Catherine, a Taiwanese American living in Taipei, is still sussing out exactly where she fits in; but is nonetheless having an amazing experience doing so. She makes her bread and butter as a journalist for the Taipei Times but takes true pleasure in maintaining her blog about daily life, Shu Flies.
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: I was born and raised in California. I moved to Taiwan in 2007 after completing my schooling and working for a few years in New York City.
Q: Where are you living now?
A: I live in Da'an District, Taipei City.
Q: How long have you lived here?
A: Since summer 2007.
Q: Did you move with a spouse/children?
A: No. My fiancé moved to Taipei 18 months before I did to take up on a job offer, but I came over on my own.
Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: There were many different reasons. On a practical level, I had just received a scholarship to study Mandarin, which made the decision to move much easier. Professionally, I wanted to experience working as a reporter in a different country, using a second language. As a Taiwanese American, I really welcomed the chance to learn more about my family's history. And, of course, I wanted to be with my fiancé.
Q: What do you enjoy most about Taipei? How's the quality of life in Taiwan?
A: I think the quality of life is very good. Taipei's public transportation system is an important reason for that, and I can say that as my frame of reference is New York City and the South Bay Area, two of the most expensive places to live in the world that are also infamous for their hellish commutes. In the former, I had a two-hour round-trip commute to work (as long as there weren't any delays); in California, we have to drive everywhere.
Taipei, on the other hand, has a comprehensive, easy-to-use public transportation system (including a great subway) that I found accessible even when I could not read Chinese. Taxis are also plentiful here, and fares are inexpensive (though you do occasionally get crazy drivers). The fact that it is so easy to navigate really makes Taipei City a fun place to explore. You aren't afraid to check out new places because you are afraid it will take you hours and loads of cash to get home. If you want to get out of Taipei City, you have your pick of buses, trains and, of course, the High-Speed Rail.
Taipei City also has a strong cultural infrastructure. You can spend lots of money on a fancy evening out, but even people with tight budgets can enjoy frequent outings to a wide variety of exhibits, performances and other events. When I was a scholarship student, we had an extremely tight budget, but I never felt deprived in terms of entertainment.
Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home?
A: It's a good thing that Taipei City's public transportation is so good because the street traffic is insane, especially during rush hour (the evening rush hour starts at around 4.30pm and goes on for two hours). Like most of my friends, I get along fine without a scooter or car, and I don't miss having to dodge crazy drivers, but I can see how not having your own means of transportation can be annoying for some people, especially if you live or work further away from the centre of Taipei City.
You certainly don't need to be able to speak Mandarin or read Chinese to live in Taiwan, but not being fluent can occasionally make your life difficult. For example, the English versions of most government websites are rarely updated. This is a headache if you have a pressing question about your visa or taxes, for instance.
From a cultural perspective, I found it really hard to get used to the different levels of boundaries surrounding what is considered an appropriate topic of conversation. Generally speaking, it's much more appropriate to ask someone questions about things like their weight or income. Being American, I really do not like discussing why I've lost or gained five pounds or how much rent I pay with anyone but close friends, but I also don't want to accidentally insult someone who is perhaps just trying to make small talk.
Taipei City is fairly international, but there are still relatively few expats here. If you aren't Asian, you will definitely hear remarks about your ethnicity. Most aren't meant to be disparaging, but they can be obnoxious or even hurtful to hear. I'm Taiwanese American, so I blend in physically, but I have gotten some comments about my American accent, some of which were unpleasant. Certain people assumed that my Chinese should be perfect just because I am of Chinese descent, even though I was born and raised in the US.
Q: Is Taipei safe?
A: Yes, I feel very safe here. There is a problem with pickpockets in crowded areas like night markets, but in general, I don't worry about street crime. Like many women in NYC, I was verbally sexually harassed so frequently that I started to wear headphones to tune out the weirdos, but that has only happened a couple of times here in Taipei. I know there is a big problem with telephone fraud here, and expats make easy targets, so be very wary of giving any sensitive information over the phone.
About living in Taipei
Q: Which are the best places/suburbs to live in Taipei as an expat?
A: I am biased toward the area around the National Taiwan Normal University (Shida) and National Taiwan University (Taida) because I live there. This location gives you all the benefits of living in a university neighbourhood: bookstores, live performance venues, plenty of events (many of which are free), and comfortable cafés.
Q: How do you rate the standard of accommodation in Taiwan?
A: It varies so widely that I don't want to give an overall rating. If you aren't attached to living in a bustling commercial area, you can get really good deals on recently built or remodelled apartments with plenty of space. Some landlords take really great care of their properties, and others just don't. Don't settle for something dirty and dingy with poor amenities just because the owner says it's "normal" in Taipei – it's not.
Q: What's the cost of living in Taiwan compared to home? What is cheap or expensive in particular?
A: I lived in New York City before I moved to Taipei, so of course everything here seems extremely cheap in comparison! In NYC, it was standard for people my age to spend half their monthly income on rent, but in Taipei, that happens very rarely. If you are living on your own, it's often cheaper to eat out than to buy groceries and cook. There are so many inexpensive food stalls or tiny restaurants to take advantage of, as long as you don't mind eating lots of starchy foods like white rice and noodles. Healthcare is extremely affordable if you have National Health Insurance (and it's not too expensive even if you have to pay out of pocket).
Vitamins and many over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen are expensive. You can buy vitamins in bulk at Costco if you have a membership, but I strongly recommend bringing over big bottles of pain relievers.
Q: What are the locals like; do you mix mainly with other expats?
A: Taiwanese people, in general, are friendly and open to foreigners, but I think it can be hard to make close friends if you are an expat because of cultural and language barriers. As a Taiwanese American, it's sometimes hard for me to gauge where I fit in (and I'm sure it's sometimes difficult for other people to "place" me), which I feel complicates some social interactions. My friends are a pretty mixed bunch, but they consist mostly of expats who have lived here for a while or Taiwanese people who have spent some time abroad, either working or studying.
Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends?
A: I feel like I've had a fairly easy time meeting people here, considering how introverted I am. I've made quite a few friends through my blog (shuflies.blogspot.com) and online communities like Ravelry (it focuses on knitting, but I managed to find other Taiwan expats on it). The hardest part, in my opinion, is that many of my new friends move away after a year or two. As an expat, your circle of friends is constantly in flux, and that is something that took a long time for me to get used to (and that is still hard to deal with, frankly).
About working in Taiwan
Q: Did you have a problem getting a work visa/permit?
A: No, I got one through my job.
Q: What's the economic climate like in Taipei? Is there plenty of work?
A: I think as a foreigner, it is challenging to find work unless you want to teach English… and I know people who want to make ESL their career are sometimes frustrated by the job opportunities here, which they feel are oriented toward recent graduates who just want to teach for a year or two.
Q: How does the work culture differ from home?
A: Communication styles are very different. It's hard for me to get into without writing a thesis, but the main thing to remember in most conversations with a supervisor is that you have to help them "save face," even if they are clearly in the wrong. I mean, in the US, very few people would actually go up to their boss and just say, "You messed up," but in Taiwan it's really hard to even imply that. Fortunately for me, my supervisors are all very reasonable people, but I've definitely heard horror stories from other expats about cultural clashes and disastrous miscommunication.
Another thing that might be hard to adjust to in Taiwan is the long hours. Many people only get one day off a week. Six days off per month (one day off one week; two days off on alternating weeks) is considered a good schedule, and two days every week is downright lax. It depends on your workplace culture, too. Some bosses respect your personal time, others don't, and it can be stressful to maintain a work-life balance when overtime (even unpaid) is the norm.
Q: Did a relocation company help you with your move?
Q: Did your spouse or partner have problems adjusting to their new home?
A: No, but he lived here for several years before we met in graduate school.
Q: How would you rate healthcare in Taiwan?
A: I am very pleased with the healthcare I have received. The National Health Insurance program is excellent, but I should note that exams are sometimes pretty cursory. You usually only get a few minutes with a doctor who sees many, many patients per day, so you have to be very assertive about making sure you get the attention you need.
Q: Is there any other advice you'd like to offer new expat arrivals?
A: It might sound trite, but friendliness, politeness and common sense will go a long way in overcoming many cultural hurdles. Here's some other advice:
When you first arrive, spend a few days exploring your neighbourhood on foot (you will probably need to walk off your jet lag anyway). Go into stores and check out all the products they have in stock. There have been many times I assumed a product was not available in Taiwan (like Shout Color Catcher washer sheets), only to find it for sale later.
If you take medications, make a list of their clinical names, as well as all the trade names used in different countries (most prescription drugs are available in Taiwan, but make sure to look that up and ask your doctor for alternatives just in case before you leave).
Email some of your favourite bloggers and ask if they want to meet up. If you are open to sharing some of your life online, then start your own blog, even if the only thing you have to write about so far is the process of preparing to relocate. I've met some of my closest friends through my blog Shu Flies.
On the other hand, don't spend too much time online. There are a lot of Web forums for expats with extremely useful information, but they also have a lot of posters who really just need a place to vent. That's fine, but reading one complaint after another really made me feel anxious and pessimistic. Also, I find that I get too caught up with keeping in touch with my friends on Facebook. I've been trying to spend more time visiting museums, exploring neighbourhoods or meeting people.
Become a regular at a café. How quickly you can become good pals with the café owners or other regulars is amazing. That really helps if you are feeling lonely.
Check out the Community Services Center. They offer events, publications and assistance for expats living in Taiwan, as well as services like counselling.
~ interviewed June 2011