Before I begin sharing my impressions and personal experiences of living in Taiwan I want to caveat what I am writing about. While I was in Taiwan an article was printed in a Montreal paper that shared a negative experience of living on the island nation. The writer of said article was hailed in a storm of negative feedback, some of it attacking and from my perspective pretty nasty. My intent here is not to demean Taiwan or its expat community but to share my experiences. A lot of what I experienced was challenging and not what I’d call positive. I understand for many people Taiwan is the making of them, they love it and this is how it is for many of the people I shared time with. To my Taiwanese friends please do not take my impressions personally, it isn’t about you, it’s about my experience of Taiwan. If Taiwan is your place of bliss I salute you. It’s a tough place.
I was given three key pieces of advice during my time in Taiwan.
1) Drink more.
2) Get busy so I wouldn’t have to feel so much of what my life is.
3) If I want to meet someone to share my life with or get laid becoming a lesbian would be my best option.
Obviously this advice was given to me in more nuanced terms, and garnered from a number of conversations, but the above are the essentialist gems I received on how to survive/ live in Taiwan as a woman in my thirties.
Let me get clear from the get go on this. I’m not a huge clubber or bar-hopper. I’m more a dinner with friends, cook, discuss politics, poetry, art, life, listen to and play wonderful music kind of woman. In my life I have never had the desire to equate a good life with being busy. Being busy for the sake of it I see no purpose in. It feels like escapism, as does excessive drug and alcohol use. And becoming a lesbian, as a pragmatic choice to get laid doesn’t appeal though that said my philosophy is you love who you love. Welcome to Taiwan.
I arrived in Taiwan on January 17, it was late in the evening, I was blissed out post a lovely three weeks spent fasting, doing yoga and hanging out with beautiful people and dear friends in Thailand. Tobie Openshaw, my friend and documentary and video production mentor, was at the Taoyuan airport to pick me up and the whirlwind began. A longer than expected trip into the city to meet another friend who was kindly putting me up and subletting their room to me while I got myself established, was followed by discussions about local politics and conditions for remittance workers, then dinner and drinks.
My notebooks and photographs of the time have a distance to them that isn’t typical of my style. It is like I stepped outside of myself the moment I arrived on Taiwanese soil. After a few weeks I stopped writing altogether, with the exception of three pieces, and have only just started again. Six months is a long time not to write for me.
“An introduction; a thousand words, sounds and images flickering, bright, but black to grey.”
The first few weeks were spent adjusting into Taipei, getting a bike (essential for Taipei city living), catching up with friends based in Taiwan I had met elsewhere, signing up with a teaching recruitment agency, joining a yoga studio, a women’s circle and hunting for a place to live. I found an apartment, sans kitchen, and a teaching job within three weeks. Not bad going really but everything I was doing felt pushed and unnatural, the flow wasn’t there.
My apartment was in Gongguan, a university suburb of Taipei, which is bubbling with student life, a night market and 10,000 people per square kilometre according to some statistics I found online at the time. I had to move into one small apartment and then ten days later move out, spend the night with a friend and then the next day move into the larger apartment, still without a kitchen. I was about to discover that small “inconveniences” or extra steps like this were to become part of my daily routine.
Teaching English as a second language was never something I aspired to do. But in order to stay in Taiwan, cover my costs and do my internship with Bignose Productions I needed both the income stream and the residency visa a teaching job would provide.
I signed up with ACI a teaching agency and got a job in Sanxing near Taipei 101 tower. My position was teaching K1’s (18mts to 4 years old) English through language immersion. Technically I was working illegally though I had a visa as a cram school teacher. Language kindergartens are illegal in Taiwan. My school fudged my visa application in order to hire me. This is pretty common practice. What is also ‘normal’ is fines for being late, fines for illness and not finding a replacement teacher, fines for sloppy dressing, fines for breaking your contract – it cost me around $ 1000 NZ to buy myself out of my contract – admittedly my school was hard core in this regard, but not exceptional.
What may have been different about my pre school English teaching environment was the level of pressure put on the students. My babies, and they were lovely, aged from 18 months to four, had three text books and three workbooks and I had to teach around forty pages of new vocabulary and concepts per month from just one of these text books. The level of comprehension was obviously different for the students who couldn’t speak Mandarin yet but there were huge expectations none the less. I found working in this environment incredibly stressful. I could see that for many of my students their childhood ended when they came to kindergarten. From that moment on, they would be subjected to regular testing and would have to do well and in the right way to meet the cultural expectations of Taiwanese society.
I taught for three to five hours a day and tried to make it as fun as possible while meeting the syllabus requirements. I made rollie pollies a physical response learning method to learn shapes and counting, I called story-time listening comprehension and singing became drilling/ rota learning, which my school was a huge fan of. Despite this there was a fear in my school. One little boy would vomit when he arrived at school each morning. And quite frankly I don’t blame him. When a student was told off by a Chinese teacher they were shouted at and made to stand on an A4 piece of paper with their hands over their head for up to 45 minutes. To do that to a three year old is beyond my comprehension and it began to sicken me. I literally began to feel ill and drained by mediating the environment as much as I could while meeting everyone’s expectations.
There are some that could validly argue that I should have left and changed schools but at the time I was in the middle of the visa process, I was trying to get settled, establish routine etc. And to be perfectly honest I felt compelled to make it work. I didn’t want to fail. I wanted to teach to pay my bills and then spend the rest of my time filming, learning production from Tobie and putting a documentary I envisioned together.
But despite significant progress being made in pre –production and getting some great experience under my belt I was feeling more and more drained. Aside from teaching, trying to connect socially was hard for me. I was cycling daily, doing yoga when I could, going to workshops and meeting a few great people but I wasn’t gelling. Part of this was my reluctance to go to clubs when I knew a lot of K or Ketamine (the predominant drug of choice) was floating around and that what I would call heavy drinking was integral to some circles I brushed with. I don’t generally like being around drugs or excessive drinking.
I feel I have to be very delicate talking about this aspect of Taiwan expat life as many of the people I met took drugs and got drunk on a regular basis. For me that kind of lifestyle is escapism and many of the people I met living that way from my perspective did not seem content. In fact they seemed unhappy, were searching for things in Taiwan they couldn’t possibly find and the drugs and drink were a coping mechanism. Many of the women I met talked about being sexually invisible in Taiwan and I could see the truth of that during my time there. Of course as in all things there are exceptions to this generalisation. But from personal experience and the conversations I had in researching for a documentary on what it was to be a western woman living in Taiwan the observation holds.
It was during these conversations lesbianism as a pragmatic choice for a relationship was mentioned. I brought this up among other friends and this perspective was agreed with as an “easier” option. It does seem surreal that in order to met a rather fundamental human need of companionship and physical connection changing sexual orientation was deemed a viable solution in the cultural environment of Taiwan.
Daily life became a struggle for me pretty early on. With dietary limitations I found food an ordeal, especially without a kitchen. I had experiences of ordering food and being totally ignored. It became a grind and eventually I gave up -living off night-market food and out of seven eleven. The language barrier also became increasing difficult though I tried to engage. I had a couple of bike accidents, one with my faced smashed against the pavement, stars swirling before my eyes. People stopped and stared but no help was offered. I was told that this was due to wanting keep face and also avoiding being sued. Which is crazy as my bike slipped on road marking paint slamming me into the curb then along the pavement. No one’s fault, it was just one of those things. A rather unfriendly, not necessarily pro foreigner doorman sent an important parcel back to the post office. It took days and finally in utter frustration me bursting into tears and being rescued by a lovely woman called Cole before the parcel was found and just before it was about to be sent back to New Zealand. My visa was a similar experience with a few extra hoops having to be jumped through and money paid out, as my school had not applied for all the paper work I needed to stay. I do have to say the Taiwanese health system in regards to getting visa is damn efficient.
At this point I was at the end of my tether, I was crying everyday, sleeping as much as I could so I didn’t have to engage with the shear force of humanity out my door. I have never felt so overwhelmed by a country before in my life. I did confide in people, say I am struggling but I’m not sure I was completely honest with them or myself with how hard I was finding it.
In writing this I am totally exposing myself to criticism and I accept that. But to those people I say I did my best. And I will say to anyone, definitely visit Taiwan there is some amazing dynamic stuff happening and some amazing people . But seriously consider what you want your life to be before choosing to live there. I thought by having a few friends in country some of the adjustment to living there would be mediated but I was wrong. I thought having had lived and travelled a fair amount it would be a similar experience. I was wrong. I am not hard enough to live in a culture like Taiwan’s nor do I have the ability to escape myself through business or alcohol and drugs. I failed at Taiwan, even after trying for four months. I failed and I’m okay with that.
I would like to give special thanks to Lesley, Angela, Prish, Tasha, Leonie and Tobie. Without you I wouldn’t have gotten through. I will always appreciate what you did for me. And to my other friends who helped me out and I shared a laugh with thank you.