Saturday, January 18, 2014

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For Westerners: Downsides of living in Taiwan

1/18/2014 Taiwan Explorer

I've hardly met a fellow Westerner who was not impressed by the beauty of Taiwan, and the kindness of its people when they first visited this Far Eastern gem. Taiwan is simply something you have to experience, something you have to discover with your own senses. And my blog and its extensive travel resource is proof that I firmly believe in this notion. But living in Taiwan is a different story: It's a mixed bag. It has its good sides and bad sides like any place in this world. So in case you're one of those foreign guys who just like me dreamed of moving here for the love of his life (or for any other reason for that matter), I would like to share my personal views on what might be the downsides of your life here, the challenges you might face, and the disappointments you might experience when you realize that a Taiwan trip is something completely different than establishing a life here.

I decided to compile a list of ten most common challenges Westerners might face in Taiwan. Now, before you continue to the list, please do understand that this post is written from a perspective of a 30-something white European male who lives in Taipei. I have no idea about what problems people of a different race, nationality, or gender face here, this is just one person's experience, and a Taipei-centric one. Some of it might be generally applicable, some not, so please take it with a pinch of salt. And my intention is not to say bad things about Taiwan, it's about helping future foreigners to approach a possible move to Taiwan with reasonable expectations.

Here's the list in no particular order:

1. You will always be a waiguoren

No matter how hard you try to integrate and how well you speak Chinese, you will always be seen as a waiguoren (a.k.a. a foreigner). The concept of being of non-Han or non-Austronesian descent, and be seen as a fellow Taiwanese is foreign to the vast majority of the population. As there are more and more interracial couples and babies in Taiwan, this thinking is slowly changing, but it's still far from the Western concept of a multicultural society. And a baby of mixed ethnicity might still be seen as a "foreign baby" by a lot of people (I know that from my own experience). I come from a similarly small and racially homogeneous country, so this mindset is very familiar to me (which doesn't mean I condone it), but foreigners who grew up in diverse societies might find it harder to accept.

2. You will have to live with stereotypes

Every culture has its stereotypes about foreigners, but being a country of islands, and for the most parts diplomatically isolated in international organizations, Taiwan has become a very inward oriented society. This is changing with the young generation, but the "island mentality" is still very dominant for the most part. This isolation caused a general lack of knowledge about other nations and cultures outside the region, especially Western ones. The US is known a little bit better due to closer political and economic ties, Europe and its plethora of (smaller) countries on the other hand less so. And even the image of Americans is too often reflected by Hollywood instead of reality. As a white male you might be seen as rich, handsome, intelligent, or as a potential heartbreaker or playboy, both of which is often unfair to your individual personality.

3. You will have to explain Taiwan's complicated political status

I can't think of any other modern and highly developed country that would have such a complicated political status like Taiwan. One of the perks of Westerners who moved to Taiwan is to explain "what Taiwan is" to people back home. Usually when I start with Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese Civil War most of my family or friends lose interest, or simply have no idea what I'm talking about. It's just impossible to explain Taiwan's status without going back a few hundred years and start from there. Is it a country, an island, or a province? It's shocking, but in my circle of friends and family very few people really know anything about Taiwan besides that some computers and smartphones are made there. I have a feeling that this is quite common in most parts of the West, which is sad. I hope that my posts about Taiwan's cultural particularities help a little in this regard.

4. Some people will think you live in Thailand

It is amazing how many people think Taiwan and Thailand were the same country just because the first syllables are homophones. I know people who still think I'm living in Thailand, and I don't bother to explain to them that this is not the case (I tried in the past and failed). This issue is not Taiwan's fault, but it can be frustrating nevertheless, because Thailand has some very unflattering associations for some people in the West.

5. You will need to live with the threat from China

Democratic Taiwan and communist China are technically still at war since the end of 1940s. China doesn't recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state, but rather as its own province, despite never ruling over this small Far Eastern nation. There were attempts to invade and annex Taiwan during the Cold War which eventually failed. In recent years the countries have improved bilateral relations, but China is still pointing hundreds of missiles at Taiwan, wowing to use military force and attack once again, if there were any shift to formal independence. Living with this reality is a psychological challenge for a lot of Westerners, including me. It turns many of us into political activists, usually with a strong anti-China stance. Living in East Asia often feels like sitting on a powder keg, frictions between Japan, China, and the two Koreas are very present and very real, and I often wonder when we'll reach the tipping point to escalation. Hopefully not too soon.

6. You may encounter difficulties with communication

Taiwanese and Mandarin, the two main languages spoken in Taiwan, are extremely difficult to master for a lot of foreigners. Reaching a native level proficiency is extremely hard, and demands total dedication. But that's not the only problem, the implications go beyond verbal. Taiwan is a Confucian society, communication is often indirect, you have to know how to read between the lines. Open conflicts are to be avoided in order to prevent the so called "loss of face", which causes a lot of problems for those Westerners who are straight-forward, polemical, or confrontational. You will often have to swallow your anger, and apologize even if it wasn't your fault in order to preserve group harmony, an ideal, that is so valuable to a lot of Taiwanese. It's not easy, but it builds character. Read more about the Taiwanese etiquette to get a better understanding of all the complexities of Taiwanese communication, and the social norms associated with it.

7. Taiwanese food may not be your thing

Food and flavors, like anything related to personal preference, is highly relative, so take this part with a grain of salt. I know a lot of Westerners in Taiwan who love the food, but I know many who can't accept it at all. If you like rice, noodles, soy and tofu, pork, animal blood and intestines, coriander, and usually drink tea with your meals, then you will simply love the Taiwanese cuisine. However most of my foreign friends are just like me somewhere in the middle: They like some things, and don't like some others. The diversity of food is mind-blowing at first, and a lot of travelers want to try all the famous Taiwanese snacks, but when you live in Taiwan, and you have your daily routine, you're often limited to the offerings in your neighborhood, and near your company, and that can become pretty dull after a while. Yet a bigger problem is your supply of Western food. For people like me who come from Central Europe, this is what I often miss in Taiwan: Good bread, good milk, good ham, good coffee... the list could be longer. Sure there are shopping malls like Carrefour, Costco, or smaller supermarkets with Western food found in most bigger cities, but the choice is often limited, or the food is from a different country than your own (Europe has a very diverse cuisine), or it's just way too expensive or too far to become your regular choice. This problem is quite familiar to those Taiwanese who live abroad, and miss the food from their home.

8. You will have to get used to scooters

Taiwanese cities and towns are full with scooters, and when I say full, I literally mean full. Scooters are part of urban life, they seem to be the quintessential vehicle for the oldest and the youngest generation, because they are relatively affordable, and perceived as very convenient. They are however a great cause of additional noise, pollution, and more traffic congestions. And people on scooters are usually the most inconsiderate drivers, often cutting pedestrians off, pushing from behind, and generally causing a lot of traffic accidents. In addition, scooters are pretty much parked everywhere, which makes it harder to walk, especially in cities like Taoyuan, Taipei, and Taichung. In my country cars and motorcycles stop for pedestrians when they cross roads, in Taiwan it's usually the complete opposite, even when these have green light. I know a lot of Westerners who find this driving culture very challenging.

9. You will have to live with noise pollution

Traffic jams, taoist temples with monthly parades and weekly fireworks, megaphones employed to attract customers with repeated messages, and busy night markets are usually the most common culprits for a very high noise pollution in Taiwan's cities and towns. Even in a pristine and breathtakingly gorgeous place like Alishan one has to listen to an uncle with a megaphone before enjoying the famous sunrise. While it's true that in Taiwanese culture liveliness and commotion is seen as enjoyable, and the many day and night markets are proof of that, it's often way over the limit of many foreigners who move to Taiwan. Pro-tip: It's always good to check the wider neighborhood for possible noise pollutants before you rent an apartment.

10. High population density will be challenging

If you decide to move to Taiwan, chances are good that you will be living and working in one of Taiwan's bigger cities in the Western part of the main island. Greater Taipei and Taoyuan, as well as Taichung, Tainan and Kaohsiung are extremely crowded, the population density is much higher than in most Western cities. This doesn't only bring along problems like bad traffic and noise pollution (which were mentioned above), it will affect your whole way of life. In Greater Taipei it's very hard to find a nice spacious apartment in a quiet and green neighborhood for a reasonable price. Either your neighborhood will not be quiet, or the price will not be reasonable, unless you're satisfied with small spaces. The population density also brings about more competition for jobs, longer waiting times, crowded streets, roads, buses, trains, and parks, and a general scarcity of public space. Life is fast-paced in Taipei and other bigger cities, people work long working hours, having spare time during the week is a real rarity. Of course not everyone has such a lifestyle. In case you are just a student, or have a job that doesn't tie you to an office cubicle, your life might be a little less intense than those of us who have a 9 to 7 job routine, which is very common. But the population density will definitely affect your life in Taiwan, and might perhaps pose the biggest challenge for you.

What do you think about this list? Do you have something to add which I didn't mention?

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