Send in the Clowns: Teaching English in Taiwan

I’m working in a profession that I occasionally think is beneath me. The ESL profession. 90% or so of foreigners living in Taiwan are working in this bastardized profession. When I worked in Japan, over time a certain amount of jadedness about the profession set in and we would in good humor joke that we were just language whores. Here, in Taiwan, the only sense of humor I have found was possessed by a friend who told me that he was a clown in the profession, albeit a good one. Expendable isn’t a word that can describe the role of the English teacher. While you could beat yourself blue over the same mistakes the Japanese would make, it would be mental suicide to contemplate how the Taiwanese have taken something so promising and turned it around to such a point that it would take a major overhaul on a UN peacekeeping scale to turn it around.

Most people here for the most part I believe enjoy English teaching. I do not, but I’ll get to that later. It requires little effort, in Taiwan, to do, much to dismay (rightly so) of professionally trained ESL teachers since the TW have very little standards for teaching the language. One- a teacher must be a native speaker (not always enforced), and two- the preferred teacher is white, blond and blue eyed. The latter can be altered the further one goes out side of Taipei, or willing to have the patience to search. (The days of walking off a plane into a job in Taipei, are long over with). Yet, in Taipei, parents truly operate on the premise that if their child is educated by a native speaker possessing Aryan looks their child shall eventually quire all the necessary language skills needed. It’s an up hill battle teaching in such an environment with such a mentality. Also add to this the work ethic and business practices of the TW and you sometime have an explosive situation on your hands. There’re several elements(I think) that compound the lack of success in the ESL field in TW.

One-The government. A group of postulating adults who like to see themselves in the media more than doing any work that would move the country forward. They have created many road blocks for foreigners working in the ESL profession, that it even has the TW up in arms. You have one group, called the KMT who in their pro-china stance would love to wipe the entire industry out, and send the foreign devils packing. Yet, in this multimillion dollar a year industry it’s the cash duck they won’t behead. Not yet at least. So, while they create crazy even asinine laws that seem designed to limit the growth and expanse of the industry they tolerate the profession until they devise another plan.

Two-Culture. The TW still have to decide if they are Taiwanese or Chinese and where their country stands in relation to the world. So, this schizophrenic self esteem issue cuts to the heart of how they relate to language learning or anything that’s not Taiwanese/Chinese for that matter. This serves as an impediment to their grasp on learning language (aside to natural talents possessed by the learner). It shows up perfectly when teaching children. It’s impossible to be taken seriously by a 10 year who has been in school for 8 hours and all they want to do is play. Add to that, mommy or daddy’s ideals about foreigners, and learning English, or that the bushiban(the language school) is just a day care where the owner is more concerned about making money and keeping the kids happy. This can make the job draining. Also, how can anyone take something seriously when there is no personal connection to it?

For example, I recently had to attend my school’s Parents day. I noticed that myself and co workers were not given name tags that would identify who we were. Now it’s a given that we were the English teachers, but that was it. No point in having something that would let the parents familiarized themselves with us, because We were there to fulfill a function which is how I think the Taiwanese view a lot of things that aren’t Taiwanese. Westerns are here to teach me English, South East Asians are here to serve as caretakers or factory workers and etc. The function of the English teacher varies from job to job. Some jobs require that you entertain the kids, some require actual teaching, and some require being the exposure for the kids learning the language.

There’s also a ‘quickie’ mentality in the ethos of the society. A ‘me first’ way about doing things. This practice of getting thing done with out regards to quality or creating durability makes me wonder how can one apply ones’ self to the task of learning an language with patience, discipline, and with staying power. This is why the industry in Taiwan is so profitable. It’s similar to the drug companies in America approach to illness-make something that will allow the person with the illness to function, to live with the disease. Make another English product that appeals to the delusions of progress as oppose to designing something that would produce authentic results. The TW have been studying English so long and at such early ages that in theory this country should possess a certain body of strong bilingual people. But in reality because of the lack of standards it has become more like the cult of endless studying.

Three-The Foreign teacher. When I first started I actually thought that I was doing something rather unique and rare. By the end of my 1st job in Japan, I knew otherwise but it still held promise. The status and role of the foreign teacher in Taiwan has been an eye opener on many levels. When I first came here, I counted my blessing on having lived in Japan. That experience gave me the basic knowledge on what to provide in a classroom. It also enabled me to navigate the enviroment without having known anyone. Finding a job here and living here can be just like being at home. You have to go out and find it yourself, but where the hard part comes in is dealing with TW bosses. If you aren’t schooled on how to bargin for your paycheck, or know what the rules of engagement are here, then you can end up very much screwed. With a capital S. Note to anyone thinking about coming over to teach—DO YOUR HOMEWORK. Know what the going rate is, and what you want on the job and not. If you don’t set the limits then your boss will have you working harder than a slave on a Mississippi plantation in July. And because people haven’t done this or the fact that the market in Taipei is becoming more and more flooded, along with teachers who are willing to work for lower pay, the TW bosses are doing more and more things that violate the laws. And also, because many teachers have that “im only gonna be here for a year….” mentality, TW bosses don’t see it a necessary to actually enforce the laws. As if anyone paid any attention to the laws in the first place……
Having a degree is required if one wants a work visa, but to find a job in Taiwan teaching doesn’t require a degree. Having a degree doesn’t mean that a person will be able to teach any better or worse than a person without a degree. Although this job has given me the chance to travel I think often that my students would be better off if they were exposed to someone who had qualified training.

The foreigner teachers you get here are of a various natures, ages and stages in their lives. There’s the backpacker, the eternal spring break college kid, the legit college grad, the person on the lam, the person who is running away from personal problems, the retiree, the pedophile(rare), the language student, the pick up a paycheck type and the regular Joe who enjoys working and living abroad. The consensus of the foreign teacher here in Taiwan , is that it’s a person who is here for the money alone, (if it’s a male he’s on the prowl, so lock up your daughters), and not to be fully trusted because they are known to run off into the night with your money. It’s not uncommon to take a job, where the boss wants to keep a part of your pay as a means to keep you to your word. It’s illegal but it happens. Then there are the few horror stories you hear about the TW bosses and their way of doing things.

Most these points are my observations of how it all operates in Taiwan. At times it can be rewarding, especially when you have a group of students that are willing participants and you can see them making strides. My current situation is good, where I am at a school where learning is top priority, but on some days I spend more time yelling at the students to get them to settle down and quiet down which just drains the fuck out of me and leaves me wondering why I even bother. Then there are the limitations of the professions itself. You can branch out and become a busiban (language school) or move up the ranks at one of the chain schools in to the management, but this career doesn’t offer much to be desired in terms of career growth.

I don’t regret having the experiences I have had thru the job. Teaching has taught me how to drop having unrealistic expectations of people, how the difference you will make is not the one you expect to, and a whole host of other things. Would I suggest it to someone else? Possibly. If you are adventurous, willing to try something new and brave the unknown I would say do it but be willing to be a teacher in many senses of the word.


One comment on “Send in the Clowns: Teaching English in Taiwan

  1. Anonymous
    June 23, 2005

    Good writing Jenifer and I Like the fact that you Werent Male bashing and Obviously dont suffer Penis envy,lol. But sometimes I suffer Vagina envy and wish I could just spread my legs like a woman and get more things handed to me and Not have to work so hard like Most guys do !!! Thanks for the fun read Babe…:) Kisses

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This entry was posted on March 20, 2005 by in Uncategorized.
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