Carlie: Hey there, it’s Carlie with the Expat Focus Podcast.
Recently on the show, we heard from a couple who made the decision to move to Oman, and were off within a matter of weeks. Today’s guest has been planning his family’s move abroad for many years. In the summer of this year, 2022, Max Lee, his wife and their two young kids will leave the USA for Taipei in Taiwan. In the lead up to their much-anticipated overseas adventure, they’re nomading around North America. I caught up with Max when they were in Mexico, to talk about their plans and expectations.
Max, you are gearing up for a big international move with your family, but ahead of that you’re doing something else that is on so many people’s bucket list, and that is nomading around the USA. So, can we start with you telling me like, where are you speaking to me from?
Max: Oh yeah. Right now, I’m in downtown Cancun.
Max: In Mexico. We just arrived a few days ago and this is a short stop on our way to Merida. So, that’s where we’ll be for for the next month. But yeah.
Carlie: I think of Cancun and I think of those spring break style movies. But I’m guessing that’s not what you’re living with two children and your wife along with you?
Max: Yeah. No, we haven’t even seen the beach yet. Like I said, we’re in downtown, so it’s a little bit more of a local neighbourhood. I mean it’s still very touristy, don’t get me wrong, but there’s a lot of locals who live in the area as well, so when I go out and go to the stores and stuff, it’s a pretty nice and interesting mix.
And I imagine the hotel zone, which is where the beach is, is probably not like that so…
Carlie: A little bit more touristic. So, is your nomading time right now part of the master plan to move abroad? Is this like step one?
Max: Interestingly it wasn’t supposed to be. I always imagined actually, that the expat move would be sort of step one and then eventually down the road, four or five years, we get to nomading full time. But this just is more about the time frame of how things worked out and we wanted to leave our home and start exploring some areas but we weren’t quite ready to move to Taiwan yet, given the restrictions over there.
And also because of my wife’s job. She, for the time being, wanted to stay close to the time zone in her office. So for that reason, we decided to just start off a little sooner with the travelling, stay in North America, and then eventually we’ll get to Taiwan. So, it’s interesting how it’s kind of inverted into a nomadic first step and then a move abroad.
Carlie: I would imagine it’s a really good way to declutter and downsize before an international move too. Are you guys living out of a van or a camper or are you, you know?
Max: A couple suitcases. But you’re absolutely right, that was one of the things. I would say it was my wife, she was most excited, because she always likes to be very minimalist and simple and she hates that I buy things, accumulate things.
Carlie: That’s me.
Max: So yeah, she was very much looking forward to us decluttering. And I got on board, I’d say the last month or so, once we started tossing some stuff out and, you know, donating things, giving things away.
Carlie: It gets a bit addictive. Like when you begin, and you make those first sales and like, you know, buy, swap and sell websites and Facebook marketplace and then you’re like, oh, what else can I get rid of in my place, you know?
Max: Yeah. So, I mean, it’s been very freeing. I mean, that’s a whole other topic to get on, but it’s great for us to have just a couple of suitcases, and that’s what we’re doing.
Carlie: So, why do you have Taiwan in your sights?
Max: We do have a connection there. We have some friends there and my family, although we’re not from Taiwan at all, one of my aunts moved to Taiwan a few decades ago and so she’s settled there. And so I visited her a number of times, and this familiarity.
But actually what it is, is that we’ve always wanted to move to Asia. We’ve been talking about that for, I don’t know, the last decade. And our sites were on Asia, we had a handful of cities. And I’d say, when we got really serious, about three years ago we, we started really narrowing down which cities would be best. And we had, sort of the Excel spreadsheet with, you know, points for different factors. And in the end it was: Taipei, Singapore or Penang. And Penang is where most of my family’s from.
And yeah, we just felt like Taipei gave us the best balance of big city amenities, cosmopolitan feel, and a lot of the conveniences that come with big city living. But then it also has a lot of outdoors. Good balance that way and beautiful nature. And then, it’s also affordable. So, you know, Penang is on one end of the spectrum of affordability, Singapore on the other and Taipei was right in the middle, so…
Carlie: I’ve heard singapore is quite expensive, actually.
Max: Yeah, it really is. I mean, of course, like anything, there are ways to live more affordably. Like, if you’re going to do, quote unquote, expat lifestyle, it’s very expensive there. But there are ways to save. We were looking at, sort of, the more local lifestyle, if we move there. But like I said, Taipei just has the best mix of everything, we think.
Carlie: And you’ve been there before, you mentioned. So you’re not going into this move completely blind, are you?
Max: Yeah, not completely. I mean, we’ve been all throughout Asia, a number of times. So, right before Covid, back in 2019, we did a mass tour of all of the cities. Like, maybe eight, nine cities that were potentially on our radar for relocation. And so, we got to spend a little bit of time in each one. And it was that trip that really focused us in on Singapore and Taipei. And then in the interim, we kind of, you know, on paper and such, we did a little bit more analysis before deciding on Taipei.
Carlie: And you did say in your email actually that you’ve been planning your expat journey for many years, which some would argue is a bit of a long time. So, why has your your plans to move abroad taken so long to eventuate? Why haven’t you just like, packed up and gone earlier?
Max: Yeah. I’m definitely a planner. I’d say I’m not as spontaneous when it comes to these big things, big life changes. So you know, we thought about it, and I guess it has to do with our family being here in the States. And then, also, us having kids.
Carlie: Of course.
Max: Those two things kind of delayed it a little bit each time. Although, before the birth of each of our kids, we did consider moving to give birth. My wife has permanent residence in Macau.
Max: That’s where she was born before she moved to the States. So that would have been an easy place to move to, and it would have been extremely cost effective to have children there. But in the end, we decided that wasn’t the right move at the time. And so now we’re very happy. I think we’re choosing the place that we most want to be. And you know, we could have kept putting it off, but it’s one of those things where, if you keep doing it, it’ll never happen.
Carlie: Exactly. Time to dive in. And how old are your kids? How are you preparing them for this move?
Max: Yeah. So, our kids are six and three. So, the older one will be starting first grade in the fall. And that’s part of the reason why we want to be there by then. He can start school there. We feel like it’s young enough that he will be able to adapt to the language, because right now he doesn’t have very much Mandarin speaking ability. And so if he can get in there, at least beginning first grade, you know it might be a difficult transition, but I think he can do it. And we’re enrolling in public school, not international or private. The public schools are, for certain subjects, are rated tops in the world. So, we feel like that’s another draw.
It is true that in Taiwan, just like in a lot of Asian countries, as you get older, it gets very competitive. And probably too much of, sort of, rote learning, suppressing creativity and all that. A lot of the stereotypes have truth to them.
Max: But in the early years, you know, in elementary school age, it’s not so bad. That’s what we’ve been told. So, we’re happy to have him start school there. And we feel like-
Carlie: And move at this age, yeah.
Max: Yeah. And they’ll get the self-discipline and motivation that my wife did when she was in elementary school in Asia. And so, I think it’s a good way for them to start and get those skills. And then, when we move-
Carlie: Take them back to the States and be top of the class. Is that another stereotype?
Max: Yeah. I mean, we have only one data point for that. But that’s exactly what happened with my wife.
Carlie: Ah, okay. Yeah. Well hey, proof is in your wife’s experience.
Carlie: And it’s a really interesting point actually, because this is a topic that comes up a lot in Expat Focus Facebook groups. Parents looking to move to a new country with their young children and worrying about how quickly they will be able to grasp the language. What age is optimal to start at a new school and be that sponge that will just absorb the language and hit the ground running, versus if they’re a bit older, will they struggle more? You know, that sort of thing. How old was your wife when she came to the States? And did she already know how to speak English?
Max: No. I think she was 12. I know it was seventh grade. And she she did not have any English at all.
And she moved to Miami actually. So-
Carlie: Oh, wow.
Max: -not only did she not have any English, but pretty much, the language in Miami was with Spanish. Yeah. So, she was really lost for a while. But like I said, she was able to adapt quickly.
Carlie: That’s even more impressive. She ended up topping her schooling in grades and didn’t even have the local language. That’s amazing. I think your kids are gonna be great.
Max: I hope so.
Carlie: And so what have you been doing to prepare? You know, you’ve been to Taiwan before, you have a family connection there, you have a plan for your oldest to start school in the fall. What else have you been preparing for, for arrival?
Max: Yeah. So, I should mention one of the reasons why we kind of leaned towards Taipei. Another reason, over Singapore, was the visa situation seemed to be a little bit more, well, I shouldn’t say more straightforward, but just a little bit easier to achieve. And so, like I said, I’m a planner. So we had sort of a Plan A, B, C, for Taiwan. And fortunately, Plan A worked out. Which was the Taiwan Gold Card.
Carlie: Okay. I’ve never heard of this before. What’s a Taiwan Gold Card?
Max: It’s Taiwan’s version of, sort of, the advanced professional, sort of, program to try and attract, you know-
Carlie: Yeah. Okay.
Max: I’m a little bashful. I don’t know to describe it.
Carlie: -like highly skilled workers into the country. Okay Max, what do you do for a living? Are you a surgeon? Are you going to tell me you’re a heart surgeon? Is this what this is?
Max: Far, far from it. And I think I slipped under the radar somehow. But it’s actually changed a bit over the years and how they review these applications. And it’s actually gotten a little bit harder in the last couple of years. But one of their categories is arts and culture, and in, sort of, my former life, I was actually a professional musician. Prior to 10 years ago. When I started in a new business with my wife, I was able to just, sort of, use my credentials from back then, as well as get recommendation letters from the people I knew who were, I guess, the well-known in their field.
And so, yeah. I just applied for (inaudible) culture, I thought maybe I had a 50/50 shot. And the Ministry of Culture accepted me.
Carlie: So, you said you were a musician. Does that mean you’re not technically an active musician now? Or do you still have cred?
Max: So, I wasn’t for a long time. In the last year, year and a half, I’ve been getting back into it. And the plan is that, when we move to Taiwan, that’ll be sort of my new, renewed focus. And do know some people who are musicians in Taiwan and we have plans to work together. I’m just going to come into it open to whatever possibilities there are. But yeah, music will be my focus again.
Carlie: So, that’s on the work front. You’ve got the school covered. And then what about things like finding a place to live and healthcare and that sort of thing?
Max: Yeah. So healthcare, I’ll address that first. Taiwan is a universal healthcare nation.
Carlie: Love those.
Max: And by most accounts, it’s pretty well regarded.
Carlie: So this covers foreigners as well? Through the local health system?
Max: So then, with the Gold Card, that kind of covers the other piece.
Max: If you have a Gold Card, you actually get coverage immediately. You can enroll immediately upon arrival in Taiwan. So that was one of the key benefits that I was hoping to get with the Gold card. And if you don’t have the gold card, then it would be through an employer, which is probably how you would be there if you were on a visa. And so you’d get the same benefit through your employer. Otherwise there’s a waiting period and it’s a little trickier.
Carlie: Is it possible to be self-funded in Taiwan? Like, if you can show that you have enough money to live there for a few years without relying on the government, with private health insurance. Could that have been another pathway for you guys to to move there? We didn’t have to consider it, so…
Max: I don’t think so. The answer would be, for most people, that has not been an issue at all prior to Covid. But the the game seems to have changed a bit with Covid.
Carlie: Of course.
Max: Taiwan cracked down a lot. You know, border runs, which were very common in the past, you talked to people who did border runs for years with no problem. So that’s probably something that’s changing, and we’ll have to wait to see the results. But that wasn’t something we had to worry about, I guess, like you mentioned.
Carlie: And then, are you looking at places to live yet? Or are you going to wait until you get on the ground?
Max: Yeah, we’ve been looking. I think because of, sort of, our minimalist, nomadic kind of concept, we’re leaning more towards the short-term rentals and furnished rentals. And we like the option to, sort of, check out different neighborhoods, different parts of the city. Maybe, potentially, also move out of the central Taipei area, if we feel like it’s something we want. So, because of that we want that flexibility.
So we’ve been looking at short-term rental sites. Airbnb is pretty common in Taipei. And then we also have, sort of, local connections as well. Facebook groups. There’s a lot of those too. So, there’s a lot of different places you can look for this type of rental. And I think we have, sort of, a few different options pinpointed, like specific apartments. But I’ll probably wait a few more months before we lock it down.
Carlie: Because you did say that there is a waiting period at the moment. Part of the reason why your nomading through the States, because of Covid rules. So what are the rules in Taiwan at the moment that are preventing you from just getting on a plane tomorrow, for example?
Max: Taiwan is really strict right now. And I’m not 100% sure because it’s been a little bit fluid and I haven’t needed to check recently, but I believe they’re on a, sort of, seven day hotel quarantine, plus seven day home quarantine. If you do have a home. Otherwise it’s 14 days hotel quarantine and then a seven day, sort of, self-isolation. Not technically quarantined, but they want you to be very careful with where you go in that day 15 to day 21. So it’s a long time of, sort of, controlling where you can travel.
Carlie: And with two young kids, I can imagine that adds more complexity too.
Max: Yeah, definitely. Prior to this lunar new year, when they instituted some changes, with kids, we actually would have had to separate our family.
Carlie: Oh wow.
Max: So, two of us on one hotel room, two of us and another. I think that this-
Carlie: Hopefully not by adults and children, because that would be awkward, if your six-year-olds was in charge of keeping the younger one alive. I don’t know if that would go so well.
Max: We can try that now. I think they’ve gotten rid of that now, so we would all be able to take one hotel room.
Carlie: Thank God.
Max: But still, either way, it just seemed easier to wait for, hopefully, a change. We’ve discussed this though. And if in July there’s still a strict hotel quarantine, I think we’ll still do it by then. Just because we want to get over there to have our kid enrolled.
Carlie: And is there a time limit? I know for some people, they get visas for Europe for example, they must enter the country and start the clock on their visa by a certain time period after it’s issued. Is that the same situation with your permission to be moving and living in Taiwan?
Max: So, the Gold Card can be for up to three years. You select which option you want when you’re applying. And so, there is a three year clock. Fortunately for me, this is kind of getting in the weeds here, but my clock hasn’t started yet because I haven’t done the final step-
Max: -which is getting my passport inspected.
Max: We’re kind of frozen in this stage right now. Because Taiwan is actually not allowing this step at the moment, unless you apply for some emergency reason. And I’m okay with that.
Carlie: That suits you guys. Yeah.
Max: Yeah. So, once I do that, probably in a couple months we’ll do that, then my three year clock will begin.
Carlie: Max, it’s not often that I’m speaking to people at the start of their journeys, before they’ve actually made their move abroad. So I think it would be really interesting to catch up with you again a few months after you’ve moved, finally been allowed into Taiwan, settled down, child started school, you’ve started your second wave of a music career, just to see, I suppose, that expectation versus reality. What you found surprising, what went to plan, what didn’t, that sort of thing.
So for a bit of a snapshot in time, I guess, I get the impression that right now you’re feeling, despite the Covid restrictions, you’re feeling pretty chill and pretty excited about what’s ahead.
Max: Yeah. We definitely are. We’ve definitely spent a lot of time considering this move. So you know, with all that anticipation, we’re extremely excited. I’m always afraid, I think this may be where you’re getting to, I’m afraid to be overconfident or cocky that we have all our ducks in a row. But I think we do. And I think, you know-
Carlie: Oh. Just a little bit confident there, then.
Max: I always feel like, you know, people talk about the big expat move and how much of a life it is-
Carlie: -you must be humble. Yeah.
Max: I almost feel like we aren’t really doing that because it’s such a simple transition. If you talk to my wife, and of course my wife’s a little different since she was an immigrant from this region, but if you talk to my wife, she just thinks this is like just another day in normal everyday life. Just another day, once we move over there. So for her, this is absolutely nothing in terms of major life change. And then for me, I’m kind of in the middle. I am a little nervous. Definitely excited and all of that, but I don’t feel like this is the same as if I were just jumping into a completely new culture.
Carlie: Yeah. Country you’ve never been before and…
Carlie: What do you expect will be the biggest challenge moving to Taipei, from what you’re gauging at the moment?
Max: I’d say, for my kids, just managing that transition for them. That’s definitely something that jumps out. But for us, my wife and I, I guess, I feel like because we aren’t moving over with a job, there’s going to be, sort of, less structure in our schedule, less structure in our social lives. And maybe, kind of, finding our way, finding the right balance of work and exploring and all of that. I think we’re going to have to figure that out on our own. My wife will most likely be working remotely, so she does have somewhat of that continuation.
Max: But, at the same time, when she moves, she’s gonna be going from, sort of, an office schedule that she has here, because she’s synchronous with her West Coast office. She’s going to be going from that to, sort of, managing her schedule entirely on her own. Because the West Coast to Taiwan is like, the exact opposite.
Carlie: Okay. So she’ll be working opposite to her colleagues. Yeah.
Max: Well, so I think they’re going to just give her the freedom to work whatever time she wants. Because it would be midnight, so I think midnight to like 8 a.m or something like that, if she was doing the exact schedule. So, yeah. I mean, for both of us, you know, me doing music , I don’t even know what that means. Because back in the day, when I was doing music, I’d have some things in the early afternoons-
Carlie: I was going to say, like, what sort of music do you do? And what’s the Taiwan music scene that you know of for your niche?
Max: So, I played in bands. I performed, I did a lot of writing, composing. And that’s really where I’d like to make my, quote-unquote, living, I guess. It would be in, sort of, composing, arranging, writing for other people. But I do miss the performance aspect of getting on stage. And you know, my friends who play there, they do sort of the bar and club scene, which would be late at night. And I don’t know exactly how-
Carlie: -is that family friendly?
Max: Yeah. I mean, of course lots of dads do it.
Max: Or, I should say parents, do that. But it’s something that would be brand new for me. I never performed like that since-
Carlie: -when you had kids.
Carlie: Yeah. Would you say that’s what you’re most excited about moving to Taiwan? Is like, having the second round of your music career? Or is there something else that you just can’t wait to experience?
Max: That’s a good question. I lean towards just, you know, the overall experience. This would be, for me, the first time I live outside the U.S. I’ve gone on some extended trips internationally, but this would be the first time, you know, really full-time living somewhere else. And I expect it to be just, you know, mind-blowing in some ways. So, I’m just excited about the overall experience. But of course, music is very exciting too.
Carlie: Well Max, I am really curious to see where you’re at with your family when we catch up again, be it in six or nine months, depending on when you arrive in in Taiwan and get settled. We can do like a Billy Eilish annual like, you know, retrospective and be like, okay, this is what you told me, how are things now?
Max: Yeah. I’d love to do that.
Max: And maybe hold myself accountable when it comes to music too. Just to make sure I’m really pushing myself.
Carlie: Yes. We’ll see if you are actually making a living as a musician, or if you’ve gone into some other career over there.
Carlie: Thank you so much for your time, Max. I am so excited for what’s coming up for you and your family, with your big international move.
Max: Thank you.
Carlie: And I look forward to catching up again.
That’s it for this episode. If you have any advice for Max and his family as they prepare for their Taiwan adventure, leave a comment on YouTube or you can post in our Facebook groups. If you have an expat story to tell, let us know, we are @Expat Focus on social media. Be sure to check out our other episodes, we cover all aspects of expat life, all over the world. And I’ll catch you next time!