When I first escaped covid in the US — I had no idea I was gonna be in Taiwan for so long. The original plan was 3 months, which became 6, then 9, then a year.
I want to share the events, reflections and lessons that were important to me. And to internalize how this year changed my perspective of the world, potentially my future.
Taiwan started wearing masks and quarantining people from Wuhan, China in 2019 December. I was aware of what was happening on the other side of the world, so when I saw confirmed cases in NY and how mask-wearing was not accepted, my gut told me to flee, things were about to explode.
3/29/2020, I boarded what seemed like the last flight out of NYC, the epicenter of the pandemic. It turned out to be a full flight with 13 confirmed infections aboard.
3/8/2021, fast forward a year, I am back in New York where I feel like I just woke up from a year long dream. Lots have changed — wearing a mask is not only accepted but required. The weather is warming up and the vaccine is making its way to people. Some favorite coffee shops, restaurants and bars are sadly out of business, others are embracing lovely outdoor settings.
I understand not everyone had an option to go somewhere safe and I’m incredibly fortunate and grateful. I tip my hat off to those who stayed and persevered through the year during the pandemic. Your strength and resilience has my deepest respect and admiration.
My time in Taiwan
My first return ticket to New York was booked only 3 months out. Thus, my original mindset was more short term — to spend time with family and experience the best of Taiwan.
Experiencing all of Taiwan on two wheels
What better way to see Taiwan than to cycle around the entire island? With zero cycling experience, but with amazing company, I completed the most strenuous challenge of my life. 1100 km and 9 days later, learned that “We always overestimate the strength of our bodies, but underestimate the strength of our hearts.” Here’s a detailed writing on my learnings from cycling around the entire island
Hiking the Tallest Peak in Taiwan
The tallest peak in Taiwan, Mt. Jade, is notoriously hard not for the multi-day hike, but for the permit lottery you must win to do the hike. After 7 tries at the lottery, my friend backed out the day before due to the rainy forecast. Now is better than later or never, I told myself as I went ahead alone. I was met with some rain and didn’t see the sunrise due to the overcast. But instead, I was greeted with a rare double circular rainbow that made the rain so worth it.
I also took advantage of other amazing hikes in Taiwan. There was even one on an abandoned train track!
I also searched for the best coffee shops across the corners of Taipei in terms of aesthetics and workability. Here are some of my favorites —
As the pandemic raged on, it became clear that returning after 3 months in June was a bad idea. Our work remote program got extended til August as well. I used the unexpected few extra months to hone in on existing hobbies such as oil painting and reading in mandarin, as well as new ones like swing-dancing.
Every week, I went to a painting studio to try out different ideas.
While in Taiwan, I felt reconnected with my culture and language and started reading a ton in Mandarin. So I organized a mandarin book club that went strong for 4–5 months
I also picked up a new hobby — Swing dancing! I always loved jazz music, and when a friend brought up the idea to take lessons — I signed up immediately.
I love the cheerful and happy vibes I get from the people in the swing dancing community. And I loved how during dancing, I had nothing to worry about but the next move. Here’s a video of my last time dancing in Taiwan! 😛
The pandemic was improving but it was still not safe to fly back. Facebook prohibited international remote work in 2021 due to tax and legal reasons. Again thanks to my manager and team, I used up all of my saved up vacation days to extend my stay in order to attend my brother’s wedding. That meant was I could stay in Taiwan but I was not allowed to work. I’ve never taken a vacation longer than 3 weeks since I started working, so 2 months was a lot of time!
During this 2 months, I was determined to make the most out of my remaining time in Taiwan and do more things that are meaningful with long-lasting impact.
It started off with my favorite coffee shop asking if I wanted to hang a few of my paintings since they needed art decorations. The more art I brought in, the more I realized how empty they felt in the big space and how much was missing — the story, narrative, the theme. So, I decided to include my photography to make it feel more complete. I tried to set up and curate myself, but man it was hard! At that point, I had put in so much effort that I thought: screw it! I might as well go all the way and see how it goes! All in or nothing! I hired a professional art curator that successfully transformed my vision into reality. I made an event, got wine and food catering, and the curator even printed booklets with postcards that will serve for great memories!
It was very humbling to think that an amateur like me could attempt something like this. I must thank my teachers and friends for supporting me. I don’t think I’ll ever be talented enough to call myself a professional artist but at least one thing I can say later in life to my kids is — “Dad had an art exhibition! 😎”
Career wise, to connect with the tech community, I joined a mentorship program and a few career talk, which were awesome, but I quickly realized they didn’t scale — I could only reach 1–60 people at a time.
Scaling with Podcast
I was meeting a lot of wonderful people but I found the conversations at normal social settings rather surface level and unfulfilling. I wanted to have more in-depth conversations to really get to know and learn from fascinating and inspiring people.
So I started a podcast that interviews people about their story, how they self improve and their philosophy on the big questions in life.
Podcasting was a great way for me have in depth conversations with awesome people, scale my influence, and work on improving my speaking skills. It’s a surreal feeling to see the show you ideated, designed, and produced periodically on the top charts in Taiwan. And even more so to get messages from audiences about how much they learned from your interviews and love the podcast! I learned so much from the experience, the life lessons shared by my guests, the underrated grind of content creation, and also how to be vulnerable to put myself out there while accepting my perfect imperfections.
More details of my learnings and process here! Lessons from starting a podcast.
Spending a year with my family was the biggest blessing. My brother got married on the last day before my flight! It’s has been a long time since the four of us got to spend time together as a family. At this age in life, specially when you live far away from your parents, every chance you get to gather is to be cherished with all your heart — couldn’t have imagined a more wholesome and epic ending to my time in Taiwan.
My grandpa also passed away shortly after my brother and I left Taiwan, so it felt extra special to have spent the year seeing him often and see him so happy at one of his last moments during the wedding.
Change of perspectives
The year opened my eyes and heart in many different ways:
Possibilities of life — I never thought I would ever have an art show or a podcast that has listeners. I realized there are a lot of other pursuits I can have in my life other than my career that can be just as meaningful.
All in or nothing — I love Richard Feynman’s spirit when he says “I get into a lot of things I like to see how far I can go with each of them”
Anything I chose to spend time on, it felt very rewarding to go all in and see what fruits will bear. From painting for fun to doing my own art show, getting to know people to interviewing people on a podcast, a fun dance class to now being able to dance jubilantly in the New York City parks. I think the real treasures in life are only found in the deep end.
Now is better than later or never — when you know your time is limited somewhere, you don’t delay anything, you just do them when you get the chance. Every extension of my time in Taiwan urged me to be more pro-active in what I wanted to accomplish while I was there. But why don’t we just adopt this mindset all the time since our time on Earth is limited too?
Home? — People often asked me the question — “Where is home for you? US or Taiwan?” I think the best answer I can come up with is home is where you build your communities, which I luckily have in both places.
Remote work — how lucky I am to have the flexibility to work from Taiwan, and my incredible team that trusted me to execute independently. Due to no overlap in timezone, most communications had to be done asynchronously. This allowed me to focus on execution and deep work, which I realize I prefer over a schedule with lots of meetings. It also made me realize while in the office, how often we schedule meetings just to have everyone in the same room at the same time — and how much more productive everyone is when given the time back.
Freedom & Productivity— Not having to be in the office everyday allowed me to maximize every hour of my day. I can get in the zone and work 16 hours on Monday, spend Tuesday afternoon painting and take meetings Tuesday evenings (morning NY time). If I’m not feeling productive working, I can go to the gym and refresh my brain and come back to it later when my head is more clear and efficient. My output per hour on everything I pursued increased drastically because every moment I was doing something was because it was the most important or when I’m the most inspired for it, never because I had to. However, freedom is only deserving and productive when there is strong trust and responsibility. Is the Mon — Fri / 9–5 social construct really the best? Not to mention imagine having the option to go to normally crowded places during the week rather than the weekend.
The America Dream! 🇺🇸— I’ve long assumed living in the US is the optimal situation, especially for someone in the tech industry. I love how America’s individualism encourages everyone to be the best version of themselves and ambitiously chase their dreams. But I think this pandemic has also exposed a lot of the shortcomings of the US. On the other hand, Taiwan is not perfect, but has a lot going for it. Safer, lower living cost, community driven social values, open and accepting culture of everyone, and incredibly talented/friendly people. The biggest drawback of Taiwan is the lower local wages, but with a post covid, more remote friendly future we are entering— there is definitely more opportunities to combine the best of both worlds and enjoy more location and financial freedom.
Antifragile — I can’t help but think of Nassim Taleb’s Black Swan and Antifragile philosophies. The world is defined by black swan events no one could have predicted that shocks the system, exposes weaknesses and strengthen the individuals or systems that are antifragile— things that gain from disorder. Those who become stronger when circumstances shift by adapting and capturing opportunities when there are uncertainties. I’ve always understood and believed in these principles, but never witnessed a black swan event like this in my own generation. I was very inspired by a lot of people who made things work and found purpose and meaning despite circumstances, even if they weren’t as lucky as me with the option to go somewhere safe like Taiwan.
I have no idea. I love my job at Instagram, I love New York. I will keep the podcast running, I hustled and pre-recorded 10+ unpublished episodes I can slowly produce and acquired equipment to do more interviews here if I wanted. I can paint at home, and dance in the park with vaccinated people. Very fortunate to be coming back at the time vaccines are becoming widely available. I will cherish the quality time with some of my closest friends here in New York City, in the soon to be gorgeous summer, in the revival of the roaring 20s when it becomes safer.
I had a taste of a lifestyle with complete freedom, where I pursued other interests with all my soul and heart and it felt so rewarding in every way. I can’t help but wonder if I were to just follow my heart and go all out, what new adventures could lie ahead?
Thank you Joy Chiu, Kaitlin Yang, Justin Kong, Brian Budd, Stepan Parunashvili for reviewing and giving feedback on this essay