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.
Today, it stands at just under 500 members, with a Web site and blog in the works (http://taditaiwan.wordpress.com/).
“Unfortunately, perhaps from prejudice, misinformation or a lack of international experience, there is significant pressure on schools from certain parents or individuals to hire Caucasian teachers with the mistaken assumption that they or their child is guaranteed a proper and authentic English education based on the ethnicity of their teacher,” Chen says in TADIT’s manifesto. “The result is that a large number of highly qualified, native English-speaking applicants, especially of Asian descent, are either not considered or offered lower wages.”
TADIT seeks to fight this discrimination by raising awareness and ending the “fear of non-Caucasian English teachers” that can exist in the hearts and minds of particular individuals, Chen said.
In doing so, TADIT has engaged in a number of activities, ranging from lobbying politicians to producing a brochure, which outlines ways that schools can fight discrimination.
Volunteers propel each project and a team of translators work pro bono to make all publications available in both English and Chinese. The group is also planning to host a Diversity Day.
“The aim of the Diversity Day is to showcase a variety of different cultures, nationalities, traditions and customs to families primarily and spread knowledge of those things,” said Jon Hales, an English teacher from the UK, who is organizing the event.
“We think this fear of non-white English teachers comes from a lack of exposure. If we can expose people, especially families, to greater diversity, we can help change things,“ added Hales, who is organizing a soccer tournament, face-painting, live music, yoga classes and an Aboriginal dance performance to feature in the event.
Perhaps TADIT’s greatest function is its ability to empower.
Budhi says that he almost left Taiwan because of the discrimination he faced, but has now been revitalized to fight the problem.
“We are stronger as a group,” Budhi said. “Together we can tackle the intangible forces of discrimination. The future is brighter.”
The group is right to feel optimistic going forward.
Last month, a Taipei court ruled in Chen’s favor after she made an official complaint about the discrimination she had encountered.
The offending school was fined, with the court warning that any further infringements would lead to exponentially larger punitive charges. Chen documented the entire process and has made flowcharts and files available online to assist any person seeking to make an official complaint in the future.
“If people realize they can do something, they will start to report cases,” Hales said. “People will become willing to take a stand.”
When asked about discrimination within English schools, Vicky Hsieh, a senior teacher at Immanuel English School in Taipei, expressed a different side to the story. Hsieh indicated a preference for teachers from diverse backgrounds, especially those of Asian origin.
“The English teachers of Asian origin tend to know more about the local culture and traditions,” Hsieh said. “When it comes to events such as Chinese New Year or the Lantern Festival, they are able to teach the younger kids about the customs.”
“If the teachers can speak Chinese, they can also communicate better with the younger students and the students’ parents. I think parents like to see teachers of Asian origin because they [the parents] think they will understand the Asian education culture better,” Hsieh added.
At the time of going to press, HESS and a number of other, high-profile English-language schools, had not responded to inquiries on the matter.
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