A Consideration of Happiness and Misery

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.

pizza

Good luck topping that!






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.




13 thoughts on “A Consideration of Happiness and Misery

  1. Nice piece. It is an interesting insight into the world of the ex-pat teacher. Maybe it’s not the environment, but rather the individual that is the issue. Maybe there isn’t the desire or ability to move on, but rather to survive and be the victim.

  2. @Dave
    Yeah, actually, Paul (you met Paul) mentioned to me just the other day how he knew a teacher who, when here, complained constantly about Taiwan; she then moved to Hawaii and now constantly complains about living there. Some people just refuse to be happy. Not living up to your potential just adds to that, I think.

  3. wow what a interesting read, i really love ur blog, but to be honest with you it seams to me like u r also kind of just complaining like the other foreigners that u say they always just complain, so what is the difference?

    but i know what you mean, i also hate when people just assume and always ask me “what do you do? r u a English teacher” even when i first came to taiwan some friends from my church could not believe that i am in Taiwan and not teaching English so they took me to English schools to help me find a job. they just did not understand that i am a international businessman and not here to teach English like they did.

    yesterday i went bike riding as i love to do in the early morning 5:30am when the streets are almost empty and came up to a park area by the water, i saw two foreigners who wore just standing there and drinking beers and talking to each other, i slow down and said hello and asked where are they from as i always enjoy (i am always looking for people from my part of the world) and they told me one uk and one canada) so i just said wow u guys start really early huh and drove off. but i find that so sad about alcohol, its such a poison and i dont understand why so many people in life throw away their life by drinking. I feel so proud to be 28 years old and never drink or got drunk in my life.

    wait how do u get ur unli internet cell phone bill for 30nt per month? what company is that? i pay 708nt/month and get 150mb only. can u tell us more please?

  4. I find that true of TW too. Its easy to come here for a lot of foreigners, its easy to stay although the teaching kinda sucks, and its easy to fall into that pit. Doesn’t surprise me at all that’s more common in the smaller cities. I have to say, I’ve been really lucky in TP in that regard. I got a job as an editor, sth I’ve been wanting to try for years and years, and never had the courage to, and although, I could probably make nearly as much, not working 40+ a week, there isn’t, in all honesty, a single time I would trade that back for teaching 25-30 hours a week. Which I did my first year, and made less than I’m making now. Not to mention, for all that I don’t hate kids or people, I’m simply not a teacher. That being said…. I cannot believe how many ppl fall into this trap, esp the lifers here. There are other jobs, but imo its too easy to come over here and make a decent living as a slacker. I think that accounts for a lot of the quality of expat we see here in TW

    • Well, I wouldn’t really classify Taichung as a “smaller city;” 2.6 million people is still pretty significant, imo. Where I really see it is in places like Taoyuan – there are some really miserable people up there. It seems better in the truly small cities, like Nantou or Taidong, where people really get into the culture. That’s the real issue, I think…too many white people hanging out with too many white people, lamenting the fact that they left home thinking this place would be different, and it’s not. Not because of Taiwan, but because they aren’t willing to change themselves like they thought they were, when they originally left. Instead of blame themselves, it’s far easier to just blame others.

      When I see a kid that comes over here, to live an easy life, experience some international travel/living, I’m OK with it, as I said. My issue lies in the “lifers” or even just people who have been here as long as I have (around 4 years) without doing something more than “what’s easy.” It blows my mind to see how many people post things about full-time, part-time, and substitute work, using the word “easy” as a selling point! It’s truly mind-blowing how many foreigners are not seeking challenges. They hang with people they feel comfortable around (often people the same as them), they go after “easy girls” who are out looking to bang a foreigner, etc. It’s sad. But, it does make my life better; with a bar so low, it’s easy to vault over.

  5. Well, being an English Teacher is not bad. I wish I was hired, but they only want Caucasians. I was born in Taiwan, but never lived here until my 31 years old now. I have been living abroad since I was a baby. Now, I am back because of economical issues. I used to have a job that I like in US. But, I didn’t make enough to save money. Here, I can have free health insurance because I have double citizenship. Even I was born here, people don’t look at me as Taiwanese. I used to live in USA . People would come and ask me. Did you used to live abroad? Are you from China or are you a mailbride? They are obviously insulting me. There are so many things I dislike here. But, I have to admit. Nothing is always perfect, but you still can find happiness with imperfection

  6. @Ana
    Very interesting points. You can find a job teaching, but it won’t be for $600/hr like the white people. Hiring at buxibans does get pretty prejudicial…as can the society, itself (as you’re experiencing). I agree that nothing is perfect – it’s the strife for perfection that matters. At least the Taiwanese, generally, want to improve Taiwan. Unfortunately, they live on a small island where many of them never leave; in Taichung, a 15 minute drive is considered “so far.” But even people in Taipei say “Taichung is so far.” They’re limited in their perspective, often choosing the simplest explanations to avoid considering greater implications that might make them lose face. Actually, I read a really funny blog lately…not because of the blog itself (which was funny)…but because of the outrageous comments from Taiwanese people about it. I think you’d like it:

    http://yeahletsgothere.tumblr.com/post/51871878834/whats-weird-about-taiwan

  7. The article from the blog is super friendly. If I write the shit I am facing here, I would definitely use strong words. Saving face exists in many Asian culture. They save too much face until they don’t have any spot to save anymore. I am not totally westernized. I lived in 3 different countries before moving back to Taiwan. But, I have always been a social awkward. Not an outsider, but I know I have hard time to get along with people that I didn’t choose to be with. Just imagine someone abandoning an Insurance Career to move back to Taiwan to work at a waitressing job. It is a big change. But, it is not worst or better. I decided to quit that job and work at home now. It is funny. Because I make the same money as I used to work as waitress at a 5 stars Hotel here. You can laugh to hear 109/ hour for a waitress job at one of the most popular worldwide Hotel. All the tips go to the management. Once you accept the tips, you get in trouble. I did 🙂

  8. Talking about “Saving Face”. Well, I have a blog. That’s why I found yours. I like to read people’s blogs. But, I am a terrible writer. I used to have the same blog for 6 months. My blog has 1200 readers less than 6 months. But, they don’t really read. They were only visiting my blog because I post pictures. Two months ago, I got crazy. I deleted all my posts and pictures. I said farewell to everyone. But, I didn’t say farewell to my writings. I am back. This time, I don’t have any pictures, cute template or anything interesting. There are few readers. Many trolls come to insult me. My blog is here http://taishinana.wordpress.com/
    There are stupid posts, but I don’t care about saving face 🙂

  9. @Ana
    Yeah, Taiwanese have major issues with any kind of criticism from anyone they think doesn’t deserve to criticize. I’ve heard a lot of, “If you don’t like Taiwan, you can leave,” from Taiwanese; it’s like they’re oblivious to the fact that you can love a place and also have issues with it, too. Or, they are OK with it, as long as you’re from here. Most places are like that. “I can say what I want, but you are an outsider, so STFU.”

    Why did you choose to leave the USA? I can’t imagine making minimum wage in Taiwan. What city are you in? The work environment is ridiculous in Taiwan…but so are the employees…and management; I will write about it someday.

    I think every country/culture has a “face saving” concept. It’s just enacted in different ways. Check out this blog:
    http://jsphfrtz.com/traffic-shopping-carts-and-saving-face/

    I get around 2000 hits between my two blogs (my old one that is “dead” and this new one where I now post), but my YouTube channel gets 8,000-10,000 hits a month. Few of my readers comment, which I actually like; I find that the majority of people who comment on blogs/videos/posts are trolls, in one way or another (or they’re just dumb and have little to say). Reading comments is the bane of the creative person. I have few subscribers to both, but I also know who the people are who are reading, because I track my audience – most who hit my blog are looking for info on hookers/strippers while most who hit my channel are looking for information on Taiwan (usually because they’re moving here). Feel free to check it out, too:
    http://www.youtube.com/jsphfrtz

  10. I moved to 3 different countries with my family. I only lived in USA for 8 years. I am not an US citizen, but I was legally residing in US. I was planning to move to South America where I have citizenship, and I could find a better job opportunity there. But, I was wondering because I didn’t have enough money. The place I chose in South America is more expensive than the city I used to live in USA. One of my friend told me how teaching in Taiwan could help me to save money. I moved to Kaohsiung. I started teaching in one English School for a month. I was totally pissed. Because I did graduate in USA, worked only with Native English speakers. The teachers from the English school I worked were bullying me. Because they thought their wrong pronunciation was correct, and I was wrong. That English School was hiring High School graduated students to teach little brats.They couldn’t communicate with Bryan (he was a Caucasian Native English Speaker from Manchester, England). Actually, Bryan was the coolest person at school. We were the only ones who could communicate to each other. He was a bro. According to Bryan, I had a perfect English, and he thought I could be an ABC. I was fired from that school after a month teaching. Then, the employment agency called me. I found a job at a 5 stars Hotel in Tainan. I am not going to state the name of the Company. But, you can guess one of most popular Hotel in Asia. But, I got into trouble again. Just because one of the customers insisted me to accept 100NT of tips. Actually, she put on my hands and told me “It is yours”. What am I supposed to do? I was called at office the next day. But, they didn’t fire me. I quit after 2 months working there. After it, I found a third job at a breeding petshop center. But, I didn’t get paid for 2 months. I was ripped. So, I reported the place to Employment Agency. I might be a difficult person to work at 3 different jobs less than a year. Here, the boss or manager are always right even they are wrong. You can not express your opinions. They have the old concept of “saving face”. I am currently residing in Tainan. But, this place is a bullshit.

  11. @Ana
    Oh, I’ve had Taiwanese argue with *me* over pronunciation of words. If there is a single trait to encompass Taiwanese people, it is stubbornness.

    Taiwan bosses view their Taiwanese employees as slaves, the majority of the time; it’s another source of resentment for foreigners who work here. I’ve had friends talk about (and I’ve experienced, to an extent) Taiwanese teachers sabotaging foreign teachers out of jealousy that the foreigners make more money working fewer hours. With my American mentality, I’ve had plenty of issues with bosses here that would be non-events in the USA that have ended jobs in Taiwan. It’s a lot of “me boss: you slave.”

    Taiwan actually has fantastic labor law – it protects workers really well. The problem is, employers get around it by making employees sign contracts that sign away the majority of those rights.

    There is a Chinese saying that basically goes, “The fattest pig gets the knife.” It’s kind of like the American, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered.” It’s actually often better to deviate from the norm in a negative way than a positive way, because if you fuck up, the only one angry is your boss – but if you excel and do something well, you have an entire group of jealous people looking to destroy you.

    In the USA, if you wanted to advance, you’d go to your boss and say, “I want to advance in this company. How can I do that?” Your boss would support you and help you develop within the organization. If you said that same thing to a Taiwanese boss…they’d sabotage your in every way they can, because you showed yourself to be a threat. It’s why Taiwanese business doesn’t develop. Communication here is a joke; people would rather talk behind each other’s backs forever than confront a problem and find a solution.

    I will say, the benefit of understanding all this stuff does pay off, with my own business. Taiwanese who think differently want to use us and Americans who don’t know the culture find my perspective valuable.

  12. @jsphfrtz
    Taiwanese people arguing with you over “pronunciation”? Was it in Chinese? Because if it is in English, man…Then, they are bunch of idiots believing they are better than a Native speaker. They told me several times that I have Chinese accent like a foreigner, but there are other times they asked whether I was from China. They thought this could be an insult. Taiwanese hate anything from China. They are too paranoid with China. Anything from China is negative such as product, food, people, trips, etc. But, they are obsessed with Japan even Japanese people see Taiwanese as bunch of “chinks”. Sometimes, I would rather prefer people calling me “chink” than “Taiwanese” 🙂 You are right about jealousy. Because I remmember Bryan being a target of hateful comments behind him. Sometimes, they would look at us as we are having an affair. Bryan was professional and friendly. I see him as a bro. I don’t know if someone can be jealous about me. But, some nice co-workers told me they heard people saying “Who cares she speaks many languages, multicultured or has many jobs experience? What the heck she tries to steal jobs here in Taiwan?” But, I was born as a Taiwanese. Sometimes, they would laugh at me just seeing me passing by the employee food court. I have never done anything that angers my boss. I do listen them, I try to understand about cultural shock and I don’t make any decisions without consulting my bosses . But, they are unable to protect me. They would rather stand with large group because they do not fear to loose 1 employee, they fear to loose the rest of group. To be honest, I have never asked my bosses for any advance even I was in US. But, I did receive recognition in USA. While I was in US, I had jobs at Insurance Company, resort areas, Corporation events, Concerts, Wedding Parties. But, the work visa expired. I could renew it, but it is complicated. The US Economy is scarcy now, and many companies are not offering work visas like before. I don’t wanna be an illegal immigrant, so I left for good. I thought I would do better in Taiwan because I was born here. Also, I have Taiwansese citizenship. But, I was wrong. Although many things bother me here, I still don’t loose my humor. This place sucks sometimes, however, I still can have fun. I don’t have to worry about having a car. I don’t even know how to ride a motorcycle. But, I ride a bike. I guess the problem in Taiwan is not the country or culture. The problem is “some people”. These people have tendency to be haters, so they will let you down even they know you are better than all of them together. This is the only way for them to “save their faces”

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