Annie Chen is Taiwanese. She was born in Taiwan, where she spent her first seven years, before moving to the US with her parents. She enjoyed an American education, but struggling with the identity issues that affect many long-term immigrants and bubbling with fond memories of her mother country, she opted to return home to Taipei at the age of 30.
However, when she began looking for a job, Chen was quickly exposed to an unfortunate troika of simmering social tensions — discrimination, racism and ignorance.
Chen tried to find work as an English teacher, but found that her physical appearance and Asian surname impeded her search. Blanked by online applications in which her picture and ethnicity were clearly visible, Chen had to rely on personal referrals using just her first name.
This approach, combined with her professional experience, garnered her numerous interviews. However, whenever her ethnicity became apparent — either upon first face-to-face encounter in an interview or when asked over the phone — potential employers quickly became “disinterested.”
“I found that lots of school didn’t want me as a teacher because I’m not white,” Chen said “As soon as they found out I wasn’t white they would hang up the phone on me or say: ‘Sorry, foreigners only’ even though I have dual citizenship.”
Asked whether she thought this was a reaction to her particular background, Chen was adamant that this was not the case.
Chen said that a number of advertisements often stipulate they are seeking “foreign-looking teachers,” which invariably means Caucasian-looking.
“I’ve talked to many other teachers and think this is just based on appearance. Even if someone is born in the US, even if someone doesn’t speak a word of Chinese, it [ethnicity] will still affect their chances,” Chen said.
Her sentiments were echoed by others, who had experienced similar discrimination on the basis of their appearance.
Reynaldo Budhi, an English teacher from New York, said he came to Taiwan with a “naive view that the world was like New York and that ethnicity does not matter.”
However, these preconceptions were soon dashed.
Budhi said that discrimination is often subtle and that applicants are vetted by their profile photos.
“Assuming you even get to the point that you get an interview, they may or may not have seen your picture. My rationale for sending the picture was that I’d rather you discriminate [me] before I come than come and feel humiliated,” Budhi said.
Budhi recounts one recent interview, in which the interviewer had not seen his photo. Toward the end of interview, he was interrupted and told “they are hoping for someone who looks American.”
It is against this backdrop that Chen established Teachers Against Discrimination in Taiwan (TADIT), a group that tackles the “serious and pervasive problem of employment discrimination at English-language centers” in Taiwan. The group grew organically after another advertisement seeking “white teachers” on a social network raised the ire of several netizens.
Chen responded to the advertisement by saying that such preferences are unquestionably illegal and citing the relevant national law.
Her response became a rallying point for teachers across the nation, who had been affected by these undercurrents of racism and had no platform on which to connect with others in the same situation. Chen was inundated by messages and the nascent Facebook group grew rapidly in numbers and participation.