Your first week in Taiwan as a digital nomad

You’re a seasoned traveler, you frequently learn to navigate new cities. But are you ready for Taipei? Learn from my first week and what I would have done differently.

Taipei is by most accounts (okay, by every account so far) cleaner, friendlier, and more westernized than mainland Chinese cities.

No matter what your own government back home thinks, Taiwanese people will assure you that Taiwan is not, in fact, part of mainland China, and that China has no political influence here. China does have some economic influence, which locals will readily admit, but on the cultural front, multiple Taiwanese have told me stories of their culture shock the first times they visited mainland China.

Despite how “westernized” Taipei is compared to mainland China, it’s definitely not interchangeable with a European city, and there are a few additional things I would have done to prepare, knowing what I know now. Most of them relate to communication.

I would have watched a few more movies in Mandarin (with subtitles) before I got here. The first days were pretty rough for me — I honestly felt unable to process or interpret people’s demeanor, tone of voice, and body language — but after just 7 full days, the tones that once felt harsh now feel a bit more familiar and understandable, even friendly.

Here’s one I liked! On Netflix in some countries.

I would have invested 3 hours learning super basic language skills before I arrived. I was reading social psych theory papers on the plane over, thinking that even though I’d love to dive into language learning, I should really focus on my research area to make the most of my data collection during my limited time here. It took 3 days for me to reach the breaking point of frustration in my lack of ability to communicate even the basics. But once I dove into some basics, my outlook immediately became more positive.

Mandarin isn’t as hard as you probably think. I promise. Spend 1 hour learning the 4 tones used in Taiwan. Spend another hour learning Pinyin. Spend 30 minutes downloading the Pleco app and looking up 5–7 key words: a way to greet, something to eat. Then spend another 30 minutes reviewing those key words on the plane or metro (you can save words as flashcards in the app). For extra fun, start learning the characters & Pinyin for the Taipei metro MRT Stations.

It will make your daily life SO. MUCH. EASIER. from the get-go.

I wish I would have realized sooner that many young people understand me, even if they keep speaking in Mandarin — most are shy about speaking until you make it really clear that you have no idea what they’re saying. Instead of picking that up on Day 1, I proceeded to have a small crisis.

After some reflection, it turned out that my frustration with not being able to communicate was rooted in a pride problem. I’m used to playing the host, and I was really proud of being able to show up almost anywhere and be able to help facilitate life for others who might not be so familiar with the language or customs. But here, I found myself alone for a few days and rather helpless — what we call in French pitoyable — pitiful. On the surface my symptoms were the things you’d expect someone to feel in this situation — scared to offend people, frustrated with not being able to read things like menus. But more than anything, I realized my pride was hurt. And that’s a hard thing to face. It definitely took some prayer and a change of attitude to let that go and humbly start with some very basic words, sounds, gestures. More successful subsequent outings entailed thinking less about me and my needs and wants and how I was going to communicate those, and watching other people more (including how pairs and groups interacted) with a real interest in who they are. I learned — again! — that smiles are universal, and it is possible to communicate much more than we think with patience, smiles, pointing, and universal gestures.

During this process I was reminded of an essay prompt for a job application a few years ago in which I was asked to discuss the statement: “All people are basically the same.” While I ultimately decided not to apply for that job, I’ve never forgotten the prompt and over the years my thoughts have drifted to consider that statement at various levels of abstraction. More on that another time.

Today, day 4, I walked around in the sun holding my umbrella. I always thought that it was cooler in the shade because the sun hadn’t shined there for quite a while, at least the time it takes the sun to move around the obstacle creating the shadow. But there might be something to mobile shade. Still to be determined.

A few things I did right & other stuff to be celebrated in Taipei :

Got a Chinese name! Fun and endearing for others — also demonstrates a sincere effort to connect. So you can call me “Shi-ya” 希亞 — the characters make a sound similar to my original name and mean hope (shi) in Asia (ya).

Scoped out some work spots. So far my favorite is Duimin Café & Deli. The latte’s are delish and the atmosphere cool (mucho airflow) and trendy. Also fun for people watching. This city has an amazing number of hipster cafés! And the coffee is better than in Switzerland! Plants was an expensive but yummy, organic-vegetarian-vegan find.

Scoped the food situation: plentiful and cheap. A few weeks ago in my little Swiss studio on the banks of Lac Léman, I was pondering healthy & affordable alternatives to cooking for myself every day. It would save me hours of shopping & food prep each week and what I was really pondering is how much quicker I could finish my phd if I didn’t need to spend 2+ hours on nutritional activities every day. Well, I found a solution, albeit half the world away — Asia!

Even the places that look a bit sketchy really aren’t — you’re not likely to get food poisoning in Taiwan. Plus, the sketchier-looking, the cheaper. Real estate is the biggest cost for restaurateurs, so the super trendy hipster cafés will serve you a really nice latte for 120 NT$ (= 3.40 EUR/4 USD). Meanwhile, you can get a good full meal (i.e. rice or noodles + meat + veg) for 80–100 NT$ (= 2–3 EUR/USD) in a sketchier looking traditional restaurant with no decor.

A big plate for less than 4.00 USD! And how can one resist a heart-shaped fried egg.

I armed myself with bug repellent. The mosquitoes here are super tiny, but they have a fierce appetite. Much of the locals’ social lives play out in the public park. In the evening when it cools down (think 17:00 and on), this is place to be. Take a walk or sit on a rock and enjoy the man and his saxophone teacher in a sax-duet-karaoke while their mobile amplifier pumps out the all the other instruments for a big band feel. Since they’ve dragged chairs into the center of a tall donut-shaped hedge, you’ll circle the park a few times looking for the full band. Smile at the elderly ladies dancing salsa in pairs to traditional Chinese music. Be sure to dodge the sweaty young guys running in all directions. Chuckle at the 6-year-olds playing soccer, herded by their English-speaking (Singaporean?) coach, whom they don’t appear to understand. Watch out for the grandparents running after toddlers on tricycles, who are chasing small brown fluffy dogs. Seriously — they’re almost exclusively brown/camel-coloured dogs. You’ve got the mini-daschund, mini-poodle, and the original “doge” from the meme.

View from the boardwalk at Tamsui.

Finding my tribe. All of my most successful relocation experiences have had something in common: I put my inner extrovert on duty from Day 1 and forced myself out to meet people even when I didn’t feel like it. Often I did feel like it, but the most critical moments to force yourself out are especially when you don’t want to. This time, I was blessed to be able to quickly connect with friends of Sandbox and other colleagues living here, and made friends as soon as I stepped into the building of Torch Church. No man is an island — not even the nomad.*

I feared it had almost died out. But the fire within me is burning again. A fire that’s hungry, quickly burning the oxygen that is knowledge already stored up, and I feel almost physically hungry to get out of my comfort zone again, out of the familiar and into a new inconnu. [Day 1]

Staying fit. The prospect of being even a bit overweight in this super-hot, super-humid climate just seems very uncomfortable. Gyms seem to be rather expensive and running outdoors in the city isn’t my cup of tea. The multipurpose outdoor parks have some fun equipment, but for everyday fitness I’ve invested in a Beachbody on Demand subscription. Welcome to Netflix-for-fitness in your air-conditioned apartment. :)

Leave me a comment if this was helpful for your future travel adventures! Peace to you ❤