I’ve been in Taiwan for nearly 6 months now, and I’ve realised there are certain things that I can always rely on Taiwan (specifically Taipei) to provide that make it different to any other city I’ve lived in.
1. At any hour, day or night, there will always be an old man on a bicycle.
I remember one day early into my life here when I was waiting at the traffic lights to cross a very busy road in Sanchong, one of the less foreigner-filled parts of Taipei that is crowded with people, scooters, markets and a noticeable absence of footpaths. It was raining, which was a welcome change from the sauna-level temperatures that are constant in the summers here. I can’t remember what had happened that day, but as usual during my early days here I was feeling very stressed and tense. An old man rode past me on a bicycle. He was surrounded by traffic but he was taking his leisurely time, holding and umbrella, and smoking a cigarette. When I met his eyes, I saw in them the profound contentment of a man who has figured out everything he needs to know in life.
Now if I’m feeling stressed, I tell myself “be the old man on the bicycle.”
2. The MRT is one of the most civilised transport systems in the world… unless you’re trying to get off.
The advert for the new line is a catchy jingle sung by two sweet girls in polka-dot dresses tilting their heads from time to time and jumping demurely. There are signs everywhere telling you to help blind people if you see them – and this happens, I’ve seen it. People stick closely to the right hand side of the escalators to clear the fast lane on the left. It’s exceptionally clean and not only do people follow the ‘no eating, drinking, or chewing gum or betel nut’ announcements but the few times I’ve had a cough and I’ve needed a drink of water, the shifty glares have been palpable. In general it’s one of the politest, cleanest, most organised transport systems I’ve encountered. It also isn’t overpriced and it’s expanding its routes faster than a Westerner’s waistline expands at a night market BUT all this said and done, Taiwanese do not let you off the MRT first if they’re trying to get in. Despite what their actions may indicate, the doors aren’t going to close on you! The train isn’t going to leave if everyone is still on the platform! But you may get trapped on the MRT past your stop if it’s rush hour and you don’t fight to get out.
3. Selfies are now an acceptable form of art.
I can only assume, anyway. Got a minute waiting for the MRT? Selfie! Walking down the street? Selfie! Immortalise all the moments of your daily life with selfies. Selfie poles are available to buy everywhere, and if you’re unsure of how to use one, just stand on a street corner and wait for ten minutes and you’ll see one in use. Going to the mall with your friends? Don’t forget to take your selfie pole so you can capture the moment! Seriously, selfie taking is everywhere. It’s unselfconscious, it’s blatant, it’s loud and it’s proud.
4. Dogs appear to have lost the ability to walk.
Ever see something and think why don’t I have my camera?? or why isn’t acceptable to take photos of other human beings, if the motive for doing so is obviously that you think they’re hilarious. The second question being rhetorical and sometimes pointless, because I often do it anyway… but of all the missed photo opportunities here in Taiwan, undoubtedly the one I lose out on most is the dogs here. Some examples:
A woman pushing a chow dog in a doggy stroller. She was in her 50s, and I’m pretty sure weighed less and was smaller overall than the dog. Although she probably had killer quads from all the pushing, or whichever muscle that would build.
A husband and wife strolling through the night market in Tamsui with immaculately groomed Bichon Frisés strapped to their chests in baby harnesses. They had their legs all sticking straight out through the toddler arm and leg holes, and their bouffant heads were waggling with pleasure at the lazy glory of their situation.
Dogs in handbags. EVERYWHERE. In shops, restaurants, on public transport… you can take dogs on the MRT, but not birds.
A woman I used to pass on the way to work each morning (if I was running late, so not a photo op annoyingly) who can a TRIPLE decker poodle trundler. These weren’t teacup poodles, mind, but actual dog sized poodles that would have been around knee height… if they’d ever been allowed to walk. Again, because of the size of the woman and the size the stroller needed to be to fit so much dog inside, the stroller was bigger than her. I could go on and on, but you get the idea.
5. The baristas in Starbucks are some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.
Because soy milk is drunk like orange juice here, so ewww ‘why would you put that in coffee?’ only Starbucks and a few vegan places serve coffee with soy milk in. So I spend a ridiculous amount of time in Starbucks, much to the disappointment of my soul. But the people are lovely! I’ve had my order memorised by both of the places I’m in regularly, and I’m on first name terms with everyone there. One of them even had my name written down behind the till, for a while, so that they could spell it. They bring across my order before I have time to fetch it, and the few times they’ve got my order wrong they hover nervously until I’ve confirmed it’s right this time. I’ve been asked where I’m from and what I’m doing here more times than I can remember, and I was even once asked for my number by a girl working at one store… although she then went shy and embarrassed, and I still have no idea what was going on there.
6. There’s never any toilet paper in the ladies’ at Da’an park.
This is oddly specific, but it’s happened to me the last few times I’ve been to the park and been caught short. Like most public toilets here, they operate on the system of having one dispenser by the entrance and the sinks for you to grab some as you go in. Luckily, the men’s also has one of these and so far no man has looked at me too askance when I do an awkward backward shimmy a little way into the men’s (but still far enough in that I need to keep my back turned to avoid urinal sightings), grabbed a handful of paper, and dashed out and back into the ladies’. I’m the only woman I’ve seen doing this, but it works.