Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Identity, DIsmissiveness, and the Status Quo (with update)

Update: Michael Turton has a reaction to my reaction of his reaction to Cole's post, but I think there's been a misunderstanding of what I mean:

I'm not saying Cole and Goren are saying SQSs don't exist. I'm saying that SQSs are something of a cohesive group, even if they are not organized and as of yet have no 'name' or label. And that they are, in fact, a force for Beijing to contend with (as Cole suggests) because China has this idea that they will roll over and accept unification when, in fact, that is (mostly) not the case. They're, if anything, a bigger difficulty for China as their numbers are far greater than straight-up independence supporters.

I also disagree, but didn't say it clearly before, that I don't see a discussion or labeling of them an attempt by some Nationalist svengali to 'divide' the independence movement. This identifying as an SQS, even without a name, and differentiating oneself from independence supporters is coming from the people themselves, not by some shadowy external force. There are differences, and while deep down they generally want the same thing - Taiwanese independence - they themselves are the ones who purposely do not identify with the pro-independence groups (mostly as a reaction to the overly-nativist talk of yore, which I am happy to see both the DPP and NPP disavowing). I was quite interested to read these past few days two competing accounts of the notion of "huadu" - one from J. Michael Cole positing that it's a strong secondary force in Taiwanese politics that Beijing will have to contend with, and another by Michael Turton and Ben Goren that it's not a thing - that it's a somewhat dismissive label concocted by more strongly pro-independence sources to describe a "weak-willed" sort of person who believes in maintaining the status quo as the only form of independence feasible for Taiwan right now.

Being a non-scholar, I'm sure nobody is particularly interested in what I have to say, but I'll say it anyway: seems to me they're both right.

Where Turton and Goren are correct is in noting that "huadu" is not an organized force. It is not a self-created label by a group of people who are organized in any way. It is not a form of self-identification, but rather has recently been used to describe a diverse range of beliefs that can be a way of "being Taiwanese" but is not a predictor of how a person will vote, necessarily. They're also right in that "huadu" supporters don't necessarily tend to side with the KMT or PFP - or if they do there's no data to support it at present as polls asking about identification don't provide enough to offer such insights. I also agree that using "huadu" as a label to describe pro-status-quo supporters isn't quite appropriate, aside from the label's derisive history, many don't identify as Chinese and quite a few would be happy to live in a hypothetical Republic of Taiwan, not necessarily an independent Republic of China, were such an opportunity to become feasible.

Where, however, it seems to me - again in my totally non-scientific observation - that they are wrong is in dismissing it as existing at all simply because it is not an organized or semi-organized political force or a self-identifying label. They may not be as cohesive as the staunchly pro-independence or Chinese nationalist types, but there is an element of cohesion to them. And just because "huadu" doesn't describe them well, or isn't an appropriate term to use for them, doesn't mean they don't exist.

This group DOES exist. It's not that organized because it encompasses a very wide range of people with diverse beliefs, but it's real and it's powerful. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that a strong majority of Taiwanese fall into this group. Furthermore, while I generally identify with the more strongly pro-democracy Third Force - the Sunflowers, the New Power Party, the TSU if they'd jettison all the nativist talk etc. - one thing that turns me off to some rhetoric from that faction is the dismissiveness with which many of them treat pro-status-quo supporters. I may be strongly pro-independence, but I can't deny the pragmatism of the status-quo supporters, which I'll call SQSs simply because they don't have a name and I don't want to have to type as much.

The reason I say SQSs are real is that I hear very similar refrains so often among my friends (well, some of my friends - most tend to be more ardently pro-independence), acquaintances and students that follow this line of thinking. "Independence isn't realistic right now. Of course I'd like an independent Taiwan, but if it means war, where we are now is acceptable. Taiwan is already independent! We're not Chinese and we won't become Chinese, so we've already won! Of course I don't want to be annexed by China but I'll do anything to avoid war."

I don't see how one can deny that such a belief exists when it is just so common. And when the refrains are so similar, I don't see how I could agree that there isn't some element of cohesion, some similar thought process, binding SQSs together. Perhaps they all watch the same news broadcasts and read the same articles and thinkpieces, but even if that's where they get their talking points (and don't judge - we all do to a degree), that also constitutes a form of cohesion.

While I agree that SQSs are not necessarily KMT supporters - or at least we have no good way of knowing whether they are or not - I have to say the majority I've met (and again they are also a majority of the people I've met) do tend to have voted for the KMT until very recently. They, in my observation, tend to be light blue, identify with the local Taiwan KMT, and often are 'native Taiwanese' (I find this term problematic, but...) who vote blue because they're Hakka or aboriginal, not Hoklo, or they are Hoklo but their parents were teachers, police officers or other types of civil servant and therefore feel the KMT has treated them well and earned their support. They're aware that the KMT hasn't treated everyone well, but don't dwell on it (even if perhaps they should). Or, they just know the local KMT representative personally and therefore vote for him or her. They are often light blue because they're the children and grandchildren of the KMT diaspora, believe the DPP has been to nativist and anti-them in its rhetoric (and perhaps in the past this was true), but don't identify as Chinese no matter what Grandpa says.

The vast majority seem to have voted for Ma, perhaps even twice, but either didn't vote or switched to Tsai in the latest election. Quite a few voted for Ke Wen-zhe in Taipei, or didn't vote. They would have supported a candidate like Ding Shou-zhong in the Taipei mayoral election, but were never given the chance. A small number aren't anti-KMT per se, but voted for Chen hoping for the impossible, were disappointed, and have since switched back to the KMT. Many identify as 'non-political' or 'non-partisan' and simply choose who they feel is the best candidate.

What they do have in common, regardless of who they support, seems to be - again in my observation - that they identify as Taiwanese. Turton and Goren are right about that. Many fell away from their light-blue KMT support because of the Ma administration's attempts to Sinicize and ROC-ify (that's some smooth writin') Taiwan.

Though that is not always true - I've met exactly three who say they identify as Chinese, but can't accept unification right now, and are waiting for the Chinese government to reform. Interestingly, the international media and quite a few 'China scholars' hold the entirely false belief that this group makes up the majority of Taiwanese SQSs. They don't. They exist, but they're not terribly common anymore. One of these three thinks Taiwan and China should eventually unify and doesn't understand Taiwanese identity at all. Oddly, he's young - this is not a common opinion among Taiwanese youth. One believes in the ROC and is accepting of unification if it's good for business. One says she 'doesn't want to give up' her right to the cultural history of China. She sees herself as the cultural product of Confucius and Lao Tzu, the Chinese classics, Chinese arts and imperial history. She feels that identifying as Taiwanese means giving up what she sees as her cultural heritage. While I don't entirely agree, I can understand her sentiment and anyway, as someone who isn't Taiwanese, my opinion on that doesn't matter much.

These folks may exist - and I hope my three real-life examples reveal an undercurrent of identity in Taiwan rather than simply being three anecdotes - but for the vast majority of SQSs, scratching the surface just a bit will reveal a pro-independence supporter (Cole is right about this). And Turton and Goren are not wrong that being an SQS can be a way of being Taiwanese. It can even be a way of rationalizing voting for the KMT while identifying as Taiwanese!

They haven't organized yet, and they don't self-identify necessarily, but that doesn't mean they won't or they couldn't. I could absolutely envision a political force, called something like the Status Quo Party - or as that's not particularly inspiring, perhaps the Cross-Strait Peace Party - starting up and capturing a surprising number of votes from those who are currently disgusted with the KMT, can't quite forgive the DPP for its former Hoklo nativism, and think the student activists (New Power and the Sunflowers) go a bit too far or push a bit too hard for their tastes. It would probably include a number of Taiwanese-identifying non-Hoklo people (I could see such a party having a great deal of Hakka support), light-blue-Taiwan-KMT voters who can't bring themselves to vote for the KMT any longer, a few children-and-grandchildren-of-waishengren/KMT diaspora who perhaps started out identifying as Chinese but as new generations are born are shifting their views, a few  we voted for Chen Shui-bian because we thought he could deliver the impossible but he was a disappointment" non-partisans, quite a few businesspeople who are horrified by the KMT but think the status quo is good for business. Perhaps a few of the weaker New Power Party supporters who will show up for street protests but thought occupations of government buildings went a bit too far, too, although that group tends to be ideologically cohesive enough that I'm not confident of this.

And with this belief so prevalent and common among so many groups who otherwise identify differently - whether they're Hakka, aborigine, Chinese nationalists disgusted with the KMT, Hoklo Taiwan-KMT light blues who are even more disgusted with the KMT, A-bian "we wanted change but all we got was corruption" burnouts, nativist-rhetoric-hating grandchildren of the diaspora, businesspeople who just want the best deal, or Taiwanese-identifying pragmatists - I'd go so far as to say it's dangerous to pretend they are "not a thing". If anything, they are the thing, it's the one glue that holds together a very large majority of Taiwanese, and the group that consistently wins elections. I think it's been proven you can't win a presidential election on pro-unification or pro-independence-ASAP rhetoric alone. You have to follow the SQS crowd, at least for now (I still hold out for one-day President Freddy Lim or President Lin Fei-fan). SQSs are the kingmakers. Tsai Ying-wen grasped this, and she won. It would be wise not to ignore them.

Friday, March 11, 2016

One of the good ones

Over the past few months we've gotten on the cultural bandwagon and started watching Mad Men.

So, as we make our way through earlier seasons, we've come to the final few episodes of Season 5. (No spoilers, I promise). In one of those episodes, Don tries to convince Joan not to do something. There's a lot of meta-commentary here about ingrained misogyny and the objectification of women and how Don doesn't want to be a party to that (although in so many other ways he already is), but the point I want to get to is where Joan says to Don, "you're one of the good ones".

Christina Hendricks delivers the line perfectly - it's part sympathetic, intoning, "I know you're not going to be one of the ones who intentionally screws me over, that you will do your best to be decent to me", and part disappointment, implying, "I know you don't want to be one of those guys, but one of the reasons I made my choice is that I know, despite others' protestations, that I have no real support, no real assurance that my career is safe, no real back-up giving me the full and protected right to say no. Nobody really has my back, no matter how much they say they do, or want to. And you might not want to be one of those guys, but you're here right now because you didn't try hard enough to put a stop to it. You didn't create the situation, you spoke out against it, but you didn't throw the full weight of your support behind your dissent. I still got screwed. They let it happen through inaction, you let it happen because you didn't realize that huffing and puffing about it wasn't enough."

Basically, she was saying 'your support isn't full-throated enough to be helpful, so it doesn't matter that your heart is in the right place.'

And, although I didn't want to, after watching that scene my mind wandered back to conversations I've had not only in Taiwan but in the USA (although I will take a Taiwan perspective in this, just because this blog is about Taiwan).

Take one person I know, for example. Let's call him A.  A's a good guy. He works hard, he's highly educated and smart as hell, and has close family ties and a fundamental belief in the importance of self-sufficiency (although not to the point that he blames poor or unemployed people for their situations). His family is important to him; he loves his wife and kids. He isn't controlling; he doesn't make decisions that impact his wife without her input. Everything they have in life, she's had an equal part in choosing, more or less.

A is one of the good ones.

I'm not sure, culturally speaking, however, that it is enough.

He was recently telling me about a situation in which his mother wanted to adopt some child-rearing technique, and for his wife to follow suit, but his wife had other ideas and wanted to raise the child a different way. I'm not specifying what the two views are because it doesn't matter. A mentioned this to me, and I asked what his position was and what he was going to do about it.

"Nothing," he said. "That's for the two women to work out. I'm staying out of it."
"Who do you think is right?"
"My wife, probably."
"But you don't support her?"
"I can't argue with my mother like that."
"So you're not supporting your wife, you're letting her fend for herself in dealing with your mom, over your own son, even when you agree with her, because you can't bring yourself to tell your mother she's wrong?"

Which is of course exactly what he was doing. He and his wife agreed on a child-rearing strategy which his mother was pushing them to change, and he was letting his wife do all of the heavy lifting in dealing with her.

Because we are friends and I can be honest with A, I asked him how his wife felt about the lack of support she was receiving from him. He gave something of a non-answer, indicating that he didn't seem to know, or he felt deep down that his avoiding conflict with his mother was more important than how his wife felt about the whole thing.

I pointed out that while I wasn't going to tell him how to run his life or how he conducted his marriage, that he had asked me once why I thought it was so rare that foreign women and Taiwanese men seem to end up together (I had mentioned at one point before that that of the marriages I knew of, almost all had ended in divorce).

"This is why," I said. "Well not this exactly, but that attitude is why. Our cultures are different and that's all fine, I try not to judge, there're usually upsides and downsides to both. But, as an American woman, I expect my husband to have my back. I expect him to support me. You know I don't have kids, and my mother-in-law is awesome - I don't think we'd ever have such a disagreement. But if we did, I would take it as a given that my husband would support me, even if it meant standing up to his family. In fact, it would be a dealbreaker. I expect my spouse to put me first, as I put him first. Not to decide that his parents' feelings are more important than mine, or more important than supporting me. I am completely serious when I say that sort of attitude would land us in counseling."

"Oh. But what if he disagreed with you and agreed with his mother?"

"I'd still expect support - we'd have that discussion behind closed doors and then, after a resolution had been reached, approach his family as as united front. No matter what, we come first. And that's just it - I could see a Western woman finding that attitude of 'you come first unless my family disagrees, in which case their feelings come first and you come second if you rate at all' to be totally unacceptable. I know I would. I hope you don't take this as me judging you or telling you what to do - I'm giving you a clear example of where these intercultural problems arise."


Let me reiterate. A is one of the good ones. He works his ass off to support his family and would do anything for them. He doesn't have any crazy notions that women belong in the home or make childrearing their primary responsibility (his wife does stay home, but I believe him when he says this was her choice), should earn less than men, should be submissive or take a secondary role. He places a lot of value on women being educated and smart. He does not try to excuse sexual harassment or assault or domestic violence as many men do. He is in no way a bad person.

And yet here he is not having his wife's back - he certainly never intended consciously to let her deal with his contrarian mother, and he probably thinks he does support her - in fact, in many other ways, he surely does. He probably thinks that being a breadwinner for his family, being devoted to his kids and being generally kind to his wife while filial to his parents is enough. I doubt it had occurred to him that it is not in fact enough, and refusing to back his wife in a disagreement with his mother is one of many ways in which he is letting emotional labor fall on his wife, and in which he is reinforcing gender roles and norms that hurt both men and women.

He did nothing wrong in his actions, but his inaction has consequences I'm not sure he has seen. I have no idea if my brutally honest viewpoint made an impact on him - we didn't talk about it again, and anyway it's his life and really for his wife to speak up if she feels unsupported.

His way of being 'one of the good ones' - someone whose conduct in most ways is unimpeachable, which makes it that much harder to criticize something that shouldn't be as important as it is, but who nevertheless doesn't act or give sufficient support at critical moments - allows sexist norms in society to continue. It allows mothers-in-law in Taiwan to, even if they don't use it, retain the privilege of treating daughters-in-law badly (I certainly don't mean to imply that all Taiwanese mothers in law do this). It allows the burden of dealing with problematic family and making childrearing decisions to fall, as always, on the wife while the husband makes himself absent. It leaves women with little choice, just as Joan felt she didn't have adequate support to make a different choice.

I'd also like to tell a story about my friend, B. B, like A, does not believe women ought to earn less than men. As it should, such a viewpoint strikes B as completely absurd. He'd laugh in agreement at a joke like "mo' penis, mo' money" (a joke that, knowing me, I have probably made). B is totally supportive of women being successful financially and career-wise.

That said, B has admitted he'd feel uncomfortable if his wife earned more than him. He doesn't know why. I'm not sure he could come up with a good reason even if he had time to think about it. Some horrible inculcation of social norms when he was growing up in a Taiwan - although this could well have been the USA or almost any other country - left him with an inexplicable, subconscious expectation that while women could earn lots of money, and while it was perfectly fine for some other woman to earn more than her husband, that his own wife should not earn more than him. Sort of like the women-and-salary version of the "I think it's fine if people are gay but NOT MY SON" nonsense so many people believe.

B is one of the good ones - once again he's devoted to family, loving to his wife and kids, generous, kind, mature, smart, hardworking and honest. He in no way intends to oppress women or imply they should curtail their career goals so as to always be one rung below men. He would never think of himself as supporting, consciously or not, a system that keeps women down.

And yet, here he is expecting that he should be the primary breadwinner and his wife should earn less than he does. Because...why exactly? No reason. Makes him feel like less of a man? I don't know - I don't think he'd say that (if he did, being my friend I'd probably say 'what, you'd be afraid your wife's penis was bigger than yours?' Because I like to joke about penises. They are inherently hilarious-looking.) Since when is being a great man tied to making more money than a woman, and what does it say about any man who, consciously or not, thinks it is?

So, being me and B being my friend with whom I can be brutally honest, I point out that it may seem like a personal attitude, but there is a saying in feminism that 'the personal is the political' - an aggregate of people's personal views, all lumped together like so many drops of water in a tidal wave, turns into something greater than any one person's personal views. At least that's how I interpret it, and I'm not really the biggest Dworkin fan. That if he feels that way but he's the only one, that says something about him but doesn't really impact society. However, if a lot of men, even most men, feel the way he does, that's actually a huge problem. It does keep women down - it basically forces them to assess to what degree they want a successful career and to what degree they want to find a life partner. It forces them worry, in a way that a man doesn't, that if they reach a certain level of financial success that it will be harder to find a life partner. A  student of mine - a female doctor - has already pointed out that male doctors have no trouble getting married and often marry nurses at the hospitals where they work, but female doctors, if they are not married to another doctor or married before they begin the profession, often remain single. Basically, by feeling this way you are pushing women to consider whether to curb their ambitions if they are high-flown enough to drive away men like him...and there are a LOT of men like him.

And I asked, "how would you feel if you found out your wife had curtailed her own career because she knew that out-earning you would make you uncomfortable? How would you feel if, when you were single, you'd fallen in love with a woman who then became nervous that you'd feel 'threatened' by her earning potential? Knowing that you never have to worry in this way?"

He admitted, unlike A, that this was deeply unfair. Has he examined his own beliefs? Knowing him, probably.

I pointed out again that this would be another dealbreaker for me, though perhaps not for every Western woman - I've met plenty of Western women who still ascribe to the idea that men need to feel like 'men' by being 'providers', which of course just allows men to continue living unexamined lives and doing subtle things to keep women from gaining true equality. I don't really care if my husband earns more than me - we've both earned more at one point or another - but I DO care what his attitude is about that. I would marry a man who made more than me, but not a man who thought he had a divine right to do so. I would not stay with a man who'd make it an issue if I earned more than him.

But the point remains - B is one of the good ones, yet through inaction, unquestioned assumptions and prejudices, unexamined privilege and lack of support still did not support women's equality quite as much as he thought he did.

I see this so often in Taiwan...and globally, but I am writing from Taiwan so this is from a Taiwan perspective. And until we can properly pin down, address and eradicate this issue, until we can bring ourselves to call out the anti-equality, anti-woman sentiments of otherwise good men, as subtle and hard to root out as they may be, and push them to be more supportive and to back up their otherwise feminist rhetoric of equality and respect with action and change, even just of the self, we're not going to have the sort of progress for women that Taiwan and many other countries need.

We need to wake up a lot of people and get them to stop being 'one of the good ones' and start being straight-up GOOD.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

How Tsai Ying-wen shaped my assessment of Hillary Clinton

I'm female, in my 30s, and a Bernie Sanders supporter. I'm very near the cut-off age between older women who support Clinton and younger women who gravitate to Sanders, but being child-free and generally supportive of youth movements (perhaps I'm still young at heart myself), I stood on that fence and took a willing dive to the Sanders side. After all, the youth tends to be eventually proven right.

The why isn't important to this post, but I'll tell you anyway, in a few long paragraphs: because every other developed country in the world takes its tax revenue and plows most of it back into benefits of its citizens. As such, citizens of most developed countries have a highly mature sense of the public good, and how they benefit from being part of that society, as well as the advantages of paying taxes to enjoy those benefits. Every other developed country has managed to make university-level education affordable - even Taiwan, where public universities average about USD$1000/semester. Every other developed country has managed to make health care accessible and affordable to all. Almost every other developed country has a modern and maintained system of public transportation. No other country spends what we do on defense, and no other country pours so much money down the drain for lackluster performance in key development indices.

I want what most other developed countries have figured out how to deliver. I remember being young and broke and not going to the doctor because I couldn't afford to, even though I had health insurance through my low-paid office job. I remember weeks of carrots, lentils and rice because I couldn't afford other food if I wanted bus fare to pay for my two-hour commute each way to work. I remember being mired in student debt despite going to college on a scholarship, and debt was the only way to make college, which is a necessity if you want to really succeed in a career, happen. I still have the debt but it's somewhat less now. I remember wanting to seek out a better-paid job but, in a tight job market, not finding one, ad then being told it was my "choice" to accept subpar wages.

And, well, I just don't want the next generation of Americans to inherit that sort of life - the life I left America to escape because the opportunities just weren't there. It wasn't hell, it wasn't even that bad - I was lucky in a lot of ways. But I paid very high taxes compared to what I pay in Taiwan...for what? For a war in Iraq that could have paid for affordable college tuition for all for a few generations? For unnecessary corporate subsidies and low capital gains tax for the rich? For a deeply inefficient and often broken transit system? For what? Why would I want a new generation of Americans to grow up under that system? Where college tuition has grown exponentially while wages haven't, where if you're exploited at work you're told its your own fault even though you can't afford to leave, where you're told you have a "choice" when really, you're hamstrung by just needing to afford to live? Where you're told affordable college tuition is "impossible" and yet every other developed country has successfully done it and we've paid out far more than affordable, or even free, tuition would cost on a war we emphatically did not need? No. That is the America I willingly left. I'm not going to vote for the establishment I disliked enough to wave goodbye to it.

And yet, I'm told that if I don't support the deeply establishment Hillary Clinton, that I'm letting women everywhere down.

I'm told that I am okay with women having power but don't like to see them in the act of asking for more power.

I'm told that I would support her as the frontrunner despite her flaws if she were a man.

To be fair, there is some truth to both of the articles linked above. She is treated differently by the establishment and the electorate simply because she has both a vagina and an opinion. She is criticized for asking for power that male politicians of her level of achievement are routinely, and unquestioningly, given. She is treated as 'less than' than lower-caliber male politicians simply because the patriarchy would 'rather have a beer' with other men. This all deserves consideration when deciding who to vote for.

And yet, Clinton can be a problematic candidate and that can be true regardless of her gender. She can have connections to Wall Street and the media that we don't like, but it is also true that the electorate would treat her differently if she were a man. Clinton can be someone whose previous record appalls me and others, and yet still suffer from being criticized merely for asking for more power. She can be one of the best at the political game, a true overachiever, the epitome of the saying that "women have to do twice as well to be given half as much", and yet still make me uncomfortable with her status-quo message.

Basically, she can be the victim of sexism and misogyny - and this can be worthy of discussion and acknowledgement - and still be someone I don't want to vote for based on the sum of her record and career.

I feel comfortable in my assessment of Clinton and my reasons for deciding, in the end, to support Sanders over her in part because of president-elect Tsai Ying-wen.

Very few American voters have had the chance to know enough about a non-Clinton female presidential candidate to support her, or care enough to have a somewhat detailed opinion on the matter - this usually comes from actually living in the country where said president may be elected. I have, however, and in the last election in Taiwan I backed Tsai (in spirit at least - I can't vote in Taiwan). Obviously I didn't consciously question whether she was fit to be president based on her gender, but seeing as I ultimately chose to support her, I can't say I subconsciously did so either.

You might even say I gave her a slight advantage in my brainspace because she's female and I do want to see more diversity in politics both nationally and globally. I don't think this is 'reverse sexism' - there's an element of power and representation that need to be present for something to be sexist (this is  pretty well accepted as a definition of racism by those who have a nuanced knowledge of racial issues, too). When the establishment is male, refusing to back a woman because of her gender is sexist. Deciding to back a woman because she's female, though, is a blow for pushing for a seat at the table for a group that has typically not had one. It would be the same if the power structure was entirely female and I chose to back a man because I felt we needed more diverse representation in that regard.

Anyway, I'd admit to a pro-female gender bias, but I'd also admit that if a candidate I liked more who happened to be male had come along, I would have supported him instead. How do I know? Well, I chose Sanders over Clinton despite Clinton's advantage of being female. In my heart, though I know my head would tell me it's risky, I would support a Freddy Lim-like candidate for president before a Tsai Ying-wen-like candidate. I may have a pro-female bias but in the end I will gravitate toward the best person for the job.

Sanders, although he is a man, has a better record on supporting women's rights and issues important to women (like LGBT equality and civil rights) than Clinton. Tsai...well, we'll see about how she does in office, but there is no politician, male or female, who has a better shot at doing good for women in Taiwan than her (though again I'd give my support to a Freddy Lim-like candidate).

Tsai, despite being a bit centrist for this old leftie's tastes, was the best person for the job.  I supported her mostly for that reason, and in part, yes, because I felt it would be good for Taiwan to have a female president. Taiwan may be one of the most progressive countries in Asia, with better women's equality than the rest of Asia, but that's a pretty damn low bar and there is certainly room to improve. A female president is not a cure-all, but it's a step.

Tsai is also something of the anti-Clinton. Clinton may not be "likable" (an criticism lobbed at women far more than at men) but she does exude strength and panache, and despite a few stumbles generally gives good, polished speeches. She's an extrovert and a ball-buster (from me that's a compliment) who looks like she'd be very good at steely eye contact. She's more of a power broker than a wonk, though I don't doubt her policy chops.

Tsai, on the other hand, is frightfully competent, but exudes a dorky, scholarly wonkishness that is endearing and popular in Taiwan but would be a hindrance in the US political machine. She looks and acts like a wine-drinking cat lady academic (which she admittedly is, and I like that). Her speeches are not particularly polished - it's been said she almost has an 'anti-charisma' when she speaks - and her gaze is not steely.

I like them both, but as a bit of a dork myself, who also has a bias in favor of scholar-leaders as it seems Taiwan does, I do gravitate a bit more toward the Tsai personality (though admittedly I have something of the Clinton Lion Roar within myself too). If anything I wish more male politicians fit that mold.

I also like that Tsai is a self-made woman in politics - I realize she came from money however - and I'm not a big fan of political dynasties such as the Clintons'.

So when I hear this "well maybe people are threatened by Clinton asking for power even though she is quite competent once she has it" or "you'd be more forgiving of her shortcomings and support her more strongly if she were a man, but because she's a woman she has to be twice as good to get half as much" or "with her experience and background, were she a man she'd be the clear frontrunner", I think, well, I just supported a woman for president. A woman who won the race. I was happy about that and at no point felt uncomfortable watching her ask for, and get, more power. At no point did I expect her to be twice as good as her opponent - although arguably she was. And if I can so clearly support a good female candidate in Taiwan, it's nuts to imply that I (or, more accurately, Sanders-supporting women like me) don't support Hillary because I have not examined my own internal sexism.

Friday, March 4, 2016

How living in Taiwan has helped my career

The other day I was talking to a friend who'd relocated from Taipei to Hong Kong (a journalist). He called Taipei a "professional backwater" and for a lot of industries, I can see where he's coming from. I don't think it's right or fair - I mean the city is about the size of Chicago and is the capital of one of the most prosperous and modern-industry-heavy countries in Asia - but he's got a point that successful professionals in Taipei are underpaid, the best tend to leave for Shanghai, Beijing, Japan or the West, and that a lot of times you just have to move because, I dunno, your crappy joke rich-people-are-trolling-us newspaper has decided to close down its Taipei office because now I guess it's OK to report on Taiwan from a totally different country - China. (I'm looking at you, Wall Street Journal, though that's not where my friend worked). I do think this is in part due to bad domestic policy - this is what allowing wage stagnation to continue has wrought - and in part due to purposeful and strategic marginalization by China that the crappy joke rich-people-are-screwing-us Ma administration has let grow unchecked.

But, with a few posts in recent months that included criticisms of Taiwan as a difficult place to build a career as a foreigner, I felt that perhaps a post about how Taiwan has actually benefited my career was in order. This will mostly be useful for English teachers, of which I am one: one of the few jobs it is fairly easy for a non-Taiwanese to come here and do.

Most obviously, Taiwan gave me the chance to actually try my hand at teaching longer term and as a possible career goal. That's not something that's so easy to do in the USA or, I gather, most western countries. I am in the USA right now for a family visit (for once there's no bad news) and I reflected during my recent trip to Hong Kong, where I spoke to this friend, and this morning in my dad's house, on what my life would be like if I hadn't chosen Taipei to spend the last decade.

If I'd moved on from Taiwan to another country to teach, I can't say for sure what it'd be like but I'm not at all sure I'd have the same level of professional development (CPD) that I have gained from living in Taiwan, simply due to time and funding. More on that below. Most countries underpay English teachers, and those that don't often require long hours, are very expensive, or just don't have the technological infrastructure to do well in online classes if they don't have in-country CPD.

If I'd stayed in the USA...oh god. I know many people prefer the stability of a salaried office job, but anyone who's met me knows that sort of work just doesn't suit me. I get restless if I'm in one place too long, or have to spend very long hours there. I get bored with routine more easily than many. I don't like being expected to clock in and out at certain hours when that's just not how my best work gets done. I have a strong personality that doesn't quite fit with most office politics, where 'normal' is the new beige. It sounds very self-centered and entitled and "kids these days" although I'm in my 30s, but better that I know this about myself and act on it than put myself and others through the torture of my trying to work such a job, yes? I find most office work meaningless on a personal level, even as I acknowledge that some of it must be done and others do find meaning in it.  So, with my remarkable lack of talent at doing office work I don't find meaningful, and my penchant for saying what I think regardless of the social consequences, and my intractable inability to act 'beige', I probably wouldn't have gotten promoted very quickly and would probably still be wondering why I'm on the bottom rungs at a company that's given me a job that I could do far better at, but lack the motivation to try. I wouldn't even be able to afford training for something different, so I'd feel stuck. I'd still be taking the bus 2 hours to work and back each day and struggling to pay rent on the fringes of a major city, working a 2nd job to have any savings at all, watching my 20s melt into my 30s with little change.

Doesn't that sound lovely?

Taiwan, in short, gave me the chance to do something else. I can't imagine I would have been able to afford the path to becoming an English teacher in the USA.

Anyone who reads this blog semi-regularly knows that I'm a big proponent of teacher training. I really don't buy the argument that all you need is the right personality or talent and some classroom practice - if anything it's condescending to teachers who have worked hard to perfect their craft to imply that any reasonably extroverted upstart who isn't a total dullard could just sort of figure it all out in a few months through magic or something. But, what I haven't perhaps made clear is that I'm also a fan of experience, and getting someone fresh off the plane into a job where they can see for themselves if they like it and are suited to it as a career before committing to an expensive degree program is something I support.  After all I got my start that way. I'd only insist that such opportunities come with somewhat standardized, respectable on the job training and continuing with the job would require getting (school-funded) qualification such as CELTA after a year or two.

But you can't do that in the USA - you might be able to volunteer or get a job at an unaccredited school/institute, but you won't be able to get a real job paying a living wage teaching English in the USA unless you commit to perhaps more money than you want to spend getting certified to do something you've never even tried. Most such jobs seem to require a Master's or teaching license. I can see how promising new talent may decide to just take office jobs rather than commit to that.

So, thank you Taiwan, for making it possible for me to discover a career that suits me in a way my home country could not.

You could say that a lot of countries provide this - you can teach English anywhere. Yes, almost anywhere, but Taiwan has the advantages of being more livable than say, China (or the Middle East for women with strong feminist beliefs), with better wages than most of South America, all of Europe, Turkey and most of Southeast Asia (I hear wages in Vietnam are pretty good but are awful and exploitative in Thailand). It's not as expensive as Japan or Europe - perhaps only in Korea can you save more as jobs there tend to provide perks such as flight reimbursement and free accommodation.

So, in Taiwan you can live fairly well and potentially save enough to pay for CPD - which schools should be paying for or helping to fund but generally don't.  That's actually pretty rare in this profession! I'm not sure if I lived in a more expensive country if I'd have been able to afford Delta at all, or if I'd had to commit to one full-time job. You may have to go abroad for CPD in Taiwan - more about that and other issues below - but at least for me, Taiwan has given me the flexibility and funds I need to get it done.

Taiwan also allowed me to become a permanent resident fairly easily - not something a lot of countries necessarily do. This allowed me to sort of 'create a job' for myself in which I work part-time in corporate training, part-time in the IELTS world, and part-time for my private clients. This is not something I could have done as easily (and legally) in, say, China where permanent residency is hard to come by, or Korea where you need a job offer and work visa to even come in, and so that job - paying for your flight and accommodation and all - is more likely to expect you to work for only them. Even in Taiwan without permanent residency schools that sponsor your work visa can and do ask you to be available for them at set hours - you lose a lot of flexibility, but the fact that I was able to get PR fairly painlessly is a big plus in favor of Taiwan. That sort of freedom has really helped my career because I've had more chances, through being free to work whenever and for whomever I like, to not only get a Delta in my spare time (something that may have been torturous at a full-time job) but also to expand into other ELT specialisms. I don't know that I'd have had the chance to do both specialized private teaching, corporate training and IELTS in a more traditional job setup, and it has been very good for me professionally.

Notably, I could not have done this in the USA either, in part because there's just less demand for English teachers (and what demand there is seems to mostly be in public schools, and I don't teach kids) but also because that sort of freelance work requires a fair amount of bouncing around the city. I do not like to drive. Other than possibly New York - and maybe not even there due to long transit times - I couldn't do the sort of all-around-town commuting that I do on a reasonable schedule without a car. It's a life goal for me to never have to own a car, so this is a big deal.

That's not to say that Taipei is a totally professional place for English teaching, or that it's necessarily the best place to start a career. Certainly about 99% of the cram school industry, where most untrained "Engrish teechers" work, is also a crappy joke, Taiwan has no important professional conferences in ELT, whether academic or professional, and even real employers don't always treat you as a professional. I've been lucky in this regard but even friends of mine who've worked at actual universities complain about treated like grunt workers. There are no good training or qualification programs in Taiwan - you have to go online or go abroad. Most jobs don't care if you're qualified or not. Those in ELT research who actually want to participate in the academic side of the field rarely publish from Taiwan, and professional development is almost never paid for or even encouraged (again I'm lucky in that for me it is encouraged, but I can't help but notice it hasn't been paid for, and that's one other reason why I freelance rather than committing to one employer. No employer has a package quite good enough to get me full-time). The idea of working at a university and having a research budget as well as funding to travel to international conferences, as my friend in the same field in Japan does, seems to simply not exist in Taiwan. So, there's room to improve. A lot of room.

But it would be unfair to slam Taiwan totally. We have a very small community of ELT professionals - I probably know the majority of Delta holders in the country - but I've found a great deal of support in that community. I met my Delta tutor randomly through an online forum post. Other professionals have allowed me to observe classes, accepted me into training programs and given me advice on my way up. Those who 'get it' really get it, and there are few enough of us that perhaps it does mean we support each other more.

And on a more personal note, I grew into my own in Taiwan. I am not the same person who got on a flight from Dulles to Taipei 10 years ago - now I know how to work hard, I know how to deliver results at work (even if I am a bit temperamental or have high expectations at times), I know what I want and I feel like I have an actual career. I discovered that career through working in Taiwan, and I'm not entirely sure the conditions would have been right for it to have happened in another country. I couldn't stay in China, I love Japan but have serious reservations about what it would be like to live there, Korea is not as laid-back, and other countries don't pay particularly well. I've had the chance to try out different types of teaching and had work opportunities I likely wouldn't have had elsewhere. I recently had the opportunity to work in a professional capacity with a public figure I happen to personally admire and respect, on a topic I am very passionate about, and I enjoyed it greatly. I never would have had that chance if I'd just stayed in the USA and worked some crappy joke office job or slogged through work at a cram school in Japan. I wouldn't even be the same person - the professional English teacher who is passionate about her field - who would have had such an opportunity.

So, while my friend has a point about Taipei as a "professional backwater", I just can't entirely sign on to that perspective. Taiwan made me the English teacher and person I am. I  have come to love Taiwan as a second home, and care about it as a nation. I had none of those things in 2006 and while I suppose I could have the same feeling about any country I'd chosen to spend these years in, I chose Taiwan, so Taiwan means something to me.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Work for it, Tsai.

Despite this being a blog that focuses, or tries to focus but often fails, on women's issues in Taiwan, I haven't written about Tsai's recent election much at all. This is in part because I said my piece back in 2012 when she last ran: that I didn't think being female made her unelectable; that I appreciated that one former fighter-for-democracy-turned-slightly-crazy-person's comments on her sexuality were effectively dismissed by blue and green voters alike which shows the maturity of the Taiwanese electorate; that I admire how she is a self-made woman - she didn't come from any political dynasty founded by a father or husband as basically every other female leader in Asia has. Edited: I originally mentioned Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, but hadn't realized her father had been president as they don't share a surname.

I don't think I said, however, that her election isn't the end. Having a female leader doesn't mean an end to sexism in Taiwan. It sure didn't for India, the Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh or South Korea. Even China - which in my personal experience is far more entrenched in misogyny than Taiwan - technically had a female head of state. America hasn't solved racism because a black man is president. That's just not how it works. But, I didn't think it needed to be said. Seemed obvious, right?

Well, along those lines, not only is it important to remember that the fight for women's equality didn't end with Tsai's election, but that we can't necessarily expect that the KMT being gone automatically means things are going to get better in Taiwan in general. I supported Tsai, and the vast majority of Taiwanese voted for her, on faith that she was the best choice. That doesn't mean magic will fix everything though - Americans made that mistake with Obama, and while I'm a Sanders supporter, it seems to me that the mistake is being repeated by others who 'feel the Bern'. She has work to do, and the people are going to expect to see improvement fast.

In terms of women's issues, this is where I personally - and I gather Taiwanese feminists will agree - feel that Tsai has to work to be a true advocate for women's issues in Taiwan. I will be disappointed if certain issues aren't addressed at some point in the next four to eight years:

Amending the abortion law so that married women may obtain abortions without the consent of their husbands
Increasing public awareness of and support for the victims of domestic violence
Making it more feasible for abused women with children to leave marriages with the assurance that their child will not be given in custody to their abuser or his family
Amending divorce laws - it's ridiculous that adultery is a crime and nobody should need to seek approval from the state to get a divorce
Expanding health insurance coverage for OB-GYN visits for women under 30, a greater range of birth control and other women's health issues including more complete coverage for abortions
Increased public awareness campaigns and other initiatives to advocate for greater equality in the home - in decision making, child care, housework and more...for many women this is where equality really matters
To better enforce existing gender discrimination laws so that women who face them have a real channel to seek justice

...and probably others as well, this is just a top-of-the-head-list.

Work for it, Xiao Ying. I trust you and support you. Prove you deserve it.

In issues not related to women specifically, I also hope to see change in the political status quo. I don't have much faith that the DPP has less cronyism than the KMT, which is why until recently I leaned toward TSU (but without their overly nativist rhetoric - mostly on the independence issue) and now am an ardent supporter of the New Power Party - a party that supports Taiwanese identity and independence but is more inclusive and less nativist than the TSU, with strong pro-democracy and transparency rhetoric, backed by the leaders of the Sunflower Movement, which as you may remember I supported strongly enough to give up most of my free time to join in the streets.

This is what I want to see - a DPP government is fine, but they'd be wise to look towards the "idealists" (they're not really idealists - they enjoy the broad support of much of the Taiwanese electorate, which tends to the pragmatic if anything) and those fighting for transparency and democracy to take their cues as to how to conduct their affairs. I suspect that, despite New Power Party alienation with the DPP establishment, that many in the DPP quietly support the NPP's more high-minded, leftist platforms while taking a more centrist path themselves simply to get elected. If this is so, and I think it likely is, then the DPP can and should seek to learn quite a bit from this young party. Not only generally but in their progressive views on marriage equality, gender equality, diversity, identity, and social change.

So do it, Tsai. Work for it. Do better than your predecessors. You have the smarts and the support. Do it.

And this mistrust in the DPP's ability to be more transparent and less power-grabby than the KMT seems to already be justified. In years past, I didn't think I could despise the KMT more than I already did, but their decision to allow Ma to be both the Presidente and the chairman of the party - a complete table-flipping of a delicate system of checks and balances that allowed him to consolidate control over the legislative branch and party funds - managed to make my dislike even more sour.

I had hoped that the DPP would do better, but it appears I may already be wrong in that naive dream: the DPP has confirmed that Tsai will retain a dual role as chairwoman of the DPP and President of the country.

All I can say to that is "NO!"

No no no no no no no no no no.

Tsai. Come on. The Taiwanese elected you because they wanted something different. They didn't like it when Ma did it and they shouldn't like it when you do it. Don't fall into the same old power structures and establishment bullshit. I understand that to some extent you are part of the machine - but you don't have to go full political Borg. You can do better.

One of the biggest reasons behind my support of the Sunflowers and the NPP over the DPP is that they are emphatically NOT the machine...and that's the sort of influence I want to see them have on the DPP.

Don't do this, Tsai. Do better. It will be harder, but you can and should work for it.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Thoughts on Delta: a more general approach

First, I'm sorry for the boring title.

Secondly, I've been toying with the idea of starting an ELT blog, separate from Lao Ren Cha (but obviously with lots of links between the two). I haven't decided to commit to it just yet, and I'm curious about outside opinions - a good way to go, or just keep my ELT commentary to Lao Ren Cha, even though it's not quite the focus of this blog? The argument for a new blog is obvious - it would be more targeted. The argument against is that I have enough trouble finding the time to maintain this blog and I'm not sure I have time at all for another.

Anyway, here are some reflections on doing Delta in a more general sense, contrasted to my previous post on doing the Delta specifically in Taiwan.

The good:

I was impressed with the level and methods of assessment on Delta - basically all three modules taken together assess you in three distinct ways: a task-based exam (Module One), a portfolio (Module Two) and a paper (Module 3). In my opinion (and according to good testing practice) this gives you a full, accurate look at what a teacher is capable of in a variety of situations, from theory to teaching to syllabus design, and how much they've progressed. I liked that no one method was used, which also ensures that someone who is, say, not particularly good at tests, or papers, or what have you, still has a chance to shine in another module with some other assessment method. I especially liked this as, although I have always thought of myself as a good test-taker, I flamed out on the Module One exam and while I did pass, I didn't get the Merit or Distinction I had been gunning for, which I do think I was capable of earning. It was a relief to have other ways to prove myself in later modules.

I also learned a hell of a lot. It's fairly common to hear folks, most of whom have never attempted Delta, to slam it as empty credentialism, a money-making scheme for Cambridge. It's no surprise - they do the same thing for CELTA, and often claim "all you need to know" you can pick up from experience. I reject this notion on its face - yes, experience is valuable, but input from people more experienced and knowledgeable than you as you gain that experience is what makes it truly worthwhile. If you spend 5 years teaching, with no input or feedback beyond what's in your head, the experience is still great but it is simply not going to be worth as much as if you spend 5 years teaching, and throughout those years are observed, get feedback, are assessed, attend input sessions, gain a strong theoretical background via training (so you'll know why good strategies work, not just "weird tricks". Teaching isn't a diet fad) and attempt higher-level teaching accomplishments such as good syllabus design with guidance rather than with a slapdash "let's see what works" approach.

So, I'm just not on board with that side of the debate, and as I see it the proof is really in the papers: I know more after Delta - significantly more - than I did before. Period. Though a lot of CELTA was pretty common-sense (though not necessarily easy for everyone to implement in practice), a lot of the theory and practice in Delta is not always, or particularly, intuitive and by Module Two - at least if you are trying to write the best possible language skills/systems assignments (LSAs) - you are delving past the introductory textbooks and deep into some fairly technical research papers and journal articles. Sometimes you're just looking for citable confirmation of things you know to be true (also a valid thing!) but at other times you're coming across completely new ideas. For example, when I did my LSA on helping pre-intermediate learners use the definite article, I was already aware of the idea of "the-flooding", but what I didn't know was the extent to which it had been studied and documented. But when I did my final LSA on discourse (hedging for intermediate learners in a business e-mail writing class), I was quite surprised to learn that the concept of hedging was far broader than I'd originally thought, and it was challenging to narrow my focus enough to write a solid essay and plan a focused class on a sub-topic of same.

I appreciated that it is carefully delineated into sections with distinct learning goals that, while they don't have to be taken in order per se, build on each other.

Module One: If you do Module One first - which I recommend you do - you get the theoretical foundation you need to do well in the other two modules (which can then be taken in any order). The exam seems daunting when you begin, but by the end you'll look back on it as the easiest part of the Delta. If you take a step back and look at what the exam aims to accomplish, if you study well you'll gain:
- A fairly solid background in terminology (if concepts can only be fully understood through having language to describe them, which I do believe to be true, then this is worthwhile)
- An overview of systems - all of them, as you won't know which will appear on the exam
- An overview of basic concepts in testing and assessment
- The chance to look more deeply at the assumptions that underlie language teaching materials, and which materials are appropriate for learners at what point and different ways of approaching different learning targets
- An overview of, with the chance to interact and think about beliefs about teaching
- The ability to apply these concepts to feedback on actual learner work

Module Two: Module Two helps you dive into your actual classroom practice and re-examine your habits and norms, thinking more deeply about what you do in class, why, and how it affects learners, while giving you the chance to learn in fairly great detail about four (out of a possible eight) skills/systems areas. You choose two skills from reading, listening, speaking and writing - one choice must be receptive, the other productive - and two systems from discourse, phonology, lexis and grammar. Then you narrow down your focus to look at one area within your selected skill or system - for example, when I did an assignment on listening I chose connected speech in authentic listening - to learn and write about it in some depth before teaching a class on that topic (as a result your choices ought to reflect what your learners need at the time) and getting detailed feedback on it. The classes themselves are a bit fake-feeling, I mean, the learners are learning something useful but in real life teaching is never so carefully compartmentalized into 40-60 minute increments. If you look at it another way, though, that narrow time focus also allows you to examine, almost microscopically, your habits and practices and how they affect learners. When you go back to teaching "normally", you'll be more inclined to think deeply about what you are doing, why, and what learners are getting from it.

Module Three then takes a step back and has you working with syllabus design and course planning, including needs analysis and assessment - all things any well-trained teacher would do well to get outside their own head and their own coping strategies to learn about. You also have the chance to "specialize" - to choose one area of ELT to focus on - which looks good on a CV (all of the very best teaching jobs, at least in the private sector, like to see some form of specialization). What dedicated teacher wouldn't want a chance to learn about the principles of syllabus design, and then apply those principles to designing a syllabus for a real group of learners, getting feedback on your work as you go? What teacher wouldn't be well-served by reading more of what experts say on testing?

So, let's say you do Module One, and to improve your chances of getting full points on the systems task (it used to be Paper One Task Four but that may have changed), you do the work in About Language. You learn about phonology, the basics of grammar and the basics of lexis (semantics, morphology), and perhaps you bone up on these latter points though an introductory Linguistics textbook. To make sure you are best able to look at class materials, textbook materials and student work - and get maximum points in those areas - you get a crash course in discourse fundamentals via Beyond The Sentence. Later, when you do Module Two and it's time to choose a skill or system, you have a reasonably strong foundation from which to do so, and you can build on that by looking more in-depth at a more narrowly-focused topic. With that knowledge you dive into how to sequence individual classes, and what to plan in them, in Module Three, and your Module One background in testing and assessment helps you in that paper, as well.

Think about that - does it sound like "meaningless credentialism" to you? Then consider what all of the anti-training types are really saying - I don't want a fundamental knowledge of theory and systems! My coping strategies are good enough! It's not necessary for me to be observed on my teaching and I don't need any feedback! I don't need to know the basics of syllabus design or testing. It is not important for me to have read up on what people before me, who have a wealth of expertise, research findings and knowledge, have to say about teaching certain skills or systems. I do not need external feedback on my self-reflection at any point - everything I need I can come up with in my own head because I'm a super genius, or something, able to duplicate in moments the work of years of others' dedicated research, and fabricate brilliant new teaching ideas without any contact with other ideas or professionals! Or alternatively, teaching isn't a real profession, any idiot could do it and there is nothing more to it than throwing out some vocabulary and grammar and doing some drills, perhaps with a game. It is not necessary to think about it any more deeply than that. 

Does anyone with either attitude sound like someone you'd want on your team?

I also like that doing these three modules pushed me to do what I might not have otherwise done - or otherwise done as well, sans feedback - such as reading up on the practice of Business English teaching or gaining a fundamental knowledge of assessment. It gave me the chance to work with ideas I might not have otherwise gotten the chance to work with, such as syllabus design, as it's surprising how few schools require any sort of syllabus from teachers.

Finally, I like that I was able to do the whole thing at a distance, without leaving Taiwan, and more cheaply than a regular postgraduate degree. This can be done through The Distance Delta or Bell. They are more or less the same, the only difference being that The Distance Delta wants you to do an orientation abroad for Module Two, which is not required at Bell. The Distance Delta, however, gives you access to International House's online library, which Bell does not. I like that, while many countries and institutions don't necessarily recognize it as such, the Delta is recognized in Europe as equal in level to a Master's degree (they're both rated Level 7 by Ofqual), and when you finish you do come out feeling like you have a Master's worth of knowledge, or nearly so, along with something most Master's programs don't provide - in-class practicums with assessment and feedback. And when I do get a Master's, I like that it will likely entitle me to an exemption from some courses or modules.

In fact, you could say I appreciate that the way I did it is not the only way. You can do the modules separately as you are able, you can do them online, you can do them face-to-face (though it's hard at times to find a center that will deliver a single module face-to-face), you can do them part-time or full-time, you can do them in one go in an intensive course, or as part of a Master's in at least one case.

But of course, with all of that good stuff, there's also bad:

I hate to harp on price, because while a lot of people will accuse Delta of being nothing more than a moneymaker for Cambridge, I actually get the feeling it doesn't turn a huge profit. Remember your tuition has to cover tutors, assessors, overseers (the folks who consistently review the Delta requirements and tweak them as needed), office space, assessment development, writing and handbook updates, IT, certification creation and printing, administration, accounting and more. And a lot of the fees charged are so that the centers offering the courses can turn a profit, only some (if any?) of it actually goes back to Cambridge. For a few hundred pounds for Modules 1 and 3, and a few thousand for Module 2 (a chunk of which goes to your local tutor), I doubt this is the cash cow that some people think it is.

But, having taken all of that into consideration, honestly, Module Two especially is quite financially burdensome for English teachers. We are not rich, generally. We don't make heaps of money. I get that education costs money and somebody's gotta pay, and perhaps if you have a fantastic salary in South Korea (where pay is better than Taiwan relative to cost-of-living, though I've heard it has not gone up in correlation with the increased standard, and cost, of living there in recent years) it's no big deal, however, there is a point at which I question how fair it is to make good, justifiable CPD (continuing professional development) something that is a financial strain for a career teacher.

With this in mind, another issue isn't with Delta itself but with the industry. In any other professional industry not only would qualified people get priority in hiring, but CPD directly related to one's work would be sponsored in part by the company. British Council does offer this, but basically nobody else does.

Another flaw is with some of the assessment methods. I know I praised them above, but that doesn't make them perfect. For instance, while I understand why the exam is timed (you can't have people writing pages and pages of stuff just to try to squeeze more points out of inefficient or off-the-mark writing), the time given is just an eensy bit too short to be reasonable. An extra 15-30 minutes for each paper would set a limit on how much could possibly be written while offering a reasonable amount of time in which to do the test, which raises its validity. Right now, part of what you're tested on is how fast you can write, and that's not really the assessment criteria that counts. Creating a computer-based test where answers can be typed would also be a help in the modern world. And I'm not just saying this because I used up most of my Paper One time on the old Task 4 (a massive systems task) and didn't even get to Task 3 (yet I still passed) - even if I'd gotten the score I feel I was capable of, I would still be saying it. It's just not write to set a test and then set timing for it that is clearly, obviously, too short. (I have the same complaint about IELTS writing, by the way. Far too short a time to produce something good written by hand).

I have less of a problem with the Module Three paper and the Module Two portfolio, and I realize why there are limits set on what you turn in. My only (small) complaint is that what is expected is not always realistic, especially for the assessed classes. In reality, for a systems lesson, one hour is barely enough time to intro the topic, do an activity to set the target language, do meaning, form, pronunciation and use and then practice it with limited feedback. I would do all of that in an hour and a half, but if you move just a tad too quickly (yes, too quickly) you can get it done in an hour. It is not enough time to include extended practice. It is not enough time to answer more than one or two in-depth learner questions, and maybe not even that. It is not long enough to extend the practice as long as you might like or give as much feedback as you'd like. It is not enough time to explore any sort of teachable moment or extra 'noticing'. The result is that while you learn a lot about your teaching, you never quite teach a class like that again, because in the real world it's simply unrealistic. Plus, the feedback you get often includes notes like "it would have been good to include extended practice in collocations" or what have you, and you're all yeah I think so too, but that is not possible in a one-hour class, JEEZUS. You want to see that, GIVE ME MORE TIME.

What's more, when you choose a topic, you're not supposed to be thinking about the class you're eventually going to teach - you're meant to concentrate on the paper first and then plan a class related to it, using one or more of the teaching suggestions given in the paper. But the class you teach has to be important for the learners, fit in with what they already know and what they need (and the course in general), be pitched to their level and needs etc. - how can you choose a topic and write a paper without thinking about what you will eventually teach? (A lot of Delta veterans admit that it's not possible - you must start out considering your eventual learners, and then basically pretend you didn't).

My only qualm with Module Three is that it continues the tradition of giving you not quite enough time to do the best possible job - you design a 20-hour course, which is great except most courses are longer than that, and the word limit for each section is just a bit too short to include everything they seem to want, which again means you are assessed on the compactness of your writing (forget having any sense of style or attempting to make it pleasurable to read) rather than the ideas therein. And I say this as someone who got a Merit. Otherwise, while I actually cried during this module, after it was all over I'd say it was my favorite of the three. I suspect I'm in the minority on that, though!

Overall, I don't see many faults with the design and implementation of Delta, but there are a few concerns worth mentioning. The timing of the Module One course was just about right, and while Module 3 went by a bit more briskly than I would have liked, it was basically okay. But Module Two was way too fast - it seems to me it'd be smartest to give candidates two full weeks between all assessed lessons (so about 3 weeks total) and an extra week for the experimental lesson somewhere in the middle. But in practice, one LSA (assessed lesson + paper) has to be done in two weeks, and often, just due to the way one's work plan rolls out, it's in the time between LSAs 2 and 3, which is generally when you should be doing your experimental lesson. So you suddenly have way too much work to do and way too little time to do it in. More reasonably, courses might simply start two weeks earlier, allowing again for candidates to do their best work within a reasonable time frame rather than being assessed based on how well you work under pressure, rather than the quality of the work you do. I'm not just saying this to complain - I haven't received my results yet but I received Distinctions on at least two papers and a Merit on a class, and I didn't fail any LSAs - I genuinely feel it would be a better experience for everyone to do it this way.

In short, it would be great if Delta could give us adequate time and word count to do the best we are capable of, rather than making it so we are measured not just on the quality of our work but on how well we cram our work into somewhat unreasonable deadlines and parameters, which I feel does detract from overall validity.

My other qualms with Delta aren't really related to Delta itself - things like the difficulties many face in having a reliable, useable class for Module 3 or finding a local tutor for Module 2 (or having access to appropriate classes for it), and how unsupportive a lot of employers can be - not my employers, but I have seen this happen.

Finally, I'd just like the ELT industry to respect Delta more. There's no reason why governments can't recognize it as a valid teaching credential. Certainly not all Master's degrees (which are accepted in Taiwan regardless of their relevance to the field) nor a teaching license for children is as pointedly directed at teaching adults as the Delta. I'd like to see more sponsorship of it by employers - my employers were supportive but I did notice that neither one offered to help sponsor me. I felt like it was seen as something I could do (and pay for) independently, I don't know, for fun or something, and otherwise was not related to their employment of me, when in fact it's directly related to my development as a teacher. Naw, I'm not mad, I'd just like to see more of a British Council attitude to Delta in the industry overall.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Doing the Delta in Taiwan: final thoughts

I've meant to write a blog post detailing my Delta experiences in Taiwan for a few months now, and with results coming any day now, I've been reminded that it's been put off for far too long (in my defense, immediately after finishing Module 2 this past December I came down with bronchitis).

Overall, we did manage to do all three modules in 3 years, and could have done them faster. I would say the only reason we chose to do one every September for 3 years was money, and yes, money was a consideration (Modules 1 and 3 aren't that expensive but Module 2 is; besides, it may not look like heaps of money but we also like to travel and have things like student loans to pay).

But really, the main reason I think we didn't push through and do one in March, the next in September and then another one the next March, to finish in a little over a year, is that while a Delta isn't a Master's degree, it's still extremely stressful. It's hardcore and takes up basically all of your free time. Although I feel I have better 'academic endurance' now, after the first two modules I did, I just didn't feel ready to start a new one just a few months after the last one ended.

So, although it took us 3 years, we've proven it can be done from Taiwan. We're not the first or only Delta holders here - there are a small group of them across the island, mostly in Taipei, who mostly seem to know each other, but we are two of the very few who did the entire thing from Taiwan (there are likely a few others at, say, British Council whom I don't know personally). Others either left to do the three-month intensive course, or had Deltas when they arrived. A few are in the midst of doing the modules, as well.

I'm going to start with this - specifically doing the Delta from Taiwan. If you're reading for reflections on the Delta in general, well, that will probably be my next post!

Some good things about doing it here:

- Getting books: Websites like Book Depository (free shipping!) and Bu ke Lai make it easy, if you order in advance, to get the books you need. Sometimes used bookstores like Whose Books (Shilin, back behind the MRT and Gongguan) have used copies, as well. Of course Caves has a solid ELT selection, but it's easier to go in person than to try and order online.  It's not that easy to get books here - see below about that - but it's not that hard, either. While it's no Tokyo, London or New York, I imagine Taipei is far easier for Delta candidates than, say, those stationed in Africa, the Middle East or most of rural China. Not having restricted Internet is great, because while China probably wouldn't ban sites you'd need to get articles and studies, you just never know.

- Weird working hours: these often seem to be a bane in this industry and seemingly especially in Taiwan (I could write a whole critique of capitalism based on what the free market has done to ELT here), but when doing the Delta they are not necessarily a problem - bring a book or printout of the journal article you need to read, and you can get work done at odd times of day rather than feeling stuck at a job all day, unable to study. Split shifts are great for this, as you can find a cafe or just go home and do a bit of studying before heading back to class.

- The lower cost of living: this means that, if you're willing to be a bit skint (this assumes you make enough money at a job where you are reasonably professional enough to be well-paid, it might not hold up if you're at, say, Hess where joke wages mean a joke job...#sorrynotsorry), it's easier here to free up your time and still be able to afford to live. I don't know how I could have afforded to live while working more or less part time to do the Delta in the USA, where I was always, always broke even when I was working full time at a salaried job (and even when I had a second job on top of that, which would have made the Delta impossible!). The generally lower hours of an English teacher (more in the range of 18-25, maybe 30 with prep time, rather than a full-time 40) are also beneficial.

- Good Internet - no seriously, due to various family issues I've been in the US a lot over the past two years, and the Internet there just isn't as good as the excellent fiber optic cable Internet in Taiwan (which Chunghwa Telecom will upgrade for you for free, or at least they used to). You'll be doing the courses almost entirely online, so having access to superfast Internet not slowed down by "ho hum, looks like one section of cable actually rides on 1920s phone lines, and I can't fix it, no fast Internet for me, dum-de-dum" which you get in the US).

- The time difference! Man, when the deadline is 9am GMT, that means you have until late afternoon in Taiwan to finish your assignments! Woo! A Sunday night deadline (as is the norm for Module 3) means Monday morning for you.

- British Council - they are fairly active in the ELT community here and there you will find the greatest concentration of qualified teachers. They are able to hold Module 1 exams and are a good place to go to do your Module 2 observations. There isn't always a British Council wherever you are, which may be a hindrance.

- Fairly reliable group classes
- I mean, unless you're at, say, Global Village. But it won't be like my friend who worked in Saudi Arabia at an actual university and was having trouble getting everything ready, on time and energetic for students who weren't that interested in an actual education (and she's a good teacher, that wasn't the problem).

- People here who do Delta really care about their teaching and their learners - I'm sure they do everywhere, that's not to poop on Delta holders in other countries, but there are enough challenges (below!) and little enough professional payout (though we'll see), and it's hard enough to find a tutor and pay for the course on low Taiwanese salaries, that those who do decide to go for it REALLY want it. You won't find anyone who does it because 'that's what you do' or because they were asked to, but maybe weren't even that enthusiastic. I'm sure such people exist (I'm also sure they're in the minority, as Delta is stressful enough that you wouldn't stick with it without a good reason), but you generally will not find them in Taiwan. It makes for a good community of professional teachers who care about their learners, their own competence, and the industry.

- It's a good filter - it's far easier to tell good schools from bad, good jobs from bad and good bosses from bad (as well as suss out the attitudes of your coworkers, who may not be bad but may not value professional development, which is at least useful to know about them) when you have done something like Delta, based on how they react to it. Do they look worried that now you are going to cost more? You don't want to work for them anyway. Do they seem excited that you care about your career and learners? Great, you've found a winner! Having one is also good for getting to know the professional ELT community in Taiwan, small as it is. It puts you on the map as a serious person and just by dint of observing teachers and finding a tutor you are likely to meet others who are at the level where you want to be.

- It leads to some good opportunities - good employers will give you pay raises and more responsibility, it'll be easier to get an 'in' as an IELTS examiner (for example), the qualification looks good to potential students (it is something of a credentialist society), you are in a better position to take on teacher training roles - perhaps someday as a CELTA tutor or other type of teacher trainer? - and it helps you specialize, leading to more lucrative work.

- It simply makes you a better teacher, which I do believe and which is worthwhile regardless of where you are. But more on that in another post.

...and now for the bad:

- Finding books: yes, I'll put this here too. The cheapest books are usually used books bought via Amazon or associated sellers, and it is impossible to get a good rate on shipping to Taiwan. To get the best possible rate, which was important as I was going part-time every semester except the last one to give Delta my all, we had used books shipped to my in-laws at the far cheaper domestic rates, and they were kind enough to forward them all to us in one big box. I don't know how we would have otherwise gotten some of the titles we needed. And unlike a major Western city or even perhaps a city like Tokyo, there is no library you have easy access to that will have the titles you need.

- Exam snafus: there are two registered exam centers for Module 1 in Taiwan - British Council Taipei and a YMCA location. The British Council location wasn't listed on Cambridge's website at first, and nobody seems to know why. It was hard to convince them, once we did manage to register, that there was a special rate for Distance Delta candidates at BC. They originally wanted to charge us a ridiculously high rate per paper (there are 2, so for 2 of us that's 4 fees) which would have cost almost as much as the course! YMCA's contact window was not very helpful and avoided our questions about fees, so we can assume they'd be high, or he wasn't very good at the 'communication' part of his job.

- Finding a local tutor for Module 2:  We were lucky, we had an offer of a tutor from someone who is personally invested in raising the bar of English teaching in Taiwan and we arranged to do the course in time, as there's a fair chance he'll move to Australia in the not-too-distant future. There are plenty of qualified people to be tutors, but many, if not most, are very busy people and not necessarily able to take on the fairly heavy workload of tutoring a Module 2 candidate. I have heard of people who want to do Module 2 in Taiwan and just...don't, because they can't find anyone to tutor them (and in fact this is one reason why we left it to the end - finding that tutor seemed impossible when we started).

- Low pay - Delta is not a particularly expensive qualification compared to similar-level qualifications in other professions and especially compared to a Master's degree, but it can't be denied that the pay in Taiwan is below average for East Asia. This is usually OK as the cost of living is also on the low side, but when you start looking at programs that cost in the hundreds or thousands of pounds, well, it's just not that easy to finance them on the salaries provided by Taiwan's stagnant economy. I'm fairly well-paid as English teachers go and I found it hard to come up with Module 2 tuition (1 and 3 aren't so bad, they're in the hundreds).

- Lack of a CELTA (or decent alternative to one) program in Taiwan - though I hear this is going to change, the lack of a good practicum-based initial certification program creates another hurdle to anyone who arrives in Taiwan, gets a job with no certification, and (like me) actually decides to stick with it because they find something of value in the profession. Before they can even consider Delta, which can be done remotely from Taiwan, they have to do CELTA, which can't. That means a 4-week vacation from work (at no pay, though to be fair even jobs that offered paid vacation probably wouldn't pay for such a long leave), tuition fees, an international trip and international accommodation and living expenses when you may be maintaining an apartment in Taipei (or another city, but Taipei is by far the most expensive place to live). It's no wonder that so many English teachers never even begin, because while getting a CELTA is supposed to be less of a commitment time-wise (and to an extent financially) than getting a Delta, in Taiwan the opposite is true and the folks at Cambridge would be wise to consider that in their market analysis. I hear, several times a month, from teachers who actually do want to get a CELTA but can't because they can't afford to leave for that long. Offering one in Taipei would help to mitigate the problem, especially if it were a part-time program.

- Lack of any sort of face-to-face Delta courses in Taiwan - I mean hey, if we can't even get a CELTA course running, a Delta course isn't going to happen either. But a face-to-face Delta course would make it easier for those who don't do distance learning well, and would help in having a tutor automatically provided. Also, for the Distance Delta, Module 2 requires a face-to-face orientation (with a fee) that is only two weeks, but that's still a fairly big expense, especially as few if any such orientations are held near Taiwan or in relatively cheap places to stay. (This is why we did Distance Delta for Modules 1 and 3, but moved to Bell for Module 2, and I'd recommend you do the same).

- An unprofessional ELT industry/work environment for most people - people will argue over and over about whether training is important to a good teacher but I'm gonna stop that on my blog at least with "yes, of course it does". It's a no-brainer that a teacher who gets professional feedback, assessment and mentoring is going to be a better teacher than one left to their own devices. This can be informally done, yes, but training programs such as CELTA and Delta are quality programs that provide proof that it was done. This is not to minimize the importance of experience, but to point out that experience with guidance and outside feedback is going to be better than experience where you spend the entire time finding coping strategies inside your own head.

So, related to that, it astounds me that schools in Taiwan are just so unprofessional in this way. I am lucky to work for two schools (and have a bevy of private students) that do care about professionalism and training, but my situation really is not the norm. It's terrifying how many schools would rather hire an inexperienced teacher for NT$600/hour than a trained one for NT$650 or a very well trained one for NT$700 or $800, or a salary (without then overworking them). The dollar is the bottom line, and quality doesn't seem to matter - that's not to say all qualified teachers are good quality but yes, generally, the overall quality of education will go up. The result is fewer job opportunities for experienced, trained teachers, and not really much more pay (you'd be lucky to get a 10% jump) for those who do seek professional development. That encourages people not to do something like the Delta, because it's a big time and money investment for not that much payout in Taiwan. On one hand, it's good to narrow down the job field to only the best jobs, on the other, it stinks that the industry is so unprofessional when it could be better. It's also no wonder that the English level in Taiwan, while not bad - I'm not one of those "Taiwanese can't speak English!" types -  could be better.

- Unsupportive bosses: again I didn't have this problem. The directors and managers at the two places where I take group classes were quite supportive of my doing the Delta, but I recognize that my situation is not the norm. When I worked at my former company, in theory they were supportive of Brendan's and my doing the CELTA, but in practice they completely screwed Brendan visa-wise by first approving our leave, and then suddenly, just before our trip, refusing to hold his visa/work permit while we were gone. Technically legal but a super crappy thing to do and the top reason, among others, why both of us quit. It would have been understandable if they'd said it was impossible to hold two visas when we first asked, or before we paid for the trip, but to wait until a few weeks before is just unprofessional and crappy, and if you hadn't noticed, I cannot and will not forgive them Other bosses might refuse to modify your schedule, not give you classes with a minimum of 5 learners (especially important for Module 2, and to some degree Module 3 although for that you may design a course for a one-on-one class) or give you other necessary support to finish.

- Visa issues for those who do modules abroad:
if you don't want to do a distance course, or want to do something intensive abroad rather than spending a whole semester on it part-time, depending on the module, employers may not be overjoyed to hold your visa/work permit while you are gone, which pretty much forces you to do it as a distance course. If you do all three modules intensively, it will take 3 months and almost no employers are willing to hold a visa for that long, which means a visa break, which can create problems. (I didn't put this under 'unsupportive bosses' because it is understandable to a degree why an employer would not want to do this, my point is it creates problems, not that it is entirely the school's fault). Not everyone handles distance learning well, or likes the format. Distance learning also means finding a local tutor for Module 2, which can be difficult for the reasons above, so making it harder to take an intensive course where a tutor is provided is problematic.

* * *

I know it sounds like there are more downsides than upsides to doing a Delta in Taiwan, and there is some truth to that. It is definitely not as easy here as it would be in a city where you had more access to books, were paid more, where schools and employers were more supportive of professional development, local tutors were easier to find and you could expect a bigger career boost, or could take a course locally.

But it is important to remember that some of those upsides are pretty big ones - the lower cost of living making it easier to work part-time and the less rigid work schedule are two big ones, and it is certainly better to do it here than many other countries that have even fewer ELT resources, where it is more difficult to order them. It may have been easier resource-wise to do it in the West, but I might not have been able to afford it! So, it's not all bad.

And all in all, even though it's not always a huge boon to one's career in Taiwan, although I am willing to bet more opportunities will open up to me for having it in the long run, it is good for development generally and a worthwhile thing to do, and what's better in terms of getting something done than intrinsic motivation?

Questions? Comments? I'm always available!