today is our 1-year expat anniversary. [I honestly cannot believe that I just typed that sentence. it feels like it's been a week and a decade, all at the same time.] ironic that I'm spending it back home in Michgan, yes, but that doesn't change that I'm still an expat and still going back to Taiwan in 2 months.
before I moved to Taiwan, I was pretty clueless. part of it may be what American society teaches us about Asian culture, but I admit a portion was simply my own ignorance. some stereotypes are true and some are completely false. in fact... 80% of what I thought it would be like here was wrong. thankfully, I've learned a few things during my first year as an expat. and lucky for you, I've made a nice little list of what you really need to know about life in Taiwan.
1a. Taiwan vs. China. the relationship between mainland China and Taiwan is as confusing and dramatic as a soap opera. Taiwan has been occupied and colonized by several nations, most recently the Japanese. at the end of World War 2, the Japanese surrendered Taiwan to the Republic of China. at the time, the ROC was the ruling government in mainland China. BUT. when the communist party took over mainland China in 1949 they formed a new ruling body called the People's Republic of China. members of the ROC fled the mainland and established themselves in Taiwan. so then you have two governments claiming to be "China." but the ROC was recently ousted from it's seat of power [and the UN], so most countries sided with the communist PRC. many countries still do not formally recognize Taiwan due to existing ties with China [PRC], which is why there is no true US embassy in Taiwan nor a Taiwanese embassy in the US. but they cannot exclude or ignore Taiwan [ROC] completely due to its economic growth over the past few decades, which is why you see Taiwan compete in the olympics under a compromise title of "Chinese Taipei." or at least that's my understanding of things.
1b. Taiwan vs. Thailand. I love Thai food and I love Thai writing, but both of those things come from Thailand. the proper title for the food, culture, and people of Taiwan? Taiwanese. [I knew this one before moving here, but you'd be surprised how many people still think I live in Thailand. maybe because I vacation there so often?]
2. the wildlife. Taiwan is a rabies-free island, so people just let packs of wild dogs roam free on the streets. mostly they will leave you alone. but sometimes they follow you home. the bugs here are ridiculous. cockroaches and giant spiders invade homes on a regular basis, and I can't walk 10 feet outside without being bit by some kind of mosquito. the little lizards and geckos don't bother me much. but then there was the time two cobras were roaming the school campus...
3. the food. I expected eating gluten free to be much easier. no wheat is grown on the island here. it's an Asian country. so... rice, right? wrong. I struggle with my gluten sensitivity more in Taiwan than I ever had to in the states. all dumplings and the majority of noodles here are made from wheat flour. soy sauce contains gluten. there's a McDonalds or Pizza Hut or KFC on every corner, and scores of "western" restaurants serving burgers and brunch. and grocery shopping is interesting when you cannot read most of the labels. I'm just thankful I don't have a serious allergy to gluten. all that being said, we have found a handful of local places here in Hsinchu where both lovers and non-lovers of gluten can eat deliciousness to their hearts content. Taiwan is certainly not a place you will go hungry.
4. scooters. first, let's be honest: there is no possible way to do your hair and have it look good once it comes back out of the helmet. not. gonna. happen. and zipping around on a motorbike with no seatbelt can be very terrifying at first. [or after you crash and bust up your knee.] but, scooting is a super convenient way to get around. I think whenever I next drive a car I will be impatient and crazy. what do you mean, I can't just squeeze between these two trucks and past all this traffic to be first in line at the red light?
5. shopping for food. Taiwan has a convenience store on every corner. 7-11, hi-life, family mart... they are everywhere. there is also an abundance of fruit markets, vegetable markets, and night markets. and then there are a handful of grocery store chains and specialty western import stores, and of course, Costco. the problem with shopping for food is that not a single one of these locations will carry everything on your grocery list. so while it's great to buy fruits + veggies local, a shopping trip involves at least three stops. usually four. the trick is knowing what to buy where [only buy special items from import stores, their veggies are way overpriced and Costco sells 2 pounds of that cheese for the 8oz price] and resigning yourself to the fact that grocery shopping can not be accomplished in an hour.
6. shopping for clothes. when we moved, I had to make my entire wardrobe fit into 2 suitcases. I decided that most of what I wasn't bringing I would donate, because if I wasn't going to wear it in 2 years did I really need it? well. I cannot tell you how many items of clothing I wish I hadn't donated. I thought I could easily buy some new basic tank tops, white tees, leggings etc after we arrived. well. in America I am a normal-to-smaller sized woman. average height [5'6] and I've got some curves, but usually I wear a size 4/6 or small. here in Taiwan the popular fashions for ladies seems to be very feminine, with flowing loose layers on top and tight skinny pants or short shorts/skirts. shirts meant to be baggy I can manage a medium, but tight-fitting my shoulders [and other things] need a large. most stores only carry up to size 4 in pants, and that is their equivalent of a large. SO. I've done a lot of online shopping, and plan to stock up while I'm in the states.
7. it's clean, but it's dirty. in Taipei, the MRT subway system is spotless. they don't allow eating or drinking on the trains or even in the station. [I love New York, but holy cow does Taipei kick your butt at subway cleanliness and ease of use.] given that it's an island and there is limited space for waste disposal, the Taiwanese are recycling fanatics. and there are HUGE fines for improperly sorting. public waste cans aren't common [at least in Hsinchu] but you will rarely find any litter on the streets. you will, however, be able to smell sewage from the street corners from time to time. and probably the dirtiest thing [at least to a germaphobe like me] is that a lot of people don't use soap when they wash their hands. sooooo many public bathrooms I've been in and seen girls just rinse with water and walk out the door. ick.
8. the people. the people here are very kind. even if they don't speak any English they will try to help you, give you directions, and feed you. when Husband and I were on the side of the road after our scooter crash, no less than 4 cars stopped to ask if we needed help. and... we were out in the back hills. which meant that 4 was every. single. car. I will say that the exception seems to be lines. the Taiwanese will elbow you out, cut in front of you, and crowd you from behind. don't believe me? go to Costco on a sunday and try to reach something in the cooler being blocked by the free sample line.
9. the cute factor. it's true. Asia loves things that are cute. bows and pink and glitter and cartoons are everywhere. lucky for my photo-snapping and journal-writing self, they also love photography gear - both for digital and instant/toy cameras- and stationary. [this stuff obviously can be found often with bows and pink and glitter and cartoons.] washi tape in particular has become a new obsession of mine since moving to Taiwan.
10. I don't speak Chinese. when we first found out we were moving to Taiwan, I may have panicked a little bit over the thought of having to learn Mandarin. we went out and bought ourselves some Rosetta Stone... which I haven't made much progress on. the truth is, we don't really need to know much Chinese. we get by on "thank you" and the basic numbers and by carrying around business cards to show cab drivers. many locals know a few words of English and are always eager to speak with you and show off their vocabulary. other than that, I smile and nod.