When “Taiwan Isn’t a Country” Comes Up in my English Class

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I wrote this post as sort of a reflection on how I’ve approached the issue of how I reference the Taiwanese students in my English language class at SFSU as well as how I confront students who disagree with my policy.  This was also written as a comment/extension of a blog post I had read called “The Problem of Taiwan: What is Taiwan?”

Since I’m moving to Taiwan to teach English, this most likely won’t be an issue for me anymore in Taiwan. But it certainly was an issue teaching in an ESL class in San Francisco, where students came from all sorts of different countries, but the majority from Mainland China or Saudi Arabia.

I have taught English in San Francisco to international university students for almost two years now. Many of them come from China. Few come from Taiwan. I would say the general ratio of Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese is usually 8 to 1. Our school policy is that we refer to Taiwan independently from China. This comes up on the class roster, which shows which country students are from. This also comes up in class, when we as questions like “What is something in your country that is different from America?” Both Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese students catch on quick to this language – I haven’t had one semester (and there hasn’t been another co-worker who hasn’t experienced a classroom situation) where a Mainland Chinese student hasn’t raised the issue that Taiwan isn’t a country.

As a teacher, I want to promote a safe, comfortable learning environment for students. But it is difficult when some students are told that they can’t be who they want to be. Therefore, my personal policy and the way that I’ve explained to my students why I refer to Taiwan independently from China is that everyone in class can choose to be whatever they want to be. They can be Chinese or Taiwanese. They can be referred to as Qianyu or Claire. And I think it’s important that the Taiwanese students have a choice in whether or not they want to be referred to as Taiwanese or Chinese. It definitely isn’t up to the other Mainland Chinese students to mandate how the Taiwanese students want to be referred to.

To help them understand better, I use myself as an example. I ask them, “What am I?” Some will say Chinese. Some will say Asian. Some will say American. And I usually shrug and say, “Well I decide. I can be called American. I can be called Taiwanese American. I can be called Asian American. I can decide for myself.”

While I suspect that most of the Mainland Chinese students don’t buy it and just follow my rules because of my authority as the teacher, I still think it’s important for me to set that standard in class, to support the students that are often silenced because they’re the single Taiwanese student in class.

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