It’s Sunday night and yet again I’m at a coffee shop. A few feet away at the tables to my left, right, and the one directly behind me, are groups of people studying the pages of their bibles. In front of me are two tables of people having conversations with each other over lattes and frappuccinos. Over in the corner, there’s a girl sitting below two large panes of glass that let the red and white lights of the city train illuminate the darkness in the background as her boyfriend snaps another picture with his camera. The two girls on my right now have their heads down in prayer while one reads from a devotional book. Taipei may technically be a part of the Far East, but at times it’s as Western as any other city I’ve visited on this trip.
I’ve been in Taiwan for nearly two months now, and almost all of that time has been spent in the city of Taipei. As I’ve previously mentioned, the time here has been more living abroad than backpacking, and in some ways the idea of leaving soon almost feels like the beginning of a new adventure. Taipei, with it’s well oiled public transit machine and city-wide free WiFI, presents a jarring juxtaposition to its western neighbors of Cambodia and Vietnam. Furthermore, life in a 2.5 bedroom apartment with a full kitchen has allowed me to craft delicious dinners such as the salmon paired with oven roasted tomatoes stuffed with garlic I ate tonight, and eliminated my regularly scheduled desire to use a dirty sock to suffocate someone snoring through the night in a dorm room. Life in Taipei certainly hasn’t been without its daily struggles though, and after two months it’s possible that I’ve discovered half a dozen ways that this city sends my blood pressure through the roof. Let me tell you what I’ve learned.
Early into my time in Taipei, I came across the following Tumblr page about “What’s weird in Taiwan.” Not wanting to introduce an unnecessary bias into my early impressions of the country, I read through the gripes listed by the author but reminded myself to continue reading with the understanding that the comments were written as a form of satire. More than a month later, I can say that I’ve experienced nearly every single bullet point he’s listed.
Respect the heck out of rules. Rules are, like, revered in Taiwan. Such as escalators, stand on the right, walk on the left. Late one night, I stood next to a Taiwanese friend on an escalator. There was no one in sight. She yanked me to the side, “You should stand on the right!”
Nothing, and I mean nothing, in all of Taipei will have me muttering four letter words under my breath faster than approaching an escalator during a trip through one of the busy MRT stations. With the right conditions (primarily the time of day and MRT station), it’s entirely possible that 300 people could exit a train at the exact same stop. When this happens, and it happens often, 290 of those people work together to recreate a scene out of ‘Night of the Living Dead‘ and slowly shuffle towards the nearest escalator. Unable to physically bend their knees – 290 people will then line up exclusively on the right side of the moving stairway – all doing their best to prevent you from making a swift exit off the platform and using the left-hand side of the escalator.
Young men don’t sit on the subway. It doesn’t matter how many empty seats there are, young men do not sit on the subway. Sitting is for girls and people over 60. (This is a neat unspoken rule, but sucks if you’ve been carrying a 40lb backpack around half the day, or just finished a 12 mile hike.)
I was able to experience this quirk first-hand after a hot day at the beach and hours of bike riding. Standing on the train for almost an hour – my knees buckling from exhaustion and a bicycle seat that refused to stay locked in a raised position – I was eventually able to grab a coveted seat that became available 30 minutes before arriving back into Taipei Main Station. Upon sitting down, the little girl that was next to me refused to stay in her seat and sit next to me. It’s possible that I smelled, but I’m fairly sure she was just bothered by the fact that I was a foreigner. I offered to switch her mother seats, but instead found myself being accosted by another woman on the train who felt that I should give the seat up to one of the other women or children on the train. They didn’t care for the fact that I was tired, that my knees hurt, or that I had been standing for the last hour. Instead, they were appalled that I didn’t immediately offer up my seat the second they walked onto the train. I’m sorry lady, but your six year old daughter isn’t a handicap – she’s a child capable of standing on her own two feet like everyone else. In Taiwan, 30% of the seats on trains are designated for the elderly, pregnant, and families with newborns. I wasn’t in one of those seats…
(I’m going to combine three other bullet points to make a comment on a third and final thing about Taipei that can be aggravating.)
Rain is deadly. If you don’t cover yourself in a full body rainproof plastic bag, you at least need an umbrella. If you insist that a little rain will actually not kill you, be prepared to deal with shock and denial.
The only thing that is not dangerous is driving. Driving is the safest thing in the world. No one ever got hurt driving a car so you can pretty much zip through the city as you please. Green means go. Yellow means go. Red means go while honking.
Pre-meal rituals include photographing your meal. No one may begin until the host has uploaded the photo to Facebook and tagged all present.
Everything listed above is satirically accurate and representative of life in Taipei. (Well – you may not have to wait until your dinner is on Facebook to eat, but don’t be surprised if you see four people at a dinner table eating in complete silence while each stares into the flickering light of their cell phone screen.) The bigger problem is that the four items above work together to make walking the most dangerous activity you can do in all of Taipei.
Walking on the sidewalk? Plan to dodge motorcycles and bicycles during your walk.
Raining or sunny? Expect a 90% chance of ‘Umbrella to the Face’ if you don’t pay attention.
Using a crosswalk to cross the street? Watch out for people crossing with an umbrella in one hand and playing a game on their cell phone with the other. They won’t be watching out for you.
One-way street? Ha! There’s no such thing as a one-way street.
In a way it’s ironic that simply walking and crossing the street are the most dangerous things you can do in Taipei, because this is one of the safest cities I’ve ever visited. It’s common to frequently see women leave their purses unattended while going to the bathroom. Bicycles are regularly left outside on the streets – protected by nothing but a kickstand. Public naps are just a way of life – don’t worry about anyone stealing your laptop (or other things) while you’re off in dreamland.
Taipei (and perhaps Taiwan as a country) appears to be nearing the precipice of its own past and future. A country that’s approaching the midpoint between East and West. While Singapore is well beyond this equilibrium point and tipping the scales toward the future, Taiwan feels like a country waiting for a very specific spark that will propel it out of the past.
In one corner – it’s a country where you can pay your utility bills at the 7-11 on the corner with an RFID card that doubles as an electronic wallet that’s accepted at nearly every retail location in town. A place where people carry around an auxiliary phone and iPad charging source in their bags because the idea of being without the internet for five minutes is akin to a life not worth living. It’s a place that understands consumerism, has plenty of money to spend, and hates Mondays.
In the other corner – it’s a country with an income inequality gap that’s measured as everything from shrinking to limited, but has ultimately continued to exist with no signs of decline between 1998 and 2011. A place where there are more open air fruit, vegetable, and meat vendors than grocery stores because nearly everything for sale at SoGo and Carrefour is targeted towards a middle-to-upper class consumer. It’s a place where, if you get lucky, you’ll turn the corner and find a pair of pigs enjoying a summer day.
On top of everything else I’ve already said – for the last 60 days Taipei has been home. I plan to leave Taipei tomorrow with fond memories of sharing an apartment with three other people where the cost of my rent has varied between a portion of the gas and electric bills, making dinners, and occasionally scooping cat poop out of a litter box. I’ve seen four typhoons come through, run more than 100 miles along the nearby river, consumed an unhealthy quantity of pot stickers and dumplings, gorged on beef noodle soup, and completely abused the high speed internet of this apartment. (No bandwidth caps in Taiwan…) Taipei has been a wonderful host, and is going to offer a stark contrast to the less developed cities in the south of Taiwan I’ll be visiting later this week. After that – it’ll be an even more dramatic contrast as I head back into the wilderness of rural Malaysia for the rest of October. (More on that later.)
Oh, and I wasn’t kidding about the pigs!