Island Gorilla


Adventures in the mist

the ongoing literary and wider exploits of A. Nicholson

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Alex looks back on the year. Also, working culture in Taiwan.
Parson gets Plothammered

As I type this, in the last dying minutes of 2011, it's time for me to take stock of my achievements and my shortcomings. It's been a busy year in some ways, and not at all in others. For the first time, I've had a full-time job on at least a semi-permanent basis. While this was novel in some ways, and the chance to establish and develop a rapport with students and colleagues over a long period of time has been largely pleasant, it comes with stings in the tail.

The working culture of Taiwan, and the Far East in general (so far as it's possible or desirable to generalise from available evidence) places a lot more responsibility on the shoulders of the individual than the organisation. Workers' rights are at a level that would be considered backward by Western European standards, with little in the way of available holiday, or support packages for employees. It seems unions have yet to take off in any real way in Taiwan-- this may be an artefact of the relatively recent shift to democracy from military police state, or perhaps just a reflection of the Taiwanese inclination away from challenging authority.

In real terms, this means that the labour market is very fluid. Employees (or at least native employees) are eminently replaceable, even in semi-skilled or skilled professions, thanks to the Taiwanese proclivity for studying and a proliferation of further education facilities throughout the island: traditional universities as well as more technical institutions teaching subjects ranging from video game design to cosmetology. Wages are low, even taking into account the lower cost of living. In the city I'm living in, which is about average in terms of general affluence, a convenience store clerk or waiter can expect to earn around £1.20 an hour. Teaching assistants working for the school I teach at earn even less, which is astonishing considering that speaking English to the extent that you can aid a foreign teacher in the classroom is not a common skill in Taiwan.

What happens, then, is that the most competent English speakers do not in fact touch those jobs with the sharp end of a pike, and schools often resort to employing teaching assistants whose English is no better than their students. (But still better than the Chinese of 98% of the teachers, if only marginally.)

There are very able assistants, of course. I wouldn't want to mislead people into thinking that all TAs are incapable of performing their jobs to description. It's just that the more able ones, or the ones best suited to improving their English on the job, tend to get the hell out of Dodge as soon as they can find something better. Which is entirely fair. What would be fairer would be for teaching assistants to be paid a wage which recognises the skills which they must have (decent level of English, able to work evenings/weekends, competent in an office environment, good with children) rather than attempting to cut costs and employ those who 7-11 and McDonalds dismissed as liabilities, or exploit those with a genuine interest in the job and honing their language skills. That way they might actually retain staff, rather than spending inordinate amounts of time training and retraining incoming TAs.

Another effect of the Taiwanese style of managing labour is the dedication people will typically display to their jobs. Out of fear for their job security, devotion to their work, or an unseemly combination of the two, people will come to work with illnesses that would have a typical British worker bedding down with a pitcher of Lemsip and a DVD boxed set. You can imagine how well this pans out in, OH FOR EXAMPLE a school.

This dedication is exploited by employers, who will wring as much free time out of their employees as possible. My manager is a particularly egregious example, I am willing to accept, but anecdotes from native and foreign workers have demonstrated to me that this is a societal behaviour, and not one which I'm particularly keen on. If I were to count up the hours spent indulging some whim or extracurricular project of my manager for which I have not been compensated I'm fairly sure I'd be due another fortnight's wages. Instead, this good will has gone towards earning me a 5% raise, as opposed to the more customary 3.5%. That...that's swell. ¬_¬ 


Working in Taiwan has been a very interesting departure from British labour culture, but the higher wages I've been earning come at the cost of colluding in a much more exploitative and distasteful system.

Anyway, onto the list of goals/intentions for the year.

2009 I wanted to teach English in the Far East.

2011 I intended to teach English in the Far East.


2010 I wanted to finish my novel.

2011 I intend to finish my novel.

Achieved, although put on the back burner again after attempts to extract feedback from readers failed.

2010 I wanted to go on a scriptwriting short course.

2011 I intended to go on a scriptwriting short course.

Hmm. Achieved-ish. Had to abandon the course halfway through in order to fly out to Taiwan, and despite paying the full course fee and submitting my final script (albeit a little later than everyone else) have yet to receive any feedback from the previously very accommodating course convenor. Really ought to chase that up. :\

2010 I wanted to write my next play

2011 I intended to write my next play.

Failed. While it exists in fragments scattered across notebooks and in my head, I've not got much further with this than I had in January. Lack of access to the necessary research materials and the arrival of newer/easier/less demanding projects meant the play was overlooked. Sadface.

And for next year:

2012 I intend to socialise more and pursue my interests and goals as part of a support group, rather than a bitter misanthrope hiding in a squalid apartment alone on New Year's Eve.

2011 was not a good year for socialising. From spending most evenings gaming or in the pub with friends while in Norwich, to slouching in front of a laptop 7 nights a week in Changhua, I did not put the effort that I ought into maintaining ties with the group of friends I've made in Taiwan. I have previously waved the excuses of tiredness, frugality, unfamiliarity with the language, and lack of people sharing my interests as talismans against accusations of hermitdom.

However, these excuses only go so far. My lack of discipline over sleep cycles is to fault for the tiredness more than my workload (except these past two weeks during which I've run myself ragged covering for my colleague on holiday leave). I have saved a perfectly respectable amount of money in my time here, and so long as I get a good run of summer school work in the UK when my contract expires in June, I will be in excellent shape for my next big project (more on that later). My lack of Chinese is attributable to my lack of enthusiasm for socialising with Chinese speakers-- the more time I spend out and about the more Chinese I will pick up through osmosis. Last, there do exist improvisational theatre groups in Taiwan that I have dragged my feet over introducing myself to. In 2012 I will potter along and show my face, if only to spread the word for my other project: to set up a writer's group in Changhua. There are other creative writers in this town, waigouren and Taiwanren, and it would be a lot more jolly to work with each other rather than keeping it to ourselves-- even if it's just meeting up for drinks and 500 words of automatic writing every Wednesday.

2012 I intend to complete three script drafts, for stage or screen, and succeed in getting feedback from a group of readers.

This is kind of a wimpy intention, to be honest. I'm about 90% through a spec script, with a feature film script at 30%, and another spec script lurking around the 40% mark. Still, have to set myself work-related goals. Speaking of:

2012 I intend to enrol in the Filmwriter's Program at the UCLA.

This is the big one. I've been umming and aahing over MA programs for a while now, so long that it's started to lose its purpose. The goal of working abroad, of saving up this money to support myself during the MA is so that I don't need a full time job, and can therefore work harder on learning the craft and maximising my access to lecturing staff and learning resources. However, the purpose of the MA itself is not so much for the shiny letters to go after my name as it is to give me a better understanding of writing for the screen, and what I need to do to make a living out of it (or at the very least, make a bit on the side out of it). The shiny letters and the credentials they represent are nice, but the end goal is for me to be a better writer and for Mr BBC or whoever to recognise that through the quality of my work, and not what my CV says I done.

This program will give me a lot more freedom to earn and to network than a full time MA at the UEA, for example, will do. While I won't get any funky letters after my name on completion, I will have had access to the teaching staff and resources of one of, if not the most renowned, most exciting writing departments in the world. I get to immerse myself in life in Los Angeles, and hopefully rub shoulders with all the up-and-coming young things what you hear about. This is a big opportunity for me, and I am so very keen to get on this course. If all goes to plan, if I find it as fulfilling and exciting as I've hoped, then my options are rosy for the next year: I can go on to an MA with the added heft to my application that association with the UCLA will lend me, or start submitting work to production companies.

On the other hand, if I feel like it's not for me at least I'll have had the experience of living in California, and I won't be too far out of pocket for planning my next move, whatever that may be.

Of course, this also means that I should be prepared for what happens if I don't get onto the course. At the moment I am leaning towards another overseas post teaching English. I've been wanting to work on my Spanish for a while now, and I'd enjoy being closer to home and living and working within a less alien culture. I think I've improved my skills as a teacher considerably over this year, and I'm interested in challenging myself with another change of scene. Spain would be a real adventure, and one I look forward to. Here's hoping, wherever I end up, I can carry on writing and improving myself-- which, when we get down to it, is the main goal of it all anyway.

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Best of luck!

"The shiny letters and the credentials they represent are nice, but the end goal is for me to be a better writer and for Mr BBC or whoever to recognise that through the quality of my work, and not what my CV says I done"

Very true - now that I have those shiny letters myself I realise that they have a very limited value in themselves, but the very specific skills I learned are dead useful *if* appropriately employed.

Oh, and keep writing about your experiences if you can, I really enjoy your journal

Currently suffering from pneumonia because parents don't realise that sending your kid into a school while carrying said disease is a bad idea. They're preparing their offspring for a life of denying all illness and pretending flimsy little facemasks offer the ultimate protection against any germs.

Not only that but when I called my school today to tell them I definitely wouldn't be in (yeah, they expect me to work) I couldn't do anything because the person on the other end of the phone didn't speak English. At an English school. She couldn't understand my rasped Chinese either. Fail.

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