To be honest, I can’t get over the feeling that time is passing way too quickly. I’ve been in Taiwan for almost seven weeks now and already halfway through my internship. I realize just how quickly time passes during the weekends especially since that means that yet another week has passed. I admit: four months are a fairly short amount of time, especially if one is busy all the time – which fortunately I am! There’s a lot of work at the office during the week, and so far I’ve spent every weekend on a trip of some sort. The bright side of it all: I’ve had enough time to think about some things that are special about Taiwan, and want to share those with you right here.
方便 (adj. fangbian)
If I had to describe Taiwan with one word, it would probably have to be convenient. Taiwan is just such a convenient place to live in, especially in the big cities: Public transportation, convenience stores at every street corner, affordable and satisfying street food to to take away where ever you go, as well as the helpfulness and ready support of kind strangers where ever go might meet them. Taiwanese that I have spoken with about daily life in Taipei have also described it in this manner, often having used the word fangbian, which can mean comfortable, convenient, effortless. The word is even used as a prefix for anything that needs to happen quickly, such as instant noddles or ready-to-serve pizza.
All of this I notice every day, where ever I go. Super markets and convenience stores are open seven days a week, 24 hours a day (revolutionary for someone coming from Germany). 7:30 in the morning and no more milk for your cereal? 11:30 at night and no more laundry detergent? Want to go shopping on a SUNDAY (again, revolutionary for a German)? No problem, and my heart always warms when I think about this (and then chills when I think of being back in German consumer society in a few months). Whenever I have told Taiwanese that stores in Bavaria usually close between 6 PM and 8 PM during the week and remain completely closed on Sundays I am met with shock and disbelief. However, when I explain to them the concept of German employee protection and rights, they are usually acknowledged in awe (to be fair: the Taiwanese working week is 41 hours by law, meaning that convenience stores like 711 and Family Mart of course work in shifts, although around the clock).
This Taiwanese convenience and effortlessness (of the customer) is probably best expressed with the EasyCard: the rechargeable magnetic stripe card gives you access to public and long-distance transport in the entire country and can also be used as a method of contactless payment in convenience stores and many others. Never having to buy a paper ticket from the bus driver with cash – revolutionary (for Germany – China, Korea, and Japan have also used systems like this one for many years).
友好 (adj. youhao)
Where ever I go in Taiwan, not only do people always greet me nicely, but I even get the feeling that they’re genuinely happy to see me. Just going to a restaurant or a street food stand for the second time, for example, is enough for people to recognize me. To be fair though, as a foreigner in Taiwan I probably have the benefit of being recognizable to others more easily. Nonetheless, the question of where I’m from and what I’m doing in Taiwan has been the start of a nice conversation more than once. Every weekend, for example, I have breakfast at a small Taiwanese breakfast place a few doors down the road, and every time we learn a little more about each other.
During the week I especially look forward to getting to the office, or rather to the Taipei 101, because the security guard in the lobby in fron of the elevators greets me with a wide grin and a friendly guten Morgen! every morning. During our lunch break he sends us off with a guten Tag, and when leaving the office in the evening I get a friendly auf Wiedersehen.
In general, Taiwanese are always happy if you talk to them in Chinese and are able to have a decent conversation. Every now and then when speaking with a Taiwanese person I’m told hen lihai, which means something along the lines of great! I’ve realized that Taiwanese are aware of the difficulty of learning Chinese and are genuinely impressed when they find out a foreigner is able to talk to them – even if its just a little more than being able to order in a restaurant in Chinese and maybe even being able to read the menu. Speaking about reading…
繁體字 (n. fan tizi)
About two and a half years ago I started learning Chinese very intensely when I was still in Beijing. In the morning we did conversation and vocabulary, and in the afternoon we learned Chinese characters. Even though the taiwanese accent is a little different than the Mandarin Chinese spoken in Beijing, there’s no problem in communicating in Taiwan with what one has learned in Mainland China (to try to illustrate an example of the difference in pronunciation: The Chinese spoken in Beijing is “stronger” or “heavier”, meaning that if you would say “shoe” on the Mainland, it would be pronounced as “sue” in Taiwan).
Unfortunately its not quite as simple concerning the characters. Chinese characters were systematically reformed and simplified by the Communist government in Mainland China in the 1950s and 60s, which is why the script in use on the Mainland is composed of simplified characters. However, since Taiwan was controlled by the Kuomintang (Chinese National Party, KMT) after the end of the Chinese civil war with independent politics and government, this simplification of characters was never introduced on the island. This also applies to Hong Kong and Macao, where traditional characters are still used today. I’m able to recognize some of the traditional characters (繁體字, fan tizi), since not all were radically simplified and the process of simplification itself followed a basic logic. Still, many seem completely new to me, even though they represent some very basic words: feiji for “airplane” is written as 飛機 in Taiwan, but was simplified to 飞机, or huiyi for “meeting”, where 會議 became 会议. But since all characters were systematically simplified, it becomes easier to recognize individual components and quickly catch up with essentially having to relearn how to read. Still, the fact that even after all this time I can still only read very few characters, even on a restaurant menu, is very frustrating (fun fact: until 2003, it was illegal to publish books in simplified characters in Taiwan due to politically ideological reasons).
袋子，乾淨，規定 (n. daizi, ganjing, guiding)
Bu yao daizi, xiexie! I don’t need a bag, thanks! This is a sentence that I probably say every day simply due to the fact that plastic bags in Taiwan are a dime a dozen. Every time I buy something, no matter how big or small, its packed into a plastic bag: coffee, bubble tea, dumplings. This of course creates a lot of trash and is unfortunately one of the downsides of Taiwan’s pronounced convenience and take-away culture. Other than plastic bags, Taiwanese throw away many tons of paper cups, plastic bottles, single-use chopsticks, styrofoam bowls, paper plates, and rubber bands to keep everything together. According to a statistic, Taiwanese use about ten times as many plastic bags per year as Germans: 728, on average (袋子, daizi, bag). What at least partially alleviated this problem is that a lot of trash is recycled in Taiwan, although more so at home than in public.
Still, even with all this trash, Taipei is an extremely clean and tidy city (乾淨, ganjing, clean). There’s basically no garbage whatsoever on the streets, very few people smoke, and house trash is collected in all neighborhoods twice a day to avoid that it piles up in homes or on streets. Residential areas in Taipei and other Taiwanese cities have no central garbage disposal area, nor do regular apartment buildings have their own dumpsters. Instead, household garbage is collected by a garbage truck that announces itself in the afternoon and at night by playing a melody all too similar to that of an ice cream truck. Not only the streets, but also all aspects of public transport are kept immaculately clean. A general food, drink, and chewing gum ban is imposed on all busses and subways – and Taiwanese always adhere to these rules, even putting away their drinks or snacks as soon as they enter the subway station.
In addition to these rules, there are several more that are respectfully obeyed in Taiwan and can only be dreamed of in Germany (規定, guiding, rules). This starts with something as simple as subway and bus tickets: the concept of fare evasion essentially doesn’t exist in Taiwan. The only way to access the subway tracks is to swipe your EasyCard to open the access barriers. This means that without a valid ticket you don’t even have the chance to get into the train in the first place. In order to take a bus you need to swipe your EasyCard ehrn stepping on or off the bus; the bus driver will check! When waiting for the next subway, Taiwanese will stand in neat and orderly single-file lines, one one each side of where the subway doors will be (subway riders know this due to the markings on the ground and extra security barrier keeping them from the tracks). The rule of first letting people off and then getting on is also usually respected. Finally, specially designated seats on the subway for seniors citizens, pregnant women, or disabled people are usually always kept free, except at peak times. Even then, people immediately stand up and make place should such a person get on the subway. And my personal favorite: standing on the right and walking on the left when on an escalator! #food4thought
安全 (adj./n. anquan)
An especially striking contrast to my stay in Mexico is the aspect of security. In (almost) every respect Taiwan is an incredibly safe country. In 2014 it even earned the title of second safest country in the world, following only Japan. Theft, robbery, murder – crime in general – are a rarity in everyday life. Like in most European countries (and especially in contrast to the US) only a tiniest fraction of the population owns guns, which is why the one or two murders that do occur every year and are accompanied by intensive media coverage are caused by weapons such as knives (and verifiable psychological problems). In principle you’re safe in public at any time of the day or night. The probability of something happening to me (other than tripping and falling or being run over by a scooter) are about zero. Being robbed at knifepoint? In Mexico unfortunately commonplace, in Taiwan unimaginable. In the same way you can be sure that no one will pull your wallet out of your back pocket in the subway, or that your laptop and bag will still be there when quickly going to use the bathroom in a café and just leaving everything unattended.
In addition to the Confucian value of striving for a harmonious society, a possible reason for the low crime rate in Taiwan could be the high acceptance of capital punishment in the population – at the moment around 80% of Taiwanese support the death penalty. Concerning the few cases each year widely covered by the press, the population pushes for a quick judicial ruling: It seems that whoever has once disturbed societal harmony does not deserve a chance for reintegration and needs to be “removed” – something that is very hard to understand from a German perspective.
Only in the aspect of traffic safety could Taiwan improve a little. Especially long-distance busses seem to be prone to accidents. In addition, a definite hierarchy is recognizable on taiwanese streets: “size has the right of way”, meaning that the line of succession is bus – car – scooter – pedestrian. Traffic lights are generally respected, even though people driving scooters sometime like to turn a blind eye when quickly cutting a corner for example. In fact, there are more scooters in Taiwan than cars: 11 million registered scooters in a country of around 23 million people, with most likely many more unregistered ones. Scooters are just the right mode of transportation for cities like Taipei, as one can easily and quickly navigate through the smallest of alleys. Praiseworthy, however, is the unconditionally followed rule of always wearing a helmet when driving a scooter (which, oddly enough, doesn’t apply to riding a bike).
多樣 (adj./n. duoyang)
This previous point concerning capital punishment is probably the only “eyesore” of the relatively young, but mature and very lively Taiwanese democracy. The state of emergency, declared by the KMT in exile after losing the Chinese civil war and fleeing to Taiwan, was lifted only in 1987 and led to a gradual democratization of the country. And thus Taiwan became a modern, cosmopolitan, diverse (多樣, duoyang), and progressive country in a relatively short period of time. In recent years – especially this year, when Tsai Ing-wen became the first female president of Taiwan – the country has increasingly tried to come to terms with its past. After her inauguration, President Tsai publicly apologized for all injustices committed towards Taiwan’s indigenous people in the name of the government, for example. Under the state of emergency, they had had many rights taken away. Additionally, it looks as if Taiwan will be the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage and adoption (again we realize: Germany can learn a lot from Taiwan!).
The Taiwanese democracy is lively not only because the public very openly discusses and deals with politics, but also because the Taiwanese very frequently make use of their rights to free speech and assembly, which they gained only about 30 years ago. If you regularly read the newspaper you’ll realize that protests or demonstrations occur almost daily – and you’ll probably read once a week that the Taiwanese parliament or the office of a politician was again stormed by protesters. Americans might feel right at home with Taiwan’s partisan politics and constant mutual criticism of the two major parties. This is all I want to say right now about politics in Taiwan – and there is a lot more to tell about – because I’d like to dedicate a whole other blog post to this topic.
智能手機 (n. zhineng shouji)
I’d like to end with one last small aspect that is almost impossible to ignore in daily life. Even more so than in Korea, Taiwanese daily life of just about every age group is dominated by smartphones (智能手機, zhineng shouji). On the bus, subway, or elevator, on the street, on the escalator, or while driving a scooter: eyes seem to constantly be stuck to the screen. Very often will you see someone playing Pokémon Go, sometimes even while driving through town on their scooter. In several Taiwanese cities, scores of pedestrians looking for Pokémon have caused traffic chaos on the streets and blocked traffic.
These are just some of the impressions that I have been able to collect during my first seven weeks in Taiwan. As you can see, daily life in Taipei and Taiwan is exciting, eventful, and thrilling – so far not a single moment has been boring. And I’m sure that this won’t change in the next two months!
Finally just a short video that I found on YouTube, for an audiovisual impression of Taipei. Enjoy!