Monday, July 27, 2009

Expat Culture in Taiwan: How to be authentic

Most foreigners weren't in Taipei working for big banks in expat jobs, they had gone to Taiwan to: find themselves, or have a year or so out of the rat race - or pursue interests; in other words they were suffering from very high levels of needing to be authentic to themselves.

And, if you wanted to be authentic to yourself you had to get out of teaching whether you liked it or not: teaching was our immigrant job and 99% of people were English teachers.

We shouldn't be complaining too much: Chinese immigrants died building railways in the States, Filipinas have to clean floors and our old people; in the history of immigrant jobs English teacher has to about the cushiest number ever - but then again we weren't poor people trying to pay for a starving family but self-important, young middle-class westerners with degrees.

Unfortunately, because 99% of work for foreigners was teaching or editing the English language it was difficult to be authentic to yourself. Inevitably like the waitress in LA who was an actress, years later you would be telling people about your plan to get out of teaching.

The number one way to be authentic to yourself was to open a bar or restaurant. We foreigners went to all the western restaurants opened by the local Taiwanese and complained and criticised about something that wasn’t perfect – but wasn’t actually bad – they could, of course, do better. The number of foreigners who could open a better bar, restaurant or night club than the locals, stood as a higher percentage than the number of English men after eight pints who could do a better job than the England football manager.

Opening a restaurant wasn’t quite as cool as bar, but it was pretty much the next best thing you could do considering the independent, be your own boss lifestyle consciousness that dominated here. Opening a restaurant didn’t seem to hold the stereotypical position that opening a Chinese or Indian restaurant did for immigrants in England: the market was still new, and not so many foreigners had done it because we were outsiders, needing to get Taiwanese business partners and negotiate our way around government legislation and licenses; it involved a lot of hard work and risk.

The position of number one stereotype was given to opening a language school; everyone sniggered at these people – while they themselves were inevitably teaching English but telling themselves they were looking for something else. For example, after five years in Taipei when John had opened a school making lots of money, people would still ask him when he was going to start doing something he wanted. He would occasionally explode: "What the f...? I am not some stupid middle-class boy who criticizes the Taiwanese for having face problems all day but then has bigger ones of his own. Don't you understand the basics of life? - The pride of earning a wage to pay for a family and a nice sofa. To not being a loser having to drink beer from the 7/11 every night?"

John's comment had some truth. Inevitably if you wanted to show you weren't a real teacher you had to do several things that resulted in you not saving or having a lot of money:

1) Don't work too many hours a week.
2) Don't get promoted and actually improve as a teacher.
3) Don't stay at the same school for too long.
4) Have long breaks away in Thailand or somewhere that show how free spirited you are.
5) Don't get a work permit but fly to Hong Kong every two months to get a tourist visa and work illegally.
6) Spend lots of money on Chinese classes.
7) Apply, pay the fees, but never finish an online qualification from a university back home.
8) Sign up at a kung fu school and become quite good.
9) Try your hand at journalism and editing work which was still being employed for your English but paid extremely poorly compared to teaching.
10) Turn down all those opportunities to invest in or open a language school.
11) Tell yourself you want to keep your options open; you might be leaving soon, while secretly knowing you will never leave.

Of all the foreigners in our little group Pierre suffered worst from this.

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