Taiwan’s Prejudice of Foreigners Taught Me Black Systemic Racism Is Real

The Letter

[中文]

College was my first exposure to American Black culture. I’m a far better man for it. Moody was less than a block from Cabrini Green. I taught Pierre how to swim and he taught me how to forgive. My room mate, Ronnie, was president of African Awareness Fellowship. Three years, he tried to tell me that the problem was with “the system”. “It’s the system, Jesse. It’s hidden in the system. I know you don’t see it. But, I see it every day.” I listened, but I still couldn’t see.

Ten years in Taiwan opened my eyes. Ronnie, I’ve seen it. I haven’t just heard about it, I’ve finally seen it with my own eyes. Others don’t see it, especially if they’re part of it. I’ve seen that too.

If a man thinks his unjust actions are acceptable, there is no way to tell him that he is unjust in a way he will find acceptable. I know how Rosa Parks felt, in a way. I wholly agree with Dr. King in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea.

We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise. So I… am here because I was invited here. But more basically, I am [here] because injustice is here.

The Taiwanese need Westerners. They welcome Westerners at their airports and in their marketing. They need Western-trained, Western-thinking engineers to build their own defense weapons against a large aggressor in the region. They need English teachers—and more importantly English speakers to interact with in the every day world. But, from fear of the large aggressor in the region, and from hurt over foreign occupation in the past, Taiwanese made laws that restrict all foreigners, including Westerners. So because of the past, Taiwan turned away the friends they needed for the future. Haven’t we all done the same?

Bear with me the boring details. In America, a work visa gives residence. After five years, the foreigner becomes a citizen. America makes it simple. In Taiwan, they place strange restrictions—not one day between jobs, not one speeding ticket, and all work permits which the government never delivers. Even then, you can’t become a citizen unless you renounce all citizenship elsewhere.

My story began twelve years ago when my boss wouldn’t give me my work permit, which he is legally required to and never forced to. I folded it up and sneaked it out in my tie, then went home and cried. The next boss never gave me my work permit. I called Immigration and told the officer; the officer shouted, “They must!” then slammed down the phone. There was no follow-up.

Soon, the local Labor inspector found me at the wrong school—I worked for a chain. I had no Idea where I was supposed to work. The address was written in Mandarin on the work permit, which I never received. I got a summons from Labor; the boss was worried and told me to lie to the government. We even had a special meeting to coordinate our lies. The bigger boss gave me a strange handshake; I thought my life was being threatened. The company would pull strings “high up” in government to get out of the ordeal. While I sat with my boss, lying to the Labor inspector—a very good person with extremely limited power, mind you—the bigger boss walked into the Labor chief’s office, feigning benign chit-chat. The Chief looked scared. I rolled my fingerprint to certify the lies told with a knife to my back and we left without so much as a hiccup.

Weeks later, I learned that the strange handshake was a request for sex. I had been sexually harassed—they would only call their gangster buddies to get me out of their lying to the government if I lied to the government and had homosexual sex with the big boss. No. Maybe that’s why they tried to fire me a couple months later. No. Firing requires compensation, which the company refused.

Then came an in-class evaluation two weeks before the contract ended, with a promise not to renew the contract regardless of the evaluation. The boss insisted based on me having voluntarily reported I was one page behind in the schedule. Most teachers were three pages off schedule on any given day.

The boss is legally required to accept my resignation with a stamped letter. The boss refused. I went to the police station twice, the police never forced the boss to send the letter. Then, the boss reported me as MIA, which is illegal for a foreign employee. But, being wise, I had already notified Labor of my desire to resign. I’d sent certified mail, with return proof of delivery confirmation, a full confession of perjury to the Labor inspector—a very good person with extremely limited power, mind you. I included a CD with the recording of the boss saying, “I hate foreigners.” The inspector scheduled a mediation meeting and called my phone, urging me to bring a Taiwanese friend to translate.

The meeting lasted three hours and the boss accepted my resignation. That was a first. I mean, this was a breakthrough. Tainan had never seen a successful agreement in a dispute between an employer and foreign employee. They always last forty minutes, then go to court or deportation. I was the first to reach peace.

I asked my Taiwanese friend, the one who accompanied me to the mediation, why my boss had lied about the address on my first work permit. There was no reason. Why lie first when the truth wouldn’t hurt? “Because of the Cultural Revolution in China,” he explained. “People about forty years and older are still influenced by Chairman Mao’s thinking, including that lying is okay.” He also told me that the big boss controlled a kind of local “ESL mafia” in the city.

Later, I was told by a coworker from that chain that the inspector, seeing how that boss treated me, continued inspection; three locations of that ESL chain were closed. The school suddenly started treating him with respect, which was good for him. They had tried to fire him also. I’m glad it worked out for him.

My immediate supervisor quit her job over how they treated me. She went to work in a factory for more pay and less stress. I’m glad it worked out for her.

My next employer told me that they had to let me go because they were getting harassment from that previous boss. I couldn’t work. Looking back, I don’t know how I financially survived. I guess God wanted me here, so I stayed while He made a way.

Officers at Immigration, city government workers, and aides of two different legislators asked me why I stayed in Tainan. “Why don’t you just move to Taipei where there are more jobs and your boss can’t chase you?”

See, there’s the plight of the Taiwanese! Every time there is a bully, they just bend over. They were beaten down by Chiang Kai-Shek, like Israel in the desert after Egypt, afraid to enter the Promised Land. “No way!” I’d say kindly, strongly, and reassuringly. “There is no law saying an American can’t teach English in Tainan. So, the government can protect an American willing to stand with the Tainan people! Their English is bad and they need the practice more than Taipei. I suffer because I love Tainan, and Taiwan’s government still won’t help me.”

The only meaningful help I received was from a person who understood the trouble, but never spoke to me: the Labor inspector—a very good person with extremely limited power.

The people who ask why I never moved to Taipei ask with childlike innocence, not knowing that they imply discrimination against not just myself, but also against the people of Tainan. Many Westerners live in Taipei in the populated north, but Tainan has many delights in the south. Taiwanese anecdotally believe Westerners prefer Taipei because it is the “big city”. Actually, it is because the Ministry of Labor places hefty financial burdens on the small ESL schools of the south—the same requirements the rich ESL schools in the north can afford. Most Tainan ESL schools aren’t rich enough to hire an American legally. So, they need help from a black market, which my former boss was rumored all too happy to oblige. Albeit, the laws are written in Taipei, in the north, where there couldn’t possibly be connection to black market interests in the south. But, I saw something more important: Westerners avoided Tainan because its ESL community was gripped by an invisible black market. And, it didn’t just hurt me; it hurt the Taiwanese, who remained oblivious.

That was when I started to see how a system can oppress one people, without the people across the street even noticing. In fact, Taiwanese didn’t even know how their Labor laws crippled English learning in Tainan. Taiwanese were victims of systemic prejudice as much as I was. All this rigmarole hurt their highly-coveted English skill. None of this would be a problem if Taiwan simply extended the same rights and protections to Americans as America extends to Taiwanese. That way, many Americans would be Taiwanese dual citizens who could work anywhere, including the poorer ESL schools in the southern, delightful city of Tainan.

But, Taiwan’s government won’t allow it, even after eleven years of petition. And, yet Taiwan cries for global help when countries break diplomatic ties. The Taiwanese people don’t even know what trouble Immigration and Labor laws create for them on the global stage.

The juicy part of this story is that my former ESL chain receives public funding from America’s government. I called their American office to report the incident. They hung up the phone on me without a word. I won’t reveal the name because all evidence of human rights violation is illegal within the jurisdiction it is collected. I prefer to stay with the Taiwanese people, helping them survive dishonest business practices toward which the Taiwan government turns many a blind eye and deaf law. And, I still hope for a peaceful answer from Taiwan, even after twelve years.

For the last seven years, I’ve written editorials every Monday, looking at Taiwan objectively, respecting the status quo Taiwan has as a de facto sovereign country. I’ve been objective and constructively critical, but at times, I admit, favorable. I hailed Taiwan’s police for not bloodying students who entered the Legislature in 2014—a stark contrast to police in Washington DC. Students who entered the Executive branch weren’t so fortunate.  I know; I was here in Taiwan. When Taiwan President Tsai said, “Taiwan is a vibrant democracy; it has many problems, but it is worth saving,” with permission, she was borrowing my words from one of many supportive letters to US Congress.

In the last twelve years, I never went public with the name of my accusers nor did I publish related articles where I am syndicated. Peace was my goal. Taiwan needed time to change, but I have seen no change. Work permits still pass through the hands of a gate-keeping boss. Rights of dual citizenship remain non-existent.

I’ve applied for permanent residence twice. The first time, the committee voted “no” on matters unrelated to my application; the meeting was out of order, which I can prove because Taiwan’s unabashed government sent me the minutes of the committee meeting to show me I was wrong. The second time, I applied based on my favorable coverage of Taiwan in the press, given their unredressed grievances and my patience and, most importantly, my silence. The application response deadline is 90 days; Immigration hasn’t given an official response of their committee’s vote in over 200 days.

What may I conclude, but love? I can’t hate Taiwan for being systemically prejudice. Black Americans don’t hate me for my systemic racism. I didn’t know what I did to Black Americans—I still don’t because I don’t see systemic prejudice when it favors me. We can’t make excuses for ourselves, but the Black Man isn’t complaining about any “big nothing” as some purport. I was raised a White Republican. I must learn to listen to Black Americans just as I know Taiwanese can only understand by listening to me.

This was a message I eagerly wanted to tell Americans: invisible injustice in our systems cause poverty! But, I couldn’t tell that story without hurting the Taiwanese people. Now, after 200 days of waiting for a 90 day deadline, it’s safe to say that Taiwan’s Immigration Agency won’t mind.

Of course, I have many Taiwanese friends whom I don’t deserve, many of the skateboarders. Why would I choose Tainan, a city with the most restrictive skatepark and skateboard laws on the island? Tainan has talented skateboarders as eager and gifted as anywhere else. Injustice in any system affects every sector. I don’t run from problems no matter how small, no matter how scary. It’s hard to leave friends, especially when their patience has changed my life. Taiwan opened my eyes over the last twelve years to understand the plight of the Black Man. I understand my first country better because I kept reaching out to the hand that slapped me back. And, I kept taking the many hands in Taiwan that reached out to me.

I can’t reject the Taiwanese. They’ve taught me too much.