Sliding Up and Down Taiwan’s Social Hierarchy

Asian societies are more hierarchical than the societies most expats come from. Whether we recognize it or not, our social status profoundly affects our daily lives. I’ve experienced some social mobility, upwards and downwards, since moving to Taiwan. As an outsider, I’ve been intrigued by how people’s reactions to me have changed with my altered circumstances.

People’s perceptions transformed when I switched jobs. Like many others, I started my Taiwanese journey as a buxiban teacher. Cram school teachers occupy a strange position in Taiwan’s social hierarchy. Teachers are traditionally very respected in Asia—buxiban teachers not so much. You’re barely considered a teacher, more of an overpriced tutor. I guess because you aren’t backed by a respected educational institute. Some cram schools hire undocumented and sometimes unqualified teachers—who occasionally did horrible stuff. Fly-by-night operations open, collect fees, and abscond in the night. These problems seem less frequent now, but during Taiwan’s buxiban gold rush, many fine teachers were tarred with this brush.

All that aside, I enjoyed buxiban teaching and probably would have continued indefinitely. However, I had an incompetent boss who’d taken a personal dislike to me. I forget exactly how he got me to overcome my natural state of inertia and start sending out resumes. I distinctly remember thinking I didn’t need to put up with his shit. I was right. I got a university job.

Taiwanese people’s attitude toward me shifted immediately. When it became generally known, I got a lot more respect from my buxiban students. Nothing changed in my teaching to warranted it. If anything, I got lazier as I began eyeing the exits. They seemed to suddenly regard me as wholly qualified. I was qualified before, but until I was fully vetted by an institution of higher learning, they had no way to be sure. Taiwanese coworkers had a similar reaction. My status with my buxiban bosses increased, I assume the logic was: I could never respect anyone who’d work for the likes of me.

That was all moderately interesting, but the change in status was most noticeable while dating. Taiwanese women are the canary in the coalmine—they let you know your social standing quickly and clearly. As a buxiban teacher, many women regarded me as okay for fun, a little sexual/cultural adventure on the wrong side of the tracks with a bad boy. If I became too attached, they were surprised I didn’t recognize myself as a dalliance. I was meant to be a fond memory of girlish recklessness that would get them through a lifetime of milquetoast married sex. I’d never been a bad boy and completely failed to recognize what was happening. I got used to it. When I switched to university teaching, I was completely unprepared to have Taiwanese women taking me seriously as a prospective mate. Blew my mind.

Whether I was regarded as a boyfriend or a toy, I was almost always a dirty little secret, concealed from family, sometimes from friends. It sounds bad, but actually is a common way for Taiwanese women to deal with social pressure around dating. It doesn’t just happen to foreigners. On the rare occasions that a woman introduced me to her family, the family would try to wreck the relationship. I assumed it was bigotry, but it stopped happening after I became a university teacher. I suddenly became a stable and reasonable candidate for their daughter and there was a palpable change in my treatment. I’m sure marrying would have been more difficult had I remained a buxiban teacher. It turns out the issue wasn’t racism: it was classism.

I found the whole thing amusing. Taiwan’s social hierarchy wasn’t deeply ingrained in my psyche. As an outsider to Taiwanese society, I have the privilege of fitting in equally well—or poorly—no matter the group’s social status. I’ve moved comfortably among the highest and lowest levels of Taiwanese society.

Recently I’ve taken a little trip down the social hierarchy.  We have a house on Taipei’s Hoping East Rd. The neighborhood is on the richer side of middle class, or the lower side of rich.  People there have pretensions, and tend to be a bit uppity in conversation: “I say Muffy, striped tuna with spotted dick? Why it’s simply not done, wot, wot”, or the Taiwanese equivalent. I was comfortable there, but we recently got another place in Chungho. The neighborhood is very middle class; teachers, police officers, small business owners, etc. It’s earthier than the old neighborhood. I’m very comfortable here too.

The advantage of not fitting in anywhere is you fit in everywhere. Being accepted by every level of Taiwanese society is another matter.