Monday, August 17, 2009

Work in Taiwan: Beyond teaching I

After going through the usual stages: teaching... then studying chinese... then thinking i had made all this effort to study i should try and get a job where i had to speak it - I started to apply for jobs other than teaching.

Interviews for teaching English were artificial worlds in which every compensation was given for the fact that you didn’t speak Chinese and knew nothing about the culture. Generally, speaking they were done by some fluent English speaking aggressive Taiwanese girl who had a hundred westerners through her school every day – Or some old Taiwanese woman who didn’t speak five words of English and smiled at you for 10 minutes before phoning her one friend who spoke some English to ask her if she would offer you the job. Going for an interview at a Taiwanese company where i was applying for a job with everyone else, I guessed would be different.

Today was my first interview and I was nervous. The position was quality inspector - I would have to drive around the country visiting factories, giving their products a quality stamp of approval so they could get their letter of credit.

The next afternoon I was on the way to the interview in Taipei County, trying not to stare at the semi-naked betel nut girls while swerving for about the tenth time to avoid another scooter going down the wrong side of the road in my direction.

I was driving to an industrial park in Wugu, a suburb west of Taipei. Everyone thought the traffic was bad in Taipei city, until they crossed any of the bridges which connected the city to the county. Once over the bridge everybody immediately took off their helmets because the police in the county didn’t enforce that law. The removal of helmets was a huge irony, because you needed that helmet more than ever this side of the bridge, but Taiwanese were risk takers, and didn’t believe that the government should be telling them what to do.

The eight lane wide roads, the minimum number necessary to keep traffic flowing at all through Taipei city, suddenly became two or four wide in the county. In the event of even slower moving traffic, it seemed there was only one thing to do – drive more aggressively. In the city the eight lanes meant the sun was still able to get past the buildings to the street, here the street was plunged in permanent shadow. Finally, the local government made it worse by seemingly using only discretionary flashing lights – On the one lane intersections in Taipei they used traffic lights that permanently flashed suggesting slow-down; in the county these lights were everywhere.

Fine, if there was less fucking traffic, I thought, but there wasn’t, so all you could do was to pull out hitting your horn as loud as you could and hope for the best.

I had wanted to get off after the first junction, and take a taxi.

“Jesus Christ, I am still alive…And surprised,” I shouted as I arrived at the company, and another ‘Killer Truck’ shot by missing me by inches. They were caused ‘Killer Trucks’ for obvious reasons: used to carry heavy building materials up and down the country their amphetamine-fuelled drivers were the major cause of death on the road. In one infamous case, the driver is reported to have reversed back over a pregnant woman to kill her because the funeral costs would be less than the hospital bills.

I parked up my motorbike and tried to knock the exhaust fume pollution from my shirt, but only managed to smudge it across the white front. Now I knew why the Taiwanese wore a jacket no matter the weather.

“Manager Liao, we have a foreigner here for the interview,” spoke the receptionist into the phone.

This job was for foreigners only, I thought, so presumably, today, there was a need to go beyond my alien status to describe me, perhaps as - ‘Foreigner Two O’clock.’

I settled down in the reception area with my glass of warm water, and smiled at everyone as they passed by pointing at me and whispering behind their hands.

It was a new building - I qualified myself because they had a different idea of measuring building age in Taiwan: built ten years ago was old, new meant last year. This one was especially new: It still smelt of fresh paint, and untreated asbestos; plastic cut from the end of wire cables still lay on the floor next to sockets; the walls were still perfectly white.

Half an hour later I was led to an empty office to meet my interviewer.

“Sorry, I am very busy,” she said because she was late.

“No problem, I know you work very hard. I can tell.” She took her head a little to feign the compliment, but I knew it had been appreciated. I had learnt quickly how to make a Taiwanese person feel good about her or himself.

She dipped her head a little and handed me her card with two hands. “I am Emily Liao.”

“So you are the personnel manager, nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too,” she replied nervously, and we shook hands like it was a naughty, empowering experience.

After the hand shake she returned her hands to a folded position in front of her waist, kept smiling, and clearly was getting stuck on how to move onto the serious part. "So you have any questions for me?" I asked.

They were nice people, I thought, but sometimes a little too polite; standing on ceremony seemed an essential skill to learn.
“You are from England?” she asked, now firmly sitting back straight on her chair, hands in her lap.

“Bath. Have you been?”

“Hmm…not England. I studied in Manchester for two years.”

“Great…Wow,”I said. I had been to Manchester many times but I wasn’t going to ask her what school she went to, I didn’t want this part of the interview to go on too long.

There was a long silence in which I kept the upbeat smile, waiting for her to move on, but it didn’t happen. “I bet you had a great time?” I felt forced to ask.

“Hmm… yes.” There was another long silence. She felt guilty about spending my interview talking about her experiences in England, so she waited for me to ask another question. She later told me I was unusual - All the other guys she had interviewed that week wouldn’t shut up about their homelands, and the difference between Taiwan and abroad. She didn't want to offer them the position but they were fun to talk to.

"So how long you been in Taiwan?” She gave up and got on with the interview.

“Two years.” It was a lie but there were good reasons for it.

“So your Chinese is very good?” she asked me speaking Chinese.

“Na li, na li (Oh, not so good).” It was hard trying to control the desire to shout my achievements loudly, but this was Taiwan - You were supposed to get your brilliance across through a smokescreen of humbleness.

“You like Taiwan?” she asked back speaking English.

It had gone as expected: Taiwanese always ask if you spoke Chinese and when you replied, yes, they continued to speak to you in English. It was sufficient to say you had studied for a long time and they took you at your word. I had only studied for six months, not long enough. It would be a challenge if I got the job.

“Do I like Taiwan?” I repeated back to her getting stressed at the way the interview was going.

Have we started the interview yet? Can I get on with detailing how I have motivated teams…Got diverse and opposing personalities to work together…improved performance across a company. I was getting worried I wouldn’t have a chance to prove myself; that she didn’t like me, but was embarrassed to say so.
“Taiwan is an exciting place. Fantastic business opportunities,” I said.

“Don’t worry. You can say if you don’t like it. Taiwan is too busy; too competitive. We work all the time, because afraid the boss."

She continued,“So why did you come to Taiwan?”

Now, I really wanted to ask if they had started the interview yet.

“I spent two years working as a buyer in the clothing industry back in England so I think it would be easy to make the transition to quality control,” I replied determined to conduct the interview myself. “Under my watch costs were negotiated down thirty percent, return rates were lowered, and we secured deals with premier high street brands…Of course, I got a lot of support, and now I feel I could have done much better. I still have lots to learn.”

“I know,” she replied. “I read your resume. You are extremely well-qualified.”

I wouldn’t trust anything I wrote there. You are duty bound to try and catch me out. Jesus, I wasted my time last night memorizing it.

“I am an independent guy who is prepared to make decisions.”

I know you think that is a good thing, she thought. Pity the boss won’t let you.

“I have always been an organized person, and a good communicator, but I have enhanced those skills through my work experience.”

Hmm, refer to the thing about the boss. Anyway, you don’t have to keep talking about these things. Don’t we all have them? You managed to get the qualifications and work experience, so of course you have those things. How else did you survive there? You learnt that is the important thing.

“You come for the work experience?” she now asked suspiciously, and he kind of felt this was the make or break question; the test of my integrity and initiative.

“My girlfriend is Taiwanese and she wants to live here. After a year of dating back in England she gave me a choice, and now I like the place.” It had taken a while to think of this excuse – Taiwanese bosses were very aware that their companies did not have very good reputations and paid low wages, so they were pleasantly surprised and suspicious that you would want to work for them. The truth - I have fucked around for the last few years so now I need some work experience. Or, I am a loser who can’t get a job in my own country – was best avoided; similarly, when you had a resume packed with the sort of experience mine was, you had to make them feel comfortable you would stay.

“Really. No wonder your Chinese is so good. You didn’t say you have the Taiwan girlfriend.”

“Yeah, sorry, about that. I just got wrapped up detailing my credentials for this position.”

“So, you speak Chinese at home or English?”

“Both. Mostly Chinese now as I am supposed to be trying to get a job here.”

“Wow. So you two are very happy?”

“That’s right.”

“As I was saying when I entered that company in England, I instituted a checklist system to standardize purchasing. Something I am sure you know about in this job.” I naturally assumed in a quality control position that this there would be a series of standardized checklists to follow.

“Yes, you are very good. I know. Hmm...So you say, your weaknesses are you like to work all the time? That is right?”

“Yeah, people keep criticizing me for having no interests, no social life. Work, work, work,” I replied. I wrote that I was football team captain on my first resume, and kept drawing attention to it during the interview. I didn’t get the job, so I asked the personnel woman, and apparently, they liked me, but thought I was a bit lazy wasting my time playing sports during university instead of studying.

“Hmm, I think you suit the Taiwan.”

She could speak almost perfect English, but still added unnecessary ‘the(s)’.

“Yeah, many people keep telling me that.”

She checked her watch. “Ah, nice to meet you. I must go…Please wait a moment,” she said, then paused to congratulate herself.

It seemed an appropriate use of politeness was viewed as ninety percent of the job in Taiwan. I taught business English, and my students spent half the time asking me if their email was polite enough:

Client: Did you get the file?
My student: Dear Michael,
How are you? Thank you kindly for your email yesterday.
Please be informed I got the file.
If you have any other queries please do not hesitate to contact me. Have a good weekend. Yours sincerely and best regards…

I had sent several emails back and forth with this woman, and she was no different:

Thank you kindly for your email, and the submission of your resume. It was wonderful to speak to you yesterday by phone…Kind regards…
Thank you for your email of yesterday requesting confirm of the time of your interview. Please be informed your interview time is….
I was extremely happy to receive your email request you can change the time of your interview…Thanks and best regards…
It is a pleasure to enclose a small map of how to get to our company…Kind regards again…Have a good day.

“Nice to meet you too,”I said half-heartedly as she left the room. I was disappointed I had wasted all of last night inventing those examples of showing initiative and overcoming obstacles. I sat wondering what had gone wrong. Why didn’t she like me? Perhaps she knew my resume was fake and was just too polite to say. Taiwanese like to avoid confrontation so she must have just gone through the interview, and now she would send someone to politely get me out of the building.

“Hi, nice to meet you,” said a different woman as she strode into the room, disturbing me from my analysis. She had an impeccable American accent, power-suit, and purposeful walk which said she was the boss, not the lackey sent to throw me out.

Ten seconds later. “Sit down,” she said because I was standing smiling like the personnel manager just had.

“Sorry.” Jesus, I thought, this dithering is catching.

“My name is Mary Chu, I am the Greater China Regional Manager. Emily says you are the best candidate so far, by a long way. She won’t disturb me unless she thinks you are good.”

“Thanks,”I replied wondering where she got that insight from. “As you can see I have a history of success in business. I am pro-active, not afraid to take decisions or risks kind of guy.”

I could tell from her manner she had spent most of her time in America and I could dispense with the well if you think so, but I really am too humble to say manner.

“I just have a couple of questions. So you think you can handle Chinese people? You know we have the face problem, and you are younger than many of the bosses. They won’t like to take orders from someone younger than them.”

“Yes, I have always been a diplomat. Anyway, Taiwanese are smart people, reasonable, open-minded and more modern than you think.”

She gave me a look that said you are either a really good bullshitter or naïve as hell. Either way, I would be perfect.

“You know, the reason we like to employ foreigners is because they are more honest,” she revealed. “Customers here like to give the red envelopes. You know bribes.”

“Well, you can rely on me,” I replied with all the sincerity I could muster, smirking to myself at the stereotyping.

I was called a foreigner and stereotyped every minute of everyday, and if I was pushed to use a negative term, I would also define this as racism - I had been through the politically-correct English education system, schooled in the premise that all reference to the nationality of an ethnic minority was racism. You couldn’t take one look at the oriental guy and put him in the top math class. Why? - Even though it was essentially a positive move, it was stereotyping.
However, unlike many, I was making the highly controversial decision that racism wasn’t such an endemic and integral part of a Confucian culture that one had to withdraw into their shells and not engage the people. I was making the outrageous conclusion, that perhaps an element of what was going on was ignorance, and perhaps, with a little patience stereotypes could be smashed. I wasn’t afraid to be an ambassador for my culture.

I was also going to take advantage of the positive stereotypes when they came. Presumably, no black guy ever says, “how do you know my dick is big, you racist” to the hot girl who wants to sleep with me.

In this case, one good thing that Hollywood had done for Westerners was permeate the myth that business in the West was honest, that we had integrity, we soul searched and made the right decisions.

They had obviously not heard of Nick Leeson, I thought.

Likewise, I would worry about the negatives later - And if there was a glass ceiling I couldn’t rise above, at some time in the future, then I would leave, but for the moment the ceiling was way above my head.

Still I knew some guys who took it personally, refusing positive and negative alike; who would take pleasure in citing to her all the examples of corporate corruption in America. I knew they had a point, that perhaps they were taking the moral high ground because it was racism, but then I also remembered why I need this job. I was here to make up for the three or four years I had spent hanging around doing nothing since graduation. There were very good reasons to smile at the stereotypes and think about the work experience I wanted.

Soon I was wandering out of the building in shock, wondering how Emily knew i was the best candidate. I sat on my motorbike outside the office, thinking it was best to resolve this before I had to concentrate on the traffic.

Why didn’t she care about my people skills? Getting a degree or succeeding in anything wasn’t about just the accomplishment; it was about the manner, efficiency with which it is achieved. It made no sense.

I kind of promised to come back next Monday with my passport so they could process my work permit. It made sense to take the job – the company was actually an international one (albeit a foreign subsidiary) and the position was quality assurance of Taiwanese manufacturers. It was a good, solid job.

Another one of those ‘killer’ trucks went by spraying me with exhaust fumes, and I got my jacket out of the inside of my motorbike, and put it on back-to-front.

As I left I drove past ‘Future Ever Last Transistors’ again and sighed - Coming to this industrial park hadn’t been good for me because I had spent the afternoon driving past similarly awkward named companies, all the time practicing that sales pitch about bringing value to their international operations, helping them attract new customers.

That marketing company would be great fun… interesting…a wonderful challenge, I thought.


Claudio said...

Great description. My wife is Taiwanese, I have been to TW several times since 2004 and will be there again at the end of Oct 2009, and your description of the interview sounds like a perfect recap of what I have learned about Taiwan so far. Your ability to explain what must be going on in the interlocutor's mind and what forces (stereotypes, traditions) are at work behind the scenes makes your blog more interesting than the average expats blogs (including mine, probably).

Regarding Taiwanese speaking good English yet adding a few extra "the" here and there (and regarding your town too): I used to live in Surrey, and I had to insist with my then-girlfriend that "go to Bath" and "go to the bath" should not be used as if they meant the same.

Paul said...

Maybe they're not doing anything purposefully, maybe it's how they've been brought up to be. Some might have more insight and an analytic mind but some might plainly just be themselves. It's hard to blame someone for how everyone else made them to be. At least for me, up to a point, maybe.