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Digital nomads are people whose means of making a living comes from the internet and isn’t connected to living in any particular location. They are the “new rich” Tim Ferriss wrote about in his book, The 4-Hour Workweek. There’s a spectrum of digital nomad work that ranges from “almost a normal job” to “working four hours a week from the beach while sipping coconut water”. I’ll go over some of the strategies I’ve seen below.

The rise of the digital nomad

Digital Nomad search trends

I first started hearing the term digital nomad in early 2013 amongst a few acquaintances in the tech scene in 2013. It’s only in 2015 that the movement has really been gaining steam. Many, many people who have read the The 4-Hour Workweek have since moved to cities such as Chiang Mai, Prague, Saigon or Cartagena and set about making the dream a reality. In fact, when I was in Chiang Mai a couple of months ago, it felt very much like everybody inspired by Tim Ferriss’s work had crowded into the city. The weekly Nomads and Coffee meetup organized by Johnny FD rapidly ballooned from a couple of dozen people to too many to fit in the coffee house!

The spectrum of digital nomad work

  • Almost a normal job
  • Setting your own schedule
  • Repeated income from previous work

Almost a normal job

The most conservative way to become a digital nomad is to just do the same work you were before but work remotely. Depending on your job you may or may not need to stay in a roughly compatible time zone as you were in. While you won’t exactly exactly have a 4HWW-style life, you can move someplace that’s much cheaper, save more, have new experiences, learn a foreign language and maybe even take advantage in the arbitrage of local economies to invest in yourself. Piano lessons are cheaper in Prague than in New York!

It can be hard to find a job that will hire remotely (and pay first world rates) but if that’s your goal, then a good place to start would be weworkremotely.com. Some famous companies that work mostly remotely are Automattic (the maker of WordPress, which powers this site) and Github. There are others, too.

An easier option is just work for your existing or previous employer remotely. A lot of people I know have been able to do that, including myself! After developing a good working relationship and proving your ability to generate meaningful business results, it’s usually not too hard to work out. In larger companies this can be difficult, but there’s often some leeway. For an American programmer, for example, health care costs are far higher in the US than they would be working remotely from a developed Asian country. This means it’s possible for the worker to retain the same level of income and benefits while saving money for the employer.

Setting your own schedule

The next level of freedom is to do some kind of work where you don’t have to work the same hours every week. It’s very likely you don’t need “full-time” employment to sustain yourself as a digital nomad. This is even true if you’re teaching English in Taiwan, China, Korea or elsewhere. If your employer makes you work 40 hours a week, it destroys some of the benefit of living in a cheaper country.

The solution is to start doing project-based freelance work. Ideal types of work for this kind of set-up are copywriting, blogging, design, translation and editing. Project-based gigs are also doable for software people, but quite a bit of work goes into finding high quality sources of work.

Repeated income from previous work

While it’s great to be able to set one’s own schedule, what really makes it possible to break into the ranks of the “New Rich” described in the 4-hour workweek is repeated income from previous work. This usually means either building your own marketing machine or building a product to plug into somebody else’s marketing machine.

Since it’s such an appealing prospect the rest of this article is devoted to how to decouple your earning powers from your working hours. The main options are:

  • Affiliate marketing
  • web publishing
  • writing ebooks
  • video publishing
  • creating courses
  • creating applications to sell
  • creating software as a service
  • selling physical products

Affiliate marketing

Affiliate marketing just means getting paid to help sell products or services others have created. Many creators use 3rd party services such as Clickbank or ShareASale to connect with affiliate marketers, but many others have created their own internal programs. If you trust the merchant to be running their program ethically, the payout is always better if you cut out the 3rd party service in the middle.

In order to sell someone else’s product, you need to have an audience to sell it to. This could be your personal blog. For example, if you click one of the links to 4-hour workweek in this post and buy it, Amazon will pay me a fraction of a dollar for helping them sell a copy (your price won’t be affected). Other common audiences are Twitter followers (very difficult), Facebook pages, or email lists (generally more effective). For obvious reasons, it helps you quite a bit if your audience knows, likes and trusts you at least on the topics you’re writing about. I wrote for nearly 10 years about language learning, language teaching and my personal experiences on this site and have a great deal of trust built up with my readers on these topics. It isn’t difficult at all to get people to try language learning products I recommend. Of course, the trust will only remain as long as I’m giving good suggestions!

My advice for the would-be affiliate marketer has two parts. First of all, find something you’re genuinely interested in, can write about and can give reasonably good advice about. Write about that on your blog and be absolutely as helpful as you possibly can to people. Collect email addresses. Review related products and don’t push them based on their affiliate commission structures. Try to be what Johnny calls an “Earnest Affiliate“, focusing on actually providing value to your readers. The more you do that, the more people will want to read your future pieces and the more they’ll share what you’ve already written with others.

The second piece of advice is to learn about how online marketing works. There are a ton of great resources. My personal favorite is Neil Patel. He writes at http://neilpatel.com/blog and has also written and compiled an impressive array of resources at Quicksprout. He offers very pricey personal coaching, but there’s more than enough free content on both those sites to become one of the top 10% of online marketers.

Web publishing

Web publishing is similar to affiliate marketing, but rather than spend a significant amount of time on marketing and selling-related activities, the primary focus is publishing content and building traffic. About 10 years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for people to make great earnings from Google Adsense. Believe it or not, it still happens. I saw it happen personally with a friend a couple of years ago, actually. He went from a few hundred dollars per month in Adsense, to a thousand to a few thousand, to twenty thousand and then to using higher-end advertising solutions such as Google’s DFP instead of Adsense. He went full-on digital nomad pretty quickly and as a result of all his travel I didn’t keep up with all the developments after that, but he definitely scaled up to five digits in monthly earnings without doing much with email, social media marketing or selling.

The secret? Get obscene amounts of traffic. Top out in Google search engine results for popular searches. Then do some optimizations around ad placement.

In order to be an effective ad publisher, you need to both pick one of the most popular niches on the internet—e.g. health, dating or career—and develop formidable SEO skills. This means, learning how to use google’s keyword tools to figure out what readers of your content are looking for, it means learning how to update your content to make it more useful and it means knowing what topics you have a reasonable shot at. Neil Patel (linked in the previous section) is also an excellent resource for this kind of information.

Writing ebooks

Writing ebooks is a surprisingly effective way to make good earnings. Ebooks can also be part of a larger marketing strategy, but here I’ll just cover the business of books themselves.

Amazon Kindle Store

If you have no audience and no distribution, then Amazon is a great way to get it. A 50 page book with the right title and cover in the right niche can bring in readers almost right away, especially if you can get a few positive reviews early on. Keeping your ranking is up to the quality of your work, of course.

It’s generally best to either write a bunch of books in the same general non-fiction category or to write a series or serial in a popular fiction category. Right now, the best selling categories are romance, suspense, survivalist prepper fiction, and sci-fi, swords & sorcery fantasy, vampire fiction and military fiction are also doing reasonably well.

If you price your book for $0.99 to $2.98 or more than $9.99, Amazon gives you a 30% commission. If you price between $2.99 and $9.99, then they pay 70%.

Selling ebooks through one’s own platform

If you do have an audience and you prefer not to have Amazon’s downward pricing pressure, then selling on your own is the way to go. You can do this with some kind of shopping cart system such as Member Mouse, by manually putting Paypal buttons on your site or by using a minimal system like Gumroad. I’ve used Paypal buttons before and I use Gumroad now (check out the guides link in my site navigation). I’m not really a fan of shopping carts. I find them clunky and annoying as a user.

Selling directly on your own site is also a great way to offer tiered products for which an email book is only one part. For example, you could sell your new cookbook with Korean recipes for $39, or the book plus videos for $99. For a great example, see Edmond Lau’s book, The Effective Engineer, which has tiers going all the way up to $699. Most authors I’ve spoken with have told me they’ve made the vast majority of their sales at the cheapest tier and still made more money from the most expensive one. It’s a great way to reach a level of income that sustains you without excluding the majority of people who just want the book.

I bought a mid-level tier and found it a great value as a software engineer in San Francisco. If I had been a software engineer working in Bangalore, the price tag might have just been too high to make sense, but the book only option still would have been a great value. If the lower tier didn’t exist, people with less money simply couldn’t get the product. If the higher tier didn’t exist, the author would miss out on a lot of revenue. Multiple tiers are a great way to get the best of both worlds.

Video publishing

Video publishing breaks down into the same general categories of “high traffic + ads” and “moderate traffic + sales” that text-based publishing does. In order to make it from ads alone on youtube you need hundreds of thousands or more likely millions of subscribers. If you’re doing product placements for something such as cosmetics, clothes, etc, you can make it much, much sooner. A lot of vine users went this route. Obviously it helps video if you’re young, attractive and/or famous.

The other massive source of people supporting themselves off of video is Twitch.tv. For those not familiar with it, Twitch is a where you can live-stream yourself playing (or even analyzing) video games. If you’re a top-level commentator of League of Legends, Starcraft 2 or other popular game you probably already have a Twitch account and paying monthly subscribers and don’t need to read this. If you’re not, but you are deeply obsessed with a particular video game or enjoy reviewing games, it’s probably worth trying live-streaming regularly for a few months and see if you can build a following. I wish that option had existed when I myself was a Starcraft-obsessed teenager!

Creating courses

If you have something to teach (and most of us do), a course is one of the very fastest ways to start earning an income online. In Chiangmai, I met quite a few people who had created courses on Udemy.com teaching everything from yoga to social skills to JavaScript.

Udemy is great for getting traffic. Assuming you’re proficient with recording video or screencasts, you can get your first course built within a week or so and be earning something, perhaps $100 in your first month. This will get more difficult over time, but now it’s still pretty open. On the downside, Udemy isn’t a great way to earn a lot. They aggressively offer discounts on their courses and after a while their users, myself included, start to assume that for any given $500 course, there’s a discount coupon that will let me buy it for $10. And if not, then within a month or so, Udemy will probably have a site-wide promotion letting me get it that cheaply. That said, one of my acquaintances doing software courses who has already eclipsed six figure Udemy earnings this year.

Once you do have a following (built through Udemy or elsewhere), the way to charge market rate for your courses is to sell them yourself. Once again, shopping cart plugins are a way to do it, but I’d strongly recommend keeping it simple and using something like Gumroad. They’ve actually added some tools that make it possible to release portions of a course one week at a time with new emails to customers and they’ve been adding new features at a furious pace. I’m a happy user of Gumroad, but other than that have no financial incentive to keep singing their praises here. To the best of my knowledge they don’t even have their own affiliate program. (If I’m wrong please tell me in the comments!)

Creating applications to sell

Creating software applications is a lot of work. The rewards for successful applications are sometimes enormous, but due to the real possibility of putting months of effort into something that earns nothing, I don’t recommend it for a first product.

App platforms

Probably the most popular platform is Apple’s App Store. It’s still the most profitable store I know of, but competition is intense. Choose carefully and bring your A game if this is your plan.The same general advice would go for Android apps, with the one difference that you’re likely to have a harder time making sales of paid apps and that you can probably get better distribution of in app advertising.

Steam has become pretty indie-friendly, but a lot of people are making games and the competition is intense. Fortune favors the unique here. Kongregate.com and other flash game sites are amazingly still trucking along in 2015, but if you don’t already have flash development skills, 2015 is a bit late to be investing in them.

Probably the less risky option I see for people making apps on someone else’s platform would be to make a WordPress plugin for professional users. WordPress now powers 15% of all the sites on the web and an awful lot of those sites are serving some sort of business purpose.

Selling apps directly

You actually don’t need to sell an app through a platform. You can just write the code, put it behind some kind of paywall and then share a link to it. Like I did with Zhuyin King (a Mandarin phonics trainer) right now. I could have put the app on Apple’s Mac Store. But I didn’t have any idea how much interest there was for it. I didn’t want to pay $100 to join Apple’s developer program just for an experiment. Also, it’s a lot easier for me to send people updates this way. I just wrote a very very rough prototype of the software and threw it up on Gumroad for $1.25. A few people bought it and made suggestions. I improved the UI and raised the price to $1.75. New customers had to pay that much but people who already bought got the updates for free. Then I added more content and raised the price to $2.49 for new customers. This is great. It means I can sell software still under development, price it appropriately and then regularly improve it based on feedback. People who buy early on get a great deal, I have no obligation to continue development and yet if I choose to I can easily keep improving the product without having to wait for Apple, Google or someone else to say okay.

That said, from an economic perspective, most people who don’t already have huge followings are probably better off plugging into someone else’s platform.

Selling software as a service

Selling software as a service is the holy grail for many, regardless of whether they plan to write it themselves or hire others to write it for them. Once you have a product people are willing to pay a monthly or yearly fee to use, your income becomes very predictable and your life choices expand greatly. It actually doesn’t even have to be software. It could also be something like a podcast or a blog that you sell a subscription to, but those choices generally come with the obligation to keep making new content.

The types of software that can be sold as a service are almost unlimited, but here are a few ideas: BufferApp (schedules your social media postings), Baremetrics (Stripe analytics for your business), Bingo Card Creator (makes bingo cards for teachers). It’s important to note that only the last of these businesses was run as a single developer for long. SaSS is brutally tough to go alone. If that’s what you’re doing, I suggest aiming for the simplest thing you possibly can.

Drawing stickers for chat apps

Mature messenger platforms often have stores where users can buy stickers and/or cover art. The people who create the stickers get a cut of the sales revenue. The specifics vary, but in most cases, it’s around 20%-50% after the fees for mobile app stores, the chat app’s share and taxes have been taken out. I made a set of stickers for the LINE messenger which was of very modest quality but still continues to sell at a slow pace. Like Kindle books, YouTube videos or even content on a web page, there are increasing returns to be had by continuing to create on the same platform since those who find one item they like will often look at others from the same creator.

Selling physical products

Amazon FBA is huge right now. It’s a pretty wide-open opportunity for people with enough savings to get by to ramp up their sales and cover some risk (~$300) of not being able to sell a product.

The way it works is you sell the product and Amazon ships it. A very common way to sell physical products is to buy in bulk from a Chinese factory (via Alibaba), have the product shipped to Amazon and then sell the product on Amazon. I’m far from an expert, but what my friend in SF did was basically this:

  1. Find a product on Amazon with a relatively high sales ranking where the top listing had a rating of less than 4 stars.
  2. Read all the three and four star reviews
  3. Repeat for other products high up in the listing
  4. Identify one or two ways to improve the product based on the reviews
  5. Go on Alibaba and find a manufacturer to make the improved product for you
  6. Test the samples yourself and revise and necessary
  7. Sell it on Amazon
  8. Market it as if Amazon wasn’t even helping sell it
  9. Do anything and everything within the rules to get good reviews
  10. Profit!

For an example of an insanely successful Amazon product launch see this video from Zen Active Yoga.

Risky is the new safe

It’s amazing to me how much easier it is to build a business online now than it used to be. Even when I was running a brick and mortar English teaching school with a couple of partners in Taiwan 7 years ago, I sometimes thought about how great it would be to be doing something that scaled more easily and something that didn’t tie me down to 60+ hours of work per week year in and year out.

When I went back to the US in 2012, I met some people with great jobs. But I also met people who were really struggling and who had basically done the “safe thing” all along, getting good grades, getting a degree from a renowned school and then joining “safer” career tracks. I still think that path is reasonably safe for those at the very top. But when there’s a big shift in the market and people have to retrain and compete with much younger people for a different role, the “dangerous path” taken by authors, freelance marketers and various small entrepreneurs starts to look pretty safe by comparison.

Let’s face it. Most people spend a lot of money on foreign languages either directly or through their public schools and the results aren’t usually that great. [1]

What are the problems? Well the biggest one is probably that most people studying foreign languages don’t want to be studying them! Some of my old students in Taiwan showed up hating everything about English! It took countless months of benevolent brain washing and fun materials to get even half of them genuinely interested in a language they only needed at school. But I’m basically going to set that problem aside and talk about the difficulties for people who really do want to learn. Let’s look at the main options and then the problems (and strengths) of each.

The main options

  • Classes
  • Self study courses
  • Online tutoring
  • Offline tutoring
  • Conversation exchange
  • Immersion
  • Other online tools
  • Self-designed study methods

Classes

  • Classes with professional teachers are expensive.
  • It’s cheaper to be part of a large class, but most students want talking time.
  • It’s very difficult to handle students with very different levels of proficiency.
  • Most classes focus too much on grammar.
  • Most classes focus too much on intensive activities instead of extensive reading.
  • Classes tend to be very rigid in terms of when students can start or stop studying.
  • There are limited times when students can join or leave.
  • Group classes motivate people to study regularly.
  • Native speaking teachers can correct students.

Self-study courses (books + CDs/MP3s)

  • Most are of poor quality (this can be mitigated by looking at online reviews).
  • There’s no correction. This is a huge problem for pronunciation.
  • Don’t generally get students to the level where they can use native materials.
  • Good for learning vocabulary and basic grammar.
  • Usually a reasonable value for the price.

Online tutoring

  • Online tutoring extremely expensive due to its one on one nature.
  • Teachers don’t generally have the same incentives to make study plans as those making courses for schools.
  • It’s difficult to become friends with an online tutor and some platforms forbid it.
  • Due to the individualized attention, tutoring is very time efficient.
  • Students able to continue spending $5 to $30 per hour can learn to a very high level. 
  • Students anywhere can learn from teachers anywhere.
  • It’s easy to switch teachers.

Offline tutoring

  • It’s more difficult to find offline tutors if you aren’t at a university or hostel.
  • There may not be a tutor for the language you want to learn where you live.
  • Offline tutors sometimes become genuine friends or introduce students to other native speakers who become friends.
  • There are no middleman costs from a platform or payment processors.

Conversation exchange

  • It takes some effort to find a good match (online or off)
  • Many conversation exchanges devolve into a struggle over which language to use.
  • There’s a MASSIVE imbalance between who wants to learn what languages. For every English speaker who wants to learn Arabic, there are probably 100 Arabic speakers who want to learn English.
  • People doing conversation exchange have to or at least should spend 1/2 of it helping the other person.
  • Conversation partners often end up becoming friends.
  • Conversation partners understand each other’s struggles.
  • Conversation exchange leads to more cultural understanding.
  • Conversation exchange is free.

Immersion

  • People are remarkably capable of creating their own language bubbles and resisting immersion. Just living in a country is no guarantee you’ll learn much.
  • Moving to another place is a huge life decision affecting work and relationships.
  • It’s costly to move and figure out how everything works in a new place (either in time or money or both).
  • The ability to take advantage of immersion to learn a language really depends on social skills, and sadly physical beauty. Not everyone can recruit the locals to help them learn.
  • Combined with study, immersion is one of the surest ways to learn a language.
  • It’s exciting.
  • It generally forces people to grow.

Other online tools

There is an ever-growing wealth of online tools available for learners. I’ve often thought my Chinese would have improved nearly twice as fast if I’d been born 10 years later and had access to those tools while I was learning.

A lot of great tools have a narrow focus and will help you with one specific aspect of learning a language. Obviously these can’t be relied upon exclusively, but they can definitely be valuable additions to your other activities. Anki, for example, is a long-time favorite of many language learners. Lang-8 is popular for those who like doing and receiving writing corrections. Another interesting option is LingQ. I will definitely write more about them in the future.

I’ve heard great things about some of the language-specific programs, in particular Frantastique for French learners. Due to their very high prices, though, I haven’t tried it out.

Podcasts are definitely worthwhile. The key is to find podcasts that are interesting, are at the right level and don’t waste your time with too much branding or chit chat in English.

The 100% free resources available online don’t tend to be time efficient.

Some of the most popular, like Duolingo are highly gamified, very addictive and not very effective. I’ve known some people who have spent hours a day on Duolingo for an entire year without developing basic speaking or listening abilities. Students with time but no money would be far better advised to take advantage of the free tier on something like LingQ and then start doing conversation exchanges after getting a basic foundation (or even after just getting enough to make it through one conversation on a pre-prepared topic).

Self-designed study methods

  • Only really an option for people who have experience learning languages and know what they’re doing.
  • For veteran language learners, personal approaches developed over multiple languages of experience are often very effective even for languages lacking study materials.

Lowering your learning costs—the bottom line

Here’s the best advice I’ve got based on today’s tools:

1) Get a self-study textbook + CD set. I had a decent experience with Living Language for Spanish. It was like 3 textbooks (of which I did nearly two), plus CDs for only $30 on Amazon. Just work through that.

2) If you’re learning a language that it supports, use the free LingQ to build up some vocabulary through reading and download the audio for each lesson you’ve read. Listen to that when you’re out walking around. If you really like the service, then it’s probably worth the $10 per month.

3a) If your native language is popular enough (e.g. if you’re an English speaker learning French or if you’re a Japanese speaker learning Korean), then get a conversation partner on mylanguageexchange.com or on Italki.

3b) If you’re having a hard time finding a conversation partner because you’re learning English (or maybe Spanish or French), then go to Verbling, sign up and go to the community tab.

4) I’d suggest using tutoring on an as needed basis and make sure you have all the questions you need to ask prepared ahead of time. If you know exactly what you want, most teachers will be very helpful.

And repeat

As you improve, keep listening, keep reading and keep talking with people about whatever topics you can. You don’t need to spend a ton of time, but if you can do 30-90 minutes per day and keep at it, you will get at least basic proficiency and even counting a few intermediate-level books and tutoring sessions the cost will be under $500.


1. One exception would be northern Europeans. They’re outliers though. Their native languages are closely related to English, they’re pretty small in terms of speakers, and they can’t use their native languages abroad. They also from a very young age and get a great tons of input from English-language media that they don’t dub. A speaker of Spanish, Chinese, Japanese or especially English has a very, very different situation.


Teach in Taiwan or Teach in China?

Probably the second most common question I get emailed from readers of this site is this:

“I’m from the US/Canada, I’ve just graduated and I want to teach English abroad and I want to learn some Chinese. Should I teach in Taiwan or teach in China?”

With my experience of having grown up in North America and then spent most of my adult life in Taiwan and then China, teaching in and later running an EFL school, I definitely have some opinions. But there are a lot of factors involved in making a decision about where to live for a year or more of your life and Taiwan and China both have their pluses. Also remember that the situation for foreign teachers has been changing fairly quickly, especially in mainland China.

What are your goals?

The best place for you depends on what you’re looking for…

Learning Chinese

If your main goal is learning Chinese, then I can unequivocally recommend China, preferably the northeast.

Why? Well there are several factors that make learning Chinese in Taiwan harder. First of all, people there speak more English and they expect to speak more English with you if you’re white, black or anyone who doesn’t look like a Chinese speaker. Secondly, it’s not even clear if Mandarin is the primary language of Taiwan yet. A lot of people speak Hokkien (also known as Taiwanese or Minnanhua) as a first language. Finally, a lot of the people who speak very little English are older and also more comfortable speaking Taiwanese instead of Mandarin. The issue or regional dialects also comes up in southern China, but in the northeast, pretty much everybody is a native Mandarin speaker.

A related issue is the accent. I know from personal experience that the accent and dialect considered “standard” in Taiwan is hard for a lot of mainland Chinese to understand. This is problem since the vast, vast majority of Mandarin speakers are from mainland China. On the other hand, if you speak in an accent similarly to what’s on TV in China, you’ll be understood on both sides of the strait. Finally, the Chinese characters used in Taiwan are traditional characters, or fántǐzì (繁體字), whereas China and Singapore use simplified characters, or jiāntǐzì (简体字). This means that even if your Chinese study in Taiwan is successful, you may find yourself unable to understand simple words like “car” or “from” when you go to China.

This said, you can learn Chinese in Taiwan (or even back home) if you’re willing to work hard. Another minor plus in Taiwan is that there’s more interesting media to learn from. China has been catching up in that regard, though.

Quality of Life

Here, once again it’s no contest. Taiwan is amongst the best places to live on the entire planet. Life in general is convenient. The island is covered with 7–11s, and you can not only pay your bills there but you can pick up stuff you buy on the internet, too! The government has done an excellent job in terms of public transportation. Taxes are low. There’s universal health care that’s both top-notch and affordable! People are nice. I don’t just say that. I actually lost my wallet on a bus once and the driver found my student ID, called my school, got my number and returned it to me! I can’t even imagine that happening in China. The air quality in Taiwan may not thrill some of us used to pristine Rocky Mountain air, but it’s not too bad.

In China, there are also a lot of people that will be nice to foreigners they befriend. Unfortunately there are a lot more who will see you as an opportunity. I was never scammed in 7 years in Taiwan, but I got ripped off several times in my first week living in China! A lot of restaurants have 2 sets of menus… regular ones, and bilingual ones with higher prices! Racism and nationalism are also significant issues.

While there’s a lot of ignorant stereotyping in Taiwan of the “Can you use chopsticks?” variety, I’ve seen more cases of outright hatred here in China… especially towards the Japanese. Sometimes it works out in the foreigner’s favor, and sometimes it doesn’t. Since the concepts of race and nationality are often conflated, it can also make for some unpleasant situations for foreigners of Chinese decent (i.e. “ABCs”, “CBCs”, etc..). I don’t want to make it sound all bad, though. I really do like living in China. It’s just that it requires a thick skin. I’d say that you also need to have a bit more social awareness. You can do just about anything and do okay in Taiwan. In China, it’s easier to piss people off.

One plus for China is prices. As long as you don’t get ripped off, a lot of things can be had for half the price they would cost in Taiwan. Things that usually get all kinds of sin taxes, such as beer or cigarettes are insanely cheap in China! Less than half a US dollar for a beer at a local restaurant is common. A pack of smokes can be bought for about $1.20.

Salaries

This is a factor that has changed a lot in the last few years. When I got to Taiwan, English teaching salaries were two or three times as high as in China. Now, though… you can probably earn more in first-tier Chinese cities. In Taiwan, the salary for new teachers seems to stay around 600NT/hour, which is about 20USD/hour. In Beijing or Shanghai, the average is about 150RBM/hour which is about 24USD. Private classes usually start around 200RMB or 32USD per hour. I have friends making over 300RMB/hour. Housing prices have risen to about the same levels as Taipei, but everything else is cheaper. Purely in terms of money, China is now a far, far better choice. That’s not how it was a few years ago.

If you’re planning on a long term stay, it’s possible Taiwan is still better, though. In Taiwan, foreigners can start businesses such as foreign restaurants, clubs or even software companies relatively easily. In China, the only way to avoid having a Chinese partner with 51% control is to set up an extremely expensive Wholly Owned Foreign Enterprise. That’s a reasonable solution if you’re IKEA, but not if you’re starting your own business.

The Internet

This really belongs above under “Quality of Life”, but the internet in China is so fucked up that it deserves its own section. Everything cool since 2004 is blocked. Unless you pony up the money for a VPN, you can’t use Facebook. You can’t use Twitter. You can’t use Blogspot or WordPress. You can’t use YouTube. You can’t even access Google Docs or Dropbox. You can have Gmail, but it’s a bit unreliable (Update: nope, you don’t even get Gmail… hope your hotel reservation wasn’t sent there!) Basically, you’re back in 2003.

The bottom line

  • If you want to learn Chinese, go to China
  • If you want to live the good life, go to Taiwan
  • If you want to make money, go to China
  • If you the best of both worlds, go to China, learn Chinese well and then go to Taiwan to settle down!

If you want a more detailed comparison that also includes Korea and Japan, then check out my mini-guide: A Comparison of English Teaching Markets in Asia

Work is going well. Not astoundingly well, but a solid improvement from a month and a half ago. My student numbers are up, my 3rd semester class has finished reading a 40 page Aladdin book, and I don’t really have any lazy students anymore.

The social life has been good, too. There are definitely some people who have left Taiwan that I miss, but things are good.

In terms of personal study, once again, things are good. I’ve had time to study a bit of Chinese, a bit of Japanese, some philosophy and some finance. I guess being a net-addict has its advantages.

What’s really on my mind though, is a choice. If I sell all my investments, I have an opportunity to start an incubator hedge fund. It would be expensive and it would be risky, but as the 62nd rule of Ferengi rule of acquisition states, “the riskier the road, the greater the profit.”

Since I’m a long-term value investor, running this sort of fund would take about the same amount of time I’m currently spending on researching investments (relatively little), but oh the risk! If my investing performance of the last 6 years is due to skill, then taking things to the next level is the thing to do. If I’ve just been lucky though, I could lose quite a bit by betting that luck will continue.

It’s time for some thinking.

In always like to assume the best about people. Sometimes, though, it costs me.

I live in a 加蓋房子, which is basically a floor illegally added onto the top of an apartment building. As such, I don’t get my own electric bills. Why that legal quandary didn’t slow down the phone company when I asked them to install phone and DSL service this spring, I’m not sure.

In any case, since it is illegal to have separate power bills, my power has been routed through my downstairs neighbor’s apartment. He put a meter on the power going to my floor and then I pay a portion of his power bill, depending on how much electricity I use.

He seemed like a nice guy, and I’ve basically just paid whatever number he said I owed each month, since it always seemed reasonable. Apparently, that was a mistake.

My bill for February and March was two thousand and change, my bill for April and May was four thousand and change, and then my bill for June and July came out to over thirteen thousand. I know air conditioning costs go up in the summer, but $13,455 is nuts. My bills in the winter last year at my old place were the same as this year, and the most expensive summer bill was about $5,500. With no change in my habits, could the bill have more than doubled?

I very nearly just paid it, but I’ve been short on cash and it was a monstrous bill, so I decided to get some more information. The entire bill the electric company sent my downstairs neighbor was 14,484. I went downstairs and asked him about it. He showed me my meter and stood by his calculations.

The problem is, there’s no way that I used $13,455 of electricity and his family of five only used $1,029. Even if they never used the air-conditioner at all, just the refrigerator would use more than that over a two month period.

I called our landlord and explained the problem. Fortunately, he agreed with me that there was no way the power usage worked out the way my neighbor claimed. It also turns out that the neighbor in question had been using the air-con, hasn’t been paying rent for a few months and is on his way out of the building. The

Best of all, the landlord is getting a working meter installed in my apartment, so I don’t need to rely on anyone else’s estimates of what I owe each month.

Be sure to check out how my thoughts changed in the nine years after writing this post!

Recently, it seems there’s been a sort of obsession spreading through the expat blogging communities. It’s about search engine optimization, i.e., trying to get one’s site to come up as high as possible in search engine results. The idea is to bring in traffic by figuring out how the search engines rank sites and then exploiting that system, or at least making sure of not being ranked artificially low. It’s not really a topic I’m interested in, but I’ve been dragged into this debate. Now that I have, I’ll let let my feelings be known.
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This entry was originally written in 2007. Since then, Taiwanderful has changed significantly and my initial misgivings no longer apply. The site no longer emphasizes monetary considerations on its front page, I believe it now shares 100% of blog post earnings with the authors of those posts, and most importantly the pop-up ads are gone!


A while back, I noticed that Forumosa, the largest community site for foreigners in Taiwan, had a new guide for Taiwan. It’s called Taiwanease: The Knowledge, and it’s a wiki, which means that anybody can add articles to it and edit it. This sort of site usually takes a lot of work to get going, but once it’s big enough there will probably be quite a few people volunteering their time and knowledge to make it a better site. The most famous wiki is Wikipedia, which has grown into an absolutely gigantic, non-commercial online encyclopedia.
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A couple of days ago, I took a taxi to my buddy Martin’s place. Right before the turn onto the alley I wanted to go onto, an illegally parked car pulled out in front and to our right, so we couldn’t turn before the light turned. Beep! The meter jumped up from 90 to 95. Not wanting to sit in a taxi behind a red light, I pulled out a hundred and gave it to the driver. As I waited for change, he told me I needed to pay 110. “But, the meter’s only 95!” I said. He then explained that there was a $20 surcharge during Chinese New Year. Fair enough, I thought. If I had to drive a taxi during Christmas break back home, I’d expect to be paid a bit more than usual, too.

There is no Chinese New Year surcharge, of course. One would think that after living in Taiwan for four years I would have realized that. Oh, well.
Update: There’s a fare increase, but only certain taxi companies are implementing it. Of the four times I’ve taken a cab since the new fees started, only one charged me. Ask if there’s an extra charge when you get in the cab.

This week has been busy. Simon’s classes started their vacation last weekend, so it’s just been the secretary and me at school. There have been a ton of odds and ends to tie up; everthing that needed to be done before the break had to be done this week. I gave retests to students who needed them, I talked with parents who were considering signing their kids up for my classes, and I got all of my students’ homework problems sorted out.

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Longtime readers of this blog will know well that I’ve never really suggested coming to Taiwan and teaching EFL purely for financial reasons. In fact, I’ve always found it a little hard to believe very many westerners, especially Americans would be able to earn anything like what they could at home. Now that the NT has been weakening against pretty much everything but the US dollar, the situation is a little less rosy for non-Americans as well. Canadians haven’t been hit too hard, but the deal really isn’t as sweet as it used to be for Europeans.

 EuroUKAustraliaCanada
NT per42.262.525.428.7

The average salary for EFL teachers in Taiwan is about $600NT per teaching hour. For most teachers, this means about there’s about half an hour of unpaid prep work for every two hours of teaching. The “real” earnings of a teacher here is about $480 per hour.

Earnings per hourEuroUKAustraliaCanada
600 NT (per class hour)14.229.6023.6520.90
480 NT (real earnings)11.377.6818.9216.72

Considering that teachers rarely teach over 30 class hours per week, this isn’t a lot of money by western standards. Taxes are reasonable, though. Short term teachers have to pay 20%, and longer-term teachers almost pay less (unless they have unusually high earnings). I’m not sure if these taxes are less than what a British person earning 800 pounds a month would have to pay, though. I think Taiwan is still an easier place for teachers to save money than Japan, but it doesn’t compare with working at home quite as well as it used to.