For just over 11 years, I called the city of Taipei, Taiwan home. Technically, I wasn’t living in Taipei but New Taipei City, the largest city in Taiwan, which surrounds the capital city, Taipei. But in many ways, these cities are one megacity.
In 2008, I first stepped foot in Taipei after several years of backpacking to over 50 countries. I intended to teach English in Taipei for one year. I even planned and booked my exit from Taiwan in 2009. But mere months before I left, I met my future wife, Emily, a local Taiwanese, on the MRT en route to work one day.
Emily definitely played a role in my decision to continue living in Taipei for years to come. But also, after one year, I felt like I was just getting used to and falling in love with Taiwan, learning Mandarin, and making friends. As the years would pass, my life would become more comfortable in my adopted home.
Getting a Visa to Live in Taiwan
After maintaining my Taiwanese ARC (Alien Resident Card) for five years, I was able to apply for an APRC (Permanent Alien Resident Card). This allowed me to get out of teaching jobs and pursue my interest in writing instead. Since then I’ve written a travel book about Taiwan, worked for several of the country’s top English textbook publishers, taught university classes, and established a successful travel website.
In 2019, Emily and I decided to relocate to my hometown: Edmonton, Canada. The reasons for this were complex, but chief among them were being with my family and seeking what we believed to be a better educational environment for our two children, Sage and Lavender.
As I write this, they’ve just started grade one and kindergarten at a Mandarin-immersion school in Edmonton. We intend to maintain a close connection with Taiwan, though, by spending at least one month of every year there. This will allow us to maintain connections with our friends & my wife’s family, and me to keep publishing updated travel information about Taiwan.
Beginning A New Life, Living in Taiwan
First Impressions of Living in Taipei
I actually showed up in Taipei with one of my oldest friends from Edmonton. He had been teaching English in China for a year. I met up with him there, and together we decided to move to Taiwan.
Our initial impression of Taipei was heavily tied to what we had been used to in China before that. By comparison to where we’d lived in China, Taipei seemed less wild. We didn’t get stared at as much, people were more polite, but it was also a little more expensive.
For anyone who hasn’t traveled much around Asia, though, Taipei could be a shock. The country is one of the world’s most crowded. Traffic can be intense, and passengers get packed in like sardines on public transportation. The weather is insufferably hot & humid in summer, not to mention the handful of typhoons that lash the country every year.
On the other hand, I would soon learn just how comfortable life in Taiwan was. To begin, Taiwanese people are some of the most welcoming in the world. I often felt I was a walking celebrity just for being white. People wanted to take pictures with me, show me around, chat with me, and they praised me when I started to pick up even just a few words of Mandarin. Later when I had kids, this excessive positive attention transferred onto them. They think Western and mixed kids are extremely beautiful, and we got several modeling job offers for our kids.
Getting Hooked on Living in Taipei
Another thing I quickly noticed was how safe Taiwan is. Unlike my home country or many places I’ve traveled, I felt 100% safe walking alone in any neighborhood of Taipei, even late at night. The same can even be said for women. In all my time in Taiwan, I never once felt threatened by a local person. Taiwan is regularly rated as one of the safest countries in the world (often second to Japan). Several times I had the experience of dropping or forgetting something behind, only to have someone return it to me. In cafés, I could leave my laptop on a table while going for an extended walk outside.
Yet another factor that got me hooked on Taipei was the amazing cuisine, especially street food. The city is famous around Asia for its night markets. Over a dozen street stalls in Taipei even have Michelin ratings! It wasn’t just the fact that the street food was so good (and cheap) though, but the availability of it. From the front door of my apartment, I could probably walk to a couple dozen awesome food stalls, breakfast shops, or hole-in-the-wall noodle shops in less than three minutes. The same could be said by almost any resident living in Taipei. This is one of several reasons Taiwan is considered the “land of convenience”; eating out is so cheap and easy that most people seldom bother to cook.
Exploring the Rest of Taiwan
As a traveller, it didn’t take long for me to start getting out of the city almost every weekend and exploring the island. Even with limited Mandarin ability in the early months and years, I found it incredibly easy to get around. Within Taipei and New Taipei City, the MRT system is one of the best in the world. For traveling around the island, trains and buses were plentiful, and if I wanted to splash out on extra speed and comfort, I could hop on the HSR (High Speed Rail), which traverses the entire country from north to south in only two hours.
The final icing on the cake that made living in Taiwan a dream come true was the amazing national health care system and decent wages for English teachers relative to cost of living. It therefore comes as no major surprise that Taipei has been chosen as the top city in the world for expats to live several times by InterNations.
Expat Life in Taipei
One of the issues my friend and I faced when we first arrived in Taipei was that we didn’t know anybody. One day we decided to join a CouchSurfing social event. We made friends that day that would become core members of a social circle that still exists over 10 years later.
The expat community in Taiwan is pretty tight. A lot of long term expats are DJs, play in bands, or organize popular events like pool parties, beach parties, concerts, and so on. Many locals are involved in these events, too, but they often belong to a subset of Taiwanese society that like to hang out with (or date) foreigners: English teachers, open-minded young adults, and locals who have studied or worked abroad for a few years then returned to Taiwan.
Over the years, new friends would join our group. Some would stay on indefinitely, while others would do a year or two then leave Taiwan, as English teachers tend to do. This constantly fluctuation group of friends had ups and downs; I’ve regularly had to say goodbye to close friends forever, yet new friends from around the world are constantly being added.
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The Downside of Living in Taiwan as a Foreigner
Discriminations and Prejudices
I won’t pretend that everything was perfect in Taiwan. As a foreigner, which they call wai guo ren, I would never be considered a local in Taiwan. Even my kids, who were born in Taiwan, have Taiwanese passports, and are native Mandarin speakers, got called wai guo ren all the time. I’m sure this is common in most societies that are more homogenous than what we are used to in Western countries, but it could be annoying sometimes. No one meant harm, but I didn’t necessarily want to hear “Welcome to Taiwan!” every day, when I had been living there for a decade, and have my kids constantly photographed or even touched by strangers.
Taiwan is also not always super fair in their love of foreigners. They love white males, but Western females sometimes don’t receive such enthusiastic treatment. As a result, there are definitely more male expats who tend to stick around for longer. What’s more, expats of non-white descent don’t always receive the same special treatment or may find it harder to get teaching jobs. People from Southeast Asia are even looked down upon.
Culture Shock and Homesickness While Living in Taiwan
Funnily enough, I found that I experienced more culture shock in my later years living in Taiwan, especially after having kids. Everything was fine and dandy when I was free to travel around, party, and enjoy all the best that Taiwan had to offer. But once I started spending most of my time in my tiny apartment taking care of my kids, I started to long for a larger living space. The heat got to me more, and I felt annoyed with little things that hadn’t bothered me before, like drivers not letting me cross when I was pushing a baby stroller.
Of course I stayed connected to my family over the years through the Internet. My parents and sisters came to Taiwan multiple times, and we traveled around the island together. Once I had kids, though, I longed to be with them more, and I needed the additional family support. Because Emily and I both worked a lot, we were constantly juggling too many responsibilities. I didn’t have time to enjoy the aspects of Taiwan that I had fallen in love with.
Working in Taiwan as a Foreigner
Getting a Job Teaching English in Taiwan
As I mentioned above, I went to Taiwan as an English teacher. All this required was to be a native English speaker and to have any post-secondary degree. While some people just show up in Taiwan and then find a job, my friend and I got hired by a small cram school before we arrived.
We found the job on TEALIT, a website for finding jobs, housing, and language exchange partners in Taiwan. As white, male English teachers with some experience, we found it very easy to get hired. I ended up working at that school for five years, while my friend is still there and managing the school today! Over the years, we found some arriving expats took longer to find jobs, but I never met a foreigner who couldn’t find anything.
As an after-hours cram school, they only offered me part-time hours. They also applied for an ARC (working visa) on my behalf, which is the norm, but it also meant I was somewhat tied to that job. I filled in the hours by getting a morning job in a kindergarten, and a few private tutoring gigs.
Working Life in Taiwan
Working several part-time jobs had ups and downs. On the plus side, I was seldom expected to do much more than show up and teach. By making an hourly wage, the more I worked, the more I made. Teachers who sign on for full-time work with one school have a guaranteed monthly income, but are often expected to stick around longer and do extra things, and their hourly wage when calculated can end up being quite a bit lower.
On the other hand, I spent a lot of extra, unpaid time commuting between jobs. It was also easier for students (or me) to cancel private gigs, and I didn’t get paid holidays. And unlike some other countries in Asia few schools in Taiwan pay year-end bonuses.
Like most English teachers in Taiwan, in the early years I taught very young kids, including preschool, kindergarten, and elementary age, and I taught mainly in cram schools. There were comparatively few jobs available in actual schools, and at the junior high and high school level, students in Taiwan mainly learn from local, not foreign teachers
Time For a Change
I found teaching kids fun, but I was never a teacher by profession, nor did I really want to be one. It wasn’t my dream job, and I didn’t put my heart into it.
Another aspect of teaching in cram schools that I wasn’t a huge fan of is that kids in Taiwan go to school way too much (more hours per day than anywhere else in the world). We would pick up young elementary students from their long day at regular school to take them to our cram school, where we gave them even more homework, on top of their regular school homework. Some of them didn’t even get picked up by their parents (who also work crazy hours) until 9 PM, after which they would go home and do more homework. As a cram school teacher, I felt I was a part of this system that robbed kids of their childhood.
For the above reasons, over the years, I transitioned to tutoring high school kids (at a small school run by my wife). I also got into teaching business English to working professionals, most of whom worked for big computer companies. I found teaching adults more rewarding, because they actually wanted to learn. I even became friends with some of them, and the pay was nearly double what I’d made teaching in cram schools. However, the businesspeople were always busy and cancelled class a lot.
More Professional Opportunities in Taiwan
After I got married, I got a visa through marriage rather than through a school. And after five years in Taiwan, I could apply for an APRC, or permanent resident card. This meant I could work anywhere I wanted to. After having my first book published, I started getting job offers from English textbook publishers. I ended up working for several of the country’s biggest ones, mainly doing proofreading, editing, and writing, but also some voice recording, video work, and more.
My wife was also hired by an English educational software company, and together we did a large volume of work for them, mainly video making and English proficiency practice exam writing.
In my final couple years in Taiwan, when my travel website started taking off, I found that between the blog, writing work, and a few private students I still taught, I was making 2-3 times the money any of my English-teaching friends were making, although I did work more hours per week than any of them. My wife also worked a lot and made really good money, and eventually we would use these savings to travel around the world for months, move to Canada, and buy a house.
Day to Day Life While Living in Taipei
Commuting and Getting Around Taipei
As I’ve already touched on above, Taipei definitely has a strong working culture. When I still worked in schools, I would hop on the MRT every day like millions of others and travel from the suburbs (New Taipei City) to the city center (Taipei) to work. The Taipei MRT is one of the world’s best. It is the lifeline and pride of Taipei. It’s ultra clean, it’s passengers ultra polite, and it goes just about anywhere you’d want to go. Businesspeople and students ride it side by side.
The vast majority of people living in Taipei reside in apartments. The rich live in very modern ones, while the average family (and almost all expats) live in older, 5-story concrete blocks. These low-rise apartments are densely packed into residential neighborhoods, with lanes & alleys between them so narrow that cars can just barely squeeze through. At night, they fill up with parked scooters.
Besides public transportation, Taiwan is a nation of scooters. These are more convenient for navigating the narrow lanes and squeezing through traffic jams. Expats who live in smaller cities of Taiwan almost always get scooters for driving around, and riding scooters in the countryside of Taiwan or on the tropical, offshore islands was one of my favorite experiences in Taiwan.
Where do Expats Live in Taipei?
In Taipei, there’s no real backpacker’s/foreigner’s neighborhood like in some Asian capitals, but definitely Da’An, which has several universities with many foreign students, had more foreign students about, while the northern Taipei neighborhood of Tianmu is a favorite place for wealthier expat families and those with kids. As an English teacher, though, most of my friends were spread around the city, and we got together with ease by riding the MRT or taking taxis, which are quite affordable in Taipei.
Spending Free Time in Taipei
On weekends in Taipei, most people crash on Friday night after working all week. Many even work on Saturdays, a leftover from when Taiwan only had a one-day weekend, and it’s a huge day for cram schools. Saturday night is very much the night to go out. Favorite activities among locals include strolling the city’s famed night markets while grabbing snacks to eat on the go, window shopping, night clubbing, or spending hours eating in hot pot or barbecue restaurants. My friends and I liked to go bowling, or go to bars, concerts, raves, and music festivals.
Sometimes we’d just get beers from 7-Eleven and walk the streets. Taiwan is known to have the highest concentration of 7-Elevens in the world, not to mention numerous other convenience store chains. These little miracle shops have everything, from booze and delicious ready-made meals to services like package delivery, train tickets, picking up items ordered online, paying electrical bills, recycling batteries, and much more. The average Taipei resident probably steps into one several times per day, and when Taiwanese (including expats) go abroad, we often miss those convenience stores. The familiar “ding dong” sound when you enter the door is a sound that would make any Taiwanese living abroad feel nostalgic.
There is an unbelievable array of day trip possibilities from Taipei. In summer we’d go to the beach or go river tracing, spring and fall were all about hiking, and in winter it was hot springs. Taiwan is so small that you can go just about anywhere in the country in a weekend. I even hiked to the top of Yushan, the tallest mountain in Northeast Asia, one weekend. The country is an outdoor lover’s paradise, and there is something amazing to do in every month of the year in Taiwan.
The Hidden Beauty of Living in Taiwan
Now that I live in Canada again, I definitely miss some of the conveniences of living in Taipei. I miss not having to drive, grabbing meals from my local market, walking into dentists without an appointment, and being able to walk around or go shopping with a beer in my hand. I’ve even accidentally walked out of a bar in Canada with a beer in my hand, only to have my Canadian friends ask me what I was doing!
Sure, people in Taipei do make some sacrifices for those conveniences. The city is crowded, neighborhoods can be a little noisy, and you don’t get the kind of personal space you do in my country. But I think it’s a small tradeoff, and one of the reasons so many English teachers like me come for a year and end up staying indefinitely.
The Cost of Living in Taipei
For reference, the average monthly salary after taxes in Taipei is around TWD 85,000 ($3000). Young workers fresh out of university might make less than a third of that, while many business people and professionals make substantially more.
The average foreign teacher makes TWD 60,000 to 90,000 ($2000 to 3150) per month. But keeping in mind that most of them don’t have families to take care of, cars, etc., and the fact that most of them work less than 40 hours per week (while the average local might work 60-80 hours per week), this salary relative to the low cost of living (compared to most Western countries) is quite good. Working hourly, I made TWD 600 or $21 (at the lowest end) to 1200 or $42 (teaching university).
When I made a regular teacher’s salary, I found I was able to easily save about half my income, after the initial set up costs in the first few months. Some of my friends lived there for years and never saved a penny, though, because they ate out a lot, traveled international every chance they got, took entire summers off, or weren’t careful with their money.
Here are some average costs of items in Taipei:
- Small can of Taiwan beer from 7-Eleven: TWD 32 ($1.10)
- Bubble tea: TWD 50-90 ($1.70-3.50)
- Large bowl of street noodles: TWD 50-200 ($1.70-7.00)
- All-you-can-eat hot pot including beer: TWD 600-1000 ($21-35)
- MRT ride: TWD 25-60 ($0.90 to 2.00)
- High Speed Rail ticket across country: TWD1500 ($50)
- Monthly rent for typical local apartment: TWD 10,000 to 20,000 ($350-700)
Final Thoughts on Living in Taipei
Taipei is one of the most comfortable cities in the world to live, leading it to be named the “top city for expats” several times. Convenient lifestyle, safety, excellent public transportation, national health care, and amazing food are but some of the pluses.
I felt very at home in Taipei, and my family’s decision to leave was a complicated one. Taipei will always be my second home, and I plan to return frequently in the future with my wife and kids.
Unsurprisingly, now that I am gone, I seriously miss some aspects of Taiwan. Watching how well the country coped with COVID-19 was also jealousy-inducing. While we endured months of lockdown in Canada, our friends and family living in Taipei were going about life pretty much as normal.
Taipei will always have a special place in my heart, and I would highly recommend it to anyone considering moving there.
Nick Kembel is the author of Taiwan in the Eyes of a Foreigner (7000 copies sold) and creator of Spiritual Travels, a website focused mainly on Taiwan and Canada. He has contributed to CNN, National Geographic, and more. He is also runs Taiwan Travel Planning, where he offers free advice on traveling to Taiwan, and a website about hoverboards called My Self Transport.
If you’re moving to Taiwan, currently living in Taipei or just curious about living abroad, leave you questions for Nick below in the comments.
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