Thursday, August 22, 2013

Reflections on Taiwan

Kristian McGuire, M.A. International Affairs 2014
Sigur Center 2013 Chinese Language Fellow,
National Taiwan Normal University, Taiwan

My time in Taiwan has come to an end.  In my typical fashion, I decided to leave most of the “must do,” touristy activities for the last couple weeks of my stay.  For Taipei, this meant going to the top of the Taipei 101 skyscraper; visiting Shilin Night Market, the National Palace Museum, the Eslite 24-hour bookstore; and eating an oyster omelet (蚵仔煎).

I usually try to avoid the most touristy activities a city has to offer not because I dislike them, but because they often require more effort than I deem necessary or worthwhile.  Nevertheless, I always end up doing these activities, and in retrospect I’m always glad that I did.
I knew that there was no way I could spend a summer in Taipei without ascending the heights of Taipei 101.  The price of making a trip to Taipei and not visiting its most famous building is years and years of having to explain to people why you didn’t make the requisite pilgrimage.  (This reminds me of a saying they have in China: 不去長城, 非好漢, or If you [go to Beijing and] don’t visit the Great Wall, you are not a real man.)  Therefore, not wanting to have my future travel stories tarnished by a deflating response to the Taipei 101 question, and a little curious to know what Taipei looked like from so high up, I decided to do the prescribed activity during my second to last week in the city.  Despite having my first effort to scale the building 

View from Taipei 101

frustrated by an exceedingly long line, I eventually made it to the top on my second attempt.  The view, although dimmed by cloud cover, was great.  Much like my first trip to the top of Jin Mao Tower in Shanghai, I felt like a chess piece finally catching a glimpse of the entire chessboard.  It was amazing to see how well Taipei has structured itself to fit the contours of its natural environment.  Taiwan’s most populous city is situated in an environment that is sort of like a combination of San Francisco and Pittsburgh with hills dotting the outskirts and rivers cutting around the city.  The view and the peace of mind I gained from checking a trip to the top of Taipei 101 off my list of things to do made the outing worthwhile.

Shilin Night Market was a fun but less important item on my to-do list.  Few people outside of Taiwan, including myself prior to planning my trip to the country, have ever heard of Shilin Night Market.  Therefore, unlike a visit to Taipei 101, I knew that no one would grill me for not visiting it. I actually didn’t have a firm intention to go to Shilin, I just stumbled upon it while wandering around the northern part of Taipei one day.  As much as I enjoyed looking at all of Shilin’s interesting shops, the novelty of the market was lost on me since I had been to several other night markets earlier in my stay.  In essence, Shilin felt like my neighborhood night market just on a grander scale. 

In contrast to my lackluster experience at Shilin Night Market, my trip to the National Palace Museum exceeded my expectations.  For years I had heard told of the National Palace Museum and its collection of some of China’s most prized artifacts which were spirited off to Taiwan while the Nationalists fought in and eventually evacuated from China.    Going to the museum, I expected to see an amazing collection of Chinese artifacts, what I didn’t expect was a museum that matched the splendor of the artifacts.  My brother-in-law, who is a photographer, has explained to me the importance of choosing a suitable frame for a photograph.
National Palace Museum Day

A similar rule, I believe, also applies to artifacts and museums.  The National Palace Museum is situated amidst the lush greenery of Taipei’s northern hills.  The building itself is impressive to say the least.  With rows and rows of stone steps leading to a magnificent imperial style structure, the museum’s majesty befits its cherished contents.  Of course, I didn’t have time to see all of the artifacts on display in the museum.  However, those that I did have time to see left me wanting to return to the National Palace Museum the next time I make it to Taipei.
National Palace Museum Night

Before coming to Taipei, I never would have guessed that visiting a bookstore would be one of the main items on my Taiwan to-do list.  Since arriving in Taipei, I have heard countless expats and locals alike tell tale of a wonderful bookstore chain called Eslite that has at least one 24-hour store in the city.  A Taiwanese friend told me that this bookstore chain is the pride of Taiwan, and that, when the company opened a store in Hong Kong last year, a Hong Kong newspaper proclaimed that Hong Kong finally had culture.  Eslite lived up to all the hype.  Coming from a country where bookstores seem to be on their way to extinction, I was pleased to see a bookstore chain that isn’t just surviving, but thriving.  Even though Eslite is primarily a Chinese language bookstore, its selection of English language books and magazines is large enough to put many American bookstores to shame.   If it hadn’t been for the fact that I was flying back to the States in less than a week and I already had enough things to pack my suitcase to the gills, I definitely would have bought a few books at Eslite.  Anyway, I know for future trips to Taiwan where I can stock up on books and magazines. 

Jiufen Day

Jiufen Night

Monday night I finally tried one of Taiwan’s famous dishes, an oyster omelet.  The incredibly diverse food selection in Taiwan makes Taiwan very similar to the U.S. in that it is hard to identify any single dish among the multitude of tasty dishes available as truly indigenous to the country.  Fusion cuisines, and spin-offs of other countries’ traditional dishes seem to comprise the bulk of Taiwanese cuisine.  The oyster omelet is no exception.  I have seen similar fried creations in China, yet I have only tried a handful.  When a friend suggested that I try an oyster omelet at a little snack shack that is especially well-known for them, I decided it was better to follow a friend’s recommendation than to take my chances with a restaurant I might find on my own.  I wasn’t disappointed with my friend’s recommendation.  The oyster omelet was a great choice for one of my final meals in Taiwan.
A Street in Jiufen

There are plenty of things that I will miss about Taiwan and plenty of observations I would like to share (I might do so at a later date).  Above all, I will miss the peaceful atmosphere, and the value Taiwanese seem to place on constantly improving their quality of life.  Granted Taiwan has its problems.  This summer, the country has had to cope with the death of young soldier who appears to have died from torturous punishments inflicted upon him by his superiors.  Rabies has appeared on the island for the first time in more than a half a century.  The government has come into conflict with thousands of its citizens over a land requisition project in Miaoli county that has entailed the forced demolition of four houses.  Yet these problems have been met by government and civic action with an eye toward moving Taiwanese society forward.  Where Taiwanese citizens feel that their government is failing them, they let it be known.  Where the government feels justified in actions or positions, it states its case.  I have been astounded at the willingness and enthusiasm with which so many Taiwanese participate in political life.  Their activism gives me hope that the Taiwan that I will return to will be even better than the Taiwan that I left.
My Neighborhood at Night 1

My Neighborhood at Night 2

My Neighborhood at Dusk

Quite Possibly the Coolest Catholic Preschool in the World, Yilan City

Taipei, A Truly Green City 1

Taipei, A Truly Green City 2

Taipei, A Truly Green City 3

Keelung City Sign
A Street in Keelung

Bust of Douglas MacArthur, Chiayi
Taipei Graffiti 1

Taipei Graffiti 2

Taipei Graffiti 3

The Reaction

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