November 13, 2006

Taiwan Business Culture

My wife and I are in the midst of opening a children's language school--something we've been in the midst of for quite some time now, and something I've been meaning to blog about for a little longer than the time we've been in the midst of it.

Nothing worth doing is easy, someone said. A lot of things that aren't worth doing aren't a walk in the park, either. That's why Maggie and I left our previous employer. We decided to open a school in Changhua, so as not to be "in competition" with our old boss. Then, when it looked as if there were no places available in Changhua, we decided not to worry so much about the previous boss and found a place right away in Taichung across the street from an elementary school.

Maggie did the spy work in the neighborhood, posing as a prospective student's mother, finding out how long classes were, and cost of tuition, books, etc. There appear to be no foreign English teachers in the vicinity of this school. The feng-shui was approved by my father-in-law and we met with the landlord & his wife to sign the papers.

They seemed like a nice enough couple. But, I think everyone is nice. Like the architect, and the builders. After almost seven years in Taiwan, I should have learned that the unofficial "Foreigner Tax" is a heavy one. Goods and services that don't have a price tag on them often get a percentage added on to them because everyone knows that Westerners don't haggle. My Taiwanese friends get great pleasure telling me how I've been screwed on the price of this or that.

The five-story building thus rented to us for three or five-thousand NT$ a month more than anyplace in the neighborhood, we began discussions with the architect, a man who claimed to know how to read the I-Ching and would help us choose auspicious days and times to begin construction work. Unfortunately, the time he chose was 180 degrees off auspicious and would have been disastrous according to other calculations.

Our electrician, who by all indications is a nice guy, told us that the architect had told him that the school was being run by an American so he could overcharge us. Fortunately, he didn't.

The school is about 75% finished at this point. To open a buxiban in Taiwan is much more complicated than opening any other business. At the time of licensing, there are many hoops which must be jumped through, hoops which, upon being licensed, are quickly discarded, never to be acknowledged again.

The Illegal Structure.
When the building in which we're setting up shop was first built, the plans called for a space 36.4 square meters, behind which was a place large enough for a mid-sized patio between the back door and the four meters to the open drainage pipe that divides our property from the row of buildings behind us. After the building was approved, twenty-five years ago, someone had the great idea that this space would make an excellent kitchen, and three walls were thrown up, and a tin roof was produced to cover the new kitchen. The Property Usage Board would never have approved such a thing, so this sort of building is called an "Illegal Structure." They are not uncommon in Taiwan; how many can you find in this photograph?

The obvious ones add up to a number which is the same as two twelve-packs of Taiwan Beer. There are also some buildings which may have originally been planned as having three floors, but which eventually grew to five. The illegal structure is a way of life, as ubiquitous as the crooked bureaucrat. You would run out of cats to swing before you ran out of illegal structures to be hit by them.

Before we can get a license to run our school, the illegal structure which our landlord attached to the back of our building had to be taken down. City inspectors came by to check out the place after we'd put up the interior walls, front door, and painted the walls. They didn't say a word about the four white and green walls in the back of the school with the extra large skylight. The roof has remained off through a typhoon season which has been much calmer than usual, and I've only had to squeegee flood waters out of our first floor once. We're not sure if the folks from the education department are going to come back before they give us a license, so the roof must remain off. And, as the roof is off, we can't put in a floor, or a counter, or carpeting for the stairs, or equip the teachers' prep room.

All of this fuss over an illegal structure that a week after we get signed off, no one will pay any attention to, until the next people rent the place and have to go through the same thing all over again. Unless of course, they don't want to register with the city, which is an attractive option to many, especially all the business owners who...don't want to pay tax.

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