Tuesday, September 29, 2015

so you want to move to Taiwan?

For the last few years, in September and October, random strangers start to email me questions about being an international teacher in Taiwan. The timing makes sense; recruiting season is in winter, and it takes a while to get everything set up to attend job fairs. People considering moving abroad start to do research, and then they start to contact people. When I started looking in fall 2011, I emailed a bunch of schools. I guess it never occurred to me to search for blogs of expats living somewhere I potentially wanted to move to, but it sure does occur to other people.
Sometimes, the messages are vague: I am thinking about moving to Taiwan or what's it like to teach in Taiwan? Other times, they are more pointed: I read your blog and deduced you work at X school, now give me the inside scoop. Usually, I only respond to the more general emails. I have never named my school on this blog, nor will I ever. There are a handful of international schools in Taiwan and in Hsinchu, and I don't want my blog to become the reason someone does or does not take a job offer. While I am satisfied at my current school, many people I know have not been. I don't want to tell someone it is a good place to work only to have them become one of the haters.

After a few years of this, I have gotten pretty good at pounding out a quick email, and I don't hold back. I tell them that moving to Taiwan has been one of the best things that has ever happened to me. I also tell them some days, I hate Taiwan and hide in my apartment.

After receiving five of these emails so far since school started, I have decided to just make this blog post that I can link back to. After some thought, here is what I would tell someone who is truly considering moving to Taiwan.

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Proceed with caution, because you might be here a lot longer than you think
When we signed our contract, our plan was to stay for two years and then move on to another country and school. Well, four years later, we're still here and we have no immediate plans to leave. The same is true for many of my colleagues. Taiwan is charming. It steals your heart and you don't even notice until you start to contemplate leaving. Then, you wonder if there is a place like Taiwan, and fear all other places will fall short in comparison. Beyond that, the compensation we receive is huge when factoring in the cost of living and benefits like free housing, airfare, healthcare, etc. We have the potential to save nearly 90% of our income, which is no small amount. We could never do that back home, and we could never do that in other countries where the cost of living is higher or where these perks are not provided.

Come with an open mind and no expectations 
The one thing that makes most expats here the most miserable is that they expect Taiwan to be like America, and then get mad/frustrated/impatient when it's not. Quite frankly, this mentality makes no sense to me. Taiwan is not America. Don't expect it to be. The food is different. The language is different. The housing is different. The clothing is different. The bureaucracy is different. Everything is different. But, that really shouldn't be that surprising, right?
The language will be a lot harder to learn than you think it will be, but the language barrier will be a lot less significant than you worry it will be
I thought I was going to learn Chinese easy peasy, and I even took a class when I got here. I am actually a really fast learner, and I picked up Spanish really quickly when I studied it in high school and college. Well, I hate to break it to you, but Chinese is not Spanish. There is nothing to hold on to when getting your toes wet, not even letters. And don't even get me started on the five tones! After living here for 3+ years, I can go to the gas station or grocery store and get by. Otherwise, forget it! The really great news is that it's really not that big of a deal. Where I live, I am hard pressed to find myself in a situation where someone doesn't understand me. Sometimes, when I try to speak Chinese, it is really clear that the person I am conversing with would really just like us to stick to English. In the end, the language is really not something to sweat about.
You will end up buying a scooter, so just embrace the chaos of Taiwanese rush hour
One of the first things that will shock you about Taiwan is the traffic. You will notice it right away. There is a lot of it, and a lot of that lot is made up of scooters. At first, scooterists appear to be really bad at driving; they weave in and out of cars and buses and drive on side walks. Sometimes, they even drive along the wrong side of the road into oncoming traffic. But then, you'll realize that somehow, magically, it works. You will be stunned to see how few accidents actually happen, and it will all start to look like a finely choreographed dance. There are actually other options for getting around, but personally I hate the other options. Driving a car here is insane because of the heavy traffic and dancing scooters, and the public transit is one of those things that the language barrier will affect. Let's face it; the driver probably won't speak English and the signs for stops will be in Chinese.  To me, it's not worth the hassle. I love my little scooter and the convenience and adventure it brings to my life (plus, filling up the tank costs less than $2 and lasts for 1-2 weeks. So.)
You will be stared at and talked about and yes, sometime it will really, really bother you
Okay, this is the one time I am going to truly complain. Taiwan is a homogeneous country. If you are not Taiwanese, you will be noticed, especially if you are not Asian. People will stare, openly. Some will point. They will talk about you in front of you. They will even take your picture. Just the other night, we were eating out when a girl leaned over to take my husband's picture. He gave her a nasty glare, and she had the decency to look embarrassed. Stuff like this happens all the time, and I still hate it and get mad about it. Globalization is a real thing, and people should know better. End of story. What baffles me the most is when parents allow their children to display such rude behavior, or even encourage it. This is one thing that makes me long for a place with more diversity. I am not Taiwanese, and I am not Asian, and I never will be. Therefore, no matter how long I am here, I will always be a foreigner, someone on the outside looking in. Because of that, it is sometimes hard to imagine a future here. 
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Obviously, this list is not exhaustive. These are simply the things that I have found to be important. People move abroad for all kinds of reasons. I moved abroad for better work conditions, for more control over my finances, and most importantly, I moved abroad for adventure. I find that people who move abroad only for the first two reasons have a harder time adjusting than those who also move abroad to experience another culture and have many new adventures (and plenty of misadventures too).

At the end of the day, I am very glad I live and teach in Taiwan, but that is no guarantee that you will be. I think the best question to answer is this: what are you looking for?? If it is a country that values education and will keep you on your toes, then Taiwan might be just the place for you. 






14 comments

  1. This is great! I've been thinking of doing a post similar to this for Vilnius, but haven't gotten around to it yet.

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  2. I absolutely hate being stared at! I don't think I could live in Taiwan but the country sure looks amazing! Plus, I get those emails too and wanted to do a post like this for ages but it's not exactly a post that you can write on a Sunday afternoon. Takes a bit more time and preparation I think. You did a great job though and I'll come back if I ever consider moving to Taiwan after all ;)

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  3. I loved this post! It's was a really interesting read as it's something I have been thinking about constantly for a few months now.

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    1. To Taiwan, or Asia in general?? I am all for Taiwan!!

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  4. It's a very good idea to do a blog post like this that you can just link to every time you get the same questions. I particularly like the message to embrace the differences - and the chaos! #MondayEscapes.

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    1. Yes, lots and lots of things to embrace, but those two are pretty important!

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  5. What a great informative post and I absolutely love your photos!

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  6. Excellent post! I have only spent a few days in Taiwan and I thought it was fantastic. Of course there are always ups and downs. Great idea to give a full picture.

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  7. I completely relate! I lived in Korea for a year and many of your points about Taiwan could have been written specifically about life in Korea. Getting stared at never really gets easier! But it's a wonderful experience and worth all those less than stellar moments!

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    1. Yeah, I think that is just part of the deal when you move to a place like Korea or Taiwan. Overall, it really isn't that big of a deal compared to all the good things.

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