Do you make money cooking food in a restaurant?


This morning at the tea shop I met an elderly gentleman from some Western country. (He was wearing a sleeveless vest, so his pink shoulders revealed his geographic origin from quite some distance.) After he subtly flirted in English with the owner of the business and with her mother, he turned to me.

“Are you an English teacher?” he inquired friendly enough.

On my confirmation, he noted that almost all the foreigners he meets seem to be teachers.

“There are some engineers as well,” I informed him.

When I left the shop, I couldn’t help but shake my head to the strangeness of the question.

Imagine the first question someone asks you is, “Do you make money by cooking food in a restaurant?” Or, “Do you make money fixing cars?” Or perhaps, “Do you make money by representing people in lawsuits?”

I find it most curious that people consider it normal when they first meet you to ask, for all practical purposes, “How do you make money?”

Would it be rude to ask, “What’s it to you?”

Of course I understand why people ask each other these types of questions. You have limited opportunity to identify someone as friend, enemy or neutral; how someone makes money is admittedly an easy start. (As if anyone would admit they steal cars or rob banks to put food on the table.)

Nevertheless, I would have enjoyed giving the man a breakdown of my writing projects that don’t make much money but that holds a lot of value to me, and even of other ways I do make money, but that can’t be expressed in one-word labels such as “English teacher” or “engineer”.

It would also have been good to mention that many Westerners only work as English teachers in Taiwan to be able to travel or to be able to spend time on their music, or on other artistic ambitions.

When he asked me if I taught at the local primary school, a few blocks from the tea shop, I said no, I work at a language centre in the commercial district.

“It’s just a part-time job,” I added, “but it keeps me alive.”