Showing posts with label work. Show all posts
Showing posts with label work. Show all posts

Sunday, September 1, 2019

The case for why Taiwan is the best of the 'Asian Tigers'

I needed a cover photo that screamed 'Taiwan' so...here you go. 


As we enter the 2020 election season in Taiwan, I've been hearing a common sentiment from people I've talked to  - not just friends but students and random people I chat with in my daily life. Anecdotally, support for Tsai's re-election is strong, but there's a general sense that the economy is 'bad', and Tsai hasn't done that much about it. I've also picked up on a sentiment that Taiwan continues to lag behind the other 'Asian Tigers' - while nobody is jealous of Hong Kong these days, there is some envy of its status as an 'international city', and I hear jealous yearnings to be as well-off and nice as South Korea and Singapore.

It's easy to see why, on the surface. Let's be honest - South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong all look so much...shinier. The public spaces and roads look better-maintained. It just feels like there's more money floating around. 


This is reflective of two pieces from 2018 and one from 2016). So while I can't measure the strength of this sentiment, I can say with confidence that it's a thing. 

But you know what? I just don't think it's true.


It's not that the data are wrong. Salaries are in fact low. Business do take conservative investment approaches (and I personally feel that they do not invest nearly enough in talent, nor do business owners trust the talent they hire to innovate.) I'm not sure that Taiwan's GDP per capita is lower than the other Asian Tigers as CommonWealth claims - at least in this data, it beats South Korea. And none of this from the Today link above is wrong, per se:


But Taiwan did not woo multinational companies to set up facilities, as Singapore did. It did not develop a financial centre like Hong Kong’s; or establish large conglomerates or Chaebols, the way South Korea did. 
Instead, Taiwan is home to many small and medium enterprises, known as original equipment manufacturers (OEM), making devices at low cost for brand-name companies. The island became a high-tech powerhouse in the 1980s on the backs of these OEM manufacturers.... 
Today, young Taiwanese face dim job prospects. They have been dubbed the “22k” generation — a reference to their minimum monthly salary of NT$22,000, which works out to just over S$1,000. Youth unemployment is more than 12 per cent [I checked that number, and this website confirms it as does Taiwan Today and the government], and many young Taiwanese are disillusioned.

But I'm just not buying that this makes Taiwan 'the worst' of the Asian Tigers or somehow 'left behind'. Here's why.

First, the same things have been said about Hong Konger, South Korean and Singaporean youth - 'bleak prospects', 'disillusioned', 'low salaries', 'can't afford to buy a home', 'no future'. Salaries for young workers are low around the world - Millenials everywhere can't afford to buy property at the rate their parents and grandparents did, and Taiwan (and Hong Kong, and Singapore) is no exception. Taiwan's economy is slower than it once was, but that's true everywhere

Yes, a crude comparison of salaries shows higher pay in the other Asian Tiger countries, but Hong Kong and Singapore suffer from such high living costs that I doubt youth - or people of any age - who get jobs there actually enjoy a higher living standard.


Poverty and Inequality

In some metrics, Taiwan actually wins out over every other Asian Tiger. Looking at wealth inequality, Taiwan's GINI coefficient is 33.6 (the lower the number, the better). South Korea's is 35.7, Singapore's is 45.9, and Hong Kong's is a whopping 53.9. Although the numbers are getting a bit dated, Taiwan's poverty rate is stunningly low, at 1.5% (though I wonder how much of that is massaged by people of meager means living with family). In contrast, South Korea's is 14.4% and Hong Kong's is 19.9%.

Singapore doesn't provide data (seriously, check that link above). Thanks to journalist and Twitter buddy Roy Ngerng, however, I was able to find a few reliable sources that estimate poverty rates in Singapore to be a whopping 20-35%. 



Yup. 

So hands down, Taiwan wins on equality - despite lower salaries, you've got a much lower chance of ending up indigent. Given the lower cost of rent in Taiwan than Hong Kong and Singapore, even if you do end up struggling financially in Taiwan, you can live a little better. There is no way, as a teacher, that I could afford the three-bedroom downtown flat I have in Taipei if I lived in any other Asian Tiger nation.

Although there's some contradictory info on purchasing power coming up, I'd also argue that the overall lifestyle in Taiwan is simply better. Coffin homes are not a thing, nor are cage homes. All of these countries have inexpensive food if you eat like a local,  but I've found that you can get more value for money in Taiwan (with South Korea as a close second). Overall, those little things that make life easier when you're broke are just a bit easier to come by here.

Is that not worth the trade-off of a few unsightly buildings? Would you not give up your glass skyscraper dreams to have more flexibility in your lifestyle? Just because a city looks a little ganky around the edges doesn't mean it's not wealthy.



Healthcare

I also want to take a look at healthcare - a lot of my data comes from here. Hong Kong's public hospitals have preposterously long wait times for procedures you can get done quickly and cheaply in Taiwan. The only way around them is expensive private hospitals, which not everyone can afford. South Korea's benefit package is quite narrow; a great deal of medical services are simply not covered. Singapore went through a process of privatizing hospitals, with mostly negative consequences, including increased cost to patients. Out-of-pocket expenses in Taiwan are similar to Hong Kong's (for better service) - they're higher in South Korea (due to so many uncovered services) and far higher in Singapore (due to privatization of hospitals, I suppose). While Taiwan does have a fairly high rate of private insurance, mostly purchased by wealthier people to supplement NHI, this doesn't make up for differences in out-of-pocket expenses.

After putting all that together, I'm gonna call it: Taiwan's got the best cost-to-benefit ratio of health coverage among the Asian Tigers. You won't be worrying about uncovered services like South Koreans, waiting years for basic tests like Hong Kongers or paying out-of-pocket like Singaporeans, and t
his is all despite having fewer doctors per 10,000 people than any of the other three countries. 


A free society

There are also personal freedoms to consider. Although I can only speak anecdotally, living in a society as free as Taiwan's counts for a lot. Again, South Korea is the closest comparison here. Hong Kong, on the other hand, is simply neither democratic nor free. Aside from the recent protests, the government is ultimately beholden to Beijing, and activists, publishers and journalists disappear (or are attacked or murdered) on the regular. In Taiwan, activists are mostly free to agitate for change. In Hong Kong, you're brought to trial and found guilty. Attend a protest - exercising your basic right to free speech and assembly - could get you fired. Singapore isn't wracked by protests (at the moment) but is absolutely an illiberal state where peaceful assembly and freedom of speech are so strictly controlled as to not exist.

If you're not a political activist, you may not think this is particularly important, but just try having a dissenting viewpoint one day, and realizing you can never voice it without potentially dire consequences. What if you want to be a journalist, political analyst, writer, artist or even academic, and find that your ability to speak truth to power is limited or outright censored? It does matter. 


South Korea offers similar freedoms - public demonstrations are popular there, as they are in Taiwan.


Work culture

When I first visited Seoul in 2003, I stayed with my now-husband in his (paid-for) flat in a nondescript building, in a nondescript part of the city. The buildings stretched on and on, and they all looked basically the same. They had huge numbers painted on them so you could differentiate your building from the others at a glance. It was all a bit sterile. These days, I'm given to understand that many companies provide identikit housing for their employees. When we returned in 2014 for a visit and had to catch an early shuttle to the airport, I noted as the bus snaked through downtown Seoul that the streets were full of Korean men in identical black suits (with the occasional navy-clad rebel), carrying similar briefcases, with similar haircuts, going to similar jobs in similar cubicles in similar office buildings for similar companies, and they were all made out of ticky-tacky and they all looked just the same


In other respects, I love visiting South Korea. I have to admit that Seoul went from a city that looked a little, shall we say, crumbly around the edges (sort of the way Taipei looks now) to something more similar to Tokyo between my two visits. People certainly revert to expressing individuality outside of work hours. But I think this samey-samey work culture would just destroy me.

Looking at numbers, Hong Kongers work about 50.1 hours/week on average, or 2,296/year according to a UBS study. Singaporeans clock in at 2,334 hours/year, or 45.6 hours/week. The results here don't quite add up as some say Hong Kongers work longer hours, and others say Singaporeans do (and neither yearly average matches 52 weeks of work at the weekly average). In any case, both are higher than Taiwan.

I can't find weekly averages for South Korea, but they appear to be at the top as well, at 2,069/year. Taiwanese are right to complain about their long working hours, but they're actually lower than the other Asian Tigers (2,035.2/year). 


Sure, just as the quote far above points out, Taiwan did not turn itself into a financial center or international business center like Hong Kong and Singapore  - but its wealth inequality is lower, which is quite possibly a direct consequence. It did not set up chaebols (massive conglomerates) the way South Korea did. But I've spent a lot of time in corporate offices in Taiwan and I can assure you that, while there is a standard 'corporate' mode of dress, that the level of conformity expected among office workers is nowhere near the level of what I saw in Seoul. I would not wish that identikit lifestyle on Taiwan; while some people might be willing to slog through such a work culture for a better paycheck, I suspect a huge proportion would chafe against it. Taiwan's small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) may not have brought in the big bucks the way Samsung and Lotte did for South Korea, but what they contributed to Taiwan's cultural landscape is a net positive, I think, and should not be underestimated. 

Brendan's oft-repeated comment about his long-ago move from South Korea to Taiwan is that "Taiwan has long work hours, maybe as long as South Korea. Wages are lower. But people just seem more chilled-out. You don't pass drunk salarymen passed out on the sidewalk who will get up and go to work the next day. Everyone seemed so stressed in Korea. People here just seem...more relaxed." And it's true - on my brief visits to Seoul, even I saw those passed-out businessmen. I've never seen that in Taiwan, though I routinely pass groups of friends enjoying dinner and drinks - beer or Kaoliang - on folding tables on the sidewalk, keeping the local gossip machines going and looking, well, just more relaxed.

I wonder how much the chaebol vs. SME culture divide plays into that. No idea, but it's a thought. 



Gender parity

It also seems to me - and Brendan concurs after living there - that South Korea has a much bigger problem with sexism than Taiwan. Every culture in the world struggles with sexism (yes, all of them), but Taiwan arguably has the best gender equality in Asia. For some hard numbers, the gender wage gap in South Korea is the biggest of all OECD countries (34.6%), and Brendan recalls seeing job advertisements that blatantly offered more to male candidates for the same work. Taiwan's gender wage gap is 14.6% - on par with a lot of Western countries and not great, but also a huge improvement.

Hong Kong's gender pay gap is 22.2% as of 2017. Singapore's is a bit lower than Taiwan.

There's more that I might include about gender equality in the four Tigers, but the wage gap really says it all. 



The bad news

I don't want to wax rhapsodical about how Taiwan is better than the other Asian Tigers in every way, implying that there's no data to suggest it's not true. So, let's take a look at what's not going well for Taiwan.

Just looking at unemployment, Taiwan looks a little less lustrous. In South Korea and Taiwan unemployment rates are similar, at 4.4% (a rise from 3.8% in December 2018) and 3.7% (average 2018) respectively. Rates are lower in Hong Kong and Singapore, at closer to 2-3%. Youth unemployment in South Korea is around 10.4%, for Hong Kong it's about 9.4% and Singapore is lowest at 5.2%. As above, Taiwan's is in the vicinity of 12%. There's no getting around it - Taiwan's unemployment looks low by European standards, but it's not as robust as its Asian Tiger peers. 

Purchasing power doesn't look to be much better, with Taiwan ranking high globally - 19th in the world according to the IMF, 28th according to the World Factbook -  but behind both Singapore and Hong Kong on both scales (remembering, of course, that that's still higher than Canada, Australia and a huge chunk of Europe). South Korea was quite a bit further down in both cases. I'm not sure why this is, and don't have the requisite knowledge of economics to analyze it, but I love making myself look stupid publicly so here goes.

First, a lot of Singaporean and Hong Kong relative 'wealth' by purchasing power can be explained by how this purchasing power is calculated. Their large foreign labor populations, who have much lower incomes and purchasing power, are not counted in these metrics as they are not citizens or permanent residents (Taiwan News makes a similar point). Taiwan also has a large foreign labor population, but while I can't find reliable data on this, I'd wager that the ratio of foreign labor to local population in Taiwan is lower than in those two city-states.

Second, Singapore gets around the one thing that might sap a large chunk of their citizens' purchasing power: housing. Most housing in Singapore consists of public housing projects, which builds accommodation at a variety of budgets. Roughly 80% of Singaporeans live in these flats. That might explain how Singapore can have such a high Gini coefficient and estimated high levels of poverty, but still come out blazing on purchasing power.

Why Hong Kong ranks well in terms of purchasing power, I have no idea. I'd think real estate alone - which Hong Kongers are less able to afford than Taiwanese even with higher salaries - would knock it down.

I suspect in both cases that all that purchasing power on the part of Singapore and Hong Kong, given their relatively high poverty and inequality, is concentrated in the hands of the wealthy. If you're just a regular person with a regular job, however, you can make your comparatively lower salary go a lot further in Taiwan (or perhaps South Korea, with its similar inequality rate despite its higher poverty rate). If that's true, all Singapore and Hong Kong really have on Taiwan in terms of purchasing power are more rich people who can do more purchasing. Most people will never be rich, so that doesn't mean much.



Taiwan #1! 

To bring this back to the original point, despite some troubling economic data, I still think Taiwan is the best Asian Tiger in which to build a life. Salaries are low, but so is inequality and poverty (and the rent is pretty good, too). You won't do better for health care, and you have fairly strong human rights protections - better than Hong Kong or Singapore. You're quite likely a lot better off as a woman, especially compared to Hong Kong and South Korea.

The whole world is struggling now, and if anything, I think Taiwan's made the best of this. It's not being 'left behind'. Don't listen to the haters telling you that not only is Taiwan dwarfed by China - when, in fact, China scores well below Taiwan on most of the metrics above - but also the other Asian Tigers. Nope - Taiwan has built something less flashy, less shiny and a little-slower paced, but there are good arguments out there for why it has actually done the best. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Humiliation

Untitled
I just think this picture works with what I am trying to express here, though I couldn't tell you why.

A few years ago, I wrote a long, rambling post that nobody read about a short trip to Athens. One of the central plot threads of that post - which was more of a story that jumped across generations - was the nature of an attempted betrayal of my great-grandfather. As I understand the story, before the 1915 genocide, Armenian children in Turkey were already being taken from their homes and sold as 'adopted' children to Turkish families. The people spearheading the abduction campaign were not Turks hell-bent on persecuting Armenians, although some were surely involved. Rather, it was an Armenian family harming their own.

They attempted to have the Turkish authorities detain my great-grandfather (a fellow Armenian) for stopping the child trade, but it was a Turk who saved him: the captain of the law enforcement unit that tracked him down had served in the military with my great-grandfather and respected him immensely. 


That story wedged itself into my brain last night - my last night in China - built a little nest there and simply will not leave.

The night before that, I was invited to a fancy dinner and drinking with two of the "big bosses" of the company I was contracting for. One was Taiwanese, the other Chinese, and others were present, including another Taiwanese employee of this Chinese company. I was there to deliver a training session; I'm not an employee. I'm not a big fan of the 'company culture' there - I don't like enforced patriotism - but I keep my mouth shut because I'm not an employee and I don't live in China. My opinion is irrelevant.

After several beers, and speaking Mandarin exclusively, the Taiwanese boss asked me if I would stay in Taiwan forever, and I affirmed that I would. In fact, my dream would be to retire to Tainan. He scowled and called it a "DPP city". I indicated that I didn't mind and warned him not to ask me my opinion on the matter. I could tell he was deep blue and pro-unification - he'd made a joke that "we're already unified, at this dinner!" with his Chinese colleague - and was prepared to just let it be.

I know that seems odd for me, but I was in a foreign country, working as an outside contractor. I just didn't think the conversation would be necessary or helpful. Eventually, however, enough beer was drunk that I did affirm my support for Taiwanese independence and general pro-Taiwan leanings, while diplomatically saying "it's not about green or blue, I just love Taiwan." (I don't believe that - it is about green and blue: mostly that green may be imperfect, but blue is made up of China sellouts and former mass murderers, but I wanted to keep the banter friendly.)

I added that while I am not Taiwanese - I don't have citizenship or ancestry tying me to Taiwan - that in my heart, this was my home. He joked that my colleague and I had lived in Taiwan so long that we were in fact Taiwanese.

The Taiwanese boss indicated that he was fine with my views, and I further joked that I couldn't vote anyway, and I would never mention my views to the trainees in China - what would be the point? We ended the night amicably, and I thought that while we would never agree politically and didn't have to be friends, that we could work together. I even kind of liked him as a person, and thought I wouldn't mind drinking with him and others again.

The next day was the closing ceremony for the training session. The Taiwanese employee - not the boss - recounted my description of these classes in Taiwan being 'more relaxed'. Trainees show up with coffee, we chat a bit before the class starts, nobody wears matching shirts, we sit around a table as equals. It's laid-back, democratic and fun. He spun it into a story about how the Chinese trainees were harder working and more organized (which is true, but they all work for the same company, and that company has an authoritarian bent to their working culture, so of course they would be). I was slightly annoyed, because I hadn't meant it that way: I don't think either approach is 'better', just different, though my personal preference is for the more relaxed Taiwanese classes.

I decided, however, to let it go. Again, this may not sound like me, but I don't feel 'at home' in China the way I do in Taiwan. I'm a visitor and I act accordingly.

Then the Taiwanese boss took the stage. After some general motivational talk, he also told the story of our night of drinking, and said:

"Jenna says her heart is Taiwanese. And she and [her colleague] have both lived in Taiwan for a long time, they're Taiwanese! [Our employee] is Taiwanese, and so am I. You are all Mainlanders. So together we are all..."

...and in unison he, the rest of the staff and the trainees all shouted: "Chinese!"

The word they used was 中國人, of course - with the implication that we're all residents of the same country.

Everyone applauded but me. I sat there, not clapping, shooting daggers at the stage. In Taiwanese they call that look a "shit face" (賽面) and that's exactly what it was.

Honestly, I felt stabbed in the back. Betrayed. I may not be Taiwanese, but this is my home, and to have a Taiwanese person say that - and sell me out like that, by throwing my words back at me in a way that I couldn't possibly counteract.

All the while, the Chinese staff of the company have been nothing short of amazing. I genuinely like them all, and they do their best to make sure we are comfortable and have what we need to do our jobs. My students have been wonderful, and they are truly hard-working. The other boss - the Chinese one - never said a single impolite thing. Obviously, my beef is not with the general concept of 'being Chinese', if you have the ancestry and identify that way. (I shouldn't have to say that, but you'd be surprised the way some people interpret what they read.) It's with deliberately twisting my words into a narrative I do not endorse in a way that makes me seem complicit, and forcing an identity on the majority of Taiwanese who do not accept it. And it's harder to swallow coming not from a Chinese person whose entire worldview has been shaped to believe in that perspective, but a Taiwanese person quite literally selling out his own people.

Doubly so, as I'd never say something like that publicly to them. Speaking frankly after several beers in a private room is one thing, going on stage and doing it is quite another. I do believe that if I extend the courtesy of not publicly discussing my pro-Taiwan views, that they can sing their anthem and do patriotic chants all they like, but I also deserve the courtesy of not being forced against my will into being woven into a pro-China speech as though I endorse it. Yes, even when I am in China. I doubt many Taiwanese would do that to Chinese in Taiwan, and it should go both ways.

Honestly, it felt like a form of harassment. A bullying tactic. Sure, he's playing a role and knew the trainees would enjoy it, but it wasn't compulsory, like singing the national anthem or doing group chants (which they have to do, Taiwanese employees included, and I make no comment on. Not my company, not my country, not my issue.) He chose to say that. He did it intentionally, knowing it would anger, or at least bother, me. He did it knowing I would have no tools whatsoever with which to fight back. I would have to sit there and take it, because I'm a freelancer and he's the boss, even though I am also a trainer and that commands respect. Because I'm in the audience and he's on stage. Because everyone in the room agrees with him, not me. Because it's a formal ceremony and the 'face' was thick in that room. Simply not clapping and twisting my face into a look of disgust was already quite bold.

He knew all that and did it anyway. I wouldn't say it was an intentionally personal attack - he probably didn't think too much about it, assuming I'd just take it and it didn't matter, and was more using me as a setup for his own political gain. But I don't forgive that sort of sideswipe easily, and do feel it's part of his job to make the trainers they hire feel comfortable, and instead I felt sold out. I'm not even trying to describe my fury, because I simply cannot.

I know this sort of thing happens to Taiwanese in China all the time, and they have even fewer resources to fight back with than I do. I have read - and friends have told be - about being forced to publicly agree with "One China" while in China or dealing with Chinese counterparts - and not even being able to refuse to comment, look disgusted or metaphorically "not clap". And all that while being truly Taiwanese - I'm a foreigner who calls this place home, nothing more. Because of my relative privilege, I don't think I can ever know on a deeper level what that feels like to be in their position, but I've now had a brush with it and even that was unbearable. I'm still incensed. I can only imagine the gut-wrenching torture and lingering ache of being forced to vocally affirm an identity you don't believe in just to collect a paycheck that you might truly need.

It also happens in international organizations. I'll write more about this later, but even when Taiwan does something that earns international recognition, there are people who give the credit to China. Again, there are few tools available to Taiwan to fight this, though I am happy to see that as time goes on, everyday Taiwanese less willing to just bear it.

So, I meant two things by the title "Humiliation" - how I was made to feel in that moment, but also how pro-China people frequently seek to humiliate those who support Taiwan. The humiliation of a nation and identity, with few channels to stand up for ourselves.

I left the ceremony at the earliest possible opportunity, declined a second drinking session that he personally invited me to, skipped breakfast the next morning and was quiet on the way to the airport (he drove). I cited being 'tired' and 'having a migraine'. Those excuses were true, but caused by the situation. In other words, I was passive-aggressive about it. Those were the tools at my disposal.

What reads to me as 'passive aggression', however, reads in this part of the world as 'making your thoughts known without causing trouble'. What I consider professional - to bring up the matter at a later date - would be seen as overly aggressive here. My reaction that night and signaling in the hours following the incident probably made my feelings clear enough. Nobody commented, but nobody asked me why I'd suddenly become so withdrawn - and even declined free alcohol! - implying that they knew.

Of course, there's also this blog. I'm aware that there might be professional repercussions to writing this, but feel the need to say something anyway. I deserved better in that moment, and Taiwan deserves better in general.

It still bothers me, however, that I have no professional channels through which to ensure it doesn't happen again. I could tell the company in Taiwan that sent me, but I truly don't think they'd care. They'd just expect me to suck it up. Or perhaps they would care, but wouldn't say anything about the actions of a high-level boss at a company they have a highly profitable relationship with, even to ask that Taiwan-China issues please not be brought up publicly as it makes the foreign trainers uncomfortable. I'm not even convinced they'd understand why I was so upset - to them, what he said was just an obvious truth, so what could my problem with it possibly be?

Will I return to China? I don't know. The money is nice but I'd be fine without it - it's not about the cash. On one hand, I feel deeply upset at the notion of returning to a place where my words were twisted and mocked in that way. On the other, he's one person in a company of people who have been otherwise wonderful hosts. As I can't even publicly acknowledge (to them) how I feel about what happened, those who are less aware of my perspective on Taiwan and China might privately wonder if they had somehow upset me, when that simply wasn't the case. I'm not even sure how I'd tell my company in Taiwan that I won't go back, if I know that telling them about the incident at all would lead nowhere and might get be labeled as overly demanding.

It just still kills me, two days later, that it was the Taiwanese person's words that denied the existence of a unique Taiwanese identity and history and caught me in the gut like a well-fired arrow. I hear a lot of complaints in Taiwan that "Chinese" are rude, or bullies regarding Taiwan and Hong Kong. While I am aware that happens, it's just not been my experience. It's the deep blue Taiwanese who are the worst. They have freedom and access to better information, and yet they still choose a path that takes freedom away from their own country.

A good reminder, I suppose, that being respectful and doing the right thing have nothing at all to do with national boundaries. 

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Taiwan needs more strikes!

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As you've no doubt heard if you follow Taiwan news at all, Taiwan ugh China Airlines pilots were on strike until very recently. Notably, while part of the negotiations to end the strike included an annual bonus (de rigueur in most Taiwanese workplaces, so I was surprised to learn that apparently pilots did not receive one? Huh), overall the strike was not about higher pay, better 'perks' or other 'benefits' not related to health and safety.

At the core of their demands were that more pilots be assigned to longer flights, so that total working hours for pilots could be brought down to a reasonable standard that would not leave them overworked and overtired. It also prioritized hiring Taiwanese pilots (including foreign pilots residing in Taiwan) over foreign pilots.

I have no particular opinion about the latter demand, but the former is simply reasonable. Nobody wants an overworked pilot; that's how disasters happen, and let's not forget that until very recently China Airlines had a poor safety record (in recent years things seem to have improved). Although China Airlines says its safety and working hour policies are within international standards, considering said safety record and how overtired pilots can be a factor in plane crashes, I question this.

Besides, it's simply not that culturally ingrained in Taiwan to strike at a particularly busy time for your employer (the strike began over Lunar New Year, one of the busiest travel times in Asia), especially if better compensation is not the employees' core demand. To take an action like this, the pilots themselves must have known that overwork and lack of sufficient cockpit crew was a major issue. The only real rebuttals to these demands were, essentially, "but that would cost money!" (yeah, a safe work and customer environment usually does) and "but we'll lose passengers!" (yup, but you'll lose more if there's a major crash and people will die), which underscores how strong a case the pilots made.

The thing is, this kind of strike has been a fairly rare phenomenon in Taiwan, especially in earlier decades. Up through the 1980s, generally pro-business, anti-labor laws governing collective action made strikes difficult if not impossible (not surprising given the repressive Martial Law political atmosphere more generally), and even in the 1990s, despite some strikes taking place, "legitimate union strikes" were still rare, and difficult to legally carry through. Although strikes have become more politically possible since then, they're still fairly rare, with an exception being the China Airlines flight attendant strike in 2016. (That the ground zero for highly-publicized strikes seems to be China Airlines also points to an anti-labor bent to their workplace culture).

The lack of strikes in previous decades wasn't just about anti-worker labor laws - there is an overall lack of a strong labor movement in Taiwan for a number of reasons. There are surely some cultural reasons for this (think of stereotypical "East Asian" work culture which values hierarchy and collectivism; there's a kernel of truth to it, although Taiwan is certainly more chilled-out than South Korea or Japan in this way).

But, more importantly, it's the result of an intentional political attempt to keep labor from organizing so as to advocate for its own needs. This has been done in a very devious way: not by union-busting or trying to dissuade workers from organizing, but by preemptively creating worker "unions" and "trade associations" that employees in a company or industry may belong to, so as to create the veneer of organized labor, but which is ultimately controlled by the companies or government, not the workers themselves. Such organizations have typically represented the best interests not of the workers but of management (or the government) and did not necessarily take on labor advocacy at all. In fact, what "management" and "the government" might want were not always different, given the history of nationalized industries / state-owned enterprises in Taiwan and how government control of industry and labor was used as a tool for political repression.

Of course, as independent labor movements coalesced, these came into conflict with the old-style "unions", there were disagreements on whether to improve the lot of labor overall or to address specific needs of specific groups of workers and...it's all very complex but essentially, that's the reason why not every political party, group and organization which claims to represent the interests of "labor" is on the same page, or even gets along. For more on this point I recommend Yubin Chiu's chapter on trade union movements in Taiwan's Social Movements under Ma Ying-jeou (I'm sorry that it will probably cost you $50 to buy the book if you wish to do so, though that's better than the earlier price of $150 - and although Chiu obviously comes from a Marxist viewpoint on labor issues, he's good at explaining the fundamentals and historical complexities of trade unionism in Taiwan).

Under such conditions, it's not surprising that the labor movement has not been particularly robust and strikes have been fairly rare in Taiwan.

Anyway, taking all of this together, Taiwan simply needs more strikes.

First, because the typical Westerner's idea of a "strike" seems to involve the workers demanding better compensation. An anti-union libertarian friend of mine has even said that he imagines that only mediocre workers support collective bargaining, because the most talented employees have a strong position from which to negotiate better remuneration - it's only the employees who are not particularly distinguished who need to rely on collective action to improve pay and benefits.

That's wrong for a number of reasons, most notably that it assumes that all collective bargaining is aimed at better compensation for each individual rather than improved working conditions for everyone as a collective whole (it also assumes that more valuable workers don't care about whether their less-highly-performing coworkers are compensated fairly, which isn't always true.) But the flight attendants' and pilots' strikes show that this simply isn't that common a motivation in Taiwan: although compensation played a minor role in these actions, the crux of what the workers in both cases were demanding had to do with overwork and general working conditions.

Although I also support strikes for better collective compensation, there's a moral high ground to striking so that you can do your job better, not just to get more "stuff". Salaries in Taiwan are quite low and organized labor has not made any strong moves to push for better pay overall. There are a lot of hurdles for labor to jump simply in terms of social awareness of this issue: it's still taken as normal that one cannot challenge one's boss; changing jobs more often to garner wage increases rather than asking for a raise at one's current job is still seen as a good strategy; and it's still quite common for workers to defend long hours in the office because they prioritize making more money over having more personal time (even though one could argue that workers deserve both reasonable pay and reasonable hours, the rejoinder is that if management won't even give workers one of these two things, it's unrealistic to expect both).

 Of all the good reasons to strike, strikes in Taiwan seem to happen for the best possible reasons. So, more strikes please.


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What's more, modern labor movements in Taiwan tend to be tied to other important social issues -
this labor protest attendee is marching to "end overwork", and also showing his support
for marriage equality


Second, given the cultural and historical reasons outlined above, there's no reason to believe that Taiwan's economy or infrastructure will grind to a halt (as seems to happen regularly in France) due to a large number of strikes. Despite the two prominent China Airlines strikes, they are still seen as a last-ditch strategy by labor unions that have only fairly recently coalesced outside of management control. Without a strong history of striking, it's unlikely to become a popular or even particularly common strategy. I don't foresee any sort of slippery slope here where there's a strike every few weeks over every little issue.

And if workers feel that their complaints are valid enough, and their conditions urgent enough, that this 'last ditch' strategy is necessary, there's probably a good reason for that. More strikes please!

Even if there were a slide into strikes taking place over a greater variety of issues - pay, sex discrimination in the workplace or the gender pay gap (still real problems in Taiwan), long hours - this would overall be a good thing for Taiwan. These are intractable issues that have been allowed to fester. Employers in Taiwan have taken the attitude that "I hired you and pay you, so you have to do everything I ask of you exactly when I ask for it, even if I take up all of your free time and I will take it as a personal affront and loss of face if you challenge me in any way on this or even attempt to discuss your working conditions" for too long. Labor standards are a joke. If strikes are what it takes for management to wake up to the fact that their employees are not their chattel, then more strikes please!

Working conditions, culture and compensation have been problems entrenched in Taiwanese society for far too long, and have arguably hindered Taiwan's economic development overall, as it loses its Millenial generation to better career opportunities, pay and working conditions overseas. Greater labor organization that is not under management control will become easier to attain as workers take stronger collective action, and will be the final step to eradicating the old government/management collusion which has been both historically politically repressive and anti-worker. It has the potential to bring various social movements together (see the image above).

Yet strikes are not likely to become yet another entrenched problem in Taiwanese society given how they are already typically viewed as an action that ought not to be commonly taken.


To put it simply, Taiwan needs more strikes.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

IELTS takes a political position (and my ongoing battle to fight The Man)

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Jerks.


As my husband noted in his nail-on-the-head post on the same topic, pretty much every IELTS teacher and examiner we know is horrified by the change on IELTS's website of "Taiwan" to "Taiwan, China" (Notably, Hong Kong and Macau bear no such designation. If I didn't already know this was all about politics, I'd say that's odd).

Many of us have written to IELTS to protest the change, including me. I'd include a screenshot, except that e-mail contains references to the nature of my employment which I cannot divulge, but which when blacked out render the letter incoherent. Suffice it to say, it was an angry but basically formal letter of protest and complaint.

We all got the same completely irrelevant form letters in reply, which didn't actually address the issue we wrote about:




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"Thank you for your enquiry and comments. The IELTS Partnership is updating IELTS websites and materials in order to ensure that IELTS remains available to test takers in Taiwan. The IELTS Partnership will continue to deliver IELTS tests in Taiwan, ensuring that the widest number of Taiwanese students and professionals can benefit from the work and study opportunities that the test provides."



You can write to them too, by the way, their email is globalielts@ielts.org. See if you get the same bogus form letter! It'll be a fun international discourse comparison!

Of course, I wrote back to point out that their form letter reply was irrelevant to the protest lodged and got a snottier, though I suppose more relevant, reply:



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"Thank you for your feedback. Please be aware that your position has been noted. Our priority continues to be to ensure that the widest number of Taiwanese students and professionals can benefit from the work and study opportunities that the IELTS test provides."


This is where I got a little testy. I'd say "I have a short temper", but several days on I decided to send this anyway. It won't make a difference, so please enjoy it as a retort created for your entertainment:





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"If you consider them 'Taiwanese students', why do you list their country as being 'China'?"


Here's the thing. I know perfectly well that we're probably not going to win this, because The Man doesn't care about our tinny complaints. It pretends to be apolitical while taking a political, pro-Beijing position. And that is what you're doing when you list Taiwan as "Taiwan, China": you are taking a political position. You are saying Taiwan is a part of China, a position most Taiwanese do not agree with.

It's hard to fight the power, which as a friend pointed out, is the entire point of having power - so it's harder for people to fight you. IELTS pretends to be a dispassionate language proficiency test, but it's also a source of power: are you a non-native speaker who wants to study in the UK (or other countries) or get certain kinds of visas? You have to take it. It's tied to the government through British Council and the UKVI service. That's power. It's not just a test.

It wants to think it's not The Man, but it absolutely is. And as The Man almost always is, IELTS is wrong.

For me, this is the point at which "Taiwan, China" stops being an abstraction: it's not just an unfair, stupid thing that terrible companies do for money. It affects me personally: I'm associated with the brand. Some of my income comes from them. If I refuse to accept this, there is a real impact on my life, moreso than boycotting airlines or slagging off TOEFL. I don't earn money from those companies. I don't know how I can take dirty money now, so for the first time in a very long time, I'm faced with a choice between a chunk of my income, and my principles.

As China expands its forcefulness, more people like me will start facing that choice. I have to hope enough of them will choose principles, as I'm headed towards doing, but I know that many won't.

This isn't a small issue relegated to Taiwan and China. It affects people like me. It affects international workers and foreign residents.

And, as Brendan pointed out in his excellent post (which you should absolutely read), IELTS is essentially helping China accomplish its political goals, which serve as precursors to its military goals:



The government of the PRC would like nothing more than to take over Taiwan and incorporate it into their territory....This is not the ranting of a conspiracy monger -- China isn’t even trying to hide its intentions. 

 Whether China takes Taiwan by force or by “peaceful” coercion, it doesn’t want the rest of the world to see it as a larger country taking over a smaller, less powerful country. That would look very bad. Instead, China wants the rest of the world to see Taiwan as a recalcitrant part of China that needs to be brought to heel. That’s why (among many things) it’s got people pushing to change “Taiwan” on those drop-down menus to things like “Taiwan, China” or “Taiwan, Province of China”. It’s all about changing the world’s perception of Taiwan so that if Invasion Day comes, the rest of the world doesn’t see Xi Jinping as another Hitler invading Poland. 

And every airline that lists Taiwan as China and every educational institution that forces students to declare their country as “Taiwan, China” is complicit in this. With Beijing -- not politically neutral.


I don't know how to fight that. I don't know how to tell you to fight that. I'm still weighing my options, although I know that not acting is not an option. I don't know what to tell my students, except not to take IELTS.

I know some Taiwan-based examiners read this blog. I know a lot of Taiwanese do, too. I don't know what to tell you.

I considered suggesting a strike, and still think that might be a possibility. I worry, however, that it will hurt local centers like IDP Taipei, who are not our enemies (I suspect a lot of the local employees of IELTS centers are on our side, in fact) without really hurting IELTS as a global organization. It might be our best shot, however, at getting this story to stay in the news and embarrass IELTS as much as possible.

I considered a petition, but TOEFL ignored the one directed at them, and IELTS will too. That's what The Man does - he ignores petitions, because he has power.

I considered saying you should change your scripts and say explicitly that Taiwan is NOT CHINA, but that could hurt candidates' performance and that's not fair. It's not their fault (even with the Chinese candidates, it's not their fault at all that their government sucks).

Of course I will continue to encourage Taiwanese students not to take the test.

Something more should be done, but the result has to hurt IELTS Global. What should that something be? I don't know yet. But I have no intention of going away and I have no intention of quietly choosing money over principles.

All I can say is that I encourage you to organize (and feel free to get in touch with me, by the way. I'm easy to find). Be creative, and don't back down. The Man usually wins, but that doesn't mean you have to sit down and obey meekly.

I wish I had better advice, though. I'm not sure what the next move will be, but I can assure you we're not done here. 


Thursday, September 13, 2018

Taiwan has made me more skeptical of free market solutions

It is really hard to love Taiwan sometimes.

From The News Lens, which really hits it out of the park when they want to, Taiwan's bus drivers face atrocious conditions, and it impacts public safety:


If the driver is at fault for a major accident they will have a strike against their name, and if they accumulate three major strikes then they will be dismissed; the drivers who have accumulated two major strikes will usually spend their days off making up for their “accidents.” This is seen as a "voluntary service" so their names will not show up on the work schedule, but of course they only have time for this when they are not working.


The result is that even though they have a day off, they end up working every day of the week, and the day after volunteering, they have to drive the bus, but as they are still tired, they will probably cause another accident, receive another strike against their name and will therefore have to volunteer again… completing the vicious cycle.

and

If the driver causes an accident, the Public Transportation Office (PTO) will check their work hours within the last three days, but the company will have the legal team tamper with the shift records, so that it says the driver only ever worked a maximum of 10 hours a day, even if they have worked more....

This meant that each person in the law team shouldered the responsibility of forging documents, something we could not hide as the documents have our seals stamped on them. If the company was charged with fraud, then whichever team member was on duty that particular day would have to bear all legal responsibilities, and would be seen as an accomplice....

If the records were not changed, the company forced that team member to bear the financial burden of the fine, either upfront or from their salary. I have also witnessed the company force the rest of the legal team to pay for a fine, after the original team member had resigned. It was the most ridiculous situation ever and really emphasized how unjust the company was.

...and so much more, but go read the article. 

All of this could be avoided, and service remain the same, if they just hired more people.

But they won't, because there is no mechanism in the market that incentivizes them to not be two rungs above slavers (I'm being generous - they get two rungs!) and politically, everyone knows about these endemic problems, everyone knows companies skirt the law, and yet enforcement remains lax. It can't be anything other than intentional.


This is also why I'm skeptical of total free market solutions to problems: free market solutions generally hinge on consumers having the power to create change, but I see no way to do that here. Many people must ride the bus - some for economic or location reasons, others because they have reasons why they can't drive (I'm not willing to drive in cities, for instance, and it would be compromising another value of mine to buy a vehicle.) They can't refuse to board until conditions get better for drivers or the buses are safer to ride. They might prefer happy, rested, fairly compensated drivers, but they will have to get on that bus whether it happens or not, so companies have no market-based incentive to change their exploitative behavior.

Neither is there a solution in which people just don't take those jobs, forcing companies to offer better conditions to get new hires in the door: they just plod on, understaffed.

I simply do not see a solution here that does not involve some enforcement of government regulations. 

Yet, not solving these sorts of issues is not acceptable.

The government has sure fallen down on this one too, but unlike corporate overlords (whom we have no power to wrest from their cushy jobs), we do have some power to insist on elected officials who take labor violations seriously and are willing to fight the rot they know is in the system. Even the proposed solution in the article: to note the driver, time, place, license plate and route number - involves engaging the government, not using the miniscule droplet of power the market affords you.

I don't hold out much hope that a political or governmental solution would do much good either - not yet, anyway. Taiwan just hasn't developed a labor movement the way some other democratic have, most likely because they left Martial Law (and the rampant exploitation that could not be escaped under that system) not long ago. There hasn't been a lot of time to evolve.

While there may be some slight cultural factors, generally I believe people are people. They all know what overwork means. They all know what it is to be exploited. There's no "Confucian" ideals here keeping rotten work conditions and low pay in place. It's not passivity either: have you been to the major protests, the ones that have changed the country? Taiwan may pose as a passive country on its face, but when it gets down to tacks, it's not.

Y'all pirates. And that's great. I just want to see Taiwan take that "let's protest this shit 'till their on their knees" attitude they have toward political problems and apply it to businesses and labor issues too. And really do it. Like, occupations and hundreds of thousands, strikes across the country. 


You've burned it down before - you forced the KMT to allow democratization. That was you, not benevolent leaders kindly giving you freedom.

Now it's time to burn it down when it comes to labor. Don't wait for bosses and CEOs to do better - they won't. It is only by great force of will that I am not overtly calling them "scum". Bring them to their goddamn knees. Force them.

You've done it before, and you can do it again. 


Saturday, September 8, 2018

Of peanuts and monkeys

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This is perhaps the third time I've written about this in a week, but I just have more to say.

I've been thinking about a few issues I'd like to [try to] tie together: reactions to my post about how long-termers in Taiwan aren't here for the money but are aware they're being undervalued, the general state of English-language media in Taiwan, and English as a second official language in Taiwan.

When I wrote about long-termers and low pay here, most reactions were supportive. The negative ones landed into two groups: those who think NT$66,000/month is fair, or even good, pay for a job that requires several years' experience, high level skills and (unfairly) a Master's from abroad, and those who said the pay wasn't important because the job would be good for someone who would be in Taiwan for a few years and would likely just want to beef up their resume.

So, let me toss some word salad about why both groups are wrong before I move on.

In terms of fair pay, the fact that pay is too low in pretty much every other sector doesn't make $66k for this sort of job acceptable. If you can make just as much money (or more) as a Dancing English Clown at a cram school, a job that requires no qualifications, experience, education, training, professional development, skills, talent, work ethic or consistent sobriety, why would you seek to improve yourself so that you might qualify for a higher-level job, especially one that states right in the ad that you'll be doing consistent overtime in a stressful environment?

And why would you want to take all of that education, experience and skill to make just about enough money to drink at Bar 7 and live in a shared flat or rooftop cesspit with paper walls, if you have any hope of saving meaningfully? Because after you pay your student loans on that foreign Master's degree and save NT$30k each month, that's about what you can afford, if you have no dependents. If you've gotten a postgraduate degree, learned Mandarin and acquired translation skills and experience, you are probably not 24 anymore, and would rather live like an adult.

Others say that this job is aimed at young Taiwanese Americans spending some time here but not planning to stay, or for those looking for a springboard to gain experience. This also misses the point: first, this isn't a newbie job. This could have been an excellent post for an early-mid-career bilingual professional writer, editor or translator, who might well have stayed on for years improving not only their own work, but elevating the English-language output of MoFA as a whole. It could have been a boon to both some lucky long-termer and to MoFA, who would get excellent work in turn.

That is, if it had been positioned that way: as a good but demanding job with a great salary, rather than as a short-term lark for an ABC kid with a Master's who's in Taiwan.

This whole idea of getting some experience in Taiwan and then leaving actually bothers me quite a bit: there are those of us who wish to stay, and as I've written three times now, we try to contribute and give back to Taiwan in gratitude for what Taiwan has given us. Although I won't spend paragraphs bashing them, I have less respect for those who come, take what they can get from Taiwan, and then leave. It strikes me as a little selfish. I have a more profound appreciation for those who want a fair shake from Taiwan, but also want to give back to this country in a sustained way. And yet, one of those grab-and-go types will probably get this job. MoFA will have a revolving door of people who never really develop themselves and get merely passable work, and Taiwan won't benefit.

Which leads to my next point - if the national government is serious about sweeping initiatives like making English a second official language in Taiwan, it's going to have to shake up its whole attitude toward a lot of things. It can't have a MoFA attitude towards English education, asking for everything and offering nothing.

The government needs to think about employing the right people (which it can attract with the right offers), taking seriously the idea that teaching, writing, editing and translating in English are professional careers that people do over a lifetime and seeking out those people, and basically getting quality by paying for quality in terms of remuneration, benefits and work environment. There are those of us who want to stay, who can do good work, but who aren't going to be attracted by what's currently on offer. We're here and we don't want to go anywhere - if the government is serious about bilingualism, internationalism and multiculturalism, it needs to provide more enticing reasons to stay, and stop creating jobs aimed at grab-and-goers.

And it needs to take those people seriously when they point out the flaws in the status quo vis-a-vis English education in Taiwan: from a poorly-regulated cram school industry to, as a friend pointed out, the fact that students who only learn English in public schools generally don't come out having learned any English, to the way the exam system, through extreme negative washback, hinders the whole process. It needs to hire people who can then develop something better, and that's where long-termers looking to contribute to Taiwan come in. We - not just me, I'm nobody, but we - can actually do this alongside and in support roles to talented, passionate and qualified locals, but only if the will is there. We can't take a grab-and-go attitude.

This isn't true only for the government, but for the education system as a whole: from buxibans to universities, if you want talented educators who can actually help Taiwan achieve English as a second language, you need to not only give those who are already working toward this end a better environment in which to succeed, but to offer jobs that entice talented professionals, not a revolving door of Chads and Braydens who aren't implementing even so-so curricula well, and will go back to Idaho in a few years anyway without seriously considering whether they actually contributed to Taiwan.

Oh yeah, and if you are serious about multiculturalism, how about treating the many Southeast Asians who come here for work with a little more kindness and respect? Even just better working conditions and pay, not being all racist towards them, and not raping or enslaving them would be a good start.

This bleeds over into English-language media as well. Why is Taiwan News, which is essentially a gossip rag peddling the same sensationalist articles translated over from Chinese-language gossip rags, now the most recognized English "news" source in Taiwan? How'd we hit the bottom of that barrel?

Because there aren't very many jobs for talented journalists in Taiwan, either. By all accounts, the Taipei Times made a go of it once, but are now so under-resourced that even if there were talk of updating its website and media strategy for the 2010s and beyond, the resources just aren't there to make it happen. It was (is?) the English-language paper that both the expats and the Taiwan advocate Beltway crowd read, and probably never would have been a huge money-maker given its smallish target audience, but it could have sopped up the market that Taiwan News is currently engaging.

Great people have worked at the Taipei Times - and some have even worked at the China Post (believe it or not) - but they all leave. Few people build a career and stick with it, because the jobs on offer just aren't that great. We all know about the one guy who wrote a whole book on it (though you'll need a nacho bowl for all the shoulder-chips it comes with), but I've heard this from many sources. Low pay, long hours, hardly any time off (typical Taiwanese annual leave, which means not much at all), difficult environment. No wonder the best journalists they hire, if they can attract them, cut their teeth and then leave. The state of English-language news reporting suffers for it.

A friend pointed out that this has real-world consequences: she was talking about racism in Taiwanese society specifically towards Black foreigners (which is absolutely a thing), but it also has international consequences. If Taiwan News is the best we can are willing to do, and Taipei Times is offering peanuts and putting out thin content, what news about Taiwan from local sources is reaching the pro-Taiwan influencers abroad? What effect does this have on Taiwan advocacy internationally? What effect does it have on reporting on Taiwan from outside sources? Would that improve - because the state of it is pretty damn bad - if local news put out better, thicker, more compelling stories in English (and Chinese, but this post is about the foreign community)?

Could they perhaps accomplish that if they offered better jobs to committed long-termers looking to make a difference?

The long-termers will stick around - most of us, anyway.  We'll continue to fight for Taiwan in whatever way we can, and carve out niches for ourselves. I do the work I do (I have no single employer, by design) because I can get some satisfaction that way, and make sufficient money. If Taiwan wants us to come out of our little self-carved niches and join the fight for real, there have to be opportunities for us to build real careers in important and useful places, which offer adult remuneration and conditions for real skills.

If Taiwan engages the long-termers who are looking to contribute more meaningfully (and the locals too), the country will be better for it. Media, education, the government.

But if this work continues to toss peanuts our way, we aren't going to pick them up.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

And everyone who knows us knows...we didn't come for money

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.)



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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.