A Few Oddities about Life in Taipei
Friends and family often ask me what life in Taiwan is like. Sure, there are so many things I love about this place, from the mountains to the rugged coastline to the gentle Taiwanese people. But the truth is, like any place, there are upsides and downsides to calling this place home. I’ve had plenty of days where I absolutely love living here, excited by every little oddity, and there have also been plenty of days where I’ve felt pangs of homesickness for the comforts and connections of sweet home California. (Or a handful of other places around the globe which have earned a special place in my heart as home away from home. 🙂 )
After nearly nine months of residing on this crazy little island that packs a punch, I’ve noticed myself getting used to things that originally surprised me and seemed so odd and foreign. So, I’ve decided to share a few first-hand perils about life in Taipei from a foreigner’s perspective.
1. You are a foreigner, and you will never forget that. My blond hair and green eyes immediately puts me in the “obviously not from here” category. Although locals are very kind and welcoming, you consciously roam around as a perpetual out-of-place foreigner. This can also come in handy during times that I’m doing something wrong (i.e. the illegal act of chewing gum on the subway, or driving a car without an international license, I’m well aware I can always twirl my “yellow” hair and play the dumb foreigner card if caught).
2. That brings me to the fact that you cannot chew gum, candy, take a sip of water, coffee, or anything of the sort on the subway. It is extremely clean. And nobody breaks the rules. It’s admirable.
3. NOBODY breaks the rules (except me, as far as I’m aware). I have never once seen anyone chew gum, or take a sip of coffee or water on the MRT (subway). Admittedly, I often secretly chew a piece of gum or suck on a nim jom. I try to mask my guilt and keep it low key, but I occasionally get the stink eye from some old man over a wrinkled corner of his newspaper. Sorry, can’t help it. I’m just a ruthless rebel at heart. Always have been, always will be.
4. 7-11 is awesome and it is EVERYWHERE. Before life in Asia, I never could have imagined hearing myself say that. Sure, I grew up seeing 7-11’s around the corner, but I never thought twice about it, except for those rare occasions I was craving a blue rasperry slurpee on a hot summer day. If you find yourself wandering aimlessly in Taipei and realize you haven’t passed by a 7-11 for more than ten minutes, you are in the boonies. Period. And why is it awesome? Because it is terribly convenient. Not only can you purchase some quick drinks and snacks, but you can use their free wifi, pay your bills, send packages, or sit down in their designated “restaurant” area to enjoy a cheap tall can or a shitty cup of coffee. But, no slurpees…
5. Taiwanese people love to stand in lines. I was walking around with two Taiwanese friends along the coast of Taiwan, in search of a place for dinner. They kept pointing at every long line they saw. “Let’s try that one, there’s a long line,” they repeatedly said. I would point at places with no line and say “Let’s try that one, there’s no line”. I guess it makes sense- if there is a line, there is probably good food. But still, I avoid waiting in lines at all cost, part of my western culture residue.
6. You can’t simply leave your garbage for the garbage man to pick up. No, certainly not! You must hand deliver it to him during his quick nightly drive-by to a music tune that sounds more fitting for an ice-cream truck. This one has actually been a tough one for me to adjust to. Sometimes I have to weigh up whether I would prefer to go to a yoga class or rid my terrace of the rotting trash. It’s usually a toss-up.
7. People will apologize to me for not speaking English. Often in a cafe, a store, or simply on the street- people will see me and nervously say “So sorry, my English is bad” and look very embarassed. This puzzles me because… aren’t I in Taiwan? Shouldn’t I be the one apologizing for not speaking Chinese? It makes me feel slightly perplexed and a bit guilty for not being able to speak more Chinese.
8. Nobody honks or gets angry. Taipei is a bustling city, but nobody ever really looks like they are in a hurry. Motorbikes will miss each other by a hair, taxis almost run people over, but it’s so rare to see someone raise their voice or get angry. This would never fly in San Francisco or many other big cities I’ve visited around the world, but here, there is a calmness to the madness which I find delightful.
9. Taiwanese people take naps every day. I work at a school, and as soon as 12:00 hits, the lights go out and every local person’s head crashes down on their desks, or they find spots on the floor to sprawl out on. Meanwhile, us foreigners don’t even consider it. But we should! We work through lunch or go on walks, but taking naps in the middle of the work day isn’t something we feel totally comfortable doing. I have foreign friends who work in office buildings, and have told me the same thing occurs.
10. Ready for the big one? I’ve saved the best for last… My job is illegal, and if I get caught in the act, I get deported. BOOM. Teaching English on the side is legal, but teaching as a full-time Kindergarten teacher is illegal. Granted, the police and immigration agency know perfectly well what is happening, and you can even spot giant billboards depicting an image of a white girl with glasses instructing a group of five-year-olds in a classroom. But nonetheless, it is illegal, and every now and again there is a deportation. As a kindergarten teacher knowingly taking this risk, it’s important to work in a school with good security. Sometimes our security guard looks like he is about to fall asleep, which always makes me a bit nervous and tempts me to buy him a cup of coffee. Our school has an escape route in place, and just once I’ve had to use said escape route when the government stopped by. My boss ran into my classroom and said “Emily, go!” I have to be honest… it was a thrill. Life on the edge as an illegal, bad-ass rebel Kindergarten teacher.
These are just a few interesting little things about life in Taiwan, but there are plenty of others. Aside from the garbage dilemma and being on the brink of becoming an international fugitive, life here is wonderful. I have a lot of love, adventure, and excitement in my life. I wouldn’t take back my decision to move here for anything, and although I do miss home and the people I am close to, Taipei has increasingly felt like a second home to me. I’m excited to see what lies ahead, that is, as long as the immigration agency stays off my back… 😉