Monday, April 06, 2015

Spare a thought for the Western men trapped in Taiwan

4/06/2015 Taiwan Explorer
An article in Japan Times titled "Spare a thought for the Western men trapped in Japan" has caused a lot of buzz among English speaking foreigners who are living in Japan. After reading it, I realized that there are a lot of parallels with us Western men in Taiwan. Here are some noteworthy excerpts, which I divided into 4 parts based on the topic that the author has chosen to write about. I really suggest you to first read the original article and then come back here and read the rest of my post.

The girls take good care of you

“These Western men do not really have to learn the language or try to fit in. Their Japanese girlfriends or wives will take care of the majority of things for them. Their careers, especially teaching ones, also may not require Japanese proficiency. They are never subjected to sexual harassment, abuse or sexism.”

This is often the case in Taiwan, but it varies. I have Western friends who are fluent in Chinese and those who barely understand a sentence beyond the common phrases. I'm somewhat in-between. I'm not sure what would be the average Chinese level of long term Western residents in Taiwan, but I suspect it's not fluency. Mastering Chinese is really hard and requires focus, and Taiwan makes it fairly easy to survive in English. Add the lack of time to this, and the results are hardly surprising. More about this later on.

Life is work, work is life

Japanese society can be notoriously conservative when it comes to gender roles. [...] In Japan, men in general have very limited choices. The culture demands that they become 'real men', which usually means breadwinners obsessed with their careers. The job-for-life system that has dominated Japanese corporate culture for the postwar period demands the full devotion of employees. Promotions and salary raises were, and often still are, mainly based on loyalty and seniority. The company has to be a man’s top priority.

There are lots of parallels here, perhaps also because Japan has greatly influenced Taiwan pre- and post-World War II. This part is telling, too, and I've heard these things in Taiwan to some degree:

Although hours have been dropping for the last few years, Japanese still clock up more minutes on the job per year than workers in almost any other OECD country, although many of those minutes are unpaid. Forty percent of workers say they regularly do what’s known as sābisu zangyō — unpaid overtime: 16 hours a month on average. So-called burakku kigyō (black companies) might require over 100 hours, and their youngest employees — those in their 20s — are hit the hardest. Karōshi — death from overwork — is such a prominent problem that the government passed a bill last year aimed at tackling premature death and illnesses caused by overwork, apparently the first of its kind in the world.

And this is what you get, when you add the cultural aspect:

Japanese men have it tough, but foreigners might have it even worse. Unlike Japanese, who have been raised in the culture of strict gender roles and long work hours, foreigners — especially Westerners — may have very different expectations, lifestyles and ideals. For example, achieving a balance between work, family and personal time is seen as extremely important in contemporary European and American societies, but Japanese corporate culture does not support it.

The exact same thing is common in Taiwan, too. In a post from 2012 titled Working for a Taiwanese company, I wrote a following paragraph:

It's pretty common in Taiwan's IT to work overtime for no pay, it's a cultural thing (it's called 加班 or jiābān). What an European like me understands as an exploitation of workers, breaking common ethics and laws, a lot of local managers see it as a reasonable expectation. By working overtime for free you show that you care for the company, you show engagement and enthusiasm, that will make your manager appreciate you more. "Working long hours" equals "working hard" in the traditional mindset of Taiwan's managers, who are usually of the older generation. Reality is different: A lot of Taiwanese, who stay longer in the office, are pretending to work. They are usually on Facebook or chit-chatting with other colleagues, they are too tired to focus (and who could blame them). The productivity in such companies is very low and because there are so many in Taiwan, who do so, it puts the whole country in that light. There are companies, who demand, that nobody leaves before the manager leaves, as you shall not work "less hard" as someone of higher rank than you. The law acquires 8 hours at work, but you basically stay 9 hours at the office, because 1 hour is meant as a lunch break. Add the common 2 hours overtime and maybe another 1 hour spent commuting and you realize, that on weekdays 12 hours a day are used for your job. After you come home, you are naturally very tired, time for a good quality private life is nearly impossible, unless you posses superhuman powers.

Three years have passed since then, I've changed jobs, but I still struggle to achieve a balance between work, family and personal time, and now even more so, because I advanced in my career. The article in Japan Times shared an example of this familiar occurrence:

“According to my boss, three promotions were the most I could’ve gotten” [...] Patrick says his boss explicitly referred to his being non-Japanese as a factor. “But they wanted me to come to work even when I had 40-degree fever. Of course, I left!” Patrick adds that some of his foreigner friends managed to get higher in their companies’ pecking order, but “they had no life.”

Integration and communication

This might be a slightly lesser issue in Taiwan, because Taiwanese are generally more approachable and talkative with Western foreigners in the company, but it really depends where you end up. If it's a company that is focusing on exporting to global markets, it should be a little better than if you work for a company that is mainly focusing on the domestic market. But even this is just a guess from my side mixed with some personal observations, so please take it with a grain of salt.

Another huge problem is integration. According to Nana Oishi, a researcher specializing in migrations and Japanese studies, the greatest barrier in the workplace for foreigners is [...] frustration that their Japanese colleagues were not communicating sufficiently either with them or with each other.” An acquaintance of mine, John — fluent in Japanese — was exasperated when, after three weeks on the new job and with no training or help from co-workers, he was asked to complete a project. “They expect me to know how to do it perfectly without any explanation!” he complains. In the end, John had to contact the management overseas for help with integration into his work environment.

I've heard such stories in Taiwan as well, usually people would think it's a lousy company who does that, and it also happens to Taiwanese friends. I don't think in Taiwan the issue is foreigner-specific.

Integration outside of the workplace is also often a challenge, especially for men who are expected to have a full-time job, be the main provider for the family and, therefore, often find themselves with fewer opportunities than women to engage in social activities and make friends with Japanese. [...] Japan is also a collectivistic culture, and thus it is difficult for foreigners to enter existing social groups and circles. Most of the time it is necessary to belong to some social group to establish and maintain friendships with Japanese.

This is very similar in Taiwan, and falls into what I have quoted above from my old post on working for a Taiwanese IT company.

On racism

Although openly aggressive racism is rare, discrimination can be cloaked in the form of polite questions regarding a foreigner’s country of origin and ethnic background, their time of arrival in and departure from Japan, praise of their language and chopstick skills, and even unsolicited explanations of culture, food, tradition and so on. These words may sound quite innocent, but they can also convey very strong messages of exclusion and inferiority.

This part is really something Westerners can relate to in Taiwan as well, I'm pretty sure it happens to just about everyone who stayed here for a little longer than a two weeks vacation. I don't think it's mean-spirited, but it's a subtle sign of exclusion. I'd like to share a quote from a famous post by Katherine Alexander called "Beyond Boundaries: What makes us Taiwanese?". To understand the below anecdote, know that Katherine grew up in Taiwan, is fluent in Chinese, and is of white ethnicity:

For example, this past January, the night before I left home for America again, I was at a Wellcome in downtown Tainan doing last minute shopping. Nescafe 3-in-1, blueberry ice cream Oreos, pineapple cakes. Suddenly, eager parents pushed a tiny child in my direction, ordering her to say “Hello!” to me. She was shy and a little confused.

I squatted down to her level and addressed her in Mandarin. “You could just say nihao to me, you know.” I looked pointedly back up at her parents. “How do you know that I speak English? What if I’m from France or Spain or Russia? Luckily, I’m Taiwanese just like you, I was born here too!” Her parents looked startled, the little girl simply giggled. “There are many kinds of Taiwanese people, you know! I’m one of the newer kinds, and I’m glad to meet you today.” I stood back up, smiled brightly at her parents, and walked away to try and shop in peace.

From the next aisle over, I heard her parents intervene after a brief pause. “She’s not Taiwanese. She’s just a foreigner who was born in Taiwan.” Rather than feel heartbroken, it just stung a little. Their exclusionary definition of “Taiwanese” is nothing new to me. I still know who I am. I wish they could see it too.

This leads us to the final sentence of the post which is pretty fatalistic:

Perhaps the most important thing is to admit and fully accept that we can never fully assimilate in Japan. We can never become Japanese, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. Embracing your non-Japaneseness, just being yourself, exploiting the “gaijin power” your outsider status affords you and simply enjoying the ride are the best ways to avoid the trap of loneliness and misery.

I wish I could say Taiwan is really different, but in fact it isn't that far from Japan, if we look at the big picture. I for one am kind of stuck in the middle. Work is occupying 90% of my life in Taiwan, and the rest is dedicated to my closest family, so there's not really much time to learn Chinese, socialize, or even pursue hobbies. I'm trying to change that recently, but it's a slow and tedious process. It didn't take me long to realize that I'm always going to be a foreigner here, and my child, who is born here and speaks fluent Chinese, is often seen as a foreigner, too. That makes it difficult for me to ever really feel at home in Taiwan, but what makes it eve worse, the place where I came from doesn't feel like home anymore, too. One day I'll have to confront myself and make a decision, because everybody needs a home.