27 degrees Celsius. Six o’clock on a mid-November evening. I expected it to be hot, but not that hot. As I wrestled with my suitcase, my extra large backpack and my handbag, I made my way from Tayouan airport to Taipei City. Fighting my weariness having left my house over an entire day beforehand I succumbed to the nagging exhaustion that had been trailing me all day and fell asleep on the bus. What felt like only moments later, the welcoming, shining lights of Taipei city awakened me. With my face pressed to the glass like a child I watched the city unfold before my eyes. This was my first time ever in Asia and I was a blank slate, ready to be impressed upon.
The first thing I noticed is that Taipei has a sense of immediacy about it that I have yet to experience to a similar extent in any European city. Neon lights are ubiquitous, lining every street and elbowing one another in an effort to grab your attention. In my first few days I visited the Shilin night market, which to my untrained eye appeared unstructured and chaotic. With no purpose besides exploration I allowed myself to get lost as I ducked into side streets and passages, indulging every whim that struck me and using my instincts and senses as my guide. I can only describe it as an acid trip for your senses, with the dizzying lights reminding me of the merry-go-round scene in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Products were overflowing from the shops and almost spilling onto the footpath, which is commonplace for the shops in Taipei. The relationship between retailer and consumer begins on the street, and in far more proactive and overt manner than is customary in Ireland.
It has struck me that Taipei is a city that embodies numerous traits, simultaneously straddling rich and poor, old and new, ancient and modern. Situated alongside modern motorways are structures constructed from metal corrugated sheets or metal crates stacked upon one another, which would not appear out of place in a shantytown. Modern, sleek shops, departments and restaurants coexist with simple, no frill traditional Taiwanese restaurants that are comparable to rudimentary school canteens. The food is often cooked in front of you, there is no décor and the no frills service is reduced to the bones of its intention: they provide food and you in return provide money. It is a tendency of Irish consumers to use the branding or aesthetic representation of a product or service as a measure of its quality, but that is not always the case here. In Taipei, eating out is often predominantly for the practical purpose of absolving you of your hunger and accordingly Taiwanese restaurants have dispensed with the usual embellishments required to attract customers that are standard, necessary almost, in Ireland.
Geographically, there does not exist a clear divide between wealth and austerity that exists in most European cities that I have visited. Opulence and simplicity, high-end and low-end are curiously inter-dispersed amongst one another. When walking along one of the busy shopping streets one evening I saw a woman who worked for a food vendor washing her dishes in a basin on the pavement, while only a few shops down there were multiple high-end sports outlets, shiny and lustrous.
Car and motorbike repair shops are located like shop fronts along the street with the doors wide open, their workspace, tools and equipment totally on view. From an outsider’s perspective, this transparency of work practises is prevalent in Taiwanese society. Food is often visibly prepared in the front of a restaurant, and as I write this, situated one table away from me two workers are preparing dumplings, sitting amongst customers in full display. There is a sense of informality amongst the interaction between customer and retailer, which is also characteristic of the fluid business purpose. On multiple occasions I saw food vendors active inside the doorways of retail shops. Although a strategic partnership it would never occur in Ireland or certainly not as informally, due to the rigid and fixed business model that prevents utility from transcending formality.
Similarly, there exists an interesting juxtaposition between luxury and modernity on one hand, and simplicity and tradition on the other. Some aspects of the city are extremely advanced such as their primary method of transport the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) metro service. Each station has a gleaming, shining, spacious bathroom that would rival most restaurants in Dublin, as well as multiple electrical socket outlets in order for people to charge their phones. Yet many apartments, such as the apartment of my first host, don’t have kitchens, something that is not uncommon I found out once I embarked upon my search for a flat. In its place there was a sink, a washing machine, and a water dispenser that delivered hot and warm water. My host had a fridge in her room (mostly empty), her delph comprised of two mugs, a plate, a bowl and some cutlery. She ate all three meals a day out, which appears far more economical that renting a flat with a kitchen and paying for groceries. To me it seems strange that a metro station provides expendable facilities while many apartments lack what I have been accustomed to regard as fundamental equipment.
While researching Taiwan prior to coming here many people emphasised the hosting and helpful nature of the Taiwanese people, claiming that as a guest I would be revered within Asian culture. I can certainly say this expectation has been met. The majority of times during which I have found myself hopelessly staring at street signs or Google maps (full disclosure – it has happened quite a few times) people have offered help without being prompting. In fact I experienced this welcoming nature even before arriving while organising a place to stay via the couchsurfing website (a website which links travellers with residents willing to act as a host). My first host said she was honoured that I chose her as a host, and seemed genuinely pleased to open her home for me. Considering she was doing me such a huge favour, her graciousness really took me aback.
People are definitely curious as to why I am here. As a “Westerner” (a term I have yet to grow accustomed to use when referring to myself) I stick out. People stare a lot. And they stare boldly too. Living in Berlin for a year prepared me for this so I’ve grown accustomed to the staring. Sometimes if I’m not flustered or rushed and find myself bothered enough to react, I will stare back self-assuredly. But even this doesn’t always deter them, and suddenly I find myself taking part in a childish staring match.
The stereotypical impression of Asians (yes, I’m aware this is a naïve umbrella term that doesn’t account for the difference between various Asian cultures) is that they are reticent and keep to themselves. That is something I have experienced in various degrees here, and is a stereotype with which I cannot fully concur, nor dispel either. From a foreigners perspective I feel people’s lack of English is a source of embarrassment, which in turn fuels their timidity. Fortunately for me, due to my white privilege, English is the language everyone is expected to know, so often when abroad I automatically speak English to the locals, presumptuously and arrogantly anticipating that they would have the ability to speak my language in their country.
I can most definitely relate to the self-consciousness that overcomes Taiwanese people due to the language barrier. When I was still new to Berlin, although having proficient German I struggled to say the word “Entschuldigung” fluidly or on short notice. It translates to “excuse me” but it is quite a mouthful for a word that one needs to utilise abruptly. So if I bumped into someone I sometimes found myself stumped silent, resulting in uncharacteristically rude behaviour (I’m the kind of person who apologises when I bang into a chair) because I simply couldn’t form the word quickly enough. It used to get stuck in my throat and just stay there.
Similarly, during the early days of college in Berlin I primarily stuck with my Irish friend. Talking to a stranger requires a certain amount of confidence that I can usually muster with ease. Yet combine this with the very realistic possibility that I will falter when speaking and suddenly I found myself meeker than usual. So I get it. Being unable to express yourself clearly impacts a person’s forwardness, and talking to strangers is hard enough as it is.
While in Ireland, I didn’t I come across many Asians that had moved there having had an Asian upbringing, so any opinion elucidated in this article is derived primarily from vague impressions. Nonetheless, impressions count for something and most people with whom I discussed the matter shared my sentiments, both Asians and Europeans alike. One of my Taiwanese couchsurfing hosts had an Irish boyfriend and had travelled extensively in Europe, resulting in a self-confessed mentality that aligned itself more with a European, rather than a Taiwanese mind-set. I broached the topic of my pre-conceived notions of Asians, specifically mentioning that it seemed that when abroad they always stuck to their own. From our conversation I learned that this tendency exists because they are apparently advised by their elderlies not to talk to strangers. This suggests that rather than being an inherent trait, their reticence is rooted in circumstance and my experiences here for the most part serve to further reinforce that.
Said advice was also imparted to me by older relatives every time I’ve moved abroad, but which I largely have chosen to ignore (Sorry Pauline). I always talk to strangers and have met some incredible people and some of my dear friends by doing so. That’s not to say it always ends well. During my first week while starting at the Metro map trying to figure out where I needed to go (a recurring theme during my first few days here) a Taiwanese man, in his early twenties at a guess, struck up a conversation with me. I use the term conversation lightly because it was more like a one-sided game of twenty questions. Being virtually brand new in this city and having no friends apart from my host, I figured I was not in a position to be picky. I let my friendly nature get the better of me and I answered his questions without elaborating too much on the details. This continued until he commented that I looked more like a dancer than a person with a law degree because of my “sexy body”. He then noticed a ring on my wedding finger, a happy coincidence, and perhaps an explanation for why I’ve been single for over two year. When he remarked that I was quite young to be married aged 23, I decided not to correct him. We soon lost each other in the crowd.