I promised I'd eventually pick up where I left off here, so...
Last month I came across this job posting with MoFA (the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) through the Facebook group of Nihao's It Going (and for those wondering why there is no Lao Ren Cha Facebook group, the answer is that I am old and lazy.)
No link because the ad is no longer online. That probably means someone took the job, or they'd have extended the posting dates. It's too much to hope for that MoFA realized how embarrassing that salary offer was and immediately, contritely took the ad down until they could come up with a better offer.
My mouth was agape at the requirement of a Master's obtained outside Taiwan (the hell?), so let's briefly take a look at that. What the hell is going on that the Taiwanese government is announcing openly that Master's degrees obtained in Taiwan are substandard? (I suspect for some subjects, at some universities, they are - but even so, for the government to be openly acknowledging this is horrifying).
Then, look at the salary: NT$66,000/month. And look at what they want for that.
That's...about US$2200/month - enough to live comfortably in Taiwan if you are single or a dual-income couple, but not enough to raise a family. Enough to get by and save a little for some nice vacations, but not enough to save meaningfully for any long-term goals. In 2006, if Kojen (a large buxiban chain) put you - probably a teacher lacking most of this list of qualifications - on a salaried rather than hourly rate, it was NT$60k - not a lot less than this offer, and 12 years ago at that.
Even sadder is that they seem to have enough applications to justify taking the post down from people willing to accept that pay.
In short, it's a joke. So between bouts of laughter, I've been thinking a lot about why I stay - why any foreign talent stays, when the pay is just this damn bad. More importantly, I've been thinking about that means in terms of the greater conversation about brain drain and attracting (and retaining) foreign talent in Taiwan. Or, for that matter, local talent.
Why some people stay anyway is an easy question to answer: for me, it's a combination. My social life is very much here now. I love my friends back in the US, but there is no denying we've grown apart somewhat (this is less of a problem with friends in the UK). Not only do I find it hard to explain what my life is actually like in Taiwan to friends who have never visited.
Beyond that, I simply care about the country. Assuming I wouldn't move back to the US (and I wouldn't, unless I felt I had to), and assuming learning a new language isn't a problem (and it probably wouldn't be - I'm good at that), I find it hard to imagine coming to care about another place as much as I do Taiwan. Korea, Japan and Hong Kong are interesting - as are many places farther afield and outside Asia - but am I really going to start passionately fighting for the concept of Korean identity, or Japanese democracy or discussing Argentinian history in the detail I do about Taiwan? Am I going to start collecting and reading books about Jordan? Probably not.
Leaving aside the mostly-hideous architecture and other endemic, intractable problems here, there's something special about the place. A spark that caught my eye. A streak of rebelliousness that chimes a matching tone to something within me. A real fight, for freedom against oppression, for democracy against dictatorship, for right (if flawed) against absolutely wrong.
I've also come to learn about myself that even if I cannot vote, I must live in a free society, and one where women's issues have at least reached the level of discourse they have in Taiwan. That cuts out more than half the world, including much of the rest of Asia. China is a no-go, so is Vietnam. Hong Kong isn't quite free. Japan and South Korea have bigger issues with sexism than Taiwan.
And it's convenient - I think there's a law somewhere requiring that I say that. Sure. And I really do prefer living in the developed world, and in a place with a first-rate public transit network.
Oh yeah and all my stuff's here and my cats and all that. Sure.
Point is, if all I cared about was money, there are a lot of places I could go, and make lots more of it. Obviously, other priorities keep me here.
Other people have other reasons - perhaps their job is more tied to Taiwan, whereas I could find better work if I were willing to leave. Perhaps they've married locally, or are a specialist in local politics or history (things I am personally interested in, but am not a credentialed expert in), or have invested their whole lives in learning Mandarin or Taiwanese.
There are a million reasons why we accept low pay and generally poor working conditions, from the grounded (say, married locally) or conceptual (caring about Taiwan as a cause worth fighting for).
I'm not trying to defend the offering of NT$66,000/month to someone who would earn three times that, or more, elsewhere. I'm not saying that Taiwan is attractive to foreign talent despite being a place where, in many cases, your career can only go so far. In my own life, I'm grateful for the career boost Taiwan has given me, but I also see the end of the road: the point where I could go further in life (and make a lot more money, and eventually earn citizenship) if I were willing to leave. That hasn't changed.
And if Taiwan really wants to attract foreign expertise, they are simply going to have to offer a better, and better-remunerated, work culture. Period. So who cares why we stay?
Mainly, it matters because it breaks down this myth that talent always, in every instance, follows money. It's one thing to say that Taiwan needs to be more attractive to foreign talent. It's quite another to imply the flip-side of that, as some do: that everyone who is talented therefore leaves, or goes elsewhere to begin with, and those who come and stay must therefore not be desirable talent.
Whether we're talking about locals or foreigners, this is simply not fair. If some of us have other reasons why we stay, it follows that at least some of those who remain will have the talent and expertise Taiwan needs, and we deserve better than to be dismissed as losers for sticking around. I know people among my friends and connections here who are: long-termers a deeply committed teacher of children; a generous friend who gives up heaps of personal time to volunteer in underprivileged communities; several formidable scholars and journalists who, in the face of a low-quality media environment, ensure that information about Taiwan is available in a variety of languages; talented teachers of adults who have the training and experience to remake what it means to learn; public figures who bring like-minded expats together; a migrant rights activist; several writers and artists; several LGBT rights activists and more. So many more. Forget me, I'm just a weirdo with opinions - look at the whole picture.
And yes, there are losers too, and leeches, but we're not all LBHs (Losers Back Home) who can't leave because nowhere else will put up with our bullshit, just because we haven't chased the dollar signs to some other country. We all have our reasons for staying.
Again, so what?
Well, not all of these examples of the creativity, experience and expertise that we bring to Taiwan fit into the little pegs set out by the government. We have a lot to offer, but because we're not necessarily the kind of 'foreign experts' who do chase dollar signs, we don't always meet the qualifications to be considered a 'foreign expert'.
Becoming a 'foreign expert' costs money, especially if you have already built a life in Taiwan, and suddenly find you need to relocate abroad to gain the qualifications you need (hence my problem with the "Master's degree from a university not located in Taiwan" in that ad, although I am obtaining exactly that. Not sure how I'll afford the PhD though, with an entire life that I can't just give up in Taiwan.) Those of us who have other reasons for staying and don't just chase money...tend not to have huge amounts of it.
The way the discussion about immigration and dual nationality rights is going now, it seems most of the Taiwanese government thinks we're all worthless slobs when what they want to attract is "real" expertise, not the slothful degenerates they imagine us to be, showing up to 550/hour classes at Happy Eagle English Scholar's Acadamy still drunk on Taiwan Beer.
It dismisses those of us who came to Taiwan as nothing and built something, even if we didn't quite build it to the exact specifications set out for 'special' foreign professionals. It completely ignores the ways in which we've looked to give back, and the ways we - the ones who stay despite the crap work culture and crappier pay - are the real soft power.
I know it's a bit odd to say "we're not here for the money" alongside "...but really, we need more money". It's true, though. We stay for other reasons, but things absolutely have to get better, or we may start losing the good people who stayed on regardless. Those of us who have good but not 'special professional' situations won't move into these more prestigious jobs if the pay is so paltry.
We deserve better pay and work conditions, just as locals do (and I acknowledge locals need it more). But those who have made something of ourselves here also deserve to be recognized as the people who stayed even when we could have gone elsewhere and earned a lot more, and what that means in terms of the value we add to Taiwan.