I am a guy from the west of England who has lived in Taiwan for more than 15 years. When I started my stay here I was in my mid-twenties; unfortunately, I have now hit the big 40.
These things rarely have a grand plan – after all it takes some resolve to say I am going to up sticks and move to another country for the rest of my life. I was traveling through Asia and I needed to stop somewhere to earn some cash – and some said to me to go to Taiwan to teach English. I then did what a lot of people did: plan to stay for two years, extend for one more, then another because you haven’t actually saved that much money; start to worry you don’t know what you will do when you get back so you look for a job in a local company for some business work experience. Another two or three years goes by, you get married; visit the UK in the winter and decide you are never going back.What challenges did you face during the move?
The usual practice for people coming to Taiwan looking for teaching work is to enter on a tourist visa, look for a school, and let them organize a working visa for you. It might take up to a month to go through this process in which case you have to make sure you have enough money to survive in that time. If you or the school are slow, then you might find yourself having to go to Hong Kong to renew the tourist visa and this is an annoying waste of time and money.
How did you find somewhere to live?
It all comes back to how you arrive in Taiwan – 85% of the expats in Taiwan are English teachers; 10% are English teachers who have moved on from teaching into probably working for a local tech company or are students of Chinese, and a further 3-5% are really expat, expat, i.e. they were sent here by a multinational. For that last group life is easy because the company will find you an apartment, car, and sort out all your visa issues.
However, for the majority, who basically just arrive with their suitcase and start to look for work, it is not so easy and the language issue is daunting, you obviously can’t read the newspapers to find your apartment so you have to go to expat hangouts – bars, restaurants, university Chinese programs – and look at noticeboards. Lots of similar guys to you will be doing the same so in the meantime you will stay in a hostel. It is possible to find an apartment using English, but more often than not, you have to ask a local to make a phone call to the landlord for you, and then read the contract. This is worrying because you cannot ever be entirely sure they are reading it thoroughly.
However, it usually all works out as the Taiwanese always compensate for the fact you cannot speak their language, and, as long as you are in Taipei, they will find someone in the office who can speak good enough English to solve your problem.
Otherwise, once your apartment is found it is pretty straightforward (two months deposit, etc.)
When you first arrive you will probably end up staying in the Shihta or Taida areas because these are home to Taipei’s two most famous universities and their Chinese language programs. As there are many foreign students there it is easy to find an apartment.
As you then learn Chinese or acquire a local girlfriend/wife, you can start to move to more suburban areas. One of the great things about Taipei is that it is set in a valley surrounded by mountains; it has one of the highest concentrations of people in the world, and is not actually very big. In the centre it has all the trappings of a sophisticated modern city, but drive half an hour and you can be on a mountain and have monkeys jumping on your roof.
Are there many other expats in your area?
As I am married to a local now with children I have already moved out of the center so, relatively, there are not a lot of foreigners in my area. I live in a suburb called Nangang which is not really suburby in the western sense: it still has high-rise and a technology park and exhibition center.
If you are an expat working for a multinational then you will live in Tienmou or the Hsinyi district – the Hsinyi area is next to 101 and is the newest and most expensive part of Taipei. If you are a newly arrived then Shihta or Taida. If you like the countryside then Hsientien and Wulai.
What is your relationship like with the locals?
Because Taiwan is not a multinational expat destination it means that you have a very close relationship with the locals. Most of the foreigners who are here are so because they like the place, not for work – and in order to stay they have to get work from the locals. Many issues will arise here because, unfortunately, although there are many exceptions, it comes back to one thing: it is a boss is always right culture. If you get a good boss, he/she will look after you and reward your loyalty and not put too many demands on your performance; but, in the end, he/she will want to make the decision and believe they have the better judgment on every subject, irrespective of whether it is their specialism.
Most of the western foreigners here are young, 80% male – seeing a 50 plus westerner on the street is an exotic thing; if said westerner is female it’s similar to sighting an alien! Of these guys, around 99% date local girls.
Again, the culture clash sets in as this is a completely different culture in many ways; the paradox of Taipei is ultra-modernity next to their own culture. A few examples: Taipei has a Starbucks and McDonalds on every corner, but then a restaurant selling chicken stewed in Chinese medicine, smelly tofu and thousand year old eggs; you’ll meet a twenty/thirty something someone in a nightclub who will dance the night away, get completely crazy on various legal and illegal substances but then at eight in the morning tell you that they have to go home otherwise their mother will tell them off; a tech company that is international, cutting-edge will check the lunar calendar for an auspicious date to open their new office. And the list goes on…the Taiwanese are frustrating by how much they seem to be very western, then very not.
This culture clash comes out most visibly in dealing with your boss and your girlfriend/wife’s family – expect and accept that your wife won’t accept criticism of her parents.
What do you like about life where you are?
Taipei has a number of fantastic things going for it that give you an incredible quality of life. As a fairly anonymous place off the tourist map, it means it is a big city with a laid back feel. Go to a Starbucks in the afternoon and you can sit there and plug your notebook in, and stay for the rest of the day. In Hong Kong you would be asked to buy another coffee or leave because someone would be after your seat. The transport system is excellent with actually the newest MRT in the world. Again because it is not touristy food is excellent and very cheap; and not just local food but the full range of international options.
The traditional aspects of the culture which are a pain at work are wonderful outside of it – everyone wants to be your friend, buy you dinner, even look after you. If I am late picking up the kids from the kindergarten, one of the teachers will just take them to her house, wash, and feed them, just because she likes kids; she won’t charge me extra for it either. And it is incredibly safe – while there is crime of course, it is not the mindless violent kind where you have to worry about your safety walking home at night.
Also the locals provide very good service without asking for a tip. You don’t have the feeling that the service they are offering is itemized – if you ask for something politely they will generally provide it and not go back to some rule book of what you should and shouldn’t have.
Otherwise: incredible mountains; hot springs and a 7/11 every 100 metres.
What do you dislike about your expat life?
Dealing with bosses.
What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?
Trust your first instincts about a place and stick to them because they are usually right.
What do I mean? When you first arrive you have a particular reaction to a place, but after a month or two cultural shock sets in and part of cultural shock is confusion as locals or others tell you it is not as you first thought. This can lead to questioning your judgment.
A famous traveler wrote something similar, saying you understand a place best in the first month and in the thirtieth year. In between you are confused.
What are your plans for the future?
Not too sure!
Visit Dan's blog to discover more about life in Taiwan at www.betelnut-equation.blogspot.com