Take a minute and think about this… what do you actually know about Taiwan? Think about it for a minute and get back to me. Done… alright… well, if you’re anything like me the answer is/was not very much. Here’s what I knew:
1) It’s in Asia.
2) It’s an island.
3) They used to have some kick ass little league teams (I only know this because when I used to play little league, teams from Taiwan always seemed to win the LLWS. Funny note, here’s a shot of the back of a 500 Taiwanese dollar note).
4) They used to make lots of cheap little plastic crap.
5) It’s in Asia… shyte, already said that didn’t I.
If you googled Taiwan, you’d also probably come up with the following additional answers that you’ll tell yourself you should have known in the first place:
6) The island was formerly known as Formosa.
7) For various reasons having to do with communism, if China attacks Taiwan, the US will nuke China.
Now, of course there are many Americans out there who know more about Taiwan than this (I’m looking over at you folks with Taiwanese heritage), but I’m sure there are many that know even less than the above (geography is not our strong suit after all). So I’ll let you in on a little secret… Taiwan is nice… really, really nice. It’s a developed country, so there’s little of the chaos associated with travelling certain parts of Asia (no honking, not super-crowded, no yelling, no spitting… in short, much more orderly). Suffice to say, that after being in a country as dysfunctional as Nepal (or India for that matter), Taiwan feels like heaven… well, heaven with gigantic language barrier anyhow. A couple of observations after my time here:
Putting the Convenience Back in Convenience Store
The Taiwanese have taken the art of the convenience store to a whole new level. There’s a 7-11 on seemingly every corner (or the local versions, Hi-Life and Family Mart). Now, you maybe doubting me here based on the usefulness of the 7-11 in your neighborhood back home, but the difference between the two is night and day. Do you need to buy a plane ticket? Go to 7-11. Do you need to buy a train ticket? Go to 7-11. Pay your power bill? 7-11. Set up your cable TV? 7-11. Pay your phone bill? 7-11. Register your car? 7-11. When you park your car on the street, instead of putting money in a parking meter, the meter maids put little slips of paper on your wipers based on how long you’ve been there. Guess where you pay? That’s right… 7-11. I’d say that if you had to ask yourself where you needed to go to get something done in Taiwan, there’s a good 70% chance the answer is going to be 7-11 (the food there is actually pretty good as well).
People Stand In Line
There are lines outlined on the floor of the subway station… and people actually use them! There’s so many lines that an Englishman would feel right at home here. And after India, Nepal and previous trips to mainland China, where the whole concept of queuing up just doesn’t exist, lines are a breath of fresh air… no pressure to gear up for shoving people out of the way to get on the bus, no getting elbowed in the kidney by a 90-year old lady trying to get to the check-out counter in the grocery store before you, just one after the other in the order in which you arrived (so nice).
A societal sense of order seems ever-present. For example, no one is allowed to drink or eat on the Taipei subway system (and when they say no food or drink on the subway, they mean it). My friend Duretti relayed a story about one time she had a plastic water bottle on the metro and she took a drink. An older woman walked up my friend, wagged her finger and said “no more”. It goes without saying she didn’t take another sip. I knew this story and didn’t want to tangle with any old Taiwanese ladies (they’re much tougher than I am), so I remained food and drink free on the metro (as did everyone else). People seem to follow the rules here, and they don’t seem shy in telling you when you’ve stepped out of line.
In Case of Emergency, Press Button.
Despite all the do’s and don’ts above, I also found that some level of personal responsibility and competency was expected of everybody (or that it was at least implied). For example, on the train (the train train, not the metro), the emergency instructions were as follows:
1) Press Button to sound the alarm and alert the authorities (actually, the first step of every set of emergency instructions anywhere in Taiwan is “Press Button”, which I found very funny).
2) If an object is blocking the train tracks, passengers should get out of the train and help clear the tracks.
3) Passengers outside of the train should take great care to not get hit by another train.
There is no way that this set of emergency instructions would ever get put up anywhere in the US… never… ever. First, the instructions assume the passengers taking some sort of responsibility for themselves by helping to get whatever is blocking the train tracks off the tracks so the train could proceed. Second, the instructions assume that you’re competent enough not to get hit by another train (they’re just reminding you). The above instructions have to assume that at least some of the passengers are able-bodied adults who can team up to help and help themselves out of a jam while at the same time mustering up the wherewithal not to get hit by another train… I don’t think it’s unreasonable, do you? Contrast the above to what you know the instructions would say in the US: stay in train until the proper authorities come to your aid. That’s it… end of story. In the US, it’s just assumed you are too stupid to help yourself (that, and our ridiculous legal culture where you could actually be sued for trying to help). I think it’s a very interesting, and telling, cultural contrast.
Like many (all?) east asian countries, there’s lots of English going around… signs, t-shirts, etc. But, often, it’s just not quite right:
Now, just in case you’re not aware of it, many parts of the world are way ahead of the US in certain technological arenas… like how I can get cell phone service on top of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, but can’t seem to get a signal at times at my parent’s house in San Diego. Well, Taiwan is crushing the US in paper cup lid technology (amongst other things as well). Yes, paper cup lid technology. I know, you’re thinking why is this important to me? Well… maybe it’s not, but it’s just another thing that makes one wonder why didn’t we think of that, or at least, why aren’t we copying this? So, In Taiwan, when you order a drink of some sort to go (to go drinks in Taiwan seem to mainly consists of some sort of sweet or bubble tea) a machine seals the top of the cup with a piece of thin plastic (feels like a thicker version of saran wrap). I know it doesn’t sound that impressive, but the beauty of it is that until you pierce the top with your straw, your drink is spill-proof. I doubt I’m the only one out there who has spilled some stuff on themselves due to poorly sealed to go cup lids (or am I the only one who cares), so I find this technology quite impressive.
More Photos of Taiwan: