Saturday, August 9, 2014


One of the nicest features of our apartment is that we have a really nice south-facing window with a spacious casement. It looks out over a courtyard with a small playground, not a road, so there aren't any exhaust fumes or loud traffic noises. The light is soft and indirect - perfect for an apartment in a subtropical city, but not great for growing plants. So we keep it simple: a few large plants that we inherited (I don't know what they're called), mint, a few orchids, a fern that took root in an old pot of soil gone to seed, and a big fat fuchsia bougainvillea.

On nice days, I like to open up the screens and occasionally stick my head out into the sunlit air and enjoy the leaves and flowers. I was doing that just the other day - head out, light streaming in, a slight breeze which rustled up the smell of the mint, and swirls and splatters of bright pink flowers. To maintain the "shades of blue" theme from the living room, we added (okay, I added) inexpensive blue glass candleholders and lanterns and had chiffon curtains in shades of green and blue tailor-made.

Side note: when I gave the fabric and design specs to the tailor, her reaction was "this fabric is too thin! You don't want everyone seeing in, don't you? Why not choose a thicker fabric that can keep out the sun, too? The sun will come right through this!"

"That's what we want, and anyway we don't mind if people can see into the living room, not that too many people can. And there are plants to hide the view inside," I bit back.

"You foreigners are so weird."

Convinced she had the right of it, she got to work on my curtains.

Anyway, looking out on those flowers, I became aware of something: it was a Thursday afternoon.

Life is pretty good. I make good money for Taiwan; we live downtown. How many people with apartments nice enough to enjoy the view and the air from their windows and live downtown can, in fact, look out their window to admire whorls of bougainvillea on a Thursday afternoon? Even in Taipei, most people were toiling away in offices. Night would be falling before they could leave.

So I was thinking.

One of the advantages of being an expat - especially if you're from a country with a wide-reaching, globally-influential pop culture (which, sorry other countries, I know that can be annoying), is that you get to watch your own culture evolve from a distance. You're totally fluent in the sociocultural language of your home country, but you're not there, which lends the whole thing a rarefied distance. Not unlike observing the terrain from a tiny airplane window far overhead.

I have a reasonably broad view for Taipei - more than just the street below (there is no street below) and the apartment across from you is considered a good view in the denser parts of this city, or any city, really. But I can see just one courtyard - a broad view of a small space. The view from that window, past those bougainvilleas and their thorns (did you know bougainvilleas had thorns? I didn't until I inherited one), out on a little slice of Taipei is narrower than my extreme wide-angle view of American goings-on - a broad view but from a tiny little window way up where jet planes fly.

And recently, that American pop culture terrain has been marked by the volcanic eruption that is Women. More specifically, Sheryl Sandberg. Her name is the most ubiquitous, it has the most cache abroad (most of the people I know in Taiwan have heard of her, too) and she, like a lava flow, has mostly succeeded in her concerted attempts to bring the discussion about how we treat working women to the forefront of cultural discourse.

I'm not sure if I'm 100% on board with what she says: I don't wish to contort myself into some pleasing, perfect aggressive-yet-feminine, strong-but-not-bitchy Gumby woman. I'd rather just be me, and if some boss who thinks he or she can either walk all over me or that I'm a "bitch" gives me problems, I'll walk away as soon as I'm able. And I'm not a mom, so her advice to working mothers doesn't really impact me much. If I wanted to devote lots of time to work, I could, with very few consequences. And I see what people mean when they say that she can take her own advice - she's a wealthy, established, distinguished woman at the top of the ladder. It's not exactly useful to single mothers trying to put food on the table with the pay from their job as a receptionist at, say, Southern Oconomowoc County Chiropractic Associates.

It's not only Sandberg, of course, I'm only picking the most famous name from among a few people participating in this conversation.

And what I hear again and again is how a lot of these women - not Sandberg, but others - who write about how being a working mom with a flexible job is a great choice, how it works for them, how more women should do it. Most of these women are writers. That's why they write about this, natch! Which is great, but those jobs tend not to have stable incomes (especially tough if you're single, whether or not you have kids), are often harder to pull of with kids at home than you'd think, and really not available as an option to the receptionist at - say - Southern Oconomowoc County Chiropractic Associates.

Either way, a lot of people - a lot of women especially - seem to covet the semi-freelance flex-time lifestyle. Some make it work, some are trying, some have it but only because they can afford to with a high-earning breadwinner partner, some feel like it's a windmill they're better off not tilting at.

Because, let's face it: it's hard to have that lifestyle in the USA unless you've got the backing of a stable breadwinner. Possible, but hard. I don't know about you, but "I'm freelance (because my husband works long hours in an office so we never have to worry about money)" wasn't exactly what I had in mind when I decided to strike out on my own, work-wise. Of course people do make it work, it's just a lot harder. In Taiwan - especially Taipei - it's much easier. I know a lot of people who are making it work without the burdens of living in the USA. I don't know if any of us would be as successful or self-sustaining in the USA. I've met quite a few independent artsy locals (artists, designers, writers) who manage to live independently on that salary in a way that few Americans would be able to. In some ways, Taipei is a city of independent shopfronts, of indie jewelry crafters, of writers, translators, journalists and editors striking out on their own. I don't see a lot of this in the USA except perhaps in Brooklyn, and I can guarantee we all have better standards of living than the indie and freelance folks there.

Which makes me think from my perch at 30,000 feet above my own culture, that it's really a damn shame that there aren't more expat women in Taiwan. If more expat women lived in Taiwan, more of them would realize that if they want, they can have that kind of life here more easily than in the USA.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that while some people can do it in the USA, I never would have been able to.

You can't get around to meet people, promote yourself and meet clients without a car, so there's a whole bunch of expenses. The only city where you can both live near public transportation and not have a car is New York, other cities don't have a good enough network for you to be able to rove about town making money. Sorry, DC, Boston, Seattle, San Francisco and Chicago, but it's true. I strongly dislike driving - it would be a major change in lifestyle for me to have to do it, and a major expense I probably wouldn't be able to shoulder to buy and maintain a car with all of its associated costs. People without a lot of money buy cars all the time, sure, but imagine doing it on the freelancer money I'd be making. Yeah, not so much.

If your clients tend not to drive you'll also want to live near public transportation if it's available. Or, if you just want to avoid driving as much as possible, you'll want that too, without having to schlep a mile to the nearest MRT station. So, that'll be a much higher rent or mortgage payment for you. We could conceivably live near-ish a subway station on the American equivalent of my freelance career plus whatever Brendan would do, but it wouldn't be downtown. Forget it. I could not do what I do here and live where I do in the USA. Anywhere in the USA.

Living expenses are astronomical, too. At least, compared to Taiwan, they feel that way. In Taiwan, in months where I earn less, we can squeeze by surprisingly cheaply. We managed it for months without significant problems while doing Delta Module One, when for all intents and purposes I was working part time. You can budget and squeeze in the USA, too, but just not quite to the same degree. In Taiwan it was a matter of "maybe we don't need fancy Belgian beer this weekend". In the USA it would be "maybe ramen is a fine dinner idea every night this week".

In short, I could do it, but my lifestyle would suffer so much that it wouldn't really be the same. I could either have the lifestyle I do now, but work all week and miss out on those sunny Thursday afternoons enjoying the flowers of my labor, or I could have the work schedule I do now but live in a dank little view-less apartment far from downtown and a schlep to everywhere. Other people make it work, but I know that I likely wouldn't be one of them. For everyone who can shout out their windows to the bright, wide world that it's "fine for them! Try it out!", I bet there are ten more people who just wish their windows faced something other than a wall.

Until recently, I wouldn't have been able to pull it off because of this little thing called health care. I'm healthy, but not robustly so. I have had back problems (seem to be fine now) and occasionally get bronchial infections. I get migraines. My family history is riddled with heart problems, cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer's and a few other fun things, too. I need, need, need health insurance. Taiwan makes that happen for me. The USA...well, we have Obamacare now, and I'm curious about whether that would work for me. But when I left, I couldn't have gone freelance, or entrepreneur, or even worked for a company that didn't have a health insurance benfit, because quite simply I could not afford the health insurance. 

It wasn't a matter of budgeting: in the USA I budgeted myself into rice and lentils, rice&beans, cheap bread and pasta, frozen veggies and carrot sticks with apple slices because carrots and apples were cheap. And I still wouldn't have been able to afford my own health insurance: on an entry-level salary I could barely afford one of the cheaper company plans. Obviously working in companies one would either get promoted or look for something better (not that I thought about such things much back then, within a year I was plotting my return to Asia having decided that the cube monkey life was not for me), but how does one strike out on one's own when one can't afford basic health care?

Side note: this is one reason I will basically never vote for Republicans. Also the "weak track record on women's rights and their party platforms are bigoted against LGBT people", but a big part of it is that they talk big about entrepreneurial spirit, but don't do anything to help would-be entrepreneurs like me. I didn't need lower taxes - I needed health insurance I could afford.

Back to the main topic.

So, while I realize my experience is not the only experience, and my view is not the only view, it's unbearably clear to me that there's no way I could both maintain the lifestyle I have (those gorgeous bougainvilleas in that spacious, sunny, convenient downtown apartment) and have the time to enjoy it (those random weekday afternoons free), as a freelancer in the USA.

I have what a lot of people, especially (but not only) women, want. The freedom to do the job I love on my terms, with flexible time and good pay. I can both have my bougainvilleas and enjoy them, too.

I have this because Taiwan has made it possible. I could not have this in the USA. Even when I needed a visa to stay in Taiwan, I was able to have my own side interests and private classes and more-or-less have flex-time work. It would be remarkably easy for a lot of American women, sick of dealing with sexist workplaces, sick of being told to "lean in" or contort themselves, sick of having someone else dictate when they worked and for how much pay (less than men's), to grab a job that provided an ARC in Taiwan for a few hours a week of English teaching or whatever, and use their extra time to pursue their freelance side work, until they could get permanent residency and chase their dream full-time, or full-ish time - whatever time could be scheduled around not "leaning in", but leaning out of their sunny windows and enjoying a spray of bougainvillea, orchids and mint on a weekday afternoon.

But they're not here, and something tells me they're not coming.

It's too bad. I'd like to share my bougainvilleas.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

I have some questions for Sean "神豬" Lien

From here

Sean Lien may as well have propped up a few of these in the corners of his 
"chat with foreigners", for all the talking the women present did. 
This is what he was going for, anyway.

This ridiculous campaign stunt video of Taipei City mayoral candidate Sean "God Pig" Lien talking to "foreigners in Taipei" about foreign resident concerns has made the rounds an ample number of times, and I don't have much of a need to comment on the video beyond what's been said.

But, since when have I ever written something because I needed to?

First, I admit I could not watch the whole video - that weird Weather Channel background music was so jarring and distracting that I gave up halfway through and read summaries of it online to see what I missed (not much, it seems).

Second, why did he have a room full of, oh, about 10-15 foreigners, when only a very few asked questions?

Third, note the inherent sexism in how the only questions taken and shown in the video were questions from men. The women looked more like background props - they could have been cardboard cutouts for all it mattered in this video. And let's not even get into the "token black" racism or the complete lack of Southeast Asian domestic or factory workers present (because other people already have).

Fourth, how is it that the only questions that made it into the video are either KMT Big Business propaganda bullshit points, or superficial "fluff" matters that it's easy to talk fluff about? I won't even bother complaining that the campaign stunt (I can't really call it a "talk with foreigners" in any sincere sense) was scripted, and seemed to be filled mostly with good-looking white men (and a few good-looking women) who may not even be residents of Taipei.

So, all of that aside, I have two things to say.

First, HEY FOREIGNERS. If you are really residents of Taipei - and I sincerely doubt that you are, although you could surprise me - what the fuck are you doing providing a whitewashed backdrop to Prince Sean the Lame here? Really? Did they pay you? How much was in the hong bao? Was it worth it, selling your dignity for whatever bit of cash they threw your way and a free lunch (although knowing the KMT you probably had to pay for the lunch if you're poor - only to have your lunch expropriated by a wealthy lunch magnate with gang and political connections - and got it for free if you're rich).

I mean, I suppose there's a chance that you actually support Sean Lien and...

...oh nevermind. That's too ridiculous to contemplate.

So, really? You're willing to be dancing foreign monkeys for this guy? You're willing to make us all look bad by being a prop for some sad little princeling's political dreams? You're willing to push forward tired stereotypes about foreigners in Taiwan, and make us all look bad (and stupid - because your questions were stupid - YES THEY WERE - although I can forgive that, as they were obviously handed to you by the Lien campaign)? You're okay with being reduced to this? Why don't you go dance around in a ridiculous stock video in the background of some American song from the '80s played illegally in a KTV? That would be slightly less humiliating than what you've done here.

Seriously, have some goddamn self-respect.

And second, I have some questions of my own for Seanie boy. I know I'd never get invited to one of these lunches, nor would I go if invited, because I'm not interested in being some KMT teat-sucker's campaign prop. And if I were, my real questions would be edited out.

So, I'll go ahead and write them here.

I'll try to stay away from the snarky ones.

Dear Sean Lien,

What is wrong with you? Sorry, I said I'd try not to be snarky. Let's start again. Ahem. Okay.

Urban renewal is not necessarily a bad policy for a city with degrading or unattractive architecture (although I would disagree that it is entirely unattractive). So how is it that the KMT leadership in Taipei has screwed it up so much by making it a gold rush for developers, rather than an actual boon to the city? Why isn't it a boon to the city, benefiting not citizens but rather companies like Farglory? How will you make urban renewal work for the people and not vested corporate interests? How closely tied is your family, and how closely tied is the KMT, to these development companies?

How is it that with all of this urban renewal, actual systemic problems in Taipei's infrastructure have not been addressed, such as the sewage system that regularly causes noxious odors to waft up from sewer grates and makes it impossible to flush toilet paper (which leads to some very disgusting trash bins next to public toilets)?

Or uneven, difficult-to-walk sidewalks that are an ankle-breaking hazard for the able-bodied among us and totally unnavigable for the disabled?

When are you going to wean yourself off your father's teat and Sorry.

What's up with the continued difficulties that residents of Taipei who hail from other cities have in registering to vote in Taipei? I know that technically they can do so, but if they rent, landlords often make it difficult or outright refuse (they fear being charged higher taxes for having a tenant that they had previously not reported) and the government has done nothing about this.

Mayor Hau, despite also still suckling his own father's milk, did one good thing in Taipei by making it possible for any impoverished person to get a free lunch box at any convenience store, so long as they had a special card (the stores get reimbursed by the government). However, one must apply for the card in order to be eligible, and it seems clear that this policy has not been widely publicized or made easily available to Taipei's poor and homeless. What do you intend to do about that?

We all love UBikes, but what's up with the half-assed "bike lanes" that no sane person would actually bike in? We all bike on the sidewalks because we have to.  How will you fix that and create real bike lanes, and enforce their safety from encroachment by cars, buses and parked vehicles, and educate the public about proper bike lane use and safety?

More frequent trains on the Xiangshan line please. After 8 years in Taipei it is no longer in my blood to regularly wait 7 minutes for a train. And can we improve train etiquette (line-cutting, entering a train and then stopping, entering a train before passengers have had a chance to exit, not leaving space for people walking in the other direction) while we're at it? A small issue but one close to my heart.

Domestic violence crisis center workers are horribly underpaid and caring, competent people often leave the job due to the high stress and low compensation. As a result, domestic abuse survivors have diminished access to competent social workers. I know at least one such worker who quit and decided to learn to cut hair instead, as she'd make more money that way. How will you increase resources to help with this and other women's issues so we can offer a full range of necessary services and adequately compensate these workers in Taipei City?

Four major issues impacting Taipei real estate are:

- Rising prices overall
- Taipei County residents buying tiny properties in Taipei (which are often cut out of units meant to be larger and sold for this purpose, which make un-ideal living quarters and diminish the housing available, as well as its quality, to people who actually intend to live in Taipei) in order to be able to register their children to study at a good school in Taipei
- The influx of agents in the rental market who charge high rates to renters they place and even more to foreigners that they take for rubes (a local may be charge half a month's rent or less, a foreigner is often told they must pay a full month), for providing very little in the way of services and making it impossible to contact landlords directly about rentals
- A speculative market in which most buyers don't intend to live in their units (see above) do you plan to fix this mess?

So, how do you intend to get anything done for the people when politicians, gangsters and businessmen are either good friends, or the same people?

Why should the people believe that the KMT is working for them when they have demonstrated time and time again that they mostly have big business interests, and Chinese interests, at heart? Why should we have faith in a word you say?

What do you plan to do about wage stagnation in the face of rising living costs in Taipei, which is arguably more severe than elsewhere in Taiwan due to the effects of the real estate market?

What do you plan to do about routine overwork, companies cheating on overtime pay, companies pushing women not to take their full allotment of maternity leave and general worker abuse in Taipei?

Why can't foreigners unionize? As a mayor, not a national official you may not be able to do much, but...why not?

A lot of worker abuse against foreigners affects us in two ways:

1.) Domestic helper abuse - there is little a badly-treated or abused foreign domestic worker can do to remedy her situation under current law. What do you plan to do about that?

2.) Contract worker abuse - most Western foreigners are English teachers, and we are routinely subject to illegal policies at work. For instance:

- did you know that we are legally entitled to lao bao (labor insurance)? Many schools openly refuse to provide it.
- did you know that we are legally entitled to paid leave, including on national holidays? Just TRY to get that as an English teacher on an hourly salary!
- did you know we are entitled to paid sick leave? Really! Including maternity leave! How many of us get that?
- did you know that many English teachers are made to work public holidays and even typhoon days?
- did you know that many employers still charge deposits that they keep if you want to quit before your contract is up (no compensation for you if they are the ones terminating the contract, though) or illegally withhold salary if you wish to terminate a contract (again, you get no such consideration if the termination is from them)?
- did you know that many employers use ARC/visa status as a method of control, blackmailing teachers (often insisting on unpaid work) who know they can't afford to have to deal with a canceled visa?
- did you know that many teacher complaints never make it to a Council of Labor Affairs hearing because most bosses have "someone on the inside"?

...what do you plan to do about all of that?

Do you have any idea how many buildings in Taiwan are not earthquake or typhoon safe? Forget that they are ugly, what do you plan to do about that?

Did you know that foreigners in Taipei who want the simplest things, like:
- a local credit card
- a Chunghwa Telecom cell phone contract
- a mortgage

...are often denied, although they are legally entitled to all three? Just because they are foreigners? What do you intend to do about that? While this is a nationwide problem, certainly something can be done to remedy the situation in Taipei city specifically.

I strongly oppose the recent curriculum changes to school textbooks that seek to "Sinicize" Taiwanese history (for example, by calling the Japanese period the Japanese Occupation, implying that they were not a legitimate colonial power). How do you intend to keep such changes from affecting textbooks in Taipei?

Many schools in Taipei operate throughout the summer, but the public schools often either lack air conditioning or won't turn it on unless the students all pay. This is a dangerous situation that can lead to heat exhaustion or heatstroke. What do you plan to do about it?

(I have more questions and issues regarding public schools, but they are better addressed at a national level.)

How would electric taxis and buses really help? Why aren't we pushing for electric scooter subsidies to reduce pollution?

What can we do to improve traffic safety, especially concerning pedestrians and scooter accidents?

Many local residents have been complaining that the large number of Chinese tour groups have ruined many previously pleasant attractions in Taipei, such as the National Palace Museum and Taipei 101. I would like to note that this isn't about being anti Chinese people but rather the behavior and overly large number of tour groups. For example, the museum is basically controlled by tour groups now: they come in and out and see the most famous artifacts, but there are so many that those not in a tour group often have to wait 15, 20, even 30 minutes to see one item. What do you plan to do about this?

Wage discrimination is a major issue in Taiwan, with women often earning notably less or having less desirable contracts than men for the same work. Surely this is something that can also be tackled at the city level. What do you plan to do about it?

Women are sorely underrepresented in the Taipei City Government, and women's interests are often not represented at all (let's not even get into LGBT or minority interests). How do you plan to remedy this?

How is it that technically-illegal-but-desirable urban issues are often the subject of sting operations (such as illegal night market vendors - which people actually want), whereas illegal and undesirable issues - such as loudspeaker trucks, unsafe plumbing and wiring, often with wires hanging dangerously from staples on the side of buildings and blatant tax evasion - are not?

Why did the KMT powers-that-be allow Shi-da to be ruined? What cronies do you folks have that made it possible to destroy a vibrant neighborhood that way? How can you assure other vibrant neighborhoods that it is okay to do business there and they won't suddenly be forced to shut down, even if they've been promoted by the city government in the past?

What's up with making it difficult for religious festivals to do their thing, but routinely allowing political campaigns to wreak havoc across the city in the most annoying ways?

What are your plans for Taipei's historic architecture, including Dihua Street? How do you plan to develop it in such a way that it is not another Ningxia-Chongqing-Nanjing traffic circle disaster, and not another kitschy old street? I like kitschy old streets, but I want Dihua Street to be something better.


Jenna Cody
(not your biggest fan)


If you all have any questions you'd like to ask Prince Sean, please feel free to leave them in the comments below.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

How Not Chinese is Taiwan: Rinbansyo, a teahouse review

Rinbansyo (eighty-eightea) / 輪番所
#174 Sec. 1 Zhonghua Road, Wanhua District, Taipei

From here

I am so happy to finally realize my daydream of blogging while hanging out in my tatami-floored Japanese tea nook - the previous tenants of our apartment turned what was built to be a dining alcove (or, was called one when it ended up that way due to the building's overall floor plan) and furnished it with a large mirror, low table and tatami for a wonderful tea drinking and dining alternative. I'm brewing the very last of a tin of basic Alishan tea that I was given awhile ago - it's time to let that particular cannister go, brewed in an Yixing teapot, poured into a tiny celadon cup (well, faux celadon). 

Nice, yeah? It looks better now - I hung the teacup curio shelf on the wall and got an antique box to hold tea that now sits in the opposite corner.

And what an appropriate blog post to be doing this for!

This past weekend I was happy to be invited to Rinbansyo, a "Japanese style" teahouse in a traditional Japanese house redolent with hinoki wood, situated just inside the park with the Japanese shrine to the west of Ximending along Zhonghua Road (you have to go into the park area to get into the teahouse).

Here's the thing - I don't even feel I need to say "Japanese style". Sure, it was, but more importantly, it was also local style. 

What a lot of people forget about Taiwan is that, while the people are ethnically Chinese and many aspects are derived from Chinese culture (whatever that means - seems like there's more than one "Chinese culture" out there), many other aspects are not. That includes not only home-grown grassroots cultural facets that are unique to Taiwan, but also aboriginal and Japanese influences. 

In terms of tea, food and to some degree architecture and lifestyle, much of Taiwanese culture is as Japanese- as it is Chinese-influenced. So I would not say that Rinbansyo is a "Japanese teahouse in Taipei", I'd say that it is a Taiwanese teahouse in Taipei, which reflects Japanese cultural influence.

From here

Rinbansyo has two seating options: a large, tatami-mat room that you must remove your shoes to enter, where you sit at low traditional tables, or the more modern Western-style tables. Both are lovely, but I recommend the tatami room if your legs can take it (mine tend to fall asleep, and I always feel huge and cellulite-ridden among groups of locals sitting blissfully in perfect poses on tatami - one of the pitfalls of being a Western female expat - but I do it anyway). It's more atmospheric and you get more of the hinoki scent. Which, by the way, is like a combination of cedar and cleaning product, but in a good way, an organic way, like in the way tea tree oil has a bit of an antiseptic smell). 

There are no meals on offer, but there are lots of small snack options - it's a good  choice for meeting people for tea and dessert. We had a Chinese-style flaky bun with a sweet bean filling (green beans, not red), sesame nougat candies and little madeleine-like cakes with a matcha tea paste that was delicious, the perfect combination of vegetal, sweet and bitter. There are more ornate options too - little sculpted flower desserts and the like.

The tea is delicious, pricey by general standards but standard as teahouses go. I got a Sanxia bi luo chun, because I like bi luo chun teas but rarely drink them at home, as my Yixing pot is prepped for oolongs. 

With tea, you can either brew it in a leaf-filled bowl, with a ladle to serve it into cups, or they will cold brew it for you, and you get one large glass (the glasses are of especially fine white ceramic).

It's lovely and peaceful, and smells like my favorite thing in the world. And with all the tatami, matcha and Japanese screens and ceramics, it is very Taiwanese. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Ears of Corn

Teaching English is a real job, but few people treat it that way.

Shibboleth shibboleth shibboleth!
Photo from here

Yeah, I know, that will shock exactly no one, except maybe those who were under the impression that teaching English could never qualify as an actual career (and I know a few folks who think this way). There are enough people on both sides to fuel many debates on LinkedIn, expat forums and TEFL forums, and yet nobody's written a truly thoughtful article or blog post on the subject. I found a few basic posts (like this one) that I don't think fully addressed the issue, and nothing that was comprehensive. I've written about it before, but I hadn't really found my voice on the subject yet.

My stance on it is basically this: teaching is a profession. It's as hard - or harder - than law or business and at times can feel like you work similar hours to those working in law, medicine or the higher echelons of business (all that talk about how teachers get their evenings and summers off? Bullshit. Plenty of teachers not teaching children in school systems don't get that time off, and those who do usually use it to do all of the spillover work which can't be finished during the school day, even with free periods. Continuing education, thoughtful marking of in-depth student work that goes beyond basic testing as well as planning good syllabi and classes all take time). It's a profession that requires a degree and certification as well as continuing education.

First tangent: a lot of people who don't fully understand the role race, class and gender play in our lives and what lives are on offer to us will often say "the reason women tend to earn less than men is because they choose less-well-remunerated careers such as teaching over well-paid ones like law". First of all, this is not true. Secondly, even if it were, the underlying assumption is that teachers are not well-paid because of something intrinsic to the profession. Perhaps that it is "not that difficult" (except it is), or that people who are passionate about it are more likely to do it despite the low pay (which is true - how often do you hear "I'm so passionate about law, I'd be a lawyer even if lawyers didn't earn a lot of money"?). But what I suspect is really going on is that it's not that women often become teachers despite the low pay; rather, teachers are poorly paid because they tend to be women. Gender discrimination at work (pun INTENDED). The teacher-and-nurse effect.

I just made "the teacher-and-nurse effect" up but it really needs to become a thing.

Most people would expect this of a math teacher, a history teacher, a Civics teacher, a French teacher, a Chemistry teacher, even an art teacher. They would never stand for "well I don't have any experience but I'm pretty good at chemistry and the school gave me a quick training session so let's go!". They would never accept a teacher for themselves or their children who was not trained, and they would want a teacher who was not only engaging and fun, but also had long-term course plans and class learning goals, and knew how to take concrete steps to achieve them. "Well, I'm being paid $15 an hour, I don't know a lot about history but I'll learn it and then teach it" or "I don't have a degree in Calculus but let's just figure this out together" would not fly. Not in a public school, not in a university, not in a center of continuing education.

Even if you took a foreign language - the sort of class that (obviously) most resembles a TEFL classroom - you wouldn't be okay with "I'm a native Spanish speaker, I have no teaching experience but I have this book, let's go through this together". Maybe that would be okay for a language exchange partner, but not a teacher. You'd want someone who actually knew what they were doing, someone who had training in pedagogy and methodology and knew how to impart knowledge of and fluency in Spanish unto you. Merely knowing something doesn't translate (pun intended) into knowing how to impart knowledge of something.

Basically, we expect our teachers in any other subject to be professional. We don't always treat them like professionals - we pay them too little and give them few resources and often even less respect, which is why some great potential talents in teaching don't go into the field - but we expect professionalism.

So why is it that we don't expect professionalism from English teachers? Why is this the one area of teaching - a profession - where it's not treated professionally? What is so different about teaching English as a foreign language that any inexperienced rando can get hired to do it, as compared to science, math, Civics or French?

I honestly can't think of anything. In terms of pedagogy, the methods used in language teaching don't differ that much from methods used in any other subject, including the difficult subjects such as Chemistry. In terms of content, I don't see how it's all that different from French class in my high school - the language has changed, but the ways of teaching it are more or less the same. There is really nothing special or different about TEFL/TESOL/ELT etc. as compared to any other subject you may wish to learn.

Before I go any further: I know that English is not the only foreign language to suffer the scourge of untrained, nonprofessional "teachers". Certainly the vast majority of Chinese teachers are awful, or at least wholly untrained. There are good ones, but pedagogy in Chinese and Taiwanese TCFL (Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language - I just made that acronym up) certification/diploma programs, if it is taught at all, tends to be taught very poorly, not relying on the mounds of applicable research available, not taking advantage of current practices in LT methodology, and generally outdated. In TEFL there is a (wrong) assumption that a native speaker just spending time with students will cause them to learn English (well, not entirely wrong: they will pick up some English, but not in any easily measurable way). There seems to be a different (also wrong) assumption that if you are a native speaker of Chinese, that telling the students all about the target grammar - all about it, even aspects they don't need to learn when first introduced to a concept - and then plugging in vocabulary, will cause them to magically learn Chinese with minimal practice required (certainly at Shi-da we didn't get nearly enough practice and fluency did suffer as a result). And again, that's not entirely wrong: if you attend a class like this, you will learn some Chinese. It just isn't the most efficient way to do so. Certainly language schools aimed at tourists in various countries employ untrained native speakers who have taken a quick introductory course.

All of those fall under basically the same rubric of the TEFL model that I'm criticizing. My attempt here is to compare TEFL to teaching as it is professionally considered, and to language classes done that way, by trained, talented and knowledgeable teachers.

So yes, quite clearly, TEFL is a real job. It's a real career. It's teaching; teaching is a professional occupation. It's no different from teaching Biology or Geography (which, I wish Geography classes would get an overhaul too. There's so much interesting discussion and learning fodder there, of the Guns, Germs and Steel variety, although maybe not so much the End of History or Clash of Civilizations variety, and yet it's so often reduced to memorizing capitals and main exports. Now that I'm gaining more knowledge of the various elements of good teaching, and being knowledgeable about Geography, someone should put me in charge of a Geography class - we'd have so much fun, ohmigod).

I do wonder if the lack of respect for pedagogy/proper methodology and what it can do for one's teaching is something more ingrained: public and primary/secondary school teachers are expected to have this training, but professors and other academics, mostly, are not. I think in four years of college classes that I had maybe three professors who actually knew how to teach. They were all very knowledgeable, some were quite well-known in their fields. But they didn't know how to effectively impart their knowledge: it was all lectures, Powerpoints, multiple choice and the occasional essay question. Part of that is, of course, huge class sizes especially at the lower levels, but part of it seems to be this pernicious idea that if you know something, then you know how to teach it. Professors know their subject, therefore they can teach it, apparently. Except they can't. Most of my professors would have benefited a lot from some training sessions, not in improving their own knowledge, but in how to get that knowledge to us in an interesting, motivating and relevant way.

If you do go ahead and get yourself educated - a Master's or at least a string of reputable certifications (no online weekend courses), or even better, both - and learn how to teach, it will show in your work. The difference between you - a professional - and an untrained 22-year old (or even an untrained 42-year-old) will be apparent. You will be able to lift yourself out of the Expat English Teacher Gutter pretty quickly. Anyone with a shred of sense or acumen will see the difference. It is absolutely worth it, and that's why I'm currently pursuing a Delta, and after that, hopefully a Master's (we'll see: I can't afford a Master's, won't take out more loans, scholarships and fellowships are hard to get for students not intending to enter a PhD program, and for American students tuition is preposterous - and foreign schools charge us international student tuition which is also preposterous. I could cash out my IRA for it, but that would be stupid. I could retire for a few months on that! WOO! PARTY WHEN I'M 90!!1! So...let's see if the winds of life blow me that way, or if they just blow).

So why don't people treat TEFL as teaching in a professional capacity? If there is nothing to differentiate it from any other kind of teaching, why does it get the shaft?

Three groups of people are affected by this: owners/bosses, teachers/"teachers", and parents/students (depending on the students' age).

From the boss' or school owner's point of view, this is obvious. They can pay an unskilled, untrained "teacher" far less than a real teacher would expect, and treat them like unskilled labor (something a real teacher would never accept). These folks - often twentysomethings with little life experience, though not always - will feel they've gotten a lot if you give them a slapdash bullshit training session made up of a mishmash of cribbed notes from teaching textbooks, strung together with vague platitudes about "keeping it fun" and "engaging the student", hoping that the interesting foreign-ness of the worker, with a smidge of charisma from that worker, plus a few textbooks thrown their way for material, will keep up the illusion that the students are getting a professional service - all for cut-rate prices (for the boss - the students or their parents pay a premium of course).

Some owners, I presume, know that they're peddling shoddy product. Others don't know the first thing about real teaching or what it takes to be a professional educator, and truly do think that all it takes to teach something - including English - is to know a lot about that thing. And who better to know about English than a native English speaker? Nevermind if they don't actually know all that much about the grammar or underlying structures or history of their own language, and therefore can't teach it. Nevermind that they are unaware of the latest practices or past research on teaching methods so they can't employ them in the classroom. Nevermind that they haven't heard of even the most basic concepts in English, Linguistics or pedagogy and therefore can't refer to them. If you've never learned, or heard of, IPA, you can't use it when it would be effective (and it isn't always). If you've never heard of a "student-centered classroom", you can't work towards creating one. If you don't know the difference between PPP, TTT, TBL, Dogme, TPR, Audiolingualism, Grammar-Translation or the Communicative Approach, you can't learn about, and practice, how to use them in your classroom at the times when they'd have the most effect, or when to avoid them. If you haven't read up on research into the best way to introduce new language, you won't be able to consider it when you plan a class, and your approach may be substandard (or it may just be different, if you are extremely talented. Most people are not). You may base some of your teaching methods on inaccurate or misguided assumptions about language learning, or not really know at all why you are doing what you're doing - which is rarely effective.

The first type of owner recognizes the shibboleths that distinguish teachers from "teachers"; the second doesn't. In both cases, they don't care.

From the newbie "teacher"'s point of view, it's a relatively well-paid job - for the country it's in at least - that they can get right out of school, no experience necessary, and they get to live abroad. Makes sense, even if from a professional standpoint it doesn't seem very ethical: I'm going to go and pretend to be something I'm not so some school owner can charge people rates for my work under the illusion that I have the credentials! But since when have ethics ever played a big part in prosperous business models?

In fact I'd go so far as to say that a lot of those twentysomething unskilled workers fancy themselves teachers: intellectually they know that a professional teacher must have training and experience that they don't have, but there's a bit of cognitive dissonance going on, fueled by not a small touch of defensiveness: they are teaching, and they want to style themselves as education professionals; they know they aren't, so they tell the voice in their head that whispers "you need more credentials, you need more training, you need more experience" to shut up, and they gas on about how they are real teachers, how they're just as good, how their bosses are lucky to have them. They don't seem to realize that the reason their bosses chose them was because they lacked credentials, and therefore the ability to seriously negotiate compensation and treatment, not in spite of their credentials in the face of their massive - often delusion-based - "talent". They're college grads, they're used to believing that no matter what they do they'll be professionals, they'll be skilled, they'll be worth something. They're used to having that belief reinforced. I don't blame them for wanting to believe that they are more than they are.

I am definitely guilty of this. I was guilty of it before I had training or experience, I was guilty of it before starting the Delta, and I might still be a tad guilty of it up until I enroll in a Master's program. Until I realized how bad I was, I thought I was pretty good. Then I got to be pretty good, and all I want to be is better. But that process took awhile. So, I know of what I speak.

I want to stop here and note a few things before I get back on track.

First, that I am somewhat grateful to the TEFL industry for being what it is. I don't think I would have gone into teaching otherwise, and I wasn't doing very well at the bottom rung of the office ladder. I need to write a longer blog post about this at some point, but this is one way in which the USA screws over its youth. I didn't know teaching was right for me when I went to college, and so I didn't major in it. I "wisely" majored in the subject I'd enjoyed most in high school: I chose International Affairs because it was close to Social Studies. Social Studies + history + travel + language? Sign me up! By the time I knew I not only wanted to teach, but would be very good at it with the proper training and guidance, I couldn't afford a Master's program. I still can't: the deal was that my folks would help me with college, but I was on my own for grad school, and I shouldn't go until I'd worked awhile and knew what I wanted. By the time I knew what I wanted, I didn't have the money because, well, wage stagnation and wealth inequality are real things. Now, I bet they actually would help me if I asked, but tuition at an American school is far higher than any of us can take on and international tuition is not much better.

So, TEFL allowed me a path into teaching that didn't require that I go get a Master's I couldn't afford, for a job that wouldn't pay me enough to pay it off in any reasonable amount of time. I am sure many very good teachers have taken this route, and the educational landscape is richer for it. I wholeheartedly support having this sort of route into teaching, although I'd like to see the model change (maybe a future blog post on that too - what a 'path into teaching, but not TEFL as it is now' might look like). I wouldn't be doing what I love today, with at least a shred of professional dignity, without that start as a twentysomething hack. I'd probably still be at some crap office job that I never got promoted out of, because I hated it enough to not be in a mental state to do well. It would have been a waste of a life.

Second, that as above, many good teachers do come out of this cesspit. The ones with a spark of natural talent that leads them to seek training and experience, to be better and to do better.

Third, that many schools, especially in rural or underprivileged areas, can't afford more than an unskilled twentysomething. There are professional teachers who would be willing to take a job like that, in rural China or a small Bolivian town or what-have-you, or even rural Taiwan, for low pay. A lot of them join the Peace Corps and do something like that. But not enough to meet the demand for English class among those with a bit of money in those places. Plenty of others would love the experience, but would expect a higher standard of pay and benefits that the school just wouldn't be able to offer.

In those cases, a twentysomething hack with a local teacher in tandem is still better than nothing, in terms of offering some sort of foreign language education to those who who want it and can afford it.

So, all that aside, back on track - what about the final group? Why do parents support this awful, unprofessional system? Unless they are paying markedly lower tuition (as may be the case with rural schools or schools in impoverished areas), they may simply be unaware. People without a background in education don't always understand what being an education professional is. That goes for students, school owners, parents and obnoxious people at parties who think they can tell you how to do your job. They may hear the teachers' and boss' "blah blah blah professional blah blah highly-trained teachers blah America blah" and believe them when they say that their words are "shibboleth shibboleth shibboleth", because they don't know better. They may just be lied to by the owner. They may know that the teacher is not a professional, but not realize that that matters and feel it's acceptable to pay high rates just to be in proximity to a native speaker. 

And of course, if they think it doesn't actually take that much training, talent, experience or knowledge for a native speaker to teach their language effectively, and that anyone who speaks English can do it, they'll feel more confident in trying to tell the teacher what to do (I will accept this from adult students in terms of what they want to learn, and will at least consider what they say when they express how they want to learn it. I don't teach children, but if I did, parents of children telling me what to do would get straight-up ignored unless their child was problematic and it was advice on how to deal with managing the behavior problem). It gives them a handy sense of superiority. Seems like a small thing to pay inflated tuition rates over, but what can I say?

That's really the crux of the problem, too: it's that school owners, often shrewd to the point of immorality, rake in huge sums of money by glossing over or entirely misrepresenting either teacher qualifications or the need for them. I suppose all's fair in business&war, and if someone is aching to pay too much money to get talked at by some white kid (because hiring practices really are racist), then they should be allowed to pay that money. If I want to pay a million dollars to snort cocaine cut with diamond powder, I should be allowed to do that (note: I don't want to do that). If a school advertises "look, we've got foreigners!" and folks line up to pay, then okay. If they advertise with "qualified, experienced native speaker professional teachers will help you gain fluency quickly and with ease", they're lying. Even f the "teachers" are qualified, experienced and talented, students still won't gain fluency quickly and easily. 

Presumably most parents and students want a good teacher for their money; a qualified and experienced one. Misrepresenting the teachers you are actually offering as worth the money - as more than they are - and then paying those "teachers" far less than you'd pay real teachers so that you can $$PROFIT$$, is thoroughly reprehensible. 

It also contributes to that same pernicious myth that it is not hard to teach well, that anyone can do it - and that for language teaching all you need is to speak the language, you don't need any knowledge of underlying structure, grammar, history or etymology. By hiring people who don't have that knowledge or ability (at least not yet), and paying them fairly well by local standards (although not well by international teaching professional standards), you're spreading the idea that this is all a teacher needs to be - that anything more is unnecessary, possibly even unwanted as it comes with demands for higher pay and better treatment. (That it also comes with better measurable outcomes for students is often ignored - I still don't understand why nobody, at least the students or parents, seems to care about this). 

That contributes to the norms of hiring cheaper inexperienced people, which makes it harder for the good people to get jobs. Quality goes down and fewer people bother to get qualified. Schools treat "teachers" badly, because these "teachers" are basically unskilled laborers, no matter how they're advertised. When qualified teachers want to get jobs, they often don't go into TEFL because they know it's a labor dispute minefield and their credentials likely won't be respected as they would in any other field of teaching.

That's a loss to us all. I suppose you could make the Libertarian argument that if quality goes down and nobody complains, then the quality was too high to begin with and if the market runs in that direction, then it should go down according to what people want. I reject this: those students still want to learn English. Whether or not you believe your "teacher" is a real teacher won't change the outcome of whether you've learned English to a satisfactory degree or not. It's like the market for medicine. Even if people are willing to buy your snake oil, the outcome will still be that patients won't be cured. In medicine (although not in homoeopathy) we have laws against this: if you are going to sell a product, it has to work. Learning a language is a lot more like medicine: you need a measurable outcome. It's not homoeopathy.

What's the solution for this? How do we get more people on the road to training, qualification and a professional career path and in the process raise the level of respect for TEFL as a career, as well as improve working conditions for those already in the field? How do we do that while also making it possible to become a teacher through a process of hard work and experience, without having to go back and get a degree that many can't afford, and when they were in school, didn't know they wanted?

I don't know. I suppose that really is the subject for another blog post.

I've gotten a lot of pushback on my stance on this issue in other discussion forums, so I'll just address some of the more common backwash here:

But certifications like CELTA and Delta won't make you a better teacher! If you are talented and have experience you can be a very good teacher!

I just don't believe this. If you are talented and have experience, you still need training to be a truly good teacher. It would be the rare prodigy who could do well without it. I don't care much where that teaching came from but I prefer reputable programs to "a teacher trainer at School X told me". Certainly it is possible to go that route and do well, but reputable programs are more likely to have measurable outcomes. 

The actual piece of paper you get for CELTA and Delta don't mean as much as what you learn in the process of getting it. It bothers me when people denigrate what you learn on these courses without having taken them, or worse, assuming that they are more than they are meant to be. While a piece of paper won't make you a better teacher, what you learn in order to get that piece of paper will. 

The only real pushback to this I've heard is "no it won't" and that's too ridiculous to bother replying to.

CELTA and Delta are nothing - real teachers need Master's degrees or a teaching license after their bachelor's degrees, like a PGCE.

I'm a fan of a two-pronged approach: a Master's is great for theoretical knowledge related to the English language and to teaching. I would like one someday and am currently deciding which kidney would garner the best payoff with which to pay for it. But from what I've seen during my time in the field, a Master's doesn't provide a lot of great on-the-ground practical teaching advice. I've noticed it in ivory-tower comments on LinkedIn full of advice that would make no sense in most real classrooms, and noticed it in watching other teachers who certainly had the qualifications but weren't very good with flexibility or trying different, more student-centered approaches. 

So, in order to get that practical knowledge, I believe it would be smart for most would-be professional English teachers to also have a CELTA or even a Delta. The CELTA is thoroughly practical, and the Delta starts delving into the theoretical. After that, a Master's is the next logical move, to expand your theoretical knowledge base.

It's not that I think Master's are worthless, or that CELTA and Delta are the gold standard, but that they focus on two entirely different things, which are both valuable if you want to be a true education professional.

Pfffff! But CELTA promises to make you a great teacher, as though it can stand in for a real teaching degree. It can't!

That's true, it can't. 

But that's also not what CELTA advertises. They advertise an introductory course that will help you to become basically competent in the classroom without making a right fool of yourself. If you pass, which most people do, you'll still need a lot of training at your first place of employment. The CELTA grading rubric spells this out. If you get a B, you'll need some training, but not as much. If you get an A, you'll be fine without training (but everyone can benefit from receiving it). Almost nobody gets an A - around 2-5%. I got one, but I'm just special like that. (Actually, I'm not. I had good training before I did CELTA). 

A lot of people seem to think the CELTA advertises as a teaching certification on par with a degree - it doesn't. Or they think what the CELTA claims it offers is more like what the Delta offers - it's not. If you're going to criticize CELTA, do it on its own merits. 

The reason schools hire those inexperienced teachers is that the "qualified" teachers don't want to pitch in and always demand more. They won't go outside and hand out fliers for the school, they want more money - it's no wonder schools go for the inexperienced ones. 

This is technically true, but that doesn't make it right. A teacher is a skilled worker - it doesn't make sense, in terms of resource allocation, to have your skilled worker stand on the streetcorner with a signboard passing out fliers (also it makes your school look ridiculous, but that's a PR issue, not a teaching one). If you had a college intern, and an experienced logistics professional, who would you send outside wearing a sandwich board? Who is worth more in the office, creating something great? 

And of course they ask for more money - they have embarked on a professional career path. They have paid - often out the nose - for education. Business, legal, medical and other professionals all expect to be paid accordingly - why wouldn't teachers? You get a quality outcome.

But you don't get a quality outcome! I've seen as many bad qualified teachers as I've seen good un-certified ones!

Something tells me that line of thinking comes from anecdata. Of course there are bad qualified teachers - there are also terrible lawyers and shitty speech pathologists and horrible doctors. But on average, not just along the lines of some anecdote about a bad teacher you knew once, but as a statistically significant group, teachers who are qualified do provide better outcomes than those who are not. I wish I could quote a study on this, but I can't. Someone should do a study. Especially as I'm putting on scientific airs I can't easily back. 

And those un-certified talented teachers? Probably got their training unofficially in one or more of their previous jobs. And that's great - I'm not saying they don't exist. I'm not saying they shouldn't be recognized (some sort of reputable program that could certify such teachers after a survey of their work would be great, but is not likely to come about and might not be trusted). But these are not Fresh Off the Plane kids we're talking about here. 

What a teacher does is not measurable, therefore it can't be jammed into a certification or degree program. 

First, all sorts of professions do things that are not measurable - social and political scientists comment and analyze non-measurable outcomes. They are still considered professions. (I know a lot of hard science types would like to think they're not, but I'd actually argue the soft sciences are more challenging as you're dealing with squishy unknowns - analyzing something immeasurable without as much access to clear data is much harder than analyzing based on hard results). 

Secondly, I would say that what teachers do is measurable, or at least it can be. The state of the global testing industry is pathetic, and I don't believe the tests given today consistently measure student ability or learning. But good testing is possible - tests with construct and content validity, integrative, direct could do a lot better than the way students are tested in most schools today and get a truly measurable outcome.

In my own work, I feel that what I do is measurable. My IELTS students come in, and when they go out their mock test scores are higher than when they came in, and they score higher on the real IELTS than they would have without my class. My long-term students show measurable improvements in systematic errors - if I wanted to, I could in fact graph their improvements in past tense consistency, correct usage of perfect aspect, correct usage of prepositions in various circumstances and more. I could measure how many sentences per speech block were correct at the beginning vs. the end of the class. I could do identical beginning- and end-of-course role plays that could be analyzed for language learned. 

But these certification programs all force students to adopt one kind of teaching style which may not be the best. And degree programs teach young teachers to stifle creative lesson planning.

Spoken like a person who has never been through a certification program (I can't speak for degree programs, but at least in my observation that's not the case). CELTA and Delta don't actually push one teaching style on you, and in my courses they've been pretty open to any style that's effective, and any style that reflects the teacher's personality. They're not trying to create clones or automatons. Sure, CELTA advocates the communicative approach, but what else would you advocate? There's nothing new on the horizon, or at least nothing so new that it's unseated the communicative approach, and it's arguably the best of the lot that we have, although it's okay to let ghosts of teaching methods past inform your lessons. And a truly innovative new idea, while unlikely from an inexperienced teaching student (few if any of us are nascent Steve Jobses of teaching), if effective, would probably be embraced or at least allowed to pass. 

"Theyre all 'student-centered classroom, less teacher talking, the activity must be communicative'! No creativity! It's mind control!" 

First, having been at the weird end of cult recruiters in my neighborhood (and it appears I'm not the only one - there's a new blog out exposing these people, but I won't publish the link until I vet it further and talk to some people), I have an idea about what mind control is, and teaching degree/certification programs ain't it. 

So what would be better - a teacher-centered classroom? More teacher talking (note: this can at times be okay - and in my CELTA and Delta courses it was seen as potentially okay, depending on what the teacher was talking about and why)? Activities that don't urge the students to communicate or speak? Huh? 

Creativity is usually enhanced by training and experience, not diminished by same. The most creative lawyers can be creative because they know the law and can pick it apart. The most creative doctors can be creative because they know enough to know where a new experimental treatment may come from. The most creative businesspeople can see opportunities because they know the market and have experience in watching it change. The most creative person on your team is probably not your intern (and if it is, then training that intern will make them more creative, not less). It's no different with teachers.

But small schools in poor countries or rural areas can't afford these fancy spoiled foreign teachers!

That's actually true, and it's one of the few times in which I'd say hiring an inexperienced native speaker is better than not hiring anyone at all. This isn't a black-white thing.

* * * 

Anyway, this has been a very long blog post, but one I hope people will read to the end. I've enjoyed writing it - I hope you enjoy reading it! 


Monday, July 21, 2014

Normal Women Existing

Image borrowed - please don't sue me! - from here

Yesterday I was sitting on the Taipei MRT in one of those sections where seats run along the walls rather than sticking out in pairs. Across from me there was a string of women - one dozing, one on her phone, one reading, one just sitting. They spanned several decades in (guesstimated) age and were for all intents and purposes, totally normal. Not a one of them looked much like any of these women:

From here, here, here and here

(I had to google "asian women haircuts" to even get a search results page not full of softcore porn, but I suppose that'd be true for any search involving photos of women - we're objectified no matter our race). 

I don't mean to say that a beautiful woman can not also be a normal woman, although I don't buy into the "everyone is (physically) beautiful" myth: everyone is beautiful in multidimensional ways, but some people do possess more physical beauty than others and most of us are just average. So those who are notably physically attractive are, in some sense, not normal. That's not a bad thing, or a good one - it just is. 

There was nothing unusual about seeing this group of average women, who ranged from ponytail-sporting student to mom-with-kids to office worker to obasan. But it got me thinking about one tendency in male expat circles to fetishize Asian women (BIG IMPORTANT NOTE: that's not the same thing at all as dating an Asian woman or loving an Asian woman. I'm talking more about the way some expat men - and men back home, too, to be honest - talk about Asian women, and not touching at all anything having to do with relationships). 

You know, the usual: they're all so beautiful, they're so cute, they're so slender, it seems like all of them are! You can't walk down the street without seeing a gaggle of Asian beauties! It's not like my home country, where most women are frumpy, fat or ugly and you only sometimes see ones who look okay. Asian women (all Asian women, apparently - this statement is never qualified) are just so lovely and slim and cute.

There's nothing wrong with seeing beauty and admiring it, but these statements, and the thoughts behind them, are pernicious in several ways.

First, there's a very strong tendency to use these statements to imply that all, or most, or a disproportionate number of women in Taiwan (or whatever country - I am talking about Taiwan because I live here) are somehow better or more beautiful than women in whatever your home country is. And I just don't think that's true. From my observation, anyway, every country has its attractive people, it's majority of average people, and its not-so-physically-attractive people, in roughly the same proportion. To insist that Taiwan has more gorgeous women is to imply a sort of fetishization or racialization: this race is better than that race. Taiwanese women are better than women in my home country...based on what? What's different, other than race? 

I don't see them as all that different. I get on the New York subway, I see a string of average women and a Dr. Zizmor ad. I get on the Seoul metro, I see a string of average women and a plastic surgery ad. I get on the Taipei MRT and I see a string of average women and an overly-photoshopped ad. 

So that attitude diminishes some women based on their race, and elevates other women based on their race, based on very little evidence. 

What that does is imply that all you see are the beautiful ones - which may be true, and in fact probably is true - while not seeing the average ones at all. As though they don't exist. Of course a country would have lots of beautiful women if all you saw - the only ones who existed to you - were beautiful women.

Which leads me to my second point - it adds a layer of invisibility on any woman who does not fall within those magical parameters, if the thing you say most often about the people in your adopted country is how beautiful the women are. It means you don't see all the women who fall in the fat belly of the bell curve. They are quite literally invisible to you; they do not exist. That is a shitty thing to do to anyone. It comes very close to saying - if it does not say outright - that women who do not meet your standards for beauty don't get to be a part of the universe. 

It means you don't notice the diversity of the society whose country you are living in - whose country took you in (perhaps grudgingly - we know how Immigration can be - but they did). It means you don't notice every grandma, every makeup-less office worker, every mom with kids, every manager in a power suit with pumps, every artsy type, every expat woman (not to mention every Taiwanese man - although that's a different post). Even when they're in your field of vision. Even when you are at the same event. 

And don't think we haven't noticed how that manifests in real life. Have you ever had to lead a seminar while your horndog co-teacher salivates over the two pretty female students (and ignores the fortysomething female manager, and the makeup-free student in a plain singlet and ponytail)? Have you ever been walked right into by men and women who buy into the beauty myth, because they either don't see you, or don't think they should have to make space for you so that you can also have space in the world? Have you ever had a shoulder bump, when you saw someone coming and swerved your shoulder, figuring that was all you had to do to make space, while the other person moved not at all and whacked into you anyway - as though you were supposed to make all of the space and they were not required to make any? Have you ever felt unwelcome at an expat meetup because the demographics of the attendees were: average expat men, some above-average attractive Asian woman, one or two average Asian women, and you? And so you and the other average-looking women talk amongst yourselves because you are completely ignored by everyone else? Have you ever read expat blogs or Facebook posts and noticed how often they talk about "Taiwanese cuties" as though they are the only women who exist in Taiwan? As though the only people who exist in Taiwan are "Taiwanese cuties", white men (them - and they are almost entirely white), and maybe their boss? No average women, certainly no expat women, average or not, no older women, and no Taiwanese men of any age? Have you ever seen an older woman - an obasan - get seriously manhandly because yet another person has tried to claim her space on the sidewalk and she's had to literally push to get it back? 

For me, it's a big fat "YEAH" on all of these. And the myth of "all the beautiful Asian ladies" perpetuates it. If it's all the beautiful Asian ladies, then the not-physically-beautiful ladies, of any race, simply don't exist.

I know I'm going to get some shitty comments like "well I think Taiwanese women are just so pretty, but that doesn't mean I ignore other women or Taiwanese men, I notice them too!". Sure. This doesn't mean that every guy who has this attitude towards women in Taiwan walks right into other people on the street - or expects them to move - or that they totally ignore any other people. Just that these attitudes run in tandem and one feeds the other.

Finally, but briefly - it perpetuates a sense of competition among women - women who have bought into the beauty myth, anyway. I don't blame them for buying into it: there are a lot of rewards to playing that game, if you win, or even if you rank. If I thought I could rank, there's a chance I'd take a hard dive into the shallow end too. If it's all the beautiful Asian ladies, then the average Asian ladies feel pressure to try harder to get into that world. Whether or not they give into that pressure, or take care with their physical appearance for their own reasons, is another blog post that I probably won't be making, because while I can talk about a woman's experience in Asia, I can only go so far in talking about Asian women. I'm not an Asian woman; I do not really have that experience. It's just not my turf.

It's what drives commentary that runs along the lines of: if you don't like how you are ignored in favor of Asian women (not a word about how other, less "cute" and "lovely" Asian women are also ignored), then try harder! Slim down, buy some cute clothes, put on makeup, try harder! Basically - don't like the game? Compete anyway! My approval must matter to you. (Fortunately, it doesn't). As though it doesn't matter if the game is valid or not - we all must play. Refusing to play is blasphemy.

It's also what commentary that assumes that everyone who mentions racial fetishization of Asian women - or the comparative non-existence of any person who is not an attractive Asian woman, feels either bitter or threatened. I would not say I'm bitter - annoyed, angry, yes, but not bitter. I do not need or want the approval of these people; but I will insist that I exist. I don't need flirty attention (not only do I not want it from them, but I get all I need at home with my husband, thanks), but I will insist that my race and my looks not demote me to someone who deserves less respect as a human being. I am not threatened: I neither need nor want these men to be attracted to me. I'm not even in the game - I'm married. I simply want to exist. 

That's why it is simply not okay. 

It's time to notice the grandmas. It's time to notice the women over thirty. It's time to notice the moms and the managers, the wrinkled and the portly, the plain-faced and bespectacled, the tired-eyed care workers, the makeupless and the (oh horror) Western. You don't have to be attracted to us, you just have to acknowledge that we exist and treat us accordingly. That means teaching a seminar rather than ogling students. That means giving us space on the sidewalk. That means listening to us without condescension. That means stopping with the whole "Asian women are all so gorgeous!" bullshit, because they're not. Some are. Some aren't. It means acknowledging that someone other than a fellow male expat or a pretty Asian woman might have something of worth to offer, and respecting that person accordingly.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

I'm back! And the anthology my work is included in has arrived!

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I haven't posted this month because I spent most of it in the US, attending a friend's wedding and visiting family. 

I came home to a keyboard that won't type the letter "f" (I have to copy-paste), dead plants, two healthy but upset cats, a destroyed paper lamp, stuff otherwise taken care of. But overall I'd say more bad than good. 

But I also came home to this! My paper copy of "How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia". I've already read it, of course, but it's nice to have a real paper copy of a book you're included in, in your hands, in real physical print.