The media has embraced Taiwan’s distinction as the top place to live for expats, according to a survey from InterNations. Of course, local Chinese-language media made a big deal of the ranking because they love surveys (no matter how mundane) that portray Taiwan in a positive light. I’m generally skeptical of surveys that include rankings, like the expat cost of living survey. But was this survey worth all the hype?
For those unfamiliar with InterNations, it’s an online community for expats. Its goal is to provide information and services as well as organize events for expats and locals in cities around the world. This is a profitable website as they charge entry fees for all events (I paid ¥1000 to join a crowded bar meet-up in Tokyo at which I discovered it wasn’t worth the money). I have rarely checked the website since joining and haven’t even updated my city to Taipei.
As InterNations compiled the survey, mostly members of the site voted (I don’t know if outsiders had to register before voting). And if I’m any indication, not a lot of the members voted. There are other flaws in the survey as pointed out by Taiwan Explorer, who makes some valid points about Taiwan’s ranking. As he’s already evaluated the survey, which the media should have done, there’s no point in me adding to the criticism.
Rather than beat the dead horse that is a flawed survey, I can focus on what makes Taiwan (or Taipei, as it is my home) a good destination for expats and what makes it a less desirable home.
Taiwan is affordable for expats
I’ve mentioned this before. It’s the primary reason I moved here. While freelancing and job searching it was a great place to lower my cost of living. I don’t need to have a roommate, but sharing an apartment provides me with a little bit of socialization and even cheaper rent (plus there’s the advantage of having two dogs without all the responsibility). And transportation is cheap — my 35-minute subway ride from the office to home is only 77 cents (minimum fare is 51 cents). Buses are 50 cents, but some can be around $1 when crossing from New Taipei to Taipei.
Of course, it isn’t all so affordable. Sure, a lot of food here is cheap, but it’s unhealthy. If I want to eat healthy, I need to cook or eat at higher-end restaurants. My grocery bill is probably slightly higher than it was in New Jersey, but it’s not a significant difference. It’s partly because I want to eat healthier. There’s also a lack of mid-end hotels if I want to travel to other parts of Taiwan, which means I’d have to either stay in a hostel or spend more money. But the hotels even out when I factor in the low price of a train ticket.
Taipei is convenient
7-Eleven and FamilyMart are everywhere, sometimes across the street from each other. Hell, I’ve even seen a 7-Eleven across from another 7-Eleven. But that’s not what’s so convenient here. Buses (thanks to the wonderful Taipei Bus app) are fairly easy to navigate. And the MRT system is ridiculously easy. It also helps that a lot of people speak English, making it easier for people who don’t speak Mandarin.
While it is probably not sustainable, the healthcare system is cheap and simple. I pay about $5 to see a doctor or dentist and my prescriptions are free. The downside is waiting at a hospital to see a doctor. Also, because there’s so little money coming into the system, doctors over-prescribe medications to inflate bills to the government. I’ve been given enough pills that I never took.
Safety and friendliness
For a major city, Taipei is safe. Of course, there are incidents and Taiwan has its share of violent crime that rarely gets reported in English-language news. The violent crime is rarely directed at foreigners though. And people in general are willing to talk or help if asked.
I’m not talking about the overall character of Taiwan. I’ve heard this complaint from multiple expats in Taiwan: people here are flaky. A lot of people are noncommittal when making plans or offering to help out, but that’s not the downside. They’re also consistently late, sometimes by a half hour or more. If you ask where someone is just before a scheduled meeting, they might say, “I’m on my way,” which really means, I should be leaving my apartment in the next 10 minutes or so.
This seems to have influenced the expat community as well. I’ve talked to employers who complain about finding reliable employees, e.g. people who are on time and not drunk. People will also make plans and then not follow through. It seems acceptable to cancel plans at the last minute as well.
As one acquaintance mentioned, Taiwan doesn’t attract the worst of the expats in East Asia (alcoholics, sexpats, etc.) but it also doesn’t attract the best (innovators, entrepreneurs).
I mentioned that it’s easy to get around Taipei without speaking Mandarin. The problem with this is that it can make an expat lazy when it comes to learning the language. Unless you’re enrolled in a class, which is why many foreigners come to Taiwan, it’s difficult to sit down and study on your own. Unlike Mainland China, I’m not forced to learn Mandarin to survive, thus eliminating much of the motivation to continue studying.
Obtaining information from websites in Taiwan is not as easy as in other places. Other major cities around Asia have publications like Time Out or their own similar magazine (China has That’s [insert region] for a few metro areas). To find event listings in Taiwan, expats have to go through each venue’s Facebook page. I don’t want to like every venue’s Facebook page and would prefer if a venue had its own website. Also, the newspapers here are slow and don’t report enough actual news. To put this in perspective, I started my other site Total Taipei over a year ago and I have since beaten the main English-language media to multiple stories by TWO days. I’ve also published news that never got reported elsewhere in English.
Weather and pollution
This is self-explanatory, but over the last year I’ve experienced some of the worst weather. Summer lasts almost six months and can be brutally hot. Winter is humid, rainy, and chilly (it feels colder because of the humidity and rain). The weather makes it difficult to enjoy outdoor activities. There’s also a lot of pollution — partly blown over from Mainland China but also from all the poorly-maintained motorbikes. Taiwan is making strides to improve pollution, but it still has a long way to go. I’m surprised Taipei isn’t using hybrid/electric/natural gas buses for public transportation.
Work culture and career advancement
Taiwan inherited a bit of Japanese work culture — long hours and overly formal dress codes (my office doesn’t have casual Friday, we have slightly less formal Friday). It is more laid back than Japan, but it’s still a similar hierarchy of seniority and brown-nosing. Wages have been stagnant for a long time — and for English teachers the wages have actually decreased. Fortunately, the low wages are offset by the low cost of living. I can still manage to save a lot more of my salary than I could in the US.
But how far up the ladder can one climb in Taiwan? It depends on the choice of career, but it’s generally not as high as it would be in say Europe, or even in China or Japan. For an editor like me, there is nowhere to move up. Major publishers and media outlets that pay better wages don’t have offices here or are phasing them out — most media outlets cover Taiwan from Hong Kong.
Is Taiwan the best expat destination?
Perhaps. For some people this is the perfect destination — low cost of living and low-stress work (for some careers anyway). Any destination will have its positives and negatives — the determining factor is the individual expat’s personality. I’m sure with the right job and people around me, I could enjoy life in almost any country. And even still, I’d find something negative about the place. What’s important is whether the positive outweighs the negative, which in the case of Taiwan I believe does.