Friday, April 29, 2011

A Million Landscapes: One Beautiful Country

We don't think "Taiwan is trash can"!

I’ve been in Taiwan for about five years now, and the questions of “why Taiwan?” and “what’s so good about this place?” are common refrains among locals. How many times have I sat in the back of a taxi with the bamboo tabs, white plastic beads or faux lace mats sticking to my back and thighs and heard it?

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?”

This is basically why not China. They're BURNING a BOAT for a GOD. A real, honest-to-god boat. You don't see this kind of thing in stinky butt 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?!”

There's plenty of art in this country.

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.

Yes, Taiwan can be gritty, but it's gritty in a warmhearted, local way, not in an "ew, dirty" way.

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!”

Seriously, can you look at this picture and still think that Taiwan is not gorgeous? No, you cannot.

“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.”

Temple parades win.


“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.

What? Sunset? Awesome. Sunsets in Taiwan are delicately beautiful, as cliche as they are.

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.

Flowers, too.

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.

Even Taipei City can sparkle.

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:

Beautiful Yilan County - definitely not trash can.

Taiwan is more than China Lite - and don't let anyone tell you differently.

Send any locals who tell you that Taiwan is not beautiful up the trail behind the Eternal Spring Shrine in Taroko Gorge.

Noisy as they are, drums = awesome.

There's even beauty in the small things.

Plenty of traditional architecture survives.

There's always something new and beautiful to see while hiking.
Jiufen may be touristy, but it's also gorgeous.

Not all festivals are noisy (although I happen to like the noisy ones).

*"One Beautiful Country" would be better, but that'd never make it on TV abroad.


Kath said...

You just basically summed up why I also ADORE Taiwan. Thank you, this article and the photos are brilliant :)

Unknown said...

What a great perspective, Jenna. Your husband must be terrific man (you are always mentioning him) because he's drawn someone like you, who is so energetic and observant to him. Keep up the great blogging!

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

He *is* a terrific man. I love him to pieces and feel lucky every day that he loves me, too. He's a lot quieter than I am but we've known each other since 1998, so clearly he knew what he was getting into!

And thanks!

Catherine Shu said...

You did a really great of encapsulating what I love about living in Taiwan.

I really think Taipei is a beautiful city... not the parts that try to be attractive and fail (*cough*Bellavita*cough*) but the ordinary lanes and alleyways. Even the old apartment buildings that look like whoever designed them did a half-assed attempt at imitating Googie architecture before giving up. I don't even mind the slowly crumbling concrete and tile structures or the rusting ironwork... it's all lovely to me. What people refer to as old and dirty, I call patina!

Then again, I can see how if you grew up in Taiwan and don't really have the option of living anywhere else, you'd look around you or watch the TV news and sometimes think "well, shit, I'm just going to read a Japanese zakka magazine and go to my happy place in my head, because this sucks."

I grew up thinking northern California was most artificial place in the world, like the dystopic suburb in "Edward Scissorhands," but my Dad said he thought it was paradise when he first arrived there for grad school. Of course, now that I've lived in his hometown for a little bit, I can see why my Dad felt that way about California... but at the same time I think I also have the benefit of really loving things that my parents and relatives might have found (and still find) commonplace.

I know vintage Taiwanese stuff is trendy here among hipsters, but I think part of the reason they are so obsessed with it is that a lot of older people still think that stuff (old furniture, buildings, etc) is trash. It reminds them of when they were poor and struggling, so they'd rather just keep demolishing and rebuilding... that's one of the reasons a lot of old buildings here, even the really cool single-level homes built during the Japanese colonial era, aren't really well-maintained. Their owners are just waiting for the right time to tear them down.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

catherine - I agree about "patina" for most buildings...and every city needs its hideous architecture, but some are better than others. I don't like the blocks of plain, dirty concrete. I don't like the white tile. I didn't like it in China, either, where there is a lot more of it.

But there are seemingly ugly buildings that I do like - I'm actually already planning a post on this once I can get out and take the necessary pictures. Taipei is full of interesting, often tiled but colorful examples of 1950s and '60s architectural weirdness. Think a white building front with big red chevrons or a green building with gray diamonds around each window. Visible from the building that houses the HQ for a large chain pharmacy there is this awesome pink-and-white apartment building with a classic '50s look: the balconies are reminiscent of old car tailfins.

I actually have this game where if I am on the bus or in a taxi for awhile (and I often am due to the nature of my work) I'll watch buildings go past and think "keep it" or "tear down", and it's surprising how many I decide should stay.

Oh I also kind of like the ostentatious apartment buildings that have those mosque-like domes on top. It's so incongruous that it's awesome!

Re the Japanese houses - that's just sad. That whole neighborhood northwest of Taipei Main along the river that is almost deserted and full of gorgeous old Japanese homes...makes me want to cry. Someone should really renovate them all, sell some as residences and open a few others as shops or cafes. I've heard that they really are planning to tear the whole thing down and build new, giant apartment complexes. Which is good as Taipei city's housing prices are astronomical, but also sad - the loss of all that history!

And the old shophouses - how many thousands of new residences would be on the market if they'd just renovate them and rent out the top floors?

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

BTW this is why I LOVE Drop Coffee on Xinsheng S. Road - it's in a renovated old Japanese house.

J said...

The "China Lite" thing is BS, unless you spend all your time in East Taipei department stores. Just from the way people interact with foreigners you should be able to tell that it's a different culture.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

And's true that huge swaths of central Taipei are kind of ugly (Nanjing East Road between Xinsheng and Fuxing or Xinyi anywhere west of Guangfu, anyone?) but others that are truly nice to walk down - Shida Road, Yanji Street, Wenzhou Street, Lishui Street, Jinshan Road, Yongkang Street, Jingfu Street (I like it anyway), even Anhe Road in the daytime. Heping E. Road is fairly attractive, as is Renai. Shilin and Tianmu, expatty as they are, have attractive spots.

Catherine Shu said...

I do the same thing, too, when I'm out... take photos of those crazy 1960s apartment buildings. I actually have a folder in my iPhoto for them. I can't wait to see yours!
I want to start doing a photo collection of those older, single story houses, too. There is one near the Wistaria Tea House on Xinsheng S Rd. The tea house owner said it was being torn down and she'd stopped inside to check it out because the gate was open. I tried to do the same thing, but was stopped by a GIANT NEST OF WASPS. Seriously, it was freakin' huge. The building is owned by Taida, so I'm amazed that not only have they not maintained it, but they've neglected to the point where there was a huge ass nest of giant, angry, buzzing wasps inches from a neighbor's window. Ugh. Fortunately for my sanity, there are a few cluster of these houses around my neighborhood that are well-maintained, including one that is actually being renovated now.
Have you checked out Artyard? It's being turned into a store and culture center (I wrote about them a few weeks ago: It's right across the street from Yongle Market and was originally a family residence, but then was gutted by a fire. It basically sat empty for a decade before the government renovated it. I would love it if more buildings were repurposed like that.
I mean, I can see why the single-story old family homes would not be space efficient in a densely populated city, but those 3-story Japanese buildings, including the ones you see standing empty sometimes? I think they still have a lot left to offer.
Do you want to take a "find funky/cool/beautiful old buildings" walk with me one day? I think the neighborhoods around Xinyi Rd and Heping E Rd have a lot to offer... the lanes around Zhongshan MRT are also great, from what I've seen.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

That sounds great! I also think that the area not far from Raohe Night Market has some finds (I work out there and have seen some cool stuff), and of course out behind Ximen there's a lot. Surprisingly, I pass a lot of interesting stuff on the bus near Shuanglian and I bet the lanes have some good stuff to offer. There's a weird old church crammed into a lane off Jianguo Road I keep meaning to go photograph.

Anonymous said...


Ketty W. Chen said...

Stumbled upon your blog, Jenna. Just wanted to tell you what a lovely blog and entries you have. Great job! Will be visiting your blog periodically from now on.

Ketty W. Chen said...

Stumbled upon your blog and really enjoyed reading your entries. Great job, Jenna!

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

I'm glad you like it. That means a lot to me after a recent influx of not-so-nice comments (some of them rational and just disagreeing/critical, which is OK, some downright mean that I did not publish). :)

les katz said...

Great article. I'm half Taiwanese and American and lived in Taiwan 6 years when I was a child. I can't wait to move back I miss it so much. I plan on coming back in beginning of September and will look for work. Any advice on that?


J said...

NTU has a bad record with preserving old buildings.

Anonymous said...

Jenna, you are a gem. I found your blog by accident while looking for information on Taipei. I'm Australian but my husband's Taiwanese. We're in the midst of selling our house and moving to Taipei. I've been quite stressed recently thinking if I'm doing the right thing moving to such a busy congested city, as compared to Perth. Like you, I've seen the beauty of Taiwan on my previous trips and loved it. I'm a compulsively clean and organised person and yet there's something about Taipei that puts a smile on my face. Of course the food is good, but there's a wonderful rythm about the place. The energy is infectious and invigorating. I'll start reading your blog from now. It lifted my spirit somewhat. Ta very much.