Jenna, an American expat living in Taipei, openly confesses to drinking too much coffee and alcohol (often together); but if it means she continues to share the kind of insight she's afforded our expat audience in her interview – we say, 'Keep up the good work, Jenna!'
In her spare time, which is unfortunately sparse, she maintains a blog about life as a female expat in Asia - Lao Ren Cha.
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: Hudson Valley, NY (USA), lived in Washington DC and Arlington, Virginia for several years
Q: Where are you living now?
A: Taipei, Taiwan (in the city)
Q: How long have you lived here?
A: Five years
Q: Did you move with a spouse/children?
A: No, but a friend, who became a partner who is my husband, moved here not long after I did.
Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: I moved because I had lived in China before and knew that I wanted to spend more time in Asia and work on my Chinese, but I didn't actually want to return to China itself (I didn't dislike living there, but it wasn't my favourite destination, I did have some bad experiences, and I wanted to try someplace new to see if I'd like it better). I wasn't fond of my job in the finance industry in the USA, and I was young and single and ready to try different things. I spent the first year teaching English, but soon after, I moved to corporate training.
About Taipei, Taiwan
Q: What do you enjoy most about Taipei? How's the quality of life in Taiwan?
A: I enjoy the friendliness of the people and the fantastic food the most – I love that there is a lot going on at street level, especially from a culinary perspective. There is a variety of delicious food everywhere and an abundance of street stalls.
The people are extremely welcoming and love to chat, especially if you can speak Chinese (but you'll still have friendly interactions even if you don't; most Taiwanese speak some English, and many speak it fluently or at least passably).
I love how I can hang out in a studenty area, go to a café, get a Belgian beer and soba noodles, or go to an up-scale modern area and eat in fancy restaurants or get drinks at the W Hotel. I can go to a bustling street or night market and get inexpensive but delicious and safe-to-eat food, buy Chinese herbs, visit a temple or just hang out and have coffee in an old neighbourhood. The cityscape seems a bit grim and dull at first, but you'll find once you really dive in that there is a lot of character. I really feel that this is one way in which Taipei is quite different from a Chinese city. I also feel that Taiwanese culture is unique, and while you may not absorb it at first, the differences grow on you over time.
I would also say that Taiwan, especially Taipei, is one of the best countries in Asia for foreign women to live in. There is sexism, but far less of it than in other parts of Asia. You will enjoy equality, both socially and professionally, more on par with a Western country. I also love the convenience of everything – taxis are cheap, the MRT and buses comprehensively cover the city, and it's easy to get what you need. There are convenience stores on every corner, and the streets are packed with options for shopping and eating.
Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home?
A: I have a few pet peeves, but they're minor. The pollution can be harsh, but not nearly as bad as in China. There is little respect for pedestrian movement – people hog sidewalks and don't let others through. Etiquette is also different: back home, if you RSVP to an event, you go to that event unless there's a good reason why you can't. Here, if it's an event with friends and your family wants to do something at the last minute, your local friends will cancel plans with you to go with their family. That's normal (so don't get offended when it happens), whereas back home, they'd say, "Sorry, Grandma, I have plans at that time. How about next week?". Family always trumps friends. I do miss that unspoken etiquette understanding.
I also miss certain ethnic foods such as South Indian (North Indian is available) and Ethiopian.
Finally, and worth noting separately, is that it is nearly impossible to find clothing and shoes for women in Western sizes, and even if you are average size or even slender back home, you'll likely be "plus size" here unless you are extremely petite. Clothing selection for Western women is limited, as is shoe selection (although stores exist for both) – bring more than you think you need of these items.
Q: Is Taipei safe?
A: Definitely. I would say that Taipei is one of the safest cities in the world. The crime rate is phenomenally low, street crime (pickpocketing, mugging etc.) is unheard of, and while there is crime, it is unlikely to affect foreigners. Women are especially safe, and you can walk around the entire city at any time of day or night without fear. Keep in mind, though, that I have lived in Washington, DC, so of course Taipei would seem like a haven of safety: locals will tell you to avoid areas such as Linsen North Road (a red light district) after 11pm, but compared to an American city there is little danger even in these areas.
About living in Taiwan
Q: Which are the best places/suburbs to live in Taipei as an expat?
A: It depends. For convenience, Taipei City is the best. You could live outside the city in an accessible suburb such as Xindian, Yonghe or Banqiao, but there's no reason to. Rent will be a bit cheaper, but Taipei is perfectly affordable (unless you want to buy a house – then you should look at the suburbs. Taipei real estate prices are fine for renting, but not for buying).
If you are young and want to be around foreigners in a more studenty crowd, live around Guting, Shida, Yongkang Street or Gongguan. If you are coming here for work and want to be in an area with a lot of expat professionals, try Shilin, Xinyi or Tianmu. I live in Jingmei, which is very local and has a great night market – I'd recommend it to anyone who doesn't want to be in a neighbourhood packed with foreigners. If you can find something, living in Wanhua can be a great local experience, especially around Ximending, Longshan Temple or Guiyang Street (it's the oldest neighbourhood in Taipei City). Once again, there is no reason to live in a suburb. There is also no reason to drive in Taipei, although getting a scooter is a popular choice.
For new expats, I recommend starting out in Taipei, but those looking to really dive into the culture would enjoy other cities/towns such as Hualien, Luodong, Puli, Lugang, Tainan and Donggang. You'll experience a lot more culture shock, and there aren't many job opportunities beyond teaching English, but if you did live in one of these places (or others), you would get a truly different experience. Other popular expat hubs include Xinzhu – I find it hard to get around, but the Science Park means there are jobs and there are also a lot of English teachers out that way; Kaohsiung, which is another large city and a great place to live; and Taichung, which has great weather but I can't say I would want to live there – there isn't a lot to do, and there is virtually no public transportation. Kaohsiung is another good option for studying Chinese or Taiwanese.
Q: How do you rate the standard of accommodation in Taiwan?
A: It's pretty good. Not as nice as Japan, but you get far more room for less money. Not as cheap as other Asian countries, but you get better facilities. In Taipei, prices range from about NT$7000-$10,000 for a room in a shared apartment to $15,000 up to the stratosphere for a private apartment (depending on newness, neighbourhood and amenities).
No matter where you live, there will be roaches, but otherwise, living space is generally clean, although they use a lot more cement in building here – which can be a shock. Another common issue is "wall cancer", which is when the paint on your walls (which is almost always white) bubbles and cracks thanks to the year-round high humidity. Make sure to buy a small closet dehumidifier (basically a desiccant that looks like a giant air freshener) for closets, or your clothes will get mouldy in the humidity as well.
Q: What's the cost of living in Taiwan compared to home? What is cheap or expensive in particular?
A: I would say that it's cheaper overall, about 30 to 50 percent cheaper than back home, even for most expat amenities such as foreign/Western food, and often even cheaper than that for local food.
You can eat a good meal at a street stand, small restaurant or night market for as little as 1 or 2 USD. You can cook at home, but you need not do so to save money. Fresh produce is wonderful, easily found at day markets and fantastically cheap.
Clothing is about the same price if you want anything of quality, but custom-tailored items are a lot cheaper (although not as cheap as Southeast Asia or India).
Q: What are the locals like; do you mix mainly with other expats?
A: I do not mix mainly with other expats, although I do have expat friends. Our social group is made up of about 2/3 Taiwanese, 1/3 expats – mostly graduate students as they're in my age group (I am 30). The locals are extremely friendly, but there are cultural barriers to friendship: often you'll find locals want to befriend foreigners but are too shy, not confident in their English or just not sure how. You'll meet some who just want to use you for English practice, but generally speaking, I find those to be in the minority.
Local friends have told me that most Taiwanese socialise within a small classmate/family/co-worker circle amongst themselves, and that's why they may seem shy around foreigners, but that is changing with the younger generations. Something that many expats have remarked upon, though I have not personally experienced, is the ease with which both male and female expats befriend Taiwanese women, but not so much the men (I do have Taiwanese male friends, but I appear to be the exception).
You will find, however, that your neighbours will be friendly, especially if you live in an area without many foreigners, and that locals will take steps to befriend you. Unlike with other experiences I've had in Asia, I find that once friends, your local social circle genuinely counts as "friends" – there is much less of that "you are a foreigner, you are not one of us" distance that expats complain about in other countries. In this way, Taiwan is much more Westernised.
As for expats, you'll find a huge gender disparity, which is unfortunate. Most expats are male, whether they are students, English teachers or professionals. There is a thriving expat scene for people of all ages, although it tends to be more vibrant at the two ends of the spectrum: young students and English teachers in their twenties, and older professionals and diplomats (you do get some crossover, but it is rare). The expats are generally friendly, although some single female expats do complain that they feel left out at times when the scene is men and their local girlfriends. I personally have not experienced this, but I am married and socialise in a mixed group.
Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends?
A: At first, no, because I didn't care for my co-workers and had not made local friends. As time went on, however, I made footholds and built up a great social group. Other expats have said that it's easy to go out and make friends in the expat community. I find friendships develop more slowly with locals, but once the initial friendships I made began to grow, I found myself very happy from a social perspective.
About working in Taiwan
Q: Did you have a problem getting a work visa/permit?
A: No. If you come with a company, they will take care of it, and it's not a problem at all. If you come on your own, start by getting a two-month tourist visa (sometimes this is easy, other times you get a lot of pushback and need to provide plane tickets, an itinerary, proof of employment in the USA and a bank statement showing you have sufficient savings for two months in Taiwan). A two-month visa can be transferred to a work visa with minimal problems.
A 30-day visa-free visitor's stamp cannot under any circumstances be changed. The work permit is pretty relaxed – you can have more than one job as long as both are noted on your permit, there are hourly work requirements, but the government rarely checks them, and you are free to take classes while on a work permit as long as you are working. A work permit is technically a residency permit, so there are no residency restrictions once you have it (the card you need is called an "ARC" or "Alien Resident Certificate").
Q: What's the economic climate like in Taipei? Is there plenty of work?
A: As for work, there is not as much as there used to be, but the job market for foreigners is doing better than for locals. If you come looking for a professional job, you'll have trouble, as most companies will bring over expat workers internally. If you want to teach English, you can generally find a job in time to transfer your visa to a work permit (which takes a few weeks and requires a health check in Taiwan). It's not as easy as it used to be, but it can be done. A limited number of non-teaching jobs do pop up for the independently relocated expat, but they're hard to come by (editing, translation, voice recording, and occasionally an office or reporting job will surface).
Q: How does the work culture differ from home?
A: This would take aeons to answer properly. The work hours are much longer – fourteen-hour days are not unheard of. The boss has much more sway, and there is a culture where if the boss is talking, you listen (very different from back home where if the boss is talking, it's because you're having an interactive discussion). Workloads are heavier, and more is expected; there is less vacation time, and people seem to live to work far more than they would back home. I would not recommend a local-style office job for a foreigner unable to handle this – I know I couldn't!
Q: Did a relocation company help you with your move?
A: No – it is not that hard to move to Taiwan on your own. It is fairly easy to rent an apartment, search for a job etc. here.
Family and children
Q: Did your spouse or partner have problems adjusting to their new home?
A: Not at all, but he was living in Korea before he moved to Taiwan so we could try out a relationship (we are now married).
Q: What are the schools in Taiwan like? Any particular suggestions?
A: Local schools will provide a good education, but your children will be worked to the bone attending them, and the emphasis is more on memorisation and test preparation. They are incredibly competitive. There are a range of international schools that can be hard to get your child into, which have a more Western-style teaching method.
Q: How would you rate healthcare in Taiwan?
A: Excellent! I can not praise healthcare in Taiwan highly enough. Hospitals and clinics are modern and professional, and most doctors speak English. Everything is affordable. It is really a great advantage to living here. Medical care is more available than in Europe and Canada (very short or no waiting time, often no need for an appointment) and extremely affordable thanks to the government plan, which all foreign workers are required by law to participate in (your employer will set that up – premiums are not expensive at all).
Q: Is there any other advice you like to offer new expat arrivals?
A: Come prepared to deal with two things – heat and bugs. Your apartment will have roaches. There is no way around that. You will sweat yourself silly in the summer months and often in spring and fall as well.
Be prepared for roads swollen with legions of scooters, making things like outdoor dining unpleasant. Definitely take advantage of temple parades and festivals and try to catch a few during your stay here and learn more about the culture behind them. You don't need to know Chinese to live in Taipei, but try to learn some anyway, simply for enrichment.
Finally, be as extroverted as you can: many Taiwanese can be quite shy, and while they'd be delighted to befriend a foreigner, many don't quite know how to go about it (fortunately, not everyone is like this – it does not apply to individuals). If you find it hard to make friends, take the initiative to make it happen yourself, even if you start out just meeting with a language exchange partner. For women – bring things like bras, shoes and lots of clothes as it will be hard to shop here unless you are petite and not too curvy.
~ Interviewed June 2011