OPINION: For All Its Wonders, Why Is Taiwan Still So Obscure?

OPINION: For All Its Wonders, Why Is Taiwan Still So Obscure?
Photo Credit: 臺北市政府觀光傳播局

What you need to know

A personal narrative of how one expat learned to love the sweet potato-shaped island.

On July 15, 2017, Taiwan raced past Canada, Australia and Singapore to become the place in the world I wanted to live the most.

I was on holiday in Seattle, talking to a traveler who had just that week returned from the island.

Having lived in the UK for the previous 26 years, any serious thought put towards moving abroad revolved around three main candidates -- a quick switch to a banking job in Singapore, chancing it on the Canadian immigration lottery or treading the well-worked expat trail down Australia’s East Coast.

In the space of that conversation my understanding of Taiwan went from “some name printed on the boot of my childhood Darth Vader figurine” to a country “apparently quite good for food and cycling.”

Were it not for the zeal of that American traveler, I don’t think I would ever have come across the information that prompted me to relocate my life here.

In the following hours, as I undertook more research, Taiwan became an increasingly attractive relocation option, and now, some 10 months later, it is the only country other than my native UK in which I have lived and worked.

Things you already knew

A cursory glance at Taiwan’s most tourist-friendly web pages makes it sound like a favorite weekend jaunt for elderly Chinese food enthusiasts.

Further investigation unearthed some mysterious dumpling sub-type and a preoccupation with an evil sounding tofu, the specific branding of which didn’t immediately pique my interest.

Beyond this, any prospective traveler is greeted with an enthusiastic but surprisingly poorly translated glut of detail on the national transport network and an inexplicable focus on Ximen’s Modern Toilet Restaurant.

Depositphotos_118217486_l-2015
Photo Credit: Depositphotos
You've heard of this building before.

The beautifully detailed information offered by Taiwan's National Immigration Agency puts the foreign resident population of Taiwan at 715,080, or 3.01 percent of country’s total. By contrast, Singapore’s foreign resident population was estimated to be as high as 64 percent in 2016, with Hong Kong’s foreign population sitting as high as 8.6 percent.

What else is there?

Were it not for the zeal of that American traveler, I don’t think I would ever have come across the information that prompted me to relocate my life here.

It can be hard to find a website that explains all of the relevant details, or finding out that gaining the right to work in Taiwan is increasingly easy. While countries worldwide are toughening their immigration criteria, Taiwan is bringing out policies almost yearly which do exactly the opposite.

Following the "Act for the Recruitment and Employment of Foreign Professional Talent" legislation passed late last year (2017), 10 new immigration incentives have been implemented. These include the extension of work permits from three to five years, a 50 percent tax cut for workers earning more than NT$3 million (US$100,000) per year, an extension of health coverage to workers’ families, work permit extensions to artists, a six-month “job-seeking visa,” and many more amenable policies.

This may be a move to help offset the dangers of Taiwan’s aging population, or possibly part of efforts to counter the effects of Taiwan’s brain drain of young workers abroad.

It’s also conceivable that these policies were released in a bid to increase Taiwan’s international recognition in the face of expanding Chinese influence, but whatever the case, a network of legislation is being put together to facilitate expat life here.

I want it all

Taiwan punches above its weight on a range of different measures. The island enjoys an extremely healthy gender equality status, ranked 38th on the Global Gender Gap Index at 0.729, the fourth highest in Asia. Taiwan also boasts one of the most preferable expat work-life balance rates globally, coming in fifth in a 2017 study by The Independent. This is particularly notable given the country’s reputation for long working days and weekend obligations.

Taiwan is also fantastically livable for a range of reasons. The food is agreeably cheap, at least if you are prepared to slum it. The immigration agency is well staffed and genuinely helpful. People are wonderfully friendly, to the extent that a 2017 InterNations Report detailed a perceived friendliness score of 60 percent in Taiwan, more than double the global average and significantly higher than local rivals including as Hong Kong (12 percent) and Singapore (19 percent).

Having lived in London for the last seven years, I can also say that the Taipei / New Taipei City urban unit is remarkably accessible. A newly-launched unlimited monthly travel card offering transport from one side of the city to the other costs roughly US$44 per month, a fraction of the US$459 cost I’d been paying to get to work in London. And there are numerous natural wonders, from Yangmingshan mountain to the beaches of Yilan and the hot springs of Wulai, all readily accessible within an hour's journey from Taipei.

台北捷運 MRT
Photo Credit: H.T. Yu @ Flickr CC By SA 2.0
This could be you.

Taiwan also sits in a somewhat unique geographical and economic position. It is centrally located and well respected as a trading hub by most of its economically lively Asian neighbors. It has a highly capable, extremely well educated workforce with many schemes being launched to facilitate foreign business relocation. There are also murmurings that Taiwan may be set to benefit from the rising cost of manufacturing in China and the continuing political peculiarities of basing foreign manufacturing on the mainland.

What’s the catch?

Since I arrived I’ve been asking everyone that will listen why this isn’t a bigger destination for tourists and foreign businesses. Most people I discussed moving here with blithely presumed I was relocating to Thailand and started eagerly listing their favorite Koh Samui bars.

I’ve heard a lot of different explanations for why Taiwan isn’t more famous, with some blaming an institutionally weak approach to marketing -- the recent Visit Taiwan Twitter spat comes to mind, while others identify Chinese political pressure as the culprit.

What confuses me most is why it took a chance conversation on holiday for me to even consider moving to Taiwan, as well as why more of what the country has to offer is not more widely communicated or understood.

Read Next: Can We Pull Taiwan Out of Its Identity Crisis?

TNL Editor: Morley J Weston


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