It’s been almost 2 years since I got on a plane and landed in Taiwan. Unlike most foreigners, I’ve been living and working in a small town this whole time with very little exposure to city life. I’ve been to Taipei and Kaohsiung maybe 3 or 4 times and Taichung once.
Life in small town Taiwan is different (for a westerner) than life in one of the major cities. Besides being slower paced and more laid back, there are other rammifications one should consider if thinking about setting up shop in a small town. Here are a few things that I’ve been through over the last couple of years that may be of help for a newcomer
Not knowing Mandarin, I was prepared for being in a place where everything looked like incomprehensible gibberish. I was also prepared for not being able to communicate properly. These are the obvious obstacles that one thinks of.
What I didn’t take into account was the fact that I would really start missing English. For the first time in my life, I didn’t have what’s taken for granted back home – day to day conversations. It may seem like a small thing, but over time, I really started to miss just shooting the shit with people. Sharing jokes based on commonly known pop/political/social culture. Using slang. Making a reference to something and having people get it. English started to become a sorely missed friend. I still remember the first conversation I had with a native speaker here – it was a much needed oasis in a large desert.
I’m all for immersing yourself in a new culture and learning new languages etc, but I found that, for me, being deprived of using my language started to really grate on my nerves, and it may be the same for you.
Since foreigners are few and far between in a small town, you are stuck with what you get. Unlike the cities, where you can choose your friends, if you want the company of westerners in a small town, you don’t really have that much of a choice. People that you would normally not associate with have to be included in your friend circle because there is simply no one else. I got really lucky here, because with just one or two exceptions, most of the people I met are quite nice. Again, not necessarily people I would have chosen to hang out with back home, but the synergy worked, and now some have become very good friends.
The other side of the coin is that if you can’t get along with people, just wait a year – most will leave and there will be a fresh crop coming in. But this also leads to another dilemma – you may get close to people who will be leaving in a year. Akin to Fight Club’s single serving friendships.
Something else I should mention here is what I term “fringe people”. It’s known that some people come here because they are outcasts back home. Weird personalities, inability to fit in socially – whatever – these “fringe people” are also pushed out of the foreign western circles in the cities and may move to the smaller towns where they are more comfortable. I’ve come across a few here – generally harmless, but quite eccentric.
All this is moot if you speak the language – then you have the ability to make Taiwanese friends and learn much more about life here.
Not really a problem for me, but enough of a problem for people I’ve met, it’s worth mentioning. While the big cities offer western food, you will be hard pressed to find it in a small town. And if you do, it will be a poor imitation of what you’re expecting. Dietary norms are so vastly different here – for example, a common breakfast food is called “Fan tuan” – a rice ball containing shredded pork, bamboo, a bit of fried bread and mushrooms. For someone who HAS to have eggs and bacon – this is a problem.
When you do find western food, it won’t necessarily be what you’re expecting. I haven’t yet found a decent steak in town, and the burgers are total crap. Thankfully, I much prefer the local food, and only get cravings for western food once in a while. That being said, the McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut etc. – all serve the same tasting, artery clogging delights that one is used to back home.
This is a major cause of incompatibility for a lot of foreigners in small towns. Western style bars are non-existent for the party crowd, there are no gyms for the fitness inclined (seems like Taiwanese don’t like to lift weights – much preferring hiking or cycling for exercise), no massive department stores for shoppers, no large movie theatres etc etc. Since a lot of us take these things for granted, it’s a bit of a bummer when you can’t find ANY of it.
You have to find other ways to amuse yourself, or there is the danger of degenerating into a nightly drunk because you simply have nothing to do. While I did take that road for a while, I managed to develop an interest in other things. Spent a lot of time at the beach, picked up surfing, started learning Chinese, and started writing this blog.
Also, get a scooter – this will improve your quality of life immensely, and give you access to a lot of the natural beauty surrounding you – usually on the outskirts of town. Scooters are super cheap and easy to get on the road. Plus they are a riot to drive!
Slowly, my paradigms of recreation changed, and now I find I barely have time to keep up with all the things I want to do. The beginning might be hard, but the key here is to start doing different things to amuse/entertain yourself.
This is definitely the MOST important thing that may need re-adjusting if you want be able to hack it in the beginning. My first couple months were very difficult. Everything was totally different and I couldn’t even communicate to learn how and why things were the way they were. It’s not that difficult to brush off minor things, but when they continue and add up, it takes a toll – you may not even be aware of it. And one day, you might hit boiling point. It’s here that having a strong, positive attitude is invaluable. I’ve met people who have come here, stayed for less than a year and then packed it in and gone home, hating Taiwan. This is very unfortunate because once you get over the initial hump, Taiwan has a lot to offer.
Sometimes I just pretended that I was in a movie and suspended my disbelief. I put all my notions and ideas about what I thought was right and normal in a box and tried to let what was going on wash over me. Didn’t matter that I didn’t understand any of it, I just passively let myself get used to it. Keeping your chin up is a must if you are in small town Taiwan for the first time.
I will be moving to Kaohsiung (Taiwan’s second largest city) next month. After 2 years of countryside living in Taiwan, I’m looking forward to experiencing city life. Should be a study in contrasts, and I’m thinking I will have more stories just because life will get busier.
As for small town Taiwan, it was a great run, and I had a lot of fun. I’m sure I’ll miss the slower pace, but looking forward to the excitement of the city. For those of you that have lived in Taiwan for a while, feel free to add any pointers to small town living in the comments. The better prepared one is for life in Taiwan, the more they will appreciate what this country has to offer.