Living in Taiwan often makes me think about ideas of Happiness and Misery. Truth-be-told, it’s always a subject I’ve grappled with. But recent years have brought greater understanding than my younger years. Hunter Thompson, in his early 20s, wrote the following on the subject:
“Happy,” I muttered, trying to pin the word down. But it is one of those words, like Love, that I never quite understood. Most people who deal in words don’t have much faith in them and I am no exception—especially the big ones like Happy and Love and Honest and Strong. They are too elusive and far too relative when you compare them to sharp, mean little words like Punk and Cheap and Phony. I feel at home with these, because they’re scrawny and easy to pin, but the big ones are tough and it takes either a priest of a fool to use them with any confidence.coun
I always liked that, but it never quite worked for me. As elusive as love certainly is, I’ve had little difficultly feeling it, in my life. But love’s a funny thing. It can feel so real, in the moment, only to have you question it, later on, when it’s gone. But Hunter’s point is valid, in terms of happiness: it’s hard to define. It’s much easier for us to say “I can tell I am unhappy because _____” than it is to say “I know I am happy because _____.” Which brings me back to my original statement, about living in Taiwan.
Taiwan is an amazing country. It’s not perfect, but it’s extremely awesome. The culture is both ancient and modern; their cultural growth is impressive. They have a long way to go, but for a country that has had democracy for less than two decades and was dumping their garbage into their canals less than thirty years ago, they’ve really come a long way in a very short period of time. I rent a 1200 square foot apartment with 2 balconies for US$400/mo. I get a cell phone with unlimited data for US$30/mo, 12Mbps internet for US$20/mo, and a 12″ cheese pizza for US$6.
It’s hard to say what I love the most. I get to live in a tropical country where most people make less than US$1000/mo and I make US$40/hour. Even if I was just an English teacher here, I’d be making US$20/hour, and based on those prices I’ve mentioned, it’s easy to see that it’s not hard to live here – finding a 40-hour week teaching isn’t hard to do, though that is hard work: teaching is very intensive. But, to break it down to brass tacks, I’ll just say this – I can keep my budget to US$1200/mo without much budgeting and if I had to make that much as an English teacher, I’d only have to work 15 hours a week.
Let me reiterate that. As a native English speaker in Taichung, Taiwan, you can live a life like mine – sizable apartment, motorcycle, eating well – by working about as much as you went to class as a college undergrad student. Which is the perfect metaphor. Put a pin in that: we’ll get back to it.
Last week, I was at my favorite restaurant in the world: Bystro. Sitting at the bar, after enjoying my burger and tequila sour, a Scottish-Australian fellow came in and sat down next to me. Me, in my typical casual board shorts and Hawaiian shirt attire. We said hello and he asked where I was from and what I was doing here. I told him that I live here and I operate an American international consulting firm. His response was interesting.
“It seems that most of the expats here teach English,” he said. Hard to disagree with. But what was harder to disagree with was what came next.
“And they seem so unhappy.”
He really hit the nail right on the head. It’s shocking, to me, the number of Westerners who live in paradise and can’t stop whining about it. It, and every other thing. They’ll complain about their home country, other countries, this country, Taiwanese people in this country, other foreigners in this country, where they work, what they do for work, their bosses, their coworkers, the dating scene, the bar scene…literally everything you can think of to complain about, they complain about. “The captivity of negativity,” as GATE industries’ slogan says.
Now, this is not to say their grievances aren’t valid. Their problem isn’t the problems – their problem is that the problems are their focal point. Think back to that undergrad metaphor, and combine it with what you imagine is “the typical white guy living in southeast Asia.” It’s the archetypal College Know-It-All Hippie.
Pretentious, smug, superior, and self-righteous.
But also lazy, depressed, angry, and entitled.
If you ask them, they’ll claim they’re happy. It’s not that they’re lying…it’s just that they don’t see the cycle they’re trapped in.
First of all, it’s not all expats. Most under-30 expats, you expect to still be in that “undergrad mindset,” because they’re fresh into the world. I’m not going to trash on a kid who’s 24, didn’t like the corporate game out-of-college, always wanted to come to Asia, and decided to pull the trigger. To be honest, that kid was me, six years ago. But I evolved. The ones I have issues with are the ones who didn’t evolve. I meet more 40-year-old adolescents in this country than you can possibly imagine. There’s a cycle here, for many expats, and it’s pretty simple.
The primary issue is the work. While it pays, it’s nothing more than getting paid US$20/hour to babysit bratty 3-12 year olds; finding a job that doesn’t fit that bill is very difficult. Which means that, while you can do it for a few years without it having an effect on you…after a few years, you start to feel a real emptiness. It’s hard for people to exist and feel powerless…feel they are doing a job that is unimportant. Because education is not a priority for so many teachers – not because of their desires, but because of the schools’ desires – they feel like what they’re doing is not valuable. And that hurts their self-worth. By the time they realize that what they do doesn’t really matter – that they are as irreplaceable as a ditch-digger – it depresses them.
So they get pissed. And angry people like to blame someone for their anger, and it’s rare they blame themselves. To numb that pain, they start drinking. Many of these angry adult children I meet are also functioning alcoholics. And then round-and-round we go: depressed, angry, drunk, lazy, aimless, depressed, angry, drunk, lazy, aimless, depressed, angry, drunk, lazy, aimless, forever.
It’s the reason I can count the number of non-Taiwanese friends I have in Taiwan on one hand. Not that I’ve ever been one to want lots of friends – I’m very much quality-over-quantity – and I always have been. The problem here is that quality is in very short supply. I can’t talk about my business with most people because they’ll tell me it’s stupid – that I’m stupid – that I am working my ass off to make as much as they make in 30-hours-a-week of teaching. And yet I’m far more happy and fulfilled than they are, something they don’t just not accept, but they can’t comprehend. They’ve become so trapped in the comfortable stagnancy of working as kindergarten/buxiban teachers in Taiwan that they can’t understand why anyone does anything different.
Case-in-point is my Facebook page for my business – the only “likes” I have are from Taiwanese or Americans in the USA – there are only a few foreigners who have anything good to say about what I do. Now I’m not a baby about it – if I like their restaurant/bar page, I don’t expect them to automatically like my business – the issue isn’t the click of a button – the issue is that, in conversation, they still have nothing good to say about it. So I’ve gotten to the point where I totally avoid most foreigners because they are so self-absorbed and hateful of people who do anything that isn’t what has become “accepted” in the expat world (i.e. teaching or operating a bar/restaurant) that I just can’t stand getting into conversations with them. The only ones I can get down with are the ones who operate businesses, even if it is a bar/restaurant, because at least they have dreams and goals.
It sucks because I always complain about how, when Taiwanese people meet me, they say, “So, you are English teacher?” The reason it drives me nuts is that it’s their immediate assumption, and it’s loaded with prejudice, just as my perspective of English teachers is loaded with prejudice: lazy, aimless, goalless people who can’t get “a real job” and are just in Taiwan because it’s easy. Like the old Chris Rock bit about “everything white people don’t like about black people, black people really don’t like about black people,” is my world, here. And then I get trapped in my own negativity, looking at foreigners and rolling my eyes, judging them en masse. I wish I could get away from that, but I don’t know how to. Unlike Taiwanese people, who assume based in a lack of interaction (many Taiwanese have never spoken to a foreigner before we have a conversation one day), my assumptions are based in continuous interaction that just keeps reinforcing those stereotypes.
I’m debating even publishing this, because I know it’s poking the bear that is the expat community in Taiwan (especially here in Taichung). We’ll see what happens with it. At least I know, no matter what, I won’t lose any friends over it.
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