In a previous post (here) I give a broad explanation of my path to becoming an expat, but why choose Taiwan, after all the choices were virtually limitless.
Asia was booming at that time and a natural draw. I had a familiarity with the region, along with an interest in the history and culture. That background gave me enough cultural sense to be relatively comfortable. If I’d randomly chosen to go to Africa—I wouldn’t have had a clue. I understand the appeal of thrusting yourself into the total unknown, but when living abroad, an ability to contextualize your experiences increases the likelihood you won’t bounce back home in a couple months, emotionally exhausted from the weirdness. So it was Asia for me, I just needed to choose a country.
I had just finished a one-year teaching contract in Yeosu (여수시), South Korea. It was a thoroughly rotten experience. That was around 22 years ago, and Korea had a strongly xenophobic culture. It still does, though expat friends stationed there tell me it has improved a bit. If you’re going to stay in a country long term, it is nice to be allowed to fit into the society to some degree. At least there should be a chance of forming genuine friendships and even finding a girlfriend. Life without these basic social contacts with locals is a reality for many expats around the world. It takes a heavy toll on their emotional equilibrium, and can make them extremely crusty. I wanted to avoid any external factors that would create a cycle of negativity and make me more irascible than my basic nature dictates. I knew that I needed to find a country where the population wouldn’t ostracize me as a matter of principle.
Korea was out. Japan was eliminated for the same basic reason. Though perhaps not as overtly xenophobic, Japan is still very insular, and I feared a repeat of my Korean experiences. I had a job offer to teach at a university in China. I was likewise concerned about anti-foreigner sentiment there, but ultimately rejected the offer for financial reasons. I had a student loan debt that needed to be serviced, and the salary, though lordly in China, wouldn’t make the monthly payments. I considered Thailand, a country I love—that is certainly foreigner friendly—but rejected it for the same reason, not enough money. Other South-East Asian nations posed the same practical problems. I needed a certain level of earnings.
Thankfully there was Taiwan—the perfect fit. It was possible to make enough money to live, plus service my loans. The people are relatively open compared to other North-East Asian countries. I had been to Taiwan before, and liked it. Plus, I had some friends from Saskatoon already living in Taiwan, so there was a bit of a social network already established.
That’s how I ended up in Taiwan; but, why stay for 20 years? There have certainly been opportunities to move on. The expat community in Taiwan is unusually stable. Many choose to stay permanently. It’s unusual. In most countries there is a higher turnover of expats. I can’t speak for others, but for myself the primary reason is the people. They are open and friendly. At the simplest level, interactions with strangers on the street are handled with kindness and patience. During the early stages of my life here, this alone was enough to predispose me to like Taiwan. The fact that when lost, or confused, I could count on passersby to go out of their way to help was wonderful. The fact that the aid was invariable delivered with patience and a smile was icing on the cake.
That the Taiwanese’s warmth extends into deeper relationships is important. They are open to establishing friendships with foreigners. The friendships can be genuine and deep on both sides. I have found in other Asian countries that native-foreigner friendships often have a look-at-my-new-pet-white-guy cache for the Asian that precludes meaningful friendship. At work youare the company’s Caucasian, paraded out on formal occasions to give the company face as an international player. At the interpersonal level you can find yourself fulfilling virtually the same function for a group of guy friends out for the night. Hey chicks, look at us. We’re so international and sophisticated. See—we got a whitey. Or, when dating, you can become the white eye-candy giving face to some girl. (It took me a long time to figure this one out, somehow the fact that I was functioning as arm-candy didn’t instantly occur to me). Don’t get me wrong, there’s a little of this in Taiwan. However, it is not so prevalent as to preclude genuine interpersonal relationships.
Taiwanese society isn’t so overtly racist as to use moral suasion to prevent inter-cultural relationships. First a little anecdote, when I lived in Korea I had a coffee date with a charming Korean girl. When she got home in the afternoon, her father was waiting for her at the door. Someone had seen her downtown with “that foreigner” [I was the only one in Yeosu at the time] and phoned him at work. He took the rest of the day off and rushed home to confront her. Needless to say, that ended that. Fathers can play havoc on your dating life anywhere. Taiwanese fathers, and Canadian fathers, can be real bastards, totally unsympathetic to your sexual needs. However, in Taipei it’s hard to imagine friends or neighbors ratting out a girl to her family for dating a foreigner. They don’t have the concept that there is a social and moral responsibility to preserve the flower of Taiwanese womanhood. As weird as it sounds, that very notion exists in much of Asia.
These considerations were very important factors in my decision to stay in Taiwan. If you’re going to live long term in a foreign country your social needs should have a chance of being fulfilled. You need friendship, you need to be able to date, perhaps marry, start a family, etc. This is why I’ve stayed in Taiwan. Taiwanese society gives foreigners the chance to feel at home, what you do with that chance is your own responsibility. Of course there are other smaller reasons to continue to live here. Taiwan is very comfortable. There is lots of foreign food, Western entertainment, access to English entertainment, it’s relatively unpolluted compared to many other regions of Asia, has good public transport, jobs, etc. But, the real reason I’ve remained is the people—I love the Taiwanese.