Why did you choose Taiwan? But Taiwan’s dirty. We’re not developed like the USA. Why would you leave the USA? Salaries there are so high. Life in Taiwan is hard. You can get better jobs over there. Why come here? There’s of course the common coda of “Why not China?”
I hear it from students – both current ones and from children in my former life as an inexperienced English teacher. It all started with one precocious seven year old, in his first year at Kojen, hearing me say “I love Taiwan. Taiwan is beautiful!” and riposting with “No Teacher! Taiwan is TRASH CAN!”
After that came common themes such as “I don’t want to live Taiwan. I want to live in USA!” and “Do you really think that Taiwan is a beautiful island now?”
Taiwan has a poverty rate of 1 percent, and yet more Taiwanese seem to think that their country is second-rate because “it’s not developed” or “not developing quickly enough”. America’s poverty rate is far higher and yet the average drone from the average American is about how great, prosperous or whatever our country is. Taiwan can boast a relatively equal status for women (at least compared to the rest of Asia – more comparable to the USA than to Japan or Korea) and acceptance of homosexuality, and yet locals will tell you it’s ‘backward’.
There are more articulate denials of love for Taiwan – the health care system costs too much money, housing prices in Taipei are too high (that one’s true) and pollution (yeah, but although Taiwan does produce a fair amount of pollution, I generally blame China for that – it wafts across the Strait in noxious brown waves). There’s also “the buildings are so ugly”, “it’s too crowded”, “we work too hard” (also true), “there’s too much traffic” and “people are not nice” – the last of which I usually meet with a “WHAAAAT?!”
Honestly, after five years it’s easy to guess how I feel: hearing these sharp indictments of the Beautiful Isle hurts. I know for every person who says “I’m going to have my baby in the USA because Taiwan is too ugly and crowded”, there is someone who revels in the mountains, relishes the food or takes advantage of Taiwan’s abundant cultural and outdoor activities, who goes to the museums and skips through the night markets and who sees, as I do, the obasans outside fanning themselves and gossiping as a great national treasure.
I wouldn’t have stayed if I didn’t like – no, love – it here…and it makes me sad. I might even go so far as to say it hurts my heart a bit to hear so many Taiwanese trashing their country.
There is a bright side to all of this: it happens fairly often that my love for this country will infect someone else, like a patriotic disease. My praise of Taiwan helped convince my sister to come spend a year here, and she loved it (she’d previously been to China and yeah…uh…no). I find, however, that it’s even more common to see a change in my local acquaintances as I describe my Taiwan – as I show them their country though my eyes.
This happens everywhere – my mom has said that she began to look at the USA differently after seeing it through the eyes of the Japanese exchange students my folks hosted. I was captivated by squirrels in Washington, DC after seeing how our British/Australian friend reacted to them (it was something like “OMG SQUIRRELS!!!!!!”) I think I even took a picture of a squirrel as though they’re a rarity or something.
It does happen here –
“No way, you think Taiwan is beautiful?”
“Dude, look at this picture I took in Lishan!”
“Oh…I…oh. I see. I guess it really can be nice.”
“You don’t think the night markets are dirty?”
“No, why would I?”
“Because…they’re dirty. There are rats. The hygiene is not good.”
“Oh, there are rats in the USA too. I think 'night market' and I see the oyster omelets…and the woman who sells weird t-shirts and keeps an English sheepdog in her shop! And the awesome lady who makes lumpia!”
“OK, maybe that stuff is pretty good.”
“But those temple parades are so noisy!”
“I KNOW – isn’t it great?!”
“Why would it be great?”
“Have you ever seen an American parade? Bo-ring. Some guys march, a few cars with flowers, an old guy waving, maybe a band. Blah. You guys have LION DANCERS, and come on, aren’t bajiajiang the COOLEST THING EVER, and the firecrackers…”
“Those aren’t safe!”
“Yeah, but they’re AWESOME.”
“What about traffic?”
“Meh…why rush so much? Why not enjoy the dragon dancers and martial artists?”
“OK…I think I see.”
“But the stores are so…dirty in Wanhua.”
“Not dirty – local.”
“Dirty and local.”
“…and so Taiwan. I mean you go into some of those shops and it’s the same tarnished mirror walls, pink tile and polyester floral curtains that were hanging when ‘Monga’ would have taken place…the only difference is that now there’s an HDTV in every shop. It’s not as fancy as some other areas, but it’s really Taiwanese, and the food? Oh, the food!”
“OK, that’s true.”
What do I see when I see Taiwan? Well, it’s true that parts of urban Taiwan are drab and gritty, but just go to the mountains and feel your soul expand. It’s also true that there’s a weird fashion polarization of “far too trendy to look good” and “seriously, brown loafers and black pants?”, but for every dorky Office Lady outfit there’s someone rocking some awesome sartorial taste.
Sure, it’s got pollution issues. But what I really see are the rugged northern and eastern coastlines, the soaring central mountains, the smiling Old Taiwanese Ladies who chat with me, the vendors who start positively beaming when I tell them their food is good, and greet me personally when I return as a regular customer. The taxi drivers who chat with you just because they like to chat, the old guys who talk politics in the park. The people who will go far out of their way to help you. Taipei city from Qingtiangang or Maokong. The interiors of funky student cafes. Lavender-and-peach sunsets with streaky clouds across the western sky as I take the HSR to Hsinchu every week. Renting a car and driving the cross island highways (two of them, at least). Creaking copses of bamboo and Japanese-era houses. Truly awesome seafood. Incense-smoked temples and finely carved idols. Raucous street parades and ancient beliefs. Sweeping views. Ornate temple roofs with colorful phoenixes and curlicued dragons. Lanes and side streets bursting with life well after dark.
I see an independent streak – not just in the praiseworthy supporters of Taiwanese independence, but in those who don’t believe independence is a good idea now, but admit that they will never consider themselves to be a part of China, come what may. I see a vibrant art and design scene, a notable independent music scene and pride in local specialties (“our town is famous for peanuts!”). I see Touming Magazine, Edward Yang and Yuyu Yang and independent small-time artists and artisans scattered across the country.
I see a wonderful amalgamation of history and modernity – calligraphy on the walls of the Grand Hyatt meant to ward off angry spirits, idols carried on subways, captains of industry who visit fortune tellers and feng shui masters (I don’t really believe in these things myself, but I kind of like that they’re there).
It is a great joy to watch my local friends and students see Taiwan through my eyes and, I hope, catch a glimpse of what I think is so great about the place, because when I look at Taiwan, I see what I still think should be Taiwan’s tourism slogan:
A million landscapes. One Beautiful Island*.
Because it's just that super, please enjoy a compilation of just a few of my favorite photos from five years in Taiwan:
*"One Beautiful Country" would be better, but that'd never make it on TV abroad.