Category Archives: Work

Face Meet Foreigner, Foreigner Meet Face: Taiwanese Management and the Expat

In my first job, the school’s management structure was traditional Chinese, meaning there were many layers of middle management, each responsible for very little, if anything. At times it seemed almost like there was one boss for every two workers. During more than five years with the company, I never ascertained what any of them did. Mostly they seemed to just swagger in and out of my work life, looking boss-like, whilst accomplishing little. Each sported a grandiose though ultimately unenlightening title: Executive Director of Corporation (what corporation, it was a school); VP Hospitality Services (at a school?); Managing Director of Marketing, East Sea Zone (where is the East Sea?); etc.

Many Taiwanese companies have a top heavy structure. Presumably, one reason is that the Taiwanese like to have face. One way to get face is to have a title, preferably as majestic and cryptic as possible. For management distributing titles is an easy way to give a stellar worker a bit of face. It is an economical incentive and effective in keeping up workplace morale. Another benefit is the company builds its corporate face by having a Managing Director of Grommets, Asia Pacific Zone on staff. It’s a win for everyone, except that many of these “managers” do not have a management role, or at least not a very clearly defined one. Many Taiwanese managers are little more than local industry’s superfluous third nipple.

In my school the coven of middle managers seemed primarily concerned with accruing more face for themselves. The time-wasting meeting was a favorite tool of middle managers who felt the need for a little ego bump. The process went something like this: call a general meeting, usually no reason for the meeting was given, because usually there was no purpose; the workers would show up and sit quietly, while the boss du jour paraded back-and-forth at the podium, fingers hooked under his armpits, chest stuck out, pontificating grandiosely on some point of total insignificance. At monologue’s end the floor would be opened to discussion.

Asian staff members all were savvy enough not to engage in any discussion. Veteran expats also had things figured out enough to avoid talking. At these meetings, there would be no discussion, mostly because nothing of substance was ever said. At the end, the boss would make some self-important grunts and stride out of the meeting hall—cock of the walk—happy that face had been served and the office’s hierarchy acknowledged and maintained.

These little morality plays tended to get pretty roughly ground up on the rocky shoals when there were newly arrived teachers from America, Australia or Europe. New arrivals consistently failed to discern the purpose of such meetings. They frequently interrupted the boss’s self-serving little monologues with questions, observations, or suggestions, generally on the stupidity of how things were currently being done.

Boss: “…and, as I proposed in discussions with the Assistant Vice-Minister of the Ministry of Education,” said while positively bursting with the radiated importance of having rubbed shoulders with such an august personage. Puffing himself up, so all present could better appreciate his importance, the boss would continue, “We should have more real-world English, including, but not limited to business situations, foreign classroom situations,…”

Newby #1: “Well, there’s no such thing as business English, that’s simply a marketing technique. We need to provide our students with a sound founda…”

Boss [wresting back control of the conversation]: “Yes, well, we can certainly examine that. But, to continue, the Assistant and I agreed to get together a proposal to take to the Minister regarding this very important new initiative….”

Newby #2: “Excuse me, if you’re going to be talking with the Education Minister, maybe you could address the issue of class sizes. Teaching a language course with class sizes sometimes reaching seventy students is a joke, and needs to be addressed.”

Boss [clearly losing his equilibrium]: “ Yes, well, okay, but back to the point…”

The above conversation is a pretty typical example of how these meetings could rapidly devolve into something that was never intended; a meaningful exchange of ideas between workers and management. I have seen bosses literally become so nonplussed by the out of control level of interaction that they ran away in the middle of their speech. If they managed to limp to the end of their speech—all the while questioning how much face they were really getting and whether getting face from a bunch of crazy laowai ( 老外) was worth the trouble—and opened the floor to general discussion that’s when things really slipped away from them.

Occasionally bosses staggered to the general discussion phase of the meeting, but I never saw one make it beyond. The Asian way for a meeting’s general discussion to proceed is with each staff member sitting quietly, offering up as little input as possible, allowing the boss to strut around a bit pretending to try to elicit comments. After these fruitless attempts, the boss having completed his strutting and crowing would stride out, face served, while the workers trickled out – nothing achieved.

Not so when newly minted expats were involved. When the floor was opened to discussion, the newly arrived staff member would take over the floor to set up a roundtable discussion to really dig into the issues, root around, and expose the internal inconsistencies of how things were being done, with an eye to improving on the frankly irrational system they were laboring under. This is the opposite of face-giving. It was digging around looking for problems. From a Taiwanese perspective, the newbies were trying to change things that had been done a certain way, for a long time, and hence obviously should always be done that way.

The poor boss who hadn’t been looking to solve any problems, or God forbid change anything, but simply wanted to engage in a practical reminder of the social structure and each person’s position in the pecking order, was inevitably forced to flee the room with the uncomfortable realization that, at least in the eyes of his employees, the social hierarchy might not be quite what he thought. Of course all this subtext was totally lost on newly arrived teachers, who inevitably were disappointed that the boss would choose to leave just as they were beginning to peel away the layers of illogicality and really get at how to improve the workplace.

Oh those wacky foreigners.

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.