After spending 7 consecutive months in mainland China, a visit to Taiwan over winter break felt like a spa for the brain, a massage for the soul.
Mainland China is kinetic and chaotic with 1.4 billion people. Provincial cities like Lanzhou are expanding rapidly, with a metro under construction, high rises half finished, and cars honking nonstop from all the detours and blocked off streets, and sidewalks spilling with people…
Taiwan in contrast, seems… oddly quiet and peaceful. Taipei is orderly- there is none of that pushing or shoving that I’ve been subjected to on a regular basis in China while getting on the public bus or ordering a bowl of noodles (I’ve now ruthlessly mastered the pushing and shoving as well; integration!).
In Taipei’s metro, people wait along designated lines for the trains to come, and no one will step into the train until all exiting passengers have made their way onto the platform. It is rare to see litter in the streets, and even rarer to see a garbage can at all! anytime i needed directions I asked a stranger, and most were happy to point me in the right direction, or even walk with me for a minute or two, to make sure I would get where I needed to go.
This is partially due to the Japanese mannerisms that the Taiwanese have inherited from 50 years of living under Japanese occupation. (ie. speaking quietly in public spaces, a near obsession for cleanliness, and a communal interest in preserving green space in urban centers). More importantly, Taiwan has less than 2% of China’s population, making it easy to maintain law and order and a general ambiance of good social manners that are expected from developed countries with high GDP per capita. (I imagine if Taiwan also had 1 billion people, eventually people would start smacking each other to get onto the subway as well, regardless of how important their mothers told them it was to be polite to strangers).
So what did I do during my time in the Switzerland of the East?
I ate! A LOT. Taiwanese food is a blend of mainly southern (sweeter) Chinese food with some Japanese ingredients thrown in. Everything I eat in Gansu is spicy and salty… it’s refreshing to have some rock sugar or honey added into your meal.
Taiwan is famous for night markets- pedestrian streets lined with food stalls and arcade games. (you can even fish for your own prawn and have the grilled on a skewer for a small fee). The snacks you buy are called 小吃 (little eats), which I could reasonably compare to Spanish tapas.
My cousins and I spent several nights at various night markets, splitting our time between eating whatever caught our eye, and playing darts/ shooting BB guns to win prizes.
The National Palace Museum
I always make time to visit the national palace museum whenever I am in Taipei. It’s home to the finest collection of Chinese art, anywhere in the world.The collection was amassed through the centuries by imperial families and was mostly housed in the Forbidden City in Beijing. After the overthrow of the last Qing emperor and the chaos that followed, it was decided that the entire collection of art should be relocated.
Throughout the 20th century, 10,000 crates of artifacts were transported out of Beijing and relocated time and again throughout China to avoid damage from warfare or falling into enemy hands. In the aftermath of the Chinese Civil War, the KMT shipped nearly 3,000 of those crates containing the most prized pieces of art to Taipei. (in the forbidden city’s museum today, the only art left inside is a collection of large European clocks that was deemed unimportant by curators!) Today there are over 650,000 works housed at the National Palace Museum, and only 1% of the collection is available to view at a given time.
I overheard several tour guides tell the same story: that this ivory ball was carved over three generations of the same family of craftsmen. My uncle said that is a complete lie, and tour guides make stuff up all the time “do you think the Kangxi emperor will wait until he’s dead to receive a carved ivory ball?”
With the YouBike share program I biked around the entire city- there are designated lanes – on the sidewalk! – for bicycles, and I found this method of transportation to be even more convenient than the already highly efficient metro system. I lucked out with good weather and took full advantage of the 70 miles of biking path – lush with wild grass and reeds – situated on the banks of the estuary that runs through central Taipei and empties into the Formosa Strait.
I also met up several times with my good friends living in Taipei, tech entrepreneur Ana and “drama therapist” drama therapist Monique (both made an appearance in my slides about the American Family, where I accused Monique of being a rent-mooch). Taipei has turned into a hipster and foodie haven over the past few years- there are espresso shops selling $5USD cappuccinos on every street corner in the city. we talked about what all young people discuss in Taipei: stagnant wages, exorbitant housing prices, and employment outlook.
Entry level jobs for undergrads start with wages of $1,000 USD a month, shockingly low for a developed economy. By the time you’re 30, you might make $2,000USD a month. (and these people drink $5 lattes every day… only affordable because many live with their parents until marriage. Its important to point out, some financial stress is alleviated because health care and public university costs next to nothing in Taiwan. As it should in any advanced nation =] )
A little online research shows some more startling facts. As of two years ago, Taipei has the most unaffordable property in the world (from a housing price – to – income ratio perspective), beating out New York and London. Million dollar apartments, combined with 40% income tax rates, a hyper competitive education system, and gender equality in the workforce have led many urban families to live a child free life.
This seems unusual because East Asian families have traditionally put great emphasis on having children and grandchildren, especially sons who carry the last name. And yet the same trend of low birth rates is seen in every developed Asian country – Japan, South Korean, Singapore – and two systems, one country member Hong Kong. (my economics professor once joked that without immigration all of the Asian Tiger nations will go extinct, and someday you will have to go to a museum exhibit to see a Japanese person).
These are issues the president of Taiwan Tsai Ing-Wen will need to address in the coming years. For now though, most Millennials in Taiwan are more preoccupied with Pokemon Go than social problems regarding wage equality or property bubbles.
Disclaimer: All opinions shared in this blog are the author’s own, and do not represent the views of any outside organization, including but not limited to the United States Government and the Peace Corps.