Saturday, August 9, 2014


One of the nicest features of our apartment is that we have a really nice south-facing window with a spacious casement. It looks out over a courtyard with a small playground, not a road, so there aren't any exhaust fumes or loud traffic noises. The light is soft and indirect - perfect for an apartment in a subtropical city, but not great for growing plants. So we keep it simple: a few large plants that we inherited (I don't know what they're called), mint, a few orchids, a fern that took root in an old pot of soil gone to seed, and a big fat fuchsia bougainvillea.

On nice days, I like to open up the screens and occasionally stick my head out into the sunlit air and enjoy the leaves and flowers. I was doing that just the other day - head out, light streaming in, a slight breeze which rustled up the smell of the mint, and swirls and splatters of bright pink flowers. To maintain the "shades of blue" theme from the living room, we added (okay, I added) inexpensive blue glass candleholders and lanterns and had chiffon curtains in shades of green and blue tailor-made.

Side note: when I gave the fabric and design specs to the tailor, her reaction was "this fabric is too thin! You don't want everyone seeing in, don't you? Why not choose a thicker fabric that can keep out the sun, too? The sun will come right through this!"

"That's what we want, and anyway we don't mind if people can see into the living room, not that too many people can. And there are plants to hide the view inside," I bit back.

"You foreigners are so weird."

Convinced she had the right of it, she got to work on my curtains.

Anyway, looking out on those flowers, I became aware of something: it was a Thursday afternoon.

Life is pretty good. I make good money for Taiwan; we live downtown. How many people with apartments nice enough to enjoy the view and the air from their windows and live downtown can, in fact, look out their window to admire whorls of bougainvillea on a Thursday afternoon? Even in Taipei, most people were toiling away in offices. Night would be falling before they could leave.

So I was thinking.

One of the advantages of being an expat - especially if you're from a country with a wide-reaching, globally-influential pop culture (which, sorry other countries, I know that can be annoying), is that you get to watch your own culture evolve from a distance. You're totally fluent in the sociocultural language of your home country, but you're not there, which lends the whole thing a rarefied distance. Not unlike observing the terrain from a tiny airplane window far overhead.

I have a reasonably broad view for Taipei - more than just the street below (there is no street below) and the apartment across from you is considered a good view in the denser parts of this city, or any city, really. But I can see just one courtyard - a broad view of a small space. The view from that window, past those bougainvilleas and their thorns (did you know bougainvilleas had thorns? I didn't until I inherited one), out on a little slice of Taipei is narrower than my extreme wide-angle view of American goings-on - a broad view but from a tiny little window way up where jet planes fly.

And recently, that American pop culture terrain has been marked by the volcanic eruption that is Women. More specifically, Sheryl Sandberg. Her name is the most ubiquitous, it has the most cache abroad (most of the people I know in Taiwan have heard of her, too) and she, like a lava flow, has mostly succeeded in her concerted attempts to bring the discussion about how we treat working women to the forefront of cultural discourse.

I'm not sure if I'm 100% on board with what she says: I don't wish to contort myself into some pleasing, perfect aggressive-yet-feminine, strong-but-not-bitchy Gumby woman. I'd rather just be me, and if some boss who thinks he or she can either walk all over me or that I'm a "bitch" gives me problems, I'll walk away as soon as I'm able. And I'm not a mom, so her advice to working mothers doesn't really impact me much. If I wanted to devote lots of time to work, I could, with very few consequences. And I see what people mean when they say that she can take her own advice - she's a wealthy, established, distinguished woman at the top of the ladder. It's not exactly useful to single mothers trying to put food on the table with the pay from their job as a receptionist at, say, Southern Oconomowoc County Chiropractic Associates.

It's not only Sandberg, of course, I'm only picking the most famous name from among a few people participating in this conversation.

And what I hear again and again is how a lot of these women - not Sandberg, but others - who write about how being a working mom with a flexible job is a great choice, how it works for them, how more women should do it. Most of these women are writers. That's why they write about this, natch! Which is great, but those jobs tend not to have stable incomes (especially tough if you're single, whether or not you have kids), are often harder to pull of with kids at home than you'd think, and really not available as an option to the receptionist at - say - Southern Oconomowoc County Chiropractic Associates.

Either way, a lot of people - a lot of women especially - seem to covet the semi-freelance flex-time lifestyle. Some make it work, some are trying, some have it but only because they can afford to with a high-earning breadwinner partner, some feel like it's a windmill they're better off not tilting at.

Because, let's face it: it's hard to have that lifestyle in the USA unless you've got the backing of a stable breadwinner. Possible, but hard. I don't know about you, but "I'm freelance (because my husband works long hours in an office so we never have to worry about money)" wasn't exactly what I had in mind when I decided to strike out on my own, work-wise. Of course people do make it work, it's just a lot harder. In Taiwan - especially Taipei - it's much easier. I know a lot of people who are making it work without the burdens of living in the USA. I don't know if any of us would be as successful or self-sustaining in the USA. I've met quite a few independent artsy locals (artists, designers, writers) who manage to live independently on that salary in a way that few Americans would be able to. In some ways, Taipei is a city of independent shopfronts, of indie jewelry crafters, of writers, translators, journalists and editors striking out on their own. I don't see a lot of this in the USA except perhaps in Brooklyn, and I can guarantee we all have better standards of living than the indie and freelance folks there.

Which makes me think from my perch at 30,000 feet above my own culture, that it's really a damn shame that there aren't more expat women in Taiwan. If more expat women lived in Taiwan, more of them would realize that if they want, they can have that kind of life here more easily than in the USA.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that while some people can do it in the USA, I never would have been able to.

You can't get around to meet people, promote yourself and meet clients without a car, so there's a whole bunch of expenses. The only city where you can both live near public transportation and not have a car is New York, other cities don't have a good enough network for you to be able to rove about town making money. Sorry, DC, Boston, Seattle, San Francisco and Chicago, but it's true. I strongly dislike driving - it would be a major change in lifestyle for me to have to do it, and a major expense I probably wouldn't be able to shoulder to buy and maintain a car with all of its associated costs. People without a lot of money buy cars all the time, sure, but imagine doing it on the freelancer money I'd be making. Yeah, not so much.

If your clients tend not to drive you'll also want to live near public transportation if it's available. Or, if you just want to avoid driving as much as possible, you'll want that too, without having to schlep a mile to the nearest MRT station. So, that'll be a much higher rent or mortgage payment for you. We could conceivably live near-ish a subway station on the American equivalent of my freelance career plus whatever Brendan would do, but it wouldn't be downtown. Forget it. I could not do what I do here and live where I do in the USA. Anywhere in the USA.

Living expenses are astronomical, too. At least, compared to Taiwan, they feel that way. In Taiwan, in months where I earn less, we can squeeze by surprisingly cheaply. We managed it for months without significant problems while doing Delta Module One, when for all intents and purposes I was working part time. You can budget and squeeze in the USA, too, but just not quite to the same degree. In Taiwan it was a matter of "maybe we don't need fancy Belgian beer this weekend". In the USA it would be "maybe ramen is a fine dinner idea every night this week".

In short, I could do it, but my lifestyle would suffer so much that it wouldn't really be the same. I could either have the lifestyle I do now, but work all week and miss out on those sunny Thursday afternoons enjoying the flowers of my labor, or I could have the work schedule I do now but live in a dank little view-less apartment far from downtown and a schlep to everywhere. Other people make it work, but I know that I likely wouldn't be one of them. For everyone who can shout out their windows to the bright, wide world that it's "fine for them! Try it out!", I bet there are ten more people who just wish their windows faced something other than a wall.

Until recently, I wouldn't have been able to pull it off because of this little thing called health care. I'm healthy, but not robustly so. I have had back problems (seem to be fine now) and occasionally get bronchial infections. I get migraines. My family history is riddled with heart problems, cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer's and a few other fun things, too. I need, need, need health insurance. Taiwan makes that happen for me. The USA...well, we have Obamacare now, and I'm curious about whether that would work for me. But when I left, I couldn't have gone freelance, or entrepreneur, or even worked for a company that didn't have a health insurance benfit, because quite simply I could not afford the health insurance. 

It wasn't a matter of budgeting: in the USA I budgeted myself into rice and lentils, rice&beans, cheap bread and pasta, frozen veggies and carrot sticks with apple slices because carrots and apples were cheap. And I still wouldn't have been able to afford my own health insurance: on an entry-level salary I could barely afford one of the cheaper company plans. Obviously working in companies one would either get promoted or look for something better (not that I thought about such things much back then, within a year I was plotting my return to Asia having decided that the cube monkey life was not for me), but how does one strike out on one's own when one can't afford basic health care?

Side note: this is one reason I will basically never vote for Republicans. Also the "weak track record on women's rights and their party platforms are bigoted against LGBT people", but a big part of it is that they talk big about entrepreneurial spirit, but don't do anything to help would-be entrepreneurs like me. I didn't need lower taxes - I needed health insurance I could afford.

Back to the main topic.

So, while I realize my experience is not the only experience, and my view is not the only view, it's unbearably clear to me that there's no way I could both maintain the lifestyle I have (those gorgeous bougainvilleas in that spacious, sunny, convenient downtown apartment) and have the time to enjoy it (those random weekday afternoons free), as a freelancer in the USA.

I have what a lot of people, especially (but not only) women, want. The freedom to do the job I love on my terms, with flexible time and good pay. I can both have my bougainvilleas and enjoy them, too.

I have this because Taiwan has made it possible. I could not have this in the USA. Even when I needed a visa to stay in Taiwan, I was able to have my own side interests and private classes and more-or-less have flex-time work. It would be remarkably easy for a lot of American women, sick of dealing with sexist workplaces, sick of being told to "lean in" or contort themselves, sick of having someone else dictate when they worked and for how much pay (less than men's), to grab a job that provided an ARC in Taiwan for a few hours a week of English teaching or whatever, and use their extra time to pursue their freelance side work, until they could get permanent residency and chase their dream full-time, or full-ish time - whatever time could be scheduled around not "leaning in", but leaning out of their sunny windows and enjoying a spray of bougainvillea, orchids and mint on a weekday afternoon.

But they're not here, and something tells me they're not coming.

It's too bad. I'd like to share my bougainvilleas.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I'm an expat woman who's been coming and going since 1978, this time for four years (and gratefully reading you for two). I second most of what you say about what Taiwan offers, particularly because I also noted your column on the schizo issues women face: "Here, you can walk freely, but your boss is just as free to be a misogynist dick." (also will buy the brown shirt and tea set, find me at Vallaurie Crawford on FB if I don't message you after dinner)