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Interview with Ryan and Neil – two expats living in Taipei

Updated 1 Aug 2012

Ryan an expat in TaiwanRyan and Neil are two expats who live and work in Taipei – between them, they have ten years of expat experience in the city. Ryan, originally from Toronto, is a freelance editor, writer and graphic designer who is expecting his first child soon, while Neil is a South African ESL teacher living in the city centre.

Together, they maintain a blog about living in Taipei – 2 Stinky Tofus.

Read more about Taipei in the Expat Arrivals Taipei city guide or read more expat experiences in Taiwan.

About Ryan and Neil

Q: Where are you originally from?
Ryan: I originally come from Toronto, Canada.
Neil: I was born and raised in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

Q: Where are you living now?
Ryan: I reside in the foothills of Daan District, Taipei.
Neil: At the moment, I'm living in XinYi District, close to the 101 building and the entrance to Elephant Mountain.

Q: How long have you lived in Taipei?
Ryan: It's going on nearly seven incredible years.
Neil: I'm in between FOB (Fresh Off the Boat) and old-timers like Ryan – three and a half years.

Q: Did you move with a spouse/ children?
Ryan: I came over with my childhood sweetheart. We are expecting our first child in October.
Neil: I flew here solo.

Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
Ryan: Like many expats, I felt the pull of something more outside the borders of my home and native land. I always felt like a square peg that didn't fit into the round hole; thankfully, in Taiwan, there are lots of places I still don't fit into, but also lots that I do. I currently work for a publishing company as an editor. I am also a freelance writer and graphic designer.

Neil: I had been living in Johannesburg, pursuing a career as a TV producer and writer, but working at a job that wasn't giving me what I wanted or needed. I felt drained and without the time, energy or means to do the things that I knew could help me to feel happy and fulfilled. I knew I was looking for a change but thought that I needed to continue building on the "career" that I'd already put so much energy into. I took some time off to travel, and after visiting a dear friend from university who'd been living in Taiwan, the decision became an easy one.

The exuberance that she and her friends had for the things they were doing was too attractive to resist, and so I came here to make that happen for myself as well. I won't be here forever, but it's the right place for me right now. I work as a kindergarten teacher in the morning and an elementary school teacher in the afternoon. I make more money and have far more fun and time for life than I ever did back home!

About Taipei

Q: What do you enjoy most about Taipei? How's the quality of life?
Ryan: Taipei is a city that has the best of both East and West; people cling to traditions while standing in insane queues to snap a photo of themselves at the latest shop, Western restaurant, or other new addition. I love the fact that they embrace the West without entirely losing their identity. Walk down any street in Taipei, and you will see this. A night market atmosphere of small food stands and inexpensive clothing outside big designer stores like Chanel, Gucci and Louis Vuitton. It just wouldn't work anywhere else. But it works in Taiwan.

Neil: I think that as a foreigner in Taipei, I make a very comfortable living and have a wonderful quality of life. As with anywhere in the world, especially in cities with such a high population density as Taipei, there are frustrations and difficulties, but I find that these are generally outweighed by the positives. I really love the variety and accessibility of food and shopping we enjoy in the city, and the public transport system is the most convenient and efficient I've found anywhere. There is always something new and interesting to do, whether you like outdoor stuff in nature, cultural excursions or parties. Taipei has a great mix.

Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home?
Ryan: Sure, there are negatives: overcrowding, pollution and a lack of personal space top the list. I do miss family and friends, of course, but mostly I miss the ease of being a consumer. At home, you can go to one or two stores, and your errands are done. In Taiwan, finding little, innocuous items such as something for your kitchen faucet can turn a simple shopping trip into an arduous 7+ store trek, and suddenly, there goes your night. But most of us carry a pretty large mental map in our minds of where things are. You might not need a package of oatmeal right now, but you make a mental note for later reference. In relation to that, asking a Taiwanese person where such and such can be found often isn't very fruitful. Expats have a better idea of where to get things because of our mental maps.

Neil: One thing living away from your own culture teaches you is to be able to recognise your own values and what's important to you. The hardest thing by far for me about being here is learning to accept or even tolerate the cultural differences. People do things that do not make sense and behave in ways that can offend and irritate. Some things get easier with time, but others remain a problem.

Taiwan is a relatively small island nation, and as much as some people want to be like the characters they see in foreign films, I think that most remain a little naïve and insular. They want to be part of the international community, but I think that in the process of trying to achieve this, they have forgotten who they are and have lost a clear sense of their identity. Obviously, this isn't true for everyone, but I find that this is the main problem I have with living here. I miss the realness and awareness of South Africans. Then there are some specific negatives like universally appalling customer service, pollution and the oppressive heat of summer.

Q: Is Taipei safe?
Ryan: Absolutely, without question. I know a handful of people who have had problems with the locals, and truth be told, alcohol and male hormones get more blame than local people. Even the sketchiest parts of town do not compare to walking alone at night in a city of comparable size. I am amazed at the technology, jewellery and expensive handbags that people carry around with them at all hours of the day.

People are honest, love their safe city and want to keep it that way. In fact, I lost my wallet last year before Christmas. Five days later, I got a call from the Taipei City Police Department saying they had my wallet. It had everything in it, including the cash! I had a feeling I could only describe as equal part shock and pride in the people of Taipei.

Neil: In my opinion, Taipei is one of the safest cities in the world. Newscasts every evening feature reports on new restaurant openings and product launches because there simply isn't enough crime to cover. People here are generally non-confrontational and passive. I leave my helmet on my scooter when I park it because I know it won't get stolen, and the residents of my building don't seem to care about closing the doors because no one would come inside without an invitation. You can go anywhere at any time and never need to watch your back. It's one of my favourite things about living in Taipei.

About living in Taipei

Q: Which are the best places/suburbs to live in Taipei as an expat?
Ryan: I think it depends on your definition of "best". There are lots of expats who love this or that area for different reasons, and I think it depends on what you want to get out of this place. There are neighbourhoods that are expensive, student-oriented, completely overrun with expats, and areas that are known as local places.

For the majority of expats, Taipei is divided into the following areas: Diplomats and executives – Tien Mu; Students, ESL teachers, and families – Daan; Young, single, financial and business people – Xinyi. Of course, there are expats scattered throughout Taipei and Taiwan – factors which help to decide where to live are usually financial, space, and proximity to work and necessities.

Neil: I would avoid the areas further away from the city centres. Rent is cheaper, but it's easy to make enough to afford a more central place, and things can get a little unnecessarily ghetto once you start living on the outskirts. It's easy to get out of the urban press if you need to, and I prefer living closer to work and friends.

Q: How do you rate the standard of accommodation in Taipei?
Ryan: This is a tough one. Again, I think it depends on the individual. If you are an expat who is staying short term, a place that is cheap is likely high on your list. If you are here for the duration, then paying a little more for something nicer, bigger, with mod cons, is more important. Overall, I would rate a place based on location, ease of access, space, and included amenities.

Neil: It took me a while to get used to the kind of accommodation available here. Taiwanese bathrooms and kitchens are generally below Western middle-class standards, and you shouldn't expect to find what you're probably used to. They tend to be cramped, dirty and without adequate ventilation. To cut costs, most buildings aren't insulated for either the steaming summer months or the cold of winter, so you'll need to deal with that, but it's manageable.

Unless you live in the countryside, you'll have to be content with living in an apartment. Apartments are generally relatively small, but depending on your needs, this shouldn't be too much of a problem. There's always something to do outside of the home. Rent is far cheaper than in many other comparably large cities, and there seems to be a lot of improvement among newly constructed buildings. I've tried living in the older buildings, but I'd definitely advise newcomers to opt for new apartment buildings.

Q: What's the cost of living in Taipei compared to home? What is cheap or expensive in particular?

Ryan: The cost of living for a capital city in terms of rent and food is inexpensive. Day-to-day expenses such as public transport and food are also inexpensive. Imported goods are not cheap. You will pay the same, if not more, for brand names. However, shopping at night markets is a chance to barter and get some great deals. Having a nightlife can quickly add up, especially if you are partial to clubbing. All of these places charge cover and seldom have deals on alcohol.

Neil: I think it's important to note that while food, in general, is much cheaper than at home, GOOD and healthy food is probably similarly priced. The same goes for clothing and many other consumer goods. Good Western food (comparable to what you'd expect from a mid-range restaurant at home) will be a lot more expensive. Everyone dines out regularly because it's so cheap, but that doesn't mean that they're eating well. The Taiwanese food industry doesn't have the same health standards you might be used to. Taxis are ridiculously cheap and far more affordable than owning your own car.

Basically, if you want to consume in the same way you probably do in your home country, you won't be living a great deal cheaper. If you can adapt to the local lifestyle, you'll be spending a lot less and living pretty darn inexpensively. I find a happy medium of compromising in some areas is working out very well for me.

Q: What are the locals like; do you mix mainly with other expats?
Ryan: The local people are warm, welcoming and extremely helpful. They are generally pretty shy but warm up once you make an effort. I do tend to mix with mainly other expats socially, but at work, I have only Taiwanese co-workers so I feel I mix it up pretty often.
Neil: I generally really like my co-workers and a few individual Taiwanese people who have become real friends. On average though, I find it very hard to relate to most locals here. Taiwanese people are friendly and often very eager to make friends with foreigners, but the concept of friendship here is sometimes very different from mine. Most of my friends are other expats, and I prefer it that way, although it really does depend on your own attitude. I can have a basic conversation in Chinese, but I'm sure that my experience would have been more rewarding if I could communicate with more people.

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends in Taipei?
Ryan:  If you are a social person, it is pretty easy to make friends here. Taipei's expat community can be a bit of a small town at times, with everyone knowing everyone else. The nice part is that people are ready to share stories, tips, insights, and of course, a drink with someone new. The best way to meet people is to study some Chinese or work for a larger company that employs a lot of expats. If you want to make some Taiwanese friends, it's pretty easy. Asking for help is usually enough to get an invitation to a future event. I've had Taiwanese approach me in an MRT station, and after a few minutes of conversation, join me for the rest of the day.

Neil: You get what you give. I had already met a few people before moving here, and they were a great source of new friends. Most expats share some important things in common, and meeting new people isn't hard. There is a bit of a difference for men and women though. As with other Asian countries, foreign men generally have an easier time socially than their female counterparts. In Taiwanese culture, men have a lot more freedom than women, which can be frustrating for Western girls. Taiwanese women and gay men are often very welcoming to foreign guys. It's sometimes a little too easy for Western men to find a girlfriend or boyfriend, but it's less common for Western ladies to become interested in or approached by Taiwanese men. They still seem to make it work for them though.

About working in Taipei

Q: Did you have a problem getting a work visa/permit for Taiwan?
Ryan: The laws have changed so much since I first came, so I'm going to say no. All legal jobs require a degree, diploma and sometimes documented experience relevant to your work. The process for work permits has been streamlined in recent years, so if all your documents are in order, you can get a work permit inside a month.

Neil: Citizens from the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand who hold a university degree from an institution in one of the countries above can get a work permit to work as a teacher pretty easily after finding a job. If you want to work in a different industry or an expat from another country, the process is a little more complicated as both qualifications and relevant experience are considered. I've never had any problems with being granted a work permit for teaching. It's getting your employer to process the paperwork properly that can be a problem.

International students from all over the world can apply for student visas after they have been accepted into a recognised study program. The Taiwanese government has, in the past, been pretty generous in awarding scholarships to foreign governments. Students can apply for these with their own government agencies.

Q: What's the economic climate like in the city, is there plenty of work?
Ryan: There are lots of jobs in Taipei, but the ESL teaching market is oversaturated. Taiwan has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, which means that teaching jobs will become scarcer in the future. However, if you learn Chinese, there are lots of opportunities working in media, finance or a multinational company.
Neil: I don't think things are quite as easy as in the PRC (Mainland China), but Taiwanese companies are quite keen on getting international experience for their workforces and being a foreigner sometimes counts in your favour when applying for a job. Teaching work is seasonal, and it's easiest to find work just before the start of either the spring or fall school semesters.

Q: How does the work culture in Taipei differ from home?
Ryan: Taiwanese people work a lot. Typically, they are expected to put in a 40-hour work week, but most stay longer and work unpaid overtime. This is to show that you are a company person and appreciate your job. They will come in rain or shine, sick or not, to further show that they are for the company.
Neil: Unless you're lucky, your boss will have a very different idea of your relationship with them than you might be used to back home. Taiwanese employees are much more subservient, and bosses are far more authoritarian than in South Africa. I think it's important to understand your legal rights as a foreign employee but also to have an open mind and remember that you're working in a different country where things work a little differently. That's why you'd come, isn't it?

Q: Did a relocation company help you with your move?
Ryan: No. I managed everything myself.
Neil: Nope. You can do it by yourself. Most expats here do.

Family and children in Taipei

Q: Did your spouse or partner have problems adjusting to their new home in Taipei?
Ryan: I think my spouse had the same ups and downs that I did, but overall, we both adjusted fairly quickly. The funny thing about culture shock is how it comes and goes. There are moments when we can't imagine ever wanting to leave this place. Then there are others when we count down the days until our next vacation abroad.

Q: What are the schools like? Any particular suggestions?
Ryan: Taipei has a couple of international schools; Taipei American School and Taipei European School. There are also several English immersion schools. Most of these cost an arm and a leg for regular people, so they are full of diplomats' and rich people's children. The public school system is difficult, and there is competition to get into some of the better ones. Fuxing Elementary on Dunhua South Road is known as the best public school for school-age children.

Q: How would you rate the healthcare?
Ryan: Excellent. It is inexpensive and readily available. Every employer applies for National Health Insurance for its employees as soon as their work permit is finished. NHI can be used at major hospitals, walk-in clinics and dentist offices.
Neil: Universal and affordable healthcare is great in principle, but keep in mind that it means there's no luxury included. Most medical doctors have at least basic medical English ability, but I don't think bedside manner is taught in med schools here, and there is usually a lot less personal interaction between doctor and patient. You need to know which questions to ask, but also be prepared to get seemingly strange responses. At least it won't cost you much.

And finally…

Q: Is there any other advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals?
Ryan: Actually, there are five points we would like to offer to new expat arrivals:

  1. There is always someone coming around the corner of a building, aisle or through a door. Plan accordingly.

  2. Making eye contact with drivers while crossing the street is tantamount to shouting, "I see you!" This shouldn't suggest that they will stop for you. On the contrary, you have acknowledged that you see them, so they believe you will stop.

  3. Taiwanese people will always be shocked that they can't rush into an elevator because there is someone else that uses elevators in a city of 2.64 million, regardless of how many times they might take one in a day.

  4. Yes, people are staring at you while you eat, drink, talk or just stand there. Everybody does this in every country. Taiwan just makes it more obvious.

  5. No, you aren't being "good morning'd" when you enter a shop, heedless of the time of the day. You are being welcomed in lukewarm tones of gratitude. Well, sort of.

~ Interviewed August 2012

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