I recently read a blog article giving, undoubtedly, sound advice on surviving as an expat in Asia. It had the typical bromides you’d expect; tips on fitting in, how to engage with your new cultural milieu, an admonition to learn the language—earnest and noble-minded advice. I’m going to go a different way.
The Salty Egg’s six tips for the newly arrived.
1. Hone a Vacant Disposition: I belong to several online discussion groups for Taiwan-based expats. One theme underlying many of the questions to these groups is the loss of control over one’s life when forced to do things a certain (Taiwanese) way. The feeling is made more acute because most cannot fathom the logic. Normally this happens when interacting with Taiwanese institutions, though sometimes it happens at the interpersonal level. This can create a feeling of being tossed around by forces that can’t be seen, understood, or predicted.
A recent example was someone asking the group why her buxiban would demand a photocopy of her bank account booklet, even though they had already been making salary deposits into that account for months. Why were they asking her to give up control of some of her personal financial data? A logical question.
You’ll drive yourself nuts asking logical questions in Taiwan. It is better to embrace the lack of rhyme or reason. It is the way it is, because it is the way it is. The way things are done here are not obligated to make sense to you. Over time you may come to see the logic behind things, a few longterm expats cross that rubicon. But, as a survival technique, it’s best just to do what’s required without worrying too deeply about the whys. Being firmly in control and micromanaging your life might be a survival skill back home, not so much here. Rather than trying to be on top of everything, it is better to just let go and drift along with the Taiwanese flow. You’ll keep your sanity much longer.
2. Don’t Think You’re Taiwanese: When I first arrived in Taiwan I was met by a friend who’d been living here for 12 years and on that first day he gave some tips on surviving in Taiwan. Most of it I’ve forgotten. I’m sure it was mostly crap. However, he did say one thing that stuck with me and I think is valuable advice.
He’d observed that the happiest foreigners were those that remembered they’re foreigners. Conversely, the most miserable were those who expected to be accepted as Taiwanese. The notion of immigration, accepting foreigners and giving them a route to citizenship, is Western. It is very rare for an Asian country to allow a foreigner citizenship. (That’s what makes us expats rather than immigrants). Race, ethnicity, culture, and nationality are muddled together in the Asian mind. If a white person were to say they are Taiwanese, the Taiwanese knee-jerk response would be to laugh. Ideas of race and culture are inextricably linked with national identity.
Some of these long-term expats put incredible effort into learning Chinese, Taiwanese, and the culture; while contributing to Taiwan’s social and civic life, and yet ultimately will never be accepted as Taiwanese. It is paradoxical that among this small high-functioning group of expats, so knowledgeable about Taiwanese life and culture, are some who fail to appreciate the obvious truth—they are not Taiwanese. If you have a chance to drink with one of these real oldtimers, sometimes the resentments float to the surface on the whisky vapors.
Try to fit in as much as you can, but don’t lose sight of what you are.
3. Don’t Go Native: There is a long literary tradition in Europe celebrating the European imperialist who goes native. They were seen as pariahs that abandoned their civilizing mission and sold out the values of their home country, but also as romantic figures who opposed civilization’s grinding advance, while honoring the noble savage. These outcasts and their mythical Eden captured the nineteenth century’s fancy. It’s amazing such an archaic archetype still lights imaginations.
My first international working experience was in a small fishing community in South Korea. I was totally isolated from foreigners, Western food, or any type of Western culture (books, movies, TV, etc.) In my youthful naïveté I thought that seclusion would be a positive, a chance to really experience the culture. Go native. I was wrong. It was too much for this neophyte to cope with.
The drive to go native is not so common in Taipei as other places I’ve lived. Since Taipei is a global center, it would be hard and possibly meaningless to go native here. However, in some rural areas around Taiwan you can remove yourself from the outside world.
I’m not totally against going native, it’s my retirement plan. However, arriving straight from your home country and expecting to prosper in some remote community is unrealistic. Before you decide to walk into the mountains and go all Colonel Kurtz you should hone your cultural chops in one of Taiwan’s cities.
4. Don’t Shun Your Culture: I have been most guilty of this one. It can take many forms. I have seen expats try to reduce their engagement with other expats to the bare minimum, preferring to completely immersed themselves in Taiwanese friendships. [I did this one]. It’s not really a good idea. There’s a vibrant expat community in Taiwan. You should enjoy the rapport. You accomplish nothing ostracizing yourself.
A similar mistake I made was refusing to eat any Western food in my first few years here. I had the idea that a person’s ability to adapt to a culture was reflected in his ability to adjust to the food. All I accomplished was to deny myself some good food. My asceticism proved nothing.
Similarly, I have seen students of Chinese refuse to speak anything but Chinese, even with other foreigners. So you have the ridiculous situation of two English speakers, capable of engaging English conversations, reduced to banal Chinese conversations. Whatever infinitesimal amount this speeds Chinese learning is not worth the loss of decent conversation.
By shunning your culture you’re not integrating quicker, you’re just making yourself miserable.
5. Don’t Unconditionally Trust Your Pillow Dictionary: Definitely get yourself a pillow dictionary. (I’m assuming I don’t need to explain this wonderfully eloquent French phrase). They will aid your transition into Taiwanese culture. They can explain many things, assist with daily life, and help you learn the language, hence the name.
Of course, as they are teaching you about Taiwanese culture, they are also passing along their own beliefs. As a newbie, you may not be aware that you’re being indoctrinated into a certain view of Taiwanese society. In my early days I received a pro-China, pro-KMT, anti-Taiwanese culture view of Taiwan from the people I first met. Those attitudes were more common at that time. I had to uncover the biases through my own research.
It is in the area of language acquisition where my pillow dictionary proved most faulty. My first long-term Taiwanese girlfriend only spoke Chinese. The onus was on me to bring my Chinese up to scratch. I succeeded admirably! It wasn’t very long before I was going whole days speaking only Chinese. There was little I couldn’t express in my new language. I was rightly proud of myself.
It wasn’t until we broke up that I discovered there was a problem. When I started trying to engage with other Chinese speakers, I became less comprehensible. I couldn’t understand what was wrong with them. They didn’t seem to understand Chinese at all. It turns out I had spent a couple of years speaking pidgin Chinese. Basically I was speaking English using Chinese words. My girlfriend understood and considered that to be good enough. I was shocked to find out I wasn’t really speaking Chinese.
When it comes to your pillow dictionary trust but verify.
6. Don’t Try to Change Taiwan: When I moved here, I accepted that I’d always be an outsider, and as such have little ability to change Taiwanese society, culture, or people. Where this is most often a problem in my life is Taiwan’s institutional racism. My solution is just to let it roll off my back, accept it, and move on. Choosing not to rail against these problems allows me to retain my equanimity. That’s my personal choice.
I think everyone, including immigrants/expats, have the right to try to improve their lives. I really respect some of the expats I know who are fighting to change the injustices they see. Sometimes it takes a toll on their emotional equilibrium. If you decide to try to change Taiwan, be prepared for frustration. High-context cultures in particular change from within, and you’re from without. I prefer to maintain my contentment, even if I have to ignore a few things along the way.