“謝謝光臨請慢走! Thank you for coming, please walk slow!”
I hear this phrase every time I walk out of 7Eleven. The cashiers say it robotically, a motor reaction to the ding dong! sound from the entry/exit sensor.
Hearing automatic responses like this have become all too familiar: having my ID scanned at the gym and receiving the generic greeting, being thanked as I pay my bill at the same breakfast spot, and being gestured into small shops. It’s the same animated tone, but without any heart or meaning behind the forced enthusiasm.
Multiply this experience by a hundred thousand, and you’ve found Taiwan. You’ll never go hungry because small, family-owned restaurants pepper half of the island. The other half comprise of competing fashion stores. Hungry and fashion-hungry folks walk in and out, day by day, month by month, year by year, all on autopilot mode.
I thought I knew why. The vast majority of conversations I’ve shared with locals have been surface level. The topics I’ve overheard on the subways and on the streets break down into relationships, gossip, food, or shopping. Same topics, different faces, different voices. Very quickly, I concluded that the general population was complacent and superficial.
Perhaps I’ve finally realized the extent of culture shock. It may have likely been ethnocentrism, perhaps even arrogance, that led me to make such a judgment call. I now believe my conclusions were and premature and ill-founded.
Taiwan’s cost of living, especially Taipei, is disproportional to wages. The average starting salary of college graduates entering the workforce is about 25,000 NTD a month, or about $833 USD per month. This equals about $10,000 USD per year. Many of these jobs are not standard 40-hour work weeks; they often extend to midnight on weekdays, almost as late on weekends. Erring on a very lenient estimate, a 40-hour work week yields an average of $5.21 USD per hour.
Compare this to the cost of living. Living quarters average 6,000-12,000 NTD ($200-400 USD) for a tiny single room in a shared apartment or suite. Relatively speaking, that’s an absolutely inflated price at 24-48% of pre-tax earnings. Imagine a fresh college graduate in California making $50,000 USD a year, but paying $1000-2000 a month on rent.
For food, anything under 120 NTD ($4.00 USD) for lunch leaves you with limited greasy options. 170-200 NTD ($5.66-6.66 USD) or above will provide you with decent options, and anything above 230 NTD ($7.66) is expensive. That means eating one decent meal is equivalent to $25 for the fresh US college graduate. Folks here also don’t have the luxury of saving a significant amount of money by preparing their own meals – much of the food is imported and pricey.
Let’s say that a conservative foodie pays 410 NTD ($13.67 USD) per day for food, or 12300 NTD ($410 USD) per month. That’s $2,050 per month for the American equivalent. This fresh Taiwanese graduate, making 25000 NTD per month minus 9000 on rent, 12300 on food, 2000 NTD on taxes (8%), leaves 1,700 NTD ($56.67 USD) as disposable income. I didn’t even include transportation costs, be it subway, busses, taxis, or refilling the gas tank. That leaves $56 dollars to watch a movie or two, buy one new piece of clothing, and maybe eat a nice meal.
I knew that coming here, I would be living in the upper class. I’ve only recently discovered how difficult it is for the Taiwanese people. Due to the disparity between income and cost of living, most people live with their parents until marriage or even beyond. Most yearn to leave the country, if not to Japan or Singapore, then to the west.
Dating isn’t even oftentimes about what the person does anymore. As a friend mentioned, “It’s not about what you do, it’s about what your parents do.”
It’s no surprise then, that so many conversations center around food, or clothing, or movies, soap operas, and gossip. These folks are living the so-called robotic, repetitive life that I had previously concluded as superficial and complacent. They’ve never had realistic hopes of anything more.
This lifestyle is unfair, and so disheartening to see.
I am beyond lucky. I’m not stupid, but I don’t think I’m inherently smarter than the majority of the people here. I’m not lazy, but I don’t think I hustle any harder than those muscling 70-hour work weeks. My parents came from Taiwan and gave birth to me in California. Had I been born in Taiwan, given a different color passport, and placed in the East Asian education system called hell, I would more likely than not be in the same situation as the very people I describe. Instead, I’m raving about the bull market and dreaming of a future on the California upscale burbs.
There’s no denying a certain level of arrogance that’s risen this past year. I’d become more judgmental and less patient. I used to be kinder and have more empathy. Ah, the wonders of the human psyche. Interestingly enough, I’d become very unhappy as a result. I’d identified this at the beginning of July and have been actively trying to better myself.
If there’s only one thing I can take away from my experiences this past year in Taiwan and travels worldwide, it’s to have empathy and be kind to others. No amount of wealth or glamour will ever fill this void. In the end, at least half of said success is owed to others. Luck takes another sizable portion out of said success; you cannot give yourself too much credit.
Thanks for reading.