Eye On Taiwan
Date: May 7,2016
By: David Wang
News reports in Taiwan have occasionally cited facts as the island boasting the world’s highest density of motor scooters as well as convenience stores as 7-Eleven, which, unfortunately, can’t be said of ethical behavior.
Observers of news in Taiwan, a speck of an isle barely noticeable on a global map, must admit that the list of corrupt behavior exposed in Taiwan since my arrival in 1984 is longer than the distance between the earth and moon, and even exceeding that to Pluto if including all the shady incidents swept under a rug or never reported.
A seemingly minor and likely common occurrence in the 1980s in Taipei saw examiners or adjudicators at motor vehicle branches openly asking for a bribe to pass drivers who minimally fail the simulated road course, one with little resemblance to the real world; while the high-profile, multi-million-greenback Hong Yuan Ponzi scheme was allowed to run for some 7 years at the corner of Dunhwa and Nanking, a major intersection in eastern Taipei, before the scam started to unravel. Of course one has to be deaf and blind to have missed the recent spate of headline news involving Taiwanese scam rings setting up boiler rooms across the world in wire frauds to target mainland Chinese.
Here is one more relatively innocuous, ethically-starved incident that never saw the light of day till now.
Michael, Taiwan-born with a master’s from California seemed in his 30s, was right in 1984 when he smugly said while seated like a haughty CEO in his throne, with wife standing subserviently behind, that nobody would believe you even if you expose it.
It was a freelance job that was off-the-record at Michael’s junior-high teaching-English-to-speakers-of-other-languages (TESOL) textbook publishing firm, where they also set up TESOL classes for me to teach at companies. The stint proved to be a crash course in Taiwanese culture for someone who had left Taiwan at 12.
Michael and wife (daughter of a principal of an established private university not known for academic standards in Taipei) are both American citizens from California, who had on staff a greasy-haired, chain-smoking, slightly-built legislator appearing more like an opium-addict than a government official. As I gradually caught on to the way of Taiwanese corporate culture, I learnt that Michael was willing to pay him as a “consultant” (aka someone without formal duties but with clout and able to shield a firm from legal liabilities) for justifiable reason.
The office was on the fourth floor of an office tower on a busy section of Zhongxiao E. Rd. with large windows offering an expansive view of the thoroughfare, which turned out to be the window to my first course on Taiwanese culture. One afternoon a few coworkers gathered at the window, gazed downward and I followed suit. It seemed a typical traffic accident until I focused on the woman splayed on the ground in front of a tour coach, which somehow had rammed the motor scooter rider. Without attracting much attention except curious eyes, she laid facedown and bled a stream of blood from her skull, which likely cracked like an egg upon impact. Incredibly about 40 minutes had passed without seeing even an ambulance. Then an unmarked van showed up, two men stepped out, opened the rear hatch, picked up the corpse and tossed her inside like a bag of trash.
One day Michael, out-of-the-blue, asked me to go to his office for a meeting. I did so as instructed and he asked me to close the door. Small talk followed.
I was about 29 and had just returned to Taiwan from Canada, after having spent my formative years there. I looked youthful enough to be a high school senior or a college student in 1984, which obviously inspired Michael’s machination. “You speak English flawlessly. There are plenty of young people in Taiwan who covet to master the language. So we’ll give you a crew cut, dress you up in a school uniform, forge a local high school diploma, and parade you in front of the junior and senior high schoolers in Small Town, southern Taiwan. Tell them you perfected English by using our textbooks. Southern Taiwanese in rural areas are ignorant, gullible hicks. Voila. We’ll rake it in. Of course the bumpkins may later wake up to the truth; but all they usually do to vent anger is kick you around, a worthy price for all the money to be made. Besides, that’s how business is done in this country. People rip each other off.”
Clearly there seems no correlation between one’s educational level and ethical standard. Michael also came across as a tad holier-than-thou for his post-grad degree, but he was overly presumptuous, in that he naively believed people with lesser formal educational credentials also have less street-smart and can be used as a pawn to pimp his basest instincts for a fast buck.
I listened intently but could not help being awe-struck, a response rightly from any truly enlightening education.
In many ways Taipei today has come a long way from the 1980s, when residents had to do without mobile phones, Toyota Wish and Camry as taxis but instead dinky Civics and Datsun B210s, the convenience of the MRT and bullet train. But has the capital city or Taiwan truly changed in ways to improve life for residents to make a difference in one’s wallet? News reports generally state wage stagnation or even regression since those days.
In the 1980s, under a pro-business mayor, Taipei had a skin trade that enabled many well-connected operators (possibly in cahoots with government officials and cops) to hit pay dirt. College grads in Taipei in the 1980s who were desk jocks were typically paid US$560 monthly; while perfunctorily-, lowly-educated Taiwanese females willing to turn tricks could make as much from upscale johns in as little as 6 dates. One Taiwanese female bookkeeper, a graduate of a typical polytech, worked for a massive massage parlor in Taipei in the 1980s, conspired with a co-worker to skim US$60 each nightly to double their monthly wage. Some café operators in the 1980s in Taipei sold iced coffees as well as prostitutes whose photos were neatly presented in albums, delivered with a patron’s drinks.
Meanwhile some TESOL teachers in Taiwan today who are locally-educated without significant overseas experience, if any at all, pass themselves off as card-carrying Americans to teach English to elementary and junior high schoolers in Taipei.