My blog was recently featured on InterNations, an expat social network and resource. In the interview I outline why I chose Taiwan, why I started blogging, how life is different, and similar topics of general interest to would-be expats. Continue reading for the full text of the interview (but please keep in mind this is not an endorsement of InterNations, where I am not even an active member)…
Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to Taiwan, etc.
I’m Alexander from Toronto, Canada, and I moved to Taiwan in early 2013. After graduating from university I decided to travel around Asia for a while to try a different kind of education. Eventually I decided to take the plunge and actually live abroad for an extended period of time. Having visited six nations in the region1 I considered my options, did some research online, and eventually decided on Taiwan.
When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?
I started blogging in earnest in the summer of 2013, not long after arriving in Taiwan, mainly to share my experiences with friends and family back home. Over time it grew into an almost daily practice of sharing something, perhaps just a photo with a little background story like you would write on a postcard. I also try to find the time to write more substantive posts, partly in an attempt to give something back to the world. I owe a debt of gratitude to all the Taiwan expat bloggers whose work I have learned so much from2 and I’d love to be able to pay it forward if I can.
Do you have any favorite blog entries of yours? Please add the URL link as well.
Many expat bloggers in Taiwan focus almost exclusively on Taipei 台北 and northern Taiwan so I am particularly proud of some of my posts about things in central and southern Taiwan. I published an extensive guide to eating like a local in Tainan to help non-Chinese speakers make the most of Taiwan’s historic southern capital. More recently I published a piece about the history of a decaying colonial era mansion in Taichung 台中. Finally, I have a soft spot for some of my more meditative and lyrical writing about abandoned places, for instance this piece about an abandoned home in the mountains south of Taipei.
Tell us about the ways your new life in Taiwan differs from that back home. Did you have trouble getting used to the new circumstances? Did you experience culture shock?
From a western perspective Taiwan is one of the most alien societies in the developed world3. Strangely, it is also one of the most convenient and forgiving. Daily needs are easily taken care of and Taiwanese people are very friendly and helpful to newcomers. That being said, social interactions are fraught with all manner of complications brought about by cultural differences in communication style, among other things. Living outside of Taipei also means that I am constantly reminded that I am the alien here. I don’t really mind so much but it certainly doesn’t lessen the culture shock to be treated like an object of curiosity and fascination wherever I go.
Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in Taiwan? If you could, would you change some decisions/preparations you made?
Yes, I would say I was about as prepared as I could have been. I visited Taipei for a few days to get a feel for it before committing to buying a ticket. I scanned all my critical documents and made backups. I purchased open-ended health insurance. I did my homework. Packing was a breeze as I had been living like a monk for several years already. If anything, I wish I had studied a little Chinese before making the big leap across the Pacific, but it was also no more than about two weeks between making the decision and landing in Taiwan with no real idea of what I was getting myself into.
Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?
I was cycling back from Wūlái 烏來 late one evening when the heavens opened up and heavy rain came pouring down. There was a country restaurant up ahead so I stopped for dinner and to wait out the storm. Inside I used what little Chinese I knew at the time to say “chicken”. The proprietor gave me an inscrutable look and repeated my order back to me as if to question whether he had heard me right. I nodded, thinking nothing of it, and sat down at a table to dry off. Ten minutes later an entire chicken skewered on a metal spit arrives, its face twisted in a rictus of betrayal, black feet and a variety of glistening organs tucked inside the body cavity. Everyone else in the restaurant had twisted around in their chairs to see how I would react. Dumbstruck, I realized that this was the kind of place frequented by families and tour groups, not individuals, for they only serve whole chickens! I laughed out loud, breaking the spell, and everyone joined in. And then I did my very best to eat as much of that chicken as I could!
Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in Taiwan?
Read expat blogs about Taiwan and dig into the archives: there’s an incredible wealth of free information out there for anyone who invests the time. Never take a job outside of Taipei without visiting the location first; plenty of recruiters look overseas for teachers to fill positions in undesirable locations. Learn at least a little Chinese, especially reading, as it will greatly enhance your experience here.
How is the expat community in Taiwan? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?
Taiwan’s small western expat population is heavily concentrated in Taipei. I never had any trouble meeting people of all kinds and finding things to do in the capital; it’s a big international city with a lot going on. Down south is a different matter—there are few western expats, English is not widely spoken, and local people tend to be a little more provincial in their thinking. Living outside of Taipei has its benefits (it cuts your cost of living in half, for starters) but the potential for social isolation is a major drawback.
How would you summarize your expat life in Taiwan in a single, catchy sentence?
Exploring Taiwan’s vibrant culture and natural wonders has been a tremendously rewarding experience that I will never forget.
- Hong Kong 香港, Thailand, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, and Taiwan (in that exact order). ↩
- The View From Taiwan, The Far Eastern Sweet Potato and Participant Observer, Lao Ren Cha, Letters from Taiwan, Taiwan In Cycles, and Hiking Taiwan, just to name a few early finds. Without their hard work I wouldn’t have had such a rich variety of experiences so soon after arriving in Taiwan. Find more on my Taiwan blogroll. ↩
- No value judgement is implied here; by “alien” I simply mean different. If you’re in the mood to quibble you might also find fault with the use of “developed”, “western”, and even “expat”, the nuances of which one could write an entire book about. It is not my intention to provoke controversy with such remarks and it should be understood that my views are far subtler than the format would reasonably allow. ↩