Trista di Genova (and NTU students), The Wild East
The following article is an expansion on class discussion with National Taiwan University students. The topic was “What to tell your ABC cousin about moving to Taiwan.”
What to bring: Bring your own, preferably laptop computer because the operating system is different in Taiwan, and it will be hard to get one in English. However, the electricity is the same current as in North America, so no adapter is needed for any of your appliances. It rarely gets cold enough for a heavy jacket, so just bring one heavy, one light jacket if you’re here for a year. Bring nice clothes for formal wear, because you probably won’t find much in the way of high fashion or style here! Don’t bother bringing a printer, you can print out documents at convenient stores or university copy shops, cheaply and conveniently.
Accommodation: If coming to teach, the school often helps you find accommodation; enquire about this in advance. Universities often provide dorm housing; employers often do, too. Otherwise, there’s tealit.com, taiwanease.com, and sites locals use, like 591.com.tw, which usually also have English functions.
Chances are your new pad won’t be furnished (and in fact might be like camping in a concrete bunker), so be prepared to buy some stuff from IKEA. Also at Chinese New Year, usually in January/February everybody throws out nice furniture, like heavy rosewood chairs and glass tables, so be on the lookout for huge piles of great free stuff during that time!
Transportation from the airport. Have someone pick you up if possible, if this is your first time. If not, or if you’re game to do it yourself, there’s a new (well in the past year or so) High Speed Rail that will take you from the airport to Taipei Main Station in 20 minutes! Otherwise, if you want to take the bus, it’s about an hour/hour and a half depending on traffic. From Taipei Main, the MRT system (metro) can take you around Taipei, as well as south to Hsintien/Mucha, west to Banciao, east to Nangang and Academia Sinica, north to Beitou or Tamshui. Near the train station is the bus station, which can take you anywhere else in Taiwan.
Try to learn some Chinese beforehand. You’ll be thrown into a totally alien environment! But you can get a head start, anyway. Before you get here, study and listen to language tapes or watch Chinese movies (one favorite is Ang Lee’s “Eat Drink Man Woman”)! If you want to register for a Chinese class, the main universities for this are NTNU (‘ShiDa’), NTU (‘TaiDa’), although there are other Chinese language institutes. They apparently closed a loophole now – you have to actually show up and pass the class! The language schools are about US$300 for two or three months. [ed. Warning: my personal experience was a disaster with CLI – the teacher spoke/understood NO ENGLISH and students expected to write, read and speak Chinese after a week! Poo!]
Or, save your money and do language exchanges, through TEALIT.com, or Taiwanease.com, or just people you meet here – loads of lovely Taiwanese people want to ‘make friends’ and are happy to introduce you to the culture and language. “LE’s” are a great way to learn Chinese and meet new friends – of course it’s also notoriously a way for (mostly) foreign males to (finally!) find a girlfriend. Be careful, though!
Finding a job. In recent years, there’s been a deluge of especially Canadian teachers (thanks to ‘Teach in Taiwan’, a t.v. show); also South Africans fleeing the economic climate back home; and Americans fleeing from their student loans. About a decade ago was the heyday for teaching in Taiwan, good salaries and lots of jobs.
Now it’s reportedly more difficult to get a full-time job in Taiwan, and the salary has stayed about the same, about $600-650NT/hour or less in the chain cram schools like Hess. So it’s been US$20/hour for the past decade, even declining a bit (although schools still manage to make good profits!). Since Taiwan has a negative birthrate, there are fewer kids now and as well as the glut of foreign teachers. The worldwide economic decline, fortunately, hasn’t seemed to impact Taiwanese parents’ desire to teach their kids English, so this is something in your favor.
Overall, job prospects – and the quality of life – here in Taiwan is still superior to other places like China, where you may find a job making US$1500/month but you’ll have to work like a dog for it. Be forewarned, Taiwanese employers overwork even their own local employees so they tend to tack on extra, unpaid ‘office hours’ and unpaid ‘sports days’ etc to get the most out of ‘their’ foreign teachers. It’s difficult to combat this tendency, but try to make it clear beforehand that your school should compensate you for any of these school-related activities. They’re apt to try to get you to work on Saturdays, too!
It’s possible to arrange for an employer to apply for your work permit by the time you arrive. Otherwise, it’s fairly easy to land in Taiwan, then find a job and employer to apply for the work permit, but you’ll have to leave the ‘country’ again on the much-hated visa run to change your status. So if you decide to find a job when you arrive, try to get as long a visa as possible before coming. Canadians seem to have good fortune with this! Employers usually don’t pay for this visa run, so factor that in to your expenses.
Most people go to Hong Kong for their virgin visa run, because it’s cheapest (about US$300), but there are actually much cheaper flights to the Philippines, costing about half as much (check flights online). It seems a pity to waste a trip just for a visa run, so try to stay a few days in a more interesting destination – maybe Bangkok, Thailand, or Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia; or even Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos. [ed. Hong Kong, to me at least, is one of the most boring places in the world, except for maybe Singapore. Visa office personnel are notoriously nasty in Hong Kong, another good reason to avoid this soulless, concrete hellhole. It’s enough to watch the movie “Chinese Box” rather than visit this place in person.]
Learn about Taiwanese culture. Taiwan is an amazing mixture of Chinese, Taiwanese (a majority came from Fujian Province on the mainland about 200 years ago), a small percent of dominant Hakka people and indigenous peoples. Taiwan is known in anthropology to have the richest diversity in Austronesian cultures and languages. LINK The differences between these cultures you will eventually learn are between that of “city kids” and “mountain people” (a term which in Chinese has a derogatory connotation… but why?) who are closer to nature and laid-back. Seek out aboriginal people and you will find out for yourself. [They’re supercool!]
Taiwanese laws. You can find discussion groups and forums about many of these issues on Taiwanease.com, or FORUMOSA.COM.
Bring your money and all necessary paperwork. If you plan to study at a university, or even if you don’t yet, get in order your diplomas, certifications, transcripts and letters of recommendation. The buxibans (cram schools) have an annoying habit of making you open a bank account with their bank to save them expenses, but it can be an advantage to have a Taiwan bank account and keep your domestic one. There have been many reports of difficulty transferring money into Taiwan, and difficulty shopping online with Taiwan credit cards [ostensibly the reason is given that Taiwan is blacklisted internationally, strange since it’s such a powerhouse, so it’s probably also due to China’s interferences]. To avoid exchange fees, withdraw money in the local currency from your bank using your ATM card, anywhere in Taiwan and in most places in the world.
Probably the most efficient way to find a place to live is to wander around a neighborhood where you’d like to live, spot ‘to rent’ signs in windows, and call the numbers. [This is one situation where having a Taiwanese friend along is invaluable! One of my Taiwanese friends found a place to live this way, in 6 hours!]
Explore on your own. Go ahead and get lost walking around. Take that leap of faith, for the sake of adventure! Visit neighborhood shops and stores, bakeries, breakfast shops, noodle shops, night markets. Chances are you’ll be invited to chat or to share some tea, probably even a roadside barbecue if you’re lucky! It’s all part of the serendipitous charm of the place.
Shilin Night Market was designated the most popular tourist site in Taiwan! Check the MRT tourist map – it shows what touristic landmarks are at which stops. Some interesting things for all newcomers to visit: Beitou for its hotsprings and Yangminshan National Park is extremely visitor-friendly, and accessible by buses going throughout the area and has excellent hiking opportunities; Hsimenting (Ximen District) is where all the young people hang out and shop for trendy things. The business district near Taipei City Hall has the more brand-conscious equivalent in upscale boutiques. Tamshui’s boardwalk area is a great place to forage for food and gifts and catch a sunset. Fulong Beach and Daxi Beach, or Baishawan (‘white sand bay’) are all within an hour of central Taipei by MRT and bus. For Chinese culture buffs, the National Palace Museum is of course a special place, since it’s the largest collection of Chinese antiquities in the world; thanks to Chiang Kai-shek, who had them transported to Taiwan when the KMT fled in 1949, an amazing story in itself.
Specialty foods. Besides the now oh-so-famous beef noodle soup (牛肉面, ‘neo ro mian’), handmade dumplings with ginger or oyster omelettes, and steambuns (包子, ‘baozi’), there are too many to list. So go to a night market to sample them all for yourself, and here again you’re lucky, for it seems like there’s a night market in every neighborhood in Taiwan!
It may be temptingly convenient at first, but don’t get stuck eating 7-11 processed foods (although they’re pretty damned good aren’t they!). And in the xiao chi (小吃, eateries) and restaurants, you’ll soon get over the basic fare of shrimp fried rice or simple noodle dishes. Learn more food words so you can order new things. [I like a simple egg with basil on rice, or eggplant (茄子, jiezi’) on rice!] You gotta experience the breakfast shops, too, with danbing (蛋餅, ‘egg-cake’), radish cake (蘿蔔糕, robo-gao), soymilk (豆漿, do-jiang) with fried breadstick (油條, yo-tiao). Sooner or later you’ll notice the horseshit-like smell coming from a street vendor – that’s stinky tofu (臭豆腐, ‘cho do-fu’). It’s Taiwan’s specialty! Love it or (try to) ignore it!
There is an uncountable number of Taiwanese yumyums. Highlights of Taiwan’s culinary awesomeness include: hotpot restaurants (huo guo), tepanyaki restaurants (you choose a meat or fish, seafood and it’s cooked on an iron grill before you), and a growing number of Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and Thai restaurants (my personal fave).