Before we moved to Taiwan, I told myself to take and experience this new country for itself and not to make comparisons to our last host country, Thailand. Even though they’re both located in Asia, I recognized that they’re very different places with very different cultures, and it wouldn’t be fair to compare such two different experiences.
But it’s hard not to, especially when I only have one other point of reference to consider; after all, this is only my second move overseas. And the first time was such a successful and wonderful adventure that I can’t help but want a repeat of that experience.
Here are my first impressions after having been here for all of 5 1/2 weeks:
There’s more infrastructure in place in Taiwan. Taiwan’s roads are much nicer than Thailand’s, and traffic is more orderly and not as congested. The streets are cleaner. Kaohsiung is much easier to navigate than Bangkok. The public transportation system, particularly the train system, is excellent here; it is efficient, cheap, and easy to use.
In Kaohsiung, we have access to almost everything we need and want; it is simply a matter of locating it. Kaohsiung is a modern city with modern amenities. There is plenty of local cuisine to try at food stalls, restaurants, and the night market, and several restaurants offer a variety of cuisines — American, Israeli, Korean, Japanese, and Italian, to name a few, as well as local, Taiwanese cuisine, of course. There are public libraries with English-language books; two Costco stores, an Ikea store, and a wide variety of Asian supermarkets. There are bike trails, parks, museums, an art district, and an indie film theater.
Outside of Kaohsiung, just an easy, less-than-US$3/adult, 15-minute train ride away is a sugar factory and bike trails, and a 30-minute train ride takes you to an old town called Tainan.
From what I’ve observed and been told, there are also more opportunities for foreign professionals in Taiwan. One still has to find and seek out these opportunities, of course, but they are there. There are more foreign businesses here and the language is more accessible.
On the other hand, Thailand offers a long and rich history that far exceeds Taiwan’s much shorter and recent history in every aspect. In Thailand, the three of us thoroughly enjoyed learning about Thailand’s history by exploring ancient sites such as Ayutthaya and Sukhothai Historical Park, as well as the Grand Palace in Bangkok, and Buddhist, Hindu, and Brahmin temples and shrines. Thailand’s history is fascinating and its culture so layered with such an amalgam of different customs and religions.
The architecture in Thailand also is varied and interesting, and I’m not talking about just the temples and palaces; even most of the residential areas and houses are diverse in their appearance. And there are surprises around every corner — little shrines on the side of the road or in trees, tin shacks nestled among new and modern homes, temples between homes and in alleyways. Here, we live in high rises among other tall and modern buildings, and temples and shrines are few and far between. While we live by the water and there are quite a few large and beautiful parks, it’s still not quite as convenient as simply stepping outside our front door to see some open, green space.
The Thai people also exude more warmth and are a bit more welcoming than the Taiwanese people. For the most part, the Taiwanese people are just as friendly, helpful, and kind as the Thai people, but they are more reserved and serious. These characteristics also mean that they’re a little less flexible and more stern in their interactions with others.
Because of these characteristics of the people, I don’t feel any connections to the Taiwanese people at this point, whereas I felt an instant connection with the Thai people early on in our time there. Interestingly enough, my western expat friends disagree with me on this view of the Taiwanese people, but based on my own experiences and observations, I believe the Taiwanese people, as well as many other Asian peoples, react very differently to westerners compared to other Asians.
This small contrast in personality also makes a big difference for us. It means we have to do almost everything by the book, and most of the time, there’s no bending of a rule or taking a shortcut. The rigidity and lack of creativity here sometimes makes life annoying and frustrating.
I’m not sure whether my lukewarm reactions to Taiwan at this point are due to cultural adjustment or whether I will still feel this way in six months or a year. I want to like Taiwan; I want to feel at home here and enjoy my time here. I hope my feelings and views will change, and I will warm up to this place.