Recently, I had a conversation with a friend about real estate, rent prices and location (yes, it was actually an interesting conversation). As is common in Taiwan, he asked me how much our rent was, and since I don’t mind sharing, I told him. It’s no secret that our apartment is dirt cheap, and honestly looks the part – though I think we’ve painted, decorated and maintained it very well, so it is more reminiscent of a funky pseudo-industrial bohemian hideout (think “Rent”) than a true downmarket ghetto pad.
We live a one-minute walk from the MRT, though, and a two-minute walk from a large night market, so you can’t beat that.
Oddly, though, I found myself quickly adding “…we prefer to spend our money traveling!” as though I somehow had to defend myself and my cheap apartment.
I wasn’t lying – every year we take at least one vacation that is usually six weeks long. This year we’re taking an eight-week vacation but nothing else (in previous years we’ve done quick getaways to Hong Kong or the Philippines in addition to our longer travels). I don’t know many – scratch that, I don’t know any – Taiwanese people who do that, although I do hope they exist.
It is absolutely true that rent and mortgage rates are correlated to salary much as it is in the rest of the world, and people will judge how much you make based on how much you spent on your living quarters. Interestingly, this doesn’t seem to be as true in China and Korea, where people who make more will seek out nicer accommodation, but generally speaking will prioritize more visible markers of prosperity such as a luxury car or the new It Bag.
As an expat who inhabits a murky realm between younger travelers who usually come to teach in cram schools or study (heck, that was me not so long ago) and older ones who have either stayed on or who have come on a company package, I feel as though I don’t fit into either group – and my social circle starkly reflects this.
I do feel that when trying to “place” me and draw up a set of semi-assumed likelihoods about my life, most people I come into contact with place me in the latter group – closer to the older, business-oriented expats (probably precisely because that’s the locally correlated group of people I teach here, so that’s who I have the most contact with). I’m not sure how true it is, but it does seem to be how I am mentally categorized by new acquaintances.
As such, I feel there is an expectation that our lifestyle also fit that mold. Nobody expects us to have an office car and driver (do any expats in Taiwan actually have that anymore?) or even to own an apartment – although I am constantly asked “do you rent or own?” and when I say “rent”, I’m asked if I ever plan to buy real estate in Taiwan (probably not). I’m talking more about the lifestyle accoutrements you’d normally find among white collar professionals. I have, however, seen surprise on people’s faces when I admit how low our rent is (“we prefer to spend our money traveling!”), or that neither of us owns a smartphone or an iPad, or that we not only don’t have a car, but neither of us owns a scooter and I often ride my bike to work when not taking the bus or MRT. I encountered surprise when I admitted we don’t have a dryer (“but you can get one for just NT$10,000!”) and that our hot water is still from an old-style heater hooked up to a gas tank, as is our stove. Most of our friends live similar lifestyles – that’s usually the way, isn’t it – but most of my acquaintances, especially through work, do have all of the things listed above, and probably have newer, nicer apartments, too. Think of it this way:
Me: “I love your scarf! Where did you get it?”
Student: “Thanks! I got it at SOGO. I like yours, too. Where did you get it?”
Me: “Erm, the night market.”
Student: “Oh. Well, it’s nice.”
My students, typically, do not prioritize their finances as we do (not that I ask – that’d be rude even though I am asked all the time) and it does come as a shock that we don’t drive and we don’t live in anything like those curlicue-gated and marble-bedecked new apartment buildings dotting Taipei, or that we get our gas the old fashioned way.
Honestly, if you were to see our apartment and lifestyle you’d think we make a lot less money than we do (more akin to a cram school teacher), and while only one former student has ever been in our apartment (three if you include some former students from my year at Kojen, but I haven’t worked there in half a decade so I don’t really count that), I do wonder how often the things I do say about our life cause acquaintances to extrapolate what our salary likely is – and by doing that and leaving out all the travel, they’d probably come up with a number that’d be shameful in the corporate world for anyone above the level of a secretary.
I don’t doubt that this happens, actually, considering the nosiness about others’ affairs here. I’m not ashamed of the differences in expectation and reality (although I have been thinking recently about whether/how to either make our place nicer or move), but it does make me wonder. I do like to think that people have better things to do with their time, but I can’t deny experiencing this kind of nosiness among neighbors and being asked frequently how much we pay in rent. I do wonder what is expected as an answer as an expat whose acquaintances are mostly upper middle class Taiwanese. I wonder what they extrapolate from that. I wonder what they think when I don’t meet that criteria.
I do have to say that while most of the reasons why we diverge from lifestyle expectations revolve around spending priorities (“we prefer to spend our money on travel!”), part of it is also taste. There are more expensive, nicer apartments available but when you get into the “accommodation to reflect a high income” you start to dive into marble, faux gilt, crystal chandelier, hideous upholstery, faux “Greek” statuary and wrought-iron The wrought-iron is OK. The rest – no. As one friend put it, a lot of what is considered “high class” in Taiwan is sadly reminiscent of this: Opulence. I Has It!
There are other options, of course, but I did feel it was important to note this undercurrent in “taste” in Taiwan and how insidious it is – and how, like owning a Cefiro or shopping at Bellavita (or even Shinkong Mitsukoshi), I am simply not interested (although, I admit it, I have been known to buy things at Shinkong Mitsukoshi. Rarely. But it happens).
I do like to think that if I am judged for that, that I am judged well, and I do tend to get along very well with students generally. I have a very high opinion of them as a whole. If I were judged harshly, it would genuinely bother me if I were to find out.