Taiwan: A Primer for East Asia

High Speed Rail (HSR) entering the station

High Speed Rail (HSR) entering the station

Taipei is a city that works. Things that people normally complain about their cities or countries – healthcare, transportation, safety, education – have all been sorted out here.

First off, government supported national healthcare exists and works! Normal people can go to their clinics for everything from check-ups to surgery. I believe they pay a nominal cost of the total.

Second, public transportation is efficient, cheap, and covers large swaths of the city. There is both an above-ground/below-ground subway system as well as a bus system. Fees start at 50 cents.  Furthermore, if you need to visit your folks outside of the city, there are several train options from light rail to high-speed rail to take you to where you need to go. Again, options are reasonably priced, the schedule begins early morning to midnight, conditions are clean, and the trains are reliable and safe. When I was a teenager, I used to hear of people making the 312 km (193 mile) trek from Taipei in the north to Tainan in the south. At the time, there only existed a two-lane series of roads that connected the two cities. Thus, the ride used to take 8-9 hours because of weekend traffic; now, that same ride by high-speed rail takes less than 2 hours. The return (go and come) is about $97.

Third, Taiwan is safe. You can walk late at night without fear of assault. And this somehow works without a fear of the government or the police.

Fourth, consumption goods, e.g. food, are reasonably priced. Yesterday I ate a good meal of a clay oven-roasted whole chicken with my friend and his family for probably less than $20. Fuel prices are also comparable to the US. On my first breakfast, my cousin treated me to a $4 breakfast for both of us.

Lastly, the people are highly educated. Higher education is either free or very affordable. All you have to do – ha! – is test well. Typically, students take it at 17 years of age. Then you will have a choice of schools to attend.  Fortunately, there is no way to cheat the system. Even if you come from a wealthy family, you still have to take this once-a-year entrance exam to determine where you will place. The most advantage that wealth offers is access to better cram school teachers. At the end of the day, you still have to work hard and take your own test. Thus, the playing field is level.

If all aspects of society have been worked out, then the way to get ahead is to work harder than the person next to you. Easier said than done.

Talking to multiple friends and family, most working people start their work day at 8am or 9am and “close” 12 hours later at 7pm or 8pm or later. These hours do not include commuting time. Thus a person could start their day at 6:30 and end it at 9pm. Up until maybe 2006, many people were required to work half of Saturday as well.

Children and teenagers don’t have it much better. They start their day at 8am and get off from class at 4:30 pm then go to after-school programs until 6pm or so.  These after-school classes can include music, English, or math lessons. Thus, it was not a surprise to learn that perhaps a third of school age children are raised by their grandparents because their parents are too busy to raise them properly. Unfortunately, grandparents may have difficulty disciplining their grandchildren.

There are two aspects where Taiwan lags. The first is salaries. A fresh college grad can expect to make 22,000 NT per month or about $730 per month. Fortunately, income taxes are relatively low at 12 percent for most earners. A seasoned office worker may earn approximately 35,000 NT per month or $1,170 per month.

The other aspect that is hardly affordable is housing. In Taiwan they use a area unit called ping which is approximately 36 sq. ft. My friend said that central Taipei could cost around 1 million NT per ping. Thus, a 38 ping or 1,368 sq ft flat could cost $1.2 million. I think that’s more than New York or San Francisco. Typically, a buyer is expected to place 30 percent down. In this case, that’s around $360,000.

Thus it’s also not a surprise to learn that most adult children in Taipei live with their parents until marriage. Some couples may live with one side of the family if they cannot afford to buy their own place.   Some men may delay marriage until they can afford to buy their own place.

With the hope of buying a house far out of reach, some people simply consume their salaries.   They can eat out, take vacations to nearby countries, and in some cases, buy luxury goods or cars.  The government places a high tariff on imported cars to limit congestion. It can be as much as the value of the car or even more for a luxury car. Thus, your $25,000 Honda Civic could run someone here $50,000. Car loans are virtually nonexistent so most people pay cash.

Taiwan is not unusual. Most developed East Asian countries operate on a similar model. Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, and China. (I cannot speak to Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand.) You work hard because your peers do too.

Thus it’s no surprise that if you take a East Asian person out of East Asia and drop them in the US, they can easily out-work an American. From a young age, they have been trained to expect 12 hour days studying or working. More importantly, they have been working hard from a young age so they probably know more and can use mental shortcuts to think faster than your average American. Lastly, the cost of the living is so high that everyone is kind of poor so they all have an incentive to strive. Unfortunately, they don’t get lost on doing something that they have a passion for. If you want to live a good – not luxurious – life then you will have to work pretty hard.

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