The rookie ex-pat. Those that have lived abroad have been there: floundering, anxious, and overwhelmed. Like most jokes, it’s funny unless it’s happening to you.
For the record, nearly every mistake described herein was committed by yours truly at some point in my journey; thus, I have a confident familiarity with both classes of mistakes. It should also be noted that these newbie mistakes are not exclusive to Taiwan; in fact, I’ve made some of these mistakes in another country as well. I know what I think are the most common and/or disastrous errors, but that’s not objective enough. Therefore, I conducted a survey of my peers – what do you guys think are the most common and disastrous mistakes? Below you will find a compilation of the survey results along with a little of my own input:
The Common Class of Newbie Mistakes
1. They didn’t do the homework prior to arrival
The number one newbie mistake – particularly in regards to the job market – and almost everything else follows from this point forward. You might be shocked by the number of people who roll up in Taipei with absolutely no idea about the job market, who immediately race to the expat bulletin board, Forumosa, begging for advice, tips, suggestions, and recommendations. Most of the time, they’re told: “Read the forum!”, since nearly every Taiwan-related topic has already been covered ad infinitum.
[Moreover, a frequent side comment is that a lot of newbies make the mistake of thinking Taipei is Taiwan – it’s like the difference between New York City and the Catskill Mountains; both are technically in New York State, but couldn’t be any more dissimilar.]
Perhaps above all, doing your homework is critical to culture shock management. Every new kid in a foreign country goes through a period of acclimation; however, not everybody gets over the constant barrage of external alienation. I’m still not over the fact that sidewalks in Taipei are considered extensions of the roadway, meaning, pedestrians generally DO NOT have the right of way.
Homework also includes:
– Learning a word or two of the language
Almost every survey respondent mentioned the lack of Mandarin as being the most common newbie fault. At the very least you should be familiar with The Ten Sacred Phrases of Mandarin.
– Acquiring a basic understanding of the culture
If you can read and navigate a web page, you have no excuse for not checking out a few travel guides. You can get a fairly coherent understanding of Taiwanese culture from any number of travel and culture-related sites. Seriously, in this day and age, ignorance is inexcusable.
2. They arrive with great expectations and tons of “cultural baggage”
Again, this follows #1. For some reason, a lot of newbies think everything is going to be easy, and their unreasonable expectations are inevitably crushed. Taiwan is not paradise; it’s a very safe, predictable place where only the fruit falls from the trees.
Meanwhile, a common mistake is for newbies from, say, Atlanta, Georgia, is to bring Atlanta with them, i.e. their cultural baggage. They constantly complain about “this ain’t the way we do things in Atlanta.” Or you’ll hear a lot of “well, back home in Atlanta, we had…” No offense to Atlanta and its fine people, but nobody cares about Atlanta. Nobody wants to hear about how you did things in Atlanta.
Welcome to Taiwan – all your previous experience does not apply.
3. They accept and tolerate awful gigs
The expat message boards are stacked with posts like: “Help! Buxiban manager refuses to pay monthly bonus – Can I quit?”
If you’d done your homework, you most likely wouldn’t have gotten yourself into that situation. But even more pervasive is the newbie who doesn’t quit that terrible job – on the spot. Look, the range of your job options are somewhat limited in Taiwan. Teaching ESL accounts for 90-95% of the gigs, and Taiwanese cram schools are veritable revolving doors of foreign teachers living paycheck to paycheck. ESL gigs in Taiwan are like cigarettes. They’re: (A) never going to stop making them; and (B) designed to kill you.
The 5% of non-ESL gigs (start-ups, entrepreneurial opportunities, etc.) are harder to find, but they’re worth it in the long run.
Taiwan is no different than anywhere else when it comes to tolerating awful jobs. You shouldn’t do it here any sooner than you would at home. My rule was: When in doubt, get out.
4. They treat their experience like a non-stop party
Here’s how one survey respondent put it:
A lot of guys come to Taipei, sign a one-year contract, teach evenings in the buxibans, and then head to the bars and clubs at night. They sleep all day and then repeat the cycle. Their contract comes up and they say, ‘You know what? I’m outta here. This place kind of sucks.’ Of course, it sucks! You never left Taipei City! It’s a tiny island. You should get out and see some of it. The transportation system…is simply amazing.
The Disastrous Class of Newbie Mistakes
5. They shun other foreigners in favor of total immersion aka My Asian Experience
Some newbies attempt to live a total Taiwanese immersion lifestyle to the exclusion of every other foreigner within a 1000-km radius. And it’s become such a common phenomenon that between friends, we have terms for it.
My favorite is Marco Poloism: “This is My Asian Experience and For All Intents and Purposes, I’m the Only Foreigner on the Island”
I don’t know how many expats I’ve met over the years who say, “I generally don’t associate with other foreigners.” It’s not to say that immersing yourself in Taiwanese culture, or anywhere for that matter, is a bad thing, but it’s good to recognize and celebrate those differences. Besides, you’ll probably need some local guidance and who better to paraphrase the dos and don’ts than someone with your background in common.
6. They come looking for love
According to my long-term resident sources, there was a time when Taiwan might have been a place to come looking for love. We’re talking late 1980s and early 90s.
It’s easy for me to criticize, but nobody should travel to another country in hopes of meeting their soulmate – not even on a whimsical dare. Whether you choose to believe it or not, Taiwan is a highly restrictive environment. Tradition is very important. Men, women, and children are expected to behave in certain ways. In a patriarchal society, there is enormous pressure on people to “stay in their lane”. The most challenging obstacle you’re likely to face won’t be the language barrier; it will be your potential partner’s family.
Now, having said all that, the problem herein is the act of looking for love. There is plenty of love in Taiwan – more than enough for everybody, including you, foreigner. The key is to let love find you. Go out, live your life, have fun, and be a solid citizen. Good things will happen.
7. They Didn’t Think Things Through
This may be a simplistic metaphor, but moving to a foreign country, and by foreign, I mean an alien society with an unfamiliar language and customs disparate from your own, is a lot like climbing a mountain.
First, it looks like a good idea from a great distance. As you travel toward the mountain and it continues to grow larger and larger, you get to the base, look up, and think, “Man, that’s way higher than I thought.” Meanwhile, you may or may not have considered what it takes in terms of preparation and planning to start your ascent.
In the spirit of the cliché, it’s all uphill from there – for a long time. Along the way, there will be a myriad of moments of doubt and despair; there will be dozens, if not hundreds of times when you’ll seriously consider turning around and going back down. Many people never make it to the summit, which is, stepping out of the metaphor, simply surviving.
The key is to remember that the mountain does have a summit – it’s not an infinite climb. More importantly, what are you going to do once you reach the top? Where do you go from there? Or, do you simply stay put?
Think things through – before you come to Taiwan and wind up in an unsavory situation. That’s not to say you need to have a highly-structured, inflexible plan. Just have a general idea of what you want out of the experience.