(Note: As of summer 2016, I no longer live in Taiwan, having moved to Shanghai.)
(Disclaimer: I am a foreigner living in Taiwan. I am not a local, nor am I an expert. These opinions are based solely on my experiences.)
I’ve lived in Taiwan for two years. Living abroad sometimes presents challenges, but these are rarely insurmountable and, if you can overcome them, it can be one of the greatest experiences a person can have.
I want to get this out of the way: I love Taiwan and I’m grateful to be here. Despite this, there are days when I want to pull out my (or someone else’s) hair, and on these days it is helpful to reflect on the advantages of a place like this. In a similar vein, when I’m in a particularly positive mood, a brief reminder of the small frustrations can keep me grounded.
Without further ado, here are the five best (and worst) things about living in Taiwan
5. The People
Taiwanese people are famously friendly and helpful. My first week in Taiwan saw me lost in the middle of the city, hopelessly confused in the aisle of a supermarket, accidentally trespassing on private property, and on the wrong train to Kaohsiung (Gaoxiong). On each of these occasions, at least one Taiwanese person rushed to help me, sometimes taking more than fifteen minutes of their time to do so. I spoke no Chinese, and they often spoke no English, but they were not deterred from helping, even when I held up an address written in approximated pinyin instead of the traditional characters used here.
The vast majority of people I have met here have been friendly, accommodating to me as a weird foreigner, interested in my opinions as an outsider, and quick to strike up friendships.
Look, I’ll just come out and say it: some Taiwanese people are racist. Often it takes the form of aggression towards westerners, especially male westerners (who are often perceived as philandering alcoholics), but just as often against people of color and Asians from poorer countries, particularly the Philippines.
This seems to be the case throughout most of Asia; it happens in Taiwan for the same reason it happens in Japan, mainland China, and Korea. These are countries with little history of immigration, little racial diversity, and a lack of concern for racial sensitivity. I would maintain that most people engaging in racism here mean no ill will, but as a result of these factors, foreigners here may feel uncomfortable in some situations.
Of course, there is blatant racism:
So, your mileage may vary. Personally, I have only really experienced casual, folksy racism which is often funny and largely easy to ignore.
4. The Culture
The Taiwanese culture is largely based on traditional Chinese ideology, but as a result of centuries of outside influence and control also has strong elements of Japanese and western culture built-in. This, plus the aboriginal culture (which existed here for 8,000 years before the Han Chinese stared immigrating), yields something thoroughly unique and distinctly Taiwanese. It never stops being interesting.
Ignoring that for a moment, traditional Chinese culture exists here in a form that was sheltered from the Cultural Revolution in China, which attempted to eradicate all things old. Here, temple ceremonies are still carried out on a daily basis, Confucianism is encountered in every nook and cranny of existence, and the art created by these things still stands proudly and beautifully.
This culture can be suffocating, exclusionary, sexist, and detrimental to communication, and I don’t even mean especially for foreigners. Young Taiwanese people will often comment themselves on the issues they face in trying to strike out on their own, defy gender expectations, or directly approach problems. These things are just difficult here, flying in the face of centuries of expectation.
As for foreigners, you will be reminded almost daily that You Are Not Taiwanese. No, it does not matter how well you speak the language(s), how much you respect and appreciate the culture, or if you are married to a native. You are an outsider, and that’s that. Furthermore, the culture of face leads to endless situations which will leave you fuming, because when something goes wrong, the message you will often receive is that it is no one’s fault, and shame on you for trying to cast blame. This is true even in situations where the culprit is obvious, and especially if that culprit is rich or powerful.
3. The Lifestyle
Cost of living here is quite low compared to most western countries, and most foreigners living here have no trouble making ends meet with plenty of money left over for entertainment. Even a job teaching English fifteen hours a week will yield around 40,000 NTD (1,230 USD) a month, easily enough to live on. If you work more, it is relatively easy to travel around much of Asia due to cheap flights to and from Taoyuan airport.
Parties and festivals are common and enjoyed by locals and foreigners alike, and the ease of transport around the island by train, taxi, or scooter makes any city only a few (okay, sometimes more than a few) hours away. If you have dreamed of living a comfortable, relaxed life in an exotic locale, you could do a lot worse.
It’s an inconvenient truth, but some people cannot handle the phantasmagoria that Taiwan presents to them. Many young people who arrive here have never had the spare change to, if they chose, go out every night of the week. Many choose exactly that, and their lifestyle begins to include an array of addictions, be they to alcohol, nicotine, sex, or drugs.
I don’t say this to cast judgment on these people. To each their own. But far too often, the easy money, generally accepting locals, and ample free time allows a variety of -isms (alcoholism, chauvinism, racism) to bubble up to the surface. Complacency alone can claim the career and willpower of many people.
2. The Environment
Personally, I live in southern Taiwan (Tainan City), which sits comfortably in a subtropical zone. Most of the year is characterized by warm weather, sunny skies, and a light breeze. The whole eastern coast of the island, with mountains framing the sea, resembles an unending Hawaii.
With a scooter or taxi, you can have breakfast on the beach, lunch in a semitropical forest, and dinner and drinks on a mountaintop beside hot springs. The whole island begs to be explored and hiked.
The rainy season begins in mid-June and ends in October. Personally, I like rain, but even I can become frustrated trying to navigate my scooter through the torrent, particularly when I have forgotten my rain gear. Sometimes the storms continue for a week or more at a time, to say nothing of the typhoons that show up a couple of times a year.
Also, earthquakes. Tainan was hit by a 6.4 magnitude earthquake in early 2016, claiming the lives of 117 people and injuring more than 500. A building collapse damaged the water main supplying much of the city, resulting in a widespread loss of running water which continued for several weeks after the event.
1. The Food
Taiwanese food, with its wide variety of influences and permutations, stands out even in Asia, and the Taiwanese know it. Western “foodie” culture is child’s play compared to the frenzy with which the Taiwanese adore their food, and it isn’t difficult to understand why.
To list a few favorites: stinky tofu (fermented tofu, better than it sounds), pi dan (“century egg,” a preserved egg with an almost cheese-like flavor), beef noodle soup, lu rou fan (rice with stewed pork fat), dumplings of every sort, oysters, fresh fruit and vegetables, Taiwanese barbecue, xian su ji (Taiwanese fried chicken), and a million other delicacies that I cannot live without.
Just kidding, there isn’t anything bad about Taiwanese food.
What do you think? What do you adore in Taiwan? What frustrates you? Let me know in the comments.