‘Yuanlin?’. Such is the bemusement I encounter when I talk to Taiwanese about my expat home in Yuanlin City (員林市),Changhua County (彰化縣). Indeed, I have encountered many Taiwanese who haven’t even heard of this city of 124,000 residents. Naturally, the follow-up question is usually like ‘don’t you mean Yunlin?’, a county lying directly to the south of Changhua, or: ‘why do you live there?’. These questions naturally leave me questioning how I wound up in this uninteresting city in Central Taiwan, and also make me ponder my life here.
Although most expats, unsurprisingly, live in the bigger cities of Taipei, Taichung, Kaohsiung, and Tainan, I hope that my insights into life in this little-known conurbation can shed some light on a different expatriate experience and its advantages and disadvantages.
Things to Do in Yuanlin
I’ll start with perhaps the most difficult (and shortest) topic I can cover when writing about my unremarkable expat city. Much like the rest of Taiwan, eating seems to take up a lot of the Yuanlin residents’ leisure time. Therefore, it is only natural that much of my time in Yuanlin is passed eating food with my friends from the plentiful street vendors around town.
With meals offered for as little as 40NTD (1GBP), this is certainly a cheap pastime. As is a feature of even the smallest of Taiwanese cities, Yuanlin has its own night market; Longdeng Night Market, in which it is possible to eat your own weight in Taiwanese night market snacks and entertain yourself with night market games.
Unless you’re inclined towards KTV and Karaoke bars (like 99% of the Taiwanese population seem to be), nightlife options are limited to two or three decent bars spread around town. This is, unsurprisingly, the best place to meet the rest of the expat population of Yuanlin and neighboring Changhua City (which I believe can be counted on no more than two hands). I was baffled when I discovered that one particular expat, who coincidentally hails from around 20 minutes from my hometown in England, was about to see in his tenth year living in a city I’ll soon be seeking to escape from.
For those expats with more cultural or historically inclined interests, an outstanding feature of Yuanlin and all other provincial cities is the vast number of temples within the city.
Indeed, there is one temple and one traditional building called the Xingshian Tutorial Academy within about one hundred meters of my block of flats.
As well as visiting these temples, a highlight for me was marching for five hours in the biggest religious pilgrimage in Taiwan; the Mazu pilgrimage, which passed by just minutes from my front door and covers around 400km in total.
The religious and spiritual fervor to march for hours through day and night was truly remarkable to witness, and it is an experience I would have likely missed out on living in more cosmopolitan and less traditional cities like Taipei and Kaohsiung.
Language Spoken in Yuanlin
Naturally, one of the most difficult aspects of daily life in a provincial Taiwanese city is the utter immersion in an exclusively Mandarin Chinese (and Taiwanese Hokkien) environment.
Although people may sometimes surprise you with some well-spoken English, these occasions are infrequent, leaving you to grapple with tasks such as ordering food from Mandarin-only menus. Although this can seem daunting initially, shying away from learning some basic characters and functional spoken Chinese will only isolate you, or even make you feel infantilized in your inability to communicate.
The Taiwanese are extremely forgiving and even honored when foreigners attempt to speak their language. On one occasion, my American colleagues and I were having lunch and were using the opportunity to practice speaking Chinese (they studied Chinese at university). After chatting with a friendly and surprised local sitting at our table, the man departed and, without telling us, paid for all three of our meals. Although my Chinese is nowhere near good enough to warrant such gratitude, this just shows the value that language has in an enjoyable and rewarding expat experience.
Although boring Yuanlin stays boring and will probably stay boring for some time, my experience here has been enjoyable in a way I could have never imagined when I first arrived. Although those who know that I travel around the island on most weekends may find this claim a tad hyperbolic, I have no regrets about living here. With the right mindset, expats can enjoy life almost anywhere on this wonderful island. But the perks of living in the big metropolises for a 21-year-old expat (myself) have factored into my decision to move to Taipei in September. After all, ‘exciting cities stay exciting, and boring cities stay boring’.
What’s your experience with boring versus exciting places where you live? Have you experienced the gratitude (or friendly amusement) of locals when you train to order in Chinese, Spanish, Greek, French, or Portuguese? Sign up for free, and let us know.
by: Oliver Sanders