After I knew I would be studying in Taiwan for the year, I was thrilled. Learning Chinese and experiencing new places are two things I love to do. At the same time, studying in Taiwan would be my first time studying abroad for a year, so I couldn’t help feeling a bit nervous and anxious.
When I packed for my trip this year, I remembered from prior traveling experiences that, when packing, less is more. A few pairs of clothes, some toiletries, a computer, a handful of school supplies were enough. I expected and planned to buy things abroad. As far as the visa was concerned, the process was quite simple. Despite all the stories I was told, and all the unease that sunk into my mind, applying for a visa on my own was easy. As long as all necessary documents are collected and filled out correctly, the process is painless and smooth. For me, collecting materials, applying, and waiting for acceptance only took a matter of three weeks. Applying for an Alien Residence Card (ARC) was also rather easy.
Before leaving, I did I lot of research on Taiwan. I gathered information on the relations between Taiwan and other countries, such as the United Kingdom, Japan, Thailand, and the United States. (I learned that the United States, for example, says it does “not support” Taiwanese independence, but does not necessarily “oppose” Taiwanese independence. I also learned that the Japanese were one of the most reluctant countries to acknowledge the PRC and still have a strong connect with the island of Formosa.) I also looked into the current weather patterns, specific cultural events during my stay, and any current debates in Taiwanese politics. (I learned I will be living through the last bit of the Typhoon [颱風 táifēng] season. I have already experienced the passing of two typhoons, and one’s on its way.) Another thing I did was jot down a list of some places I definitely wanted to visit and street food I wanted to eat. I jotted down all kinds of places from Dai’s House of Stink (戴記獨臭之家 dài jì dú chòu zhī jiā), a restaurant said to sell some of the stinkiest of stinky tofu in the world, to Taroko National Park (太魯閣國家公園 tàilǔgé guójiā gōngyuán), which is said to be one of the most stunning natural landscapes in all of Taiwan. (I’ll definitely post in the future about these places and more.) One of the snacks I included was the supposedly addictive and emblematic Taiwanese oyster omelette (蚵仔煎 Taiwanese: ô-á-chian, Mandarin: kézǎijiān), which many of my Chinese friends told me so much about.
So far while living in Taiwan, I have found things both familiar and unexpected. And I’ve seen a lot of interesting places and trying lots of good foods. There are things both very Western and things much different than what I’m used to. Taipei truly is a modern and multicultural metropolis. No matter where you go, the night markets and shopping districts are alive with people, good food, and excitement every day and every night of the week. And no matter what you’re hungry for — a burrito, curry chicken, a falafel, bulgogi, or sushi — you can find it here in Taipei, Taiwan.
Living in Taiwan has also been a unique cultural experience. It is easy to appreciate the traditional Chinese culture that exists here. Chinese philosophy and religions are alive and well here. You can pray at a Confucian or Taoist temple, or eat at a Buddhist vegetarian buffet. Chinese traditional crafts and food is also in abundance. Within every few blocks is a calligraphy shop or teashop. In certain aspects, I would say that the region of northern China I visited and Taiwan have the same base Chinese culture, yet in many ways what is called “Chinese culture” or what is deemed as “traditional Chinese culture” is different between the two places I’ve visited. For one thing, religious beliefs of all kinds, especially Buddhism, seem to be much more abundant and prominent in Taiwan. On the other hand, what people are accustomed to drinking here is much different to northern China. At a restaurant here, it is quite normal to be served iced citrus tea (sweetened black tea with lemon juice), and iced water and iced coffee are also quite common drinks here. In northern China, this was definitely not the case. Iced drinks are still almost tabooed or simply not preferred. Moreover, oolong and green tea look to be much more frequently had over black tea. This difference — perhaps cultural, perhaps related to development, or simply related to climate — was one of the first I noticed, and it surprised me. The more I stay here, the more similarities and differences I notice, and the more uncertain I am of my conclusions.
The Taiwanese are very proud of their cultural heritage. I remember when I was describing my feelings about a place I visited in Taiwan and I mentioned how I thought the place was beautiful and full of traditional Chinese culture, my Taiwanese friend quickly corrected me and said “Taiwanese culture.” Even though I cannot put my figure on what all exactly Taiwanese culture comprises, I believe that the culture starts with the mixture of all the major cultures and peoples who have travelled to and lived on the island of Taiwan. One of the most noticeable cultural influencers after the Chinese are, of course, the Japanese. Even though the Japanese occupation in Taiwan ended more than a half a century ago, many of my mainland Chinese friends and I were surprised by the degree to which the Japanese affected Taiwan. Many unique features of the Taiwanese language (台語 tāiyǔ) and many words in the Mandarin spoken in Taiwan came from Japanese. For example, the word office in Chinese is usually 辦公室 (bàngōngshì), but at National Taiwan University office is often written 事務所 (shìwùsuo), which comes from the Japanese word 事務室 (jimushitsu). There are many examples similar to this. Moreover, there still seems to be a strong relationship between Taiwan and Japan; many Taiwanese learn Japanese, and many Japanese choose to study Mandarin in Taiwan. But I cannot forget to mention that the culture of Taiwan also encompasses the cultures of many aboriginal tribes of the island. Each tribe, having their own rituals, cuisine, and one or more languages, season Taiwan with a unique and diverse heritage. Currently, there are 14 recognized tribes, but the number is always changing. Other strong influences include the United States and even Western Europe. I’ve noticed, for example, that many businesses are named after American cities like Seattle — a coffeehouse chain (Barista Coffee 西雅圖極品咖啡) whose name in Chinese translates roughly to “Seattle’s best coffee” and a dentist called “Seattle Dental” — and there are a few French- and Italian-themed bistros and cafés. It’s wonderful!
One of my most memorable weekend trips so far was to the village of Jioufen (九份 Jiǔfèn). Having a long and complex past, Jioufen was originally a small, isolated village near the north coast of Taiwan built during the Qing Dynasty (清朝 qīngcháo). After gold was discovered within the vicinity, Jioufen soon became a gold-rush boomtown. It mostly developed during the Japanese occupation, but the village later, after World War II, went into decline after gold supplies began to deplete. It wasn’t until the 1990s, however, when Jioufen was revitalized and rethought as the tourist city it is today, specializing in old-fashioned Chinese treats, handmade trinkets, and traditional style teahouses.
Jioufen gives the tourist all sorts of feelings from nostalgia to silent understanding. It was the featured setting of the classic Taiwanese film A City of Sadness (悲情城市 bēiqíng chéngshì), about the White Scare, and was the inspiration for the city symbolizing greed and gluttony (The food in Jioufen is so good it’s easy to conceive this notion.) depicted in the Japanese animated film Spirited Away (千と千尋の神隠し sen to chihiro no kamikakushi).
To me, the most interesting part of Jioufen was that I could see much of the village’s history all at the same time. The village and nearby mines have an interesting mixture of traditional Japanese and Chinese architecture: Chinese teahouses, old Japanese residences, Chinese shops and Japanese-style stone lanterns. Jioufen in some ways is representative of the whole of Taiwan: a unique place with a short but fascinating history, influenced by many cultures, constantly reinventing itself.
Thank you for reading my blog and please leave comments. I’d love to know what you think.
I hope to share more about my adventures in Taiwan soon.