Teaching English in Taiwan: Living in Taiwan
If living in a vibrant city on a tropical island, experiencing another culture, and gaining teaching experience is a dream of yours, Taiwan may be your destination. With its rugged mountains, unique landforms, and stunning coastlines, this island is a unique draw to ESL teachers and tourists alike.
Taiwan boasts a major ESL teaching market, and is a great choice for those who want to teach with friends or earn a good salary. Its bullet train allows you to easily enjoy most of Taiwan's major cities, and its beaches, truly unique for their pristine seclusion and lack of tourist traffic, rival the beauty of any in Thailand or Mexico.
Most ESL teaching contracts in Taiwan include a housing allowance or access to school-owned apartments. The low cost of living, relatively high salaried positions, and school assistance securing accommodations, make Taiwan a very popular destination for ESL teachers.
Studio or one-bedroom apartments tend to be the most popular accommodation choices for ESL teachers. Another popular and cost effective choice is to share two- or three-bedroom apartments with colleagues. Housing costs vary between cities and districts, with Taipei typically ranked as the most expensive region.
Studio apartments are usually furnished with a bed, armoire, AC, desk and chair. Some apartments may also come with a microwave, hot plate, or toaster oven. Having a TV and fridge could be an extra expense. Monthly rent for this type of apartment can range from approximately NT$7,500 - 10,000 in Taipei and be lower in other city centres. One-bedroom apartments, if furnished, typically come with a bed, armoire, desk and chair, fridge, and AC. Monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Taipei can range from approximately NT$10,000 - 20,000. A furnished two- or three-bedroom apartment, which can be shared among teachers, would cost approximately NT$15,000 - 35,000/month.
Services are generally a separate fee on top of rent and can include garbage collection, lighting for hallways, and security, costing approximately NT$1,000/month. Utilities usually include electricity, water, and gas and cost approximately NT$1,000 - 2,000/month.
One can expect to pay a two-month deposit, plus one month's rent (three-month rent total) in advance when signing an apartment agreement.
Most ESL contracts in Taiwan do not include airfare; however, contracts vary between schools and the inclusion of airfare may depend upon the length of contract signed and the teacher’s qualifications
All legitimate businesses and schools in Taiwan have access to government health insurance and most schools would include this benefit in their contracts. While only a percentage of the premiums may be covered by schools, the health care itself is excellent and still very affordable.
Having independent health care insurance from one’s home country may be prudent for the first few months in Taiwan until benefits with the school are fully activated.
In recent years, Taiwan’s official retirement age has risen from 60 to 65 years of age. While schools have a strong preference for hiring candidates between the ages of 20 - 40, there are opportunities for ESL teachers up to age 50 but they are not easy to find.
Taiwan is one of the electronics manufacturing centres of the world and is considered ‘cutting edge’ in many respects. ESL teachers will find access to Internet and phone services easy and affordable. If they do not have Internet at their place of residence, their school will likely provide this to staff during working hours. Most coffee shops and restaurants offer free Wi-Fi to customers.
Mobile phones are relatively inexpensive to purchase in Taiwan and require use of a SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) card. The SIM card can be reloaded by use of calling cards, which are available everywhere. The purchase of a SIM card usually requires one to two pieces of identification, one of which must be a valid Alien Residency Card (ARC). International calling cards can be purchased at reasonable rates and are also readily accessible. Public telephones (coin or card operated) can be found throughout cities in Taiwan.
Obtaining an Internet connection at one’s place of residence, while affordable, may require a passport and Taiwanese guarantor. As an alternative, Internet cafes are plentiful and surfing time is inexpensive (between NT$15 - 30/hour).
Western restaurants/cafés are becoming a common part of the landscape in Taiwan with many to choose from, including:
- T.G.I. Friday’s
- Tony Roma’s
- Ponderosa Steakhouse
- Outback Steakhouse
- Burger King
- Domino's Pizza
- Pizza Hut
- Starbucks (150 outlets in Taipei alone!)
The introduction of Costco to Taiwan has been a great addition for Western shoppers. Nabisco and Frito-Lay, among other popular brands, have found their way into local grocery stores, as well as Western chocolate and ice cream. Coffee is becoming readily available and popular as the numerous Starbucks locations in Taipei would indicate. While import foods are still quite expensive, many items can be found in major grocery chain stores and hypermarkets. Taking a modest supply of one’s favorite foods is not uncommon among foreigners.
Taxis are generally a cheap way to travel, especially when traveling with a friend. If you choose to travel by taxi, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- Flagging a taxi is best, as opposed to using those sitting and waiting for customers.
- Ask other foreign teachers which taxi companies are safe and reliable.
- Choose a taxi that is metered, and make sure the meter is working before getting in.
- Choose a taxi driver that appears to be well-groomed with a well-kept car.
- Make note of, and use, the driver’s name.
- Follow your instincts; if you feel unsafe, remove yourself from the taxi and get another.
- Carry a map so that you can point to where you wish to travel.
Train and Subway
The train system in Taiwan includes high speed trains along the west coast, express trains that travel between cities, and other, slower trains which travel between towns. The trains are typically packed on weekends, but relatively empty during the week.
Taipei and Kaohsiung have mass rapid transit systems (MRT) which are quite popular, and relatively inexpensive. In Taipei, tickets range from NT$20 - 65 depending upon the distance. A NT$150 pass allows unlimited usage of the train for one day. In Kaohsiung, fares range from NT$20 - 60 depending on distance. You can also purchase a reloadable card for NT$200 that comes with a NT$100 credit. Both systems stop at major tourist attractions, a popular feature for ESL teachers who want to explore these cities.
City buses are readily available in the capital, Taipei. There are fewer available in other cities throughout the island, but this is starting to change. Buses generally run on the half-hour and fares are approximately NT$15 - 25. In smaller city centres, routes are not as extensive or frequent as they are in Taipei, making other modes of transportation, such as a scooter, more appealing and feasible.
Other Modes of Transportation
The scooter tends to be the most popular mode of transportation for teachers in light of its cost, availability, and the ability to get around quickly in traffic. Many ESL teachers purchase scooters. An ARC (Alien Resident Card) is required upon purchase. Second-hand scooters are readily available and can be purchased for approximately NT$10,000 – 20,000, and a new scooter can be purchased for approximately NT$30,000 - 60,000. They can also be rented at a very reasonable rate, if you have a valid international or local motorcycle licence.
Tips When Using a Scooter:
- Wear a helmet!
- If purchasing your own scooter, take care to ensure that all the paperwork and insurance are in your name. As well, ensure that it is secured while it is parked or stored.
- If you are driving a scooter, practice in a safe area before using it on the main roads.
- Be cautious! Roads in Taiwan tend to be full of aggressive drivers, making this type of transportation potentially dangerous.
The bicycle is a common mode of transportation among Taiwanese and foreigners. Street or trail bikes can be purchased at a very reasonable price.
Tips When Riding a Bicycle:
- Wear a helmet!
- Wear a mask over your mouth and nose to mitigate the affects of pollution.
- Take an extra shirt to school as hot temperatures will make for a sweaty ride.
- Ensure that your bicycle, if purchased in Taiwan, was not stolen and resold.
- Ensure that your bicycle is well-secured when parked or stored.
Some ESL teachers choose to purchase a used car if they have plans to stay in Taiwan for two or more years. An ARC (Alien Resident Card) and a local or international driver’s licence are necessary for the purchase of a vehicle.
The Taiwanese are a gracious, respectful, family-oriented, and hard-working people. They value humility and patience, and are careful to guard the honour of family and others. A slight nod of the head is the most common greeting among new acquaintances in Taiwan with handshakes among men who have an established friendship. Introductions are usually made by a third party. Rarely would someone introduce themselves, unless alone with another person.
The following are some helpful guidelines for etiquette. Taking the time to learn common etiquette is a compliment to the culture in which one is living.
- While the nod is the most common greeting among the Taiwanese, the handshake is also common and expected among foreigners. Handshakes are not typically firm.
- Greet the eldest person in the group first as a sign of respect.
- Taiwanese will generally lower their eyes as a sign of respect when being introduced.
- Address others by using their title and surname. Using one’s first name is usually done when there is a greater level of familiarity. It is best to wait until invited to use the first name before doing so.
- Teachers should wear business attire in the classroom unless otherwise instructed.
- Avoid touching anyone on the head as it is disrespectful.
- Gift-giving is common in Taiwan and has some well-established guidelines. Consulting a Taiwanese friend before giving a gift would be wise. Remember to give and receive gifts with both hands and wait until you are in private before opening a gift.
- Remove shoes when entering someone’s home. Slippers are usually provided, but it is best to take a pair of socks along with you when visiting.
- Tipping is expected for those offering services such as porters or hairstylists, but not expected for taxis or waiters. Restaurants will add a gratuity of 10% to the bill.
- Patience is sometimes required when ascertaining the meaning of someone’s message, as brevity in communication is uncommon.
- As modesty is highly valued in Taiwan, playing down a compliment paid to you is considered proper etiquette.
- “Saving face” is an important part of Taiwanese culture and as such, showing respect, paying compliments, and avoiding harsh confrontation and blame is very important.
Dining etiquette in Taiwan has some similarities to other Asian cultures as well as its own unique aspects. Unless there is a well-established relationship, dining together as a group would generally take place at a restaurant instead of in one’s home. The host of the meal makes order selections, initiates toasts, serving food and eating, and pays the bill. When in doubt about proper etiquette to follow, it is always helpful to follow the lead of other guests. As chopsticks are the utensil of choice, getting used to using them before dining out would be a good idea. Following are some dining hints:
- Arrive on time and dress in business attire.
- If dining at someone’s home, remove shoes before entering.
- Greet the host and most elderly before greeting others.
- Wait for the host to assign seating and to begin eating.
- Always try to leave a small portion of the meal on your plate to show the host/hostess has provided an adequate amount of food.
- Avoid putting bones in your bowl or on your plate; rather, put them on a specific plate provided or directly on the table.
- It is best not to ask for additional condiments beyond what is already on the table.
- To avoid being given more to drink, leave a small amount in your glass.
- At the end of your meal, place your chopsticks on the chopstick holder as opposed to putting them across the plate.
- Never stand your chopsticks up in your bowl. This is considered an offering for the dead and should only be done during ceremonies honoring deceased loved ones.
- A belch is not uncommon during a public meal as it is simply an indication that one is enjoying it.
- The serving of tea is an indication that the meal is coming to an end.
- Offering to contribute to the meal is polite but should not be insisted upon, as the host generally pays for the meal.
- Using a toothpick at the table is acceptable; however, cupping your free hand over your mouth is important during its use.
- If it is within your means, reciprocating with a meal of comparable value is considered polite.
The Chinese language is often thought of as a language family because it combines many local dialects with commonly used Mandarin as its base. In some parts of southern Taiwan people speak Taiwanese but Mandarin is the official and most commonly spoken language.
Throughout history, many people around the world have marvelled at the written word of the Chinese and how detailed and unique it is compared to the characters of other world languages. The characters of the Chinese language have undergone a series of historical changes. During the mid-20th Century, the Chinese government worked to develop simplified Chinese while the Taiwan government decided to stay with traditional Chinese. Most phrasebooks are written for mainland China so if you are using a Chinese phrasebook, remember to be patient as the writing is different and may not be comprehensible to Taiwanese citizens.
It is fairly easy to find Chinese language lessons in most North American urban regions. Learning Chinese is definitely worthwhile for an English teacher before they begin an ESL career in Taiwan. In the meantime, here are some useful Chinese phrases to practice and remember:
- Thank you
- How much does this cost?
Duo shao qian?
- Where is the toilet?
Ce suo zai nar?
- My name is _______.
Wo jiao _______.
- Good bye
- Where is_______?
______ zai nar?
- Where am I?
Zher shi shen me di fang?
- How do I get to ________?
Dao ___________ zen me zou?
- Where can I catch a taxi?
Zai nar cheng chu zu che?
- Bus station
Gong gong qi che
- Excuse me
Bu hao yi si
A pocket phrasebook would be an invaluable purchase. Even if pronouncing a particular word feels unrealistic, pointing to the word in a phrasebook (providing that it includes the Traditional Chinese characters) may prove very helpful.
The consensus among foreigners is that Taiwan is “food heaven”. Visiting local food markets gives one a sense of the huge variety of fruits, vegetables, and other types of food available. Taiwanese cuisine centers on rice, seafood, and vegetables, and is generally flavored with pork fat. Spices often include ginger, anise, soy sauce, salt, and pepper. Dried fish, fermented beans, and some chili peppers (lightly flavored) are often used. Dairy products are quite uncommon in the Taiwan diet; however, with Western influence, they are becoming more popular.
Popular food choices for foreigners include:
- Shui Jiao (boiled dumplings with pork and/or vegetables)
- Zheng Jiao (steamed dumplings with pork and/or vegetables)
- Mochi (sweet snack dipped in peanut powder & filled with a variety of pastes)
- Steamed Buns (variety of savory meats inside)
- Chow Mein (pan-fried noodles with vegetables and/or meat)
- Ji Si Tang Mian (soup noodles with chicken)
- Xian Yu Tang (fish soup)
- Shaved Ice (with a variety of toppings to choose from)
A helpful practice is to keep a notebook with food preferences after sampling various dishes at functions or enjoying a meal ordered at a restaurant, as it is very easy to forget the Taiwanese names of items.