2013 / 2月
Kobe Chen and Teng Sue-feng /tr. by Phil Newell
It seems that every few years you hear about some alternative lifestyle that involves seeing the world and learning more about yourself. This lifestyle has gone by many names over the years—“adventure travel,” “gap year,” “backpacking,” “travel-study,” and the currently popular “working holiday.” Young people not only are in a position to take a year or so to wander about experiencing exotic foreign cultures, but indeed even feel “entitled” to do so.
Twenty years ago young people from Taiwan competed for the opportunity to go abroad and gild their resumes with advanced degrees from other lands. Today they are more likely to work as they go while investigating their own life possibilities. But no matter what guise their travel takes, some of the questions never change: Where should you go? And why go?
Three months ago, Catherine, who turns 27 this year, jumped on a plane and, all by herself, went to Melbourne, Australia to live independently in a strange new environment, with the only constant being the chance to share her feelings with her friends over the Internet.
She found work in a Japanese restaurant, and, working 35 hours a week, has been able to cover her living expenses.
“The whole value of a working holiday is in the spirit of taking chances, of facing the unknown, so of course the only right way to do it is to just wing it entirely on your own!” Catherine says. Some of her friends in Taiwan, lacking her self-confidence and feeling that their English was not up to snuff, were afraid to follow her adventurous example, preferring instead to get everything arranged beforehand through an agency. But she decided that such a shortcut would not only be much more expensive, it would also be less rewarding, because the process itself is a valuable experience.
After graduating from university Catherine worked in the cram school industry for four years. She decided to go abroad to give herself a new challenge, hoping to find out whether she would develop new potential by getting out of her comfort zone. Naturally going out on her own meant paying some dues: After one month in Melbourne, she had spent virtually all of her traveling money, and was really getting desperate.
“I can sum up looking for work in the city in one word: tough!” says Catherine. She speaks English fluently, and had worked hourly-wage jobs when she was a student, so she figured finding a part-time job in a restaurant would be a piece of cake. Little did she expect the competition to be so fierce. Because many Australians from rural areas see no future in remaining down on the farm, they go to the cities to find work, and naturally local businesses prefer to hire local people.
Ultimately she invested a couple of weeks in getting certification as a bartender, and then she just went up and down streets knocking on restaurant doors and passing out her resume, until finally she landed a job.
In the big city, the cost of living is high. Catherine, who earned quite good money in Taiwan, relates: “Back home I always took taxis when I went out, but now I can only afford to take the subway or walk.” She spends about A$7 per day (about NT$210) in Melbourne just on transportation, which really makes her nostalgic for Taiwan’s cheap and comfortable mass transit system. But she remains upbeat: “I can’t complain—after all, I asked for it!”
Finding work abroad is not easy, so wouldn’t it be better to go through an intermediary agency? The answer is more complicated than you’d think.
Those who argue in favor of using a qualified agency say that you can save a lot of time that you would otherwise spend blindly groping in the dark, and that you’ll feel a lot more comfortable going abroad if you’ve got a job already lined up. But others suggest that the whole point of going abroad is to break the patterns of your normal life—that’s where the excitement is to be found! If you just turn your job search over to an agency, you will completely miss out on the sense of freedom and experimentation engendered by doing it yourself.
Besides the psychological effect, there is a more practical problem. Because a lot of people want to go overseas for working holidays, unscrupulous agencies sometimes persuade people to take illegal work opportunities with very disadvantageous contractual conditions. Therefore, make sure you read the fine print before you sign any agreement.
A separate issue is whether you should take your working holiday in a city, or in a remote rural area. It has been suggested that if you live in a rural area, you won’t meet many other Chinese speakers, and by sheer necessity your English will improve rapidly. In addition, a farm job would be a completely novel experience and offer a radically different view of life.
Catherine, who taught English for a living in Taiwan, says that it would have been “too much of a shock” for her if she had gone directly to a farm to milk cows or shear sheep. Also, she did some research before she left and found out that in a small town there might actually be very few chances to meet people for casual conversation, much less blend into the local community. That’s why she opted for the big city, where she can go to museums, or shop and chat with new friends every day—that’s the kind of working holiday she really wanted.
There has been some controversy over the fad for working holidays, with some saying that the people who go do so only for the money, and they see the willingngess of educated young people from Taiwan to go to another country to do menial labor as somewhat demeaning to Taiwan’s self-image.
However, last September an Internet survey conducted by the Kang Wen Culture and Education Foundation discovered that, of a list of 25 possible reasons for going on a working holiday, the 226 young people who responded ranked “making money” second from the bottom. The main reasons they cited were broadening their perspective, improving their foreign language skills, learning to be more independent, and curiosity to try new things.
In response to the question about which country they wanted to go to, 19.5% of respondents said Canada, 19% said Australia, and 9.3% said the UK. In analyzing the data, Kang Wen noted that in North America, only Canada admits young Taiwanese for working holidays, and it is easy to travel from there to the US and Central America. Also, Canada has a relatively high age limit—35—for working holiday applicants, so for anyone over 30 it is essentially the only option.
Lin Yenjie spent a year back in 2010 on a working holiday in Vancouver. Before going abroad, he worked in the film industry as a cinematographer and producer. He says that most of the jobs available in Canada are in the service sector, but even if you are just a waiter, you still get a great deal of respect from people.
Because there have been critical commentaries in the media saying that people go on working vacations just to goof off overseas for a year, Lin decided to make a documentary film about working holidays in the hope that it will help parents better understand the motivations of the younger generation, so that they will not equate “working holiday” with “waste of time.”
In Chinese culture, 30 is the age by which a person ideally should establish himself or herself in a profession—it is considered a major turning point in one’s career. By this age, many people have built up quite a decent resume. Is this really the time to break off their Taiwan experience and follow the impulse to spend a year frivolously?
Belle Chuang, nearly 30, worked as an industrial designer in Taiwan. Going over industrial designs and checking materials day after day, the routine never changing, she gradually lost touch with the passion for art that had originally driven her to study painting in school. She felt an emptiness inside that eventually crystallized in one sentence: “My life wasn’t meant to be this way!”
Belle decided to go on a working holiday, with the idea of making a record of her thoughts and experiences through drawings and paintings. She flew to Australia, but found it unexpectedly difficult to get a job. Finally, thanks to an off-hand suggestion from a friend, she decided to become a street artist.
“I would never dare do something like this in Taiwan!” she confesses. The first day she set up her stuff on a street in Perth, she kept asking herself over and over: Is it really possible to make a living just by painting? It was only after her first customer sat down for a portrait that she was able to shake off her insecurity and throw herself into her art.
Her experience in Australia has allowed her to recover the thing she most loved in life—not so much painting itself, as herself when she is painting. Not long after returning to Taiwan, she set off again, this time for Germany, determined to again challenge herself and conquer the world armed with nothing more than a paintbrush.
In contrast to the large numbers of young Taiwanese who have gone abroad for working holidays, thus far only about 1000 or so foreigners have come to Taiwan for the same thing. One of these is a 20-year-old German woman by the name of Michelle Wojtkowiak. She traveled to Taiwan with friends back in 2009 and fell in love with this island. She was delighted when Taiwan and Germany inked a working-holiday agreement in 2010, and immediately applied for a visa.
After arriving in Taiwan, with the help of some friends she found a cheap place to live, but finding a job proved to be not so easy. “A lot of business owners have never heard of ‘working holidays’ and are reluctant to hire foreigners,” Michelle explains. She looked for work in a lot of restaurants and small bars, but invariably got the door shut in her face.
One day, as she wondered where to turn, she thought that some good food might cheer her up. On Juguang Road in Banqiao, she saw a street vendor selling red-bean cakes—one of her favorite Taiwanese foods—and, finding to her surprise that the vendor spoke excellent English, ending up chatting with him about this and that. As they conversed, she learned that the boss wanted to relocate his business to Yilan County, and like a flash she saw a chance for herself. She asked him to teach her how to make red-bean cakes, and he generously shared all the tricks of the trade with her. After the vendor moved away she took over his street stall, and finally she had a stable income.
Currently she works six days a week, opening at 1:00 in the afternoon and closing up at 10:00 p.m. She makes enough to cover the costs of living in Taipei, which is an expensive city, while putting away small amounts for the future. She hopes eventually to save enough to take Chinese classes and travel around Taiwan.
Michelle says that she came to Taiwan, undeterred by any obstacles, because she loves it so much. But now that she understands the employment situation and the attitude of business owners here, she wouldn’t recommend to any of her German friends to come here unless they first think it through carefully.
The minimum wage in Taiwan is only NT$109 per hour, less than US$4, and working conditions are not as good as in richer countries. Also, little has been done to inform business owners about the working holiday rules. Therefore young people who come here seeking work have to rely almost entirely on luck and their own persistence.
The culture, the scenery, and the friendliness of the people are sufficient to attract short-term tourists to Taiwan. But it will be much more difficult to attract young people from other countries to come here on working holidays.
It is very common in the US and Europe for young people to take a year off before university and travel abroad. This is often called a “gap year.” In fact, Harvard has been encouraging incoming students to do this since the 1970s.
The revolutionary icon Che Guevera, who helped overthrow the pro-US dictatorship in Cuba, took a year off while he was in medical school and, with a classmate, took a motorcycle trip along the Andes Mountains, passing through five Latin American nations. The journey profoundly changed him, and in a diary of the trip that Che’s father later published, his father wrote: “He didn’t travel like a tourist, looking for scenic spots and taking commemorative photos. He traveled to learn firsthand about the hardships of the people at every bend and turn, and to uncover the reasons for their suffering.”
Asians have always kept their noses to the grindstone, rarely daring to depart from the normal track that everyone follows, even if they have doubts about doing so. Indeed, even people who realize that they’ve chosen the wrong path in life usually reject changing direction, because they fear falling behind. But the most interesting paths in life are not necessarily the straightest ones. Instead of just following the well-trodden line of getting a degree, working until you get old, and then finally retiring, more and more young people are thinking that it might not be such a bad idea to take some detours, or even go in circles of learning, working, playing, learning, working, playing….
No one knows for sure how long life will be, but we all have the power to decide how broad it will be. If spending a year helps you to find the right direction, why not take the risk, jump on a plane, and go for it!