Life as a Foreigner

Originally published on ExploreThere. New comments in blue.

There’s a difference between traveling through a new place and starting a chapter of your life there. Especially when you’ve relocated to a culture fantastically different from your comfort zone, life doesn’t come close to resembling Eat, Pray, Love. Going along with that statement, it can definitely resemble Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas if you choose. This can be the case no matter where you live, but the major difference in Taiwan is that it’s a lot easier to get away with it. Responsibility takes a backseat to fun, and drugs are easier to find than a good haircut. That’s a terrible truth for me right now, because I’m in desperate need of a new hairstyle.

Transplanting my life from Austin, Texas, to Hsinchu, Taiwan (basically the Taiwanese version of College Station, Texas), was a decision I made in mid-2010; by August 27, 2010, I stood in the Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, three suitcases and a backpack surrounding me, and I was nearly overwhelmed. I’d never been to Asia. My friend Gretchen was coming to pick me up, but she was nowhere to be seen. I had no phone, zero knowledge of Mandarin, and very little money. At that moment, I doubted myself. I vividly remember sitting on one of the chairs in the receiving hall, stealing wifi from somewhere, and hopping on Facebook to message Gretchen. Whine all you want about it, but Facebook is awesome for a foreigner; it makes it so easy to meet new people, find out about events, keep in touch with friends and family, and feel connected to wherever home is.

I decided to move because I knew I’d regret it if I never did. I’d considered teaching English abroad for over five years, South Korea being my primary target. It never felt right, and I was concerned about my financial situation; with over $20,000 in student loans and debt, I couldn’t flit about carelessly. I had to be smartish. It wasn’t until Summer 2010 that the option became real and, dreading the potential regret of both going and not, I bought my one-way ticket to Taiwan. I was also anticipating the Layoff Hammer at work and, quite frankly, was tired of the dead-end nature of my job.

Once I finally climbed into a cab with Gretchen, I relaxed a bit and took in the passing scenery. Taiwan, my new country of residence, brimmed with color. Giant Buddha statues peeked out of untamed trees and sat on pedestals next to the highway. I remember looking at her, all tanned and island-lifey, and thinking I had moved to an island paradise. Today, at the beginning of my third summer here, I’m still as pale as I was in Texas. Let’s face it; I’m never going to be perfectly tanned. My students called me a vampire today. True story.

After a few months, I stopped feeling like a foreigner. Now, over a year later, I speak a bit of Mandarin, with “Thank you” and “I’m sorry” being my two most-used phrases. Add to that, “mmm!”, a grunt that means yes. My sister called me out on that habit when I visited in March. I know the back roads and can give directions using road names and proper pronunciation. I’m a regular at some restaurants. I volunteer with an animal shelter in Taichung. I ride the metro in Taipei like a local, even though I still have to hold on so I don’t fall over when it starts or stops.

(Locals get on the wrong train sometimes, right?)

I’ve not fallen in love with the handsome, rich man who lays in a hammock with me on perfect afternoons. I don’t need handsome or rich. The hammock, however, is non-negotiable. Better than that, I have a family of other foreigners and local Taiwanese; I celebrate holidays with a close group of friends from around the world, and that gently fills the void of being away from loved ones. You know what else fills the void? My cellphone. I can text and call my family back home no problem. Thanks, Nokia.

I keep in touch with friends and family back home through Skype, texts, Facebook, emails, and my blog (shameless self-promotion that didn’t work). Living so far away from the VIPs of my life is a daily struggle. It’s hard, but my Taiwan family and friends make it easier. Nothing matters as much as the people in your life, which is one of the most important lessons you learn when the shininess of your new home fades into normal. Or when culture shock grabs you by the hair and goes toddler-super-tantrum on you. Those days are fun.

Everyone has his or her own reason for moving abroad, and mine was to pursue adventure… and escape the mundane… and get out of debt… and travel… and to stop living in self-imposed limitations. Of course, now that Hsinchu has become more routine, I’m contemplating the next possibility. Why limit myself to Taiwan?

Believe it or not, my move to Taiwan doesn’t feel extraordinary or crazy or epic. I don’t feel like I’ve had a great achievement in my life. Perhaps that’s because of my Rubik’s-Cube love life, or because my career trajectory keeps hesitating.

So… the question I dread: What’s next?

One comment

  1. “Everyone has his or her own reason for moving abroad, and mine was to pursue adventure… and escape the mundane… and get out of debt… and travel… and to stop living in self-imposed limitations.”

    I am so with you on this. I could not wait to become an expat. My first gig in Sinai started when I turned twenty. I would have gotten there 14 months earlier, but they had a minimum age requirement. They thought an eighteen year old could never adapt to being so far from home. Man! Were they wrong. I lived in that desert for three years loving every day of it.

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