Having lived in Seoul, South Korea for nearly two years, Thailand just under a year and now as a relocating expat in Taiwan, I have had my fair share of life in Asia. Before I moved here, I had absolutely no idea what was in store for me, but English teaching jobs, affordable travel, island life and friendships have kept me here for longer than I imagined. Now that my husband and I are trying to find work and a place to call home in Taiwan, all my pet hates and loves of Asia come to mind. Here are but a few…
1. Plethora of English Teaching jobs
Whilst the rest of the world is craning beneath the weight of recession and jobs have become scarce, the English teaching job market in Asia continues to boom. At any time you can go online and find hundreds of teachings jobs in countries such as China, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Japan and depending on your qualifications, you can be accepted, have a work permit sorted and flown out in two months.
2. Great opportunity to save.
The monthly amount I saved in Seoul and Thailand is about three times that of what I could ever put away in Cape Town. Don’t be fooled into thinking that Asia is cheap, not even Thailand can get away with that myth anymore. Many would agree that South Korea and Taiwan are two of the best countries to teach or work when you want to save money. Living expenses here are not as expensive as Japan and salaries are not as low as Thailand and China.
3. Diverse Landscapes
You can move from a bustling city on a fast train and be within the quiet countryside within an hour or so. One moment all you can see are lights and skyscrapers and a little way down the tracks you’ll find the ocean, rice fields and magnificent mountains. There are the tropical islands of Thailand, Malaysia and Philippines, the mountainous gorges of Taiwan and Korea or the rice paddies of Bali and way more in between. And you can move between these countries at a relatively affordable cost.
There are so few counties you can visit today and still feel completely safe. Almost all places within North America, South America, Africa and Europe have their bouts of pickpocketing and petty crimes ranging all the way to the scarier robbery, kidnapping, rape and murder. In countries like South Korea, Taiwan and parts of Thailand (excluding the South) these incidents seem to be rare and you can truly experience a freedom in knowing that you will be safe walking alone, leaving your house unlocked and holding a big camera (without worrying about it being stolen). Other than bad drivers and crazy scooters, crime is one less thing to worry about here.
Subways, streets and malls are usually safe until all hours.
Everything in Asia seems to be geared towards shopping. In Seoul, I was constantly tempted to shop in the subway, sidewalk sales and in malls. Malls in Asia take on a whole new meaning here and use interactive ways and heaps of trendy innovation to make you shop. Be prepared for Out-of-this-world displays, shop fronts, ceiling screens and stairs with images that change as you walk. Better still, in Bangkok you can leave the expensive malls for the street markets and find unbelievable bargains on the latest fashions. Come prepared to spend.
I first encountered this on a daily basis in Seoul and now in Taiwan and I can’t seem to get used to it. In the Western world, staring is considered to be rude and I bet if you stare at someone for too long in South Africa they will confront you ( perhaps with their fists) or try calling the police. So it’s quite natural for me to ask the question in my head “what are you looking at?” In Asia, the answer is “you”. You are foreign, therefore you are different and that means people will stare at you for uncomfortable amounts of time, whether they’re sitting right next to you or driving past you. And because no one (other than in Thailand) smiles when they’re looking, it tends to make me feel isolated and sometimes angry.
2. Smells and cleanliness
In all six continents I have visited, I am yet to smell the same “special” smells that I find in Asia. The scent I get when driving past a sewerage plant in Cape Town (on a hot day) sums up what I often smell in Asia. Their love of open drains plus humidity provides a toe-curling odor that I can never quite get used to. I’ve stayed in backpackers and hotels throughout South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia and Taiwan and many have beautiful rooms accompanied by a rancid smell coming from the bathroom drain.
Even the cleanest street in Asia cannot hold a candle to any in Europe or Cape Town. Often stall owners will clean their meat, prepare food, place their garbage and wash their dishes all on the sidewalk beside a smelly drain. And my worst are the toilets that cannot flush toilet paper. Your used toilet paper has to go into a side basket – very “hygienic.”
3. Obsession with white skin.
I get that everyone has their very own idea of what is beautiful, but white skin and Western features are idolised in Asia. As my pale-skinned friend living in Korea says, “In Asia, white is right” and advertisers use white, Western faces to try sell so many products. Sure there are looks and features unlike our own which we aspire to and strive towards, but believing that white skin is always superior in all ways to anything else is ludicrous. I know it stems from the times of the rich fanning themselves indoors whilst the poor farmed the land in the sun, but as my Japanese friend pointed out, everyone basically earns similar amounts of money there but skin colour remains a status thing. Everywhere else but Asia, the world yearns for a tan and many would agree that a bit of vitamin D and colour makes you look healthier, slimmer and covers up all kinds of skin issues.
Sun damage aside (because this is rarely the primary concern of Asian women) using an umbrella in the centre of the city, using whitening/bleaching products and not leaving the house without a mask or arm covers on is a bit excessive. Even in Koh Samui where Thai woman embrace their colour and wear it beautifully, I could not find a single non-whitening product for skincare, deodorant or sunblock. Some of my 7-year old Thai students often came to school with bleaching agents still on their skin.
4. Everyday Architecture
Or lack thereof. If you’re looking for beautiful architecture and buildings in a city, Asia is not really the place. Yes, there are exquisite ancient temples, palaces and mosques to behold, but for the most part, the buildings in the city seemed to have required no thought at all. When I visit cities like Taipei, Hualien and many parts of old Bangkok, I realise just how beautiful some of Cape Town’s inner city buildings really are. Malls and stores in Asia scream innovation whilst many Asian towns love to use tiles on the face of apartment and store blocks – my question is why?! But I’ll give them one thing…many have survived earthquakes, typhoons and tsunamis.
What are your likes and dislikes when it comes to living in Asia?