Tuesday, 1 September 2015

10 Things You Should Know About Living in Taiwan

There are few safer, cheaper, more interesting or more beautiful places to live than Taiwan. As the country welcomes a new influx of expats and fresh-faced university graduates looking to spend a year or two broadening their horizons, I thought it was a good time to pass on some insider knowledge gleaned during our four years living here.

1. Look Before Crossing

Taiwan's traffic signals are very cute. The green man walks slowly at first, then faster and faster as the seconds count down. Finally, he's running, telling you you have only moments before the traffic mows you down. 

The green man lies. You think he's telling you it's safe to walk. It isn't safe to walk. Taiwanese drivers routinely run red lights. Always, always, always look before you cross.

2. Summer Means Plastic Shoes

Taiwan is in a typhoon corridor, which means it rains. A lot. Especially in summer. Unless you travel everywhere by car, wearing plastic shoes is going to save you frustration, money and damp, stinky feet. Every summer I buy a pair of Crocs and wear them to death. Your feet get wet when it rains, but they soon dry off in the heat, and you get your shoes washed for free.

3. Winter Means Mould

Related to the above advice, mould is an effect of the damp climate in winter. It grows on your clothes in the wardrobe; it grows on your towels in the washing basket; it grows on your coat hanging in the hallway. Some apartments are worse for mould than others, but unfortunately it's difficult to tell before you move in. Older apartments crowded by buildings that block out sunlight and breezes are most likely to suffer from mould. 

To combat mould use a dehumidifier, don't put clothes away until they're bone dry and don't leave your washing more than a few days in the basket.

4. People Slap Themselves

Routinely. In public. Without any warning. They also perform other strange and wonderful actions that would attract attention in many other parts of the world, but in Taiwan pass unnoticed. There's a man I see regularly who jogs with both his arms up in the air. Others jog backwards. Singing Chinese opera as you exercise is also common. On MRT trains there's often someone in the carriage rhythmically rubbing their ears or doing some intriguing finger actions. It's normal here. Deal with it.

5. Swimming Hats

You must wear a hat when swimming in a public pool. It doesn't matter if you're bald or have more hair on your face than your head. You must wear a hat. I like this rule. I got tired of swimming into other people's hair a long time ago. If you're male, you must also wear tight-fitting trunks. Not swimming shorts where the water can slosh around and wash your ... well, I think the reason for this rule is the same as for the rule for hats.

On the downside, in Taiwan it isn't considered disgusting to spit into the gutters around the pool. I wish it was, but you can't have everything.

6. Typhoons Aren't All They're Cracked Up to Be - Unless You Get a Big One

Typhoons can be underwhelming. It took me a few experiences, but eventually I came to realise that what people here referred to as a typhoon was what, back in the U.K., we would call A Blustery Day. I came here anticipating howling winds and driving rain, and encountered quite windy, wet days where everyone was delighted because they got a day off work.

Then came Soudelor. Soudelor was scary, and sadly caused much destruction and many deaths. We were woken about four o' clock in the morning by the noise of the wind, and were alarmed to see the river in front of our apartment block had risen and was threatening to overflow.

During the storm, objects fell from the building and crashed into the greenhouse roof below us, and the security guard's office door was smashed in. But we were safe and others experienced far worse effects. The next day, Taipei was a mess, with trees blown down, windows and signs smashed, and other destruction and debris littering the streets.

So don't worry too much about typhoons, but keep a close eye on the weather reports.

7. Umbrellas

Talking of typhoons, umbrellas are a very good idea in Taiwan. If you're familiar with Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, you will know the importance of always carrying a towel. Replace your towel with an umbrella while living in Taiwan, and you'll be fine. Umbrellas not only protect you from the nearly unending rain, they also provide portable shade on sunny days, and you can use them to fend off the odd rare attacker on the MRT. Plus, if you hop over to Hong Kong, you can join the Umbrella Movement

If you're as forgetful as me, you might want to buy a few umbrellas, or even more.

8. Late Nights

The Taiwanese are night owls, retiring to their beds after midnight and catching up on lost sleep in an after-lunch nap at work. Children also go to bed late and nap after lunch at school. Foreign workers and children in the local education system sometimes struggle with this. If you can't adjust, expect to be a little sleep-deprived. Your neighbours won't quieten down until long after you've gone to bed and may have a habit of running a bath at three o'clock in the morning.

9. No Pavements

Pavements are the exception to the rule in Taiwan, even in Taipei and other large cities. If you never stray from the upmarket districts, you may, happily, never encounter the phenomenon. If you rub shoulders with the average Taiwanese crowd, expect to share your walking space with bicycles, scooters, parked cars, buses and other sundry traffic. People and drivers are mostly very careful and I've never seen an accident caused by the lack of pavement, but if you have young children and no expat contract, you might want to invest in some fluorescent gear.

10. Foreigners

Being a white foreigner in Taiwan is like being a D-list celebrity. You're noticed, and sometimes people come up and ask to have their picture taken with you. Parents also occasionally send their children over to practise their English. Depending on where you live, being noticed is more or less tolerable. We live in a middling area and I've become accustomed to the odd stare or shy hello. Foreigners living in poorer areas stick out more and so attract more attention.

Some foreigners complain loudly about being stared at and other dissatisfactions they have with Taiwan and the Taiwanese. While I sympathise with their unhappiness, the fact is white foreigners often receive privileges and have it far better than brown- or black-skinned immigrants, so I'm not complaining.

There's so much more to Taiwan than the few tongue-in-cheek items I've mentioned here. If you're new or thinking of coming over, I can honestly say I know of no better place to live. If you've been here a while, you might agree, disagree or have more points to mention. I'd love to hear from you.

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