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Black and Abroad: Teaching English in Taiwan
Written by: Sydney Parsons
Last Updated: September 11, 2020
“Taiwan. That’s the place for me,” I thought to myself as I completed my research about living as an expat in the small island-nation off the Southeastern coast of China. “Living in Taiwan,” “Expats in Taiwan,” and “Teaching English in Taiwan” were among the many things I typed into my Google search bar as I did my research. But, being that I am a 5 feet 9 ½ inch tall Black woman, my Google search also included things like: “Being Black in Taiwan,” “Being Black in Asia,” “Black Girls in Taiwan,” “Black Teachers in Taiwan,” “Racism in Taiwan,” “Black Hair in Taiwan” and the list goes on. Researching how other countries view and treat Black people is something I always do whenever I’m looking to get a new stamp in my passport. But since I was planning on moving to and living in Taiwan for at least one year, I needed to be sure of how I was going to be received by its people. So after completing my 11 week online TEFL course offered by the International TEFL academy, and after doing my research, I decided Taiwan was where I needed to be regardless of how people reacted to the color of my skin.
I arrived in Taiwan’s capital city of Taipei on the evening of January 28th, 2020. As soon as I hopped off the plane, the inevitable stares began. “And, here we go,” I thought to myself as I sluggishly looked for my pre-arranged taxi driver. The first few weeks in Taiwan were… interesting. Trying to navigate my way around a new country with a language barrier was not something new to me. And being the only Black person or only Black woman in certain spaces was not a new experience for me either. But, not seeing another Black person for weeks, or even months at a time, aside from my two coworkers and my barber, was something that I needed to quickly adapt to.
I’m an ESL kindergarten teacher here in New Taipei City, and on my first day of work I was again, met with hundreds of pauses and stares from students at my new school. The kids looked puzzled, and even a little bit scared. It was clear most of them had never seen anyone that looked like me before. I am a tall, Black woman with a very short, shaved haircut so I know my presence was a bit of a system overload for their little eyes and brains. On my first day, and throughout my first month of teaching, students of all ages asked me questions like, “Are you a boy, or a girl?” and “Why is your hair so short?” Not to mention my favorite, “Teacher, why are you Black?” And the most simple statement of them all, “Teacher, you are Black!” To which I always reply, “Yes, I am,” with a chuckle and a smile.
I quickly realized that it would be up to me to kindly and appropriately explain to my students that there are people that look like me all around the world. Part of me felt proud to do so. But part of me also questioned whether or not it was really my responsibility. “Do their parents not teach them anything about the world?” I thought to myself. “Are they just not teaching their kids that there is more than one kind of person out there?” And then I remembered that Taiwan is a very small country of 23 million people compared to the 380 million of that of the United States. So even if their parents were to teach them about the diversity that exists all around the globe, these kids would likely not be seeing anyone who doesn’t look like them if they don’t come from families who do a lot of international traveling. So alas, it’s been up to me to be a positive, educational and foreign influence in their lives.
Being Black in Taiwan is definitely a challenge, but my students’ innocence and love for me has made the transition to life here a lot easier. And while most of the challenges happen outside of school, I did have some hesitations about how I would be received in school. I quickly realized, though, that worrying about how my students perceive me was a waste of time because kids are kids. They love their teachers no matter what they look like. Their parents, however, were another concern.
After my first month, I started to wonder if my students’ parents liked me or thought maybe they might judge me for being Black. I even considered the idea that they might be afraid to send their children to school because they have a Black teacher. “I wonder if they think I’m some sort of unhinged thug,” I thought to myself. It’s no surprise that modern media is not always kind in the way it depicts Black people, so these thoughts danced around in my head for months. But concerns quickly faded away as soon as I started talking to and interacting with some of the parents. I started to see the smiles through their masks when they came to pick up their kids from school. Now I’m greeted with friendly waves and signs of acknowledgement when they drop them off in the morning. And I even communicate with some of them in extensive detail in my students’ communication books. I’ve read “Thank you, Teacher,” on notes from parents countless times because they’re just glad someone else cares about the growth and development of their children. The graciousness and gratefulness these parents feel towards me is an appreciation I’ve never felt before. They are truly happy to have me educating their kids and teaching them something they’ll be able to have and use forever.
So, to my fellow Black travelers looking to escape the norm and try something different: I say come to Taiwan with an open heart. Because for every rude stare you get, there are at least two more people who will smile at you. For every person who moves away from you on the metro, they’ll be someone willing to help give you directions. For every person who may take photos of you without your permission, there’s a lovely Taiwanese couple willing to help you down a mountain if you’re lost (okay, maybe this case was specific to me, but you get the point). And for every parent who shields their child from you when you’re out in public because they’re scared of someone they’ve never seen before, there is a parent who is grateful you’re in their child’s life giving them the gift of being able to speak another language.
Some things in life can be both a gift and curse. But my Blackness is a pure gift that keeps on giving. Everywhere I go people stare. Hard. Sometimes I’m not sure if they’re staring out of curiosity, confusion, or racism. But they stare nonetheless. And I walk with pride embracing the stares at my beautiful dark, brown skin. I know that beauty standards around the world vary, especially in Asia. Dark skin is not something considered to be traditionally beautiful here. But when the hot, summer sun of Taipei City hits my melanin, I walk with pride anyway. Long, silky hair is considered to be very beautiful here as well. But when I leave my barber with a fresh unique haircut, I walk with pride anyway. Height is also not something that is easily found in the people in this part of the world. But when all 5 feet and 9 ½ inches of me leaves my apartment to go to school or to enjoy the day, I walk with pride anyway.
Standing out can be uncomfortable at times. But it is commonly said that if you want to grow, you have to step out of your comfort zone. So here I am. The confidence I walk with through this new country follows me into the classroom. I teach my students well by being myself. My tall, short-haired, Black, self. My students love me, and I love them. I love Taiwan and all the things it’s given me and taught me in the seven months I’ve been living and teaching here. And based off of the experiences I’ve had so far, I think it loves me back.
Sydney is a 24-year-old originally from New York. She graduated from Temple University in 2018 with a B.B.A. in Human Resource Management. She completed her 11-week online TEFL course while she was working full-time as a recruiter for a staffing firm, and moved to New Taipei City, Taiwan at the end of January, 2020. She has been living and teaching there for seven months.
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