We arrived in Taiwan after a whirlwind tour through Tokyo, and my knee was sending distress signals with every step. The story of how this happened is a matter for another day, but suffice it to say that every step hurt, a lot, and stairs were impossible. After a four hour sleep, it was off to the city of Tainan. It is normally about a four hour trip, but at Chinese New Year it takes twice as long due to traffic. I ended up in a world very different than the one I usually inhabit.
Taipei is a world-class city, in many ways identical to every other big world city. There is Costco, TGI Friday’s, Saks 5th Avenue, and million other exports of Americanism that has homogenized the world. That is good. It is also grievous. Anyone who has traveled much can attest to both. I’m not complaining. Taipei is awesome. It is a pleasure to visit.
All of Taiwan, and Taipei in particular, has an energy that is frantic. It never stops. Tokyo is always busy, but there it is business. In Taiwan it is life in general. The mopeds speed endlessly along, constantly jockeying for position. When the work day stops, the night markets open. If New York is “the city that never sleeps,” then Taipei is the city that never stops to catch its breath.
Night markets are ubiquitous here. They are constant crowds and energy. Exotic birds flutter in their cages, while men hoarsely squawk into loudspeakers hawking their wares. Men stir and fry in endless arrays of food booths, as throngs of people shuffle by. They are shoulder-to-shoulder, talking about which booth has the best Stinky Tofu, or which jeans are fake Levis. The night market is more than a crowd. It is a living, breathing organism.
Taiwan is energy in ever form and every way, and its people feed that energy with a constant supply of food. When they aren’t out at a nice restaurant, they are snacking from street vendors, or chewing on fruit and seeds at home. When they aren’t eating, they are looking at food or talking about it. This place is a food-lover’s dream. There are millions of choices, and each city has its famous specialties.
Most Americans could not appreciate the food here. It is more opposite of the American palate than any food I’ve ever tasted. Some dishes require a lot of commitment and character, but in the end it is usually rewarding. Sometimes it is a real challenge though, and Taiwan does not have a robust Health Department or FDA enforcing any codes or standards of cleanliness. Bathrooms are always dirty, furnishings are a distant afterthought, and I can’t figure out how street vendors could clean their hands and cookware. I’m sure they don’t. Many Americans would use all of this as reason to stay away from the food—their loss.
For as much as they eat, the people are quite thin. Many are more rugged and old-world as compared to the West. Dentistry is probably a few decades behind the US in much of the country, but maybe it is more noticeable because they smile a lot more than people do in many other Asian countries. Sometimes the people who smile most have the worst teeth to show, but that is often because the people in the rural areas seem to be a lot happier even though they have a lot less access to the modern things we think should make us happier.
As a “foreigner,” I stand out everywhere I go. I can’t help it. My eyes, hair, and skin are all a different color than theirs, and I stand a lot taller than many people. It isn’t like one might imagine. I don’t feel like Gulliver among Lilliputians, but I am taller. I stand out, literally. Some people choose to ignore me and hope that I go away. Many times this is due more to them feeling uncomfortable by me. There is a sense of inferiority in Taiwan in general, and especially toward white Americans. This is true in many parts of the world.
Other people look right at me and smile. Some of them walk right up and start saying all of the English words they know. This means that several times each day I am greeted by some stranger shouting “America! Hot dog!” at me as if my white skin also makes me slightly deaf. As they grin from ear-to-ear, I smile back and say “Hi!” It is humorous, but also really heart-warming. I’ve never shied away from being a spectacle anyway. Most Taiwanese are very warm, and if they invite me into their home or business, they take care of me with great warmth and fastidiousness as if I were a greatly honored guest.
For all their focus on food or commerce as Taiwan’s greatest asset, I think they really miss the brightest part of their whole culture. Their people are their greatest resource. They are not outwardly warm in the way many Southerners are in America, but once you are their friend they will not only give you the shirt off of their backs, but will convince you that it is for your own good that you take it. They will give endlessly with the same passion that they devour a bowl of noodles. This is Taiwan.