…and hi! First impressions of Taiwan.
Ok, so, some first impressions about Taiwan. The big one is that it’s mostly a bilingual country, so breathe easy on that score, almost every sign has an English translation on it and while most of the people around here possess some degree of fluency in the language, if they don’t understand your panicked gesticulating they’ll happily direct you to someone who does. A second, slightly smaller though nevertheless pretty sizable issue, is that you will be stared at. A lot. Particularly if you scored big in the melanin stakes. Fear not, those among your family prone to voting Republican have, as usual, no idea what they’re talking about, as the Taiwanese mean you no harm and are exceptionally unlikely to descend into savagery and cannibalism at the sight of your weave. They’re just curious, and aren’t especially self-conscious about it. I find it pleasant, actually, it kinda makes me feel important, and anyway there’s plenty else about this place to occupy your thoughts other than being eyeballed by people who find you interesting. That said, you will for at least a little while become intensely aware of your foreignness. No, scratch that, I’m still in touch with an ex who would skin me alive if I claimed to possess any kind of “awareness” of being out-of-place on account of my skin colour, bless her sweet soul. Better to say “alertness” instead. The thing is, it’s entirely illusory and, as is hopefully clear above, entirely harmless (unless you go clubbing, but more on that some other time). Personally, I think it has to do with being alone and a little frightened in a foreign country, resulting in one self-defensively clinging anything and everything that seems familiar. You’ll notice to a higher degree the foreigners in adverts and crowds, for example. I find I’m kind of surprised by and have difficulty pulling my attention away from my own reflection when I’m walking down the street, and not just because I’ve gone and caught Zoolander’s Disease and suddenly become really really ridiculously good looking, but rather because it’s so rare to see another white, European face that I can’t help but rubberneck. Go see Zoolander Number 2, by the way, it’s an awesome movie (8/10. Would’ve been more, but they used the same jokes as the last one a couple of times). One of my co-workers was so shocked to see another white dude when we were introduced that he briefly lost the ability to speak. Which is a little surprising, really, since as a grown and self-sufficient man he certainly requires personal care products, and so presumably has to along with the rest of us suffer through the same sustained and unrelenting aural-visual torture that is sitting through those god-awful ads for Vanish detergent and Axe body spray.
If you’re fond of the various plants, pills, and powders that make one’s head zip, zing, and sizzle, lay off for the appropriate length of time (don’t pretend you’re unaware of exactly how long that is) before you catch your flight, as there’s a fair-to-middling chance you’ll be pulled aside and tested on arrival at Taipei International. No, don’t pull that face, it’s for your own good: the law here is very clear about what happens to people who bring the aforementioned with them, and if there is even the slightest suspicion that you’ve done so you’ll find out the hard way that what happens is you go to prison, and will likely be shot, international diplomacy be damned. Come on, it was right there in scary boldface on your Visa application, don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about. Remember that bit about how foreigners stand out like a sore thumb around here? Picture two things for me: being a foreigner in a Taiwanese jail, and what happens at a Weightwatchers potluck when someone brings along something other than potato salad. Keep that image in mind when trying to decide whether or not to pack that Bob Marley shirt you like so much.
Unless you’re able to get a buddy on this side to help you get around town, remember to buy a two-prong adapter for all your electronics, because its surprisingly hard to find them on your own, and repeatedly jamming two fingers into the palm of your hand whilst holding sustained eye contact with the teenage shop assistant is a universal symbol for something entirely different. Apparently. Alternatively, use this as an excuse to go shopping, and experience the jaw-dropping amazingness of Taiwan’s public transit infrastructure. Really, it is something to behold, especially if coming from, oh, say, South Africa, where the government has been on a record-breaking looting spree since roughly 1998. What you do is buy a bus card and load it up with approximately 150 Taiwanese dollars, which is a lot cheaper than it sounds. The first ten kilometers of any trip are free, and if the bus isn’t your thing you can always swipe the card to rent a government bicycle, or take the train and experience what it’s like to barrel along at 120 kph and not feel a single bump. Seriously, you only really realize how fast you’re going when another train going the other way roars past a couple of inches from your face, which you’ll obviously have pressed right up against the window as you ogle the scenery in open-mouthed wonder.
They drive on the right-hand side of the road here, so be aware of the “look left, look right, look left again, die” problem when you head out.
Hi-rise apartment living is the done thing around here, which isn’t nearly as depressing as it sounds, though be told that it rains a lot in the winter. The streets are in excellent condition, if a little uneven, and they sparkle with little flecks of mica, so when it rains at night the water gathers in these large, shallow pools and it’s like walking on star-studded black velvet. The architecture isn’t the communist horror story you’re picturing in your head right now, but in fact is very green, as many of the families here plant small trees and large ferns on their balconies, and more often than not there are plenty of bamboo stands and Tibetan prayer flags on the few rooftops you can see. Architecturally speaking it’s all very Asian, by which I mean neat, compact, and functional. There is no wasted space, everything does something or folds out into something else. It’s also very safe, and there’s little petty crime. Check it out: as per local custom, I removed my boots before entering my host’s home, left them outside the door overnight and, get this, they were still there in the morning! But don’t let the absence of burglar bars on the windows fool you, that mosquito mesh is there for a reason, and you’ll just have to forgo opening up everything and settling in for a good, long, Post-Romantic soulful stare at the horizon unless you want to find out exactly how much blood a grown human being can lose in an hour to the primal hunger of nature.
A word on the food here. Three, actually: awwwww hell yes! Guys, gals, post-gender folk of all descriptions and creeds, do it the right way and go authentic. Learn just enough Mandarin to order random items off the menu and gain enough chopstick confidence that you don’t have bestowed upon you The Fork of Shame, and get out into the street markets and diners in your area. Everybody from Napoleon to my mom knows that people travel on their stomachs, in which case they’d have the buck stops here. Also the chicken, beef, squid, fish, crab, assorted waterfowl, and much else besides, whereafter it all ends up in a warm, fuzzy ball in your tummy, grateful for this one last opportunity to have brought another living being so much joy. Get past the tofu, which I am reliably informed is made from the tears of decent chefs, and you will experience a gastronomic wet dream of frys, soups, stews and grills the likes of which would satisfy the unending hunger of the Old Ones themselves. And no, they don’t eat dog here.