Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Ready, Set, Go

Edited to add: I forgot to include a link to the song that underscored this post. Here you go.

They keep us at sea level so I'm stayin' on my A-game
They're local like the C when I'm express like the A Train.

I had wanted to get back into blogging smoothly, with a few softball posts about traveling in Kinmen and the East Rift Valley before yet another family emergency (this one turned out OK though) sent me back to the US for a good portion of the summer and Delta Module 2 began.

But this article in the Straits Times caught my eye - I do think it's worth a quick reaction post with some thoughts on racism and the ghettoization of foreigners in Taiwan.

I don't feel, up to now, that I have been limited in my career by living in Taiwan - if anything Taiwan helped me launch my career. But, I say that as a career English teacher: of course it would be easier for me than for a foreigner in literally any other field. With the exception of a few really bad years toward the end of my time at my former employer, after they treated my husband like dirt but I stuck around just to get an APRC (and had to pretend just to get through each day that I didn't think what they did was so heinous - when it was heinous, and unforgivable), I've generally had positive working experiences. I have been able to move on to freelance with two very good schools that, while they may technically be buxibans, are places that actually prioritize education and look after their people. I've been able to get a Delta - at least I am basically sure I passed and will have that baby in my hands soon. English teachers can do that. Nobody else, save perhaps an editor or journalist, can.

However, I have to basically agree with this:

The challenges that Caucasians face are more in the form of being "ghettoised", said Mr Michael Turton, 52, an American who has lived in Taiwan for two decades.
"Everyone is very polite to us, but try finding a permanent position in a university or business in one's own skill," said Mr Turton, who teaches English at a local university and said he knows of only two Caucasian deans among Taiwan's numerous universities. "Tension is ameliorated because everyone knows foreigners have no power."
One reason is, unlike Singapore or Hong Kong, Taiwan is not a regional financial hub that would have as many job opportunities.
Language is another barrier.
That said, Taiwanese women do tend to find Caucasians to be desirable matches, said Mr Turton, who is married to a Taiwanese woman. They have two children.
"How many local girls want to marry foreigners? Lots. That is because foreigners are an escape fantasy," Mr Turton said, referring to familial obligations women married to local men have to fulfil, and a perception of a better life in a Western country.
First of all, I feel that Taiwan has been a really great place to live this past decade. Up through getting my Delta it's also a nearly ideal place to work. While salaries are stagnant, generally speaking the pay is better than in much of the rest of the world and the lifestyle makes up for the fact that we really all should be earning more. Locals included. Flexible work allowed me to get that Delta while doing three modular courses. Taiwan is relatively well-connected to the outside world so I was able to access books I needed for my coursework. I've been able to travel a lot because of affordable airfares to the rest of Asia.

However, I have to say I've started noticing cracks in the facade of our great lifestyle here.

First, I know someday I will get a Master's - the issue is paying for it, not the actual work. I was born in a country where higher education is prohibitively expensive, I can't just say "Imma go to grad school!" the way Canadians, Australians and Europeans (and many Taiwanese) do. Once I do, I have to admit that I see the end of the line. At that point will I really want to be working in private language schools, as good as my two current employers are? Probably not, to be honest. But what else can I do? International schools aren't ideal (plus I'd also have to get a teaching license most likely) as I don't particularly want to teach teenagers full-time. Universities simply don't pay well enough (salaries are in the range of NT$60,000/month I've been told, and frankly, that's not enough even with paid vacation). But we foreigners really are limited in terms of moving up if we actually want to teach. There are a handful of schools that hire foreigners as academic managers or teacher trainers, and those positions don't always pay particularly well either (plus your job is often to be the 'bearer of bad news' between the teaching staff and Taiwanese upper management if it's a locally-owned school, which sounds like my idea of hell). The schools I work for don't do this, but a LOT of schools see foreigners as foreign monkeys to put in classrooms to get students in, and just take for granted that they should never be anything more. So, when that time comes and I'm ready to move up in my career...where exactly is there in Taiwan for me to go, when the only 'better' jobs are not actually better?

In short, Taiwan has been great for my career up to now, but I can see clearly down the road where it won't be forever. Someday that's a problem I'm going to have to grapple with, and it would be a lie to say it's not causing me stress now.

Secondly, I (well, we, but this is me writing) feel absolutely ready, once I rescue my finances from the clusterfuck that was late 2014-2015, to do adult things like, oh, actually own the place where we live so we can modify it to our liking. Have a credit rating in the country where I actually live! Have a job with benefits! Good luck doing any of those things - getting a credit card without a big fight, getting a mortgage (if you're not married to a local, forget it), finding that higher-level job without running into a pervasive feeling that foreigners shouldn't be considered for such positions (again I'd like to point out that neither of my current schools have that attitude, but they are the exceptions, not the rule).

Speaking of marriage, Michael makes a good point that a lot of foreigners here do marry locals, but I didn't - and in fact that's a bit of a male-centric phenomenon. Some foreign women do marry Taiwanese men but the balance is squarely in favor of foreign men and Taiwanese women (marriage equality is not yet law here but one can hope it will be soon as most Taiwanese support the idea). Nothing wrong with that generally (though that does mean there is a problem in the expat community with the slimier kind of fetishizers, but that's for a post I don't think I'll ever write). There seems to be this blanket assumption - and I'm not saying Michael is guilty of it, just that it exists - that 'expat' means 'straight male expat', like Plato's ideal form of Expat definitely has a penis and definitely wants to put it in a vagina. What that ends up meaning is that male expats, if they marry locals, are more likely to stay because they get the local benefits of that union. They get the mortgages and credit cards because their wives can co-sign. They get the guanxi. They get the sense of permanence. Other than the few foreign women married to Taiwanese men, female expats are just that much more marginalized. And yes, that is a problem. I happened to marry a white guy, and as a result, we can't get a freakin' mortgage in the country where we live. That's not OK.

Which brings me to my next point - yes, I do feel increasingly ghettoized as a result of all of this. As a professional English teacher - yeah shut up I have a Delta now :) - I feel stereotyped with all of the Johnny McBackpackers who just got off the plane and think that teaching (good teaching that is) is an easy and fun way to make a few extra bucks and requires no special skills. I feel marginalized because I can't even consider becoming a homeowner in the country where I live. I feel limited because after I get a Master's there won't be many growth opportunities career-wise, and it will become increasingly hard to push my salary up (as it is for everyone: see stagnation, wage). It does create the feeling that 'you're a foreigner, we allowed you to do a lot, but this is all you are allowed to do. Know your place." 

This is not an attitude I can point to in anyone in particular, but a general sense I get. It's compounded by the fact that it is commonly believed that foreigners - at least English teachers, obviously this is not true for largely Southeast Asian laborers - are treated better than Taiwanese. And in many cases we are - pay for teachers who don't know TBL from TPRS, or scaffolding from subordination, and teach weird things like "I'm well" rather than "I'm good" because they don't know what a copula is let alone how it works - is higher than actual qualified teachers who happen to have Taiwanese passports (which brings in the other discussion of how good teacher training is in Taiwan - not something I want to get into here). We get away with not following work culture expectations because it's not our culture. We get to take longer vacations, generally speaking, as long as our employers aren't too terrible. We generally get a lot of leeway.

But I can't say wholeheartedly that we actually are treated better. We don't get annual bonuses, which most Taiwanese expect as a matter of course. We don't get paid vacation generally (although this is partly why we can take longer vacations so there is a trade-off). We can't get a pension even if we pay into the system. We don't get paid Chinese New Year, although technically by law we ought to. We have trouble asserting our basic rights - non-discrimination, labor insurance, even a contract not full of outrageous illegal clauses including very illegal fines for "quitting" even with proper notice (again I'm lucky in that regard but a lot of people aren't). We can't become citizens unless we give up our original citizenship - a rule not imposed on Taiwanese who get citizenship in other countries. My husband got screwed by our former employer because they had entirely too much control over his visa, for someone who had been here for nearly five years. They should have never been allowed to do that to him, and yet they were. And again, we are limited in the jobs we can take because a lot of locals don't consider foreigners as serious candidates for real, skilled, high-level work. We'll always be outsiders.

A final thing that bothers me is how many Taiwanese - rather like Americans in this way - deny that there is any racism at all in their country. Here is a near exact excerpt from a conversation I had with a neighbor (translated into English):

"Well, there's racism everywhere, so of course there's racism in Taiwan."
"No there isn't! We treat you well."
"Sure, you treat ME well, but that itself is a form of racism - in some ways you treat white people better than locals. But really the problem is that you don't treat EVERY foreigner well. Only the Westerners, and often only the white ones."
"No, I don't treat others badly."
"You personally don't, but do you think Southeast Asians in this country are discriminated against?"
"Well, yes, there's some racism there. But it's for a reason. They come from poor countries with a lot of crime, so we have to be careful!"


So, while I personally have never experienced the sort of racist rant that Christopher Hall did, and likely never will, I definitely feel it in big ways and small, and I have to say it's become more noticeable in the past few years, especially as someone not married to a local. I don't know what the end result will be, but I can't deny it's an issue. 


Unknown said...

Not to excuse any of the unfair practices you note in the blog, I'd like to point out perhaps the Taiwanese are reacting to an attitude the western foreigners often carry. Ask yourself why you identify as an expat but not an immigrant. You might find the answer why the country doesn't make more effort integratibg you into society.

Jenna Cody said...

Yeah I've seen that concerted effort to demonize the word 'expat' as meaning 'white person abroad' when I don't buy it - it's not really what that word means. It means someone who has not committed to living in a place permanently, unlike an immigrant. I didn't think that article in the Guardian that started it all was very good or accurate then, and I don't now.

As for why I identify as an expat and not an immigrant, I've actually written about that before, I believe. It's because Taiwan won't let me be anything else. I can't settle here - BECAUSE I'm basically not allowed to fully settle here. I can't become a citizen without going through a prohibitive set of requirements (purposely prohibitive and purposely aimed at keeping foreigners from integrating, and not imposed on Taiwanese who obtain another citizenship) meaning I can never fully participate politically. I'm kept from owning a home not due to the law but due to bank practices. It is still assumed that I don't speak Chinese, or speak it well (I do) because of the way my face looks. It is still taken for granted that I will not be able to advance my career as much as I'd like here because I'm not from here...so how *can* I integrate and call myself an "immigrant", when I'm not allowed to?

I call myself an expat because I have to. I can't really be an immigrant until I'm able to participate fully in life in Taiwan by having a true career and owning a home (if I so choose - and I'd like to), having a credit rating and voting. I'm an expat because Taiwan has decided that's what I am.

I guess this is a bit of a chicken-and-egg argument - what came first, the discriminatory practices that lead foreigners to feel marginalized and therefore to generally not decide to assimilate permanently, or the foreigners who want to retain an element of outsider-ness who then find themselves shut out for that attitude? But unlike a classic chicken-and-egg argument, it's pretty obvious what came first.

We identify as expats because we aren't given the chance to become immigrants. For years I have considered staying in Taiwan permanently and frankly I'd still like to. I just don't see how it will be possible long-term. Hence, expat.

Cary said...

I think you have very valid complaints about the unfairness and difficulties you face. It's been about twenty years since I left Taiwan, for many of the same reasons, ultimately a feeling that there was no realistic path to belonging there as a member of the society with fully-fleged citizenship. There has been some tangible progress (it was extremely difficult to get any kind of work visa in those days, and private language schools were excluded), but mostly on the margins.

To me, the problem is that it is a Chinese society. There is no escaping being regarded as other, and ultimately inferior to, the dominant culture (notwithstanding some envy and admiration of your 'freedom,' open-mindedness, etc.). No matter how well you assimilate, you are subject to the perception that you don't fit because you are not tethered to the cultural matrix in the same inextricable way that the Chinese are, carrying the weight of history, family obligations that extend through long-dead ancestors, and the pressure to conform to cultural norms. Because of this, you can't really be trusted. You can't loan money to someone who can't be trusted.

Many individuals, particularly those that have traveled abroad, can get all or most of the way over this and become your true Chinese friends in Taiwan. It's not easy to overcome the programming, but it can be done. The larger society has no interest in, and no motivation to break through that programming. Foreigners are such a minuscule minority (more especially the tiny sliver of white-collar native english speakers) that they don't really exert any pressure for cultural change and adaptation. If they are unhappy, new foreigners will come to replace them, and there is no perceived downside to losing the talent and experience that a more open business and cultural milieu would attract and retain. Although the costs of such a provincial attitude are obvious to us and some local elites, that argument doesn't cut any ice with the larger population.

I don't want to put this down as an exclusively Chinese phenomenon. Japan is much more open and progressive in this regard, but the marginalization of foreigners there is palpable. It's worthwhile to analyze and criticize these absurd attitudes and practices, but is ultimately futile, in the near term. Real change on this front will be a matter of many decades, centuries even, if at all. I came to the conclusion that Taiwan was a wonderful place to live in so many respects that it was quite easy to put up with the garbage aspects of the culture that kept me an outsider. I made a few attempts at autonomy by leasing land, with the idea of building a simple house and small farm plot, and telecommuting overseas. It proved to be impossible. The only achievable situation was one in which I was subject to immediate eviction. I might have been able to get around it by marrying, but that's another story, and still leaves one in a vulnerable and less than autonomous status.

In the end, I wasn't willing to remain in a place that refused to treat me as a grownup. I'm sorry you're running into these absurd and inflexible obstacles. I hope you find a way through them, and that you don't have to choose between living in the place you love and your personal development/self-respect. All of life is a compromise, though!

Dad said...

During the 20 years I was there, I saw plenty of talented people leave Taiwan due to the exclusion you've written about here.

However, I can't agree with what you've written about lifestyle. As an Australian, that was always something I tolerated until I had children. My kids are now growing up a few minutes from beautiful beaches and doing much less school homework than their cousins back in Taipei. It is entirely possible that the lifestyle you have now can be replicated or improved upon elsewhere.

Jenna Cody said...

"Dad" - well, I'm an American. It's not so easy for us. I can't replicate the lifestyle I enjoy in the USA because I don't have access to affordable health care in the USA, and one of the core tenets of the lifestyle I seek is to live in the city (needn't be right downtown but must be urban) and not own a car. It's actually a life goal of mine to never own a car if at all possible. In the USA there is only one city where you can realistically do that without any constraints on your movement - New York. And that's great, but I can't afford to live in New York. Other cities have public transit but none have transit good enough that you really can do anything you want to do without a car - there are limits on your movement even in DC and Boston and that's not OK with me (and it doesn't improve as you leave the east coast - it gets worse). I certainly wouldn't be able to afford the three-bedroom apartment I have, close to downtown and two MRT stations, in a good building in a good location, in my home country!

So no, actually, I *can't* replicate my lifestyle here back home. Besides, everything you mention about why living where you do being superior has to do with having kids. We don't have kids, and don't plan to, so that's not relevant to me. Does your "better lifestyle" involve taking the subway or bus and not owning a car? Can you walk to a number of cafes, the grocery store, the post office, the bank and more? Can you choose without too much financial worry or time constraints (e.g. driving to the store) whether to cook or eat out for dinner? That is the lifestyle I mean, and that is what Taiwan affords me. If you have any suggestions for where I can have something like it in a country I could fairly easily live in at a good salary in my profession (without worrying about what's good for kids as that is not relevant to my life), I am open to suggestions.

Jenna Cody said...

Cary - I mostly agree with you, though I think a lot of what you say is present in all cultures. In America we are a bit more progressive in that people do feel the sacrifice of letting talent leave if they don't like it, and we aren't beholden to "ancestors" or much in the way of older cultural practices. Also in the USA a permanent resident can get a mortgage and a credit card, and in many cases loans for other things too (e.g. a car loan).

But plenty of non-white Americans feel vilified and "otherized" in the USA, especially if they don't conform to typical culture: imagine how it must feel to be someone who doesn't celebrate Christmas - perhaps you are Jewish or your parents came over from India - and kind of sick of being wished a 'merry Christmas' at every turn, because it is an assumption that you must celebrate what everyone else does. You finally see the light as people start adopting "happy holidays" so you're not constantly reminded that you are an Outsider who can't have a "merry Christmas" (or it's just assumed you do celebrate Christmas)...and then for a whole new wave to come and say that YOU are the problem and this is a 'war on Christmas' just because some people are trying to be more inclusive. Heck as a feminist and atheist I feel otherized to some degree - not a great degree but some - in my own country even though I'm a part of the dominant culture. (I've written before about how in one respect I feel more assimilated in Taiwan than the USA: here nobody cares that I don't believe in God whereas in the USA people tend to regard that with suspicion and fear, as though "I'm an atheist" is code for "I drink baby blood").

But in most other respects I agree. And life is compromise, yes. The question is, so far what compromises I've had to make to live here have been quite tolerable. For now I'm fine to rent an apartment and have my credit card be based in the USA (I hardly ever use it anyway, I just think it's smart to have a good credit rating). But what happens when they no longer are? I too see a point down the road where I'm done living in a country that won't treat me like an adult - I hope I never get to that point on the horizon but I can't deny it's there.