If safety is a criterion, Taiwan is an excellent bet. In early 2015, US magazine Presscave rated Taiwan as the second-safest country in the world, behind Iceland. Taiwan is densely populated, and this means housing isn't cheap in Taipei and other big cities. Apartments are small by North American standards, but if – like me – you're the kind of person who prefers short hikes, bike rides and exploring ancient shrines to the “Great Indoors,” you won't be at home very much.
The cost of living drops dramatically when you reach the south of the island. In Tainan, it's possible to rent a well-located apartment suitable for a couple for US$400 per month. You'll need the air-conditioning that's standard between June and September, but you may never use your kitchen, as tasty meals can be had on every street corner for US$3. Getting proficient with chopsticks takes some practice, but soon enough you'll have a favorite beef-noodles eatery, and know who makes the best papaya milkshakes in your neighborhood.
Tainan was Taiwan's capital for over two centuries until 1885. It's a treasure-house of Dutch-built forts (the Europeans came in 1624 and were kicked out in 1663), Taoist and Buddhist temples, and architectural landmarks left behind by the Japanese, who ruled Taiwan from 1895 to 1945. Very few of these attractions charge admission. Notwithstanding its living-museum personality, Tainan – like every Taiwanese city – is thoroughly wired. High-speed internet allows folks living here to keep up with loved ones, or clients, in every corner of the world. And it helps blunt an inconvenient truth: Outside Taipei, not much English is spoken. That said, the kind of expatriate who thrives here treats the language barrier as a two-pronged opportunity.
Firstly, it forces you to learn a bit of Taiwan's official language, Mandarin Chinese. Learning the numbers in Mandarin isn't difficult, and comes in very useful when shopping in neighborhood morning markets for superb local mangoes, pineapples and guavas. Secondly, many Taiwanese hope to improve their English, and they're willing to pay for tutoring. While it's true that many language schools prefer younger teachers, older Americans who look respectable and get along well with the locals will soon find themselves asked: “Could you teach me English?” Tutoring work pays at least US$18 per hour. Not all foreign residents are allowed to work, but if you speak with a clear, standard American accent, doors will open for you.
There's more good news on the language front. Most doctors, especially those in major medical centers like Tainan's world-class National Chengkung University Hospital, have taken courses in the US and speak excellent English. English-speaking dentists aren't hard to find. Products in supermarkets and drugstores are almost always labeled in English as well as Chinese script. At airports and train stations, you'll find visitor centers where helpful English-speakers will plug any gaps in your knowledge of local transportation systems or tourist attractions.
Taiwan's proximity to Tokyo, Seoul and Hong Kong – together with visa-free entry rules which allow Americans, Canadians and most other Westerners to stay 90 days each time, no questions asked so long as they hold an air or sea ticket out – make the country an excellent base for anyone itching to explore Asia at an unhurried pace.
I wrote and got paid for this article by a US website, but they've yet to publish it. They told me it's OK to post it on this blog first... so here it is. I took both photos in Greater Kaohsiung.