To celebrate my 6 months of being an expat in Taiwan, I thought I’d share some thoughts of my experience of living here so far. There’s been plenty to absorb and learn from, and I hope Taiwan continues to keep me intrigued with an ever-growing list of curious places to discover.
1. Taipei is a very relaxed capital city and the locals are some of the best people you will meet
I think the folks back home in Australia are pretty laid-back. We are well-known for our easy-going persona and our no worries approach to life. But I honestly think Taiwan locals can rival us. The people here really take ‘whatever goes’ to heart. You see it in the likes of weaving traffic, the makeshift shops in front of MRT stations and footpaths, the way the people can all walk and eat at the same time (no joke, I saw a man scoff down steaming noodle soup without breaking his stride), and how old folks here love to play their old-school Chinese music on portable sound systems for the whole world to hear. This is not to say Taiwanese people lack decorum. Being relaxed doesn’t mean manners and courtesy are forgotten. In fact, if anything it extends even further here because their relaxed nature is probably derived from the way they consider the people around them.
I was travelling from Danshui (淡水) to Bali (八里) and of course, I misplaced my ferry ticket for the return trip. Coming from Australia, the cost of a return trip in Taiwanese dollars really isn’t a big matter, and I was more than happy to pay for my floopiness. My friend however was adamant that he could talk to the guard at the pier to let me through. No, I can’t disregard the rules – it’s only fair that I buy a new ticket, I thought. We arrived at the pier where my friend spoke in a string of very fast Chinese. I expected a solemn look of disapproval, a shake of the head. Low and behold, the guard actually hurried us through. “Don’t worry about the ticket. Quick, go before you miss your boat!”
That would have never happened in Australia. Yes we are chilled but the locals here are much more flexible with rules and regulations, and I like to think it is because of their kindness and generosity that makes them so. I have met some of the most beautiful people here who have declared me as one of their own, a member of their family (oh, bless!). My friends have opened up to me more of Taiwan than I could ever explore alone, and I’m so grateful and happy to have met them. It truly is the people that makes a place worthwhile, and I have been more appreciative of what Taiwan has shown me so far because of them.
2. It’s very safe
I don’t walk home alone in the dark in some Australian cities, but I do here. It can be 4am and I will walk through suburban areas to get home, even where it’s not too well-lit because Taipei is that safe. Again, I think it has something to do in the way they regard people around them and that also includes their possessions. I have seen countless people in cafes get up from their seats and leave their bags to go out and do whatever they need to do. I’ve witnessed plenty of laptops and other electronic valuables left on tables, unlocked, with their Facebook accounts logged-in like they are giving privacy and personal security the finger. My friend doesn’t give two hoots if he leaves his helmet on his scooter. Why would anyone steal? he asked. At first it was shocking, but it’s quite liberating and uplifting to put that much faith in strangers, that I now leave my possessions when I need to be elsewhere for awhile too. I must remind myself not to make it a habit when I eventually return to Australia, but I sure as hell wish I could. It’s like a reinforcement of faith in humanity whenever I come back to my seat and find my things untouched!
3. Taiwan probably has the nicest police around – and really convenient police stations
Going back to #1 on the chart, and again maybe it is because I am a foreigner that I come across such displays of kindness, but geezes the police here are lovely! On a trip around Yilan, my friends and I were waiting for our driver who was no where to be seen. My friend had a bus to catch back to Taipei for which she already purchased the ticket, and so was visibly distressed when time was running much shorter than she would like. Seeing three forlorn foreigners on the side of the road, a traffic officer whilst in the middle of his duties of directing traffic, walked over to help us make a several phone calls. Never mind the rushing of vehicles going every which way, they’ll sort themselves out.
Our most recent encounter with the police was much closer to home – in fact it was our house in which an officer came knocking because someone reported us for noise disturbance. Not only did the nice policeman spoke in a gentle manner reminding us to keep the noise level down, he also apologised for the inconvenience of coming up to our party pad and hoped that he didn’t spoil our evening! This was something I have never seen or heard of before. I’m not sure who was more apologetic at this stage, but we wrapped things up and headed the party elsewhere so we wouldn’t have to trouble him for another visit. Kindness over hostility goes a long way, don’t you think? I think police everywhere should take this approach on board!
Apart from the niceness, how’s this for convenience. If you’re travelling around Taiwan and have no place to stay, you can head to the local police station for a place to rest your weary head. It won’t cost you anything, and apparently their interrogation rooms are used to accommodate for the less-organised traveller more than anything else. Oh and you can also check your blood pressure, for crying out loud.
4. Taipei is fun but the outlying regions are better
This is probably more a biased statement since I like my nature, and taking a trip out of the city always leaves me feeling revitalised. It’s not all forests and oceans though. There are still plenty of things to see and do. A trip to Zhongzheng park overlooking the Keelung harbour; night-time scooter rides around Yangmingshan, Danshui riverside bike rides, a stroll along the more local Zhongyuan night market, or a visit to Zhinan Temple in Maokong are a few of my favourite mini getaways when the city life gets a little too much.
5. Only foreigners wear sunglasses and show skin
This is still something I’m trying to get used to. That is when it’s glaring bright outside and none of the locals wear sunnies. I’ve seen the odd few but it’s definitely rare to come by. And even if it’s hot out at 35 degrees C and the humidity reads a ridiculous 70% or more, most locals still wear long sleeves and pants. I really don’t know how they manage that many extra layers. If you don’t mind the stares, then by all means strut that strapless dress or singlet top like no tomorrow. I understand people here have different views on what beauty is, and staying pale-skinned is one of those beauty assets, but I rather make it be blatantly known that I am a foreigner who’d rather go brown than sweat myself silly. And on a beauty note, wouldn’t they want to wear sunnies to stop the squinting wrinkles?
6. Bins are hard to come by
Which makes it even more surprising that Taipei for the most part is very clean! Of course you will still come across stray trash, and especially around night markets, but for the general cleanliness of the city, we should really applaud the cleaners of Taipei. Seeing I come from a land where bins are found every couple of metres though, I am a little annoyed that I have to carry my trash around if I don’t want to be a litterbug. I have gotten used to carrying plastic bags just so I could store all my garbage in one place until I find a bin. And despite the fact convenience store clerks are more than happy to get rid of your trash for you, I still find it a nuisance to go into one just for the sole purpose of disposing rubbish responsibly. When you do find a bin though, most often than not, it’ll be separated for recyclables. It’s also nice to see young people volunteering at some night markets to help folks sort out the packaging in which their tasty snacks came in.
7. Surgical masks are necessary, even if you’re only slightly ill
This is more so an important cultural practice than a medical or healthcare one. Yes, it is surprising at first to see someone with maybe just a cold wearing a mask that makes it look much more serious than it really is. I’ve had people refute that it’s basically useless at keeping germs at bay. I agree, if you’re feeling sick or have some kind of contagious virus hanging about then best to stay at home. But the work and study life in Taiwan doesn’t allow people to have this liberty as much as some of us Aussies do back home. When sick leave is hard to come by or minimum attendance is necessary, people will go about their day sick with the sniffles or worse. So what to do to ease the anxiety of the people around them, worried that they too may catch that nasty cold? Wear a mask. You will see billboards in MRT stations and hear announcements on trains saying that this is out of consideration to other people. I think that’s fair.
8. Hospitals do not have ‘Level 4’
Taiwan is a land of many traditions and customs. Some people may view these as being too superstitious and pedantic, but if it doesn’t hurt anybody, I say why not keep these customs alive, since it makes for interesting trivia like this one. The number 4 is regarded as a bad number in Chinese culture because its pronunciation is akin to that of the Chinese word for death. So seeing there are more vulnerable patrons in a hospital, I think it’s a rather kind gesture to not send anyone up or down to the death level.
That’s all I’ve got for now. I’m sure I will come across more surprising situations and quirks that Taiwan has to offer, and I promise you that I will keep you posted!