Actually, this is my third trip to Taiwan and I realized I never posted my first blog about coming here. My impressions remain unchanged, so here it is…
Taiwan is Number 52!
Well, really it is Number 1, I think, especially after you’ve just arrived from Mainland China.
On arrival in Taiwan I completed a deck of cards in countries visited. And this one is a real winner. I’m here for business and sadly have little time to check out attractions. But the food is fine, the night markets are fascinating.
Coming from China to Taiwan is a shocker. How can these people be related? Like that new category of special needs student, China has a behavioral disorder. No sense of order unless it is imposed. In Taiwan there are modest signs of Don’t Do This, Beware of That, etc. (uh oh, nanny nation, right? Whatever. Disorder and disrespect suck.)
Lines form by themselves. People standing on escalators do so on the right so that those in a hurry can pass on the left. No one is spitting on the sidewalk. Driving is controlled and (mostly) respects traffic signals, lane demarcations, etc. and the pedestrians do the same. (Locals will complain about the driving which does have a touch of crazy to it, but all things being relative, this is a very long way from the worst. This is not Thailand, Vietnam, China or Egypt. Not by a long shot.) All taxi drivers actually stopped to pick me up, and then drove me directly to the destination no matter how near or far. With a meter running. (Fat chance of all that in Beijing.)
Taiwan has high-speed rail. The subway in Taipei compares to Tokyo and Seoul, but in a head-to-head competition edges both out. Why? Just some little things: Really logical bilingual signage which is clear and simple. Japan doesn’t always have that, though I can’t say I don’t admire their system in Tokyo.
Seoul and Tokyo offer credit card use just about everywhere, including in taxis. That’s a drawback in Taiwan, but the rides are so cheap here, it really doesn’t matter.
Is it TOO modern and losing cultural interest? No way. Street food – my cultural marker – is abundant, cheap and delicious, with appropriate amounts of “weird” and “daring” so that you don’t mistake this for an American mall food court like some places these days. (I’m still not ready for stinky tofu, however.)
One thing that stands out to me is the attitude of the people. Shouting is not the norm for conversation. I don’t see fights daily – the pushing and swinging fists kind. No one is pushing you in a mad riot to get onto a train or bus like a herd of panicked elephants. (I apologize to the elephants – I know you’re better than that, I just needed to convey what a crushing force it is). When a train is reasonably full, some will even wait for the next one rather than squeeze on. I saw this once when I was in a rush for an appointment and I saw on the platform screen that the next one was five minutes away. Oh man, I thought, civility and patience is going to make me temper my “awesome” rating for getting around in Taiwan. Nope. It was rush hour, and the system is a bit smarter. Somewhere, someone or some computer had determined this platform was overflowing and had sent an EMPTY train into the mix, arriving a minute later and minutes before what would have been the next train. Who are these people???
They say excuse me. Bù hau yi su, a phrase I learned here in one day but failed to hear, let alone pick up, in weeks in China in a variety of metropolitan areas. Taiwanese say “sorry” and in English when they see it is a Westerner, even if they know little other English. They say hello! Honesty is most common. Smiles from strangers are standard. Crime is low. What gives??!
Now, I realize I am gushing here and that it wouldn’t take long for an expat resident to summon up the negative aspects of Taiwan (familiarity breeds contempt), but our reactions to things are tempered by differences. One cannot know beauty without ugly, delicious without bland, talented without Keanu Reeves or Kristen Stewart. Putting China and Taiwan back to back on a journey might not be fair, but it sure feels good.
It’s like I have stumbled into heaven after departing the chaos of Mainland hell.
My time here is just one long string of “nice people” stories. All the people on the buses who overhear where I am trying to go and who all alert me when my stop is coming up. (Not that it’s necessary – the announcement comes in both Mandarin and English!) I have handlers in those situations, like I am the old man with a cane and they are all Boy Scouts taking me by the elbow across the busy street. The guy from a bus stop who shared a taxi with me, dropped me off, and paid the fare. People who apologize to ME about not knowing MY language in THEIR country. That’s crazy.
Hotel staff running halfway down the street to make sure a place had dumplings or not when I was seeking them. The taxi driver who couldn’t find my destination because I couldn’t pronounce it and had foolishly not brought the address in Chinese with me, who turned off his meter after running in circles for 15 minutes, and at my request returned me to my hotel. We apologized to each other, each blaming himself. And damn if that guy didn’t refuse – vehemently – to take so much as a coin from me. I know I could have thrown some money on the seat and bolted but with that level of conviction I figured it may have insulted him.
If I am lost or in need of help, this is what I do: Look confused. If I stand at a street corner or in the middle of a station and just look up and around with a frown on my face, I’d say the average response time is about 10 seconds before someone comes up to me and asks me if they can help. At the train station when I was trying to figure out what line to get in to change a ticket, I put my face in totally confused mode and in seconds I was escorted to a window and stood dumbfounded as the stranger even stayed to explain my situation to the clerk.
In Shanghai at Pudong Airport, after leaving the gate area which smelled of sneaky cigarettes smoked, everyone pushed and shoved like a Walmart Black Friday sale on a new Play Station trying to get on the plane though they all had reserved seats. Two hours later I am gliding through security in Taipei, boarding a Metro with plenty of room, and seeing strangers smiling at strangers’ kids and such, giving up seats to elderly, children, or someone with a large burden. After just a few days of witnessing ugly behavior, I am a weary traveler slipping into a warm bath of good feeling. I have the dopiest of smiles on my face and I just want to call everyone together for a group hug. Let’s all gather and hold hands in the town square and sing thanks to the Grinch for bringing back the presents!
I started this post in 2011 when I first arrived and thought I’d let it sit until I had some distance from the experience. The gushing continues unabated, so I merged it with my recent trip a few weeks ago. Like that good piece of life advice: Avoid toxic people. But better yet, surround yourself with positive people and be uplifted. Thanks, Taiwan. I was an exhausted, bitter traveler when I landed. A week here was therapeutic and restored a bit of my faith in humanity.