Wednesday, November 9, 2011

In Defense of Taipei

Here’s my question.

And I write this as someone one month away from leaving her old-skool back-lane neighborhood and becoming a Da’an yuppie.

What the hell is up with all these folks who live outside Taipei who somehow think that “their Taiwan” is more real, is better, is somehow qualitatively a step above Taipei? What is so bad or wrong about Taipei?

I know these folks like to think of it as an easy-peasy expat cocoon, where you never have to work to hard, study Chinese too much or get your feet wet. I know that that can be true: it’s certainly possible to set yourself up nicely in a foreigner enclave like Tianmu or even Shida/Gongguan and not have to try too hard. It’s easy to spend your weekends on Anhe Road and make only other foreign friends.

But just because one can do that doesn’t mean that one actually does. Taipei is a Taiwanese city just like any other, even if it lacks some of the, what’s the word, ineffable cultural qualities of cities elsewhere in the country. It’s only “warm and safe” for foreigners here if you seek that out. If you don’t, you can live a life that is not, to be honest, all that much different from someone living elsewhere – except the case could be made that there’s more to do, and not all of it is touristy.

Take a look at my soon-to-be-erstwhile neighborhood, Jingmei. (By the way, regarding my last post, Lao Wu’s not dead. I clearly misunderstood the old ladies, although I was certain they said ‘她過了’ so I’m not sure how). What have we got? One local coffeeshop that plays The Carpenters and serves Japanese curry. A night market. Old folks who hang out outside and gossip. A stinky tofu/thin oyster noodle vendor. A chicken coop where they’ll even kill the chicken for you. A-Xiong’s “everything” store. A few 7-11s. A Wellcome. A breakfast restaurant that turns into a betel nut stand after dark across from an 按摩店. Old ladies and Vietnamese domestic workers who collect recycling when the trash truck comes. Guys who own the breakfast/etel nut shop outside in wife beaters and 藍白拖 drinking all sorts of local liquor at all hours, who always say hello and often give me a shot of Gaoliang. My neighbors are Taiwanese – most of them prefer to speak Taiwanese or Hakka, in fact – and none of them speak English. Most are too old to have learned it in school and those who did have mostly forgotten. I have to speak Chinese and integrate into the neighborhood like everyone else. No helpful English, no special stores, no special help, no swanky cafes.

I have my old lady gang, just like any self-respecting wannabe-obasan should. I have my local friends. I have the people I see every day and greet. In Chinese, if not Taiwanese.

How is this any different from a neighborhood where I might live in, say, Yunlin or Miaoli or wherever? How is it any easier or any more foreigner-friendly?

Sure, I have more work opportunities. I couldn’t do what I do anywhere else except possibly Hsinchu: not even Kaohsiung has the demand for it. In fact I’ve been sent to Kaohsiung for seminars because there is a demand, just not enough to sustain much local English corporate training business. I can and do avail myself of public transportation: besides my own driving limitations (I really don’t drive – I mean I know how, and I have a license, but I have very little experience and I’m not that good at it), I really feel that public transit is superior to private. It’s better for the environment and it’s more social.

It saddens me that Taiwan is not investing enough in both building and encouraging the use of public transportation. This does not make a Taipei-based expat inferior: I’d argue that it makes them more environmentally attuned. Yay for MRTs, boo for gas guzzlers and polluting scooters.

Yes, I can take that MRT to swankier bars – although compared to Istanbul, Taipei’s nightlife kind of sucks – and nice cafes, and I have more choice than elsewhere on the island, but an expat based in a Kaohsiung, Taizhong or Hsinchu can go to similar foreigner-friendly places. Sure, they don’t have Carnegie’s, but I don’t go to Carnegie’s. At most of my favorite spots - including Shake House and La Boheme, my two favorites – the beer is good but English is barely spoken.

Again, how does this make my life easier, less authentic or less “really in Taiwan” than if I were to live elsewhere?

Honestly, ride a bike through the lanes, talk to the shopkeepers and old folks outside socializing (a perennial favorite of mine). Go to the 100-kuai beer and seafood joints – I was quoted regarding them in the South China Morning Post not long ago, unfortunately the article is no longer online – go to Dihua Street or just wander Wanhua, Dadaocheng or Dalongdong. Go to Bao’an Temple (my personal favorite).

How is any of that not the real Taiwan? These are the places where I tend to hang out (what can I say, I like old urban stuff), and I can guarantee that by doing so, my life is not easier, more cosseted or more cocooned than someone living outside Taipei. I am not superior (although I am more environmentally friendly with no wheels!), but I am not inferior, either, and I’m sick of hearing it. I’m sorry, but Taipei is just as good as whatever town y’all live in, and it is not necessarily any easier to live here. It’s only easier if you let it be.

Finally, most of my local friends in Taipei are not from Taipei – with a few notable exceptions (I do have one friend who waxes rhapsodic on how he and his grandmother would go for oyster omelets by 圓環 in the ‘70s). They’re from Kaohsiung County, Nantou, Miaoli…they weren’t born here, but they’d balk at the idea that – while plenty of southerners call Taipei “台北國” – it’s not just as much “Taiwan” as any other part of Taiwan.

1 comment:

Jenna Cody said...

I want to add that I'm sorta/kinda joking when I say I'm more environmentally friendly because I don't have a car...

...the case could be made, but my swanky new apartment has a dryer (a DRYER!), which, let's be honest, cancels out some of that. A lot of that. Maybe not as much as driving a scooter every day, but still.

And I will use my dryer. And I will LIKE IT.