“Jeremy…. you guys can literally be anywhere. I’ve been to Taipei several times for work, and, well… why did you choose to live, uh… there?”
I like this question.
I’ve been coming to Taipei for work and personal reasons for about 20 years now. I periodically monitored the construction of the iconic Taipei 101 from my airplane window for years and then became an official expat for about 2 years. If coworkers wanted to know which Taipei hotel, bar, or restaurant to check out, I was their guy.
Based on my 2 decades of experience, I can say that Taipei makes a fairly predictable first impression. Just ask Anthony Bourdain: (or my Grandmother)
“One thing you can’t deny about Taipei anyway… it’s not the prettiest of cities.” – Anthony Bourdain
For much of its history, architectural aesthetics wasn’t a high priority. Where European cities would have beautiful buildings with outdoor riverside dining, Taipei has enormous and hideous concrete walls (as part of a typhoon flooding prevention system.) Instead of boutique cafes and enjoyable pedestrian walkways, Taipei built a 4 lane elevated highway and a sewage treatment system. Rather than interesting and visually pleasing facades, older buildings have a mix of heavily barred windows, excessive signage, overhanging air conditioners, and chaotic rats nests of cables and wiring.
Another common first impression… “Oh gawd, what the hell is that smell?”
That’s the stinky tofu – a tasty snack that has a distinctive odor, a bit like dirty sports socks. It is sold seemingly everywhere. (Try it, it is delicious – I prefer the boiled version with congealed duck blood to the fried.)
Depending on the time of year you arrive, you may also enjoy the sensation of overwhelming heat and humidity. Summer is to be avoided. Just ask my kid:
“Daddy, when we go outside why does the sun try to cook me?” – GCCJr (*)
* Full Disclosure: GCCJr may have received compensation for his quotationary services
So when people ask me, “Why Taipei?!” I can understand where they are coming from. [You know who you are ;) ]
So… Why Taipei?!
Second impressions are often greatly improved.
In a recent survey, Taipei was selected as the best place in the world for quality of life for expats. That seems like a big deal.
Reasons: It is affordable, convenient, and safe, with incredible food and healthcare.
I agree with all of those points.
Examples: I once left my wallet on a bus and it was returned to the nearest police station within a day with all of its contents, including $200 in cash. An emergency room visit with no insurance cost $60. You can get amazing food for a few dollars. Public transit is excellent and ubiquitous. It is super clean. There are parks literally everywhere (we live next door to one.)
And… the people are very friendly. This comment from Anthony Bourdain’s The Layover really nails it.
“One of the best things about Taipei is that it has retained a traditional sense of human kindness.” – 35;43
What can I say, I like nice people. (Speaking of which, for an excellent review of Taipei first impressions, including the human kindness factor, check out this article on Nomadic Notes. )
(full episode of Anthony Bourdain’s The Layover Taipei linked here.)
I’ve often said to friends and visitors that Taiwan is the best parts of Chinese and Japanese influences. I find it less brash and aggressive than China, and a bit more disorganized and chaotic than Japan. Through decades of symbiotic working relationships with US companies, it also feels a bit American at times. Or maybe familiar is a better word. People who have spent time in these places usually shake their head in agreement. ymmv.
It’s a nice place to live.
In a nice central 1-bedroom apartment our total cost of large living was less than $4,000/month. That has gone up in a 3-bedroom apartment. We pay $0.20 to rent a public bike, $0.50 for a bus or the subway, and maybe $3-$5 for an Uber across town.
There is some incredible biking, both along the riversides and in the mountains. This weekend I biked 800 meters straight up Yangmingshan (the local volcano.) I did a 900km bike ride around the whole country a few years ago and took a bunch of photos.
The sports infrastructure in the city is spectacular. I swim at a nearby top-notch indoor pool for <$1/day (the same place the National swimming team trains.) By coincidence, I’m sure, the pool looks like a whale
The food is probably my favorite part of the life experience in Taipei. Pepper buns, fresh seafood, beef noodle soup, dumplings, fantastic burgers and pizza, oh my… here are a few example meals. And I can get all of this delivered to my door in crazy heat or torrential downpour for less than the cost of taking the bus to get the food myself.
Did I mention the medical system? We pay $75/month for the 3 of us for full access to a Medicare for All type system. Sometimes we pay $3 or $30 as a co-pay. We paid about $7,000 for IVF for making a baby… friends in the Bay Area paid about $150k and friends in Seattle paid about $40k with similar results.
Of course, Taipei is only part of the country. My favorite and most beautiful place is Taroko Gorge (the Grand Canyon of Taiwan.) It is stunning and a must-visit destination (pics here.) The natural scenery outside the city is incredible and nearby.
And then there are all of the little things. This is my favorite sign in the entire world (posted above a urinal.)
And… we also have super easy direct flight access to the entirety of Asia.
Life is good.
Sounds amazing, right? Right!
So we must be planning on staying in Taipei for the long-term, right? Nope.
We originally came to Taipei to make babies. We are spending the school year here for a few more years (probably) so Jr can learn to read/write Chinese in an immersive environment (Chinese is already his first/dominant language.)
After that, we’ll probably be in the US through high school. Probably California.
And then… for “retirement” we will most likely be in a location that is not super hot while also being aesthetically pleasing. My guess is Southern Spain or Southern France.
Life in Taipei is great. The food is amazing, the health system is amazing, the public transit is amazing, and the cost of living is comfortable and reasonable. And people are courteous, friendly, and welcoming.
First impressions for a lot of business travelers are not as amazing, from what I hear, so take the time to look around. [Stop being a hater, Bob ;) If you followed me on twitter you would already know this.]
* Bob’s name was changed to protect the innocent and not so innocent.
We now have riverside dining and beautiful new construction, on top of the already wonderful services and systems.
If you are in the neighborhood, I’m always up for a coffee.
ps: don’t forget to try the stinky tofu