I had never thought much about Taiwan, knowing very little about the people, the culture, the history, or…anything, really. I had heard of Chiang Kai-shek, and seen the Made in Taiwan label on plenty of electronics, but that was about it. So when I was looking for English teaching jobs in summer camps, I didn’t know what to expect, or where I should go. I basically picked Taiwan because they emailed me back first. (Sorry, Korea. Maybe next time!)
So I guess you could say I was in for something of a surprise. Sometimes ignorance makes life exciting! Would it be an unmitigated disaster? What if I can’t use chopsticks?!?! Would I even survive?!?!?
(Sidenote: I can use chopsticks. The students didn’t believe me. But I sure proved them wrong!)
So here are a few of my favorite experiences in Taiwan, and why you might enjoy a visit too:
1) OMG the food
Holy F#*&!@% dammit was the food absolutely amazing. All day long I would salivate in anticipation of my next meal, whose heavenly deliciousness was practically guaranteed.
Ahead of the trip I kept telling my friends how ecstatic I was that I would be eating Chinese food three times a day, every day, for two months straight. They said I’d get sick of it. They were wrong.
I literally asked the Taiwanese assistant teachers how to say “anything” so I could ask for it in restaurants. Which I did. And it worked flawlessly every single time. I rarely knew what I was eating, but I didn’t care. Besides, you can’t go wrong with expertly stir-fried meat and vegetables over rice or noodles. Mmmm.
My favorite places to go were the street food stalls, or the noodle carts run by a single person whose “restaurant” consisted of a few plastic chairs set up on the sidewalk. Eating street food like this in Taipei was every bit as good as any fancy Chinese restaurant I’ve ever visited, except that meals cost about $2, which combined my love of Asian food with my immense stinginess, in perfectly balanced, synergistic glory.
The meals in the schools were pretty good too, and in some of the camps we had rather elaborate, all-you-can-eat tables set up for us, and I’d devour everything in sight. The students even cooked a few meals themselves, and they weren’t bad either.
When I got home, I went straight to the Chinese restaurants because I wasn’t ready to let go. I could probably eat Asian food every day for the rest of my existence and never be upset. Part of me wants to.
2) Super friendly people (who weren’t selling anything)
I’ve always pointed out that it’s the people that tend to make a place great, and it’s the out-of-the-way places that have some of the friendliest people. Taiwan isn’t exactly off the beaten track, but it’s not nearly as touristy as other countries in the region, like some in Southeast Asia. So when they do get visitors, they’re happy to see them.
Instead of getting mobbed by souvenir sellers, we just got curious looks and friendly smiles. And if we ever needed anything, they were always there to help. Occasionally, if they didn’t speak English, they’d call up a friend who did, and hand over the phone.
I think my favorite “stupid lost foreigners” moment was when we visited a beach a bus ride away, and we couldn’t figure out a way to get back. The only English speaker we could find was a 3-year old girl digging for crabs in the sand and bringing them over for us to see. So we asked if she knew when the bus might come, or if her parents did. “I don’t know. Look! I have a crab!”
3) Walking in the street
Yes, the street. This is something that’s fairly common in all sorts of semi-developed countries, where car ownership isn’t that widespread, and side streets are often fairly quiet. Shopkeepers set things up right on the sidewalk, and motorbikes block the path, so you just walk right down the street.
This would be rather unthinkable in more developed countries, even with no cars around, and I just thought it was an interesting quirk. It was weird at first, but by the end of the trip I was so used to it that I’d do it at home too. Sorry, drivers.
4) Dragons! Dragons everywhere!
Seriously, who doesn’t love dragons? Morons, that’s who. And Taiwan does dragons as well as any place I’ve seen. It seemed like every temple rooftop had a whole flight of them, snarling in all their scaly glory. Colorful ones, too. And since Taiwan has temples all over the place, dragons are there to greet you at every turn.
And sometimes they’re carved into stone:
And sometimes they make ominous backdrops that look pretty darn awesome:
Dragons are always great. Because apparently I’m still 8 years old on the inside.
5) Silly kids
This was definitely a major highlight of the whole experience. Since we were merely teaching in the summer camps, which only lasted for a week at a time, we weren’t there for serious academic instruction. We were there to goof off. And once the kids figured this out, they’d play along too.
My standing rule in any class was that they could say whatever they wanted, as long as it was in English, and as long as it was funny. And since much of their academic experiences thus far had consisted of strict instruction and endless boring exercises, they were all pretty enthusiastic about such an approach.
Highlights include the following moments:
- A kid was playing PSP games in class, so I took it away and started playing it right in front of him, and another kid came over to show me how to play.
- The older kids would hit on the assistant teachers, “coincidentally” placing themselves nearby whenever the activity for the class included a handholding game.
- A game of capture the flag ended when one team realized they could just implement a circular formation of girls with interlocking arms, three layers of girls thick, surrounding the flag with an impenetrable shield that no one could conquer.
- When asked what they should bring on a camping trip, the students said, one by one, with no rehearsal: “Girl. Beer. Condom. Cameraman.”
Though I’ll say it was a little stressful when dealing with this class of energetic middle schoolers, who built hockey equipment out of cleaning supplies and would start playing or misbehaving in some other way literally every time I turned around:
6) Evil monsters
I mean, some of the kids were monsters, but not many. Besides, they were funny monsters. The real monsters were the ferocious beasts we encountered after leaving the city limits.
Like this adorable little guy:
And when I say “little,” I mean huge:
And that wasn’t even the biggest one.
Imagine those little guys showing up in your bed for a visit. Fun times!
7) 2000 year old trees
So aside from the terrifying beasts that greeted us in the woods, the woods themselves were pretty spectacular too. Particularly the ones that have been around since what seems to be the dawn of time, and whose gnarled trees towered over us like the puny mortals we were.
Wandering through the forested mountains of Alishan was pretty spectacular, especially when we came across 2,000 year old specimens like this guy:
They were all over the place, and I think they’re the oldest living creatures I’ve ever seen. Imagine them being around for the Roman Empire, and the Han Dynasty. I like to think they give annoying old-people advice to the younger trees.
The entire Alishan park, where this tree still stands, is a beautiful, foggy, leafy, misty wonderland.
Taiwan’s affection for nature runs pretty deep, with national parks, beaches, mountains, and other well-preserved areas all over the island.
8) Taipei 101
The trees are great, but the pinnacle is really Taipei 101, the most famous landmark on the island, and one of the tallest buildings in the world. From 2004 until 2010, it held the title of #1, until it handed over the reigns to Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
Yet it remains a thing of beauty:
So named for its 101 above-ground floors, the tower soars to a height of 508 meters (1,667 feet), which is all the more impressive, as the surrounding area is relatively free of other significant structures. Taipei 101 is for all to see.
But it also had to contend with the destructive power of Taiwan’s frequent typhoons and earthquakes, requiring a number of structural innovations to stabilize the building during the inevitable storms. This is the Ring of Fire, kids. Not many other structures have to contend with such forces. And it works. When a 6.8 magnitude earthquake hit the building halfway through construction, it suffered no structural damage, and they got right back to work.
And yet for all those technical innovations, it’s still LEED Platinum certified, which is the highest award available for energy-efficient, sustainable design. All those people who say development and sustainability are at odds with each other are just plain stupid.
But for all its technical achievements and massive scale, it remains thoroughly appropriate to its home. The design is meant to evoke the appearance of a stalk of bamboo, as well as a pagoda structure. Its title and floor count of 101 are simultaneously intended to resemble a computer’s binary language, along with renewal, going beyond the completion of 100%. Its eight pagoda-like building blocks of eight floors each are intended to represent the lucky number eight, as well as the symbolic renewal of a brand new week, starting one day beyond the seventh. Those big circles on each side are even designed to resemble the coins of ancient China.
This is why I find Taipei 101 such a creative design. Its symbolic meanings, as well as the appearance of the structure itself, simultaneously evoke its ancient heritage, and its modern role, all in a seamless union of engineering prowess and cultural relevance. While other skyscrapers could very well be interchangeable from one country to the next, Taipei 101 looks right at home in Asia, where it fits into the landscape like it’s been there all along.
9) Night market mayhem
If there’s anything Asia does right, it’s night markets. I don’t know why we don’t steal this idea. Probably because we’d screw it up.
For those who have yet to experience such a thing, night markets are filled with people, food, toys, food, liveliness, and more food. Even if you’re not shopping, it’s just nice to wander around and people watch. And since Taiwan doesn’t have so many tourists, no one’s there to hassle you into buying souvenirs. You feel like you’re part of the scene, not a wallet to be explored.
Also, the food is amazing. See #1 above.
10) Switchblade chopsticks
My chopsticks are cooler than yours. I will bet you a beer.
The trend of portable chopsticks apparently started due to hygiene concerns, and lots of kids had their very own, in adorable carrying cases with little cartoon characters on them. The folding kind turn into pocket-sized travel utensils you can take wherever you go, and they made a nice little souvenir, while cutting down on disposable chopstick consumption at the same time.
And mine are the best, so you owe me a beer.
On the other hand…
The humidity sucked. Argh it sucked. Body-temperature heat and 90% humidity destroy my soul.
But aside from that, I’d highly recommend a visit (check out a few somewhat surprising facts while you’re at it), especially to those who feel a little burned out with the hectic pace and touristy atmosphere of other Southeast Asian countries. In Taiwan, I felt like a guest, not a tourist. So go ahead. You’ll probably have a good time too.