The Family Lives of Foreign English Teachers in Taiwan

In a series of posts several years ago, I talked about aspects of the family life of English teachers. Mark Liberman at Language Log picked up on this and responded that he did not think my points were supported by his own and other’s experience being raised outside their countries. My response was that the lives now being created in vast numbers for foreign English teachers in Asia are not like those generally experienced by people living outside their countries. In this post, I want to elaborate on my earlier statement by drawing from some official statistics of Taiwan’s National Police Agency.

Kerim Friedman passed along this link of Excell spread sheets from the ROC National Police Agency. The information they contain addresses the number of foreign residents in Taiwan and what they’re doing here. I believe the information they contain adds to my description of the distorted family lives available to foreign English teachers.

Foreign English Teachers in Taiwan

First, I would like to compare the profile of English teachers provided by the NPA data with the MOE data I discussed in the past.

Form #4 shows that in 2005, there was nearly half a million (429,703) foreign residents in Taiwan. More than half of these (297,287) were employed as ‘Foreign Workers’, but the Chinese is probably better translated as ‘labourer’ or ‘general worker’. At the time of the count, there were 6630 ‘Teachers’ in Taiwan. This number corresponds well with the numbers I obtained from an MOE website set up for buxiban operators.

Form #6 shows the large number of Canadians living in Taiwan. Canadians are the single largest nationality employed in Taiwan as ‘Teachers’. I have previously talked about the dominance of Canadians as foreign English teachers in Taiwan. Form #6 indicates that 1,783 Americans are employed here as ‘Teachers, compared with 1,897 Canadians. The ‘Others’ category contains 1,129 people listed as ‘Teachers’, seemingly confirming my guess that most are South African.

The Children of Foreigners in Taiwan

Form #6 also contains information on the number of residents in Taiwan under 15 years old. Americans are much more likely to have children than any other nationality. In fact, the difference and its pattern is so striking that further discussion is warranted.

I obtained the number of adults of a given nationality by adding the number of workers from Form #6 to the number of ‘Unemployed’ from Form #6. This latter category includes ‘Homemaker’ and students. If we then divide the number of foreign residents under 15 from Form 6 with the number of adults from our calculation, we get the ratio for children per adult of that nationality living in Taiwan. For example, for Americans I made the following calculation,

  1,822 Unemployed, etc

+ 4,937 Workers

= 6,759 Adults ( + 3,727 under 15 = 10,486 Total)

3,727 under 15 / 6,759 Adults = .551

If the number is 1.0, this would mean there is 1 child in Taiwan for every adult of that nationality. If the number is .1, this would mean 1 child for every 10 adults of that nationality. In this case, the number .551 indicates slightly more than half a child per adult American or slightly more than one child per married American couple.

The most normal family composition is found among residents from the USA. In fact, the .551 children per adult obtained from Americas means that in a household composed of 1 man and 1 woman, there would be 3.1 people, which is slightly smaller than the US national average for family size in 2001.

Trailing the USA, but still reasonably ‘normal’ are the industrial neighbors of Taiwan.

Japan .254

Korea .224

The next and largest category contains a wide diversity of nations. The striking fact about this category is that it includes many advanced nations, although they generally come out at the top of the range. The major exceptions to this rule are Canada and the UK who compare more with Malaysia and India.

Germany .195

Singapore .193

Australia .190

France .176

India .133

UK .117

Canada .116

Malaysia .103

Not surprisingly, the numbers we get for nationalities where the majority of citizens are employed as general workers in factories, construction sites, and homes are extremely small, indicating that very, very few of them have children in Taiwan.

Indonesia .004

Philippines .002

Vietnam .0005

Thailand .0008

Employment and Family Structure

Korean, Japanese, and particularly Americans living in Taiwan generally appear to live in households whose composition resemble a household in their native country. This is a significantly different pattern than found among Australians but particularly Canadians and British. Among these nationals, approximately one in eight residents of Taiwan have a child. As I stated above, the household of an average American married couple would have 3.1 people. An average married Canadian couple’s household would have only 2.2 people. What explains this difference?

Among the Anglo-American nations, the rank ordering of percent working as ‘Teachers’ is identical to the rank ordering of family size: Canada, UK, Australia, USA. The vast majority of Canadians (63.4%) over 15 living in Taiwan are employed as ‘Teachers’. This is also true for Brits (48.6%) and Australians (31.2%). Compare this with the same number for the USA (26.1%). Virtually no Korean adult (1.2%) or Japanese adult (6.3%) residents are working as ‘Teachers’.

One further calculation supports this relationship between employment as a ‘Teacher’ and family size. Subtracting the number of teachers from the total number of adults and using this number in the calculation of adults per child yields .446 for Canadians and .336 for Australians – numbers more in-line with those obtained for Americans residents.

The Families of English Teachers in Taiwan

These numbers are not powerful evidence, but they do act as an indicator in the direction I discussed previously. There appears to be a relationship between working as a foreign English teacher and an absence of children in one’s household. At least foreign nationalities in Taiwan represented by large numbers of citizens working as English teachers have fewer children than those working in business or other non-education occupation. Several factors could explain this.

English teachers tend to be young. The occupation has a very high turn over rate and as a result, the median age remains very low, probably in the mid-20’s. This does not however explain why the occupation has such a high turnover rate. In this post, I described English teaching as an entry-level job in the culture industry, comparing it with workers in America’s ethnic food industry. As I described in this post, the career path would either be up or out. Some English teachers would go on to establish their own schools or professionalize to such a degree that they could enter authentic teaching jobs and compete against Taiwanese. The majority would reject these options, and like South Asian workers, return home.

This post leaves many questions unanswered. What is it about English teaching that deters teachers from having families? The money and liberty afforded members of the occupation is reasonable. It would appear that other factors play a significant role in the decision to defer starting a family until other work is available. Another interesting problem lies in the relationship between English teaching and Canada. While it is clear that economic problems in parts of Canada have contributed to the dominance of Canadians working as English teachers, is there a status significance implied in this? Certainly whenever this issue (or the issue of South Africans as English teachers) is raised on this or other sites, comments emerge that seem to point to Canadians as subordinate cultural representatives of the West. If this is true, it would not be the first time that Anglo-American speakers of English have been demarcated into different classes based on their nationalities.

January 01, 2007 in English Teachers as Migrants | Permalink

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I’d be curious how many of the families with children reflect Taiwanese holding foreign passports?

Posted by: Kerim Friedman | January 01, 2007 at 14:30

The interesting thing to me is that only about half of the American children in Taiwan are registered at the Taipei American School. There’s no where near enough space at international schools for all those kids. Where are they getting their schooling?

Posted by: Scott Sommers | January 01, 2007 at 19:51

I know a number of Americans here who send their children to public schools.

Posted by: Mark | January 02, 2007 at 03:30

I know some foreign families have children attending public school. But there must be a lot of them, given the NPA numbers. Kerim’s comment reminded me of the possibility that some significant number of American families may be Taiwanese families who have obtained American passports and now have their children at what I have heard called ‘Chinese’ schools. It would be interesting to know more about this.

Posted by: Scott Sommers | January 02, 2007 at 08:00

It is not possible for a person whose income derives only from teaching in a bushiban to have two children and send them both to international schools, as I know from bitter experience, that requires serious wealth. Hence, they either homeschool or send them to local school. All of the teachers I know here do one or the other; I do not know even a single one who has a kid in the local international school unless they teach there.

The main reason people do not have families here is the educational problem. The local schools suck (sorry, Clyde!), homeschooling sucks down time and energy, the international schools are full of snotty cliques — at the religious schools you have the added bonus of religion-based cliques — which a mere teacher’s children will never be a part of, as I also know from bitter experience.

This means that keeping up the language skills of the child in the local school is particularly difficult, and I know of several half-US, half-Taiwanese kids who live at home with the ‘rents but go to local schools whose English is seriously bad. Another reason to home school, I’d say.

Until the English language problem is comprehensively and affordably solved, then people will not bring their kids here and will not start families — and that failure may in fact be deliberate policy, to discourage in-migration….

Why do Americans have kids here? Probably a lot more corporate types — most of the big MNCs here are US, after all.


Posted by: Michael Turton | January 02, 2007 at 13:21

BTW, is there any indication that the number of teachers is tailing off as demand from China sucks people over there?


Posted by: Michael Turton | January 02, 2007 at 13:26

Michael, thank you very much for the comment. This is much the same argument I made in some of my original posts on the matter. Particularly this post
Although some readers, including Mark Liberman at Language Log, were skeptical of the idea, I believe that almost every long-term resident knows of families suffering from the problems you describe.

As for the exodus to China situation, in short, the answer is yes and no. The salaries for foreign teachers are so low in China I doubt it will ever be able to dent the Taiwan market. Taiwan is probably the easiest to enter of the Asian English markets with a reasonable standard of money. The exodus to China is however a major issue among top international schools. In fact, it was the genesis of the major tuition increase at the Taipei American School that resulted in this post

Posted by: Scott Sommers | January 02, 2007 at 17:56

Kerim, I’m not sure how many American families can be accounted for by Taiwanese holders of American passports. I have further reason to believe that most of this effect is the result of the childlessness of foreign English teachers.

The average household size in Japan is somewhere around 2.6 and dropping. The average household of a married Japanese couple is 2.308 people. That’s 1.9 times more children per household in Japan.

In Canada, the average household contained 2.6 people in 2001 and is apparently on the way up. In Taiwan, the average married Canadian household would be 2.232 people. That’s 2.59 times more children in a household in Canada.

Posted by: Scott Sommers | January 02, 2007 at 23:11

I have read most of your posts on English Teachers as Migrants. Unlike many of the commenters I don’t teach in university. I have been teaching in kindergarten, elementary schools, high schools , bushibans and language schools for almost a decade which will probably get my views quickly dismissed from this board.

I also don’t have any of the hard statistical evidence you claim to have, just annecdotal observations. But I have seen 1000s of English teachers come and almost always go.

All the families I refer to have ESL teachers as the primary breadwinner.

I know a few couples where both parents are ex-patriates and they send their children to local schools because of the desire for their children to learn Chinese.

Almost all of the mixed couples I know with children (at least one parent as an ESL teacher) send their children to local school. For the same reasons Michael posted.

I do know some professionals (usually American) who all send their children to Morrison.

I also know of an equal number of former ESL teachers who moved to back to their home countries once they started families or after their children became school aged. Education and the environment being the deciding factors.

In my opinion most Canadian English Teachers don’t have children for many of the same reasons as most other 20 something Candian University grads, debt. Which I think you’d agree is the primary reason many come to Asia in the first place.

I am also interested in the numbers that Kerim is interested in as I have family members and many friends who would be in that category.

In addition, I know of a few teachers who have left for or are planning to go to China. Not many, but more in the last six months than in the past 9 years combined. None of these people are going to work at international schools, they all claim either adventure or to improve Chinese skills.

I also find it interesting that you talk about the lack of job prospects of people with BAs leading them to Asia when half of the foreign teachers at my school (5) don’t even have BAs.

Posted by: Elliott | January 03, 2007 at 01:04

They’d rather spend their time on partying, booze and vacations than starting a family?

Posted by: The Taipei Kid | January 03, 2007 at 08:00

Or they do this in lieu of starting a family. Ironically, the stories that get told about the wild lives of foreign English teachers (both by locals and by themselves) parallel the stories that were told about Chinese migrant workers to Hawaii minus the racial prejudice. For an interesting description of this, I recommend Clarence Glick’s classic on the matter, Sojourners and Settlers.

Posted by: Scott Sommers | January 03, 2007 at 08:08

oth by locals and by themselves) parallel the stories that were told about Chinese migrant workers to Hawaii minus the racial prejudice.

But isn’t it telling such stories racial prejudice?

…great insight. all over the world, foreigners are licentious and we locals are the soul of propriety.

Posted by: Michael Turton | January 04, 2007 at 21:37

Thank you for asking this question. I deliberately chose the word prejudice’ over the other term -‘racism’ – for this very reason. What I meant to imply was the structural organization of English teaching is not the result of a systematic categorization of foreigners as problematic or even different. I believe that Taiwanese are quite race indifferent (but that’s another issue). Rather, this situation results from the way in which some foreign English teachers are conveniently come to be labeled as ‘transient’ or ‘sojourner’. Diplomats, expat management hires, and government consultants are not labeled as wild party booze hounds; English teachers are. And this label is then used to explain everything about them. Including the structural problems that come from their disorganized workplace. The disorganization of their workplace isn’t used to explain their deviation from common Western lifestyles. The fact that even by local standards, foreign teachers are often oppressed and stuck in a dead-end workplace with no profession mobility is never used to explain this deviation. But the label itself does not, I believe, come from systematic racial prejudice.

I just want to go back to an old debate we had when I initially raised this issue. When I initially broached the idea of English teaching as a migratory movement, there was some concern that I was bordering on the old ‘English teacher as loser’ position. My point is quite the opposite. I believe that it is ‘the English teacher as adventurer’ that is the ideological flip side of ‘English teachers as losers’. Adventurers do adventurous things, like go to wild parties, chase girls, and spend all their money going to see the Angor Wat. Adventurers don’t want permanent jobs with security and pensions. Thus, defining a whole class of workers as adventurers makes it easy to ignore their demands to be treated like responsible adults.

How’s that?

Posted by: Scott Sommers | January 04, 2007 at 22:06

here here. Well said Scott. I think it is fairly obvious that is the case. Most teachers come here planning their time here as temporary so of course they don’t have kids.

Posted by: David May | January 06, 2007 at 02:16

But I would add to that, there really is no choice about the matter since the job is structured to make this extremely difficult.

Posted by: Scott Sommers | January 06, 2007 at 09:15


4 thoughts on “The Family Lives of Foreign English Teachers in Taiwan

  1. Just to throw my two cents in….. My wife and I are planning on moving to Taiwan in Oct of this year. We both plan on teaching English at the local private English schools. Our main attraction is for what it’s worth is an adventure with a decent pay check attached. We also have a 4 year old daughter who we adopted from an orphanage in Taiwan and we want her to go to kindergarten there to learn the language. However we do plan only staying a few years and our little girl will recieve homeschooling on top of the public schooling to make sure she is getting everything she needs. My wife especially has many years of actual teaching experience and will do well teaching both at the local schools and our children at home.

  2. My longtime boyfriend moved to Taipei Taiwan a year and a half ago, I currently live in the US. We would like to be together again but he wants to live there. I am fine with that but I have two sons 9 and 16. I found this page while searching to find out if my sons can go to public school there. We can not afford American School and would like for the boys to experience the public schools there and learn the language anyway.

    Can they go to public school? If so does anyone know what schools are better?
    Is there a site i can go to to learn what steps need to be taken to make this happen?

    This is the only thing that stands in the way of reuniting our family…

  3. Very interesting Scott. I’m actually writing a feature article about Canadians in Taiwan (I lived in Tainan for a year after university). Would you be okay with me using some of your content? I would quote you of course. Anything else you might be able to provide would be great as well. Thanks!

  4. A couple points – the difference between the number of American and Canadian teachers is not as great as you suggest: “1,783 Americans are employed here as ‘Teachers, compared with 1,897 Canadians.” That’s only a hundred or so. Another reason for the slight difference in their numbers is not so much economic but because of the ‘hype’, due to a popular show in Canada, “Teacher in Taiwan.” Also, young people are coming to teach in Taiwan because they don’t need teaching qualifications other than a BA, if that; and young people are less likely to want to ‘settle down’ so early these days…. and finally, many of the mostly male foreign specimens DO start a family here…. It’s commonplace enough, really. Keep up the research Scott!

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