Welcome Home? Returning Taiwanese Ponder Life in Taiwan

With COVID creating chaos all around the world, some 250,000 Taiwanese have returned from living abroad in the past 12 months. Companies want to find and hire them, the government wants to understand them, but more importantly, they want to find their place in Taiwan.

This article is a roundup of a panel discussion among returned Taiwanese as they discussed their thoughts on the culture shock experiences they encountered as they came back to Taiwan in 2020, as part of the event Welcome Home?, co-hosted by All Hands Taiwan and CommonWealth Magazine.

Arisa K., an AI consultant, had been living overseas for quite some time in the USA and Japan. She came back to Taiwan for Lunar New Year in 2020, learned more about the pandemic spreading across the globe, and decided to stay put in Taiwan.

Joey K., a Taiwanese-American computer firmware engineer who grew up near Chicago, was inspired by Taiwan’s orderly handling of COVID and decided to come back to learn more about living and working in Taiwan.

Jeremy H. is Taiwanese by birth, but due to his parents’ careers overseas, he grew up all over the world, including Belgium, Indonesia, and the United Arab Emirates. When the pandemic began, Jeremy was doing his undergrad degree in Political Science and Film at New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus. Jeremy, seeing Taiwan’s model handling of COVID, decided to take the opportunity to come to Taiwan, take some internships, and learn what it’s like to live as a “proper Taiwanese”.

With their different backgrounds, each experienced the return to Taiwan differently.

Both Jeremy and Joey said that joining the workforce in Taiwan was daunting. “When I interviewed for jobs, and people learned I was from the USA, the first question that people asked me was what my desired salary level was”, said Joey. “My years of honing of my skills immediately felt devalued; they weren’t seen as important as the financial burden I might place on the company.  However, when I finally did get a job as a junior project manager, I realized almost immediately that I wanted to quit it. My boss took my initial deadline estimates for my first project and slashed them by four months. That meant we had to work lots of overtime, which resulted in lowered quality and thus a good amount of rework. In the end, the project went over schedule by … exactly four months.”

“In addition, I was doing 3 different jobs: besides being a junior project manager, I was also brought in to work on software issues and also do any English writing/proofreading that the company needed. This meant that I had more overtime, which made me exhausted, not to mention there was no additional compensation for the tasks I was given. After I gave my notice indicating that I wanted to quit, the company asked me to stay on for several additional months, as they couldn’t find anyone to replace me.”

“I went to work as an intern for a politician in Taipei”, said Jeremy. “It made me lose my excitement for working in Taiwan. We simply waited around for work to do, and when work came through, I had to do the most menial tasks as the intern. I got out and began to look for new opportunities.”

Arisa had a different experience when working in Taiwan. “Working in Taiwan feels very liberating compared with working in Japan! In Japan, while the projects I worked on were mine to manage, being a woman I was not allowed to talk to the project owner directly – I had to have a proxy, who was a Japanese man. This went on for several years. So being able to work directly with stakeholders here in Taiwan is great and really opens up communication.”

When asked about what was good about working in Taiwan, Joey said, “In the USA, there’s usually an SOP that needs to be followed very closely. But in Taiwan, if something makes sense to the manager or the CEO, SOPs can be waived completely, and you can get what you want.”

Thankfully, Jeremy and Joey have moved on to more rewarding work. Joey works at a foreign-owned coffee equipment manufacturing company, where he’s quite happy with the company culture. Jeremy is working on filming his own documentary, while at the same time interning at All Hands Taiwan, another foreign-owned company. 

While it is interesting that both have moved on to work in foreign-run companies, one attendee pointed out it’s important to remember that if your line manager at a foreign company is Taiwanese, you are likely to have a very “Taiwanese” working experience. Likewise, don’t look down on more traditional, Taiwanese-run companies: sometimes they will have a position that’s right for you, that can greatly benefit you in the short-term or long-term. 

With some of these returning Taiwanese feeling like that they weren’t used appropriately in their job roles within Taiwanese organizations, it’s a good idea for employers to step back and think about how they can make better use of returnees; with different skillsets, different attitudes, and connections to foreign markets and audiences, it might make sense for Taiwanese companies to work on letting go of their “cost-down” philosophy and learn more from returnee’s perspectives. Hopefully, Taiwanese companies better learn to make returnees feel comfortable and valued; otherwise, they may leave when the pandemic is over. 

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