I have now been living in Taipei for one year. For the most part, I love it here, but as with any place, there are a few things I don’t like so much. So I plan to post a series about the best and worst things for a foreigner living here. Each day I’ll cover two things I love and one I don’t so I can keep things balanced. They are grouped based on themes, not based on how strongly I feel about them.
Things I like:
7. Adventures around every corner
This one is kind of a general term, but I’ll try to explain what I mean. I’m a very adventurous person, so one of the things I love about being in another culture is the fact that things are so different. I already wrote about Taiwanese food, but even if it wasn’t so good, I’d still be trying just about everything. I’m proud of being willing to taste almost anything offered to me. I figure if it’s good, I’ve had a fun experience, and if it’s gross, I get a good story out of it.
But more generally, I enjoy the strange things I see walking down the street. I like looking at the little carts that drive around selling snacks. I live near a fashion design school, so the students’ clothing is often quite interesting. The birds, trees and flowers are different from the ones at home, so to me they seem especially beautiful and exotic. There are some really beautiful old buildings around, too (but most of them are Buddhist temples, which makes me a little sad). Every time I take off for a place I haven’t seen before, I get a thrill because I know a new experience is just around the corner.
8. Night markets
One type of adventure I am particularly fond of is walking through Taiwan’s night markets. They tend to be insanely crowded, so I like them best in small doses, but they are certainly an interesting cultural experience. I tend to think of them as a college student’s dream come true: very cheap food and clothing.
Many night markets exist in streets with shops that are always open and at night wheel out racks into the street to compete with the stands that line the road only after dark. Vendors wheel carts in or lay down blankets in the middle of the street offering jewelry, shoes, skirts, hats, souvenirs and tee-shirts, sometimes with hilariously bad English (or “Chinglish”). Periodically, many of these booths pack up their wares and run into a dark alley where they hide for a few minutes. This is because they don’t have licenses and they have received word that the police are coming to do a raid. But within five or ten minutes, the illegal booths are back and continuing their business. Of course, there are some legal businesses that remain open constantly. The streets are usually packed with people as lights shine in many colors and pop music in Chinese, Korean or English blares from the stores’ speakers. (If you stand in just the right place, you may end up listening to two songs at once, which can be quite a weird experience.)
I already wrote about Taiwanese food, but night market food definitely deserves a mention. You’ll see carts, stands and shops selling baked, boiled or fried buns stuffed with meat or vegetables; wraps with a variety of meat; vegetables and ground peanuts; oyster omelets held together with a sticky batter; shaved ice topped with fresh fruit, nuts, sweetened beans of various kinds or various flavors of jelly and tapioca balls; freshly cut fruit, including cherry tomatoes stuffed with dried figs; and drink stands selling tea mixed with milk or fruit juice as well as fruit smoothies made of freshly cut fruit put in a blender with milk and/or ice. This would be a mouth-watering combination of smells if it weren’t for the distinctive and ubiquitous scent of stinky tofu, a well-named type of fermented tofu served boiled or fried with pickled vegetables. You can easily get dinner, a drink and a dessert at a night market for much less than $10, and it’s a great way to remind yourself of the fun side of living in a different culture.
Things I don’t
4. Guessing Games
The other side of living in another country, though, is the sheer amount of things you don’t know. My reading ability in Chinese has improved a lot in the past year, but it doesn’t mean I can read every sign I see, so when I need to buy something specific, like baking ingredients, I often spend a significant amount of time wandering through the store before I give up and ask someone. Then they usually take me to a shelf I already looked at and point to something I missed the first time I went through. The other challenge is figuring out what brand to buy, since I’m not familiar with all of them and the ones I do know tend to be more expensive. I usually go with the least expensive option, but sometimes, one brand will have two types of the product that cost the same amount. For example, today I bought some shampoo. I chose a brand that was on sale and that had two kinds: one with an orange label and one with a green label. I knew they were both shampoo, but I had no idea what the difference was. So I picked the orange label at random and decided to just see how it works.
Language barriers aside, my other least favorite guessing game is trying to figure out the toilets. They have two kinds of toilets here: Western-style ones and squat toilets. The squat toilets are made of porcelain, and they do flush, but there’s nothing to sit on. I can use them, but I prefer not to. Many public places will have both kinds of toilets, and sometimes they are labeled, but often they are not. In that case, I just have to guess which one to go into. I have learned that stalls with doors that start well above the ground are always Western-style, for obvious reasons, but doors that almost touch the ground can go either way. When I went back to the States on vacation, I still remember the rush of excitement I got from walking into the airport restroom and realizing I didn’t have to guess what kind of toilet I’d go into!