As most of you know, I deeply love Taiwan, its culture, and its people. After seven years in that wonderful country, I left in February of this year to pursue what I believed to be a better quality of life in California. Many of the cultural/lifestyle changes I expected, but a few caught me entirely by surprise as well. In no particular order, here are some observations on life back in the old country.
High Cost of Living
Good lord I can’t believe how expensive everything is. My car payments and rent combined take up about 3/5 of my monthly pay, and the rest goes to food, basically. Restaurants always get to you because the menu says $8.99, but after tax and tip you pay more like $12. I’m slowly learning to cook to keep costs down and have three dishes fairly under-control. Hopefully I can expand my menu in the future. The only thing is that sometimes I’m so exhausted when I get off work I need to decompress, and cooking takes too much energy. I spend over $300 on eating out each month – which interestingly is only a bit more than I spent in Taiwan (NT$10,000 or so), but here that only covers about one meal a day – plus about $50 a month on groceries. I’m not sure if that’s a lot or a little. People have told me both.
Even though my salary now is twice what I was making in Taiwan, my rent is fully five times as much as it used to be. When all is said and done, there’s barely anything left to save.
As a fairly social person, it is extremely painful that I have not made any real friends in six months of living here. I just don’t know how to do it. I’ve joined meetup.com groups but haven’t made any solid friendships that way. Living in an “edge city” (a residential area with the population of a city but the infrastructure of a suburb), it’s insanely hard to meet people. Downtown San Diego is about 30 minutes away without traffic, which isn’t too bad, but I never know where to go when I get there since I don’t really have friends around. I get along quite well with my coworkers, but everyone has a family so it’s not like you can just go hang out somewhere after work without planning in advance. (I have a family, too, but my wife is still in Taiwan waiting for permission to immigrate…) I spend most of my time at work or hanging out with my wonderful cats trying to figure out what to do.
While we’re on the topic, it’s very difficult for me to live in a city like this, where there is no central social hub and very very weak public transportation. I am forced to drive everywhere – I love my car, but I hate driving! – and it’s always a very mission-oriented thing. I could hop in the car and wander, but it’s a pretty boring thing to do since there isn’t much discover in suburbia. On top of that, and probably most depressing for me, I haven’t been taking pictures lately because I’m always driving and there’s nothing worth getting out of the car to photograph. Just houses. Rows and rows of similar-looking houses. I miss city life.
Fantastic Work Environment
Every time I come into work, it reminds me that I’ve made the right choice. The pay is decent and it looks like reasonable raises await in the future; the boss treats me with respect; the workload is pretty handleable; and vacation days are a thing. There is very little absurd bureaucracy, and the office politics is more of an “accounting doesn’t get along with HR” than a “boss favors this person over this person” ordeal. Actually, when I went to interview, the CEO asked me an offhand comment that made me certain I wanted this job. It was something to the nature of “I don’t want to hire someone who will just quit within 2-3 years. If you are considering quitting in the future, I ask that you give me an opportunity to meet your expectations as an employer.” That’s something I really can’t imagine the typical Taiwanese boss saying.
The office is fairly relaxed, but people work hard. I’m probably the only person who plays around on Facebook during the workday (it’s blocked, but I have my ways). Everyone else does their job efficiently and leaves right as the clock strikes 5:00. By 5:05, the parking lot is usually empty except for my car (sigh) and my boss’ car. About 75% or so of our office is Chinese (including Taiwanese), so it’s nice to chat about the old country, though we get in trouble if the boss hear’s us speaking Chinese. We are constantly investing in new infrastructure and equipment and care about the appearance of our office to visitors and clients. All in all, I think it’s a great place to work, even though it’s not related to my previous work experience and it’s not exactly the career I see myself in 10 years down the line.
There is so insanely much variety of food in Southern California, even though a lot of it is heavily Americanized. One thing that kills me is that there are literally zero good Chinese restaurants within 10 miles of where I live, and when I do go to a decent one, it’s hard to order for just one person. I feel like the waiter is always saying, “I hope you like that one dish you’re ordering because you’re going to get a crapload of it and nothing else.” Lately I’ve taken to Vietnamese and Thai food (which exist in abundance here) as a replacement.
It is hard to explain the way that Amazon.com has filled a hole I never knew existed in my life. I accidentally signed up for Amazon Prime ($100 a year), but I’m really enjoying the free 2-day shipping. Using Netflix is also amazing. Neither of these are “cannot live without” status, but they make a very boring weekend a little bit less so.
Being Near Family
They’re about a 2-hour drive from me. That’s the perfect distance.
OMG the Weather
I’m in San Diego. We haven’t had more than five days above 80 (27 C) all year. Enough said.
My Chinese is at a level where it’s not really ever going to disappear, though I am a little less eloquent than I used to be. I still read Taiwanese papers every day and watch Taiwanese TV (www.5ik.tv) but sadly, outside of the few opportunities I get at work there aren’t really any living beings to practice with. My cats don’t speak English, though, so I deal with them exclusively in Chinese. It makes it awkward when they visit my parents’ house and I speak to their cat in English and mine in Chinese… but whatever.
As for my personal experience, it’s been really trying. I’m a social creature and I’ve been deprived of social activity. Most weekends I don’t even actually speak to another human being (just to my cats, I swear this is normal behavior). Being separated from my wife for so long has been the worst, but thanks to the magic of Google Voice I set her up with a US number that we can use toll free to call each other. Still, it’s very lonely. It’s only the last few weeks that I’ve finally started to come out of a depression that has been following me around. I’m taking music lessons and working on a lot of translation projects to fill in the time. I do believe I made the right decision, if just because of my job and being close to aging parents, but it’s been tough. Things will be better I’m sure whenever the mirses finally gets a green light to move over.
Thanks for tuning in.