of the opportunities I do because of my race and native language, rather than my actual teaching ability? Is doing so a form of perpetuating the system? Would it even be possible to find a teaching context where this is not the case? Is it too much to ask of me to give up a job I am committed to and find meaning in, in a country I love, because I am a part of a flawed system? Would doing so fix anything?

The answers to the above, to me, are:

No, it is not really acceptable (yet I do it anyway).
Yes, it is a form of perpetuating the system.
However, no, it is likely not possible for me to find a better context - almost every ELT context has these flaws. Those that don't are not generally available to Americans (e.g. in Europe) or would not pay enough for me to cover my basic expenses, including student loans (e.g. in the US, given that I want to work with adults and don't yet have a Master's).
And finally, no, I don't think it would make a difference if I left, nor do I think it is fair to expect me to do so.

The best I can do is fight day-to-day for a better industry, although that strikes me as unsatisfactory. I'd love to see local teacher pay be on par with foreign teacher pay (with them getting a raise, not us getting a pay cut). I'd like to strike the law limiting who can be hired as a foreign teacher based, ludicrously, on passport. I'm not sure that advocacy will have much effect at all, though. It doesn't seem to have so far.

I wish I had a better answer. This has been the go-to answer for the Defensive White English Teacher for decades, and it doesn't seem to have done much good.

There is so much more to explore, though.

As I mentioned above, I don't think much of the idea of cultural imperialism through language teaching. However, there is a sort of domestic cultural and economic imperialism at play in Taiwan (and elsewhere in the world, surely) that makes my skin crawl.

Taiwan has been a place where, over the centuries, various colonial regimes and invading forces have tried to assert their dominance over the island, and their primacy in the cultural hierarchy, through the enforcement of foreign-language medium education in schools. Most notably, the Japanese did it by making the education system in Taiwan Japanese-medium, and the ROC did it later by forcing all students to learn in Mandarin, to the point where today many foreigners and some Taiwanese do not realize that, although it can be debated what the historical 'native languages' of Taiwan are, Mandarin is certainly not one.

Now, it seems that English is one of the tools used to bolster dominance in Taiwan's social hierarchy. The 'cultural imperialism' isn't coming from us whiteys this time, it's coming from Taiwanese who have a privileged socioeconomic position in their own culture. It raises their profile, and the profiles of the adult children they've raised, to speak English well and have connections to the Western world. While not essential for political or business success (I'm fairly sure Chen Shui-bian doesn't speak much English at all), it certainly helps (every other elected president in Taiwanese democratic history has been educated, to some extent, in the West).

It costs money to raise children who have this cultural cachet of speaking English well, unless you have a particularly bright child. Cram schools - the good kind - are pricey. Local bilingual education is even more expensive. International schools are yet more expensive, and not open to those who don't have a path to foreign citizenship. Studying abroad is the most expensive route possible, and in some cases not available if you aren't able to put in the money to get your princeling to a certain level of English ability first.

The rich keep control, to some small extent, because they can afford to learn English well. It affords more respect, more connections and more opportunities.

These are the people whose princelings find themselves in our classes much of the time, although I appreciate that buxibans that offer more affordable classes to families that don't have such means do exist. As adults, they find themselves in my classes, either bankrolled for expensive IELTS preparation or successful businesspeople who have access to a high-quality teacher who charges accordingly.

It's easy to stereotype these children of privilege as the same KMT diaspora 'Chinese elite' who seem to hoover up all the money, privilege and power in Taiwan in every other way. Many of them are - do you think Sean Lien got to Columbia on his own merits? Or that Hau Lung-pin would have earned a PhD from UMass-Amherst on talent alone? Maybe, but I doubt it. Many, however, are not. It's a problem pervading all segments of wealthy Taiwanese society.

The problem, then, is not that I'm here teaching English. It's that I'm earning good-enough money teaching it, and you don't come by good-enough money without being expensive by local standards. Therefore, those who can afford my services are already privileged, and I'm helping to broaden and extend that privilege as they widen the gulf between what they have access to and what others of more modest means do.

It is, in effect, a domestic sort of cultural imperialism, which is not at all one unique to Taiwan. I'm not afraid of the Big Bad West here, I'm afraid of wealthy locals who do the same thing to their fellow countrymen!

I'm not sure what to do about this, either. I've considered volunteering, and likely will once the burden of tuition fees is lifted. That's really the problem - people talk about missionaries in Taiwan as though they are so generous and giving, sacrificing their own gain to help others. There is surely some truth in that, for some missionaries. But the other truth remains: most people have bills to pay, and it's not possible to offer one's services for free if one has bills to pay as well, and does not have a large religious organization making sure that issue is taken care of.

I don't charge so much because I'm greedy, I don't think. I do it because I have family to consider in the US as well as US-based bills to pay.

I'd work for less so that more could afford access, and often do give steep discounts to real friends who need help (I'll even work for free if I believe it will make a real difference, in fact, I prefer offering help as a favor rather than charging a nominal fee). However, again, I can't really pay my own bills if I do that as a part of my regular work. I offer it in my freelance capacity because I generally know the situation and the person, but if I did so as a teacher employed by a school, I would most likely end up being taken advantage of as the school continued to charge high rates and simply keeping the difference. In fact, this is exactly what my former employer did in a few circumstances.

Frankly, if accepting less were a feature of my regular work, I wouldn't be here at Exeter bettering myself professionally so I can offer ever-better teaching to my learners. Period.

I'd like to get to a point where I have the resources - as in, I can afford to do something like this - to try and bring high-quality English teaching to those who could benefit from it but can not generally afford it. That's a long way from here, though. That's something the Exeter graduate does, not generally something the tuition-paying Exeter student does.

Another issue is whether it is ethical to work in a system where so little attention is paid to qualifications. By agreeing to work in a system where you don't need any basic qualification to teach - where, in fact, teaching English is looked down upon because it is simply assumed that it is a job anyone can do, which requires little or no training (yes, the link is relevant because in his book Cole does exactly that) - am I not conferring some level of legitimacy on that system?

This is a conundrum for my context, at least, where I mostly work freelance but do take classes with a few places that are technically 'cram schools' (in the legal sense as it relates to their business registration, though they do not embody many of the negative connotations of the term). It takes a level of qualification far lower than my own to work in either school, although I will say both offer high-quality English classes. Some 'schools', if you can call them that, require even less.

Despite being generally good, neither school offers paid lunar new year leave (despite this being a legal requirement) or paid annual, sick or typhoon leave. Both treat teachers well, though there is no greater contractual job security than in any other cram school. Neither has many career-furthering opportunities for those who want to teach (as opposed to being an account or business manager). Neither offers nor sponsors training. One offers a small bonus (and I am grateful for it), but neither offers the 1-to-2 months' salary bonuses on offer from more traditional employers.

I do like the two employers who provide me with group classes. I recommend them as both employers to teacher friends and as schools to local friends who might be prospective students. I want to make clear that I have no bone to pick with either, and the downsides are tempered with a lot of advantages: all the (unpaid) leave I want without complaint, and higher-than-average pay. However, by continuing to work at these places, I do wonder if I'm legitimizing the downsides.

The issue can be expanded, however. If I worked at a school that didn't require at least a basic minimum of training such as a CELTA, I'd wonder if I'd be legitimizing the lack of qualifications necessary to "teach". If I worked at a public school or university, I wonder if I'd be legitimizing the sub-par working conditions that many institutions take as a norm, such as useless reams of administrative work, high student-teacher ratios (up to 65 students in a conversation class in some places!), over-reliance on testing, a poorly-constructed curriculum and generally lower pay.

I want to end by circling back to one of the issues I explored above: racism in hiring practices here. I've covered issues of pay, treatment and opportunities, but another issue I find disconcerting is how many people - locals and foreigners alike - try to justify native speakerism. I've written about this before (linked above already but here it is again) but now feel I have something more to say on the topic.

It is impossible to ignore - and I'll write more about this later when I really sit down and write about the experience of doing a Master's as a part-time student, splitting my time between Exeter and Taipei - the fact that I have learned so much from my professors and classmates here at Exeter. Most of my classmates are not native English speakers, and many professors are similar. I've been hanging out mostly with female classmates because we happen to get along so well, and out of 7 women, only two of us are native speakers. My Delta local tutor is not considered a native speaker by many. Although as a native speaker who has sought to upgrade her qualifications, I cannot say that native speaker teachers generally are less motivated to attain a level of professionalism in their work as such a generalization would exclude me, it is quite clear that generally speaking that level of qualification, and the important conversations that go along with it, seems to be populated by the non-native English speaking teachers.

I can surely imagine leaving my soft academic cocoon for the sharp idiocy of Facebook commentary, finding myself on one of the many groups for English teachers in Taiwan, and feeling my face fall as all of the nuanced points and brilliant ideas of my Exeter cohort are not reflected in the general Taiwan English teacher commentariat. It hasn't happened yet, but that's mostly because I've abandoned many such groups in dismay, not because the screamery isn't there.

What I mean is, it seems as though the general sentiment of the foreign English teacher population - although I do realize this is by no means a stereotype I can apply to all of them - is that native speakers are best (perhaps because they themselves are native speakers and they are scared of losing their privilege?), this is because that's what 'clients' want, qualifications aren't necessary because most employers in Taiwan - the not-great ones - don't care about them and won't pay more for them and being a better teacher isn't a good enough reason to pursue them (and yet pay is low because unqualified teachers don't deserve more), and many other beliefs I will charitably call 'ignorant'. At times it feels as though trying to address some of these beliefs - e.g. "it's fine to discriminate by only hiring women for certain jobs" or "non-native speakers are never as good at English and therefore deserve to earn less!" - with any level of nuance is an exercise in futility.

I do wonder if continuing to work in an industry where - at least in Asia - that 'ignorant' attitude prevails to some extent legitimizes it. Again, however, I'm not sure where else an American can get a job that pays sufficiently well where the industry has not only more professional working environments, but also more professional teachers with more nuanced and thoughtful attitudes.

Basically, although I find great meaning and pleasure in my work as a teacher and have a great love of Taiwan, I have serious qualms with working in the educational field here, not only in terms of employment but also in terms of the problematic attitudes other privileged teachers hold, while talented and thoughtful educators are held back.

And yet, basic economics would dictate that the way to push for something better is to not accept something sub-par. If good, qualified professional educators would not work in Taiwan, the industry as a whole would have to improve in order to attract them. Yet here I am, agreeing to work for what is on offer now, although I find it lacking. I don't mean in terms of pay - I'm talking about general working conditions and attitudes in the industry that lead to socioeconomic inequality, poor treatment of non-white and non-native-speaker teachers, a lack of adherence even to the benefits accorded us by law, and the overall attitude toward teaching not only of those on the outside looking in, but also of other teachers here.

How can we force things to improve if we accept what's on offer now, as unsatisfactory as it is? And yet, what else can we do if this is the work we want to do, and Taiwan is where we want to be, and it wouldn't be much better anywhere else?

I don't know.

The other day I was thinking about how one trains a teacher to be successful in a flawed context. Much teacher training focuses on training the teacher but assuming a generally good context, or at least one with flaws that can be overcome with yet more training. I was thinking about it in a Saudi Arabian or, to some extent, Chinese context where certain discussions or topics might be forbidden, and where many institutions unrealistically expect qualified teachers to teach English with no controversial cultural content. The assumption is that you can read up on cross-cultural communication and overcome these issues, but I'm not entirely sure that's true; I doubt that any amount of training can fix such a problem when the issue is not with the teacher.

This is why I work neither Saudi Arabia nor China.

However, it's also true in Taiwan. The system is perhaps less flawed, but I wonder what kind of training would help me to more efficiently navigate the ethical issues I do face here. Is the Taiwanese educational system, from public schools to universities to buxibans, so flawed that it presents an ethical issue to even work in it?

I used to think, putting on my well-worn Defensive White English Teacher hat, that the answer was no. At least, I thought, I would eventually end up at a university where things might be better. I'm coming to realize there isn't necessarily any improvement even as one 'moves up'.

Now, I'm not so sure. I don't intend to leave Taiwan simply because I love the country, even though I don't have much praise for its TEFL opportunities. However, I can't ignore the real ethical questions that working in such a problematic system has raised.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Taiwanese nationalism is not your grandfather's nationalism

The other day a classmate on my graduate program, after asking me about Taiwan and hearing my response that the opinion of a strong majority of Taiwanese leans towards considering Taiwan already independent, or at least certainly not Chinese, referred to the idea of 'nationalism' with a strongly negative connotation. He wasn't necessarily critiquing Taiwan specifically, but rather the general idea that a group wanting to form their own nation is a concept riddled with problems.

He was surprised when I replied that Taiwanese nationalism is not ethnic nationalism, and the two can't be conflated in such a reductionist way.

I certainly understood what he meant - he even brought up the old-timey concept of 'nationalism' that arose in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, where every 'group' or ethnicity has their own little country and therefore what it means to be a country is based primarily on ethnic ties, leaving aside of course the idea that ethnicity itself is an odd and problematic construct. Basically, that often "nationalism" is considered to be inextricably linked with ethnocentrism.

I, too, have an instinctive reaction against this worldview because this view of nation-hood (and what it means to be a nation, and who should be within the borders of one or a citizen of one) are so deeply linked to my family history. The Armenians and other non-Turks were massacred not primarily because of religion (although it played a part), but because the old construct of the Ottoman Empire as a multi-ethnic, multi-territorial "empire" was washed away by the Young Turks in favor of what was then a more "modern" view of nationhood, where one nation ought to equal one ethnicity. The Armenians were not Turks, and therefore, according to this view, they had to go.

Over a million Armenians died, and I exist as a result of this sort of ethnocentric nationalism sweeping Turkey in 1915. Although I am happy I exist - not that I would know if I didn't - I am all too aware of how far off the rails this idea can go.

China takes this a step further and promotes an unrealistic view of what it means to be 'Chinese', trying to force not just the same national identity but also the same ethnic identity on, essentially, whomever it wishes. It  also tries to discredit Taiwan's case for de jure nationhood by playing to liberal perceptions of the problems of nationalism. It's no accident that they call Taiwanese nationalism 'splittism' and try to tap into the negative connotations associated with, say, voting for Brexit, ethnic regions splitting off from a larger nation and civil war. China also tries to promote the positive connotations that we associate with being stronger or 'better together' than apart. China tries to have it both ways - any desire to not be a part of China is 'splittism', and Xinjiang and Tibet are a part of China despite their people not being 'Chinese', however, Taiwan is a part of China because 'we're the same'. So people who are not Chinese are Chinese because China controls them and that's okay, but China should control Taiwan specifically because Taiwanese are, they say, Chinese and not some other kind of people.

If that's not clear or seems like it doesn't make sense, that's because it isn't and doesn't. Nothing about China's argument makes a lick of sense, in fact, but it seems to have been accepted by huge swaths of the educated world.

(Side note: although I don't generally believe in ethnic nationalism, I don't necessarily always think it's wrong for an ethnic group to want to break off a piece of territory to form its own nation, especially if mistreatment of that group is involved. Each situation is highly unique, and I can't really say one blanket solution is applicable, not being intimately familiar with the various examples of this).

So why is the lumping of Taiwanese nationalism in with the sort of nationalism popular in our grandparents' generation so inaccurate?

Simple - it's not based on ethnicity. Not really, anyway.

Some Taiwan independence activists do try to make an ethnicity-based argument for their cause, pointing, for example, to evidence that Taiwan is primarily ethnically Austronesian rather than Chinese (note: the writer of that post doesn't necessarily agree - I don't know and it doesn't matter - but the post itself is pertinent).

I think most, though, know that this is a losing proposition. Not because they're necessarily wrong about who the Taiwanese are at the DNA level, but because even if they convince the world that Taiwan is "not Chinese", they'll face the argument that ethnic nationalism has its own problems and therefore isn't necessarily something to support. It opens up a messy argument on what it means to be "ethnically Taiwanese", which opens us up to having to defend that position.

And, frankly, they know it wouldn't matter: China didn't take ethnicity into account when taking over Tibet and Xinjiang. If not the same old "we are all Chinese" blather, they'll find another argument because their goal, to them, will always justify the means by which they attain it.

It just doesn't matter much and won't work.

In any case, who are the Taiwanese? DNA testing shows a large correlation with Austronesian/SE Asian populations. But what about those who aren't - whose grandparents really did come from China and whose families haven't intermarried much with locals? Are they not Taiwanese? How about those who might have Japanese blood, or one non-Taiwanese parent? How about those who were born and raised here, whose parents aren't Taiwanese at all? If you make this argument, you leave all of them out, not to mention those of us who would like dual nationality, all to argue a point that China doesn't actually care about, and will hurt Taiwan's case to the world rather than help it, by making Taiwan independence seem like another iteration of 'ethnic nationalism'.

So if Taiwanese nationalism is not that - and I don't think it is - what is it?

You could say it's a nationalism based on Taiwan's unique history, and there is truth to that, but I don't know about you, but I'm not interested in getting into a pointless history debate with an anti-Taiwan detractor and I don't think it's a very strong argument either. Although history is on our side, who owned what in the past just isn't the way to make the case for Taiwan. It actually weakens what I think is the best argument, in fact.

Instead, Taiwanese nationalism is based on the idea that Taiwan is a nation based on two things: self-determination and shared values.

It is hard to imagine a reasonable person disagreeing with the idea that people have the right to self-determination, although we can reasonably disagree with the level at which that right manifests itself (e.g. that the citizens of a nation have that right, but that a group wishing to secede their territory from that nation may perhaps not always have it). I'd say there's a case to be made that any self-ruled territory that has an independently functioning government gains that right, and Taiwan certainly falls well within that boundary. It's even a democracy so you can't argue that a territory has been wrested away by some strongman dictator!

Therefore, as a self-governing autonomous territory that has a highly functional and democratic government, Taiwan does have the right to determine its own future. Period. This would be true even if history weren't on our side.

As for shared values, this is trickier. As much as different segments of Taiwanese society might disagree on a variety of issues, pretty much all of them except for a few ancient blowhards can agree on a few basic principles: human rights including certain freedoms, democracy and egalitarianism (okay, maybe not everyone agrees with egalitarianism in practice, but that's a global problem). However you define "shared values", though, it's clear that the values that are important in Taiwanese society are vastly different from those allowed in Chinese society. They also differ to some extent from the values even of other Asian democracies, despite greater similarities with those nations.

The good news is that this means Taiwanese nationalism doesn't suffer from having a weak or outdated argument. We're not 'splittists', 'separatists' (wanting to separate from what? When was Taiwan ever a part of the People's Republic of China that we'd be wanting to now 'split off'?) or people causing 'ethnic tensions'. Taiwan is instead a sovereign state that simply wants to access a right to globally recognized self-determination, and build their democratic nation based on shared values.

We have an optics problem, not an argument problem. There is nothing wrong with our case. I would like to think that optics problems are easier to solve.

Basically, this updated, 21st century view of nationalism - as nation-building based on shared values and the right to self-determination rather than ethnicity - is much easier for the global literati to swallow. It's an argument that humanizes Taiwan, and presents it in a modern light appropriate to its situation and values, rather than making it sound like an outdated and even dangerous throwback to the ethnocentrism and 'small European nation state' model of a few generations ago. It sounds more like something an EU supporter would say, and less like something a nutbar UKIP or Trump voter would come out with.

It's just as good news that this weakens China's "argument", such as it is. When you view Taiwanese as not ethnic nationalists, which they are indeed not in any great majority, China's case that Taiwan is a part of China because 'we are all Chinese' makes even less sense, and forces them to defend ethnic nationalism. Better yet, it forces them to defend it alongside claiming territories like Xinjiang and Tibet despite not having this connection.

It's also good news in that this view of nationalism allows - and please allow me to be selfish here - for people like me to be a part of these shared values. I can never be, and don't want to be, 'Asian' or 'Chinese' simply because I think it's weird to want to change one's race (and creepy and appropriative for a white person in any case). However, viewing Taiwan as a nation of people of shared values rather than a nation of people who were born ethnically Taiwanese with no 'outsiders' allowed makes room for people like me. Under such a model, I could be Taiwanese. Under an ethnic model, I could not.

The bad news is that many supporters of Taiwan don't seem to have made this connection. I don't mean that they don't support foreigners naturalizing (though some don't), but that they just don't think it's a big issue or something that needs to be prioritized or even necessarily changed. Some, perhaps, have not quite come to the conclusion that if Taiwan is not a country based on ethnicity but one of shared values and self-determination, that that means you kinda sorta have to let in immigrants because if you don't, you're right back at ethnic nationalism and all the problems it entails.

The other bad news is that China's been bombarding the world with a skewed perspective on what Taiwanese nationalism is, promoting whatever definition of 'nationalism' is convenient to them, and it's very hard to re-orient the perspectives of those who've bought that particular brand of snake oil.

All I can say is that we need to keep trying, and we absolutely need to stop engaging China on the points it's tempting us with, e.g. trying to argue ethnicity or history. Even if we're right - and we are - we absolutely need to not only re-shape the internal debate of Taiwanese nationalism being one of values rather than blood, which many astute friends of Taiwan are already doing, but also to point out to the international community that Taiwanese nationalism does not share the deeply problematic worldview and chauvinism of our grandparents' ethnic nationalism.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Your periodic reminder that Forbes sucks just as hard as Reuters

Here I am again with yet another installment of "fuck this fucking nonsense", where I take some FUCKING NONSENSE and tell it to fuck off.

Here is today's fucking nonsense, courtesy of Forbes. For your consideration:

The title sets the scene for the whole thing, and it's a scene reminiscent of what happened that one time after I ate fish and chips two days in a row: 

China's Efforts To Increase Pressure On Old Foe Taiwan Are Backfiring


The Republic of China perhaps is, but "Taiwan" is not, and although Taiwan is (unfairly) governed by the (colonialist) Republic of China, anyone with any grasp of the nuances of the political realities of the region knows that there is a clear semantic difference between what we mean when we say "Taiwan" and what we mean when we say "the ROC". The ROC is a lost regime on life support that was foisted, uninvited, on the Taiwanese people. Taiwan is an island and a point of identification in terms of politics, culture, history and land. "Taiwan" (and the Taiwanese people) would like nothing more than to co-exist peacefully with China, enjoying warm relations and the benefits thereof, have its sovereignty respected and maybe not have a few thousand missiles pointed right up its ass THANK YOU VERY MUCH.

Wanting to co-exist with your big fat jerk neighbor does not make you an "old foe". It makes them a bully and you a victim. Foes wish each other harm. Taiwan does not wish China harm (though China does wish Taiwan harm - so this whole fight is really quite one-sided, and the "foe" is not Taiwan).

And no, I don't know how to change the weird spacing on this part. 

China intentionally pulled back on group tourism to Taiwan last year by about 18%, resulting in a squeeze for those in the tour bus and hotel industry.

Okay first of all, this is the weirdest start to an article ever, it reads like something halfway through a paragaph? Whatever, it's got far worse problems than that.

No mention at all of why China pulled back on group tourism (to try to force Taiwan to make concessions relating to its sovereignty, i.e. to force them to accept the [fucking nonsense] 1992 consensus WHICH IS NOT A REAL THING). No mention of the general reaction to this in Taiwan which was positive, not negative. No mention that tourism overall has not suffered, really, as the drop in Chinese group tours was made up for - and then some, I think? - by tourists from other countries. No mention of the fact that these Chinese tour groups are not only not that profitable for Taiwanese businesses due to the low costs insisted upon by the China-based operators, but also that most of them aren't even really Taiwanese businesses at all, as many of the facilities in Taiwan are ultimately managed by tour operators from China, not Taiwan.

What does it say as well about China's tourism strategy in Taiwan that their cuts in group tours mainly affected tour companies in China, which have links to that same government? (Please tell me I don't have to answer that question for you).

Oh yeah, and tourism isn't a very big contributor to the Taiwanese economy. The effect, insofar as there was one at all, simply wasn't that big.

Basically, this is just hoisted from a skank tank of nonsense and plopped at your feet with none of the unpacking necessary to report the story accurately. Bad journalism, in effect.

Beijing probably thought the same about its easing off permits for students to study at Taiwan’s 152 tuition-thirsty universities. The number of non-degree students dropped from 34,114 last year to 32,648 now and some reports say enrollment in degree courses is about to fall. 

This is actually true as far as I'm aware, but the mention of it only glosses over - merely implies rather than explicitly reporting - that China is trying to force Taiwan to make policy in accordance with China's wishes rather than those of the people of Taiwan. Basically, to cede some amount of sovereignty, even in an abstract way.

These measures, combined with other more obvious pressure moves against Taiwan such as sending an aircraft carrier around the island, have hurt.

Who was hurt?

China has claimed Taiwan as part of its turf since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s. It insists the two sides eventually reunify.

"Reunify"? The People's Republic has never owned Taiwan. You cannot "reunify" what was never unified to begin with. You cannot even "unify" when one side is not interested in unification. You can only annex.

Use the correct word. We won't stop making fun of you until you do. It is misleading and inaccurate.

It lost momentum toward that goal in May 2016, when Tsai Ing-wen took office as Taiwan president without agreeing to Beijing’s dialogue condition that both sides belong to a single entity known as China.

It is debatable whether it had that momentum to begin with, but let's not even get into the question of whether support for Ma Ying-jiu's "economic but not political ties/no independence, no unification" was a concrete step toward what China wants, or whether it was a large group of voters being intentionally misled by Ma's campaign promises toward a goal they had never actually agreed with.

That aside, no, what momentum that may have existed was lost in March 2014 when the country woke up to what a lying sack of turds Ma Ying-jiu and his cronies were.

This has been going on a lot longer than Tsai's inauguration. There is no investigation here of the true roots of post-2014 political discourse in Taiwan, not even a one-sentence summary of why, exactly, Tsai was elected in the first place and why, exactly, she could not give in on this 1992 Consensus nonsense. 

Formal talks went on hold.

IF YOU USE THE PASSIVE VOICE IT MEANS YOU ARE AVOIDING SAYING WHO PUT THE TALKS ON HOLD and maybe you think you can trick us into assuming Taiwan put them on hold, but YOU CAN'T because guess what, WE'RE NOT STUPID.

Who put the talks on hold, Ralphie? WHO?

Just say it.

For fuck's sake, say it. Say China's name. SAY IT.

And Beijing got mad.

So what?

And if it matters [it doesn't], why'd they get mad? Why can't you just say "they got mad that Taiwan, which is a fully self-ruled liberal democracy, didn't like its big fat jerk neighbor telling it what to do"? Or something more polite for your readers, whatever, but something? Why is it automatically a big problem when China "gets mad" (oooHHHHOooHHHhoohhhh) but not a problem when a democratic country's sovereignty is openly and repeatedly threatened?


As I've said before, China wants to be not only a global leader, but the preeminent global leader. China also doesn't care about the sovereignty of fully functioning nations, and cares little for human rights, international law, democracy or freedom of any kind.

How is this totally okay, and even something to be concerned about when they get mad, instead of being called out for what it actually is, which is fucking terrifying?
How is this okay to not even question?
China’s economic sanctions have rattled tour operators to the point of street protests in September.

This happened, sure, but you are not a very good journalist, let alone much of an investigative journalist if you don't ask yourself why, exactly, they were protesting when tourism has not dropped. What other motives could there be, considering that many tour operators are China-owned rather than Taiwan-owned and that many of the China-owned operators have ties to the Chinese government, and the services provided were often negotiated at such low rates that any Taiwanese businesses involved didn't make much money?

Considering all that, why, exactly, were they protesting again?

Even if we assume the protestors were sincere (which I do not - I think the motivations are far shadier than that), at some point, certain decisions that are good for the whole are going to have some effects on tiny slivers of industry or society that some people might not be happy about. So? The tour operators had a right to protest (sincere or not, and I think I've been clear that I don't think they were), but that doesn't mean it's a problem if the government doesn't necessarily make any changes.

I hate saying that, because I hate it when my side protests and nothing changes, but realistically, it's just got to be this way, even if sometimes that affects my side badly.

Officials in Beijing probably imagine that if Taiwanese feel a pinch as China withdraws tourists, students and other elements of its $11.2 trillion economy from Taiwan’s much smaller market...

Again, the tourist withdrawal didn't actually affect the Taiwanese economy much, if at all. There were enough tourists from elsewhere to make up the shortfall. I have my theories as to why that is not generally reported. The statement, as is, is not accurate. 

...the public will push Tsai to restart dialogue. Or voters will replace Tsai’s party with one that favors a stronger political relationship with China.

How can Tsai "restart dialogue" when Tsai wasn't the one who shut it down to begin with? Why not say "the public will push Tsai to give in to China's demands so that China will re-start dialogue"? That would be the accurate way of reporting this. Why be misleading when you could be accurate?

Oh, right...


Are you so afraid of saying "the public will push Tsai to concede to the 1992 Consensus to a degree acceptable to China, which would preclude any chance of Taiwanese de jure independence?" Because you know that's what that means.
Some people are pressuring their president, and non-government surveys show an erosion of public confidence in her leadership. “If [Tsai] cannot back up her stance one step or two steps, things will get even worse,” says Liu Yih-jiun, public affairs professor at Fo Guang University in Taiwan. “I think President Tsai is in deep trouble.

Fo Guang University? Okaaay.

Anyway, this implies that public confidence may be eroding because Tsai needs to be nicer to China. I would argue the opposite is true: that public confidence is eroding because she's not stepping up and making tough but important decisions as a leader. She comes across as wishy-washy, and that's the problem. Backing up even more (where would she back up to, even? What does this mean? Why is it taken at face value?) would make her appear even weaker. Why is Jennings reporting this douchelord's opinion as indicative of public opinion generally by putting his blather next to poll results when one is not necessarily the belief that drives the other?

And can I just say how ridiculous it is to constantly imply that Taiwan is the one that needs to cede more to China, when China is the aggressor, and Taiwan has a lot more to lose - and that no matter what Taiwan offers, China will always, always want more?

Why, again, is this not investigated, questioned, discussed, critiqued or even reported accurately?

And who, besides this, err, guy and some KMT blowhards who never really cared about Taiwan to begin with, is pressuring Tsai to be nicer to China?

Seriously - who cares what this Foguangshan guy thinks? I'm not even interested in remembering his name, that's how irrelevant his opinion is. Why include it, unless you want to inaccurately portray Taiwanese public opinion?

Still, there is some good to be found in this article, such as this paragraph which I cannot find fault with:

Still, Taiwan shows resiliency. Last year’s $528 billion GDP should grow at least 1.7% this year, the International Monetary Fund says. A rise of around 2% would be roughly consistent with growth over the past three years. The island’s all-important semiconductor industry is expected to grow 3.5% this year, the Taipei-based Marketing Intelligence & Consulting Institute forecasts, and its PC sector is expanding because of contract orders. As travelers from China hang back, arrivals from Southeast Asia, South Asia, Australia and New Zealand went up about 29% over the half year ending in March. University enrollment from around the world went up 4.6% from October through March as numbers from China tapered.

But then it's bookended with this:

Taiwan’s next telltale elections – a slew of local ones – are set for 2018. It’s hard to know now whether voters will show discontent then toward their president. 

Seems okay, but you'll note that above, Jennings implied heavily that that discontent was driven by a desire for Tsai to soften on China, when that is not necessarily the case (and I'd argue the opposite could well be true: a lot of her supporters, or at least people who voted for her, are unhappy because she is not taking a stronger stand on China). Such an implication, then, is inaccurate and misleading. 

I'll leave you with this:

“What seems unarguable is that blame for whatever pain people in Taiwan feel as a result of all of these roadblocks imposed by Beijing is importantly being directed toward the mainland,” says Alan Romberg, director of the East Asia program at U.S. think tank The Stimson Center.

Here is the problem. I don't know if the journalists did it to the think-tankers or the think-tankers did it to the journalists or we all got butt-reamed by pro-China views in academia and government that trickled down like slime down a neglected gutter, but senior people, respected experts, people whose opinions shape policy and, to some extent, reporting, still refer to China as "the mainland", rather than by its actual name: China. 

As long as we continue to act as though China is some sort of "mainland" to Taiwan, which implicitly links the two through language choices meant to imply a connection where there isn't one, we cede ground to China.

If experts are still calling it "the mainland", we're already losing ground, and people who don't know better (like, say, the writer of this article) will get pulled under and report inaccurately. Readers will be misinformed, and China will gain another inch.

I don't really care about Alan Whoozits, director of the East Asia blah blah blah, because he doesn't appear to be very good at his job. But when we let this go unquestioned, this is what we are allowing to happen. 

Friday, June 30, 2017

Triple Threat Female Expats

The Cool Trailing Spouse

Last week, we ended the traipsing-about part of our massive summer adventure, rolling up at our friends' flat in Greater London for five days in the city. We started in Athens at the end of May, wound our way across Armenia and Georgia wandering in ancient churches, enjoying gorgeous vistas and drinking succulent wine, looking up at the monumental stone edifices of Yerevan and hustling up and down the steep hills of Tbilisi old city under carved wooden balconies. Then we hopped a Tbilisi-London flight to start the British leg of our trip.

My friends are what you might call traditional expatriates, though they are not traditional people in any pejorative sense. They're both arty types, young fun liberals, far more similar to me than to the businessmen and trailing wives of Tienmu who send their children to international schools. Who can even consider affording international schools.

We had a lovely time with lovely people, both them and my in-laws, at times comparing aspects of the expat experience. This is a life not at all new to me and Brendan, but still two-years new to them. I remember well that even two years in, my life still had that new expat smell and it was interesting to trade proverbial notes.

I couldn't help but notice, though, that despite being more like us in personality, values, predilections and life goals, that their expat situation was far more like those of the Tienmu international school crowd than ours. They could afford a decent-size flat near a tube station, something two teachers most likely could never do, even with salaries adjusted to reflect the British economy. They could afford for one of them to be the 'trailing spouse' (and as always seems to happen, the trailing spouse was the wife). They could afford this and to raise a child (to be fair, in the UK one needn't worry so much about where to send a child to school).

We both knew the new expat smell, but their model was far more luxurious. It had upgrades.

I wouldn't say I was jealous - I chose my circumstances. I don't mean to criticize either: this is the opportunity life handed them and it was fair to take it as-is. If anything, it served as a lesson to be avoid drawing such thick lines between 'Us' and 'Them'. People in Their situation may very well be people like Us who just found themselves there.

That said, I do find distinctions that are worth a quick exploration. A lot of people assume 'expat' means excellent relocation package (something my friends got and I didn't, because I moved without a clear job offer - and even had I had one, nobody was going to pay my relocation costs let alone cover them generously). They often assume it means serviced flats, possibly domestic help including a driver, very high pay, being able to send their children to international schools and attending events, clubs and associations designed for networking with other expats (and almost never locals - though that is likely more common in Asia than, say, the UK). They often assume it means a trailing spouse, usually the wife, and nobody ever seems to question why it always seems to be the wife supporting her husband's career, or why more women don't get these sorts of offers to move abroad from generous employers.

That's all fine - other than pointing out the gender gap in who gets the plum offer and who is the trailing spouse, it's not a criticism. However, it seems to be the predominant view Westerners have of expat life, which is why articles like this fistful of garbage are spawned. The writer of that thing only has a point if the only kind of expat is the well-paid kind who has a serviced flat and a driver, and the only kind of immigrant is the poor kind. If this is true, what am I? A well-off immigrant or a poor expat? What about those of us for whom neither term fits?

It means that all of the advice you see is geared toward a demographic of foreigners abroad I've never been in. It's all coffee mornings and no 'how to make it work as an independent woman abroad'.

Mercy in a new place

It was interesting, then, to read Janice Y.K. Lee's The Expatriates while on this trip. Yes, it deals with exactly the demographic of well-paid expats and their stay-at-home spouses that I just spent two and a half paragraphs saying I wasn't in, but it was a worthwhile read (and I recommend it) for two key reasons: one of the protagonists is more like me than the well-to-do women who make up the rest of the book, who are also portrayed very sympathetically.

Mercy, a young Korean-American Columbia graduate, moved to Hong Kong on her own, without a job in hand. She more or less makes it work, until it doesn't any more. I don't have her bad luck, but the feeling of moving to a new place with a small savings account and a suitcase and making one's way without a corporate helping hand - and working a job to make it all happen - that's my expat experience. I gather that is the experience a lot of us have, but few people seem to write about it. Its depiction of the Korean community in Hong Kong further reminds one that those who live abroad cannot be packaged up into tidy communities of (white) expats and (everyone else) immigrants. And, of course, the character of Olivia serves as a reminder that even the wealthiest expat cannot compete with a successful and well-connected local.

Swashbuckling tales of adventure and derring-do of handsome men aside, the focus on expat women, not men, in The Expatriates further reminds us that lives of women abroad are often just as interesting as those of men, if not more so.

However, it was also a reminder that, as much as we ought not to create divisions between us as expats, some cannot be ignored. I may do better than a typical cram school teacher, but I'm still an English teacher and have, despite my professional status in the field, resigned myself to forever introducing my work as "an English teacher...but a real one." That, as much as I might make more money and have a better lifestyle than the sort of fresh young blood I was in 2006 - no crappy rooftop apartments for me - I will never, as a teacher, be on the same financial level as the Tianmu set. Brendan and I will always have to do things ourselves, we won't have a company connection setting anything up for us, likely ever. I'm 36 and still a liberal artsy-fartsy night owl type, more like the fresh young blood than the greying businessmen; this is not likely to change either. Every piece of advice is geared toward them; none seems aimed at me. Most of them won't stay long. Most will never learn Chinese or integrate locally. There simply are not that many overlaps in the issues we face.

And I might not be a trailing spouse like so many expat women, but the majority of long-termers I've come to know here, who were birthed into expat life as I was, are male.

My first real arrival in Taiwan took place late at night. I dropped my bags in my cruddy-but-temporary Gongguan perch, collapsed into sleep, and woke up the next day to explore the city. I had a vague offer of a teaching job, a few thousand dollars and a backpack. I navigated work, language, finances, socializing, paperwork and visas and adjustment to a new country and culture on my own. I don't think it takes away from the experiences of more well-heeled foreigners to admit that I'm proud of this. I'm proud that I did it on my own, and that I was never a trailing spouse (I am also confident enough in myself now that, if a fantastic opportunity arose for Brendan, after all these years I finally wouldn't balk at the idea of being one for a temporary period).

Like Mercy, I had no help, and like my brand-new idol and also crush, Janet Montgomery McGovern, I had financial concerns. I had to generate an income to make it all work. I was a woman doing what most people associate with young men doing. Like them both, I'm not the typical 'Go East, Young Man', well, man. 


On our last day in Tbilisi, I turned the final page of my last book for the 'intensive travel' portion of my trip: Justine Hardy's Scoop-Wallah: Life on a Delhi Daily. Although I hadn't planned it this way, my reading tour across the Caucasus was also a reading detour from books about Taiwan or books about teaching, linguistics and education into a short list of books about women living abroad.

Hardy's story also resonated with me, not only because I used to live in India, but because she too chose to return to Asia, sought out work, found it and made things happen for herself. She, like Janet McGovern, had the sort of adventure most people associate with men. She, like both me and McGovern, had to make money to stay afloat. And she, like us, had no employer helping her. She, like us, was perhaps an expat who lived like an immigrant, or maybe an immigrant who knew she couldn't stay forever. I do wonder, however, what kind of visa she was on as it was clear that her employer wasn't helping her with it, but it is extremely hard to get a visa to work legally as a foreigner in India. You certainly aren't allowed to be offered a job in India and then transfer a tourist visa to a working one (I know, because I looked into it).

Hardy describes a hardcore hustling to make her daily bread, to make a name, to make life possible in a foreign land, that I can identify with. What I peddle is different, but we're both working the same street. She has McGovern's mettle, translated to the present day and proves yet again that the stories of women abroad are not limited to managing the help, choosing between Taipei American School and Taipei European School and going to coffee mornings. That we hustle too, that we have stories too, and we all make it work.

That Hardy might have been writing soft features, but under that she's a professional journalist who simply loves India and plies her trade well. That I may be 'teaching English', but I'm also a professional educator who is days away from starting Master's in the subject at a prestigious university.

That we don't always have help. That arguably the most interesting expat in twentieth-century Taiwan was not Indiana Jones, but his mother, and she too was an English teacher.

That even the trailing spouses, who may have never thought they'd be 'trailing'.

With that in mind, during a quiet moment on the outskirts of London, I wrote a short inscription in Scoop-Wallah and, when nobody was looking, popped it into a corner of my friends' book collection. Not the husband's, although I've known him longer and we are closer, but the wife's. He might be the expat with the cushy job, but she has a story too, and under it all we may have different situations but we're not all that different.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Updated post: why are there so few expat women in Asia?

With the publication of an article on Western women dating Asian men that included a large contribution from my friend Jocelyn Eikenburg came a very good point from another friend: one reason why there are fewer Western Woman-Asian man couples is that there are fewer Western women in Asia.

Why is that, I asked to no one in particular.

I returned to my original post from years ago about why there are so few expat women in Asia (I could just as easily said 'Western women' - what working-class foreign women, mostly from China and Southeast Asia,  in countries like Taiwan face is an entirely different topic that I will cover once I feel qualified to do so).

I felt that the piece could use some updating, so I've updated it to add a few more thoughts and clarify or expand some of the original points.

I am not at all sure that everyone will like what I have to say, but since when has that mattered to me?

What would really improve the piece would be more firsthand experiences from a variety of women on why they chose to stay or leave - in fact, after I finish off a few other blogging projects I'm working on as well as get through the first in-person component of my Master's program, I intend to seek those voices out. For now, your comments are welcome.

The bulk of the changes - though not every change - to the original article are as follows:

As for the reasons why [dating prospects aren't great for Western women in Asia], it's hard for me to say, and I'll have to stick to heterosexual couples for now. Someone more qualified than me can write about gay dating in Asia.

My college crush moved to Taiwan, we started dating, and now we're married. I don't really have firsthand experience with this issue to share. It seems to me, though, that the issue is not what most people assume: that Western women don't want to date Asian men, so they stay single. Only a small minority of Western women I've met in Asia feel that way - most are quite open to it, or have dated (or married) Asian men. However, I do think it's likely harder. The culture barrier to dating doesn't work in our favor, as Asian men are often less likely to be clear about their feelings and ask for concrete dates, or don't show interest in the ways we've come to expect. It's easier to be a very clear Western man asking a local woman out than it is for a Western woman to figure out if an Asian man likes her.

Of course, I'm the sort of woman who once asked men out. It doesn't shock me - I think more women should do it! Again, however, that's a contentious topic in the West, though I'm not sure why. In Asia it's even more rare and is more likely to put men off. Take that even further, and it means there are fewer local men who possess the feminist chops many Western women deem a dealbreaker: I wouldn't date a man who would be put off by my asking him out.

After that, the culture barrier vis-a-vis traditional families also tends not to work in Western women's favor. If you are dating the son of Asian parents, while it's not certain that they'll expect him to run his family the way they tell him to, live nearby or use your shared financial resources to support his parents, it is certainly more likely than in the West. The expectations of male and female roles in marriage are also more likely to be traditional (though, again, this is far from universal: feminist Asian men do exist. I count some among my friends). Some Western women might see this as a difficult adjustment. Others, like me, view it as a dealbreaker.

This is not meant to be a blanket statement on the state of Western woman-Asian man dating in Asia, of course. Differing stories and successful and happy couples abound. It's just an issue worth considering. However, if the obstacles to that sort of partnership are greater, fewer women are likely to meet, date, marry and set up a home with a local man. This means fewer have that particular pull to stay (though, again, there are many success stories).

And, of course, there aren't that many Western men to date and the ones that are here might - see below - be oddly hostile to Western women. 

Does it really keep Western women away from life abroad, though, or is the correlation entirely spurious?

A little of both. For women who want to travel, the dating issue (which has no easy answer) is not likely to keep them away, though it may cause them to choose shorter-term trips: a one-year stint as a student or one year abroad teaching instead of staying long-term, for example.

* * * 

It is tiring to work for a sexist boss, have to address sexist beliefs even among friends, go out and meet people only to find that you are again being judged through the lens of gender, asked yet again about marriage and family, having children, having your appearance commented on and treated as the most important part of who you are. Always wondering if you are being paid less, and if so, because you happen to have a vagina. Always wondering if you are offered the fluffier classes (e.g. "Baking in English!") and work teaching children rather than the more challenging work (e.g. "Presenting in English") because you are female. Always questioning why, exactly, most of your colleagues are male, especially if you teach corporate English, IELTS or other adult classes.

Sexism is also a problem in the West - the hate and vitriol I see from some American men is astounding - but coming up against older-school forms of it in Asia is tiring. 

* * * 

I want to add a few more points here to expand this piece. I focused mainly on expats like me above: women who came here on their own as students or independently in search of work. However, there is a whole class of expat that I don't interact with much - nothing personal, we just inhabit different worlds - the corporate expat here on a fancy package. In Taiwan this means the ones who have luxury apartments rented for them, drivers and live-in help, who send their children to international schools we couldn't hope to afford. That sort of money would be nice, though I'm not sure I'd like the life very much. In any case, corporate sexism is a huge issue, and as a result most of the employees being offered these stellar packages are male. They might bring their wives, but they are the ones drawing the salaries. When women are offered something like this, they may find they're in a tiny minority and that when they arrive, the non-Western corporate world is even more hostile and sexist than what they left behind. Professional Taiwanese women have more advantages than almost all of their counterparts in the rest of Asia, but corporate sexism here is no better, and likely worse, than what you'll find in the West.

And, finally, I'm going to add something that may anger a few people, but here we go. It is my personal opinion from observation that women tend to be less tolerant of mediocrity. What I mean by that is, those of us who don't come as students or well-paid, cosseted expatriates often start out teaching English. Few of us are qualified, and we are given a title ("teacher") that we don't exactly deserve. I don't exempt myself from this: I was once this sort of so-called "teacher". Most "English teachers" in Taiwan know this (though some don't seem to have figured it out). Some, like me, decide the work is meaningful and fulfilling and eventually become professional educators. Most don't. Some leave after awhile, others decide that teaching without any real qualification is good enough and stay. Guess which group I have noticed is more likely to not be content being an unqualified "teacher"? If you guessed women, then you get where I'm going. And guess which group I've noticed is more likely to decide that what they're doing is fine?