English Teachers in Taiwan

I get letters from people who want me to promote Taiwan or, more specifically, their Web sites, to prospective English teachers. I don't really know how to respond other than to say Taiwan really doesn't look like a good proposition. Here are the facts as I know them:

1. Taiwan has one of the lowest birthrates in the world. There aren't enough kids to go around.

2. The market is over-saturated. There's a struggling English cram school on every block.

3. Taiwan has some pretty tough visa policies. An English teacher will be asked to undergo a physical annually in order to obtain a work visa. This work visa is quite restrictive. You'll become more or less an indentured servant to whatever school signs for you. They will hold the work visa over your head, constantly threatening to revoke it if you do not agree to work split shifts (early mornings and evenings, plus Saturdays). To add injury to insult, you'll probably be asked to pay for the work visa and even the physical, which includes a blood test and X-ray, out of your own pocket. If you ever want to break free, and embark on the process of getting permanent residence, you'll undoubtedly find the process maddening. You'll be subjected to all kinds of strange behavior and, basically, the whims of the bureaucrat processing it. You should also keep in mind that the total of Westerners that have ever obtained citizenship is less than a hundred.  

4. Taiwan has a new tax law for "foreigners", namely, they must surrender 20 percent of their income (a very high tax bracket for Taiwan) for the first six months of every year. Considering they will only earn somewhere around US$30,000, this would probably be pretty tough to bear. They should keep these points in mind: Locals in the same financial situation will only be asked to fork over six to 13 percent. Also, this seems to be a violation of Taiwan's constitution, which states in Chapter I, General Provisions, Article 5: "There shall be equality among the various racial groups in the Republic of China (Taiwan)."

Today, I received a letter from a recruiter asking me to put my blog (they must be desperate) behind his efforts. In all sincerity, I am the last guy he should ask. First, I haven't worked in the cram school racket for some time, so any positive comments by me on the matter would be disingenuous. Second, I have my visa through my Taiwanese wife, which is sort of like a Taiwan green card. Therefore, I'm more or less exempt from the visa BS anyone else coming from overseas would surely encounter.

Please note that the mandate of this blog is personal amusement, meaning a bit of history, day-to-day anecdotes and whatever else pops into my mind. Recruiters stay away. I am not interested in "sharing the belief that living and working abroad is a unique and amazing opportunity to travel and see the rest of the world." I am not interested in being part of a "recruitment process [that] provides candidates with as much information about living abroad as we can". I am in Taiwan for the long haul. I love being here and I couldn't leave if I felt otherwise. I am not interested in people looking to get their rocks off on stints overseas while they find themselves. In fact, this kind of voyeurism disturbs me.


Cahleen Hudson said...

How does this tax thing work exactly? I know we have to pay 20% now, but do we get 14% back once we file our taxes? I definitely don't see too may benefits of teaching English in Taiwan these days. There are a bunch of pointless laws that we're supposed to follow, but what's confusing is as soon as you step through the door of the cram school your boss is asking you to break these laws (working at kindies, working before you actually have your ARC, working at multiple locations not on your ARC, etc.). What's the point in even having these laws? It's quite confusing.

Thoth Harris said...

What does it mean to "find yourself" anyway? I never understood that, anyway. At least Bernard Madoff found himself...in jail!

Anonymous said...

The constitution of any country usually only applies to citizens unless specified otherwise. Sure, maybe it's a contradictions on the level of principles if the ROC aspired to be a government welcoming of all people, but a greater tax on those not holding citizenship does not seem unconstitutional in any way.

Besides that "race" is very curiously defined by the ROC and PRC, the constitution isn't serious--it was never approved by the people of Taiwan and despite provisions for democracy, that never seemed to keep the KMT from imposing martial law and a dictatorship.

I mean, "officially", Nanjing is the capital of the ROC, and China, Tibet, Mongolia are all still "territories" of the ROC.

But all that aside, you're right: the visa and tax policies aren't good for the competitiveness of Taiwan, the people that are generally here are horrible at teaching, and I don't generally like their motivations either.

Thoth Harris said...

The problem with Anonymous' comments is that "he" or "it" appears to be a pan-China, crypto-China advocate. Or at best, er, a relativist.
But maybe that is the destiny of Taiwan these days. I see more xenophobia. I see more indifference (to Taiwan's place in the universe). I see more venality. I see more pro-China sentiment. More interest in lynching "bad, bad Chen."
My own country, Canada, seems to have suffered the same draconian fate. Ironically, the once-backward looking U.S. has accomplished a cultural revival. Canada has become more divisive, vulnerable and backward looking than I could have ever imagined in my lifetime.
But considering how things are becoming in Taiwan these days (including the venal capitulation to China and lackluster youth's relation to its or any future whatsever)...etc. etc. I may as well go back to Canada. I have seriously been considering that. For many reasons. I rarely do things for one reason only. But where in Canada do I go. I came from Quebec. Not where I was born: I am an anglophone. However, I am considering that cheering on Quebec separatism might be a virtue in and of itself! Quebec is at least a strong social antidote to Stephen Harperism!
I have a bone to pick with "Anonymous" coward. So many people, including anonymous (who I suspect is simply another foreigner as well, continuously harp on about "the people that are generally here" being "horrible at teaching" whom anonymous claims doesn't "like their motivations." What motivations? Money? That is not a bad motivation, within reason. And according to whom or what, is their teaching bad? Whose teaching? A lot of generalizations here. It is true, in a way. A lot of foreigners, in my experience are cliché, in appearance, in attitude, in class, and in composure. But that leads me mainly to conclude that employers are choosing in a truly unoriginal way. It is not that employers are choosing from the lowest of the low. If the visa and tax policies are so strenuous, you would thing that the level would go up. But that is not the case. Making generalizations about "all these foreigners" is, in my mind, xenophobia. It makes me wonder if Anonymous Coward isn't one of these tens of thousands of sucky bosses out there. I just love these people who make snarky comments under the cover of anonymity and don't even hold themselves acccountable or support their statements with anything beyond yapping. At least empirical evidence based on experience would account for something. But instead, we just get more poison. Maybe Anonymous is one of these consultants/recruiters. While I maybe being a bit snarky now, at least I am not anonmous, and I aint now coward, hardy har har har. Motivations? I accept people who want money, experience, better exposure to language, improvement of education in their destination country, interest in a new home, community, etc. What I don't find justifiable are such phony, abstract goals as finding oneself, spiritual renewal, spiritual conversion (Mormon missionaries fall into the latter bracket).
Actually, while I do agree with much that you, Patrick, say on your post, I do disagree with you about Taiwan's regulations being the most strict. Korea and Japan have stricter qualifications. Korea requires complete university transcripts, and not simply university diplomas. In addition, they require police checks. Such strictness is absurd, but it is not made-up. It is reality. Taiwan actually pays better than Korea.
China has tonnes of schools as well. But the pay and the exchange rate blows.

Patrick Cowsill said...

Anonymous: "The constitution of any country usually only applies to citizens unless specified otherwise." OK, but if you look at the line, it is specified otherwise. It reads "racial groups in" and not "racial groups of".

Cahleen, I really don't understand how the tax thing works. "Foreigners" still seem to be paying different percents. It seems to me that it's at the whim of the employer, whether they want to believe you're going to stay in the country for 183 days or not. Some companies are taxing "foreigners" that have been here for 20 years at 20%. Where are they going?

Troth, I think coming to Taiwan is a good idea under certain circumstances. If you're doing business, want to study, do some sightseeing, etc., Taiwan has a lot to offer. I just don't see prospects in Taiwan for teaching. Maybe this is also the case in Japan and Korea, but as I haven't lived in either of those countries, I don't have a perspective. My point is to warn people about recruiters. Question: Have you ever met an English teacher that has good things to say about his/her recruiter, who doesn't think his/her recruiter in retrospect is full of BS?

Anonymous said...

Other anonymous, could you please elaborate on PRC / ROC views of "race"? I am interested in this, and am not sure what you are referring to. (Has anyone formulated criteria of ethnic "Chinese-ness"?)

I agree that Taiwan's demographics are forbidding--locals as well as foreigners should think twice before pursuing careers in education. Another issue is the economy, which I expect to do poorly for quite some time. Of course this would apply to most countries in the world, but demand for buxiban education is notoriously seasonal.

If you really want to work here, I'd look into the possibility of teaching English in rural public schools--for example, serving aboriginal populations.

Anonymous said...

Strict visa policies and split shifts are the prices you pay for tons of partying and hot sex.

P.S. Yes--you get the rest back when you file your taxes. Never let your cram school do your taxes for you!

Jenna said...

Though you make a lot of good points, I still think Taiwan is a great place to set up shop simply because it's a great place.

A few points:

- Yes, the market is oversaturated. But with the economy reeling, many of these schools are in huge trouble and they will close. This will eventually help the market recalibrate to something more sustainable, and there will still be teaching jobs out there.

- True, cram schools can be a beeeeeeech to work for, but not all of them will hold your work visa over your head and threaten to cancel it and force you to work split shifts. Of those that do, it's mostly empty threats. If they follow through, sure they can replace you, but not without several classes - possibly weeks' worth - being a huge problem for them. Generally speaking, teachers have more leverage than they think.

- You don't necessarily have to work for a cram school anyway. I taught at Kojen for a year (and hated it; I only recommend it to those with zero teaching experience who want to learn a few things about running a good class, and even they should get out after a year). But after that year, I got into a killer corporate training gig that has me making armloads of money. All I have to do is teach well - the clients like me, so the school likes me, which means I have a lot of say in how things work.

Good jobs ARE out there if you are a good teacher.

- You get a huge chunk of that 20% withholding back, even if you arrive after June (you just get it back the next year). From then on, you pay 10% and in some cases 6% (I am in the 6% bracket and have no idea why, because I'm making good dough) - and I get some of that back, too! Compared to the USA, taking what I make and subtracting taxes, I'm doing better than most of my peers back home.

- Taiwan's a great place to come if you want to work and study Chinese at the same time. Yes, you CAN tell your laoban that you're going to take a Chinese class and won't be available to teach at that time; chances are he/she doesn't have the balls to back you into a corner over it.

In China, you can't easily work and study legally (though it's quite easy to do so illegally), but here you can.

- If you've been here for more than a year and you're still making NT$30,000 / month, you're not looking hard enough for a better job.

- Unlike Korea, where most cram schools really are horrific, not all cram schools in Taiwan are evil.

- Foreigners do have rights in Taiwan. There is mediation/arbitration available if you have a dispute with an employer, and you do have legal recourse if they withhold too much in taxes. We're not as fully protected under the Constitution as a citizen, but we are not without options.

Readin said...

I just don't see prospects in Taiwan for teaching....My point is to warn people about recruiters. Question: Have you ever met an English teacher that has good things to say about his/her recruiter, who doesn't think his/her recruiter in retrospect is full of BS?

While I was reading most of your post and comments, I was thinking about how much I learned and how much I grew up while teaching in Taiwan. (I never think of it as "finding myself" because I wasn't really lost. I did, however, uncover instincts I hadn't knwn about.) I found myself disagreeing with much of what you were saying, or at least thinking it only applied to people who plan to move to Taiwan for a long time.

Your comment about the recruiters provides more context, however.

I went to Taiwan on the word of people I knew who said jobs were easy to find. This was 15 years ago. Due to some poor planning and bad timing, jobs weren't as easy to find as I had been told. I pounded the pavement looking for jobs for months. I lived on bread, rice, and warm Sprite (I had no refrigeration and I was afraid to drink the water). At one point I had to accept charity so I could afford to see a doctor. I remember looking at my last NT$20 and deciding to forgo eating that night and take a bus to a job interview instead.

Eventually I got a good full-time job that I loved. I found tutoring work on the side. I regained some weight. And I had become a must more confident, aware, and less flappable person.

What if I had gone with a recruiter? Rather than finding work, it was handed to me at low pay and with little freedom to change? My experience would have been totally different.

I think people right after college should get out and do something. It doesn't have to be overseas teaching. But do something worthwhile and something different than what they'll be able to do once you have a wife and/or a mortgage.

Anyway, the reasons you listed for not teaching in Taiwan certainly apply to someone who wants to make it a career. But for someone who wants to learn more about life than they'll get in their insulated U.S./Canadian typical high school/college/9-5 job where other people assume all the risks and take care of their needs, teaching in Taiwan for a year or two remains a good option in my opinion.

However, you do make reference to "people looking to get their rocks off". If you mean that in a sexual sense, and the sense of bad behavior, then I think it is important to encourage people going to Taiwan to behave. I always looked at it as representing America. How many Americans does a typical Taiwanese meet? If I'm the only one, then their impression of the whole country will largely depend on me. I saw that as an important responsibility.

Patrick Cowsill said...

Jenna / Readen,

My problem is recruiters. What often happens is that people who are in dire straits, like younger people who have just graduated and are up to their eyes in debt, get taken in by them. Then they show up here and either a) they can be indentured servants b) quit, which often means going home even more broke (sometimes really screwed: airplane tickets aren't cheap).

I also came to Taiwan on my own in the nineties. I thought Taiwan was a great place - I still do. But things have changed for "foreigners" specifically looking to teach (especially if they have no networking) as the island became over-saturated. You must've both seen that.

Patrick Cowsill said...

"However, you do make reference to 'people looking to get their rocks off'. If you mean that in a sexual sense, and the sense of bad behavior, then I think it is important to encourage people going to Taiwan to behave."

Actually, I don't care at all about people having sex. I don't equate sex with bad behavior - I didn't mean it like that.

Readin said...

Actually, I don't care at all about people having sex. I don't equate sex with bad behavior - I didn't mean it like that.

When I find it difficult to meet Taiwanese ladies or to impress Taiwanese parents because they assume all young American men are after one thing and have no morals or ability to make a commitment, and when I know this comes from their observation of other American young men, then it tells me that at least they recognize a problem with certain behaviors and it also tells me that those behaviors can have negative consequences.

Certainly sex within marriage is fine. Whether it is ever acceptable outside of marriage is something reasonable people can disagree on. But surely you can recognize that some behaviors that too many young men (and some old men) practice regarding sex in foreign countries on short trips that are problematic.

Anonymous said...

If English teachers in Taiwan are equipped with a masters, do their homework when researching where to work/how to apply for jobs before they come, use a bit of common sense when proceeding, there should be very little trouble getting a decent job teaching there. If teachers are willing to live in a slightly more remote area as well, they can end up in a good situation. It just means you have to be a bit smarter, its not all laid out for you. But you can still make a good living and save money, even with the high tax rate.

Anonymous said...

What's wrong with foreign visitors wanting to get their rocks off? I don't buy this idea of foreigners being 'delegates' or representing their country in some way. If any Taiwanese person based their assessment of an entire nation of people based on, say, a devious sexual encounter, then that's their problem for essentialist thinking and judging many based on the behavior of an individual. If an American got used by a Taiwanese person abroad for sex, and thereby condemned Taiwanese people in general they'd be unfairly stereotyping. It works both ways.

Patrick Cowsill said...

"When I find it difficult to meet Taiwanese ladies or to impress Taiwanese parents because they assume all young American men are after one thing and have no morals or ability to make a commitment, and when I know this comes from their observation of other American young men, then it tells me that at least they recognize a problem with certain behaviors and it also tells me that those behaviors can have negative consequences."

I don't have an opinion on this sex thing one way or the other. I'm married and outside the issue. But I accept that Taiwanese will have their stereotypes about Americans and people from other countries as well. This comes from living an insular life, believing that Hollywood movies are infallible, accepting any spew mindless teachers shovel, not having any worldly experience and what have you.

Jenna said...

Actually, I first came with a recruiter (which is how I ended up at Kojen).

Kojen sucked but I thought the recruiting agency was fine.

Had I decided I really couldn't take it anymore and had to get out before the year was through, there's little the agency could have done; I signed no contract with them. It would have been just like any English teacher choosing to leave a job before the yearly contract is up.

As for being an indentured servant - fair enough. But...frankly most jobs in the USA are the same way. If not because the staff is coerced into pretending to care after hours of teambuilding BS, then because they can't afford to quit.

I never recommend Kojen unless you really have no idea about how to teach, but I recommend the recruiting agency that got me here all the time.

I still don't get what's up with this talk of the high tax rate. For the first six months, yes, but you get most of it back. But after that it's really not high at all. Since when is 6-10% a "high" tax rate?

As for foreigners doing seedy things in Taiwan - whatever. I can see why some locals have a bad impression of foreigners.

I have to admit, as a woman in a swarm of male expats, that a lot of my masculine compatriots do kind of make themselves look like asses...at least from my perspective.

That's their right; nobody's breaking any laws and this is not an attempt to scold or lecture...but in the end we all get judged on our behavior and to expect to act a certain way without fear of judgement or stereotype is ridiculous.

Jenna said...

And by the way, I also don't buy that "Taiwan has some pretty strict visa policies."

Compare them to almost any other country in the world save maybe Thailand and a few others, and their policies start to seem downright reasonable.

The annual check-up costs less than a check-up would cost in the USA with insurance, and you should get a check-up every year anyway, so I don't see the big deal there.

Your employer can only hold your work visa over your head if you let them and don't show enough backbone to call their bluff.

If you want to see restrictive visa policies, try China (where bureaucracy is maddening - much worse than Taiwan - and they give you a hard time if you want to work and study). Try India, where it is almost impossible to get a work visa - even if a company signs for you - unless you are an in-company transfer. Try Korea, where they now have all sorts of crazy laws about getting visas to work (that you have to be hired from your home country, for one). Hell, try getting a visa to the USA if you're non-Western!

Besides, unlike in most countries, you are legally allowed up to four employers on your ARC and at least one of them has to provide you with national health insurance, which is an absolute dream in my experience.

That is by no measure a 'tough' policy.

Patrick Cowsill said...

"Actually, I first came with a recruiter (which is how I ended up at Kojen). Kojen sucked but I thought the recruiting agency was fine."

Hmm. I came to Taiwan to learn Chinese. Then I had to work to support myself. I never came to Taiwan with the help of a recruiter. But this is the first time I've ever heard something good about them.

I am inclined to think this: Recruiters have a hand in low/stagnant wages and teachers being mistreated. Why? Because cram school managers or owners figure they can simply fork over a couple hundred US to a recruiter for fresh meat whenever they want.

Here are some things I wonder about:
1) Does the recruiter start to worry that he/she is recruiting for an exploitative employer or is he/she happy to get lots of requests for new teachers? They do, after all, work on commission.

2) Where do the commissions come from? I know they come from the employer, but do they actually come out of pay raises, bonuses, etc. that might otherwise go to the teacher who is doing the work.

3) What do recruiters do besides putting ads up on Dave ESL or Forumosa?

4) Perhaps I'm wrong. Why do you like your recruiter?

5) Who's your recruiter?

Anonymous said...

Although you are paying 6% now, that is soon going to change. According to new tax law, as of Jan. 2009, all foreigners are considered new arrivals on teh 1st day of EVERY tax year. This means that on Jan 1st ofer every year until the end of June, you'll be paying 20% tax. Many schools haven't figured this out yet but every week I hear of a new friend who is being charged 20%. That's a pretty big reason to stay away from Taiwan.

Patrick Cowsill said...

Right off, I called the tax office and they told me I didn't need to pay 20% because I'm married. But just yesterday, I was on Facebook chatting with a friend who is married to a local and who is paying 20%. His company hadn't even bothered to call the tax office. He'd just been automatically lumped with anyone else based on his nationality / race / passport. From my point of view, his wife is also being treated unfairly. Do other local woman have to put up with this?

Cho~ said...

Awesome post! Though I have only been in Taiwan for a month I am on the same wavelength; I am here to settle and stay for the long haul as I am marrying a Taiwanese woman.