Matt Gibson is an adventure travel writer and photographer living in Tainan, Taiwan. Gibson has been living in Tainan, Taiwan’s oldest and most historical city, for the past six years. During that time he taught a lot of children English, learned to speak Mandarin Chinese, and founded, ran, and sold the popular expatriate periodical, Xpat Magazine. Now he teaches English Composition and works for as an editor at National Cheng Kung University and contributes writing and photography on a freelance basis to various publications.
I‘m sure you’ve never heard this before: where are you from?
I’m from Cranbrook British Columbia. It’s a small town in the southern Canadian Rocky Mountains.
And what did you do there, then?
My friends and I snowboarded a lot. We also played hacky sack in the parking lot of the high school. Sometimes a teacher would come outside and yell at us to go inside of the high school. Sometimes we would. But sometimes we’d run across the street and hacky sack in the grocery store parking lot where we couldn’t hear the teacher, and therefore didn’t have to listen to him.
Later I moved to Victoria on Vancouver Island, where I studied sociology and professional writing at the University of Victoria. I snowboarded much less there, and went to school much more, but I still played about the same amount of hacky sack.
How did you end up in Tainan?
After graduating from University I moved to Vancouver. There I worked at one of the three jobs that a sociology degree qualifies one for: mowing lawns. The company paid us by the square meter, and I was pretty fast, so I made pretty good money. Then my mower began to break a lot, and I wasted a lot of time taking it into the shop. One day I got angry at the boss because my mower was always broken, so he fired me.
Then, I found the second occupation that a sociology degree qualifies one for: planting trees. We were paid by the tree, and I was pretty fast, so I made pretty good money. I liked that job a lot. We lived in tents and worked in some of the most beautiful and remote places I’ve ever been. But, tree planting is very hard physical labor, and knee, back, and hand injuries are common. By the end of my second year I had developed tendonitis in both hands. For the sake of my career as a writer I quit.
I had met a tree planter who had left quit planting trees to teach English in Taiwan. So, I sent him an email, and bought a ticket to Taiwan. He let me stay on his floor while I looked for a job as an English teacher, which is the third job that a sociology degree qualifies one for.
Have you lived abroad before?
During University I worked for a summer in Lake Tahoe, California. I bartended at a resort and had an apartment in the area where all of the Mexican immigrant workers lived. Locals called it ‘Little Tijuana’. Below me lived an old alcoholic who spent his days sitting in his wheelchair in the dirt parking lot drinking. Beside him lived a very large and very scary Mexican drug dealer from whom I bought all my furniture. The alcoholic often screamed at the drug dealer until the police came. Looking out my window was basically like watching an episode of Cops.
So what’s so good about Tainan?
It’s Taiwan’s oldest city, so it’s full of cool Chinese alleyways. It also has the best traditional food in the country. Taiwanese people come here just to eat the food. I get to see lots of traditional religious ceremonies featuring weird religious icons like Tang Ki. Tang Ki are spirit mediums who become possessed, go into a trance, and then mutilate themselves with maces, machetes, and long needles.
The foreigners here also seem different from those in other cities. The parties are pretty crazy. There is one pub where it seems like ever weekend one of my friends ends up dancing naked on the bar.
I don’t usually get naked though. Also, the weather is nice.
And what don’t you like?
Bitter melon. It is a disgusting vegetable that looks like a large cucumber covered in warts. A Taiwanese woman at a market once convinced me to buy one. It was so vile (well, bitter actually) that it ruined an entire pot of spaghetti sauce.
I also dislike cockroaches and Justin Beiber, although I don’t blame Taiwan for the latter. He, like Brian Adams and Celine Dion, is all Canada’s fault.
Do you feel like an insider or outsider?
Both. I speak Chinese fairly well, and I live in one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city. My neighbors are very friendly. I like them very much. I am about as ‘in’ as I can be considering my limited Chinese vocabulary.
At the same time, I will always be considered different by my neighbors, and rightly so. My way of thinking is very different from that of an eighty-five year old traditional Taiwanese (which is what most of my neighbors are).
How do you support yourself?
I teach writing classes at a junior high school and at a University here. I also edit academic articles for professors at the University and write articles freelance for various publications, including a blog at the Huffington Post and a travel column at Transitions Abroad.
Is the move permanent?
I recently moved into a large house and I’m starting to make a garden on the roof. I also bought a van and surfboard last year. So, I’m definitely staying for a while.
In the future, when I’m making more money writing, I will probably want to try living somewhere else. I’ve heard Buenos Aires is nice.
Finally, tell us about something typically Taiwanese
Kindness. In all my travels I have never been to a country where the people were as overwhelmingly kind and generous as Taiwan. One of my favorite stories, Ghosts and Angels on the Beautiful Island, is about just that.
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Photos copyright Matt Gibson. Additional photo courtesy of ctsnow