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Taiwan 003 – Accommodation…

So you have gotten yourself a visa, you’ve come on over to Taiwan, and you’ve found a job.

The time has come to find a place to hang your hat, to put your feet up and to call home. Now, if you’re like me, your home is your castle, your refuge from all the stupidities and distractions of the world outside. There are four options that are going to be available to you. (Note that these options are going to vary in size and price and quality depending on which city you land up in.)

Things to consider about location. Taiwan is an exceptionally busy place. Especially in the big cities. Where I live in Kaohsiung, it is possible to step out onto the road at 4am and flag down a passing cab in under 5 minutes. Traffic is a ceaseless monster prowling about the city, and noise and air pollution are factors in housing. Beware of living on main roads and near highways. It may be convenient, but you are going to hear everything. Taiwanese houses are built with excessive summer heat in mind. Windows are not double-glazed. Construction is light, and surfaces are normally hard. (I have yet to see a carpeted room in Taiwan) Unlike houses in the UK and Europe that are pretty sound-proofed, Taiwanese houses are as noisy as their area.

1) The School-provided Accommodation:

Sometimes, your school is going to provide your housing. This can vary from a room in a commune through to your very own cushy pad. Read your contract carefully with regards to your contributions to the housing. Are you responsible for the bills, the internet, the phone? How is the payment going to be made?

There are a few factors to consider when accepting school accommodation:

Firstly, the location of your accommodation is likely to be super close to the school. This is going to save you money on transport and transportation in the beginning, and there is always going to be a source of help on hand for any problems you may have. This proximity is a two-edged sword however, and just as easily as you can get to the school, they can get to you. (I once lived in a school house that was literally next door to the school. One of my housemates called in sick, only to have the boss dropping by to “see how sick he was”. The same boss also dropped round unexpectedly during a barbecue party we were holding.)

Secondly, it is not YOUR place. It is the school’s house. You’re not going to have too much sway with stating who stays there, who shares what and who gets the comfy chair. Because it is not your place, and wasn’t the previous occupants’ place either… it is likely not too well taken care of. The school owner/manager has likely never spent more than a few hours in the place, and that to oversee the installation of someone’s second hand furniture. Cram schools are, after all, a profit-driven company, not a government sponsored school. A lot depends on your housemates. I have lived with some really decent souls, and I have lived with some amazingly dirty and disorganised people. Being the school’s house, it is likely that you are going to be sharing it with your foreign colleagues. This is a good thing if you all get along, but sometimes (as we all know) you DON’T get along with your colleagues. Given the sheer variety of foreign cultures that are likely to be thrown together, some sparks will fly. Bear in mind that good or bad, you will be living with the people you work with.

Thirdly, if something goes wrong… your boss is likely to be your go-to guy. You are not likely to have mastered the local language before arriving, and believe it or not, air-conditioner mechanics are not overly qualified in English studies. Which means that you’re going to have to get someone at your school to phone someone in… and then explain what you want done. (Later in this series, I will cover home repair and technicians, but suffice it to say that they are a LOT faster in arriving than their Western counterparts, and do a MUCH sloppier job. As an ex-IT tech, I was horrified by the slack job done by our internet guy.) The idea of going to your boss with a problem is daunting to some people, and there can be a bit of tension regarding who gets to tell the boss that the washing machine is broken.

On the whole… I think that school-based accommodation is a good option for a first-timer to Taiwan. It is normally a decent place, with basic furnishings. You are protected from having to deal with bills and landlords by your school, and you are likely to be close by. That said, you pay the price in privacy and autonomy.

2) The Commune:

Just on the outset, let me tell you that I am not a commune kind of guy. I have lived with my wife and another couple very successfully, but we were all good friends that knew one another well. Moving in with friends is not the sort of commune I am talking about. I am speaking of the kind of place that has four bedrooms that are let independently to one another. Housemates come and go, and the arrangements are pretty casual. The dangers and pitfalls of living in a commune are basically the same as in the west.

The only differences here are that you are living in a country that doesn’t really speak your language. Paying bills is easy enough, but paying LATE bills is another story. If one of your housemates forgets or steals the money or something, you’re in for a lot of hassle. Likewise, trust between housemates can be a little tricky. Because everyone is basically transient and temporary, they will get up to many things that they wouldn’t ordinarily consider in their home town. They may steal, meaning that you need to lock your door… or it could be as bad as bringing drugs into the house. Remember at all times that you are a guest in the country, and if you get involved with something illegal, it may be easier for them to deport you than to deal with the problem.

Just as in the west, I recommend the Commune for younger single people. As in anything, check the place out to your satisfaction before signing anything.

3) The Apartment:

The apartment would seem to be the best option for the Taiwanese newbie and veteran alike. The trick is to get an apartment that is close enough to your schools to make the commute easy, but far away enough from the city that rent is cheaper and it isn’t so busy outside.

There are a few things to be aware of in the renting of apartments. You are just as likely to know your landlord as you are to deal with an agent. In either case, make sure that you can contact them when needed, and that you go through the contract carefully. It is normal in Taiwan to pay a rental fee to your agent or landlord, and then a separate “Guard or Management  fee” (Guanli fei – 管理费) to the guards that work in your building. This fee covers cleaning of the building (Not your apartment), the security, mail sorting and sometimes parking. The biggest thing that it may cover is the garbage collection. Many apartments have their own private skip downstairs, enabling you to dispose of your trash whenever you want to. The Guanli Fei is likely to be about NT$2000 to NT$2500 per month. This is dependent on the services provided and the size of your apartment.

Apartment size is measured in “Ping”, and the apartment size INCLUDES the outside area of your apartment and the elevator. When you are looking for an apartment, it is always a good idea to go on the number of rooms, and then to GO AND LOOK AT THE PLACE. Do not rent sight unseen. You really must look at your locale. You do not want to be tied into a one year lease in an apartment that overlooks a Stinky Tofu store. (Stinky Tofu, Chou Doufu – 臭豆腐 is a SERIOUSLY smelly delicacy in Taiwan. The smell of it has been likened to “hot garbage” and “rewarmed beer puke”. Describe it as you want, it is uniformly gross smelling.) If you are using an agent, feel free to haggle or bargain with the rental price. Agents take a slice of your monthly rent, so there is some leeway. Also feel free to keep looking. In my experience in Taiwan, there are two kinds of housing agent. The first charges a flat fee before showing you anything. The second is only paid when you find a place, and is then paid a half-month’s rent. The latter agent is more expensive, but also will not get paid until you find a home. As someone who has paid a flat fee and was then shown an absolute shower of crap, well… the second agent gets my vote.

Check with your agent when you rent… there may be building-wide special deals on gas and internet and cable. Worth investigating for savings.

4) The House:

Virtually without exception, a “house” in Taiwan is a terraced home, far longer than it is wide. With space being at a premium, houses are often 4 or 5 floors. Houses tend to run a wide range of prices. Unlike apartments, you will not have a communal garbage skip. This means dashing out at the assigned times with your trash bags, and jostling with your neighbours to get the bags tossed in the truck. This can actually be a very good social situation, as you will meet the people that live in your area. A smile and some Chinese will go a long way to making friends.

Houses are varied in terms of age and quality. Generally speaking, newer houses are more expensive than older ones, and with good reason. When you move in, make sure that you have tested the airconditioners and furniture in the house. I have a number of friends that landed up repairing airconditioners and putting up with crappy furniture when they moved into their houses. (The same goes for apartments, although they do tend to be better maintained.) Houses will give you privacy and off-street parking. That said, your bills can be very high, especially if you try and cool the entire place down in summer. (The higher floors in houses are always quite hot.)

There… I hope that this sees you settled and comfortable.

Next time – Taiwan 004 – The Utilities… phone, internet, gas, water and power. (And paying your bills.)

If you have any questions, please leave me a comment, and I will get back to you.

Ciao

Yeti


Taiwan 002 – Visas, Jobs and Agents…

So you’ve made the decision to abandon everything you hold dear, to throw caution into the nearest dumpster and to head off to the mystic East. In the words of Billy Connolly, you’re about to become “wind-swept and interesting”. As aspirations for life go, this is not a bad one.

This post will deal with Travel Visa’s, Jobs and Agents…

*

Firstly, Travel Visas.

I am working on the assumption that you are a qualified (Bachelor’s Degree, not necessarily a teaching qualification) individual, with a passport from an English speaking country. Sadly, this excludes Germans, Swedes and Spaniards etc… your countries are not deemed “English” and will not be granted a Taiwanese work permit for English teaching.  The UK, Ireland, the US, Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand… you’re fine.

Travel Visas are going to be dependent on your home country. By and large, most Western countries get a 30 to 90 day visa on landing. South Africans, this does not apply to you. (As is usual SA gets screwed on landing visas.) This site gives an excellent breakdown of the various countries . You should be able to apply for a visa at your local consulate or embassy, and the process will take anywhere between 2 weeks and 2 months, depending on your country, and your situation. You are going to need to furnish a return ticket or proof of onward journey for the visa to be accepted, or for the landing visa to be granted.
Tip: Pay the extra and make sure that your return flight can be changed, and postponed to almost a year later. The standard Taiwanese teaching contract and Residence Permit is valid for a year. If you are sick of the place and want to go home, the ticket can then be used. If you are loving the place and intend returning, well…the ticket can still be used.

Secondly, Jobs and Agents.

Getting employment in Taiwan is perhaps not as easy as it was ten years ago, but it is still pretty basic. If you take nothing else away from this guide, let it be this. YOU DO NOT NEED AN AGENT.

I used an agent when I first came to Taiwan. I not only had to pay for the privilege in my home country, my pay was docked for the first three months in Taiwan. (This was explained as a “probationary” salary, not a deduction. It was only by chance that I discovered that the difference was being paid to my agent.) They promised support and aid, and nothing ever came of it. They basically found me a job….REALLY easy, then took advantage of my inexperience to make plenty of money. I landed up in a horrible little farming town, with a school manager that clearly had no love lost with foreign teachers. It was terrible.

You will find plenty of work available on the various forums devoted to expatriate life in Taiwan. The best one is Forumosa . That site is devoted primarily to Taipei living. If Kaohsiung is more your style, there is a Yahoo group called “Kaohsiung_living”. Check it out.

If you want to work legally, you will need to have a Bachelor’s Degree from a recognised University. It is not required that you have a TEFL qualification, although that might sweeten the pot a little. It is not required that you have a teaching qualification, although that too will make things easier for you. Resist the temptation to use a fake degree. The Taiwanese have begun clamping down on that, and deportation is never cool.

You will need to have a medical test done at a recognised hospital. The names vary according to your city. The best bet is to either enquire at the hospital, or to ask your prospective school. The medical test is blood and a minor physical including x-rays. They will screen for drugs, and they will refuse you your clearance if they find any. If you intend using drugs, and coming to Taiwan, detox before the test. (And think carefully about doing drugs here… it is a capital offense to smuggle drugs and they are really serious about sentencing users.) AIDS and pregnancy will also land you in hot water.

Tip: If you can do it, do the test ASAP. It takes about ten working days to process, and is valid for 3 months, which is basically as long as your visitors visa. You cannot get the paperwork started for your work visa until you have the hospital papers in hand. Getting it done early saves time. (It should cost around NT$ 1200.)

Your school will ask you to sign a contract, and will then apply for your ARC. The ARC is your “green card”… your Alien Residence Certificate. It allows you to exit and enter Taiwan, and is used for identity basically everywhere. It is valid for one year, as is your contract. (Usually.) Your ARC is gold to you. Keep it, don’t lose it. Once you have a school, you are good to go.

Tip: Although the practice is dying out, it was common for Taiwanese employers to include “security deposits” in your contract. Basically, they take a chunk of cash every month, and the money is only paid over to you when you complete the contract… security on you finishing your contract. This is illegal. They know it. You should know it too. If they insist on the clause, or try and take it out of your pay… WALK AWAY. If they get pushy, phone the Foreign Affairs police and report them. The fine is more than they would make off of you.

Once you have your ARC, you will have access to Health Insurance. (More on this later.)Your life here can start.

If you are working in a big city, you should be asking for roughly NT$600 per hour. Any less than NT$550 is a waste of time and money. Do not sign up for anything less than 14 hours per week. Resist the temptation to sign up for more than 30 hours a week… at least until you know you can handle it. When you are signing on, make sure that your working hour commitment is agreed on. There are many schools that demand and expect huge amounts of “office hours” to go with the teaching hours. Use your discretion. Or ask the other foreign teachers what they think.Actually, that’s a pretty good idea for any job.

Bear in mind that it is currently illegal for foreign teachers to teach kindergarten students. That said, there are thousands of foreign kindergarten teachers in Taiwan. Just be warned.

If you have any questions on any of the above, or if you are feeling lost… drop a comment in the box, and I will do what I can.

(Next week: Accommodation.)


Taiwan 001 – So you’re thinking about coming to Taiwan…

So you’re thinking about coming to Taiwan.

And you’re starting to realise just how far away and how definitively non-Western the country is.

And you’re thinking that it might be a good idea to find out what to expect. Well, keep reading, and I’ll see what I can do to help you.

I’m going to put up posts dealing with different aspects of life here. (Hopefully, I’ll be able to post them pretty regularly.)

If you have any comments or questions, throw it into the comments and I’ll do my best.

Ciao

Yeti.

(Next: Taiwan 2 – Visas, Jobs and Agents.)


Stress is for the week…

I’m not going to be rocking any boats or rattling any cages when I observe that we live in an increasingly stress-filled world. (Apologies about the mixed metaphors… I love using them, it’s like having my cake on cloud nine.)

So it seems that our lifestyles are out to get us. I look about my collection of friends, some of whom are relatively well-adjusted, and I see a lot of tired faces. A lot of tired and stressed out people. And it is all our fault. Like the scene from Trainspotting, we choose life. We choose the job, the mortgage and the big-screen TV. We choose massive amounts of credit and we choose to live beyond our means. What they don’t show in the movie is that going straight and living a life of “Joneses” means accepting a giant dollop of stress with every scoop of living. And the vast majority of that stress comes from our jobs.

People (and by people, I mean men) like to say how marriage is an unnatural institution, that staying with the same mate for longer than seven years is somehow counter-evolutionary. And there is a fair amount of debate both ways about that. But what we never consider is the naturalness of reporting to a dimly cubicle in uncomfortable clothing and shoes, there to sit for basically all the hours of daylight. We’ll spend upwards of forty years of our lives working. Forty years! In our instant culture, it’s a number that really has no meaning. How are we to judge at the age of twenty five what will suit our sixty year old selves? I’m in my thirties now, and I STILL haven’t the slightest idea what sort of work I would like to be doing when I retire. What I can tell you is the work that I would like to be doing now. And this I think is the way forward.

We need to plan for the future financially. No mistake about it. We’re living longer and longer, and nobody wants to be a burden to their children. I’m happy to accept that I need to save today for tomorrow. But aside from the financial aspect forward planning is pointless. When I was at school, I was constantly told that I absolutely HAD to do Mathematics, absolutely HAD to study Science, that the skills and logical thought I learned at school would stand me in good stead for the rest of my life. And it’s GARBAGE. It is tripe of the most trite and sanctimonious sort. To this day I have not yet been forced into a situation where trigonometry or calculus have saved the day. I have yet to use ANY of the Chemistry I learned. Mr Ball, Mrs Mendelski… I could safely have made it through my life thus far without your classes.

But the push to advance subjects continues at university. From the moment you enroll, lecturers push for their subject. Psychology teaches valuable life skills, History teaches research techniques and reasoned arguing. And unfortunately, most of the Arts subjects are really rather worthless in the real world. (I’m speaking as a Bachelor of Arts myself.) Any one of the teaching subjects are utterly useless for 99% of the people graduating, unless of course they intend teaching. The Commerce subjects tend to have a higher relevancy to real life, but let’s face it… who wants to study Commercial Law? No… honestly. You might like practicing law, but studying it is a pain in the ass.

And so it is that we emerge newly minted degreed job-seekers, the end product of lots of advice, and with hundreds of hours of “essential” instruction under our belts. And almost immediately, we become barmen and waiters. Besides basic arithmetic and some social skills, we’re doing something your average nine-year old can do. And it doesn’t end there. Eventually, we prevail upon an interviewer that our degree, whilst not really practical in the real world, DOES mean that we are at least “trainable”. And so the forty year office cycle begins. While at work, we will be told to study various courses, to further our qualifications. Do they have real-life applications? Honestly? No. But now we are in the rat-race. We’re jostling with our cohorts, fighting for that promotion, for the corner office. We’re lurking around the water-cooler, we’re drinking crappy coffee and we’re taking orders from someone who has in all likelihood not received the same education we have.

For people from my father’s generation, and the generation before, there was such a thing as company loyalty. This was a two-way street where every employee was taken care of, where the company appreciated the sacrifice of its minions. Sadly, the grey suits and bottom-liners have taken over, and that is not really the case anymore. My generation changes jobs more often than any other. We flit from job to job, company to company. We do two years here, three years there. And this gives us the best opportunity for a chance at life.

(See… I do eventually come to the point.)

If you are unhappy in your work… If you find yourself talking, wondering and worrying about your work on the weekends… If you find yourself on edge at home because there is something going on at work… For the love of yourself, change your job! Find another career, or find another position. But don’t ruin your Real Life for a paycheck. If we work to support our lifestyle, what point is there in allowing our work to kill our lifestyle? Without a life, is there any need for a high-stress job? No. Leave the work at work. Stress is for the week! And the week stops at my front door. When I get home, I change out of the clothes of the oppressor, and into casual home clothes. I don’t bring work home with me. Not because I don’t care about my job, but because I care about my wife and my life more.

Hunched shoulders and last-minute reports are for work-time. Your family and your life are waiting for you when you get home. More than half of your life is given away to the companies and the suits. Why volunteer more? And remember… like every other authority figure in your entire life, your boss does not have “Truth”. Your boss has “Opinion”. And just like every other authority figure in your life, your boss is going to use his position to further his ends. (Think about it…when last did you hear any teacher say the words, “My subject? Nah… you’d be better off taking something useful”. )

At the end of my day, and at the end of my life, I want to look back on my work and be able to smile. Not because I got the promotion, not because I got the plaque on the door. I want to be able to be happy with myself because I did good. Because my job supported my life, and not the other way around.

 


Massive Missive – The Ideas of March

Apologies to the Bard.

Not really. He cracked more than a few puns in his career, and took more liberties with the language than a texting teen on a cellphone. Of course, Shakespeare’s material was imminently more readable than the traditional “c u l8er m8, good crack 2nite, your gr8!” garbage that passes for communication amongst the IQ deprived. So, the Ideas of March.

They say that things come in threes. Obviously, most people have never submitted short stories for publication. Rejection letters don’t come in threes. They come in droves. All of them politely worded and politically correct, and ultimately, saying the same thing. “No.” In my experience, things don’t come in threes. They come until you stop making them come. Which is why March is looking to be a busy month for my wife and I.

You see, we’ve known for some time that Taiwan wasn’t going to hold us for long. Granted, every time we come to Taiwan, it holds us for a lot longer than we ever anticipate. But even so, the time is drawing near when we will once again be leaving the island. I first came to Taiwan in 2002, an over-sized and pretty much ignorant foreigner with no Chinese speaking ability and no real idea of Chinese culture past a chicken chow mein and bad kung fu movies. I’ll be leaving Taiwan in 2011, an over-sized and still pretty much ignorant foreigner with a smattering of Chinese and a much better idea of Chinese culture. (Still like Chicken Chow Mein and bad kung fu movies though!)

Taiwan is the ultimate comfort zone. If you are able to get beyond the mild xenophobia that exists in Taiwan, you are going to lead an excellent and interesting life. Incidentally, I MEAN xenophobia. The Taiwanese are no more racist or classist than any other nation I have known. And while they might get embarrassed when speaking to foreigners, or feign a lack of understanding to avoid a potentially embarrassing situation, it is far more usual to hear negative comments levelled at the Taiwanese by foreigners living here. One big plus for the Taiwanese is that they are uniformly tolerant of all religions. I have received far more criticism for my atheism in the west than I ever have in the east. Perhaps it is that Islam and Christianity are young religions (As compared to most of the Eastern religions) and are still focusing on proselytizing. Whatever the reason, the Taiwanese are relaxed about virtually everything except work and the traffic.

The “Chinese work ethic” is something that gets bandied about by managerial types over mocha-frappe-choco-lattes and power meetings. And in every case, the speaker has little or no idea of what they are talking about. I am not saying that western people don’t work hard, far from it… I have a father who nearly worked himself to a standstill to provide for us, but by and large, the sheer dedication and amount of hours put in by the average Taiwanese shames western workers. I believe that most of it stems from an inherently Confucian societal work ethic. It can get swiftly frustrating as a foreigner working in that environment. My first instinct when asked to take work home over the weekend is “No.” It certainly isn’t that way for them.

Traffic is, however, the greatest failing of modern Taiwanese culture. Traffic lights are not optional, but they ARE open to negotiation. In a metropolitan area with over 5 million residents, Kaohsiung has some pretty hairy traffic snarls. And scooters, well, they are legion. It is not uncommon to come around a blind corner on a busy road, scooters ahead, behind and around you… only to find some hapless moron driving against the traffic on his own scooter. And the usual suspects are to blame…youngsters and drunks. Youngsters are a particular problem here. Instead of driving a crappy Honda Civic with more plastic skirting than a collection of Goth Barbies, they drive souped up scooters. And of course… there is the issue of hair. The current trend for Taiwanese youngsters is a hair-style akin to a manga series. Spiky, and omni-directional. Said style requires a monstrous amount of hair-gel and time to apply, and thus, they tend to be hideously afraid of wearing helmets. Fast driving and a lack of helmets… well, there is an argument of Darwinism.

But I digress. I was saying that Taiwan was a comfort zone. And it is. In terms of salary percentage, a full-time foreign teacher is sitting pretty. The average salary for a full-time teacher runs anywhere between NT$55,000 and NT$65,000. (If you’re earning less, change jobs… you’re being taken advantage of.) Let’s call it NT$60,000. My wife and I live in a nice part of town, in a four bedroomed, two bathroomed, twin balconied, furnished apartment. We pay NT$ 16500 per month, including all guard and door fees. (That included garbage removal, building cleaners and security BTW) That’s 44k left over to eat and play with. Very comfortable indeed. We know that our move to the UK is going to result in a big change to that standard of living. Taiwan is a great stepping stone to Asia, and with return flights to Hong Kong starting at 10K, well, there is plenty of opportunity to play.

And yet… we are moving to the UK. Why? And the answer is family.

There is no better destination in life than to be with family. (Assuming that you like yours, of course.) My family has done a fairly good portion of the globe over the last few years, and this move will mean that everyone is permanently on the same continent for the first time in nearly a decade. Which is awesome.

To make our move a little easier, the wife and I are beginning studies in TEFL. Nothing serious, but it would be nice to have a UK recognised diploma that reflects the experience that we have gained over the last 8 years. That entails part-time study over the next 3 months. Which is the same time period where we are trying to

a) Emigrate

b) ship a household full of stuff to the UK

c) apply for jobs in the UK

d) wrap up everything here and

e) arbitrarily relaunch a personal blog.

Yeah. Perhaps that Chinese work ethic has rubbed off a little. Or perhaps I am just a sucker for punishment.

Is it all going to last? I hope so. If nothing else, the next Missive will be a little more personal, and a little more immersive.

If you have any comments or questions, observations or grumblings, leave a comment.

– Yeti

(Written on March 17th, 2011.)