Showing posts with label business. Show all posts
Showing posts with label business. Show all posts

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Pound for pound of what, exactly?

I don’t have a good cover photo so enjoy these amateur door gods. 

I admit I haven’t been blogging as much lately, partly because I’m busy with work, and partly because spending a lot of time with a research topic has made me less inclined to opine on issues I don’t know as well. I’ve been asking myself what value the opinionations of outsiders and non-experts really has, at least after a certain point. (That’s not to say I think there is none; it’s just not where I’ve found the most meaning in my life and Taiwan advocacy recently.) I’ve found more meaning in using all this training and experience I’ve been accruing in the past decades to figure out how to help voices more worth listening to than mine get where they want and need to be to express their ideas in a foreign language. 

With that said, please allow me to opinionate on Ruchir Sharma’s recent op-ed in the New York Times. For a Business Guy, focused entirely on business rather than matters of justice and right and wrong, it was pretty good. That is, if you ignore some of the more questionable assertions about Taiwan lifting itself out of poverty post-WWII. For example, conveniently forgetting that pre-WWII it was one of the most prosperous places in Asia due to a “competent government” (lol) that focused on “small business” (sure, after the US forced them to and then kept Taiwan afloat with aid while the KMT spent almost all the government revenue on the military). And calling Taiwan a “small” island of “just” 24 million— would Sharma call Australia small? Probably not? Well, their populations are similar.

In any case, focusing on how Taiwan — often shunted aside as less important in the face of China’s massive market — is actually far more important due to the vital industries it houses is one way to make the case for caring about this country, in a way that some people will hear. He speaks their language, and that’s great. Those of us who care about Taiwan simply because it’s the right thing to do, don’t speak that language very well, and that case needs to be made to anyone who’ll hear it, in any form they’re likely to buy it. 

But something else was missing from Sharma’s essay that has been nagging at me — what it actually took to get Taiwan to where it is. First and foremost, it’s important to discuss the way foreign workers, who do most of the fab-and-factory-floor level grind work, are treated. Taiwan’s economic miracle is in fact ongoing, although it may not seem that way. Certainly growth seems, and is, slower than those heady days of repressive “competent” leadership. It has grown, however, even in the face of a bully neighbor who has tried to throttle its progress. Not even coronavirus has been able to stop Taiwan. 

But the gains it has made even in the years I’ve lived here have been largely due to a supply of foreign labor that is underpaid, overworked and treated abhorrently. (I’m not the first person to point this out, either.) 

At the other end, while Taiwan does have some very well-paid (and also overworked) engineers and experts, it’s worth pointing out that the majority of Taiwanese workers are underpaid and overworked, though not to the same degree as the foreign blue-collar workers. They also tend to face stifling, bureaucratic work environments, which I can speak to anecdotally after years of focusing on business English.

All that “value” Sharma speaks of has been made possible by these two groups. Profit margins either remain razor thin or don’t trickle down to worker salaries and benefits (such as, say, hiring enough people so that no single worker is doing a job 2-3 people should be doing, and taking real vacations is possible.) If I were into toxic positivity, I’d call them superheroes. 

So while I’m grateful for this Business Guy making the Business Guy case for Taiwan to other Business Guys — a case I cannot personally make — I do feel like the tone of the op-ed places profits above working conditions and human costs. 

In other words, sure, pound for pound Taiwan is the most important place on earth. But pounds of what? Because hearing about factory dorm fires and coronavirus cases and seeing my students looking constantly exhausted, rarely taking vacations and — before the CCP virus — eyeing better-paid jobs abroad with better benefits, I’m starting to think he means pounds of flesh.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

CECC speaks out on discrimination against foreigners by businesses in Taiwan due to COVID19

I don't have a good cover photo so enjoy this picture of an interesting gate. 

Since it became apparent that some businesses in Taiwan were discriminating against foreigners due to COVID19, many have discussed what could be done about it. Foreigners and Taiwanese incensed by unfair and irrational policies by these businesses - stepped up and called these businesses out on their behavior.

Publicly laying into such businesses was less effective than messaging them privately and asking them to change their policies, pointing out both the discrimination issue and the irrationality of the policies. I'd guesstimate that roughly 8 out of 10 businesses I messaged were willing to change their policies. I don't know the success rate of others - certainly I wasn't the only person doing this. That speaks well of Taiwan: it's not a perfect country, but there are a lot of countries where the majority of businesses would simply ignore such requests and continue discriminating.

This was also great as it meant local businesses rarely had to be called out publicly. When it did happen, I was pleased to see plenty of local support.

There was talk of getting local media reporting on it, or having a local reporter ask the CECC at their press conference about the issue. People respect Chen Shih-chung (陳時中). If they say it's not okay to discriminate, businesses will listen. I can say that this idea came from a local, not a foreigner.

Taiwan News eventually reported on the issue. That report focused on a single nightclub, but drew attention to a wider problem.

From there, the issue made its way to the CECC. I won't give details, but there are many Taiwanese committed to fighting discrimination who deserve credit. This isn't just angry foreigners with torches and pitchforks - it was a group effort with local support.

And today, this happened, reported in ETToday:

Chen Shih-chung, leader of the Central Epidemic Epidemic Command Center [and current Minister of Health and Welfare], emphasized today (the 6th of May) that the virus does not distinguish between different kinds of people. The epidemic should not cause person-to-person confrontation. It would be better for everyone to have a little empathy. [Translation mine].

People do respect Chen, and generally have been happy with the CECC's handling of COVID19. So, I do think this will have an effect. Addressing this issue publicly, at a national level, will hopefully cause businesses to abandon discriminatory policies or, if they were considering them, scrap their plans.

Chen is respected in great part because he's got class, saying a little to accomplish a lot without mocking or scolding. Some foreign residents might have been hoping for more of a ‘rebuke’ or ‘reprimand’ in his statement. However, while Chen's language might sound mild to foreigners, but the meaning of those words - the illocutionary force of a reprimand: don’t do this! - will be understood in Taiwanese society. And he will be respected because he didn’t act like a scolding father, but a leader. Trust me, his meaning is clear in this cultural context.

For those that don't, we can point to Chen's statement as a potent antidote to the poison of discrimination - what can a business say when the CECC itself is asking them not to discriminate?

That this was able to happen - the right wheels turned, the right gears ground, people came together - speaks well of Taiwan.

Now, if we can that kind of effort together to fight discrimination against non-white foreigners (predominantly Southeast Asians), that will really be cause to celebrate. Let's keep fighting. 

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Welcome To The Machine: Teaching Business English When You're Not A Fan Of Business

A few weeks ago, a friend came over. I was helping him out with something, we had a few beers, and at some point I offhandedly mentioned that the reason I never sat for the foreign service exam was because, over the course of my senior year, I came to realize that I didn't want to work for the State Department (perhaps my crippling fear of failure at the time also had something to do with it; fortunately, I handle that better now. In any case I did not include that part).

"US foreign policy - it's awful," I said. "It was awful then and it's awful now. I don't respect many of the foreign policy decisions America has made, and, y'know, I can't work for someone I don't respect."

I like to think that particular ideal has carried over into the later trajectory of my career. Not that I have never worked for anyone I didn't respect - we all have - but once I no longer needed to do so out of economic necessity, I moved on.

Eventually I ended up teaching Business English as one of my many various jobs, gigs and projects. For a time it was my full-time job. For awhile I worked for someone I not only did not respect, but actively disliked (that has changed). Yes, I considered the usual questions of a possibly overly moralistic English teacher: most notably, as someone who has grown progressively more socialist and anti-establishment was it not a bit hypocritical to be teaching, well, Business English? To be taking money from companies whose practices I did not always (or even usually) support, many of whom I had straight-up ethical concerns about - think oil companies, Big Pharma, some banks and finance companies - ostensibly to help them, but also to make money myself?

These questions had crossed my mind before, but I had never lingered on them that long before: I squared my job with my beliefs by repeating what another friend had said once: nobody can be perfectly morally consistent. It's impossible. In any case, as much as I might not want to be, I'm a part of the system and adult enough to own that. There is value in this: if you reject the system, you also give up your voice within it. For a time I didn’t think much about it, especially after I moved toward freelance work and took classes with a far better employer.

The post itself is not particularly well-written, and I feel it delves too much into the academic end of the issue without much real-world meat. Yet, it resurrected some important questions for me, as someone who makes money providing services to companies whose practices I do not always support, who are the main beneficiaries and perpetrators of a system I find deeply troubling and am more likely to want to smash than buy into (but not like "watch the world burn" smash, more like "this is crap, let's fix it at a deep structural level even if it means smacking the rich and powerful until they are less of both, and even if it means fighting and conflict" smash).

Had I, without thinking, dug myself into a field where I'm doing work for companies I don't necessarily respect?

But, having that topic run again through my insomniac brain that will not shut up, I do have some thoughts on the matter.

You may hate an economic system, or be cynical of an industry, but you are in that system – own it

Seriously, it’s important to have a clear idea of yourself and where you fit in to the system. Nobody – no student, no trainee, no normal person – wants to talk about issues of any complexity with the living embodiment of “I Threw It On The Ground”. You are a part of the system. You’ll remain that way as long as you need to make money, and if you already have money, you got that money because either you or someone close to you is or was a part of the system. You might be able to distance yourself from it to some extent – for example, not having a real boss or a single employer frees me from a lot of the less savory parts of being someone’s employee – but it’s always there, and you are not a paragon of ethical purity. Neither am I, I mean, I’m typing this on a Macbook wearing a t-shirt I bought at Target.

Pop that ego balloon – you have to make money somehow, because you live in a society where it is exchanged for goods and services. I too would like to seize the means of production, Comrade, but in the meantime I need Internet and whiskey and things like that (actually, I want to keep those things and am not as interested in a Marxist commune as I may appear to be. I want to keep my Macbook but change the unethical ways in which it is produced and sold.)

So, if you make money by providing a useful service to a company, well, you’d be making that money some other way anyhow, and there aren’t many pure-of-soul ways to make money – and insisting on finding one is another expression of privilege. I don’t know about you but I like food, shelter and security, so...

Your work in corporate offices around the world is, weirdly enough, actually helping to right some wrongs

No, really! Half the damn problem is that the proverbial 1% is screwing it up for the rest of us, and that is not only on a personal or corporate level, but also on a national level. As long as wealthy countries care more about increasing their own wealth than increasing global wealth, anything you do to help citizens of a less wealthy or non-Western country do better is going to help fix the imbalance to some tiny degree.

Every non-native English speaking manager whose English gets better, netting them a promotion that might have otherwise gone to a Western expat, every academic or industry expert whose work you help polish who then goes to international conferences and addresses important issues, every doctor whose presentation and writing skills you help improve who then goes on to publish important research and be a voice in their field, every student you help to better understand IELTS and therefore – hopefully – get a better score who then goes on to get a good education, international experience and perhaps someday become a thought leader, every office worker who does a bit better and brings a bit more of that We Are All In The System money home to her family and country is a grain of sand on the scale, tipping it a little bit more towards a more global idea of fairness.

Every last one of them likely comes from a country less wealthy than a Western native English speaker does, and was born without the systematic advantage of being a native speaker. By living abroad and helping them with that, as much as they may seem like rich folks who don’t need your help, you are doing a net good on a global scale.

And yes, I want to seize the means of production and create a lovely Marxist utopia too, but for right now this is what we have, and it’s unfair to a lot of people. The best thing you can be doing, rather than ragging on about burning down the whole system (not gonna happen, and even if it did would hurt a lot more vulnerable people than privileged ones) is to help those that do not have a privileged place in the system do better.

This is especially important in a Taiwanese context. Taiwan is a developed country, but it is not a particularly well-known one. Even Taiwanese often fall into the trap of thinking Taiwan is insignificant and small (one of the US’s top trading partners with a population similar to that of Australia and people think they are tiny? Come on). It is easy to lump it in with China, if one even remembers it exists at all. Every little thing you do – even if you are teaching the upper class of society – to help raise Taiwan’s image by helping Taiwanese communicate better in English on an international level is a good thing.

You may not be a fan of corporatism, but you can always find something to be interested in regarding your trainees’ specific jobs

I had mentioned to that same friend referenced in the beginning of this article, in a different conversation, that in fact I did not always care very much about, say, some company’s sales increasing or business presentations on increased efficiency, productivity or profit. “Sales went up!” – okay, so what? I’m not a fan of capitalism so I’m not always sure that’s a good thing.

It’s not that I think these things are worthless – clearly, they aren’t – but that I just don’t personally care about them very much. Nobody has time to care about every worthwhile thing, and I choose to expend my energy on social and political issues, trusting that businesses can take care of themselves. I am deeply turned off by Business Speak, care little for team building, and am not that interested in ‘corporate culture’, ‘culture shifts’ or whatever hot new business theory is being circulated.

But, honestly, it is rare that I meet a trainee whose particular job I am not interested in. Even when it comes to “Sales went up!”, often the reason for that rise is worth knowing.  For example, knowing that whiskey sales are stable in Taiwan is not earth-shattering information, but knowing that the reason for that is that the Taiwanese are the second-largest whiskey market in the world – and it’s true, Taiwan loves whiskey and you can always get good stuff here – that interests me.

If you listen, you can learn all sorts of fascinating things about how the world works, including in industry (and if you hate that industry, well, to beat your enemy you must know them). I’m not a fan of Big Pharma, but clinical research is actually quite interesting to me. My issue is not the new drugs – in fact I’m a big fan of drugs and not a homoeopath or hippie type of person at all, if I’m in pain please give me lots of drugs – but price-jacking, papering over side effects, making certain drugs unavailable in different parts of the world, letting people die because they can’t afford the price you decided would make you the most money, that sort of thing. I am not into finance or investment, but I actually am quite interested in learning what goes into someone’s proposals for what funds to invest in and how global economics and international organizations play into that. I’ve learned why it matters that MSCI won’t  - and hasn’t as far as I know, unless my knowledge is out of date – change Taiwan’s classification from an emerging to a developed market. I don’t care much about technical specs, but I do care how they will affect technology in the months and years to come.

So perhaps I can hate the system, but be interested in the minutiae of my trainees’ jobs. It matters to them, it can be quite interesting, and it is important when helping them improve their skills. So, it matters to me. 

Most people are decent, no matter their industry

This has probably been my top life-saver when I start to feel icky about the whole Welcome To The Machine thing. The actual people you are teaching, however unsavory the system you are teaching them in may be, are almost certainly good people. They have families, they have jobs that they need because they too like whiskey and Internet and clothes and food and shelter. They are likely aware of the issues in their industry, but like you and everyone else, are aware it is not possible to be perfectly ethically consistent.

They likely just want a better life for themselves and their families, want to do well in their career and have all the things most of us want. As problematic as the industry and whole system may be, they are not the cause of it. They just want better English so they can do better in life. Perhaps they work for an international bank that's just made the news (and they are probably cringing about it, too, but just not while you're around), an oil company, a pharmaceutical company currently getting bad press, a major manufacturer known for polluting or worker exploitation. Okay - but your actual trainees are not the problem. They're not the reason why these things are happening, and to whatever extent they are aware of these issues (and they probably are), they are likely also aghast.

If you boil it down to working with people, and helping those people do better in life, rather than working for an industry you don’t care for in a system you relentlessly criticize, it’s really not so bad.

It is okay, at times, to talk about these issues

It may not always be appropriate but it may happen that industry issues that cast the sector in a light that may not be perfectly flattering come up in conversation. This is not always a bad thing, though I find it best to not allow the chance for it until you know your class well and they know and trust you. It gives everyone a chance to discuss these issues which is a form of business-related English training, perhaps gives you a chance to learn something from your class, and gives the trainees the chance to, if they are up to it, engage with problems facing their field that they may not have confronted in any language. If it happens, it can be a powerful tool to be something of an activist in class – without being an opinionated know-it-all, of course – by fostering conversations that can have real, if tiny, impact. That might be quite important to someone who wonders about the ethics of their place in the system – to be a small force for change within it.

And, honestly, a strong, open dialogue can beget real change, even if it is at a person-to-person level. If such a discussion does happen, and it’s important to be open to perspectives you don’t agree with (or at least to accept rather than attack them), never make it personal to a trainee or a company, take a nuanced view and not beat people over the head with your opinion – all very obvious things, but all worth saying.

In fact, I think I’ll devote an entire post to that some time in the future...

Friday, August 30, 2013

Of Naked Emperors

This isn't Taiwan centric, although it seems to happen to a frightening degree in Taiwan. Let's be fair: and elsewhere, too.

Simply put, one great failure of capitalism is this:

A company needs to improve the English communicative ability of its staff. It's a large company with a generous training budget. Some money is allocated to English training. The person who oversees that training is an HR representative. While they generally have a grasp of things like benchmarks, showing improvement, KPI etc. etc., and may know how to achieve that in a managerial/office context (the extent to which this is actually true is fodder for some future post), they generally do not know how to achieve that in a teaching or training context. They know enough to contract that out, but because they have to be involved, they create the achievement benchmarks and try to cram the classes and seminars into their own rubrics.

I'm not against this generally, but the whole point of a good rubric or KPI is that the person who formulates it is someone who has intimate knowledge based on experience and training in the field they're setting achievement benchmarks in. In this case, it means any HR person who sets benchmarks for English improvement (which I'd argue they can and should do, if they have the appropriate knowledge) should be at least somewhat experienced and trained in language teaching. This is usually not the case, but for the money to keep flowing, someone in power has to set the benchmarks, and the flow of the money means that the person doing it isn't the person who best knows how to do it.

But I'm not writing this just to slag off HR people - some of them are intelligent people with a solid understanding of when, where and how much to get involved in training. They're not the main problem.

So this budget is set and a company goes about looking for trainers. Knowing there's a market for such things, companies pop up to provide teacher trainers for such jobs.

The companies that pop up also know nothing at all about training, language acquisition or English teaching. They are not totally useless - they do know about marketing, market potential, negotiating, contracts and sales. These are important skills and I am not arguing that all "management consulting" firms that provide English teachers to foreign companies should just shut their doors.

So the market-potential guy who wants to cash in (not necessarily a bad thing) on this demand hires some teachers. But he doesn't actually know anything about teachers, so he mostly hires people who "look the part", maybe with a few real teachers mixed in there, and some who aren't teachers but as experienced businesspeople who are native English speakers, they do have something to offer.

He then negotiates a fat slice of his new client's training budget, pays the teachers as little as the market will tolerate, set at just a little higher than the rate for the typical teacher in that country (say, Taiwan) - the rate is high enough to attract people, but not so high that he will be able to fill positions with only experienced, talented professionals. He looks up online what sort of credentials he should be looking for - he doesn't know already, because he himself doesn't know a damned thing about the field - and sticks them into his job advertisement, like plastic roses on a cake. Pretty, professional-looking but ultimately just decorative. He'll hire people without them because he doesn't understand what those qualifications are actually worth. To him they are truly just decorative.

He knows nothing about actual language teaching and as such, provides his new teachers with basically no support (what is provided is utter crap - not worthy of being called "training" or "support", but is billed as such because he's the boss, and the boss MUST know what he's doing). The teachers - some great, some good, some OK, some bad, some with potential and some without - do all the grunt work to meet benchmarks set by someone who isn't trained enough in language acquisition to set them with any degree of professional competence.

So he's paying the teachers about a third of what he's getting from the company. In return the company gets what should be talented, trained and experienced teaching professionals but instead gets a mixed bag of the good, the bad and the inexperienced. They're passed off as "the real deal" because nobody really knows any better. Nobody except the few trained teachers in this whole exchange actually knows what a good teacher/trainer is, so nobody thinks to do any QA (beyond those meaningless benchmarks).

The good teachers eventually get fed up with the no-nothing, no-support school and boss, and leave. They're not earning that much anyway. The bad teachers stick around because the pay is better than teaching kids. And there are plenty of bad teachers - the market will tolerate them because they can be paid less, and nobody at all in that system has a freakin' clue how to actually teach English. Not the administrators, not the school owners, not the students and certainly not the teachers. Nobody really cares, because nobody really knows what student achievement could be if they did only hire good people.

The boss, who doesn't know a damn thing about teaching, earns money from this whole teaching venture. The worst teachers earn an OK salary. The good people move on. The competent people (the students, the good teachers) lose, and the incompetent ones (the boss, the bad teachers) win. HR could fall on either side of this equation (I've met plenty of good ones, really).

What should be happening in a utopian world is this:  company needs English training. Company sets training budget and starts a search for competent teachers. Person who is a trained education and training professional runs a firm to provide such teachers and pays them a fair chunk of the course fee, as well as providing them with meaningful professional development. Competent teachers are provided at a fair rate, successfully fulfilling the company's need. HR knows enough to let these teachers set benchmarks for themselves, and they do (without setting bullshit achievement goals), because they are experienced, trained and talented, and assesses based on that. Everybody wins. Teachers who deserve good pay get it for good work, students learn a lot, HR is happy, and the person who runs the whole thing earns a profit they deserve for their marketing and sales.

This beautiful summation of how things should work is how business English training is too often marketed, in Taiwan and elsewhere. Everyone pretends to be a professional, everyone claims they provide a valuable service and that they, themselves, have the knowledge to be competent in the subject taught.

But we all know that's not how it is - the long-winded dystopia above is how things really work.

And here most of us are thinking that capitalism helps direct funds and skills in the most efficient fashion possible. Not so. It's a brilliant host for parasites whose only talents are sucking the system dry. Which, don't get me wrong, is a considerable talent (I certainly won't be entering marketing and sales anytime soon), but not one that deserves such a fat reward.

It won't change, because people trying to tap this market don't really want to hire good teachers - they'd have to pay them more. Good teachers don't want to get in the game because they have a very low tolerance for bullshit. HR isn't about to admit they aren't always the best people to set classroom benchmarks (although, again, I've worked with some really great ones), and bad teachers aren't likely to decide to either stop teaching or get better.

Color me disillusioned (and color me Captain Obvious, because I am sure any half-reasonable person has figured out this game already), but there you are.

Just yesterday I took on a course at a more traditional buxiban-like school, teaching test preparation. I had a meeting with the DOS for basic orientation. The DOS is certified, experienced and competent. He knows what a good teacher is and how to find and retain one. He knows what sort of training and development is required for his staff. He knows what skills to look for in a new hire to give students what they need. In short, he actually knows how to do the job he's hiring others to do. It's not a full time job - I still have my freelance thing going - but I'm looking forward to working there. A school where I get support! A school with real avenues to real professional development! A school where the person employing me actually understands what a teacher does and what a good teacher is worth!

That's such a huge change from the job I just left that I couldn't help but write about length. Now it's out...please forgive me.

But in my defense, we already knew the emperor was naked, didn't we?

Sent from my iPad

Friday, June 28, 2013

Divided We Beg...or do we?


So, I'm not far from declaring officially, to my company, that I won't be signing a new employment contract. I'm posting this online because with only 2 months to go until my current contract is up, I feel it doesn't matter if they find this (although they probably won't). My decision is final. I'll be willing to work freelance for them if there are a few classes or seminars they want me to take (loyally renewing classes, for example, or seminars where they really need someone as deft with the material as me) but I won't stay on contract.

And that got me thinking: I have a friend who, although he does a lot of freelance work, is fiercely pro-union. He's something of a union organizer in Japan, and believes strongly in job security, well-remunerated workers, company-sponsored training and professional development and benefits packages that include fair compensation of annual leave and overtime limits/pay (he's also pro-single payer healthcare, as most of us Asia expats are). I'm totally with him on this - united we bargain, divided we beg and all that. Don't run, organize!

And yet, I'm still giving up employment under a contract and attempting to go freelance, at least for awhile. Why? If I really believe in all that job-security unionized-workers stuff (and I do), wouldn't I be looking for a job with more security, not less? I can't imagine what sort of work has less security than freelance work, and yet I do believe I can make a successful go of it while I start the Delta (I need time and flexibility for that) and look, at my leisure, for a job I want to take at a pay grade I'm willing to accept, with benefits that appeal to me - if I ever find it.

The thing is, my current job does offer flexibility - to me, at least. Not to anyone else. But if I tell them "no", they respect it. The pay is fair. Not as good as it could be, but my main issue isn't the money. I make enough. They generally stay out of my hair. I have to say, honestly, that this past year they've just about been good to me. They've treated me pretty well. I mean they still constantly screw up all sorts of administrative things and haven't quite figured out how to edit materials and keep the edits updated. It took them nine weeks (9 weeks!) to get a non-camera phone for me to bring to a heavily secure client site (I offered to get my own, but I wouldn't have been compensated for it). And they screwed over my husband vis-a-vis residency and work permits in a way that is totally unacceptable. I've stayed this long only because we agreed I'd stay long enough to get my APRC, run out that contract, and not sign another one.

So it's not really true that I am going freelance "for the flexibility", either, even if I am quitting some time after the fact as a direct result of how they treated Brendan.

I've come to this conclusion after a lot of thought: I'm going freelance because while I wouldn't mind a secure job with a salary and benefits*, I have found so far that there are very few companies to which I wish to be obligated. At least not in Taiwan. I mean, certainly when you agree to take on a course you are agreeing to a certain set of obligations and an amount of cooperation. That's not what I mean. What I mean is all the other stuff often found in foreign teacher contracts in Taiwan - from non-competition clauses to deposits (I didn't have one and would never agree to one, but they do pop up) to "we can sue you if" to all sorts of things that give the company power and give the teacher no agency. There is a lot in there about what the teacher must do, what the teacher owes the company, and what the company can do for itself, but often nothing about what the company must do for the teacher or what the teacher is entitled to as a paid employee.

Basically, so many contracts seem to say "We'll pay you X to do Y, and nothing more. We have the right to do A, B and C to you. You are obligated to provide D, E and F to us. You have no other rights. If you do anything we don't like, we can also do Z to you. If we do something you don't like, deal with it. No complaining." The buxiban I worked for in my first year had a contract like that, and my sister had to wade through quite a few preposterous contracts before she found a school she was willing to work for. Even then, it didn't work out - they still treated her (and everyone else) like wage slaves. (Her current buxiban is generally better, although she does not have two consecutive days off).

Wake up and smell the capitalism, I guess.

Why the hell would I sign something like that again, now that I have an APRC and no longer have to?

And as a result, despite my being pro-union and pro-job-security and pro-employer-employee cooperation, freelancing is more appealing to me than formal employment at one firm. No firm, so far, has proposed a contract that enticed me enough to sign it.

One reason, to be honest, I am not signing a new contract is that I see no reason why I can't do just as well taking classes with other companies. I understand why my company doesn't want employees doing that (I wouldn't either), but other companies pay better, can offer classes when mine does not, and so I don't wish to be an employee anymore.

I've met some good bosses in Taiwan - Brendan's current boss seems like a good guy from what I know of him (might be doing some freelance for them, fingers crossed), and the company I'm currently arranging some freelancing classes with for once I'm free are good guys, but the normal obligations of teaching a class are enough for me. I see no reason to obligate myself further. Fortunately, they're on board with that idea. I talked awhile back to another well-known business English outfit. They came pretty close to what I was looking for: paid time off, year-end bonuses, housing allowance, set hours with no overtime, fair teaching hours. At the time they had no openings - it was just an informational meeting - but I'd consider them, depending on salary offered. One turn-off was the fact that the paid leave was set according to their schedule; you really couldn't take time off outside of it. That would normally be fine as the time off given was quite generous, but if I'm going to go abroad to do my Delta Module 2, it may not work for me.

And for other schools and companies, if they can't or won't offer me a contract that gives me real agency, freelancing is still more appealing. I'll take freedom without security to employment without agency.

So, basically that's it. That's how this pro-union, pro-job security, pro-formal employment with benefits girl decided to forgo job security and formal employment with benefits and hit it up freelance-style. I hope things change job-wise in Taiwan for us qualified teachers (I've got nothing to say regarding 22-year-olds with no experience who are coming over for a few years of fun, although maybe some of them will turn out to be solid teachers and will stick with it, who knows?).

Until then, you can find me in my home office, doing my own thing.

*Some benefits bosses in Taiwan might want to consider when hiring qualified teachers: salary with set working hours, REAL year-end bonuses (not NT$6000, try one or two months' salary), regular performance reviews with REAL raises (NT$25/hour is not a raise, it's a joke), paid annual leave and paid Chinese New Year leave, training support - and not the "unpaid worthless training on a Sunday morning that counts toward no qualifications and isn't run by professionals" kind, but the "we'll support you in getting actual certifications and taking actual courses that count for something" kind). Offer me that and I might want to come work for you.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Let's Burn Some Stuff

Here is just a brief thought on the rising utility and health insurance premiums in Taiwan (I believe the premium rate hike has not taken effect yet, no? If so, I haven't noticed it in my paycheck).

You know, I do think this stuff was necessary. Costs go up - at some point the cost of electricity probably did have to be raised. Gas went up, if I am remembering correctly - well, gas is going to do that if we keep relying on it as supplies dwindle (whether due to natural means or market manipulation), and we as a global society are better off pouring money into renewable energy research rather than pretending that continuing to rely on fossil fuels is in any way a viable long-term strategy.

Health insurance premiums have to go up, too. While I do feel the government needs to look at National Health Insurance as a social welfare issue, and not an institution that needs to break even - which means that yes, the government should be willing to pour money into it if there's a gap, and absolutely not let it or labor insurance/pensions go bankrupt - there's a point at which more money is needed, and we've reached that point. If I felt we'd get better coverage out of our National Health Insurance plans, I'd be happy to pay higher rates. We probably won't, but coverage is good enough now (with room to improve, though) that I still feel that paying a higher rate is acceptable.

I am absolutely in favor of a higher capital gains tax - and not the joke of a tax that they want to push through. A real capital gains tax. I know, I know, rich people get all skittish when others suggest that maybe society and taxpayer-funded infrastructure (not to mention cronyism and predatory market practices) helped them amass the fortunes they have, that they did not in fact Build That (or more accurately build those) all by themselves, and that they should be required to give back to the society that helped them get ahead. They get all huffy and sell off stocks and make a big stink. I say too fucking bad, boo hoo, let me call the waaaahhhmbulance on ya, and play a tune on this tiny violin while you are taken away. I feel this way about Taiwan and the USA both.'s the problem. That's me. I count as middle class if not upper middle class in Taiwan (although I certainly don't own any luxury apartments or anything like that - I consider such things to be the provenance of the wealthy, not the upper middle class). I can afford these price hikes. I can just about keep ahead of inflation and, unlike most of the country, I have seen my real wages increase over the past 6 years, from crummy cram school ghetto (thanks Kojen, for paying me crap, that's why I quit after a year - that and the Saturday hours and not really liking my coworkers - but mostly the pay and the hours) to "doing pretty damn well". I can say I am willing to pay higher health insurance premiums and not get too het up about my own electricity bill, because I can afford to absorb the costs.

So, is it any wonder that people are upset that they're being told to pay more for necessities, and yet aren't earning any more money to cover the costs, while still being among the most overworked and underpaid people not only in Taiwan, but in the world? I'd be upset too! I'm upset just thinking about it!

Which - I'm at least happy that in the US that didn't quite happen. Despite Obama being arguably better for business, big business's Guy was Romney, and that loser, well, lost. So there's hope.

What's wrong with all this - and wrong with the poor administration of Ma Ying-jiu and the ruling KMT - is that all these costs are going up, as they arguably need to, but nothing substantial is being done to address wage stagnation and inequality. New graduates are being offered wages as unacceptably, absurdly low as NT$18,000/month. Who in their right mind thinks that anyone can live on this? I realize many bosses expect their underpaid new hires to live with Mom&Dad, but that's not always an option. It's dangerously close to Wal-Mart paying employees such low wages that they hover at the federal poverty line (fuck Wal-Mart, by the way), and by "dangerously close" I mean "actually worse, but you don't see it because these kids have parents who help out".

I mean, it's absolutely clear that neither Ma nor anyone else in the KMT gives a damn about people whose real wages have not increased in about a decade, who will have trouble absorbing these higher costs. While Ma didn't come from great riches, it's clear he's never experienced poverty, and doesn't understand it. He's Taiwan's Mitt Romney (except people actually elected him - why, oh why did they do that? But they oh well). I am not sure anyone in the government who has any power to do something has even the faintest idea of what it's like to be lower middle or working class and struggling, worried in very real terms about how they're going to pay their higher bills and afford food, housing and school fees.

So - why are the costs going up, while nothing is being done to help those who can't keep up afford them better? Who thought it would be a good idea to tell the most struggling segments of the population, in no uncertain terms, that you couldn't give a crap about their overwork, lack of employment opportunities (underemployment and overwork being two other huge problems), and certainly not about their stagnant wages, but oh, they're going to have to pay more for these things, 'cause we all gotta chip in? But oh, no, we wouldn't think of inflicting an actual higher tax on the wealthy people who support our party. Then they might be angry at us. OH NOES!

Honestly, if I were a middle class, mid-level Taiwanese office worker, I'd be furious. Like 我歸懶趴火 furious. Like let's burn some shit DOWN! furious. Like, "you want me to work 12 hours a day, never give me a real raise, pay me at well below international rates so YOU can remain competitive while *I* struggle, and then raise my utility and health care premium fees? Well you can just suck it! BURN!"

But, of course, that's not what's happening. What's happening are those resigned sighs, those "what can we do?" faces, those "this is life, we can't change it" eyes, those "I could change jobs but the new boss wouldn't pay me any better or work me any less hard" undereye circles, and nothing changes. Even if the KMT were voted out, would anything really change?

No. That's why I say let's BURN THINGS!

Or not, because that wouldn't fix anything either.

It's enough to drive you mad.

Don't worry, middle class people of Taiwan - the KMT'll help you out by putting a little more into your red envelope to buy your vote again in a few years.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The State of Women: Two Links

Just a couple of articles worth reading:

Chinese officials free mother who was imprisoned for lobbying for harsher sentences for the men who raped her daughter

Company fined for gender discrimination in Taiwan

As a friend noted, it is progress that they were investigated and fined at all: a lot of gender discrimination goes on openly and unapologetically. I feel the fee was on the low side, but it is a warning to other small, local companies that this sort of sexism at work is not legal and won't be tolerated under the law.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Big Pharma

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Back in the USA I hated Big Pharma.

Now I work (in part) for them.

My reasons back home were due to, well, events like those discussed in this article - affording drugs is a problem around the world, and a two-pronged issue. On one side you've got areas so poor that even low-priced drugs cost too much, and on the other you've got the USA, where people generally have more money, yet drugs are so astronomically expensive that many still can't afford them despite their exponentially better overall standard of living.

From people I know in Big Pharma back home, I can say that the argument does ring true: drugs are sold in the USA at exorbitant prices, and at far lower prices elsewhere, because companies both want to recoup clinical testing costs and make a tidy profit (a little too tidy if you ask me), and feel that the USA is the market to milk, because we can apparently "afford it". Except we can't.

It also bothers me that they throw so much money behind lobbying the government in their own interests, which mostly counter the interests of the American people, but pretty much all industries do that.

Working at a lot of pharmaceutical companies in Taiwan, though, makes me dislike the whole industry a lot less. I wouldn't go so far as to say "like" or "trust", so I'll stick with "dislike less".

I think it has a lot to do with regulation. I know the health system in Taiwan is imperfect, but it's about ten kachillion times better than the travesty of a "system" in the USA. Don't even bother arguing with me on this, I have a mother who is facing cancer that is not going to go away, and the possibility of losing her company-backed health insurance and very few options after that, so seriously, do not even start. I will tear you to shreds.

Here, we have our imperfect-but-wonderful national health insurance, and a heavy hand in regulating drug prices. I don't agree with some of the laws: the idea that doctors are forced to give certain medications first and others can only be tried later, and that some can't be tried until certain symptoms or issues occur or criteria are met, ties doctors' hands unfairly: it takes away from them what should be their expert judgment regarding what would be best for the patient and puts it in the hands of people who can't necessarily make that call: either because they're bureaucrats, not doctors, or because even if they are doctors, they're not there with that individual patient assessing that patient's needs.

The price regulations, however, I support completely. A dearth of price regulation in the USA has brought unconscionable drug prices for things people need - seriously, it's not like you have a choice sometimes, so supply and demand doesn't apply - prices people can't afford and insurance companies don't want to pay. Regulations in Taiwan have kept most prices for the same drugs at reasonable levels.

You can argue this hurts the company, and many who work in pharmaceuticals in Taiwan would agree, but the fact is that those companies are still in Taiwan, still making a profit and still see being in the Taiwanese market as something worth doing. The price controls haven't scared them away. If it were truly unbearable, companies would pull their products and shutter their offices and Taiwan would be SOL. That hasn't happened.

Those same people in the industry, while they might tell you that the price controls are an issue, would generally not argue that there shouldn't be any regulation or any cost control. In my experience (and I have a lot of experience talking to people in many different firms), while they'd like more freedom, they'd agree that keeping drugs affordable is important, and that wouldn't be lip service: they mean it. They wouldn't say it the way a PR schlub for Big Pharma back home would rattle it off a press release and then look the other way as "reasonable prices" became "$1000+ for what should be a $30 compound".

Even if they would - business is business & all - the regulations are there, and it keeps things reasonable. Not perfect, but reasonable. People get their medicine, companies make a profit, and it becomes an industry that does not inspire so much hatred and animosity. Everybody wins.

So what is all this anti-regulation hullaballoo back home? Phooey.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Some More Thoughts on Being an Unfeminine Female in Taiwan

I wrote a longish post on this awhile back, but thought the matter deserved a bit more.

A friend recently put up a post for her own circle about identity issues - dressing in a more feminine way and then being angry at the idea that if she did so, people would notice and comment, and how it forced her to think about her own reactions to women who dress in a feminine way. That's her post and not public so I won't go into it more.

But it got me thinking.

I only rarely wear makeup and the most feminine I get is the occasional long skirt (long so I won't have to wear tights or hose). You will NEVER see me in heels. One time when I did wear makeup for a work function, one of the women from the office (Taiwanese) said it looked good and implied heavily that I should wear it more often. I smiled, thanked her, but said quite firmly that I would not be wearing it more often - I didn't find it necessary and in Taipei's humid weather, it was really quite uncomfortable (and I use a light hand and wear expensive mineral makeup). I just don't like how makeup feels and won't subject myself to it unless I want to, at my discretion. I certainly won't wear it because other people think I should.

The thing is, my coworker's comment really bothered me. I had tried to reply nicely but firmly, and I wondered a bit at why, after she said it, it chafed at me so much. Why did it matter to me that this woman, whom I don't even like, mind you, thought I should wear makeup more often? I'd already decided not to, so who cares?

After my friend's post, I realized why it mattered: because we live in a world where women are expected to go to such lengths, to look certain ways, to do certain things. Her comment was an endorsement of these expectations. It was a signal that she bought into this set of ideals and that, by saying it to me, that I should, too. Which implies that these expectations, to her, are right - when I happen to think they are wrong. It signals that, whether or not she realized it, she had felt something was lacking with the old me, enough so that she felt it was OK to imply as much. That I was not quite "right" for refusing to follow the rules. That I should conform more. That I wasn't fine before.

We are judged on our appearance, more so than men. Nobody will say anything, usually, if a woman doesn't wear skirts, heels or makeup. I don't blow-dry my hair - really, I air-dry it! Even in Taipei! - and nobody says anything.  A woman who does do those things (especially the shiny hair, heels and makeup) will get advantages that I won't. She just will.

Society expects these things of women and there is a downside to not following those rules. I've felt it myself. I do feel I have more to prove than a "pretty" teacher - I have to be good because my looks won't save me (not that a pretty teacher is necessarily a bad one). Of two women of average or roughly equal attractiveness, the one wearing makeup with her hair looking nice and in feminine clothing is going to get more attention - more so in Taiwan, I think, than back home where there is a subset of guys who prefer ungirly women. The woman in a pretty skirt suit is more likely to be taken to a sales meeting than the one in comfortable "office pants" and a regular top, possibly even if the latter woman is more capable. The neighborhood obasans will pay compliments to the polished girl and cluck their tongues at the one who flouts the rules, regardless of how accomplished the latter is - again, more so in Taiwan I think.

This seems especially true in Taiwan. Interestingly, I've noticed a greater polarization here - women who wear no makeup and dress plainly, if not outright unflatteringly, vs. women who are down to there and up to here in bling 'n fake lashes and heels with fringe (which to me is just asking for a broken ankle, but hey). Back home I see more of a continuum.

As much as I love Taiwan, I can't lie: despite all the makeup-less women in flats and weirdly constructed shirts I see on the MRT, there are greater expectations of women's grooming and beauty. There are stronger social cues as to how women should present themselves. There is a social reward for looking more "feminine"...and yet even stronger drawbacks. As with the USA, I feel that in Taiwan there's a societal expectation of feminine grooming and beauty, and you get a cookie, a "sit! sit!" Good girl!" treat -for adhering to it, while at the same time, people don't take things that are feminine, or women who act very feminine, seriously. All the high-level women I know - the directors, the CFOs, the general managers, the BU heads - are remarkably not feminine save for one notable example. All the office girls - the xiaojies who get male attention - are. Nobody takes the office girls that seriously, and yet, if they all stopped wearing makeup and put on pants and flats, they'd be castigated socially for it.

It's like a big ol' trap: you have to look feminine, if you don't we won't pay attention to you socially. But if you do, we won't take you seriously. So have fun looking pretty and not being taken seriously, ladies!

What bothered me about this coworker's comment, then, is the implication that she's OK with this total fucked-upedness. And, by extension, that there are women who are still OK with it, who support it and will defend it.

Which is their right, but it bothers me.

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Chinese Jungle

Photo from this site - please don't sue me

There have been a lot of online petitions and public outcry in the West recently over the treatment Chinese factory workers endure. Most of it, thanks to This American Life, The Daily Show and other outlets, has been directed at Apple, whose products are made in China by vendors and suppliers.

My feelings on this: I agree completely with the sentiment, but activists: UR DOIN IT RONG. Putting pressure on Apple might bring about some small improvements but really it's like threatening the Death Star but letting Palpatine and Darth Vader run amok. 

Don't get me wrong: I agree. Factory workers in China are forced to live horrific lives. Excruciatingly long work days, mind-explodingly boring jobs putting together the same small part hundreds of times a day, all day, every day, dormitories that house more to a room than a cash-strapped college dorm (and those in the same room don't even know each other), bosses who regularly treat workers badly (and have been known to treat female workers like sex objects) - it's truly disgusting. It's something nobody should accept or put up with. It's Upton Sinclair for the 21st Century, and we rich folks with iPhones - yes, I am using "rich" to mean comparatively well-off, not 1% rich - aid and abet it by buying the products and often rewarding the lower prices that inhumane labor practices allow by buying more of the products when prices are lower. I'm totally on board with that. It's a massive, evil thing. I have wanted a new smartphone since my old one was stolen, but I haven't bought one not only because I'm trying to be careful with money, but also because the thought of supporting that system sickens me. 

Of course, every time I buy something made in China or really any developing country, I'm still supporting that system - I can't deny that. 

The thing is, Apple isn't doing this. Apple is surely aware of it, and Apple turns a blind eye to it, yes, but Apple isn't doing it themselves. 

Those employees don't work for Apple - they work for Foxconn, or any of the other vendors and suppliers that Apple has approved  (although Foxconn is the biggest). Apple is not Foxconn. Foxconn is not Apple. Sure, Apple aids and abets Foxconn's treatment of workers in China, but they're not the same company. You can't say "Apple needs to change its labor practices" or "Apple's workers" - they're not Apple's workers. Foxconn needs to change its labor practices - as does pretty much every other manufacturer with plants in Dongguan, Kunshan or anywhere else in China.

It's not even that simple: Apple hires ODM and OEM firms for its various parts - often different components, from speakers to camera modules to touch screens - are made by different companies. This is true of basically every electronic product you buy - the people who actually design and produce the stuff you use aren't Toshiba, Dell, Acer, Apple etc.: they're companies you've never heard of (I'd name names but I actually teach for a lot of these companies and have signed non-disclosure agreements - to say anything that could be perceived as negative about specific ones on this blog could land me in legal trouble or see me out of a job. So I won't - because I'm totally a part of the system too). 

Even they have vendors - a lot of what Foxconn "produces" is actually designed through a complex system of vendors who design and manufacture the components, and a lot of guanxi (networking) is involved in which vendors get which contracts.

What's more, as most people who live in Taiwan know, the design and R&D in these companies tend to happen in offices in Taiwan, where the design and engineering talent seems to be concentrated. The manufacturing happens in China, often at factory sites owned by the Taiwanese companies and headed up by Taiwanese bosses. The guys who design this stuff are Taiwanese, the poor sods in the factories are Chinese, and their Taiwanese bosses often have little sympathy (side note: this is not always true. I teach at companies like these and often have students who are sent to China for long periods to deal with manufacturing issues. A lot of them are good people who agree that working conditions are abysmal and would like to do something about that. Let us not paint them all with the same brush).

So Apple - or whoever - calls up Foxconn to talk production. Foxconn assigns vendor codes to other companies who help design components (although Foxconn doesn't seem to farm out manufacturing, it  does at times farm out design). Those guys are all in Taiwan or occasionally Korea. Their lives are not as horrific as the Chinese factory workers', but they still work terribly long hours - I'd say unfairly long, for relatively little pay - often arriving between 7 and 9am and working until late at night. Sometimes they're lucky and get to go home by 7pm. Often they're in the office later, or bring work home and keep at it until midnight. These guys have sympathy for the horrific lives of the Chinese factory workers, but they're overworked themselves - what can they do? "This is just how it is" is a chorus you often hear repeated in this sad song.

This is why, while my heart is with the activists and those who speak up, deep down I just don't think it will work. Sure, you could put pressure on Apple, but the workers in question don't work for Apple. Apple can put pressure on Foxconn - threatening to change vendors, for instance - and Foxconn can decide whether or not to reform labor practices. It might have some effect, but probably not much, probably diluted, and probably short-lived.

Do you really think, though, that Terry Gou gives a damn about some American hippies whining about labor practices in Chinese factories? I assure you he does not. Terry Gou cares about money. You want to get Apple's attention and by extension Gou's? You stop buying iPhones and other Apple products. You make it clear through a strong PR campaign why it's happening. Then, and only then, might you have some impact on what Foxconn is doing. In the meantime, of course, a lot of engineers  - my students - working for ODM companies in Taiwan get laid off: a sad side effect. Most of them are just working their butts off 15 hours a day to support themselves and their families. Most of them don't want to see Chinese factory workers treated badly, either, but they want iPhones too - most have them - and they don't think there's anything they can do. Partly because "this is just the way things are" and partly because they're overworked too, and partly because their livelihoods are linked more closely to those Chinese factory workers.

And then, if labor practices do improve, prices will go up. We say that's fine, but we're not everyone - sales probably will drop and Foxconn - whom I don't teach for, by the way - will find some other way to cut costs, or secretly go back to treating workers badly and try to do so in less transparent ways, or Apple will find another vendor who does the same thing. Plenty of Chinese workers who wanted to keep their terrible jobs would lose them. A blessing in disguise for some, a ticket to poverty for others.

It gets harder. You can say "well I just won't buy Apple products" but they all do this. HTC has been in the news for overworking its employees (I have no contract with HTC, I should add). Pretty much any electronic product you could buy is produced under conditions just as bad. You can't escape it by buying a dumbphone and giving up your mobile access: those same companies produce the components that go into dumb phones, too. If you want to escape it, you can't have any product whose components were made in China. If we all do this, that means, by extension, putting many of the overworked Taiwanese engineers out of work, too. You, my activist friend, are fucking stuck.  And it blows, it really does.

So how can it change? And how do I feel, being a part of this system?

Well, it probably won't change much at the hands of angry Westerners who want Chinese factory workers to have better jobs and lives - as much as I wish that could make a difference. It's systemic, and so the entire system needs to change. Asia - especially China, but really Asia as a whole - needs to have a worker's revolution not unlike the labor reforms that America went through post-Upton Sinclair. Ideas like "free time", "worker's rights", "fair pay" and "reasonable work responsibilities and hours" need to take hold. As of now, they have not - at least not in Chinese factories.

I don't hold up much hope that such ideas will transmit from the West to factories in China directly. I can't think of two things more different than the job of the person who makes the dingbat that makes something in an iPhone run and the job of the person who owns the iPhone. I can't think of anything more different than their two cultures, lives, life experiences and biases - although their desires and goals are probably fairly similar: after all, everyone wants a good job, good pay, free time and the chance to have a happy life.

I do, however, have some hope that these ideas will start to influence the tech company offices in Taiwan. In some ways, they already have. Taiwanese office workers are well aware of concepts like overtime pay, work-life balance and flex-time. They even get guaranteed maternity leave and a few days of paternity leave (which should be more, but that's a different post) - something Americans don't always get. More and more workers want those things, and more and more hope that once the economy picks up that wages will rise to fairer levels. The ideas are slow to infiltrate, but they are here and I believe they will burrow deeper as time goes on, especially if the economy improves.

From there, you could start to influence the Taiwanese factory bosses. Terry Gou and Cher Wang - who quite literally have had employees work themselves to death, a phrase that's used as a joke in the USA but is deadly serious here - might have an employee mutiny on their hands, or have trouble recruiting good engineers. They might then decide to start treating workers better. From there it could start to seep into China, and things might get better. Maybe. 

In tandem with that, the Chinese economy needs to develop - it needs to reach a point where many of those workers who are quite literally dying of overwork and mistreatment don't need those terrible jobs. Sure, manufacturing will likely be moved again, to another Third World country with abusive labor practices and it'll all start again, but maybe we'll all be more aware by then and it won't take so long to change things.

How do I feel about this? After all, my livelihood comes from working for these companies. I haven't named many names because I teach at many of them, and not only am I legally obligated not to bring up names, but I do respect my students. They are generally good people stuck in a crappy system, just like you and me.

Well, I feel like crap, sometimes, knowing that my salary is also paid, ultimately, off the back of these workers in China. That the Taiwanese companies wouldn't be able to afford the training budgets that pay for my services if they didn't treat the workers in their factories in China like beasts of burden.

I also feel like, as much as I am able, that the only way to make peace with this is to try to be a part of the solution - because this is my job, and I like my students, and I genuinely want them to gain business skills and improve their English so that they, too, can move up to something better, and I wouldn't be any morally cleaner teaching the engineers of tomorrow at some underpaid buxiban job.

It probably doesn't have much effect, but the best I can do is to be a grain of sand. An irritating, noticeable grain of sand in everyone's underpants that agitates and calls for change. I'm not shy in saying, when asked, that I think my students work too hard, that work culture in Asia is seriously. fucked. up. and that it's even worse in China, and hey guys, you know this so keep that in mind if you're ever the boss. I try to "be the change I want to see in the world" - I have a well-paid job and make it clear that my greatest benefit is free time and the ability to structure my own life and have a great deal of freedom. Some students don't really absorb the import of this; others think "great for her but this is how things are in Asia". Some, though, look at me like a light has turned on in their heads: if she can be free and earn a good living, and if she can balance life and work and be satisfied on both fronts, why can't I?  She is not automatically more entitled to it than I am because she is foreign, or white, or a native English speaker. I could do this too, if I really wanted to. Or could I? Could I? Hmm.

If nothing else - because there is nothing else I can do - I try to be an example of how important personal time, fair pay and a good life really is, and how that is worth fighting for. It may not do much now, but the more that this idea gains exposure in Asia, the better. I'm one person, there's not much I can do, and I'm not Asian and don't want to make this all White Man's Burden-y, but it is what I can do.


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

"I Have To"

I've noticed something recently, and I'm not quite sure I can pinpoint the reasons behind it - so I'm hoping for some enlightenment.

When teaching presentation and meetings skills, I often do a practice session on giving opinion - different ways to ask for and give opinions and their more subtle meanings and strengths - for example, "From my side" is a way to acknowledge that your view may not be true from another perspective, whereas "I'm inclined to think" intones less commitment to your opinion. "As far as I'm concerned" is a bit stronger, and "I've come to the conclusion that" implies that you've thought about the issue for awhile. Things like that.

Then we practice giving our opinions on various business- or industry-related topics - and some that are not so business-y, though I never get closer to politics than "What are your thoughts on the rise of China?". I throw a few fun ones in there ("What's your take on betel nut beauties?"), too.

Here are some betel nut beauties for you. Got your attention now? Good.

And here is a sampling of the most common type of reply I used to get, until I specified what I meant by "opinion":

"How do you feel about wage stagnation?"
"We have to accept it."

"What's your take on learning English?"
"I have to do it for my job."

"How do you feel about mandatory unpaid leave?"
"We have to deal with that in the global economic downturn."

"What are your feelings on your current career?"
"It's OK...I must do it."

"How do you feel about the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs to China?"
"We need to accept it."

"What's your take on the Eurozone problems?"
"They have to fix that."

"How do you feel about your next product launch?"
"We need to work overtime to finish that."

"What are your reactions to current levels of R&D funding?"
"I must handle that."

And so on.

See what I'm getting at here? These aren't opinions. When I start to notice this in a class, stop the activity and point out that "I have to do it" isn't an opinion - I don't like it or it's a good idea or that would be profitable or the company should do that or this is/isn't satisfactory/interesting/important/vital - those are opinions.

Yes, I made sure that everyone understands each question and potential problem word before we begin.

The upside is that once I point out that "I have to do it" is not an opinion, they generally do get the point and start giving real thoughts, but it surprises (and, frankly, worries) me that I so often have to give that push. In a Western business or class setting, it wouldn't be necessary. Ask about teaching methods, wage stagnation, foreign language, infrastructure,'ll get all sorts of opinions and thoughts.

Another upside is that not every question gets this answer - ask about infrastructure, anything cultural (food, betel nut, convenience stores, Asian vs. American flight attendants, parenting) and you're more likely to get a real opinion.

So I've been wondering:

Is this a basic cultural difference?
Is it common in Taiwan, if you figure you can't change something, to accept it rather than give an opinion on it, or even cultivate an opinion on it?
Is it (heaven forfend) an idea that their opinion isn't important?
Is it because their opinion is negative and they don't want to sound, well, too negative?
Is it because they simply don't have an opinion, so rather than admit that, they'll seize on a fact?
Is it that they're shy for whatever reason to give opinions so freely (I don't think I inspire fear or shyness, but hey...)
Is this a Taipei or northern Taiwan thing? I have to point out that if one asks someone from southern Taiwan their opinion, they'll bloody well give it to you and give it to you good (if you ask a taxi driver (s)he may start flailing his arms and forget he's driving while racing down the road as he tells you exactly what (s)he thinks). I only really notice it in Taipei.

As the commenter below pointed out - is it that many Taiwanese people are "afraid" or "shy" when it comes to giving out their opinions to strangers or foreigners?

Food for thought anyway.

I have to go to bed now. ;)