A Drawback of the Expat Life

During our first stint living overseas in Thailand, we quickly realized that, as foreigners, we were at the mercy of the locals. Whether it was housing, sightseeing, transportation, or shopping at the market, we were subject to the whims, tactics, and schemes of some locals in their attempts to get something from us.

Price-gouging was one of the more common schemes that we experienced, as many of the Thai people see foreigners as bottomless pits of wealth. Fortunately for us, the few instances of price-gouging that we encountered were minor, such as taxi drivers trying to charge us more or paying a bit more to sight see. Most of the Thai people we interacted with were kind and helpful. Moreover, the international school where we worked employed staff whose job was to help the foreign faculty members navigate life in Thailand, and would step in whenever someone needed help dealing with an unreasonable local person. It also helped that most Thai people do not like confrontations or “losing face,” so if we needed an issue resolved, we only had to be gently persistent to get a resolution.

Living in Taiwan has been a different story. While most of the locals have been tolerable and reasonable in their dealings and interactions with us, many also have been nosy, rude, and disrespectful. Some also have tried to take advantage of our lack of knowledge about Taiwan. In the last six months, we’ve frequently had to deal with situations in which a local tried to take advantage of our status as “uninformed” foreigners or as a family associated with an international school.

The worst case so far has been our landlady. She is disrespectful, unresponsive to our requests, and untrustworthy. From the moment we moved into this apartment, everything has been an uphill battle with this woman. Every little request is turned into drama, and nothing gets done for weeks while she argues about a repair, its cost, or who should pay for it, even though it’s clearly laid out in the lease.

Our first inkling of how difficult she is came before the school year began. The school secretary (who’s generally the intermediary between the landlords and the school faculty, and who generally helps faculty members navigate negotiations and interactions such as those with their landlords) asked all the new faculty members to make a list of all the problems with their apartments, so their landlords could respond and repair accordingly. We did. We had some small issues, such as the screen door not sliding properly, and a few bigger ones, such as cockroaches in the apartment and the stove not lighting easily and not staying lit.

Well, our landlady never even made a peep about the list or what was on it. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks into the school year, when it became extremely frustrating to use our stove (requiring at least 10 attempts to light it) that we brought up this issue again. Our landlady’s first response? The stove is a “consumable” item, so we would be responsible for its repair. We disagreed with her definition of a “consumable” item, not to mention that the stove was already in this condition when we moved in, but because the cost for the repair was minimal and we were getting fed up with the stove, we didn’t argue.

Our second time having to deal with her was another week later, when our shower suddenly started sprouting a big and continuous leak, even when the faucet was off. The school secretary called a repairman for us, telling us that we would have to pay for the repair ourselves first and then be reimbursed by the landlady, to which we agreed. The repair cost US$60, which wasn’t too much. But then the landlady balked at the idea of reimbursing us, which made me want to pursue the matter on principle.

We asked the school secretary to talk with her and help us get our money back. She was unhelpful in this regard. We asked for a copy of the lease to determine the terms of the lease. (The strange arrangement at this school is that it signs all the leases as the lessee, with the faculty members as the tenants. Faculty members aren’t provided a copy of the lease, even though they are responsible for the terms of their lease!) It turned out that, according to the lease, the landlord is responsible for the cost of any repair over $1000NT (approximately US$33)! We sent a copy of the pertinent clause to the landlady, who completely ignored it and us.

Finally, after another couple of weeks of non-action and silence from our landlady, I took it upon myself to do some research on landlord/tenant laws here. I then wrote a letter to the school secretary detailing all the instances the landlady had been unresponsive up to that point and pointing out the relevant clauses in the lease, and threatened to pursue legal action against our landlady for breach of contract. All this just to get our money back, but it finally worked. It was within our first month of starting work and school in Taiwan, so we were still finding our way here. It was extremely stressful and exhausting.

The latest drama involves two light bulbs in the kitchen area that need to be changed because they’ve burned out. Because our living room/kitchen area has a very high ceiling, we weren’t sure how to go about getting the light bulbs changed. So my husband asked the school secretary how to do this, thinking it was a minor issue that would be resolved within a few days. We were wrong again. The school secretary contacted our landlady, who indicated she would send someone over. We thought it would be someone to replace the light bulbs–wrong again! It was a friend of the landlady’s, who came over just to inspect the light bulbs to make sure they were actually broken! What an insult to our intelligence! And she was an hour late, with no excuses, and stayed for two minutes. I was livid.

The landlady then took a week before responding. She gave the school secretary a quote of $2400NT (US$80!!) to replace TWO light bulbs, and wanted us to bear the cost because the light bulbs are “consumables.” The reason for the high cost? She needs to hire a “mechanic” to build a scaffolding to get up to the ceiling to replace the light bulbs. The secretary told us we also had the option of finding a repairman that costs less on our own.

I was frustrated, angry, and upset. While we were willing to pay for the light bulbs, the scaffolding was not a consumable for which we should be responsible, and the lease clearly states that the landlady would be responsible for anything that costs over $1000NT. Again, she argued and haggled; not once have our interactions with her been straightforward or pleasant. We also felt the school secretary wasn’t helping at all to negotiate with the landlady; she was putting everything on us and leaving us in the lurch. What we thought would be a small and easy repair was again being turned into a big production.

So I wrote another letter to complain about the landlady and the school’s lack of assistance in helping us (and other faculty members) handle these types of matters. This time, I copied the superintendent of the school, who has agreed to meet with us to help us. We will see what, if anything, happens–based on my observations and experiences in the last six months, I don’t have high hopes that the school will actually help us resolve anything.

In the last six months, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned how lucky we were in Thailand to be surrounded by a community that cared about, supported, and helped us when we needed it. Even if there were others trying to swindle us and take advantage of us, our community of supporters watched out for us. I’ve learned that we don’t have that same kind of support system here in Taiwan. In the last few months, we’ve felt stressed, confused, and alone while trying to navigate various situations. When we’ve asked the school for assistance, we have been met with little to no response. I’ve learned that not every school is equally good at communicating or remotely competent at supporting its staff. As people with no community in a foreign land and unfamiliar with the regulations and laws of another country, we need to be careful and to be sure there are good communication and support systems to help when necessary. Lesson learned!



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