The Benefit for Taiwanese of More Interaction with Foreigners

David Chang, secretary-general of non-profit organization Crossroads, shares his thoughts on how Taiwan can better utilize foreign professionals while using exchanges to foster an international mindset among Taiwanese talent.

“Raising global visibility (提升國際能見度),” “aligning with international trends (與國際接軌),” and “promoting internationalization (國際化)” are phrases commonly heard in Taiwan, particularly in connection with government initiatives, business presentations, and political campaigns. Whether they serve as objectives for business or national development, these goals are unquestionably of utmost importance to Taiwan.

But a question too often ignored is whether the overall environment is inclusively diverse enough to cultivate local talent with the experience and perspectives needed to effectively engage and work with communities outside Taiwan.

Starting in June, non-profit organization Crossroads began conducting a survey on international career development, targeting locally based Taiwanese participants in its online events. Of the total respondents as of September, ranging from 16 to 50 years of age, 72% stated that they lacked any deep engagement with foreigners or people originally from other countries in their daily lives.

Meanwhile, 63% expressed their willingness to get to know foreigners, but said they simply did not know any suitable settings or opportunities to do so, and 50% admitted that they were usually too intimidated by foreigners or fearful that their English was not good enough.

David Chang founded Crossroads
in 2020 to facilitate more exchanges
between Taiwanese and foreign

While a small-sized survey, the results suggest a picture that isn’t entirely surprising. According to the latest statistics from the National Immigration Agency for July, there are 747,585 foreign residents in Taiwan – equal to only about 3% of the total population of 23.2 million. When combined with statistics from the Ministry of Labor for the same period, foreign residents can be divided into 704,655 blue-collar workers (94.2% of foreign residents) and 42,390 white-collar workers (5.6% of foreign residents), with the majority settled in urban areas like Taipei, New Taipei, Taoyuan, Kaohsiung, and Taichung.

The absence of a diverse environment means that Taiwanese have fewer opportunities to meet, befriend, and collaborate with people from various cultures. This reduces their chances of molding the kind of open and adaptive mindsets that are defining qualities of international talent. And as geopolitical tensions rise in the region and Taiwan experiences the effects of a shrinking and aging population, a thorough reexamination of its relationship with immigrants is urgently needed.

The National Development Council (NDC) recently announced it plans to attract 400,000 blue- and white-collar foreign workers over the next decade. NDC’s announcement followed a November 2021 statement by NDC Deputy Minister Shih Keh-her, who set a goal of attracting 100,000 international white-collar workers by 2030. This infusion of foreign professionals, if successful, is projected to increase the proportion of immigrants to around 5% of the population in a decade’s time.

But a narrow focus on accelerating new talent inflow is not enough. The government must also work to foster an inclusive environment that can help retain and integrate existing foreign talent. If outflow of talent were greater than inflow, it would result in a negative-sum game. (According to end-of-year statistics by the National Immigration Agency, the total immigrant population of Taiwan had dropped from 797,122 in 2020 to 752,900 in 2021.)

According to mid-year estimates by the Ministry of Interior, Taiwan’s population is falling at an average rate of around 830 people a day. The plummeting birth rate has been attributed to changes in attitudes toward marriage and parenthood, worries about the costs of childcare, and women’s increased participation in the workforce. These modern paradigm shifts, which can be seen across the world in industrialized countries, are not expected to change in the near future. As this rate is only expected to increase, it’s clear that Taiwan is going to need more people.

The road to integration

If immigrants are expected to counter the diminishing population size, we need to seriously consider standardized and accessible paths for them and their children – particularly those born in Taiwan – to become naturalized citizens. The current process of requiring immigrants applying for naturalization to give up all other citizenships before their application has been approved is unreasonable, especially in light of growing concerns over geopolitical stability.

Issues related to foreigner rights or accessibility are currently unlikely to be at the top of any policymaker’s agenda in Taiwan, simply because immigrants are not part of their voting constituency. Language and cultural differences serve as additional and tiresome barriers to mutual understanding – barriers that, for the time being, lack any practical necessity or urgency to be overcome.

A larger naturalized citizenry with the right to vote would provide policymakers with a much-needed incentive to seriously engage people from different cultures. It would also provide the diverse voices and perspectives needed to make Taiwan a truly inclusive and international environment.

In addition to formal integration, education initiatives should be at the core of immigrants’ cultural integration into local communities. In turn, the diverse knowledge, perspective, and connections that foreign nationals bring should be leveraged for the local cultivation of globally oriented talent, rather than just English instruction.

Crossroads in September launched the XU Learning Center (XU), an experimental program aimed at developing global mindsets and careers of Taiwanese, whether university-age students or working professionals, through the guidance of foreign professionals and engagement with the larger international community. Its team members and current network of coaches and mentors include the former dean of an American university, a space engineer, a renowned sculptor, a climate change scientist, former tech executives, and others, all of whom are foreign residents of Taiwan.

The program promotes the development of globally-oriented talent and matching soft skills that are crucial in multicultural professional and social situations. This is done through practical experiences and by culturally acclimatizing Taiwanese learners with foreign nationals.

XU has shone a light on the many cultural and institutional issues that contribute to the underutilization of foreign professionals in the traditional education system. One example is XU mentor Chris Armsden, an Oscar-winning visual director and Gold Card holder who started a company in Taiwan two years ago. Armsden says he proactively approached dozens of universities to offer exchange and internship opportunities while presenting his impressive filmography, only to never hear from them again.

“I think any kind of outreach to universities or businesses in Taiwan without guanxi (relationships) is usually just met with some kind of suspicion,” he says, “It’s like ‘Who are you?’ and ‘Why are you here in Taiwan?” Kind of like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’”

Taiwan is undoubtedly at a proverbial crossroads in terms of its relationship with both the global community and its own complex identity. To face the growing challenges of today, the questions of “What exactly does it mean to be ‘Taiwanese?’” and “Where do Taiwanese see their relationship with the rest of the world?” will only grow louder and more unavoidable. It’s probably best that we get to work sooner than later on answering them.