Category Archives: Expat Life

What Would Make Taiwan Better?

I love living in Taiwan and, compared with my earlier days, find it very convenient. You can find almost anything that you want in Taiwan’s shops and restaurants. The following is my personal list of five things I wish were more common in Taiwan. My quality of life is great, but if these things were available it would be a smidge better, like putting chocolate sprinkles on ice cream.

1. Adult Sizes: I’m a big guy. I’m tall, broad of shoulder and chest, with an expansive stomach, long legs, big feet, and freakishly large head—everything is big. Nothing in Taiwan fits. It is very annoying to buy clothes or shoes. I would like it if when I saw something I like I would have a reasonable expectation of my size being stocked.

 When I first arrived my running shoes crapped out. I looked high and low for a new pair and couldn’t find anything in my size. A Taiwanese friend decided to help. She was convinced that there were plenty of larger sizes in Taiwan and I was just looking in the wrong places. She was wrong. We eventually found a pair of high-tops special ordered in a clownish size for a window display. My friend convinced the shop owner to sell them to me. They were truly ridiculous looking, but all I could find.

Similarly I have had problems finding clothes. I arrived with one backpack that I’d stuffed full of polo shirts and khakis, figuring those could be worn anywhere. After about a year I was heartily sick of polo shirts and desperate for a change. Of course I couldn’t find anything that fit. Again a Taiwanese friend tried to rescue me [they’re so kind]. She was also convinced I just didn’t know where to look. She was wrong. At that time there was a shop selling large sizes in Tienmu. She took me there. The clothes were indeed large. They were a motley collection of very worn 2nd or 3rd hand clothes, mostly jeans and t-shirts. Judging by the designs on the shirts, I’d guess a lot of the stock was left over from the 1970s. I believe someone had developed a business buying Salvation Army rejects and shipping them to Taiwan.

I could go on, but I’ll end with the most annoying size problem—the lack of adult size condoms. The condoms in Taiwan may not be as small as they are in Japan [important to Taiwanese, because they compare themselves to Japanese], but they’re really small. It took me by surprise at first. One day—early on—I found myself, through no fault of my own, in the middle of some hot party action, so I slipped down to 7-11 to get some protection. I chose a brand that is available in Canada. It all looked copacetic. Nope. It was like trying to put skinny jeans on a 300 lb. Walmart cashier. By the end, I was a sweating twitchy mass, sporting a pinched and claustrophobic member that had lost all interest in partying and just wanted to be set free. The discomfort is real. For years, every time I went back to Canada, I filled my suitcase with condoms. I guess this is an example of a good problem to have, but still a problem. Sometimes I’d meet someone new and be caught short, then I was on the phone to my brother, “Send a gross of Magnum condoms,… No…. No…. Don’t ‘get around to it,’ get your ass out of bed, go buy them, and FedEx them—now!” A real problem.

The internet has fixed this problem. I now buy clothes, shoes, hats, etc. online. It is not as nice as being able to try them on, but it works, and there is such a wide selection that I’m coming to prefer it. Yes, you can also get Western size condoms.

2. American Style Chinese Takeout: The Taiwanese all think I’m nuts, but Taipei desperately needs a Western style Chinese restaurant. A place you can go for Pineapple Sweet & Sour Chicken Balls, General Tso’s Chicken, Lemon Chicken, Sweet & Sour Spare Ribs, Sizzling Ginger Beef, Chop Suey, Fried [converted] Rice, and Fortune Cookies, this is every bit as much comfort food for Westerners as burgers and pub grub. When I travel back to Canada one of the first things I do is get Chinese food. A friend in southern China tells me his city has an American-Chinese takeout joint run by a Canadian. Taipei needs one.

3. Al Fresco Dining:   I like to eat and drink outside. There are a few places in Taipei that offer a decent patio, but they are few and far between. Often al fresco dining amounts to little more than a table and chairs that have been thrown out on the street to accommodate smokers. Some of the best patios in Taipei close when the manager decides that the weather isn’t appropriate. It is exasperating—too cold for Taiwanese is beautiful and balmy to a Canadian. I’m on a constant, and frustrating, search for places I can sit outside on a mild evening enjoying a meal, some wine, and a cigar.

4. Licorice: I love high-quality real black licorice. Salty or sweet, soft or chewy, it is all great. I would even accept Twizzlers or Red Vines in a pinch. Taiwan has embraced a lot of foreign foodstuffs, but the Taiwanese seem incapable of wrapping their minds around licorice. To them, it looks like and has the texture of a rubber tire, while tasting strongly of Chinese medicine. I have gotten some genuinely comical reactions from friends and students when I let them try a piece; bug-eyed, prune-mouthed, red-faced disbelief that it could possibly be a traditional Western candy. Consequently, it is virtually impossible to find licorice in a store in Taiwan. There used to be some privately run Western groceries in Tienmu that had Twizzlers. Now we have larger Western grocery chains that either don’t know enough to stock licorice, or don’t find it economical. I fill my luggage half full of licorice whenever I travel outside Asia.

5. Properly Contoured Toilet Bowls: Western  style toilets in Taiwan seem to be purposely designed to ensure you crap all over the bowl’s side. Toilets here lack wide watery bowls. Instead there is a relatively small amount of water at the bottom of a narrow bowl. Meaning that there is a lot of unprotected porcelain that’s likely to get spattered with waste. I don’t have this problem in any Western country I’ve been to, the bowl shape and water-to-porcelain ratio is design to prevent excessive messiness. Maybe Western butts are shaped differently than Taiwanese butts. I doubt that. I think, coming from a squat toilet tradition, the Taiwanese simply don’t realize that a toilet bowl can be designed in such a way as to limit side-of-bowl crapping.

None of these are terribly serious issues, but they’re what I’d improve if I were building the perfect Taiwan.

Hongers, Bangers and Mash: Hong Kong and the Asian-Based Expat

My wife and I just returned from a long weekend in Hong Kong. For a pair of Taipei-ites, Hong Kong offers a quick convenient getaway. The flight is a smidge over an hour and the multiple flights per day keep ticket prices reasonable. It is the Taipei equivalent of driving from Saskatoon to Edmonton for the weekend. Hong Kong has become a nice little escape – nothing more.  It wasn’t always that way. When I first began the expat life, Hong Kong was a lifeline, a beacon of westernization. A place I could go to find the Western products, food and amenities I craved.

I began working abroad in a place called Yeosu, on Korea’s southern coast, at the time little more than a fishing village. They had nothing. There was no Western food, not even snacks, fast food, or bread; nothing Western to eat. If you were inclined to cook for yourself there was no real hope of finding the necessary ingredients. Lettuce for a salad? Maybe on a good day. Steak or pork chops? No, any meat available was sliced paper thin for use in Korean soups and barbeque. Indeed there was a much wider availability of animal bones than meat. The bones were prized for making a healthful soup. There was a shortage of Western style drinks as well. Something as esoteric as a scotch and cigar, forget about it. Of course, there was no English entertainment, no books, no magazines, no TV, no movies; nothing in English. There was no way to buy clothes or other daily necessities. Deodorant? Sorry, not available in Korea.

I was in Korea in 1995-6. It is easy to forget what the world was like before countries joined together in the WTO. Now, even the most distant and disparate of countries are conducting trade, and the products of one country are, relatively, available within the other. We see this in our daily lives in the food we all eat. Cuisine has become much more international. (See: The WTO and My Waistline). Any moderately sized city is going to have restaurants serving a broad range of world foods. A scant couple of decades ago, that was not true.

The first time I came to Taiwan, in 1987, there was almost no Western food. The first McDonalds had just opened, and Jake’s Country Kitchen was operating in Tienmu. That was about it for authentic Western food. I recall being shocked that potatoes, hence french fries, were a rarity. I went to a Taiwanese owned, “American style” steak house, the fries cost a small fortune, and when the meal arrived, amounted to 5-6 hand julienned pieces of potato. I attributed the Taiwanese fondness for sweet potato french fries to the lack of real potatoes on the island. The notion that the Taiwanese might have liked sweet potatoes never occurred to me. Now Taipei is a foodie mecca, there are restaurants offering well-thought-out menus featuring food from virtually everywhere. For a veteran of the expat scene, the quality of the Western food available is stunning. Indeed, sometimes when I return to Canada, I find myself disappointed with the quality of the restaurants, as compared to what is available in Taiwan.

What the WTO didn’t deliver the internet did. The internet has brought a treasure trove of English entertainment and news worldwide. In addition, internet shopping allows the expat to buy virtually any product, in the desired size or shape.

When I first began my expat life in Korea, I used to fly to Hong Kong semi-regularly. I would hit Hong Kong like a whirlwind. I’d just go from fish & chip joint, to Irish Pub, to American style rib and burger joint, to Mc Donald’s in a near endless orgy of Western food intake, broken up sporadically by beers in Lan Kwai Fong, shopping for books, seeing some tv and buying enough stuff to (hopefully) survive Korea a while longer. When I first arrived in Taiwan, it was a similar situation, and Hong Kong was a place I looked forward to going for a touch of home. Things have changed. The availability of Western products and food in Taiwan beggars the imagination.

I still enjoy Hong Kong, but I don’t go there with the same need and yearning. My level of elation was once mirrored by the flight itself, coming into Kai Tak airport from the landward side, as the plane jinked left and right, I could gaze into people’s livingroom windows while the plane seemingly descended between apartment buildings. I would begin vibrating with excitement as the plane itself seemed to vibrate with Hong Kong’s frenetic energy. Now, arrival is a much more sedate affair as the plane slowly descends into the very large, modern, and rather antiseptic Hong Kong International Airport. It is still an amazing, vibrant and enchanting city, but it doesn’t quite make me chutter and soar as it once did.

Chinese New Year’s Eve & the Lovelorn Expat

Chinese New Year is fast approaching and this year, by God, you’re not going to spend the holidays drinking alone in your crap taofeng (套房), binge watching downloaded shows for days on end. You’ve done your time, paid your dues, and are ready to move from being a total outsider to a quasi-participating member of Taiwanese society. This year is going to be different. This year you’ve got a girlfriend, and she’s invited you for Chinese New Year’s Eve, or chuxi (除夕), dinner with her family. Things really seem to be going well with the girlfriend, meeting the family, a big step, but you’re ready.

Slow your roll, Stud. The default position for most Taiwanese girls is to keep their family out of their business, especially anything related to love or libido. So, why are you suddenly being invited to meet her family on the most special family night of the lunar calendar?

There are two likely possibilities. One, she is firmly placing you in the friend zone and doesn’t feel threatened by the prospect of introducing you to her family on chuxi as you are of little romantic consequence. If your Chinese is good enough, you might even get to listen to her constant reassurances to her family not to worry, that you’re just a friend. She felt sorry for you during the holiday season and wanted to let you experience a bit of Taiwanese culture. [Been there, heard that]. It can be perturbing to receive word that there’s not much future in the relationship in such an awkwardly public manner. If you’re on the same page as her, relationship-wise, then it is a great opportunity to experience something beyond the reach of a tourist. I’ve had some wonderful chuxi experiences in this way. Don’t discount pity—my dating life would have been so much poorer without it.

The second, less likely prospect, is that inviting you to chuxi is her way of indirectly informing her family that you are a serious romantic prospect and marriage is a possibility. (It’s all very Taiwanese). This is precisely how her parents will interpret your presence at their dinner table on chuxi, unless your girlfriend proactively puts a stop to such thoughts. Are you beginning to get a sense of what kind of pressure cooker the Taiwanese family can be? Personally, the status of my relationship with Venus (my wife) became much clearer when she invited me over to her folk’s place for chuxi and offered her family no excuses for my presence. It amounts to a public declaration that you’re in a deep relationship. Two months later we were engaged. If your chuxi dinner plays out this way, and you’re not at that point in your relationship—run!

If you have a girlfriend, and she considers herself to be your girlfriend, but it’s like most relationships, on a spectrum of complication and affection that is hard to define, don’t expect an invitation to chuxi. You are in that vast middle ground between just friends and marriage prospect. Relax and enjoy getting drunk alone on chuxi, your girlfriend is looking out for your best interests by excluding you.

I did have one serious girlfriend who invited me over to have chuxi with her family before she’d worked out our relationship status in her own mind. When we were dating, she oscillated between firm commitment and an inability to accept a foreign boyfriend. She was a traditional Taiwanese. During chuxi her interaction with her parents flawlessly reflected her ambivalence.

Chuxi has been a very accurate litmus test for my Taiwanese romances. I’m not sure if this works equally well for expat women, but guys if you have any confusion about your relationship, chuxi will give a lot of insight.

Studying Wei Chi in Taiwan

I keep trying to engage with Taiwanese society. As an inveterate learner, one way I attempt to be a part of the Taiwanese community is by taking classes. Ideally this would allow me to meet like-minded individuals, create friendships with locals, share our mutual interests and learn something. It never works out that way.

A few years ago I decided to take a Wei Chi  (圍棋). I was first introduced to Wei Chi, or Go, while in grad school by an exchange student from Beijing. I liked it—what little I understood of it. Go is played on a board with a 19×19 grid. Like in chess, two players face off across the board, one with black stones, the other with white stones. At the beginning of the game the board is empty. The black player begins by placing his stone on one of the 361 possible intersections on the grid. Then it is white’s turn to place his stone on one of the 360 possible remaining intersections. And so the game proceeds as the players alternate turns. The object of the game is to control territory. The rules are simple, the game play is infinitely complex, orders of magnitude more intricate than chess. I’ve always had a problem with the pure analytical thought in chess. The greater number of moves possible in a Go game means that pure calculation is not the preferred approach. Go has a greater emphasis on intuitive play based on experience and shape recognition that more suits my brain.

With my language skills finally at a level that I thought could handle a Go class, I signed up for a buxiban (補習班), cram school. I was primarily motivated by the goal of learning, but I had a secondary desire to develop new Taiwanese acquaintances. Even by my own low standards, Go class was a spectacular failure as a friendship making tool.

When I enrolled I was a neophyte and my first class was for absolute beginners. In class there was me, over forty years old, and my classmates, a dozen pre-kindergarten students. There were actually some advantages to this. Obviously it was the correct level for my game play. Also the teacher was partially teaching  his young charges Chinese. Go has its own specific, and pretty funky, Chinese terminology. My Chinese language instructors couldn’t teach it to me. The golden rooster stands on one leg (金雞獨立) turns out not to be in common usage among Chinese speakers. A quite large part of class was learning Go vocabulary, and since the students were so young the teacher included Taiwanese phonetics (ㄅㄆㄇㄈ) with the characters, which was helpful. Another advantage was that the students were too young to be intimidated by the hulking blonde Adonis amongst them. Their only experience of foreigners was their big fun-loving English buxiban teachers. With that as their entire lexicon of cross-cultural experience, there was no reason for fear.

Unfortunately, in every other way the class was awkward. Classes had a set formula; a lecture, followed by solving Go problems, and then students paired off to play a game. The age differential caused some issues for me. If I played a game with one of my classmates and lost, I’d feel bad because he was four years old. Of course, four year old boys are not noted for their subtlety. After stomping me across the board I was often treated to a pudgy little hand with four extended fingers being waved in my face. “Ha, ha. I’m only four years old.” That hurt. Conversely if I won—they’d cry, and I’d feel bad. It was a no-win situation, I was either a loser or a cur.

Finally I moved up into a class full of grade school aged students. There were some obvious benefits. The lectures had more strategic content and were more intellectually stimulating. My classmates never cried if they lost a game, though they were more likely to get pissed. Likewise, I didn’t find it nearly as annoying to lose to them; and they wouldn’t ridicule me if I did. There were other issues. The older students were intimidated. Some of it was a natural preteen desire to interact with people their own age. They also attributed to me an intellectual superiority that I simply did not possess over the Go board.

Occasionally a Taiwanese retiree will show up in this level of class. That might have worked well for me, but my class was all children. I eventually quit. I’d enjoyed learning Go, but I was the class pariah. At the same time high-quality English language Go content began being posted on the Internet. I didn’t need class as much. I am considering going back to Go buxiban, not so much for the Go study as for the Chinese language benefits. When learning a language, it is helpful to have an interest that allows you to use your target language in a natural setting, something outside the language classroom. It might be time to try it again.

Where Have All the Idiots Gone: Professionalization and ESL Instruction

If you haven’t figured it out, I’m an English as a Second Language (ESL) instructor. In the 21-odd years that I’ve done this, the job has changed a lot. Not in terms of the actual work. I still spend my days going, “This is a cow. Moo. Cow? Come on, you know, MOOOO!?!” But, the status of ESL instruction has changed. It’s been professionalized.

When I started, nobody chose to be an ESL teacher, you fell ass-end backwards into it. We were a merry band of losers, drug addicts, fugitives, degenerates, down on their luck international adventurers, and other assorted unemployables—the scum of earth’s four corners.

I can recall one Canadian who flew to Taiwan with dreams of becoming a gigolo. I met him in my hostel, where the more transient congregated in the evenings to drink. Though handsome enough, I suppose, he had one major problem, he lacked the skills to be a male prostitute in Taiwan. There are bars in Taipei where male prostitutes, or midnight cowboys, as the Taiwanese term them, ply their trade. Unfortunately for him, the midnight cowboy’s job is mostly to act as a host, encouraging women to drink while charming them with elegant Chinese conversation, singing and dancing. Think of a male geisha. He was hoping for more of a wham-bam-put-the-cash-on-the-table-Ma’am type interaction. So, of course, he supported himself as an English teacher while he waited for his man-whoring career to take off.

Another favorite was Pierre who I saw strolling down a beach in South Korea. At that time it was pretty uncommon to meet another foreigner, so I ran up to him hoping to have a conversation. Oh joy! English! Unfortunately, it turned out that Pierre spoke a nearly incomprehensible patois of French and English. He was from Quebec and had fallen on hard times in the economic depression that spread through Canada in the early 1990s. When I asked him what he was doing in Korea he said, as you might have guessed, that he was, “teaching zee Anglais,” in his truly “autrrrageous Franch accent.” At the time I didn’t see anything wrong with it. He needed a job, and who cares if a handful of Koreans ended up speaking English like half-wit Cajuns.

There was a clown car full of colorful characters populating my early days in Asia. They all survived by teaching ESL. No one regarded it as a profession. It was a stop-gap until they could get their lives together. Expat ESL teachers were a counter culture in the truest sense. We were outcasts from our home countries and existed on the peripheries of Taiwanese society, largely ignored by Taiwanese social institutions.

Those days of extreme color are fading. Not long after I started teaching in Taiwan, there began to be a change. More people washed up on Asian shores not because they were running from personal demons, but because they were economic refugees, and they came in droves. Asia is unrecognizable from my early days—there are foreign faces everywhere now.

These new immigrants were a different sort of person. Most of them had one or two degrees. They came because they faced underemployment in their home countries. Without paying any attention to the news, I knew how countries were fairing economically, simply by the people I met at the local watering hole. For the first few years that I was here, all you ever saw were Canadians. When the tech bubble burst, in came the Americans, then South Africans, and Russians, etc. These new teachers had invested a lot in their educations, their futures, and they brought with them a more professional attitude towards and enthusiasm for teaching. People began to think of their jobs as a career.

Some of them eventually went back home and set up professional TEFL (Teaching English as a Second Language) programs in Western universities. When I first heard of such a thing, I thought it was ludicrous. I could not imagine TEFL as a field of study someone would choose. I suppose in my heart ESL instruction will always be something you turn to when you’re down-and-out and running.

But, I have to admit that things have changed, not only for me personally, but also for the ESL teaching community. We have standards now. I now teach at a university. I’m constantly doing professional development. Gone are the days of trying to hustle up one-on-one students on the street, or scrambling from one buxiban (cram school) gig to the next, trying to keep the beer flowing. Most my friends from those early days are either gone—unqualified or unwilling to adapt—or have moved into respectable jobs at universities, international schools, public schools, or as full-time contract buxiban teachers. They now, like me, are constantly doing training, research, publishing, etc. The whole thing is beginning to smell like a profession.

I’m aware as I’ve progressed up the ESL food chain, I’ve naturally fallen out of touch with the more transient members of the ESL community. However, from what I see, it does seem like new arrivals are more trained and qualified. Partly because the Taiwanese ESL market has matured. There is less demand for English instruction, people are no longer being stopped on the street and offered employment simply based on their foreign face. The gold rush is over. Also, the government is paying more attention to foreigners, they have been rationalizing the work visa process. Admittedly, it is a work in progress, but it doesn’t seem like there are as many people here for a decade, or more, on a tourist visa. The attitude of immigration officials used to be, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, you must really love being a tourist here. Indeed, all law enforcement is more willing to deal with foreigners. I used to be able to get out of any petty legal kerfuffle by deluging the cop with a flood of quick-paced, incomprehensible English—not any more.

In general, professionalization has been a good thing. There are standards now. I don’t think Pierre would do well. Somehow I  find that sad, like earth’s bountiful tapestry became slightly less rich.  Doesn’t it warm your heart to imagine a group of Zydeco Koreans in an international business meeting laying down some Acadian patter? However, those standards also mean there are less stories of some serial pedophile, from whichever country, having been found teaching kindergarten here. That’s good. The counter culture thing was fun, but there is a better chance of integrating into Taiwanese society when your job doesn’t brand you as just slightly above thief, and below gangster. I know that I would have found it difficult to marry if there hadn’t been a professionalization of ESL instructors. Still sometimes I miss the old west feel of being one of just a few foreigners in a country, ignored by local government and law enforcement. Professionalization has brought a certain blandness. I don’t imagine I’ll ever again, as happened on a break from teaching in Thailand, watch as one of my co-workers uses his break time to try to arrange an arms shipment to a tribe of rebels fighting on the Burmese border. Maybe that’s a good thing. But, I miss it.