Hi everyone! This is travel blog #1. Hope you enjoy!
This past winter break, I visited Taiwan for the first time since 4th grade.
As I was eating and exploring, I noticed several details of Taiwan that distinguished it from the US.
I’ve boiled down my key observations here:
1) RAPID TRANSIT IS VERY CONVENIENT. I spent a large fraction of my time in Taipei. The city reminded me of San Francisco, albeit reduced in size: people were constantly walking about, small shops lined the roads, and cars nonchalantly barreled past red lights.
One entry point in and out of the city was the Taipei Metro, or MRT for short, which provided access to all of Taipei. MRT trains arrived every 5 minutes, so there wasn’t a need to worry about missing a train. For boarding, guardrails were installed and line aisles spray-painted on the ground, which seemed pretty intuitive (we Bart passengers are missing out!!).
The trains were also surprisingly clean; as I discovered, as a result of multiple reasons. On one of my first MRT rides, a friend of mine attempted to offer me candy, only to cause us to both be promptly berated by a bystander for eating on the MRT—she made gestures at a sign above—apparently not allowed. Needless to say, we became law-abiding citizens after that incident; yet it struck me that as far as the MRT was concerned, Taiwanese people exhibited strong mutual responsibility in keeping the MRT as clean as possible, for everyone who used it.
2) 1 CARD = UNLIMITED ACCESS. The EasyCard is a popular payment method in Taiwan. Think of this small plastic-encased chip as a universal gift card—its applications included MRT fees, bike rentals, and admission to the Taipei Zoo. There are adult and student variants of this card, implying that accessibility becomes habitual at a very early age. EasyCard felt like an enhanced Clipper card, and it felt like a physical version of WeChat, a large, centralized messaging and payment app in China. In both models, it made it really easy to pay for everything.
3) NIGHTLIFE IS LIT. Being herded along by mobs of MRT commuters heading to the night markets was somewhat frightening, but also created an odd sort of camaraderie. We were a brotherhood, linked by intestinal desire. Most of the people I saw at the markets were young, in their teens or in their 20s, but there were plenty of families too. The nightlife itself was pretty vibrant, with plenty of talking, some street performers, and faces in every direction. Of course, inexpensive food didn’t hurt either 😉
4) SMALL BUSINESS CULTURE. As brilliant as Taiwan seems with its convenience and culture, it does possess downsides. Wages in Taiwan are low, and even highly-educated professionals, such as doctors, earn proportionally less income than they’d earn in the US and work for longer hours. As a consequence, small businesses serve to supplement incomes or provide for costs of living entirely.
Small food booths and miscellaneous shops were popular around Taipei, situated on the sidewalk, in the night market, or even inside of temples. They were typically packed side-by-side, and were sometimes just jumbles of crates and tables stacked together to take up space.
While I can’t argue for the hygiene of these establishments, I will say that the employees were unparalleled in their kindness. Almost every shop employee that I encountered did his/her best to make small talk, smiled often, and gave honest advice, even if it meant they didn’t get a sale. When they did try to close a sale, they did so with great gusto, and seemed genuinely interested in my wellbeing. Whether it was amazing sales tactics, or authentic compassion, or a combination of both, I felt welcome; when I did end up buying food, it was never bad either, so their methods were certainly justified 😉
5) TIGHT-KNIT COMMUNITIES: The community where I stayed was active, supported its youth, and offered the locals a myriad of communal activities.
On the first weekend I was in Taiwan, my grandmother took me to watch a taichi club perform in a park near her apartment. It was pretty admirable that at seven in the morning, taichi groups and other people were busy exercising and carrying out their day.
The park was next to a sports center, which we also visited. Inside, I peeked into one of the rented rooms and saw a choir class performing; we went to the top floor and people were already lifting heavy irons at the gym. The tennis and badminton courts were similarly occupied.
Later on, my grandmother’s neighborhood held a Christmas celebration—the neighbors decked out their apartments with overhanging lights, and then on Christmas Eve, they brought a youth orchestra outside to play (apparently Indiana Jones is pretty popular in Taiwan)! The diversity of events was outstanding: was a Santa you could take pictures with, bowls of tang yuan cooked by volunteers, fortune-telling, and a lot more that blew me away. I was in awe at the event, and later on, it just struck me how much manpower and collaboration had to go into organizing the whole celebration. It was crazy how this community could work together to bring out something so endearing and complete not just for the youths, but for families and the elderly as well. Really, really impressive.
TL;DR: Taiwan was a blast, and worth the 8+ year wait. The food was good, the community was good, I finally put my Chinese to good use—success stories all around.
It was also quite interesting to look at the social, cultural, and commercial differences between my parents’ country of birth and where I live now; I learned that there was much to learn by exploring places that weren’t in my day-to-day itinerary.
What struck you as interesting from a country you visited recently? Let me know in the comments below!
‘Til next time!
Michael, signing out.