After several months spent in Taiwan I thought I’d give a run down on twelve things to expect when you’re visiting or living in this sub-tropical paradise. Here are my eleven key points and ways to tell you’ve arrived in the Republic of China.
1) Any time is a good time for a nap
Whether you’re in class, at the doctors, on the bus, in a library, visiting a museum, in 7/11, in the park, at work, on your Scooter (stationary of course) or at the beach… anywhere, and I mean ANYWHERE, is a socially acceptable place to sleep. In a country where many employers give their staff a two hour lunch break; napping is not only a norm but it’s expected. Many say that Taiwanese never sleep and although this may be true in the conventional sense of getting 6-8hrs per night, they sure as hell make up for it with the sheer amount of naps they take. Oh and if you think it’s unusual to sleep in class – don’t worry, your teacher won’t mind, no one in Taiwan pays attention to teachers anyway.
2) Diversity and beauty surrounds you
Taiwan is certainly one of the more scenically rich countries I have ever had the good fortune of visiting, and this is no truer than when considering the many varying landscapes that this country has to offer. Whether you’re a fan of the city life, or the nature trails, there’s something to quench your desires on this unique island. With sprawling mountainous ranges cutting through the centre of the country and majestic beaches cupping the eastern coast, there’s enough outdoor activities for any explorer to sink their teeth into.
Major cities such as Taipei and Kaohsiung are extremely accessible with fantastic public transport facilities in the way of the MRT. Hopping between tourist hotspots is incredibly easy and with a MRT pass it’s also very affordable. Cities such as Tainan on the other hand offer far greater historical value, with landmarks that portray an era where the Dutch ruled this nation.
The East Coast of Taiwan offers some of the finest beaches in Asia, with the inviting (although often dangerous) Pacific Ocean laid out in front of you waiting for you to dip your feet in. Forest parks and mountain trails make it a far relaxing atmosphere, perfect for those days where you want to get out of the city.
3) Plastic, plastic, everywhere!
Whether you like it or not you’re going to be faced with receiving some form of plastic with every purchase you make. In Taiwan there seems to be an unspoken rule whereby it is encouraged to use as much plastic as possible. Whether you’re buying a milk tea and being presented with a small plastic bag for every individual drink or whether you’re purchasing Sushi only to find each singular mouthful is wrapped with a minimum of one plastic wrapper – in some cases you will also find a plastic film between the Nori and the rice! It’s a worrying trend when you consider that in recent weeks, awareness of plastic waste was momentarily brought to light after a Sperm Whale washed up dead on one of Taiwan’s beaches with a stomach full of garbage and plastic waste.
4) Not a bin in site… but the country is largely very clean
Despite the magnitude of plastic packaging as mentioned in the previous point, you’ll often find yourself hard pressed to locate a bin. Instead you’ll be greeted by flocks of locals congregate on street corners from around 16:30 onwards as they wait for the vibrant and extremely musical bin-lorry (garbage truck) to pay them a visit. The truck plays a loud melody, much like an ice-cream van and those waiting take it in turns to hurl their daily rubbish onto the back of the truck. It’s a real communal experience. However, despite this lack of conventional garbage disposal availability on the streets, Taiwan still maintains a great degree of overall cleanliness with trash lying around being a rather infrequent sight. This pride that the Taiwanese instil in having a clean and well-kept environment is commendable given the aforementioned gross misuse of plastic packaging. It does; however, make one wonder where all the waste goes?
5) Great health-care, but everyone’s just a little bit… soft?
There’s an expression in Mandarin which states that all Taiwanese people are ‘in love with their doctors’. Even fairly mundane medical issues such as the common cold are treat with seven or eight separate types of medication and with the onset of the slightest a sniffle or sore throat, many are rushing to see their general practitioner as if they only had days left to live. With this in mind, it’s no wonder Taiwan is cited for its excellent levels of health care facilities – they need it to accommodate for the excess in demand!
6) Questionable maturity of the younger generation
It’s a popular talking point amongst many Taiwanese – “what happened to the latest generation in Taiwan, where did it go wrong?” or questions to that affect are repeated regularly. Whether its University students sleeping during lectures or students struggling to grasp even the simplest of academic tasks, such as preparing a conclusion for a class presentation – something went gravely wrong with the new crop society. I regularly see first-hand evidence of students running around campus screaming and giggling as if we’ve been transported back to primary (elementary) school. I’m also painfully reminded of what the direct result of oppressive parenting looks like, as students sit in classes they didn’t want to take and dwindle away the hours by sleeping or playing on their phones. Oh – don’t even get me started on the mobile phone culture in Taiwan. If you thought it was bad in Europe or the United States, you should try Taiwan. British philosopher John Locke once said “Parents wonder why the streams are bitter when they themselves have poisoned the fountain” and it’s something which remains true in Taiwanese culture. Kids are often over protected and not exposed to varying aspects of adult life. This failure to allow children to develop, coupled with the frequent occurrence of parents dictating what career path their children choose and you soon find yourself in a situation where the younger people of Taiwan are unusually under developed, both socially and academically.
7) Pollution’s not just in Mainland China
On the West Coast of Taiwan in particular, where all the industrial cities lie such as Taipei, Tainan, Taichung, Chiayi and Kaohsiung, pollution is an ongoing concern. Just recently the city in which I live issued a governmental warning to declare that air-pollution was at a dangerously high level. Add a whole lot of heat and humidity into the mix and you’ve got yourself some terrible air-quality. Unfortunately with the prosperity of Taiwan’s industry came the subsequent rise in pollution within the atmosphere and this is a concerning factor which plagues the country on a regular basis. In 2015 alone the winter months have seen unseasonably high temperatures and this has largely contributed to the extreme spread of Dengue Fever outbreaks reaching as many as 40,000 cases this year thanks to a continued ambient environment for which Mosquitoes may thrive – all of which can be directly attributed to climate change, an unwanted product of the industrial boom. Not only is the issue of pollution taking its toll on the health and well-being of all those living in Taiwan, the example used gives a clear indication that global warming is an ever present threat.
8) Food glorious food
Food in Taiwan is delicious – there’s no two ways about it. In a country that has been described as a Vegan’s paradise, you’re sure to find your fair share of fresh fruits and vegetables. For those who like a little meat in their life, you’ll be spoilt for choice no matter where you turn with thousands of street food vendors in every town or city. Tainan in particular is famous for its rich and varied cuisine, and many expansive night markets, packed with hundreds of food stalls serving up tasty snacks. Whether you’re brave enough to try Stinky Tofu, or just want to indulge in some fried egg rolls – you’re sure to find what something to fill you up in Taiwan. Be warned however, stay here for any length of time and you’ll have to increase you exercise regime. Piling on the pounds is not so uncommon when living in Taiwan.
9) I hope you have a sweet tooth?
Closely linked to the factor of food, there is one thing about Taiwan which is sometimes troublesome to overcome. Sugar. Almost everything within Taiwan comes packed with sugar and be prepared to receive some pretty odd looks and nervous questions if you ask for no sugar in your drink. Bread, butter, crisps (potato chips) all come packed full of unwanted glucose. I’ve been alerted to many different explanations as to why there’s so much sugar in Taiwanese food. Perhaps two of the more convincing reasons are that it’s either used as a preservative, or as a means to give locals an energy boost in the tiring midday scorching heat – a notion which I find hard to accept given the fact that a post consumption sugar crash is the worst and leaves you feeling even more sluggish and lethargic!
10) You’ll get used to the spitting…
(Disclaimer – if you’re eating whilst reading this next sentence, you may want to finish before continuing). The first time I heard a woman loudly clear her throat and proceed to spit out a huge mouthful of phlegm, I admit – I almost threw up. The reasons behind this insistence to spit lies again within the countries overpowering pollution problem. It’s the body’s natural defence mechanism to produce copious amounts of mucus and phlegm as a means to reduce the amount of toxins making their way into the body via our airways. So of course, when the air is full of pollutants you’re going to be faced with the issue of rather a lot of excess spit. Trust me – stay here long enough and you’ll be debating whether or not to join the locals as the hock. In the beginning you’ll surely cringe and hate it but despite what you might think at the start, you will get used to it – although I’m sure you’ll never find it endearing.
11) Taiwanese are extremely kind hearted
There’s some debate as to whether Taiwanese people ever ‘fully accept’ foreigners as friends, no matter how long they’ve lived in the country; however, one cannot fault the kindness and generosity of those in Taiwan – especially towards Westerners. I’ve seen and heard of evidence to suggest that Taiwanese people would far sooner help a foreigner out in their time of need, rather than help a fellow countryman. Stories of ignoring fellow citizens as they lie unconscious in the middle of the street seem like a far cry from the warmness expressed towards visitors. As a foreigner, expect only the best treatment in Taiwan, you’ll no doubt feel like you’re a King/Queen. Of course there are some exceptions; see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N6YmNX0Yvdo for an example of when a Taiwanese man expressed appalling scenes of racist slurs.
My own experiences in Taiwan have been extremely good when it comes to mixing it with the locals. They’re always extremely willing to assist and do so with the biggest smile which makes you feel really at home. The Taiwanese folk are also incredibly generous and will often go out of their way to make your experience even more amazing!
12) Crazy drivers…
I wasn’t planning on including this final point, but as I sit here editing my article my attention is averted to the screeching tires of a big black van that’s struggling to come to a halt after it slammed into the side of a man on a scooter. This might sound horrific (and it is) but you’ll come to expect this kind of unruly driving as the norm. Each day hundreds of accidents take place right across the country, and in fact, sections of the evening news broadcast are dedicated to showing dash-cam footage of carnage and head-on collisions. Drivers in Taiwan are terribly lacking when it comes to concentration and they’re also a little too reckless given their inability to focus entirely. Take care when walking on the roads, although never intentional, you are at constant risk of being hit in busy traffic.
As with many of the points raised, there’s often an underlying link and this final point is no different. It’s quite possible to suggest that the low levels of concentration are attributable to the sleeping patterns of locals. Tired drivers = many more accidents.