The other day I was talking to a friend who'd relocated from Taipei to Hong Kong (a journalist). He called Taipei a "professional backwater" and for a lot of industries, I can see where he's coming from. I don't think it's right or fair - I mean the city is about the size of Chicago and is the capital of one of the most prosperous and modern-industry-heavy countries in Asia - but he's got a point that successful professionals in Taipei are underpaid, the best tend to leave for Shanghai, Beijing, Japan or the West, and that a lot of times you just have to move because, I dunno, your crappy joke rich-people-are-trolling-us newspaper has decided to close down its Taipei office because now I guess it's OK to report on Taiwan from a totally different country - China. (I'm looking at you, Wall Street Journal, though that's not where my friend worked). I do think this is in part due to bad domestic policy - this is what allowing wage stagnation to continue has wrought - and in part due to purposeful and strategic marginalization by China that the crappy joke rich-people-are-screwing-us Ma administration has let grow unchecked.
But, with a few posts in recent months that included criticisms of Taiwan as a difficult place to build a career as a foreigner, I felt that perhaps a post about how Taiwan has actually benefited my career was in order. This will mostly be useful for English teachers, of which I am one: one of the few jobs it is fairly easy for a non-Taiwanese to come here and do.
Most obviously, Taiwan gave me the chance to actually try my hand at teaching longer term and as a possible career goal. That's not something that's so easy to do in the USA or, I gather, most western countries. I am in the USA right now for a family visit (for once there's no bad news) and I reflected during my recent trip to Hong Kong, where I spoke to this friend, and this morning in my dad's house, on what my life would be like if I hadn't chosen Taipei to spend the last decade.
If I'd moved on from Taiwan to another country to teach, I can't say for sure what it'd be like but I'm not at all sure I'd have the same level of professional development (CPD) that I have gained from living in Taiwan, simply due to time and funding. More on that below. Most countries underpay English teachers, and those that don't often require long hours, are very expensive, or just don't have the technological infrastructure to do well in online classes if they don't have in-country CPD.
If I'd stayed in the USA...oh god. I know many people prefer the stability of a salaried office job, but anyone who's met me knows that sort of work just doesn't suit me. I get restless if I'm in one place too long, or have to spend very long hours there. I get bored with routine more easily than many. I don't like being expected to clock in and out at certain hours when that's just not how my best work gets done. I have a strong personality that doesn't quite fit with most office politics, where 'normal' is the new beige. It sounds very self-centered and entitled and "kids these days" although I'm in my 30s, but better that I know this about myself and act on it than put myself and others through the torture of my trying to work such a job, yes? I find most office work meaningless on a personal level, even as I acknowledge that some of it must be done and others do find meaning in it. So, with my remarkable lack of talent at doing office work I don't find meaningful, and my penchant for saying what I think regardless of the social consequences, and my intractable inability to act 'beige', I probably wouldn't have gotten promoted very quickly and would probably still be wondering why I'm on the bottom rungs at a company that's given me a job that I could do far better at, but lack the motivation to try. I wouldn't even be able to afford training for something different, so I'd feel stuck. I'd still be taking the bus 2 hours to work and back each day and struggling to pay rent on the fringes of a major city, working a 2nd job to have any savings at all, watching my 20s melt into my 30s with little change.
Doesn't that sound lovely?
Taiwan, in short, gave me the chance to do something else. I can't imagine I would have been able to afford the path to becoming an English teacher in the USA.
Anyone who reads this blog semi-regularly knows that I'm a big proponent of teacher training. I really don't buy the argument that all you need is the right personality or talent and some classroom practice - if anything it's condescending to teachers who have worked hard to perfect their craft to imply that any reasonably extroverted upstart who isn't a total dullard could just sort of figure it all out in a few months through magic or something. But, what I haven't perhaps made clear is that I'm also a fan of experience, and getting someone fresh off the plane into a job where they can see for themselves if they like it and are suited to it as a career before committing to an expensive degree program is something I support. After all I got my start that way. I'd only insist that such opportunities come with somewhat standardized, respectable on the job training and continuing with the job would require getting (school-funded) qualification such as CELTA after a year or two.
But you can't do that in the USA - you might be able to volunteer or get a job at an unaccredited school/institute, but you won't be able to get a real job paying a living wage teaching English in the USA unless you commit to perhaps more money than you want to spend getting certified to do something you've never even tried. Most such jobs seem to require a Master's or teaching license. I can see how promising new talent may decide to just take office jobs rather than commit to that.
So, thank you Taiwan, for making it possible for me to discover a career that suits me in a way my home country could not.
You could say that a lot of countries provide this - you can teach English anywhere. Yes, almost anywhere, but Taiwan has the advantages of being more livable than say, China (or the Middle East for women with strong feminist beliefs), with better wages than most of South America, all of Europe, Turkey and most of Southeast Asia (I hear wages in Vietnam are pretty good but are awful and exploitative in Thailand). It's not as expensive as Japan or Europe - perhaps only in Korea can you save more as jobs there tend to provide perks such as flight reimbursement and free accommodation.
So, in Taiwan you can live fairly well and potentially save enough to pay for CPD - which schools should be paying for or helping to fund but generally don't. That's actually pretty rare in this profession! I'm not sure if I lived in a more expensive country if I'd have been able to afford Delta at all, or if I'd had to commit to one full-time job. You may have to go abroad for CPD in Taiwan - more about that and other issues below - but at least for me, Taiwan has given me the flexibility and funds I need to get it done.
Taiwan also allowed me to become a permanent resident fairly easily - not something a lot of countries necessarily do. This allowed me to sort of 'create a job' for myself in which I work part-time in corporate training, part-time in the IELTS world, and part-time for my private clients. This is not something I could have done as easily (and legally) in, say, China where permanent residency is hard to come by, or Korea where you need a job offer and work visa to even come in, and so that job - paying for your flight and accommodation and all - is more likely to expect you to work for only them. Even in Taiwan without permanent residency schools that sponsor your work visa can and do ask you to be available for them at set hours - you lose a lot of flexibility, but the fact that I was able to get PR fairly painlessly is a big plus in favor of Taiwan. That sort of freedom has really helped my career because I've had more chances, through being free to work whenever and for whomever I like, to not only get a Delta in my spare time (something that may have been torturous at a full-time job) but also to expand into other ELT specialisms. I don't know that I'd have had the chance to do both specialized private teaching, corporate training and IELTS in a more traditional job setup, and it has been very good for me professionally.
Notably, I could not have done this in the USA either, in part because there's just less demand for English teachers (and what demand there is seems to mostly be in public schools, and I don't teach kids) but also because that sort of freelance work requires a fair amount of bouncing around the city. I do not like to drive. Other than possibly New York - and maybe not even there due to long transit times - I couldn't do the sort of all-around-town commuting that I do on a reasonable schedule without a car. It's a life goal for me to never have to own a car, so this is a big deal.
That's not to say that Taipei is a totally professional place for English teaching, or that it's necessarily the best place to start a career. Certainly about 99% of the cram school industry, where most untrained "Engrish teechers" work, is also a crappy joke, Taiwan has no important professional conferences in ELT, whether academic or professional, and even real employers don't always treat you as a professional. I've been lucky in this regard but even friends of mine who've worked at actual universities complain about treated like grunt workers. There are no good training or qualification programs in Taiwan - you have to go online or go abroad. Most jobs don't care if you're qualified or not. Those in ELT research who actually want to participate in the academic side of the field rarely publish from Taiwan, and professional development is almost never paid for or even encouraged (again I'm lucky in that for me it is encouraged, but I can't help but notice it hasn't been paid for, and that's one other reason why I freelance rather than committing to one employer. No employer has a package quite good enough to get me full-time). The idea of working at a university and having a research budget as well as funding to travel to international conferences, as my friend in the same field in Japan does, seems to simply not exist in Taiwan. So, there's room to improve. A lot of room.
But it would be unfair to slam Taiwan totally. We have a very small community of ELT professionals - I probably know the majority of Delta holders in the country - but I've found a great deal of support in that community. I met my Delta tutor randomly through an online forum post. Other professionals have allowed me to observe classes, accepted me into training programs and given me advice on my way up. Those who 'get it' really get it, and there are few enough of us that perhaps it does mean we support each other more.
And on a more personal note, I grew into my own in Taiwan. I am not the same person who got on a flight from Dulles to Taipei 10 years ago - now I know how to work hard, I know how to deliver results at work (even if I am a bit temperamental or have high expectations at times), I know what I want and I feel like I have an actual career. I discovered that career through working in Taiwan, and I'm not entirely sure the conditions would have been right for it to have happened in another country. I couldn't stay in China, I love Japan but have serious reservations about what it would be like to live there, Korea is not as laid-back, and other countries don't pay particularly well. I've had the chance to try out different types of teaching and had work opportunities I likely wouldn't have had elsewhere. I recently had the opportunity to work in a professional capacity with a public figure I happen to personally admire and respect, on a topic I am very passionate about, and I enjoyed it greatly. I never would have had that chance if I'd just stayed in the USA and worked some crappy joke office job or slogged through work at a cram school in Japan. I wouldn't even be the same person - the professional English teacher who is passionate about her field - who would have had such an opportunity.
So, while my friend has a point about Taipei as a "professional backwater", I just can't entirely sign on to that perspective. Taiwan made me the English teacher and person I am. I have come to love Taiwan as a second home, and care about it as a nation. I had none of those things in 2006 and while I suppose I could have the same feeling about any country I'd chosen to spend these years in, I chose Taiwan, so Taiwan means something to me.