Friday, December 31, 2010

Taiwan Bushibans

A plentiful amount of jobs. That was the situation in Taiwan in 2002 for ESL teachers, and having a western (read: white) face was one of the prerequisites to getting a job. I heard complaints from educated Canadian Chinese teachers (or educated Taiwanese Chinese) about their inability to get work teaching English when pitted against a white native speaker since parents, when picking up their children from the bushibans (cram schools), wanted to see a white, European face telling them how little Wang was doing. They didn't believe that anybody Chinese could speak good English. It was a tricky situation.

To get an ARC (Alien Resident Card), one had to work in a government licensed bushiban for a minimum of 15 hours a week. You had to have a thorough health inspection (all body parts and secretions), current passport, no record, a degree (hopefully not a fake one) and a TESOL certificate (hopefully not a fake one), and a job. After obtaining an ARC through their bushibans, many teachers worked on the side at private schools, public schools, or universities. Many teachers also had "privates," or private students.

After getting fired from my first job at Anderson's School, it wasn't too long before I got another at David's English School, which was run by a hyper-active 30-year-old man. He was a relief from the sodden George and I was just starting to familiarize myself with the racket when all hell broke loose.

Taiwanese people wearing masks

I was disgusted with what crept around on four legs and licked their underarms in Taiwan, but by the end of 2002 I also had to worry about fatal pathogens stealing into the classroom. The symptoms of this new deadly disease were a high temperature, a runny nose, a cough, and if one suspected they were sick - a hospital visit with compulsory, indefinite quarantine. SARS had arrived.

At the time of the epidemic, every person who entered a school, library, government building, shop, restaurant, mall, gym, or bushiban was subjected to a temperature check, and usually by two skinny Taiwanese chicks with punk hairdos and Hello Kitty t-shirts. However, our school was exempt from all medical scrutiny as my boss was afraid to take temperature readings and loathe to enforce the wearing of masks because he didn't want to lose any business. Better that students should die or teachers should get infected than lose money by cancelling classes.

On the streets outside there was pandemonium. It wasn't long before the hysteria increased and everyone was wearing a medical mask. Many hospital workers were quarantined and there was no let-up in the fighting, screaming, and crying carried on outside the hospitals where the potentially sick staff were isolated. Every morning relatives of medical workers who were 'trapped' inside gathered at the gates of the two biggest hospitals, wailing as they demanded to see their loved ones, who were hanging out the hospital windows waving and screaming at their relations down below. One or two individuals tried to jump out of the building to escape the quarantine while a few of their co-workers restrained them. With tear-streaked faces they waved white flags and held up peace signs, shouting profanities to the newspaper reporters and camera crews that had gathered on the street. You might have thought that all these people were heading off to the gallows rather than chilling for 10 days.

In some neighborhoods across the city, garbage was thrown at police and streets were barricaded by those who lived there so those who were infected with SARS could not return home. One woman actually jumped out of a window and committed suicide because she was so afraid of catching SARS. Her mother stood weeping and tearing her hair as she was interviewed by a reporter. Restaurants were empty, business was down, and everyone was losing money. Everyone except for shopkeepers who were selling pineapples, because evidently pineapples could ward off SARS. People were fighting over pineapples? I didn't think it could get any worse.

One day while all this insanity was going on outside, I was in a class with 14 students. A young woman came in and sat down. She was pale and sweaty and shivering so I asked her if she was all right, keeping in mind that we were still not checking temperatures as the students came into the school. She said, "I sick but I take pill so I bit better now." I said, "Jesus, you must really like English class. Thanks for bringing your germs by." Another student grinned weakly and squeaked out "SARS"?

So here's the rub. She's got all the symptoms - runny nose, flu, aching limbs, passing out, near death - but better she should die, or better yet, infect all of us before she dies, rather than miss her English class.


By my third year teaching in Taiwan, I was working at Chang Rong High School in Tainan City. It had 5,000+ students but the work was great. I was always handed an envelope full of cash by the end of the week. I had my 'serious' job which registered me for my residence card and then all my other small jobs for cash because that's the way it's done in Taiwan.

Chang Rong High School Tainan City


At the same time I was working at Chang Rung High School, I was also teaching at Cambridge Language School with the infamous Mr. Su. Everybody had worked there at one point or another. I stayed for three years, took a year off, and then went back again for another year. I made friends with many students, and went traveling with another through Southeast Asia.