Category Archives: Expat Life

Where Have All the Idiots Gone: Professionalization and ESL Instruction

If you haven’t figured it out, I’m an English as a Second Language (ESL) instructor. In the 21-odd years that I’ve done this, the job has changed a lot. Not in terms of the actual work. I still spend my days going, “This is a cow. Moo. Cow? Come on, you know, MOOOO!?!” But, the status of ESL instruction has changed. It’s been professionalized.

When I started, nobody chose to be an ESL teacher, you fell ass-end backwards into it. We were a merry band of losers, drug addicts, fugitives, degenerates, down on their luck international adventurers, and other assorted unemployables—the scum of earth’s four corners.

I can recall one Canadian who flew to Taiwan with dreams of becoming a gigolo. I met him in my hostel, where the more transient congregated in the evenings to drink. Though handsome enough, I suppose, he had one major problem, he lacked the skills to be a male prostitute in Taiwan. There are bars in Taipei where male prostitutes, or midnight cowboys, as the Taiwanese term them, ply their trade. Unfortunately for him, the midnight cowboy’s job is mostly to act as a host, encouraging women to drink while charming them with elegant Chinese conversation, singing and dancing. Think of a male geisha. He was hoping for more of a wham-bam-put-the-cash-on-the-table-Ma’am type interaction. So, of course, he supported himself as an English teacher while he waited for his man-whoring career to take off.

Another favorite was Pierre who I saw strolling down a beach in South Korea. At that time it was pretty uncommon to meet another foreigner, so I ran up to him hoping to have a conversation. Oh joy! English! Unfortunately, it turned out that Pierre spoke a nearly incomprehensible patois of French and English. He was from Quebec and had fallen on hard times in the economic depression that spread through Canada in the early 1990s. When I asked him what he was doing in Korea he said, as you might have guessed, that he was, “teaching zee Anglais,” in his truly “autrrrageous Franch accent.” At the time I didn’t see anything wrong with it. He needed a job, and who cares if a handful of Koreans ended up speaking English like half-wit Cajuns.

There was a clown car full of colorful characters populating my early days in Asia. They all survived by teaching ESL. No one regarded it as a profession. It was a stop-gap until they could get their lives together. Expat ESL teachers were a counter culture in the truest sense. We were outcasts from our home countries and existed on the peripheries of Taiwanese society, largely ignored by Taiwanese social institutions.

Those days of extreme color are fading. Not long after I started teaching in Taiwan, there began to be a change. More people washed up on Asian shores not because they were running from personal demons, but because they were economic refugees, and they came in droves. Asia is unrecognizable from my early days—there are foreign faces everywhere now.

These new immigrants were a different sort of person. Most of them had one or two degrees. They came because they faced underemployment in their home countries. Without paying any attention to the news, I knew how countries were fairing economically, simply by the people I met at the local watering hole. For the first few years that I was here, all you ever saw were Canadians. When the tech bubble burst, in came the Americans, then South Africans, and Russians, etc. These new teachers had invested a lot in their educations, their futures, and they brought with them a more professional attitude towards and enthusiasm for teaching. People began to think of their jobs as a career.

Some of them eventually went back home and set up professional TEFL (Teaching English as a Second Language) programs in Western universities. When I first heard of such a thing, I thought it was ludicrous. I could not imagine TEFL as a field of study someone would choose. I suppose in my heart ESL instruction will always be something you turn to when you’re down-and-out and running.

But, I have to admit that things have changed, not only for me personally, but also for the ESL teaching community. We have standards now. I now teach at a university. I’m constantly doing professional development. Gone are the days of trying to hustle up one-on-one students on the street, or scrambling from one buxiban (cram school) gig to the next, trying to keep the beer flowing. Most my friends from those early days are either gone—unqualified or unwilling to adapt—or have moved into respectable jobs at universities, international schools, public schools, or as full-time contract buxiban teachers. They now, like me, are constantly doing training, research, publishing, etc. The whole thing is beginning to smell like a profession.

I’m aware as I’ve progressed up the ESL food chain, I’ve naturally fallen out of touch with the more transient members of the ESL community. However, from what I see, it does seem like new arrivals are more trained and qualified. Partly because the Taiwanese ESL market has matured. There is less demand for English instruction, people are no longer being stopped on the street and offered employment simply based on their foreign face. The gold rush is over. Also, the government is paying more attention to foreigners, they have been rationalizing the work visa process. Admittedly, it is a work in progress, but it doesn’t seem like there are as many people here for a decade, or more, on a tourist visa. The attitude of immigration officials used to be, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, you must really love being a tourist here. Indeed, all law enforcement is more willing to deal with foreigners. I used to be able to get out of any petty legal kerfuffle by deluging the cop with a flood of quick-paced, incomprehensible English—not any more.

In general, professionalization has been a good thing. There are standards now. I don’t think Pierre would do well. Somehow I  find that sad, like earth’s bountiful tapestry became slightly less rich.  Doesn’t it warm your heart to imagine a group of Zydeco Koreans in an international business meeting laying down some Acadian patter? However, those standards also mean there are less stories of some serial pedophile, from whichever country, having been found teaching kindergarten here. That’s good. The counter culture thing was fun, but there is a better chance of integrating into Taiwanese society when your job doesn’t brand you as just slightly above thief, and below gangster. I know that I would have found it difficult to marry if there hadn’t been a professionalization of ESL instructors. Still sometimes I miss the old west feel of being one of just a few foreigners in a country, ignored by local government and law enforcement. Professionalization has brought a certain blandness. I don’t imagine I’ll ever again, as happened on a break from teaching in Thailand, watch as one of my co-workers uses his break time to try to arrange an arms shipment to a tribe of rebels fighting on the Burmese border. Maybe that’s a good thing. But, I miss it.

Why Taiwan?

In a previous post (here) I give a broad explanation of my path to becoming an expat, but why choose Taiwan, after all the choices were virtually limitless.

Asia was booming at that time and a natural draw. I had a familiarity with the region, along with an interest in the history and culture. That background gave me enough cultural sense to be relatively comfortable. If I’d randomly chosen to go to Africa—I wouldn’t have had a clue. I understand the appeal of thrusting yourself into the total unknown, but when living abroad, an ability to contextualize your experiences increases the likelihood you won’t bounce back home in a couple months, emotionally exhausted from the weirdness. So it was Asia for me, I just needed to choose a country.

I had just finished a one-year teaching contract in Yeosu (여수시), South Korea. It was a thoroughly rotten experience. That was around 22 years ago, and Korea had a strongly xenophobic culture. It still does, though expat friends stationed there tell me it has improved a bit. If you’re going to stay in a country long term, it is nice to be allowed to fit into the society to some degree. At least there should be a chance of forming genuine friendships and even finding a girlfriend. Life without these basic social contacts with locals is a reality for many expats around the world. It takes a heavy toll on their emotional equilibrium, and can make them extremely crusty. I wanted to avoid any external factors that would create a cycle of negativity and make me more irascible than my basic nature dictates. I knew that I needed to find a country where the population wouldn’t ostracize me as a matter of principle.

Korea was out. Japan was eliminated for the same basic reason. Though perhaps not as overtly xenophobic, Japan is still very insular, and I feared a repeat of my Korean experiences. I had a job offer to teach at a university in China. I was likewise concerned about anti-foreigner sentiment there, but ultimately rejected the offer for financial reasons. I had a student loan debt that needed to be serviced, and the salary, though lordly in China, wouldn’t make the monthly payments. I considered Thailand, a country I love—that is certainly foreigner friendly—but rejected it for the same reason, not enough money. Other South-East Asian nations posed the same practical problems. I needed a certain level of earnings.

Thankfully there was Taiwan—the perfect fit. It was possible to make enough money to live, plus service my loans. The people are relatively open compared to other North-East Asian countries. I had been to Taiwan before, and liked it. Plus, I had some friends from Saskatoon already living in Taiwan, so there was a bit of a social network already established.

That’s how I ended up in Taiwan; but, why stay for 20 years? There have certainly been opportunities to move on. The expat community in Taiwan is unusually stable. Many choose to stay permanently. It’s unusual. In most countries there is a higher turnover of expats. I can’t speak for others, but for myself the primary reason is the people. They are open and friendly. At the simplest level, interactions with strangers on the street are handled with kindness and patience. During the early stages of my life here, this alone was enough to predispose me to like Taiwan. The fact that when lost, or confused, I could count on passersby to go out of their way to help was wonderful. The fact that the aid was invariable delivered with patience and a smile was icing on the cake.

That the Taiwanese’s warmth extends into deeper relationships is important. They are open to establishing friendships with foreigners. The friendships can be genuine and deep on both sides. I have found in other Asian countries that native-foreigner friendships often have a look-at-my-new-pet-white-guy cache for the Asian that precludes meaningful friendship. At work youare the company’s Caucasian, paraded out on formal occasions to give the company face as an international player. At the interpersonal level you can find yourself fulfilling virtually the same function for a group of guy friends out for the night. Hey chicks, look at us. We’re so international and sophisticated. See—we got a whitey. Or, when dating, you can become the white eye-candy giving face to some girl. (It took me a long time to figure this one out, somehow the fact that I was functioning as arm-candy didn’t instantly occur to me). Don’t get me wrong, there’s a little of this in Taiwan. However, it is not so prevalent as to preclude genuine interpersonal relationships.

Taiwanese society isn’t so overtly racist as to use moral suasion to prevent inter-cultural relationships. First a little anecdote, when I lived in Korea I had a coffee date with a charming Korean girl. When she got home in the afternoon, her father was waiting for her at the door. Someone had seen her downtown with “that foreigner” [I was the only one in Yeosu at the time] and phoned him at work. He took the rest of the day off and rushed home to confront her. Needless to say, that ended that. Fathers can play havoc on your dating life anywhere. Taiwanese fathers, and Canadian fathers, can be real bastards, totally unsympathetic to your sexual needs. However, in Taipei it’s hard to imagine friends or neighbors ratting out a girl to her family for dating a foreigner. They don’t have the concept that there is a social and moral responsibility to preserve the flower of Taiwanese womanhood. As weird as it sounds, that very notion exists in much of Asia.

These considerations were very important factors in my decision to stay in Taiwan. If you’re going to live long term in a foreign country your social needs should have a chance of being fulfilled. You need friendship, you need to be able to date, perhaps marry, start a family, etc. This is why I’ve stayed in Taiwan. Taiwanese society gives foreigners the chance to feel at home, what you do with that chance is your own responsibility. Of course there are other smaller reasons to continue to live here. Taiwan is very comfortable. There is lots of foreign food, Western entertainment, access to English entertainment, it’s relatively unpolluted compared to many other regions of Asia, has good public transport, jobs, etc. But, the real reason I’ve remained is the people—I love the Taiwanese.


Vignette #3: Kickin’ it Old School with GenX

Recently, while browsing my Facebook feed, I came across an inquiry in one of the groups I subscribe to. The young man was considering moving to Taiwan to look for an English as a Second Language (ESL) teaching job. He was seeking the normal information; job prospects, working conditions, living conditions, cost of living, etc. He received a lot of accurate information within hours. He went on to ask how people had ever managed to move abroad pre-Internet.

Well, let me tell you how it was back then, you, you… Millennial.

Of course we tried our best to do research before leaving, but there just wasn’t much information. You might be able to find government stats on the local economy, but you really had to use your imagination to glean from those charts the lifestyle you might expect to live in that country. You might comb your contacts for someone familiar with the country. These tended to be immigrants from the country, but often their information was wildly out-of-date and irrelevant to a newly arrived foreigner. Ultimately, after doing what research you could, you just had to man up and fling yourself into the unknown.

Some countries in Asia had ways of arranging jobs from Canada, that at least took care of one major worry. Taiwan did not. When I decided to move to Taiwan I had to accept that my job search would begin after my plane touched down. Unlike many others, I was [sort of] fortunate to have two friends living in Taiwan that I could phone for advice. As you might expect, their advice took the form of, “Yeah Man, come on out. There’s work here. You’ll do okay. Come out, Dude. We’ll party.” It was a little reassuring, but ultimately not what you want to stake your future on.

But, I did. I had no choice. The job market in Western Canada at that time was a soul-destroying sinkhole. Desperate times make desperate men.

I was broke, so I bought a plane ticket to Taipei with a credit card I shouldn’t have been allowed to have. I took a cash advance for whatever remained on my credit limit, so I’d be able to live, hopefully for a month, while I tried to find work and accommodation. That gave me about a month to get settled in Taiwan and find work. If I couldn’t get it done in that time my food and accommodation would run out, and I had no way to get back home. Those were the stakes. I gave my balls a tug, got on the plane—with one backpack, a mountain of credit card and student loan debt—and flew to Taipei, with very little sense of what awaited me, or how well I’d survive.

That’s how Generation X rolled back in the day, Son.

I Shan’t Return: A Canadian Expat’s Reasons for Staying Abroad

I’m a Canadian; but, I’ve lived more than two-thirds of my adult life abroad. With the exception of a year and a half in Canada, since graduating university, I’ve been living elsewhere. After finishing my Master’s degree at the University of Saskatchewan, I spent a year teaching in South Korea, which was enough to convince me to look for work in Canada. Looking for work in western Canada during the mid-1990s recession was enough to convince me to go back to Asia. I’ve spent the last 20 years in Taiwan.

Sakuras and Taipei 101. Darren Haughn©2015.

I am exceptionally grateful to my adopted country. Taiwan took me in and gave me meaningful employment at a time when that was not available in Canada. Beyond work, I’ve had the opportunity to build a life, marry, own a home, engage in hobbies and travel – all the things, big and small, that add color to a life. I’m not convinced that would have been possible if I’d remained in Canada, certainly it would have taken much longer. For these reasons, Taiwan has a place in my heart exceeding that of my home country.

However, lately my wife has been advocating moving to Canada. I’ve had a knee-jerk negative reaction, but apparently, “No damn way,” is not a well-reasoned argument. So, I’m going to try to elucidate the case for not returning to Canada.

I’ve spent my adult life living in Asia as a minority in race, ethnicity, language, culture, size, weight, etc. I am a true outsider in a way that few North Americans, with our racial and ethnic diversity, can really understand. When I do something – anything – everyone notices. Simply walking down the street can cause mass rubbernecking among the locals. Being the “other” is core to my existence and a huge part of my self-definition. If I’m not an expat then who am I? Moving back to Canada would constitute a huge existential challenge.

Perhaps that’s a bit ephemeral; in a practical sense, what would I do in Canada? My last job there was working as an editor for a long defunct newspaper. I cannot create an acceptable Canadian resume. There’s a 20+ year blank spot. For all a potential employer knows, I might have just got out of prison after a long hitch. The long-term expats I know, who have tried to return to Canada, have met blind resistance at job interviews. Most interviewers cannot see the diverse range of skills and personality traits required of long-term expats. They see only something new, strange, and scary. The best an expat can hope for is that the potential employer will simply ignore the last however many years of his life. Most who return to Canada find themselves moving from a professional career path to a janitorial position, and bounce back to Asia, much poorer for the experience, but a bit wiser.

What about simply not seeking work? Retirement sounds good, but who spends their entire career in a warm climate and then retires to a polar region. That’s a special kind of stupid. Likewise, you shouldn’t retire to a place with a higher cost of living than where you worked. The economics simply don’t work. It is more logical to either retire in Taiwan, or move to a cheaper and warmer country, perhaps in South East Asia, Latin America, or Spain.

Finally, economic well-being has been elusive. Asia is full of Canadian Generation Xers, I’m one. When we finished our educations, Canada was a jobs wasteland for degree holders. Many lost a decade or more trying to get their careers going. It has been a real challenge to build job stability and prosperity because of the place and times I come from. It took a solid 17 years to work myself into a satisfactory job. Geographic stability has likewise been difficult to achieve. I had to trade geographic stability for a chance at economic comfort. It is only in the last few years that I have felt myself putting down real roots. Part of that process has been marrying a wonderful Taiwanese woman. I am loath to simply throw away these hard won gains, and repeat the same pattern over again.

At heart I love both countries – but, it’s Taiwan for me.