The Journal of a Recovering Taiwanholic

Part I (September 2011)

Website: toby-the-ex-ex-pat.blogspot.com

In June this year, I finally returned to the UK after ten years away, nine of them in Taiwan. It had been a long time in the offing and was in the end a matter of if not now, then when? Maybe by next year I would have paid off my debts and been in a better position to pick things up in the UK. Or maybe it would be better to go back and start earning now.

I’m 36 years old, not too late to start a career but at the point where every year that passes marks a smaller proportion of my life and yet is of ever greater significance. Half way to 70. More than half of my dad’s age for the first time. Men have biological clocks too.

Eventually my wife and I decided that although it’s easy to lead a comfortable life in Taiwan on an English teacher’s wages, there was no guarantee that I’d earn enough to save and it was time to bite the bullet and choose life, choose a job, choose a career, choose a big TV.

I arrived in the UK at five AM to be greeted by dew on the grass and air fresher than I was used to, despite standing outside one of the world’s busiest airports. The novelty extended to the customer service at the bus station. The ticket office wasn’t open till 6 and I was grunted across the lobby area when I accidentally approached the information counter rather than the sales desk. This was but a minor annoyance. I was in my homeland, ready to take a National Express coach to Gatwick (London’s second airport), where my dad would pick me up. There, I was greeted by the sight of police officers on patrol bearing submachine guns. I left in June 2001. How things change.

Driving home through the Sussex countryside I found myself in an utterly familiar yet foreign land of sunken green lanes winding through minor settlements such as Fulking and Shaves Thatch, past country houses with names like Beards Place and over the allegedly haunted Black Dog Hill and Mount Harry.

In town, this was a world in which one could not be guaranteed to find a 7-11 within 100 metres of home to buy a beer at 3am, should I even want one in my new life. A world in which mobile phone blackspots were not some vestige of the past and a ten minute train ride could cost more than a beer. I had some adjusting to do.

In the UK I did not know who I was. The last time I lived there I was in my twenties, listening to somewhat trendy music and at least aware of what was fashionable. I was young! Now, in my mid thirties I didn’t know how to relate to UK society.

Aesthetically and practically I didn’t know what to wear. Should I wear sensible shoes, tuck my shirt in and don a jacket? Or stick with t-shirts with cool logos. The climate took me by surprise in that it could be hot during the day and yet cool off rapidly in the evening. Planning ahead had not been much of an issue in Taiwan. Usually it was hot and it stayed hot. A t-shirt would do fine. When it was cold (cool by UK standards) it would be like that all day too. It rained pretty frequently but brollies were more useful than raincoats.

Music had moved on too. While I was away Oasis split up, apparently. Liam had gone on to form what I could only assume from their website to be an equally derivative band. It was all fisheye lens shots of them standing behind wrought iron gates, dressed in purple crushed velvet and looking like a cross between Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles circa 1967. I missed out there.

All this may sound superficial. It’s not the greatest hardship. But there is a deep sense of unease when returning after so long and it’s good to hear other ex-expats recount similar experiences that amount to letting me know, “you are not alone.” I have old friends here, but I have a special appreciation for those who’ve done long stints in Asia, who understand when I’ve had a bad day or I’m just missing the food that was once so alien, the people I once thought were weird but now consider my friends and the cityscape that despite its mouldy concrete brutality, I’d actually learned to live quite comfortably with.

Reassimilating after ten years will be a long journey. Some say you never fully fit in again. Will I be like the retired colonel at the end of the bar, trying to impress with colonial tales of bongobongoland that no one else is listening to? Or will I keep my memories in a cardboard box and pretend they’re fully past when really they inform my every day? Time will tell.

Part II (October 2011)

There are times when I feel it would be a lot simpler to cut my losses, call time on this venture and return to Taiwan. I’ve made an effort, applied for jobs and been to interviews. It hasn’t been without value. I know a lot more about interviews, the UK jobs market and schools environment than I did and even feel what I’ve learned would be useful in Taiwan. I’ve reacquainted myself with my country and put my affairs in order. But given the lack of tangible progress towards a career, why not declare the obstacles insurmountable and hop on a plane. I could earn a comfortable living, have a good social life and feel at ease in my environment.

Sadly, this is not realistic. For one thing, there’s the cost. It took a lot of money to ship our possessions over here. People sometimes ask me if I’ll be visiting Rosey before she comes over in January! If I had a thousand pounds to throw around and could take time off before even starting any prospective job, maybe. As it is, it is neither realistic to return to Taiwan or to visit my wife.

That is not to say it will never happen. “See you next year” is a common refrain when expats declare they are leaving Taiwan for good and I’ve seen a good many of them return, sometimes with their tail between their legs, others openly admitting that they simply prefer life in Taiwan. For me, for us, I can’t leave the UK until I have a basis to come back at a future date rather than returning to do this all over again. And there’s no point in returning to Taiwan without experience that means life there is not just more of the same. Not to mention the matter of Rosey gaining UK work experience and moving down the road towards eventual UK citizenship. With those under our belts, we’ll be a little more free.

Part III

It’s been close to six months since I returned to the UK and in the run up to Christmas and new year it seems a good time for an assessment of my experiences so far and where I stand now.

I spent nine of the best years of my life teaching English in Taiwan, until in my mid thirties I decided to bite the bullet and return to the UK rather than drift into middle age with my trial separation from my homeland looking increasingly like estrangement or divorce. Other than getting married, I’d never really attempted to be anything to be anything other than a transient expat and it seemed to me that I was approaching the point of no return, after which I would forever be an alien in Taiwan while simultaneously alienated from the UK.

With nine years experience, teaching seemed like the natural career path and working as a Teaching Assistant the natural way in. I had no experience of British schools and sought the reassurance of working as a TA for a year while my Taiwanese wife and I adjusted to our new life. With that experience, I could undertake teacher training and within a couple of years have the professional status I felt I needed to do myself justice. I had a plan.

I arrived in June with two interviews already arranged, hopeful of a smooth progression into work. Aware that I was up against five good candidates, I didn’t expect to breeze into the first job, but I did feel that after five or six interviews, on law of averages my number should come up. By the end of the summer term, that hadn’t happened.

Of course, my timing was not ideal. Every sector of the economy is affected, directly or indirectly. Even if teachers are not losing their jobs, there are many people with valuable life and work experience now competing for the these stable jobs. Many of my competitors had direct experience in similar roles and others had appropriate qualifications such as NVQs. Some had even completed PGCEs but either couldn’t or didn’t want to take on a full teaching role at this time.

Over the summer, I began to consider other options. Writing seemed to be the obvious skill I could bring to the world, but other than the declining industry of print journalism I didn’t know how I could put it to use, particularly in the short term. I didn’t have the time or money to consider training at this point. I remained remarkably naive to the field of copy writing and the special techniques involved in writing for the web, the medium that along with computers in general is deeply embedded in virtually every area of modern working life.

I started writing a blog, aware that I had to write something if this was to be considered a key skill. The Journal of a Recovering Taiwanoholic has been reasonably successful in allowing me to hone my craft while giving me an outlet for the frustrations and peculiarities of life in the UK. This has been very useful in convincing me that it is something that I can do, though the premise of being an ex-expat does seem to have a limited shelf life. I can only write about the shock of return for so long. Even if the audience didn’t get bored, I don’t want to define myself as an ex-expat forever.

In the autumn, I approached the Citizens Advice Bureau about volunteer work. This was positive but while I was still getting interviews for TA jobs fairly regularly, I was unable to make a commitment that would make it worth their while to train me to do anything really useful. It felt as if they were very kindly giving me an opportunity to add voluntary work to my CV while they didn’t really have anything for me to do.

The major consideration recently has been getting a settlement visa for my wife. This essentially depends upon being in a genuine relationship – not necessarily married but it’s easier to verify it if you are – having a roof over your head and being able to support yourself without recourse to the state. The first two conditions are not a problem. My wife and I have ample evidence of our seven year relationship and are living with my parents until we find a place of our own. The third condition is more difficult, despite the fact that with me contributing what I can, my parents are able to act as guarantor. The UK Border Agency are said to be “not keen” on third party support, despite it being within the letter of the the law.

So approaching six months in, I’m still looking for TA jobs but becoming increasingly aware that despite 9 years experience with kids, a lack of experience in UK schools is a major handicap. I’m gradually developing an idea of where my writing may take me but I’m also mindful of the fact that the ten year gap in my CV prescribes an unconventional career drawing on whatever diverse skills I have.

I’d never imagined myself to have the discipline or drive to be self employed but with my Chinese speaking wife, teaching background and experience of the meeting of Asian and western sensibilities, some kind of business drawing on these assets seems increasingly attractive.