Nick first moved to Taipei, Taiwan, in 2011 after backpacking around the world for a few years. He planned to stay for a year but ended up staying for 11. In that time, he married a local, had two kids, published a book, and transitioned his career from teaching to freelance writing to full-time travel blogging. Nick shares his stories about travel and life in Taiwan on his blog Spiritual Travels. He can also be found on Twitter.
Read more about expat life in Taiwan in our Expat Arrivals Taiwan country guide.
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: Edmonton, Canada
Q: Where are you currently living?
A: After 11 years in Taiwan, I recently moved with my Taiwanese wife and kids back to Edmonton.
Q: Why did you decide to move back home after staying in Taiwan for 11 years?
A: This was a tough decision, as my wife and I love both Taiwan and Canada, and both want to be with our families. One of the biggest factors leading to our move is that we want our kids to go through the Canadian education system.
Q: How did you meet your wife in Taiwan?
A: I like telling this story because we actually met on the MRT in Taipei. I was on my way to work, and she approached me. This is a little unusual in Taiwan, as people are usually too shy to speak to strangers, especially foreigners. She said later that she had noticed me because she liked my shoes. We chatted briefly, I got her phone number, and I called her five minutes later. We met that evening, and it went from there.
Q: Will you go back to Taiwan again?
A: Yes, we will go back regularly, at least once per year. I would consider that we now live between two countries. My wife wants to see her family and friends and already misses Taiwanese food. We want our kids to continue knowing their Taiwanese culture and family members. And for me, since my travel blog has become one of the most comprehensive sources of travel information online about Taiwan and I am making a living from it, I intend to keep updating it and producing more Taiwan-related content.
Living in Taipei
Q: What did you enjoy most about Taipei?
A: I loved that Taiwan was different enough from home to feel exotic yet modern and developed enough to be comfortable. I loved the hospitable people. I loved how easy it was to get around by public transportation. I loved the street food, how cheap it was, and how it was available anywhere, at all times. I loved that I could buy beer from 7-Eleven and drink it anywhere. I loved that nature, hot springs, a dormant volcano, and beaches could easily be enjoyed as day trips from Taipei. I loved learning to speak Mandarin. In fact, I loved Taiwan so much that the Chinese title of my book was Foreigner Loves Taiwan (it sounds better in Chinese).
Q: How would you rate the quality of life compared to Canada?
A: Both have ups and downs. Taipei is much safer than my home town in Canada. You can walk alone anywhere in the city at any time of day or night. Taipei is more polluted than my home town, especially the air. Taipei is also crowded and can be quite noisy. As a Canadian from the prairies, I'm used to a lot of space and quiet. This is something I never really got used to in Taiwan. Things like seeing a doctor, getting takeaway food, or calling customer service hotlines are faster in Taiwan. On the other hand, due to the language barrier, I had to rely on my wife to handle a lot of 'adult' things. Finally, I never felt comfortable driving in Taiwan because the roads can be a little wild.
Q: Any negative experiences? What did you miss most about home?
A: In my second year in Taiwan, my apartment was robbed, and I lost my laptop, DSLR camera, and hard drives containing my entire history of photos and documents. Besides that isolated incident, I had very few negative experiences. Taiwan is such an easy place to become comfortable. The hardest part for me was being away from my family. Also, believe it or not, I missed the snow and cold weather. Another thing I didn't like is that even though I paid taxes and had permanent residency, I would never be able to vote or obtain citizenship.
Q: What were the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life there? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?
A: I think because I had travelled extensively before coming to Taiwan, I didn't really have any initial culture shock. Just the usual excitement and adjustment process that comes with being in a new country. The hardest years for me were five years in, once I had kids. Becoming a parent is a major life change no matter where you are. But away from my home country, I found it more difficult to cope with the changes. I had very little family support, and most of my friends were still living the 'backpacker in Asia' kind of lifestyle.
As a foreigner, you get a lot of attention in Taiwan. It can boost your ego. It can also be annoying. Mainly people are trying to be friendly, but you are constantly reminded that you're an outsider. Once we had kids, the attention shifted from me to them. Our kids got a lot of attention everywhere we went in Taiwan. Mostly positive, but it gets annoying the older they get.
Q: How's the cost of living in Taiwan compared to Canada? Is there anything particularly expensive or particularly cheap in Taiwan?
A: Street food, groceries and eating out are overall significantly cheaper in Taiwan. Street food and hole-in-the-wall restaurants are so cheap that it's cheaper to eat out than cook at home. Travelling around is also cheaper than in Canada, but hotels in Taiwan are pricey by Asian standards and probably on par with Canada. Things like electronics are similarly priced or even more expensive than in Canada.
In terms of housing, Taipei is like Vancouver. The price of buying property in the city centre is ridiculously expensive. Renting is probably cheaper than in Canada though. Many expats share apartments with other expats, further dropping the price. My wife and I bought an apartment in New Taipei City (essentially the suburbs of Taipei), and it was very reasonably priced.
Q: How would you rate the public transport in Taipei?
A: In short, fantastic. The Taipei metro is one of the best in the world and is the pride of the city. It comes frequently, is spotlessly clean, and goes to every corner of the city. By using an EasyCard, you can swipe onto the MRT, buses, local trains, ferries, gondolas and even pay for taxis or items at 7-Eleven. Taxis are also plentiful and way cheaper than in Canada. Leaving the city is equally simple, and Taiwan's High-Speed Rail traverses the entire country in a few hours.
Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Taipei? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regard to doctors and hospitals?
A: Like Canada, Taiwan has public healthcare, so it seemed normal to me. When visiting a doctor or dentist, you can walk in and see one without waiting more than a few minutes. You have to pay a small fee for each visit, which includes whatever medicine you are prescribed.
When my wife had kids, we had a positive experience. My wife stayed at home and was eager to get back to work after a few weeks. Once, my kids caught a nasty virus, and we spent a week in the hospital. The hospital experience was fine, though expats who can't speak Mandarin may want to stick to the bigger hospitals in Taipei that are more likely to have English-speaking doctors and nurses.
Q: What are the most significant safety issues facing expats living in Taipei or Taiwan? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: Taipei is considered one of the safest cities in the world, up there with Tokyo. The traffic takes getting used to. Summers are ridiculously hot and humid, so you need to stay hydrated. There are no areas of Taipei that need to be avoided, even at night. When big typhoons hit, usually a few times per summer, you must stay indoors.
Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Taipei? What different options are available for expats?
A: Taipei is a city of low-rise apartments, mostly ageing concrete blocks that are 5–6 stories. Most expats rent tiny suites or share larger apartments with other expats. The apartments themselves are usually basic. Residential neighbourhoods are dense, so you'll have hundreds of neighbours. Most likely, you'll have a convenience store, restaurants, markets, clinics and an MRT station within short walking distance of your apartment. Garbage trucks come three times per day most days of the week, and they play Beethoven's Fur Elise as they approach to notify residents to run down.
Q: Any areas or suburbs you'd recommend for expats to live in?
A: Expats tend to live all over the city, as it's so easy to get around by MRT. Generally speaking, the Da'An neighbourhood has an international, university vibe. Ximending and Wanhua are historic and interesting but rundown. Eastern District around Taipei 101 is the most upscale and trendy. Many longer-term expats live in Tianmu, a leafier district north of the city centre. We chose to live in New Taipei City because the cost of living was much lower, and the MRT made the commute to the city centre very easy.
Meeting people and making friends
Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there obvious discrimination against any particular group? Have you ever experienced discrimination in Taiwan?
A: Locals love foreigners. I received a lot of special treatment there. Generally speaking, male expats tend to stay longer in Taiwan than female ones. Taiwan makes it easier for foreign men to adjust than for foreign women. This is a generalisation, and I know at least a few long-term female expats who passionately love Taiwan as well.
Taiwanese are particularly friendly to white foreigners. Like in most Asian countries, there is a perception that lighter skin is more desirable. I think most Taiwanese would still be polite and friendly to, for example, blacks or other Asians. However, many will openly admit such feelings if you ask them about it. Non-white expats may also encounter discrimination in the hiring process, as parents feel that only white people are true 'foreigners' or native English speakers.
Q: Was meeting people and making friends easy? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: I first arrived in Taiwan with a friend from Canada. We lived together for five years before I got married. It took us a little while to make other friends, but eventually we did by joining social gatherings such as Couchsurfing parties and language exchange meetups.
The expat community is varied but also quite tight in Taipei. Many expats are involved in organising parties and community events. Pool parties, concerts, Canada Day celebrations, beach raves, ice-skating parties, art markets and mass picnics are a few examples. Attendance at these kinds of events is about 50 percent local, 50 percent foreign.
Q: Did you make friends with locals or mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends with the locals?
A: I ended up forming a group of friends that mostly consisted of other expats. Most of them were male and had Taiwanese girlfriends. After I got married, I started spending more time with my wife's family and her Taiwanese friends and less time with my group of expat friends. For those looking to make local friends, there are plenty of opportunities, such as the social events and language exchange meetups I mentioned above.
Working in Taipei
Q: Was getting a work permit or visa a relatively easy process?
A: Many expats just show up in Taiwan on a tourist visa and then look for a job before their visa expires. Some people get a part-time job and continue doing visa runs every few months. Most get jobs in a cram school that meets the minimum working hour requirements. The school arranges their ARC (Alien Resident Card) for them. If you switch schools, you need to have them transfer the ARC to the new school. If you maintain an ARC for five years, you can get an APRC (Permanent Resident Card), meaning you can stay for life.
Q: What is the economic climate in Taipei like? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job?
A: Relative to the average salary of young adults in Taiwan, Taipei is extremely pricey and ridiculously expensive to buy property. As an expat, assuming you're an English teacher, you'll make a decent salary and pay a relatively low rent. It's possible to get by and save money with little difficulty. You should have a few thousand dollars for the initial set-up and to get you through to your first paycheck.
Q: How does the work culture differ from your home? Did you have any particularly difficult experiences adapting to local business culture?
A: Taiwan is a working culture. I would say that the average Taiwanese adult puts in 1.5 to 2 times more working hours per week than the average person in Canada. It's common in Taiwan to see things like people working on their days off, working overtime without getting paid for it, and so on. People in Canada are less likely to do such things, but they have stronger legal recourse to do something about it if their company tries to make them.
When I was teaching, my day usually ended at around 9pm. This was late, but I got used to it, and most of my friends had the same schedule. As workers, though, we are often treated better than the average local worker. I had bosses that were mean to the local staff but treated me like gold, not to mention my higher wage.
Family and children in Tapei
Q: Did you have any issues as a mixed couple? How about raising kids?
A: Despite minor cultural differences here and there, I think our different parenting styles and cultural backgrounds brought different positive aspects to our family life and our kids.
It scared me that my wife used to ride around on her scooter with our kids when they were babies and toddlers, sometimes not even wearing helmets. It's hard to change someone's habits when it comes to something completely normal and not regarded as unsafe in their culture. Later, we had the same issue with children's car seats and using seatbelts in the car.
Q: What are your favourite family attractions and activities in Taipei?
A: Some of my favourite things to do in Taipei with our kids included going to hot springs in winter, swimming in rivers out of town in summer, going to Taipei Zoo, riding the Maokong Gondola, visiting the Land Bank Museum (with dinosaurs) and going to playgrounds. I've got some detailed articles on my blog on things to do in Taipei with kids and how to plan a trip around Taiwan with kids.
Q: What are the schools like? Any particular suggestions?
A: Expats can choose between the Taiwanese school system or international schools. International schools are expensive but offer more Western-style education. Since our kids only made it to kindergarten before we left and could speak Chinese, we sent them to a regular school in our neighbourhood.
If we had stayed in Taiwan, we would've been fine with the local elementary schools. However, in junior high and senior high, things take a turn for the worse in the Taiwanese educational system. The hours required to be put in by students are brutal, competition is fierce and independent thinking is not encouraged. The workload squeezes the life out of teens there. It's one of the main reasons we left.
Q: Is there any advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals to Taipei or Taiwan?
A: Taiwan has been chosen as one of the top cities in the world for expats, and for good reason. It's safe, comfortable, convenient, welcoming, has delicious food, and there are loads of things to do, whether you like socialising in the city or exploring the great outdoors. No place is perfect, of course, and any complaints I've made are minor ones. Taiwan is my second home, and I would highly recommend it to anyone looking to experience a different part of the world with ease.
► Interviewed January 2020