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Teaching English in Taiwan

You can make a pretty penny in Taiwan teaching English. Taiwan, Alaska, Korea and Japan are the world bank for ever on-the-move travelers. See our English Teaching Guide for more .

Running short of money in Asia I heard that good money was to be made as a street musician in Tai Wan. Getting on the case I soon learnt though that the embassy in Bangkok wasn’t giving out visas. You could fly straight in and they’d give you two weeks but that wasn’t long to raise some cash by singing the blues.

Remembering how impressed Asian bureaucrats are by pieces of paper, I emailed my publisher in England and requested that they fax me a letter. I supplied the following content:

Dear Mr Thumb,

We hereby agree to finance and support your travel expenses as necessary to cover research on your forthcoming book on the islands of the world.

We are particularly keen that you write in depth about the cultural centres of Cyprus, Hawaii and Tai Wan.

We shall send $3,000 on the 15th of each month by Western Union.

Thank you and good luck,

Bob Harris, editor of Alchemical Books

The Chinese officials behind the desk passed the letter back and forth in hushed voices. To up the ante I slapped down a copy of Hand to Mouth to India on the counter. They were determined to keep vagabond scum out of Tai Wan but a famous author? Well, they could hardly say no…

Mission accomplished I arrived in Tai Pei and was met by some friends of friends who I’d been in touch with through email – that great, democratic people-connector. Lesley was an English teacher who had been living here for two years and spoke good Mandarin with her local boyfriend. They quickly popped by busking dream by explaining that street music was no longer tolerated these das in Tai Pei. It might be possible in the rest of the island, they said but I was too low on funds to start traveling around.

Lesley showed me to a good hostel and gave me the score in Taiwan.

“Teach English, baby! You don’t need any kind of qualification, they’ll sort your work visa out for you and you can make like $3,500 a month for singing the alphabet with kids. Couldn’t be easier.”

‘Teach English’ was the mantra I heard everywhere and everyone at the hostel was doing just that. The blackboard was full of job offers, Most people had just landed and were waiting for their first few salary checks before they could get an apartment. Everyone kept quiet at night with the next day’s work in mind and there were a few interesting characters around.

One was a black guy called John from London who was the only person I met who wasn’t here to teach. Already fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin he was now mastering the Taiwanese dialect with the hope of entering the diplomatic field. He was an intelligent and thoughtful guy and the notion of him as a diplomat in China would have made perfect sense except for one thing. He was black.

People tend to associate racism with something that happens in their own country and maybe South Africa. The reality is that fear of another race of skin colour is endemic throughout the world and probably reaches its peak in South East Asia. In the tropics a dark skin denotes someone who works outside in the fields and is thus associated with poverty. Only the rich and educated could afford occupations that kept them nicely in the shade. Kind of the revere cultural status attached to getting a tan in the cold countries of the world.

If having brown skin is a social setback in Asia then being outright black puts you right at the bottom of the social scrap heap. John was fully aware of this but didn’t seem in the least bit daunted.

“The other day I was walking in the street and I heard one guy say to his friend:’Look! A black man!’ So I turned around and told them in Mandarin: ‘Look! Two yellow men. They almost fell off the wall they were sitting on.”

I wished him luck and sensed he was going to need it.

The second character of note I met was an Australian called Larry. At first glance he looked like a 40 something English teacher, clean-shaven, short hair and a shirt and tie. It turned out that until the previous winter he had been living as a sadhu in India for 20 years straight. Then he got word that his father was dying and wanted to see his son one last time. He forsook the mountain caves and riverside dhunis to go sit next to a hospital bed in Perth.

He’d seen nothing in the modern world that had changed for the better in the past 20 years and now was going back to the life of a wanderer in loin cloth in India.

“But now I’m getting older I want to have a little money on the side to take care of my health. The sadhu life is a good one but I could do with some extra nuts and vitamins once in a while.”

I’ve no doubt he made it back and is right now walking through the jungles of South India with dreadlocks and paint on his forehead.

Taiwan felt like something out of Bladerunner. Downtown neon was so prevalent that I started to see it in people’s eyes. The falling acid rain made it essential to get an umbrella or else your skin would start to itch a nd your clothing developed tiny holes. Not for nothing do futuristic film sets often depict an exaggerated Chinatown. If that’s how the future is going to look then I’m booking my mountain cave now.

The Taiwanese would probably have liked to blame the acid rain on mainland China but they didn’t really have a leg to stand on. City and industry covers the better part of the island and environmentalism is held in about the same regard as vegetarianism (the Chinese eat anything that moves). I remembered when an old friend had told me about the time a Taiwanese economics professor came to lecture at his college.

“It was back in the early 90’s when there was a lot of talk about the Tai Wan economical miracle. The professor had come to enlighten us dumb Americans and he bored us to death for two hours with the kind of stuff you read in textbooks. He spoke about innovations in technology, a loyal workforce and even digressed to the Taoist tactics of Sun Tzu.

Finally he wound up his speech by laughing and said: ‘Of course the real reason we do well is that here in America you have to spend millions to safely dispose of your toxic waste – we just throw it in the sea!”

A couple of days later I had my first interview at a local kindergarten. Practically all the work to be had here was instructing infants. The rat race starts young here and all the parents wanted their kids to have a head start in a successful career in exports to the Western world. Who knows but maybe their child would be writing user manuals for VCR’s and cameras?

My prospective employers looked me up and down doubtfully and asked me to give a demonstration lesson. I had heard tell of this ordeal in humiliation but had of course not prepared a word. I was pushed in front of 30 four year-olds whilst a handful of Chinese managers watched me severely. Two American teachers came in to join the fun.

“Okay, good morning, kids! Now tell me – who’s wearing something green today?” The kids looked back at me in mute horror. They were a little more used to the huge, smelly hairy, white monsters from the West by now but this one clearly had no idea what he was doing.

I was handed some cards with sketches of white men and women doing stuff.

“Okay, what are they doing in this picture?”

“They are feeshing!” Cried two bright girls in the front row.

“And in this one?”

“They are running!” Came the answer again from the front.

“Okay, someone else now. What are they-“

“They are eeting!” Came the reply at once.

I had the feeling that hitting the bright learners on the head with the card probably wouldn’t land me the job but I was at a loss to know how to involve the rest of the group. The bulk of the class sat around in the middle of the mats with their fingers stuck industriously up their nostrils, digging out bogies for lunchtime. Whilst at the back 7 tiny faces stared at me in abject fear, looking like their hearts would stop if they got any more scared.

The rest is just a blur. I don’t know how many rounds I went through of clinging onto those cards for dear life until the referee stopped the fight. I’d thrown all my punches in the first round and hadn’t scored a point.

“That was very good, Mr Tom. We’ll be calling you.

I never knew if they did or not as I flew back to Bangkok the next day. Anything – directing traffic, rolling cigars, cleaning the electric chair, working for American Express – anything would have been preferable to waking up to face those kids each morning.

“Tom seems to be disappointed that he was expected to work for his wages. “Lesley told her boyfriend with a smile.