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By Kenneth Gimpayan (Filipino, explorer and english instructor)
What I am about to tell you is a complete cliché, but these well-worn words are not unfounded: It has always been my dream to visit Taiwan. A few years ago, my 25-year-old self listed this country in his travel bucket list. Unfortunately, a combination of strict visa requirements and funding made it impossible for that self to travel Ilha Formosa (beautiful island). Fast forwarding to a few years, I traveled to a few key places in Asia and America, which contributed to my rather easy entrance to Taiwan.
My first few impressions of Taiwan were good, although I know that in time it will be great. I never listened to people telling me, “Taiwan is just another Singapore." It’s good to note that most of these people never actually leave Taipei, so they don’t get to see Taiwan’s natural offerings. Population-wise, it’s even ridiculous to compare Taiwan’s 23 million people to Singapore’s over five million people.
While it’s true that Taiwan could be another “concrete jungle," there is just really so much to see and do that not many tourists know of. I suspect that this is because of the strict visa requirements, as most tourists get only a meager 14 days with no extension, which means if you want more of Taiwan, you need to leave the country after the visa expires and then come back with a new one. Unlike Singapore and Hong Kong, Taiwan is cautious about the inflow of tourists. But unlike the massive US in which it’s quite difficult to track people, Taiwan is diminutive in size, which means it is easier to detect loitering.
However, with Singapore’s multi-cultural society and rapid economic growth, I believe that Taiwan is now rethinking its perspective on foreign workers and foreigners in general. More and more people, especially from developing countries like Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia, are discovering Taiwan’s beautiful treasures. In the past, people assumed that Taiwan is all skylines and neon lights, but when they actually arrive, they see the most beautiful gorges and beaches. So in essence, there is truly something for anyone who visits Taiwan.
As a lover of architecture, I am genuinely mesmerized by Taiwan’s generous and eclectic cityscaping; beautiful gardens, well-preserved historical places, and glitzy and towering buildings. These places and structures are countless, so I’m just going to single out a few.
For starters, Taiwan is a master of blending green with concrete (as seen in the Beitou Public Library) and the old with the new (evident in Taipei 101, which probably the most iconic structure in Taiwan). I have seen images of Taipei 101 far too many times and honestly, just like my experience with the Statue of Liberty, I feared that it would disappoint, not because of its grandeur, but because of visual familiarity. However, I couldn’t be more wrong. The architectural marvel is so easy on the eyes and much of its appeal comes from the fact that it’s not just another modern building as it takes inspiration from traditional Chinese design elements like the pagoda and ruyi, which signifies healing and protection. Sometimes, I would attribute gender to a design and I don’t know if this is a unique thing or a shared experience. For example, I find that the NYC metro cars are very masculine while the Taipei 101 is feminine, just because it’s pretty at any time of the day. But don’t mistake beauty and grace for fragility as the structure is designed and built to withstand the strongest storms and earthquakes.
For nature lovers, you would be surprised that Taiwan has more than paddy fields and mountains. Case in point, I posted pictures of gorgeous rock formations from the Yehliu Geological Park on Instagram and a friend commented, “Are you even in Taiwan? That looks amazing.”
With this incident, I realized that not many people know about the natural wonders here. It is because of these wonders that I have decided to spend more time in Taiwan to go beyond cities and clichés. As this time of writing, I have yet to visit the famous Sun Moon Lake, Yangmingshan and the Taroko National Parks.
If you have visited many cities in the world, you would naturally feel that sometimes, places and activities blend in your memory and soon you will find nothing novel to do. The perfect remedy for this in Taiwan is experiencing the stupendous night market culture. I have been to many night markets and I can honestly say that the night markets here blow the competition out of the water.
Perhaps the most famous of them all is the Shilin Night Market where you can find all of your stomach’s ambitions and perhaps even more. During my visits to these markets, I can’t help but giggle at the ridiculously vast array of food and goods. Always a purveyor of something new, I tried the coffin bread – a delicious, crispy mega bread filled with chowder. There’s also the prawn omelette, cube pork on a stick and the world-renowned stinky tofu, which really lives up to its name.
One major observation I have had with the city is its cleanliness and convenience. All metro stations and convenience stores, like 7-11, have toilets. In addition, virtually everywhere in Taiwan, recycling is part of the culture. I have seen it firsthand, not in swanky artisan cafés, but in local restaurants. Taiwanese people segregate disposable utensils, leftovers and paper plates.
The transportation in Taiwan, especially in Taipei, is also very efficient and impressive. As a matter of fact, its metro was voted to be the world’s best by the Nova International Railway Benchmarking Group and the Community of Metros (Nova/CoMet) in terms of subway reliability. Now this is something that Singapore, with its infamous train breakdowns, can learn from Taiwan. Taiwan also knows that it doesn’t hurt to beautify train stations, just take a look at the Songshan station in Taipei and Formusa Boulevard’s metro in Kaohsiung.
Alas, we have come to a point wherein I expose Taiwan’s deepest and darkest secrets. But the truth is, in my two-months stay in Taiwan, its flaws dwarf in comparison to most of the cities I have lived in. And I guess my complaints are just not in line with Taiwan’s established culture. After all, all cities have their quirks and nuances that add a dash of interest and intrigue.
An example is crossing the street. Here, the people in vehicles and the pedestrians have a visual negotiation in contrast to abiding by the law. Jaywalking is illegal so is not stopping at a red light, but I have seen so many people break the rules, so I guess it’s a culture thing. Also, I don’t know if it would count as a negative thing, but I noticed that like most Asian cities, Taiwanese people can be a little shy and reserved, even when you do random acts of kindness like hold the elevator or pick up something that people accidentally dropped. Perhaps they’re grateful, but don’t show it? Or maybe these things are just natural to them that one should not ask anything in return.
Nonetheless, most of the people I have encountered are very gentle and kind. I have had experiences in which locals approached me and asked if I needed help, so I would say Taiwanese people are friendly on the whole.
Another thing that irks me about Taiwan is its views on English language teaching. Because I have experienced how convenient Taiwan is, I gave looking for a job a shot because I want to earn money and explore more of the country. In the past, only native speakers can teach the English language, but only recently, I have heard that some Filipinos and other non-native teachers have entered the EFL market here.
Sadly, my job applications in Taiwan bring back the nightmarish experiences I have had in Vietnam, albeit less depressing. At least the employers here are courteous enough to have you in for an interview and demo, but their graciousness end there. Once they meet better candidates or foreigners who are residents here, they leave you in the dark. I know it’s just business, but would it really hurt to send me an email saying, “Sorry, you didn’t get the job." But in all honesty, I have gotten used to it and I just quit trying. What got me through this dark, but short period, of sadness is the warm Filipino friends and community that constantly helped me in the many aspects of life in Taiwan. I cannot conclude this commentary without thanking you.
Maybe my luck is not in a city that I really love and I don’t want to taint my memories of Taiwan, so I have accepted the fact that I cannot pursue a career here. I liken this whole experience to the romantic notion of marrying the person you love for joy, but realizing that the marriage broke the mystery you once had as lovers. So Taiwan and I, we continue to be lovers on an extended honeymoon.
Because I have grown to love Taiwan, I will definitely urge my friends and relatives to explore this dazzling destination. I have not been paid by the Taiwanese Tourism Bureau not have my friends persuaded me to promote the country, but this voice is of my own. I fully believe that with an open mind, Taiwan is able to offer anyone their heart’s desire, regardless where they have been or plan to go.
Edited by Olivia Yang
4-Way Voice has authorized publication of this article. The original text was published here.