By Lianne Lin
I lived in Taiwan (Taipei and Taichung) for three years, and though I had an amazing time, I experienced a more harmful type of racism there than I ever have in my home country. Born and raised in America, I would occasionally get teased or put down for being Asian, which was definitely damaging to the ego. However, that could not compare to the devastation of being turned down for job after job because of the way I look.
I’m an ABC (American Born Chinese) and come from the same ethnic background as 98% of the people in Taiwan today: Han Chinese. I was shocked to find myself facing discrimination in a country where I totally blended in with the locals, and heartbroken to feel rejected by a country I loved so much.
I moved to Taipei in early 2010 to study Mandarin and learn about my mother’s birthplace. I looked for ways to get a work visa so I could try and stay long term. Work visas must go through an approval process and require companies to pay high fees and taxes, so it isn’t easy for foreigners to get sponsored for most jobs. However, if you have a bachelor’s degree and a passport from the US, UK, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland or South Africa, it’s supposedly not hard to find an English teaching job.
I applied to every major school I could find in Taipei but got very few replies, just a few interviews that went nowhere. I got some substitute teaching gigs at kids’ schools through friends and started tutoring privately on my own. (Freelance work, unfortunately, does not lead to a work visa.) Another friend set me up with an interview at his school, where I was offered a position with an “ABC pay rate”, which is only 400 NTD per hour ($13.50 USD). This was ridiculous because I knew the rate should 600 NTD ($20 USD) or higher. This was my first time ever facing pay rate inequality, and I didn’t accept the job. Another friend who is hapa (mixed Asian/white), easily got a job at a well-known adults’ school and helped me turn in a resume. But later, my friend told me that his boss said that they didn’t want to hire ABC teachers. Apparently, as soon as the schools see either my photo or my Chinese last name, my resume goes into the trash.
I felt frustrated and angry, but completely powerless. I felt like all I could do was keep trying and hope for the best. Later, when I moved to Taichung to try my luck there, things were even worse. I wasn’t getting called for interviews at all. One day, I handed a resume to a woman at a school, who told me frankly that pretty much all of the schools in Taichung were only interested in either hiring local Taiwanese teachers (who don’t require the cost and hassle of a work visa) or Caucasians.
It seemed that image was more important than skill level or qualifications. According to what some schools told me, the reverse racism comes from the parents, who are paying a lot of hard-earned money for their kids to study English and they want to see their kids with an “All-American” white teacher. They don’t believe or understand that an Asian can be a “real” American.
It’s sad to think that some people believe that a person must be Caucasian in order to be a good English teacher. Darker skinned teachers (black, Indian, Filipino, etc.) often have an even harder time getting hired. And Taiwanese citizens may have a pretty easy time finding a job, but no matter how good their English level (some have lived in English speaking countries for many years), they usually get the lowest pay rate of all.
I returned to California in April of this year, for financial and personal reasons. Since then, I have talked to a few other teachers about this issue, and this is what they saw and experienced:
“When I talk to a school on the phone before an interview, everything is fine. But when I show up, they turn me away because I’m not white. They say, ‘Oh, I thought you were a foreigner.’ Now I always have to make sure I let schools know that I’m Asian American up front in order to avoid wasting my time and theirs.”
“I recently went to a school for an interview, and after they saw me (I’m South African born Taiwanese), they gave me the shortest interview of my life. Later, the school called to tell me that the position was given to someone else because I ‘do not have enough training.’ (I have 6 years of experience!) When I tried to ask them for an explanation, the woman told me it wasn’t she who interviewed me, then hung up.”
Mohammed Mo Patel
“I’m British born and of Indian origin. I went to a teaching job at a school that was arranged by an agent. Instead of welcoming me, the employees looked at me as if I were from outer space, then asked me to wait outside the office. Over an hour passed of being ignored. I asked to talk to a manager multiple times, and even had my agent call the school, but I was never invited inside. Eventually I gave up and left.”
Compared to countries like America, Taiwan has very little diversity, so people are definitely going to be more ignorant. But ignorance isn’t acceptable, especially for countries trying to become more globalized. Thankfully some progress is being made, thanks to teachers who are taking a stand. Annie Chen started an organization called TADIT (Teachers Against Discrimination in Taiwan) that organizes events to spread awareness about diversity and labor rights. They work to educate schools, parents and local politicians about equality between English teachers.
The more people who start and support groups like these, the faster we can bring about change. Any progress toward race equality in Taiwan will only lead to more positive recognition for this beautiful country that so many people love.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR. Lianne Lin is an international media personality, beauty stylist, model, and writer. Add Lianne on Facebook: http://facebook.com/liannelin