So I was reading this article about how Berlin has changed and, as I read it, something about the old, pre-cool Berlin that the writer describes felt familiar.
I can't point to any one quote that captured this for me, just an overall feeling - a modern, capitalist, free city (well, half-free) that was not particularly inviting to outsiders, was off the beaten track, and was full of grubby neighborhoods that you could live in if you wanted cheap rent. If you were there it was because you wanted to be there, and not anywhere else, but anyone who wanted to be anywhere else generally did not give Berlin a second look. The "beautiful people" were in other cities (London, Paris, Milan).
And I realized, it reminded me of Taipei now. Taipei is not particularly cool. It doesn't have the cachet with Westerners that Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong or Tokyo (or more recently, Seoul) do, or even Bangkok or Singapore. Tourists from other parts of Asia come here but it is not a global tourist hotspot by any standard, and wasn't a tourist hotspot at all until Chinese tourism opened up. You are here because you want to be here - at least I am here for that reason - and not anywhere else. It's very local, and looming just across the straight is a massive Communist threat. I highly doubt Chinese missiles are going to rain down on my head anytime soon, but some days you can't help but wonder and be reminded of that during the occasional air raid drills. The beautiful people are in those other cities, and with them their beautiful overpriced nightspots and commercialized bar and restaurant scenes.
It can be nice and shiny and new - look at Xinyi (or don't - I kind of prefer not to). But entire neighborhoods are a bit grubby, and you have to look more deeply to find their charms (which they do have). It's so cool because it's not cool at all.
And, like that older version of Berlin, you have to work to understand it, and you might not always like it at first. You may remember that I did not really like Taipei when I first arrived. It was hard - foreigners generally make friends with coworkers when they first land but I didn't care for most of mine (the ones I liked I still didn't feel that close to, and they have pretty much all since left Taiwan). I cried on my birthday, after eating dinner alone at a terrible Indian restaurant, two weeks after arriving, on the Muzha line MRT because I could look down through rain-streaked windows at people on the street all going somewhere they belonged and probably seeing people who cared about them in lives that were anchored in some way, and I had none of those things. It took another year or so before I felt like Taipei was alright, and probably another year after that before I began to really feel it, and Taiwan, was someplace special.
As an aside, so far I can count on one hand the number of people who know why this blog is called Lao Ren Cha. There is no special reason why I don't publish the reason publicly other than I never really felt like it. The people who know I felt, for whatever reasons I had at the time, deserved to know. Some still do! But, it's not a big deep secret, and perhaps someday I will write about that. What I'll say now is that it was very much intentional - not just a pretty name - and is very much directly related to my experiencing Taipei first in a muddy, dark, monochromatic sepia and only later a stunning, clear azure blue. It took more time than you would ever think such a thing would require.
And I'm not alone - when my cousin visited recently and stayed for a semester, he took time to adjust too. At first absorbing everything, then feeling a bit down due to the unrelentingly bad weather, then finally realizing one day that he had a solid group of friends and that Taipei was a super cool city to be in. The Taipei effect is not immediate.
I do wonder, as Taipei gets cooler - maybe not Seoul-level cooler but cooler nonetheless, with its plethora of perfect little cafes and increasing number of tour buses, increasing rents and gentrifying neighborhoods if it will start to become a victim of its own coolness. Part of me hopes it will bypass the Brooklyn effect, as it feels like it's already become too expensive to truly be a hip haven - and all the cool kids are already taking advantage of the better weather and cheaper rents in Tainan.
I wonder, I guess, if in 10 years (assuming I am still here, which I may be), what was an off-the-beaten track choice for building a life in Asia will start to be THE place to be and it will start to lose some of its street-level vibrancy and slightly grubby charm. Will I feel like that disaffected old expat in 10 years, complaining about all the new kids and how "this city isn't what it used to be"?
Yes, I do realize expats before me have already said that, but I wasn't here then so LA LA LA I CAN'T HEAR YOU.
Part of me wants Taipei to get that international recognition. Part of me wants it to stay the way it is.