If I am not Ulysses, I amhis dear, ruthless half brother.Strap me to the mastso I may endure night sirens
-Yusef Komunyakaa, Latitudes
This is not my first time being an expat. It is, however, my first being an expat for purely economic reasons. But should that change my overall expat experience, or is it a matter of place and age?
How is this expat experience different from all others? I feel like I’m at the Passover seder trying to avoid reading the four questions. But this time around really is different.
I don’t count my semester abroad as being an expat–it wasn’t a long enough time, and I was mainly there for education and adventure. Plus it was my first time outside the country, excluding a family vacation to Canada [insert Simpsons Canada-related joke here]. But that did partially influence my decision to move to China for almost four years after grad school (I really just wanted better fortune cookies, which I discovered don’t exist in China).
While expat life isn’t all travel and sunshine, I haven’t regretted my decisions yet. I’ve had my reasons for taking on the challenges and adventures of a life abroad. But that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t appreciate some changes to routines while I live this life.
The first expat stint
When I first arrived in Shenzhen, I was part of a small community of foreigners at a school located more than an hour from the central business district–I didn’t realize how spread out the city was before moving.
Being outside China’s first Special Economic Zone meant that there wasn’t much to do near my apartment. However, as the apartment was provided by the school, all my foreign colleagues lived in my building (on two floors); it felt a bit like a college dorm with everyone having a private room. This meant we could all easily knock on each other’s doors to make spur-of-the-moment plans.
As we were all fairly close in age, with a few exceptions, we had plenty in common. Most of us were in China for the experience of spending time abroad. A few coworkers were taking a gap year, which meant that they were technically working illegally as China required a college degree for a work permit (there are always ways around the rules if you have enough guanxi).
As this was the first time for most of us to live outside our home countries, we tried to support each other–we shared information we found, like the discovery of cheese at Walmart. We also celebrated holidays together despite not having a day off–the first year, my American coworkers and I found a non-Chinese restaurant nearby for Thanksgiving; during subsequent years a few friends hosted holiday potluck dinners.
Most evenings were spent at the restaurants below our apartments sharing meals and plenty of Tsingtao beer. On weekends a few people would go around the hallway and knock on doors to see who would join in for an excursion to more popular expat areas of the city–once or twice a month was about all we could afford on our salaries.
The friendships I forged during that first year continued–in some cases, I still talk with those people. During the final year or so in China I didn’t meet as many new friends; I had fewer coworkers and less desire to go out to noisy bars (though I still would every now and again). I had my circle of friends and we met often enough for cheap food and beer.
I left that life behind years ago, but, as I said, I have kept in touch with a few people from that time. That first expat experience was the most memorable, as are most firsts.
The second expat stint
My second experience as an expat came when I grew weary of working overnight from home in New Jersey and set out to work during daylight hours in Asia. If I wasn’t going to talk to anyone while working, why not not talk to people in a foreign country while enjoying a little sunlight through my window?
The plan was just to be out of the country for a year and then either hope for a better shift at the job back home or search for a new one. I really wanted to see new sights, and taking my work abroad was an easy way to do that–I could spend a month in one place and go sightseeing on weekends. And a weeklong holiday abroad didn’t require a long flight and jetlag. When I took my vacation in Cambodia, it was only a short flight from Hanoi.
The downside to taking this approach to being an expat is that it can get a bit lonely. I was constantly eating meals and sightseeing alone–I deliberately booked some group tours so I could meet people. I managed to make some friends, but I couldn’t always see them, especially during the week (particularly in Tokyo where we lived on opposite sides of the metropolis). I constantly had to go out because spending nearly 50 hours a week in an apartment/hotel room working was more than I wanted to see of any room.
My workweek isolation forced me out to meet people–I was more willing to approach people for conversation to make up for the lack of human interaction during the week. Because I wasn’t staying in any one place for long, I didn’t mind finding short-term friendship or just someone to talk with over a beer; there wasn’t much long-term planning then.
Of course, it was more difficult to talk to locals in some places. In Tokyo and Seoul, I encountered significant language barriers that led me to just read a book in a bar. In Hanoi and Saigon, fewer people were willing to sit with a foreigner unless they were looking to sell something (fortunately, I found a few exceptions who became friends).
The current expat stint
The third expat experience was made almost entirely for economic reasons. I could take a job in my field that paid close to what I’d make in a major US city, but the cost of living is significantly lower–I currently pay about $260 for rent and my cell phone costs $4 per month; the landlord provides Wi-Fi and cable (not that I really watch TV here). Food costs are similar to back home if I cook all the time, and I tend to spend a little more eating healthy in Taipei because I can afford it. Compare that to paying around $1000 in rent plus $50 for cell service and another $70-90 for cable and internet.
There is a downside to life in Taipei though. While I enjoy all the convenience and, in many respects, simplicity of life here, it’s not as easy to meet people. Most of the people I’ve met are short-term expats–students studying Chinese for a few months or even just travelers. There were friends I made during my other two stays in Taipei, but they’ve all departed; not all of those friends were non-Taiwanese either.
I do accept some of the blame for not meeting more people here. My work schedule has made it difficult–when I started, I worked afternoons/evenings and then switched to early mornings (before dawn). I didn’t go out after work when I got home in the evenings because I also taught three days a week in the morning. I don’t usually go out after work now because I can’t stay out late–I’m asleep by 10 (seriously, I have to wake up before 5 am).
I have attempted to use meetup.com a few times, with mixed results. I’ve shown up to meet ups to find no one showed up. I’ve gone to some that were so disorganized, I couldn’t find the group in a crowded bar. I went to one that had a decent group, but it started late and I had to leave early, just as most people arrived. There are other meetup groups that sound interesting, but they tend to meet at times I can’t attend.
Part of the problem with using meetup.com is the problem with some expats in Taipei: they’re flaky. Of course, there are flaky locals too. This was pointed out by others, but I’ve heard it numerous times from a guy who runs a small English training school with his wife. I worked for him for almost a year and still fill in when he needs a hand. He pays much better than other schools but still has a difficult time finding reliable people, let alone people who can do the work he wants. And I have made plans with people who see nothing wrong with showing up a half hour late without saying anything or canceling at the last minute.
This lack of a social life has led me to search for additional work (I already teach four hours per week in addition to editing full time), as well as continue with my habit of long solo bike rides and hikes. I should spend more time reading in coffee shops though.
The fact that I’m not in Taipei as a young adventurer certainly has changed my attitude, particularly when I meet younger expats who are more interested in drinking than establishing any sort of life in the city. I don’t admonish those types of expats; I would most likely join them if I was younger. You might get the impression from the blog’s name that I drink a lot, but I usually only have a couple drinks on weekends. Those younger expats also tend to be on tighter budgets and less willing to splurge on more exquisite dining experiences. The downside to this attitude is that it’s more difficult to make a connection with those people and convince them to join in an excursion.
So, what have I learned from all this? And how have I survived?
I’ve been advised that I should hang out with my coworkers, but that’s not practical. Working in finance means that my local colleagues work long, often late hours, including weekends. I also tend to keep my distance as I prefer to maintain a separation between work and personal life. Of course, I wouldn’t say no if a coworker invited me for out for a beer.
I wouldn’t say I’m friendless in Taipei. I have my roommate and his two dogs. Of course, we work different hours and don’t see each other much to hang out (it’s ok, I get to play with the dogs instead). I also have a friend who speaks only a few words of English, which forces me to practice my dwindling Chinese skills–I admit to being a bit lazy about continuing to study Mandarin. We did manage to go out to a Peking opera adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the National Theater (it’s not easy to follow a play that requires subtitles).
I’ve also met a few other people whom I see on rare occasions. But I mostly take my time to explore the city on my own with the hope that I might find someone along the way who wants to join in my idea of fun. It all comes back to what I learned during my first time abroad in China–that I should seek out appropriate expat communities that fit with my life.
What have your expat experiences been like? If you’ve moved multiple times, has the experience changed?