Sunday, June 19, 2011

Taiwan: 2011 Summer Fellows - Back from Taipei

Last week my girlfriend flew into Taiwan from Tokyo so we spent the weekend in Taipei. Taipei has all the same things you find in the other major Asian metropolitan areas: tall buildings, a working subway, two airports, signs written in both the native language and English, etc. Having lived in Tokyo for two years I find these cities are a lot more fun to visit than they are to live in; they have so much to do when traveling but it's really annoying to live in a big city when you're constantly commuting across town. It makes me glad I chose Taichung as a place to live instead, but Taipei is a great place to visit. There's always lots to do and a diverse array of places to see.

First we went to the Imperial Palace Museum which houses ancient Chinese artifacts. It was interesting to see the museum's take on how pottery reflects one's culture and how you can tell which dynasty a particular piece is from based on things like technique, what king or spirit it appears to honor, and what practical uses it has. A few years ago I read about mainland China claiming Taiwan had stolen the artifacts, as Chiang Kai Shek took most of them with him as he fled after the Chinese civil war. Fortunately with easing tensions between the two governments we may see more sharing of precious artifacts in the near future.

It was difficult to reach the Palace Museum, however, because we consistently lost our way navigating through the bus and subway system. Unlike Tokyo, buses don't necessarily arrive at the stop when they say they will so just because the schedule says Bus #20 is coming at 3:05 does not mean the bus arriving at 3:05 is in fact Bust #20. My advice is check the number before stepping onto the vehicle, or if you speak Chinese, you can just ask the driver if the particular bus is going where you're headed. I found this method particularly useful. Before figuring this out, we saw a lot of interesting parts of the city that we would otherwise have missed, so even getting lost wasn't so bad. At subway stations you can buy a three-day commuters' pass, which means you get unlimited use of the buses and subways for about $13.00 for the entire weekend.

If you're going to going to eat Chinese dumplings, or xiaolongbao, in Taipei (which I highly recommend you do), you can't beat Din Tai Fung restaurant in its two locations. They make the best dumplings I've ever had, and that's after living in mainland China for three years. Each comes with both meat and soup on the inside so you have to eat them a certain way or the soup will just spill on your lap. Every table actually has a set of instructions written in Chinese, English, Japanese, Korean, French and Spanish to make sure you eat them the right way. The wait was almost 2 hours so we actually were able to go to the top of nearby Taipei 101, now the second-tallest building in the world but soon to be the third, before our table was ready.

Perhaps the most humorous aspect of traveling in Taiwan with a Japanese person is that whenever waiters or fellow tourists had a question they would ask my girlfriend. She speaks no Chinese, so when I explained to them that she was Japanese and I was in fact the one who could communicate with them we got some incredulous looks. Some people may find this insulting but I always appreciated countering Asian people's assumptions that I only speak English. Much like in Japan's urban centers, it appears lots of foreingers live in Taipei for a long time without ever bothering to learn the language.

Overall, if you like big cities Taipei is a great place to visit. This was my first out-of-town destination of hopefully many more, depending on how much time I have in the coming weekends.

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

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