White Privilege in Taiwan: A Term That Should Be Called “Somewhat Foreigner Privilege” Instead

Before I came to Taiwan, I never heard the phrase white straight male used naturally in a conversation or even in news reporting. To me and most people, it was a phrase that emanated what was happening in contemporary American race relations. I never judged the phrase until I came to Taiwan because I felt that even though it was not relateable in Ireland, it was something that must be important in America. The transference of so many terms from different cultural contexts into others is staggering and this just isn’t one that works in Ireland.

I first came across white straight male when I was sharing a drink with an American in a bar in Taipei. We were discussing the recent victory of Donald Trump in the US election and I made the point that Hillary failed disastrously to appeal to people that everyone else in the country considers hicks in flyover states. I also said I would have wanted Bernie Sanders to have been the candidate of the Democrats, he at least had some legitimacy to me and many others.

After saying all this, the American patron turned to me and said “Yeah, but as a white straight male, it doesn’t surprise me that you would say that”. Hearing him say that stunted me. It was utter nonsense. There were any mixture of white lesbian females or black male asexuals out there with the same opinion I had, yet because I was white, straight and male, I was just another one of those guys. 

The reason why Hillary lost the election, not being inclusive of peoples opinions and stereotyping them as idiots through stereotypes was at play. I didn’t want Trump as president, I would have voted for Hillary if I was an American, but that doesn’t mean I can’t crack shots at her for being questionable on so many levels. Trump was questionable on every level, but that is not excuse to ignore Hillary’s flaws.

Because I was a white straight male, my opinion was lumped together with all the others and I was stereotyped into a figure of regressiveness.

You might be wondering why I started with this story when discussing why white privilege is a concept that cannot be applied to foreigners in Taiwan, or that it should at least be more localized, but bear with me.

As I stated before with the example of white straight male, I was stereotyped and all other factors about me and my situation were ignored. It is easy to stereotype and sometimes, it is just an easier way to make sense of the world. It is like taking a mosaic of 1 million pieces and breaking it down to just 1 thousand pieces. Sure, you can get an overall sense of what the mosaic is, but you are missing almost all the details that explain what it is in any depth.

For foreigners, particularly white foreigners in Taiwan, there is a perception among some people that being white is to be privileged among all others. And you know what, that statement is true, but only to a very limited extent.

  1. Foreigners in Taiwan must earn a minimum of $47,971 NTD a month ($1,500 USD). This was done in order to make sure any foreign talent that cannot be home grown is kept in Taiwan, but as you will see later, this ‘privilege’ is detrimental.
  2. White foreigners, particularly from the US, Canada and the UK are given preferential treatment over Native English speakers from different countries, and even those Native English speakers from the US, Canada and the UK who aren’t white. If you go on job boards or Facebook groups for English teaching positions, some schools will make it clear they only want White and American teachers. They don’t see it as being ‘racist’ per se, but hiding behind ignorance doesn’t make them any less racist.
  3. There is some element of you being exotic in some way, but that is only because less than a 1 percent of the Taiwanese population is Western and a fraction of those Westerners can speak basic adequate to fluent Mandarin.
  4. Foreigners do not need Mandarin. I learned Mandarin for 4 years in university and I am glad I did. It makes my life easier here and it has opened up an entirely new way of enjoying literature, film and music. With that said, you probably don’t need much Mandarin, if not any, to live in Taiwan. While Taiwanese would be expected to know the language of any other country in Europe if they moved their, foreigners in Taiwan are not expected to have much if not any Mandarin for Taiwan. I think it is a bit of shame but then again, I did write about why Mandarin is not worth learning without a good reason because it is so hard. 

These are usually the big four reasons why white privilege exists in Taiwan, or at least the ones I am most familiar with in my experience. The issue with these reasons being white privilege is that as much as they might give you privilege in some sense, they don’t exist without disadvantages that accompany them.

  1. To be considered for a work permit you first need 2 years experience in the field you want to work in and a 4 year bachelors diploma. The 2 years of experience can be waivered if you have a masters degree. You are left with a position where you will earn $1,500 USD a month after having 2 years experience and or a masters. That might be good money in Taiwan but it isn’t something that would keep talent in Taiwan for very long. Although there are companies that pay above this amount, there are many who see it as a minimum high wage that they will not pay beyond because they are not legally obliged to do so. Little wonder so many people leave these companies after getting experience. Unless a foreigner marries a local or has lived in Taiwan long enough (5 years) to become a permanent resident, they won’t have an open work permit to work in jobs that pay lower than $47,971 NTD a month. You might be wondering, why would a foreigner want to work for less than that? The job market for a foreigner isn’t exactly diverse and many companies in fields that foreigners might want to work in that aren’t teaching English or English departments of Marketing companies are not plentiful. If you want to get hired, you will have to accept a wage that is more realistic in Taiwan. It isn’t the case that being white is the reason why so many white people have a higher wages than locals, it is the government’s policies and the funny part is that not only white people get these wages, but pretty much anyone of any race that has a Western passport. If you want to be more precise, it should be called “foreigner privilege” to work in a limited scope of industries because the government wants the “right” foreigners here that can never become naturalized citizens, which leads me to my second and third point point.
  2. You might have a higher wage than a local, and it is unfair, no doubt about it. The Taiwanese government discriminates its own people by setting laws that give foreigners a higher wage, while at the same time setting laws that directly discriminate people from South East Asian countries. I have heard some friends in Taiwan say that racism here doesn’t exist, but frankly that statement is not true. South East Asians are not treated well and this is enforced by the law in Taiwan. An editorial in the Taipei Times stated that  when the Taiwanese government raised the monthly minimum wage in Taiwan by $735 NTD, it was reluctant to raise the minimum wage for migrant workers. The editorial also stated that: “Far too many of the migrants in the industry have told similar stories of being forced to work 14 hours or more a day, working weeks or months without days off, and rarely getting any annual leave. That means even if they were paid the national minimum wage, they would still not receive just recompense.” In Taiwan, there are three tiers, migrant workers, locals and foreigners, and whatever way you want to look at it, it is an issue of the Taiwanese government that needs to be resolved. Positive and negative discrimination on a wage bases is unbelievable. A college graduate from the US teaching English as a professional will earn nearly 2-3 times more than a college graduate caregiver from South East Asia. It isn’t the fault of Westerners that this happens, or in the same light the fault of South East Asians, it is the fault of the government.
  3. Despite what the news has been saying, you won’t be able to become a Taiwanese national any time soon. The process to become a Taiwanese citizen is ridiculous. It is a bureaucratic nightmare. There is one step that is a sticking point for most people who are eligible to apply; they have to give up their country of origin’s citizenship. Now that might sound reasonable and in some ways it is, but they must do this before they apply and not after they are granted citizenship, meaning, if they are denied for any reason, they will become stateless and with next to no embassies and only trade offices in Taiwan, good luck getting your citizenship back, you certainly can’t fly anywhere being stateless. There has been talk about a new policy that lets people who have contributed to Taiwanese society gain citizenship without giving up their original. The only person I have heard of that tried to, a foreign professor and researcher in a Taiwanese university, was denied and was never given a reason why. It makes no sense to me why the Taiwanese government makes it so difficult to gain citizenship for foreign nationals. The only people I know and can confirm to be foreigners that have gotten citizenship are priests and nuns in their 70s and 80s. It is a nice gesture but a bit late considering their life expectancy is catching up with them fast. You might get paid more than a local, but you will never belong. That is a disadvantage to someone that calls Taiwan home and it is a disadvantage for Taiwan in terms of connecting with the world. Taiwan is already under a lot of pressure from China to conform to its image of what Taiwan is and with Panama and others turning their backs to Taiwan along with the rest of the world, surely a new strategy of opening the Taiwanese identity up is needed, and it would make sense to give foreigners who contribute and are born in Taiwan an active reason to want their country of origin to recognize Taiwan more. I’m not saying open the borders and give every Tim from Kansas who teaches English to a cram school part-time while he surfs in Yilan a passport, but opening up the process to do so will help aid in Taiwan’s abysmal image abroad. I am also not saying giving foreigners Taiwanese passports will make Taiwan great again, but it would aid in creating connections around the world with Taiwan.
  4. This might not go over so well, but it is a truthful reason. To be an English teacher is not a privilege to everyone. I am not bashing English teachers in Taiwan, but I don’t think having almost only English teaching positions as a positive thing for Taiwan. The image of a foreigner in Taiwan is usually always associated with teaching. Whenever I am asked what I do for a living in Taiwan, people are confused that I don’t teach English. It is an abundant source of work, and although it won’t dry up for a decade or two to come, I have next to no interest in teaching English. I am not a teacher and I was never trained to be one, despite what a TEFL certificate will tell you. Again, this isn’t me looking down on English teachers, but I think being allowed opportunities in other fields is a good thing, but then again, goes back to the fact many foreigners don’t speak good enough Mandarin to actually do anything else but teach English.

So, what you are left with is not white privilege, but a consortium of so many issues and on so many different levels within those issues that coining the term white privilege is somewhat ridiculous. There are pros and cons and although their might be white privileges, those privileges are mostly given to the most favoured of white people from the US, Canada and the UK.

Finally, you cannot be solely privileged if what you are given is counteracted by a disadvantage. I know some people come from a good place when they discuss white privilege but the term isn’t completely relevant to the Taiwanese case and can only be applied for the advantages foreigners have while at the same time ignoring the complexities that exist to have those privileges and to also ignore the disadvantages.

2 Comments

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  1. You make many valid points…… And your point of view is interesting but youthful…… I think you should revisit this subject matter before you leave Taiwan for good…… Your views and thoughts will be completely different unless you’ve already made up your mind that’s just the way it is here…..

    Good luck 🤞 take care

    Like

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