Chinese New Year can be a pretty boring time for a foreigner. All of my friends were celebrating with their families, and since I have no family here, nor have I a girlfriend whose family I could join, I had nothing special to do. Shops and cafes were closed - apart from big chains like McDonald's or Starbucks, which were overcrowded anyway. So I had a lot of time to think.
On Saturday evening I went out to buy my dinner. While I was walking around, I heard the voices of the people inside their homes, the sounds of their New Year celebrations. Then I suddenly asked myself: "What on earth are you doing here? Why are you still in Taiwan?"
Before I came to Taiwan, some Taiwanese friends of mine had recommended me their country, highly prasing it and going so far as to say that Taiwan is a "paradise for foreigners" (bear in mind that when I say foreigners I mean 'Westerners').
"It's easy for foreigners to find a job," they argued. "Taiwanese are nice to foreigners and treat them better than they treat each other." Others stressed the fact that Taiwan is cheap and there's a lot of great food. Others again talked about "girls who like foreigners."
Some of these praises I found not to be true - but I will talk about it in another post. Right now I would like to explain why in my view it is indeed good to live in Taiwan.
1 - Taiwan Is a Great Place to Experience Chinese Culture
Well, this statement is quite complicated, because many Taiwanese don't want to be Chinese. Still, despite all the political differences between Taiwan and the PRC, I think it's undeniable that Taiwan is a centre of Chinese culture. People speak Chinese, have Chinese customs, religion and architecture etc. So, if you want to learn Mandarin, Taiwan is a nice place to do it. True, nowadays mainland China is more dynamic and polarizing. But Taiwan is a little bit easier for Western people to live in. Why? Let me explain:
- Taiwan is way smaller than China, which means that its big cities are not much more crowded than in the West. Taipei, for example, is comparable in size to big European cities (around 6 millions in the whole metropolitan area), while cities like Beijing or Shanghai have around 20 million people. That's a big difference, isn't it?
- Taiwan has a high per capita income and relative income equality. It means that the lifestyle and the standard of living are comparable to those in the West. In China, on the contrary, you have wealth and poverty coexisting side by side in deep contrast. China is a developing country with many challenges ahead, so its way of life and material conditions may be difficult for Westerners to cope with. We should also not underestimate the fact that China is still partially a rural society and that only a few decades ago the majority of the Chinese people were peasants. For people who come from countries like the US, Great Britain or Germany, which industrialized long ago, this might be hard to understand; but we should always remember that the rural way of life, as opposed to the sophisticated urban life of rich countries, might be one reason why the behaviour of some Chinese, including the "new rich", seems to us quite rude and unrefined.
- Taiwan is a democracy. Well, many Westerners are obsessed with democracy and are deeply anti-Communist, which makes it hard for them to live in China. When a Chinese says: "I'm a member of the Communist party," Westerners give a start. Overall, Westerners don't mind to see in shops portraits of Chiang Kai-shek (at Taipei airport, for instance, there are teapots and plates with Chiang's image), but they are deeply disturbed by depictions of Mao - mostly because the first was 'our' ally and the latter was 'our' enemy. Anyway, I myself believe in democracy, so it's good that in Taiwan you have rule of law, elections, free media and internet (that's why I can write this post; in mainland China blogger, along with many other sites like Twitter or Facebook, is blocked, which is annoying).
Nevertheless, I'd like to warn Westerners that democracy alone doesn't make countries similar or compatible to Western culture by magic. Taiwanese culture is deeply different from the West's. It is a fallacy to assume that because Taiwan has elections and free media it is "Westernized". It's unquestionable that the influence of the West on Taiwan and Asia in general has been strong. But this word "Westernization", as far as I can judge, is often used in very superficial terms. To name just a few examples, in Taiwan marriage, family or even ideas like freedom and equality are not necessarily the same as in the West (read my posts about marriage and family). But that's not all. If you think about it, you might find out that even very simple concepts like 'respect', 'love', 'politeness', 'sacrifice' etc., have a different meaning from the one you're used to. So, don't overestimate the cultural importance of political labels.
Overall, because Taiwan began to industrialize much earlier than mainland China, it doesn't have the sharp social contrasts and inequality you can see in China. Besides, over the last two decades Taiwan has become a democracy, For these reasons, living in Taiwan might be easier for foreigners than living in mainland China. Taiwan is therefore a great window to the Chinese-speaking world.
2 - It's Easy for Westerners to Find a Job
This is true if you hold a passport from an English-speaking country. Then you can do what the majority of foreigners do here: work as an English teacher.
Teaching English in Taiwan is apparently relatively easy. Many cram schools hire people who have no teaching qualification (though I think they must have a bachelor's degree). English teachers have an easy life compared to a great part of the local population. We have to bear in mind that Taiwan is a country with some of the longest working hours in the world and a widespread culture of unpaid overtime. Given the things I heard from Taiwanese people, working here is very stressful, most especially in the IT industry. A report from CNN says it all:
"The annual working hours for Taiwanese employees eclipses many industrialized nations, according to figures from the Council of Labor Affairs (CLA) and the OECD. On average, the Taiwanese work 2,200 hours annually; 20% more than their counterparts in the United States or Japan and more than 35% longer than those in Germany" (note)
Against this backdrop, working as a teacher in Taiwan is a paradise, because you have Western-style working hours and the pay is decent. So it's true that many Western teachers here can have a comfortable, relaxed lifestyle.
If you're not a native speaker of English, like me, things are very different. You may consider finding a 'normal' job, but you must accept the stress and long working hours (and the overtime) attached to it. I've heard that foreigners get a higher pay than locals, which I have no data to confirm, though. I guess it depends on the company and the boss. I heard bosses tend to see foreigners as an 'added value'. Moreover, recognizing the cultural differences, Taiwanese bosses may not treat their foreign employees like they treat their Taiwanese employees.
3 - Many Taiwanese Think Foreigners are 'Cool'
This seems to be true. For many decades, Taiwanese have been taught that English is necessary and speaking English is not just cool but also extremely useful for their job; many Taiwanese seem to be imbued with myths about Western civilization.
I'm generalizing, but there are definitely many Taiwanese who think it's cool and useful (because they can speak English and know more about the West) to have a Western friend or a Western boyfriend/girlfriend.
Taiwanese hold foreigners in high esteem; first of all because of the economy (the West, and Japan, were the example Taiwanese wanted to follow). Then, the very existence of Taiwan depended on American support, because the PRC constantly proclaimed they wanted to invade it. So, admiring the West, and particularly the US, and finding Western things cool was and still is part of the zeitgeist.
Decades of wrong economic policies, however, are beginning to compromise the image of the West, so perhaps some day this 'love for all things Western' will be gone. Nevertheless, it is true that as a Westerner you get a lot of attention and this might be a good feeling for some people.
4 - Taiwanese are Polite
Yes, they are. People will be nice to you, they won't shout at you or be rude. But wait, it's not that simple...
We must first of all understand what Taiwanese politeness is about. I would bluntly describe Taiwanese politeness as a distant, ceremonious indifference. I must point out that politeness and friendliness are two different things. Friendliness is heartfelt, politeness isn't.
Generally speaking, Taiwanese have two different attitudes towards strangers: 1- indifference; 2- politeness. These two kinds of behaviour depend on different situations. Let me give you two examples to show it.
1) I was sitting on a plane a few weeks ago. There were two Taiwanese mothers with their children sitting in front of me. During the flight, the children began watching the Gangnam style video on their tablets. The music was really loud and it bothered not just me, but also other passengers, who from time to time cast angry looks on the children. But they did not say a word. The typical Taiwanese attitude in such a case is: do nothing. No one told those two mothers that it was rude and disrespectful to let their children play music loudly. In Germany, someone would definitely have told the mothers something like: "Excuse me, but it's really loud. Could tell your children to stop?" But in Taiwan, no one says anything. They simply endure it. This is what I call the "it's-non-of-my-business" attitude. As I said, strangers simply act as though they did not perceive what others were doing, unless it's absolutely necessary for them to intervene. You can see this on the street: people walk and drive as though they were the only ones around.
2) Politeness is an attitude of more or less cold ceremoniousness. In Taiwan, politeness is usually confined to strangers. When people know each other well, they won't be polite. That doesn't mean they are not nice, but they are definitely not polite. Within the family, instead of politeness there is something I would call "familial piety". To put it plainly: the attitude of the shop girl who tries to sell you a product by putting on a standard smile and using a high-pitch voice is not the same thing as the attitude that a son might have to his parents or a nephew to his uncle. The first is a ceremonious business ritual; the second is based on family ties, which is a relationship that is completely different from the one you have with a perfect strangers like a shop clerk.
It is therefore true that people here will be polite. While in Germany or Europe in general even strangers may mind your business or be rude to you, in Taiwan they usually won't do that. As a foreigner, we are of course subject to particular attention, but this attention is most of the times positive and benign. So far, except for a bus driver at Taipei bus station, no stranger has ever been rude to me. But, as I said in one of my earlier posts, what we can call rudeness may exist between close friends and family members.
5 - Taiwanese Girls
I will devote a whole post to this (very old) subject. For now, I will just say that, as far as I could see, there is a specific group of Taiwanese girls that are really into Western men. It is truly one of the most peculiar and fascinating things here in Taiwan; and perhaps one of the most inexplicable. You see pretty young girls literally throwing themselves into the arms of some foreign guy.
I once went to a club. I was doing nothing at all. I was simply standing at the bar drinking my cocktail. In Europe, no one would have talked to me. But in Taipei, six girls approached me, and two of them were so hot and wore so tiny clothes that I had already noticed them dancing on the dance floor.
One reason why some Taiwanese have a bad opinion of foreigners is exactly that it is widely known what (some) foreigners do at night. But this phenomenon is so conspicuous that Taiwanese tend to generalize and think all foreigners go clubbing and then take girls home. That isn't the case. Many foreigners do not go clubbing, and many Taiwanese do not either. But those who do it polarize the attention, hence the bad reputation.
If you're a male who likes clubbing and girls, well - you'd better come and see with your own eyes. I met a Western guy some time ago, who is definitely not very handsome and in Europe probably didn't have much success with girls. In Taiwan, whenever he goes clubbing, he "scores".
6 - The Weather
Have you ever gone out in shorts in the middle of February? Well, in Taiwan you can. The most interesting thing about the Taiwanese weather is that it is mild and extremely changeable. The temperature rarely goes above 37 and rarely below 15. In Taipei, the average temperature is 19 degrees in the winter and slightly above 30 in the summer.
The best thing about the weather is that the temperature fluctuates a lot. For example, the summer can be quite hot and humid. But it's not hot every day. Very often it gets cooler, for example 26, 28 degrees. There are also many typhoons during the summer, which bring cool air and wind.
Only to give you a comparison: in my home country Italy in the summer every day is hot. You have to endure the scorching heat for about three months. In some parts of the country, the temperature can even reach 45 degrees, though rarely. In Taiwan, when it's cold, you know that within a couple of days it will get warmer. When it's hot, you know that in a week or in a few days it will get cooler or there will be a typhoon.
So, it's not a continuous, long-lasting cold or heat, and there are no unbearable extremes. Having said that, it's true that the summer can be quite challenging, but I guess not as much as in Hong Kong, Singapore or Shanghai.
7 - The Food
The food is one of the great strengths of Taiwan. Well, not if you don't like Chinese food, of course. But I personally love it. Chinese food is extremely various, you will never stop discovering new dishes wherever you go. Besides, I guess that Taiwan is a paradise for vegetarians and vegans. In fact, Taiwan, like other countries with a long Buddhist tradition, developed over the centuries a Buddhist vegan cuisine that is really delicious.