Through contacts and a lot of luck I had landed this great job in Taipei. My boyfriend had been sent there by his company and I managed to get employed by one of the Big Four accounting firms as a recruiter. They had wanted to hire a foreigner to penetrate the Western market and I happened to be there, in the right place at the right time.
I was nervous when I got up on my first day of work. I put on my business suit and got ready for the great unknown.
The first challenge was the daily commute. Public transport in Taipei in those days was very limited. There were two subway lines that went from north to south but the stations were nowhere near our house, nor near any of our offices. No foreigner took the bus because it was too complicated to work out how the bus system worked. The only option was driving.
My boyfriend’s company had already started cutting back on expat benefits and allowances and we had to buy our own car. Fortunately, one of the Dutch bank managers was still enjoying all the bells and whistles of the traditional expat life. As he had just been given a new car we proudly took over his old Buick, one of those oversized American cars that glides rather than rides.
Managing Taipei traffic was a true battle. There was no place for politeness and if you didn’t throw yourself into it, you would never get anywhere. Having a big American car provided some protection in this battlefield.
My office was on the third floor of an old building a little bit away from the city centre. I had been there twice, once for my interview and once to hand in my work permit application paperwork but I hadn’t really met any of my colleagues. I arrived at 8:45am, a little bit earlier than expected; I was the first person there. Not knowing what to do I walked up and down the corridor; the nerves in my stomach were having a field day.
Fortunately, my boss arrived soon and he took me on a tour of the office. Many Taiwanese people adopt a Western name which made life so much easier for me. My colleagues were called Jacqueline and Cathy and my boss was Richie, easy enough. I would come across some curious names in the years to come, including ‘Mountain’, probably the most interesting.
Taiwanese people are generally very outgoing and, even though their English was limited, they wouldn’t shy away from coming for a chat which made me feel very welcome.
Unfortunately, I had real problems understanding my colleagues’ English because of the heavy Chinese accent. I once almost followed by boss into the loo because I hadn’t understood what he said.
I was given a desk and a pile of files of my predecessor, an American Taiwanese who went back to the States. Jacqueline was going to be my go-to person and in her very limited English she managed to show me how to work the candidate database and other secrets of the job.
My first week at work was exhausting and it took some time to find my feet. I thought my English was quite good but I came to realise that I had actually never done a lot of business writing. Talking is one thing, writing a formal report for a client is something else altogether! How I developed my English writing skills was by reading my predecessor’s client reports and copying and pasting relevant sentences. It did the job and I slowly became more comfortable using my own words.
In the first weeks in Taipei, whenever I walked around town, I thought I recognised one of my many new colleagues. Everybody looked alike! Taipei was not a very diverse city in those days and 99.9% of the people had the oriental look. It took a while before I started noticing different features in Taiwanese faces.
The best part of the Taipei office life was lunch. At twelve o’clock a jingle would come through the intercom and everybody got up to go and buy a lunch box or eat out. Jacqueline introduced me to the best places for lunch boxes in the area. I quickly learnt that Taiwanese food is absolutely delicious and completely different from the “Chinese food” back home.
Jacqueline and I would bring our lunch back to the office and eat it at our desks. The music stopped at 10 past 12 and this was for a good reason. As soon as the food was finished my colleagues would pick up a small pillow, put it in on their desk and put their heads down: Nap time.
At 1 o’clock the music started again and everybody woke up, put their pillows away and went back to work. I have always envied this wonderful skill of putting your head on your desk and sleep, but it is something that I have never been able to acquire, no matter how tired I was.
And tired, I definitely was. Those first weeks in Taipei were full of new impressions and experiences. It was the start of six exhausting, exciting, enriching and overall wonderful years in Taiwan.
Wendela Elsen has been an expat partner for more than 20 years. She is originally from the Netherlands and has lived in Taiwan, Japan and now in the UK. She has been professionally active for most of that time in different capacities. She now works as a coach and helps expat partners find meaningful and fulfilling ways of using their professional skills and experiences, be it in paid work or otherwise.