On the plane leaving Taiwan's Taoyuan Airport in 2014, I promised myself I would find a way to stay in Taiwan permanently. I had just finished a 90 day vacation on a visitor free visa, which included a round island trip, daily bike rides around Kaohsiung, and daily trips to the beach in Qijin. I was not going to let a 90 day visa stop me again from enjoying what still to me is the most beautiful Island in the world, and the most friendly place in the world to western foreigners.
Looking for a Job
That chance came after I finished college in 2016. I came back to Taiwan to look for work, and I had just married my Taiwanese wife and we both planned to stay in Taiwan for the long haul. Even though I was married, in order to change my visa at the time I needed to leave the country. Since we had no money and I needed a job anyway, I decided to work teaching English and just get a normal work visa to begin with.
Teaching English was not my first choice of a career in Taiwan. After all I majored in Chinese and wanted to find a job where I could use that skill. I looked for other jobs like Chinese teacher, but those jobs are very competitive especially considering all the other Taiwanese people that speak perfect English and Chinese. I also interviewed for a job at Foxconn as Terry Gou's personal assistant; that was the time when he planned to invest in a USA factory. They told me the job involved lots of overtime and business trips, and that didn't sound so great to me. They never gave me a call back, and I didn't want one.
At the end of the day I decided it would just be easier to find a job teaching English and maybe switch jobs later if an opportunity came. The demand for English teachers in Taiwan has always been strong, and the turnover rate is high, so there are always opportunities. Before I left for Taiwan I took an online TEFL course and got certified, one of the easiest things I’ve ever done. It was almost like buying a degree.
I wanted to look for work in Kaohsiung because that’s the town I love, even though my wife is from Taipei. She agreed to let me look for work down there. I landed four interviews. The first three did not work out. The first place was run by friends I knew, but they were not the people in charge. They were nice enough to let me do a demo lesson, which I bombed. A week later on the bus ride back to Kaohsiung they said I was not experienced enough to teach at their school. That was a sad time. I tried another cram school, but they wanted me to scooter to Pingtung three times a week so I passed. Another one was only part time. I applied to probably 20 other English teaching jobs. But finally I found a Joy English branch that was just opening. I walked in for an interview and they said I could start anytime I wanted, because the cram school was still a few months from officially opening. No demo required. They also seemed happy that I knew Chinese so it would be easier to communicate. They didn’t seem to care that I had no teaching experience at all. Having blonde hair and blue eyes was also a plus for them.
Everything was going perfectly. But it slowly got worse after that.
The Visa Problem
The first problem was they could not change my visa from a visitor visa to a resident visa in time. I think they did not know what they were doing, after all foreigners probably rarely run into this problem so they had probably never had to deal with this issue before. I now know this takes an extra trip to the MOFA and takes an extra ten days. Anyway, because of that I was forced to leave the country and take a “vacation” to Macau which sapped what little savings we had at the time. Even though they had months to sort out this issue, they waited until the last minute and it cost me. They didn’t reimburse me a penny for that trip.
Training to Become and English Teacher
Before and after the visa run I was in training mode. I had to train at another Joy English branch a few miles away for the first month or so before the new school was finished, and there were enough students enrolled to open. This involved me watching other teachers prepare lessons and also me teaching a few lessons and receiving feedback from my trainer who was another white guy. One of the main complaints was that I spoke too softly. They said I could solve that by buying a portable speaker and microphone headset, another teacher was doing the same thing. Mt trainer had worked there for a few years and to his credit he was better at teaching the lessons than me, I mean he had all 8 textbooks memorized. So basically he could do no wrong there I think. He was supposed to train me but he did a terrible job, all it did was tear me down. I have an image burned in my memory of him sitting down next to the students, staring at me with a scowl on his face for an entire 30 minute lesson like I had just insulted his mother, it was hard to get through that with such a huge distraction. I remember in particular one night he called me on LINE and talked for an hour about how terrible of a teacher I was. That was outside of our working hours. Also, he did not have perfect English, it was not his first language, but he still had the gall to correct mine from time to time; he may have been right but still.
Teaching Full Time
The new Joy English school finally opened and I started working there 30 hours a week as the only foreign teacher. I started to get the hang of things there, teaching became easier, and I found my own teaching style. I found games that I could use to teach the lessons, and found effective methods to control the class. Most of my students were in about the 2nd grade and below.
Oh yeah, trying to control a class of hyped up 5 year old's all day, I don't miss that at all. I doubt they actually learned any useful English while I was there, it was really just glorified babysitting. One kid was particularly out of control, and it was hard to teach a lesson with him, but I couldn’t go too far because his mother worked there. As I quickly learned, students whose parents worked at the school were almost never disciplined and were the worst students. Our English teaching techniques were horrible, totally ineffective in teaching kids to use English properly. The textbooks were okay, but the teaching methods being taught and used by other teachers were simply time wasting and ineffective. I thought about creating my own, more effective teaching methods, but I did not last there long enough to really bring about any change. Even if there were more effective teaching methods, the teacher's there couldn't care less, they just needed to fill time and look busy while pleasing parents.
In addition, all the tests we gave the students at the end of the month were a joke, we would just correct them until they got the right answer, and everyone got 95% so we would not upset their parents. In fact, the whole cram school idea was just a front to make the parents feel like their kids were doing something productive. Our entire product was selling a fallacy to parents, using whatever means possible. I was almost never allowed to talk to parents in fear I might slip out some Chinese. Every night, we would recite rote English phrases in front of the parents on the sidewalk before the kids left, to show the parents that their kid had learned something that day. At those times I felt like an assembly line robot.
I also did not like the whole cram school system in general. Kids really do not need to go to cram school. After school they can and should just go home. But because their parents have to work or their parents don't want to watch their kids at night (which I hope is not the case), cram schools have an opportunity to make an extra buck. In my opinion this is not good for children, they need more direct attention from their parents, and they need more time to relax and play at home. Also I did not like working until 9 PM every Friday night, my weekends were pretty much shot after that. I'd prefer a nice Friday night to a Monday morning dreading to go to work any time.
Things Turn Foul
I always had a tense relationship with my direct supervisor, who was not the owner of the school but she was in the top management and worked closely with the owner to make decisions. She almost never praised me for teaching, and constantly tore me down. She was not nice, and constantly belittled me. She used dark humor to degrade me and tried to motivate me through fear. An example was death threats to me for not teaching according to her standards, which I admit we both knew were a joke but still really unprofessional. Going along with that were threats of violence.
Things got worse and worse when I realized they were not giving overtime pay. We would often work half an hour to an hour over time or be forced to work weekends with no extra pay. This was especially true when we had activities or field trips, which may or may not have entailed me dressing up as Santa etc. However if we were late to work, our pay would be deducted.
In addition, no one was enrolled in National Health Insurance (NHI) and other benefits. More on that later.
Also I learned quickly that no vacation days were allowed, only a one week break in the summer. Because of this I missed my sister’s wedding! But all this was only secondary to what came next.
At first I thought my boss was happy I knew Chinese. But soon she banned me from speaking Chinese in front of the students. One day, she got mad at me for speaking Chinese to a coworker (who spoke to me in Chinese first). She threatened to deduct my salary every time I spoke Chinese. The funny thing is my white foreign trainer could speak Chinese as much as he wanted, because his Chinese sucked. It was never clearer to me then that I was in the wrong profession.
The Last Straw
I tried to tough it out at Joy English. My life after class was great. Me and my wife would go out and explore Kaohsiung, and I visited Chengching Lake almost every day. I didn’t want to leave the city. It is still my favorite place in Taiwan. But my job was getting to be so terrible that I knew I would be happier living anywhere else as long as I had a job I liked.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was one day my wife received an NHI bill in the mail. Under Taiwan’s labor standards law, all dependents need to be registered under the person that is working. This is compulsory and it is not up for the company to decide if dependents can be added to the NHI or not. For some reason the cram school thought adding dependents would add costs for them, even though it wouldn’t because NHI is supposed to come out of your own paycheck and the number of dependents only affects the employee’s contribution, not the employer. Anyway, my wife at the time was pregnant and we needed her to have NHI, and she was not planning to work. She ended up calling my boss and getting into a heated argument. During the call, my boss said that I was a shy teacher and not really good at my job, that she had no responsibility to add my wife to the NHI, and that my wife could join NHI as an unemployed person under a union. Then my wife threatened to report them for illegal practices, and she may have said something about how Kaohsiung feels like a different country compared to Taipei. A few hours later we received a call that they agreed to add my wife to the NHI, but the damage was already done, we had decided I had to leave that crap hole of an employer.
Looking back, NHI is a complex issue, and they may not have known the rules. After all they teach English, so payroll benefits are not their expertise. But they handled this problem really poorly, and it cost them a foreign teacher.
Leaving the ESL Profession
I spent the rest of my free time after that applying for other jobs. I was rejected from Tutor ABC for teaching Chinese basically because they are racist, they said I was unqualified because I had not gone through the Taiwanese education system, even though I have a bachelor’s degree in Chinese. I told the interviewer their company is racist. Anyway, I received an interview from a financial company in Taipei. It seemed like a boring job at the time, but anything was better than what I was doing at Joy English. I took a day off, without my boss asking why, and took a bus to Taipei for an interview. A week later, I was accepted for that job. I gave my boss my resignation and worked for another painful three weeks until my job teaching English ended.
The next year I found out they didn't report most of my salary to the tax office. Maybe that's why they paid us all in cash.
I had to leave the town I loved, but I am in a much better position now financially and mentally. I have a boss that treats me with basic dignity and respect and follows the Labor Standards Act.
Believe it or not my office job now is much less stressful than my job teaching English.
I know of many foreigners that have taught in cram schools for years and have had a great time. There are probably lots of decent cram school bosses out there. My case may be an outlier, maybe I was just really unlucky with my boss. Perhaps my boss at the time was too busy to read up on employment law, or was just not knowledgeable in general, but even if that were the case she could have handled the situation much better.
I never reported that cram school for its illegal practices but maybe I should have. Like me, too many Taiwanese employees are complacent with illegal work practices because they are afraid of losing a job. Therefore, lots of exploitation of workers goes unnoticed and is swept under the rug in Taiwan. I can only hope that the cram school I worked for was eventually fined and improved its ways.
Looking back, I don't regret my decision to work there. It was a learning experience, and my employer also learned something, I hope. It was really a necessary evil, I don't know what else I could have done to sustain myself during that time, and so I don't blame anyone who takes up teaching English in a cram school as a way to earn money in Taiwan. But that chapter of my life is over, and I have no reason to look back, except to share this experience with others who may find it useful.
We are US Expats that have extensive experience living, working, and travelling in Taiwan. In our day, we had to learn many things about Taiwan the hard way. But we have come to learn that Taiwan is one of the best places in the world for Foreigners to live. Our blog does not represent the opinions of every foreigner in Taiwan. We are just trying to help others learn more about this beautiful country.