“I like country life”
Living in the countryside has been my dream since I was very young. I was born in the centre of Taipei, right next to the Taipei 101 skyscraper. I went to a very competitive school. From grade one, I took extracurricular courses, learned English, piano and the abacus, added violin from grade five and learned to swim and paint during the summer holidays. In the exams, the full score was 300 points. In one final exam I had 297 points. As soon as I came home, I cried.
Growing up, I always felt pressured and overworked. I am a person with high expectations of myself, but my mental strength does not measure up. When I changed to senior high school, I went to a very strict private middle school at the request of my family, where the pressure was even higher. This was a very critical phase for me. I was very unhappy because of poor grades and started to give up on myself.
“Growing up, I always felt pressured and overworked”
I’ve always liked flowers, plants and animals. That’s why I decided to study life science in Hualien. High mountains and the vast sea, sky and earth stretch endlessly. After my studies, I moved to different places: I worked in a fishing village in Chiayi and lived in a village near Kaohsiung.
In 2018, I moved to an area in Tainan. Originally, I had planned to stay there only for a short time. But, in the end, I really liked the country life and just one month later, the farmer’s wife who taught me farming became my partner. That’s why I stayed there. In doing so, I tried to be as far away as possible from the place where I felt oppressed.
“I don’t want to go to class on Saturdays”
I get up at 6.30 every morning. My father takes me and my younger brother to school. Since I moved up to fifth grade, I have more homework than before. Maths stresses me out quite a bit and sometimes I feel like I haven’t memorised something yet. Then I think of something nice, like a new Pokémon card, a holiday or when we have classes outside.
After class, many of my classmates talk about TikTok videos, but I often don’t understand what they are talking about. To fit in with them, I would have to talk the way it’s fashionable in China now. But my mother doesn’t like it. The teachers at school don’t care if we watch TikToks or not. They say it’s our choice.
“Sometimes I think too many videos are being watched”
Sometimes I think maybe there are too many videos being watched. Some classmates already have to wear glasses. When school ends at 4.30 pm, I take the bus to the after-school class, where I have to stay until my parents are back from work. Sometimes I can go home at 6.30 pm after doing my homework, but sometimes I have to stay until 7.30 pm.
What makes me really unhappy is supplementary classes on Saturdays. I really don’t want to go to class on Saturdays. I have heard from students at the middle school that they have less homework, but even more exams. But I won't worry about that, I’ll live in the here and now.
“Some people compare the situation in Ukraine with Taiwan”
Last year, my actual work as an eyewear designer for a start-up came up a bit short. Instead, I put all my energy into a project to help people in Ukraine. My friend is one of the few Ukrainians living in Taiwan. When Russia started its war, many journalists asked him, “Do you think China will follow Russia's example and invade Taiwan?”
I understand that some compare the situation in Ukraine with that in Taiwan. But the Chinese threat has existed for so long that we've got used to it. In my circle of friends, the saying often goes around, “I have a cabin in the mountains with tons of alcohol - let's all go there when the Chinese come!”
After the initial shock of the Russian invasion on 24 February 2022, I wanted to help.
“I have a cabin in the mountains — let's all go there when the Chinese come!”
Along with seven young Ukrainian women living in Taipei, I started the project “Divchata Power”. Divchata means girl in Ukrainian. We organise fundraising events.
Most people think of battlefields when they hear about war. Soldiers and weapons are the focus, but there are also all the women and orphans. We wanted to get involved in this project because of them. Ukrainians have an impressive sense of humour. Even in times of war, they can still make jokes.
“The fish farmers don’t stand a chance against the industry”
The fact that I ended up in Chigu, raising fish, was a coincidence. I quit my job in Taipei, originally because I wanted to take a break. A friend from Chigu asked me to help him sell grouper fry.
A few years later, I decided to breed fish myself. In the beginning, like most, I relied on the intensive method of fish farming, where the fish are kept close together. At that time, more than ninety percent of the breeding was sold to Hong Kong and the profits were very high.
After a short time, white spots, a disease caused by parasites, appeared in my fish farm. All 20,000 fish perished, the loss was serious. I no longer dared to eat the fish raised by aquaculture, so I decided to reduce the stock. Since I have been doing this, my fish no longer catch the disease - and this has been the case for twenty years.
“Many fishponds have been converted into areas for electricity generation”
In Chigu, the fish are farmed in the pure salt water of the sea. This is only possible because the fishponds are built by the sea, whose water is exchanged by the natural tides. Another local speciality besides grouper is the farming of milk fish and clams.
Production volumes from the farm are very high and prices are good, encouraging many young people to return home from the big cities. In 2017, the district started developing photovoltaics. Many fishponds have been converted into areas for electricity generation. The photovoltaic industry has a significant impact on land and fish farming.
Once these systems are installed, they cannot be moved for more than twenty years. Fish farmers do not stand a chance against the industry. Fish farmers who want to lease land for fish farming will lose their jobs.
“Taiwan is ageing badly”
I have been working in the cosmetics industry for over twenty years. When I started there, I had to make some compromises to be successful. But in the meantime I have my own company.
We export biotechnological ingredients for cosmetics and market food supplements and beauty products. My business is doing well. But life is not only about making money. The older I get, the more I feel I want to give something back.
I talk a lot with my friends about what should happen in our “second life” - that’s what we call the time of retirement. Taiwan’s society is ageing a lot. Yet very few older people still actively participate in public life. Many also think it is somehow abnormal for seventy- or eighty-year-olds to enjoy their lives and go dancing.
“We should create beautiful memories with our loved ones while they are still healthy”
When someone dies, we spend a lot of money on memorial services - but why, actually? I think we should create beautiful memories with our loved ones while they are still healthy.
That’s why I invited all my elderly friends to Dadaocheng, the old part of Taipei. More than a hundred people came, all aged from sixty to eighty. Many of my older friends think back fondly to the so-called roaring twenties. In the 1920s, Taiwan experienced a cultural heyday, with a flourishing art and cultural scene. I ordered clothes from that era on the internet. All these older people dressed up, danced and sang and had a great time. It was a lot of fun!
I love everything that is beautiful. That’s why I mix my own perfumes, I make soap that looks elegant like jewellery, and I paint flowers on textiles. My philosophy of life is that I want to enjoy every single day. Because even though my soul is immortal - my body is not.
“In hospital, overtime is expected”
I am an only child and the older I get, the lonelier I feel sometimes.
I have a close relationship with my mother, but we often fight. My mother is chronically ill and I worry about her. I work as a respiratory therapist, so I know about the medical risks. I used to work in a hospital and the working conditions were very bad.
We often had to work overtime, which is common in Taiwan. But the hospital didn’t pay us extra, they just expected us to work extra hours. You have no choice because the workload is very high and you have to take care of the patients. Taiwan is famous for its good and cheap health care.
“Working overtime is common in Taiwan”
But the quality is at the expense of the staff. Nurses and other medical staff are prone to depression because they are working in a very stressful environment.
That’s why many people like me switch professions. I come from a middle class family, so I don’t have a big economic burden that would force me to keep the job. Some of the older therapists are trying to fight for their rights, but it’s exasperating. I left the hospital and now work for a medical start-up. I’m glad I had the choice.
“We missed the right moment to have children”
I actually enjoyed being single all my life - until I met my wife. We were both in our mid-forties by then.
Because of our late marriage, we missed the right time to have children. Many friends around me choose not to have children. One friend is not having any because she is convinced that there are too many people on earth.
Another friend of mine is a social worker who has to deal with abuse cases a lot and therefore doesn't want to have children. At work I regularly read statistics: As we get older, it seems to make more sense to deal with starting a family later. And: Marriage entails many restrictions for women. It can lead to unstable careers if housework and childcare are unequally distributed.
“The cat has had a positive impact on our married life”
Many women and men do not want to take on responsibilities beyond their own lives. The fact that the cost of raising children makes up a very high proportion of family expenses is another reason that deters many. For the past three years, my wife and I have had a cat, Niu-Niu, named after the colour of its fur, which resembles that of a cow. The cat has had a positive impact on our married life.
We buy food, cat litter and toys together, we take a joint responsibility. When we get up early in the morning and rush to work, we divide the tasks. For me, pets have an essential function as companions in life, not requiring such a high level of responsibility and stress as raising children. My parents and my in-laws would rather have had grandchildren than a cat, but that's not our problem.
After all, children have their own lives.
“Military service was extended to one year”
I never really thought about what it would be like to be a soldier because I always thought it wouldn't happen until I at least finished university. When I heard the news that military service was being extended, my classmates and I were very surprised. The service period was extended from four months to one year.
This feels a bit like time is being taken away from us. Some classmates were born after September 2004, some after. Because of this, in the same class, some have to serve for only four months under the old system and the others for a whole year. I think that is unfair.
I heard from my father that the service time was two years back then and the training was quite strict. What I know about the current military service is that there are many different things to do, but also that the food in the barracks is supposed to be terrible.
“I often hear news of Chinese fighter jets invading Taiwan’s airspace”
I am the first boy of my generation in the family to do military service.
As far as I can remember, relations across the Taiwan Strait were always strained. Around junior high school, I started to become aware of the tensions. I often hear news of Chinese fighter jets crossing the Taiwan Strait's centre line and invading Taiwan's airspace, or news of China exerting pressure on Taiwan.
I find my national identity very important. It means something whether I come from Republic of China or Taiwan. My classmates are not very interested in talking about political issues such as reunification or independence.
However, most of the students believe that Taiwan is an independent state and they hope that there will be two states that will leave each other alone.
As told to Chen Yi-Hua and Gundula Haage
Translated by Axel Kassing and Jess Smee