Monday, April 11, 2011

Reason #17 to Love Taiwan

Photo from here: 5 Days in Taipei
Note the 7-11 down the road from the main 7-11. There is probably a Hi Life next to the photographer and a Family Mart behind him/her.

Convenience Stores. Everywhere. So convenient that they're actually a little too convenient, too the point where a big facet of culture shock here might well be that there are just too damn many 7-11s in Taiwan, and do they really need to put a 7-11 around the corner from another 7-11, across the street from a third 7-11 and next to a Family Mart?

As you know, 7-11 not-so-recently started offering espresso drinks - lattes, cappuccinos (which are basically lattes), Americanos etc.. The coffee is about as good as Starbucks but no better - perfectly acceptable, inoffensive, but with a one-note flavor ("espresso roast coffee") that has nothing close to a bouquet.

That's fine with me, because if I buy a 7-11 latte - and I do, because I'm both a coffee snob and a coffee slob - I'm not looking for a flavor profile or a complex bean with a fruity nose, woody bouquet and chocolatey finish. I'm looking for a basic latte because I need to be caffeinated at hours of the morning when I don't feel like brewing coffee at home.

Well, the coffee machine at the 7-11 near me - correction, at one of the 7-11s near me - broke a few weeks ago and is still not fixed. I have a tendency to leave home with just barely enough time to get to class, so for the first few days I just bought a Red Bull instead ('cause I'm healthy like that).

Now I walk a few steps in the other direction to get coffee at the Hi Life before my 8am class, which is maybe a half-minute walk from 7-11, and pick up a sandwich at the breakfast shop on the way.

This is both wonderful and terrible.

Wonderful because if the coffee machine at the place nearest me breaks, I can walk less than a minute to another convenience store for coffee.

Terrible, because that extra twenty meters (at most) is just so inconvenient!

Never mind that I come from a country where, if you don't live in an urban area you have to drive a mile or more to get anything (from my parents' home, you literally cannot walk to anything at all - you have to drive. It's that rural). If you live in a city, you still may have to walk ten minutes or more to get what you need. It's not considered a big deal that you have to plan shopping trips and remember everything - "must get pens! Don't forget or you'll have to drive back!" - and not a big deal that even something simple may require navigating an entire Wal-Mart five miles from home.

Here, I take it for granted. Forgot paper clips? Who cares! I can just get them the next time I leave home and take ten steps. In the middle of cooking dinner and out of soy sauce? So what! Send Brendan out and he'll be back before I've even got the contents of the pot heated up. Back home you'd have to turn the oven off, cover the pot, get in the car and drive to the nearest store, wasting at least a half hour if not more.

Back home, there were two options for coffee before work (if I didn't make it at home, which I never did because I always wake up at the last possible moment) - office break room or overpriced Starbucks in the hotel next door. If there was a line at Starbucks and the coffeemaker at work was broken, it was really, truly irritating. I might not get coffee for an hour or more - I had the sort of job where I had to at least put in my face by 9am: five minutes late and there'd be a "discussion" with the manager. Fer serious. I hated that job.

Now, a few steps out of my way and maybe one extra minute of my time is an inconvenience and my old work situation would be unbearable.

Back home, for lunch I could either bring my own or buy something in the office park food court, or eat in the hotel restaurant. That was it. In Taiwan, I can eat here or here or there or that Tainan noodle place or dumplings or a sandwich or a crepe place or lu wei or I could just grab a 7-11 sushi roll or Sushi Express or that shwarma stand or won ton soup or fried rice or pasta or...

That, my friends, is what I call perspective.

Which makes me wonder: like the two aisles of cereal and twenty-six kinds of soft drinks that nobody really needs in American supermarkets, is all this convenience good for us? Is it turning us into spoiled brats who can't be bothered to walk a few meters out of our way?

It also makes me wonder - do I mind? Nah. It's made me spoiled but I kind of love it.


Catherine Shu said...

A couple weeks ago, I dreamed that Ron and I moved back to the States. We found a sweet 1920's bungalow on a beautiful tree-lined street, filled it with mid-century modern furniture and artists' prints. I surveyed my new domestic realm, turned to Ron and said, "We have to go grocery shopping." He replied, "Okay, you have the car keys." I woke up screaming.

Yeah, that's the dorkiest dream ever, but I think it illustrates just how spoiled I am living in Taipei.

J said...

A big problem with even American cities is that there are few food stands, so fast low-budget food options are limited. What's more, many people think food stalls are "unaesthetic" or simply bad for larger restaurants' business, so the government or business improvement districts try to get rid of the few stands we do have.

Anonymous said...

This is why moving from urban America to suburban America was a bigger culture shock for me than moving from the USA to Taiwan.

While the city where I grew up did not have three convenience stores on one block, from the house it only took two minutes to walk to a convenience store, and the second closest one was a five minute walk away. Not Taipei level of convenience, but satisfactory.