When I moved to Taiwan in 2004, I thought I would stay there for a year or however long it would take me to find myself and get over a bad college boyfriend. But a year in Taiwan became five, and then I spent another year in Shanghai before “coming home”. Six months later, I landed a corporate job in a city I’d never heard of before I saw the job listing.
In a lot of ways, the life I was living in Taiwan was a lot closer to my ideal life than the life I have now. I spend a lot of time these days wishing for a better salary, a lower cost of living, less red tape, fewer automated answering services, and a whole lot more freedom, all of which I had in Taiwan.
As one of a minority of Westerners in the midst of a city of people who weren’t entirely familiar with Western culture, it often seemed like I could do just about anything I wanted without judgment or consequence. Stoplights were optional! You could smoke in a restaurant if it was mostly empty and you were friendly with the waitstaff! And eating out was really cheap! So was flying to Hong Kong for the weekend! You could stay at the bar until dawn! And then you could watch your friends wrestle in the park, drunk in their Halloween costumes! You could get out of traffic tickets by being not-Chinese! And lots of other stuff I can’t repeat here!
In hindsight, I could have paid down my debt and saved a lot more money while I was there. I could be free from student loans by now, instead of spending night after night at the bar. But I don’t beat myself up about that too much because I was young and dumb and really clueless about what my perfect life looked like, and why would you buy the ticket if you don’t know where you’re going?
Now, I’m slogging away for less money while I’m paying my never-ending student loans, the credit card bills I racked up when I was unemployed, a car payment, a pricey smartphone bill, and–adding insult to injury–I pay more than $30 a week to put gas in my car when I could fill up my scooter for $3 a week. I have a dozen discount cards hanging off my keychain and every time I want to buy something I have to proffer a card or pay the full retail price for my purchase. Also I have to remember to tip servers, which isn’t a chore in itself, but it’s easy enough to get used to not tipping so as not to offend anyone. And tipping a waiter a percentage of the price of overpriced, underwhelming franchise restaurant food chafes my ass every single time.
I thought often about running back to Taiwan when I first took the job I have now. Every time I found out about some fee, credit check, tax, law, or rule that I didn’t know about, I wanted to give up.But while I had an enviable social life and a bigger salary than I really needed, teaching was still just a job and it never felt like it was my calling or vocation. It was never really freedom. Despite the late nights and the wild friends and the money, I was tied to a job for eight or more hours a day and I was only taking vacations when I had time off. And once you’ve decided that doing anything less than what you love would be committing spiritual suicide, there’s not really a benefits package that will make you want to stay.
I understand why a lot of the expats that where there with me stayed, though. I was only 23 when I went. I graduated college in May 2004 and arrived in Taiwan on August 23 of the same year. But a lot of teachers there–especially those who stayed for a long time–were closer to 30. They had already put in a couple of years climbing soul-sucking corporate ladders or working at shit dead-end jobs with nothing to show for it nearly a decade after they’d graduated college, so a steady paycheck that was usually about twice the per capita GDP, a lax work schedule and low expectations were not just inviting, but a dream come true.
The thing is, there are plenty of people there who want that expat lifestyle, but don’t want to be teaching, either. For me, that was enough reason to leave, so I could take a stab at this life thing from another angle. And thankfully, the experiences I’ve had since coming back have made me realize that I first need to get clear about my goals and my values before I can proceed.
Ultimately, I could have created the life I wanted no matter where I was. I see that now that I have been able to spend so much time thinking very intentionally about my goals and next steps. I don’t have any regrets because I’ve learned so much since I’ve been here and enjoyed time with friends new and old, and with my family. Coming back to the US not only gave me some mental and emotional quiet time to figure out my next steps, it also gave me the opportunity to meet lots of people–of whom J is foremost–who have helped me get my head on straight when it comes to managing my time and money and plotting out some life plans.