Sunday, June 5, 2011

Taiwan: 2011 Summer Fellows - After one Week in Taiwan

The primary reason I hoped to study in Taichung (or Taizhong), Taiwan was to develop an understanding of the Taiwanese people and the similarities and differences between Taiwan and mainland China. Many people asked me why did I not study in Taipei where the majority of foreign students generally go? The reason is that after having been to Beijing dozens of times and having lived in Tokyo and Washington, DC I have concluded that capitol cities rarely offer a panoramic view of society. They also tend to have a larger expat population and more people who speak English, which is something I hope to do as little as possible.

My first impression of Taiwan upon arrival is that it has the dirt and grime of mainland China (Disclaimer: I love China but it's not a clean country) along with the oddly-shaped buildings you find in Japan. People tell me this is because urban planners and building constructors take feng shui into account when creating layouts and blueprints, but I have a feeling it's more because the city has almost no gridlock; it's mostly a cluster of diagonal lines when viewed from above. As everywhere I have lived in the United States has had some kind of patterned layout, this makes it very easy to get lost so I suggest either bringing a smartphone or using Google Maps if you plan on traveling within Taiwanese cities.

One similarity Taiwan shares with the mainland is how flattered people are when you speak Chinese to them; for the most part people do not expect foreigners to know Chinese. Americans have a particular reputation for not studying foreign languages, a notion I enjoy countering when given the opportunity. In only seven days I've already had a family buy me dinner and two friends asked me to their home later this week just because I spoke to them. Admittedly a concern I had coming to Taichung was that it would be difficult to make friends because I did not know anybody; this has proven a very unnecessary concern. Taiwanese people seem to pride themselves on friendliness to foreigners. Americans often comment to me how impressed they are with Japan's hospitality, which has a heavy focus on politeness and protocol, but I find Taiwanese hospitality to be a more genuine attempt to welcome strangers.

A difference you will notice right away between Taiwan and the mainland is the overwhelming presence of motorbikes. When we first entered Taichung about eight motorbikes stopped at the red light in the lane next to ours and I honestly believed it was a gang. It was not until about three intersections later that saw enough people riding them to realize this is simply an inexpensive, convenient way to travel. The following day a friend I met let me ride on the back of her motorbike and I am not ashamed to admit I have never been so scared in my life. Hopefully after getting settled I can rent one of my own and learn to drive it.

One problem you are likely to experience in coming to Taiwan is getting a phone number; buying a cellphone is easy but if you want a SIM card you have to show them your alien registration card. Since I'm not actually any kind of resident I cannot get this registration card which means no store sill sell me a SIM card and my mobile phone was basically a portable alarm clock for several days. Fortunately a friend had an extra one that she lent me for the summer, so if you plan on living in Taiwan for a short time and know somebody already here, I recommend asking if they know somebody with a SIM card he doesn't need lying around.

Despite some inconveniences, though, I've had a great week and expect a very positive experience. I'm looking forward to posting more updates and sharing my anecdotes with everybody.

Shawn Lynott, MA International Affairs 2012, Sigur Center 2011 Chinese Language Fellow, Taipei Language Institute, Taiwan

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