What I'll miss about being in Taipei

Thursday, August 23, 2012

I won $200NT ($6.66 ... yikes) in the Taiwanese receipt lottery!
Following up on my entry on things about Taipei I can't wait to leave behind, I'm back to even things out a little. Could I live in Taipei or Taiwan forever? Absolutely not. I think just based on ideologies, I would go insane. I don't love the food here, and eating only fried street foods, convenience store food, and bread would probably kill me eventually. But let's get on with the things I'll miss ...

Cost of living
I think this was the first thing I mentioned I really liked about Taiwan, back in December. Although I live in Taipei, which is probably the most expensive city in Taiwan, I still find the standard of living extremely inexpensive. Where else can you get 2 2.2 liter bottles of water for about $1.50? In New York City, a regular-sized bottle of water alone costs $1.50 to $2. Small salads from the local convenience store (7-11, Family Mart, OK Mart, Hi-Life) will run you from $1 to $1.75.

Although I generally don't benefit from the low cost of living as much as I could (I don't eat much Taiwanese street food/takeout on a regular basis), I find it helps even when it comes to luxury items. For example: in New York City, I would never, ever take a taxi. It's costly and frankly, I don't trust taxi drivers. I don't trust them here either, but it's comforting to know that I can afford them if I really find myself desperately in need of a cab. The base price for a cab in Taipei is $70NT (a little over $2) and a 15-20 minute ride will cost you about $6. This is especially helpful in the scorching summer months, when -- I kid you not -- you can start showing signs of heat exhaustion by walking around for more than 10 minutes at a time. Buses cost about $15NT ($0.50) a ride. And karaoking is ridiculously cheap.

Another luxury item I've taken full advantage of over here is salons. Back in New York City, I rarely get my hair cut at salons. My mom is handy with scissors and I pretty much only like the way I can cut my bangs. Once a year -- twice, if I'm going for a drastic change -- I'll go to a salon and get my hair cut.  And I'm happy with the results about once every 8 years. I've tried American hair salons in New York City, Asian hair salons ... and I always come out looking at least a penny short of what I'd envisioned. The Asian hair salons in Asian neighborhoods in New York City always seem to go overboard with my hair -- I come out with a mullet or some sort of Asian fad hairstyle that I don't know what to do with.

Here, it's a completely different story. You get a nice head (and sometimes neck and shoulder) massage with your wash, which can last up to 30 minutes alone ... Some salons are more high-tech than others: the stylists carry around iPads with hairstyles preloaded on them so you can choose what you want the result to look like. I've had my hair cut 3 times in the 9 months I've been here and never have I felt like I wanted to rush home and wash my hair or fix it. The salons I've been to know how to straddle the trendy and traditional/simple line to a T. And best of all is the price! A haircut at a trendy salon (wash, massage, cut all included) will cost you probably around $20 to $25. No tax, no tip required. I can't even get a $20 haircut in New York City, nevermind one that I am happy with.

I should note, however, that not everything is inexpensive in Taipei. Clothing is not particularly cheap, especially if you want something from a department store. You can get some really cheap clothing, shoes and accessories from night markets, although the quality is often questionable. Makeup isn't all that cheap, either.

Customer service
This is something else I noted very early on. The customer service here, for the most part, is impeccable. It's warm, welcoming, polite, and hardly ever intrusive. Even at upscale retailers (REALLY upscale, like Chanel or Fendi), where the customer service is usually snooty in the U.S., it's attentive here. Of all the things I've experienced in my time here, the customer service is undoubtedly the thing I will miss the most.

Did I ever tell you about the guy at a Starbucks I visited once? I needed a seat, and seeing that there were no tables available, he went and asked not one but two people if I could share a table with them, and helped me move my belongings to the table. He was one of two employees working at a busy Starbucks, and this required him to leave the counter. I was very impressed.

Slower pace of life
I went into detail about how people sit around in coffee shops and cafés for hours and hours at a time. I love that people don't feel like they need to rush around, and I love that shop owners are okay with their customers hanging around for 2, 3 hours. I'm not looking forward to the attitude and rushy nature of New York City and most other American cities.

Being a foreigner
Being a foreigner in Taipei, for me, has been a pretty interesting experience. I'm still surprised, every day, when someone thinks I'm a native. And this happens more often than I would like to, because I can sense a little frustration sometimes when someone is trying to ring me up or take my order and I need them to repeat what they're saying. I'm happy that my Mandarin is convincing enough that I can fit in, but that I can always say, "Sorry, my Chinese isn't that good -- can you please repeat what you said?" And though the Taiwanese usually pretend they don't, they can all speak varying degrees of English. And usually quite well. So, as the child of a native Taiwanese mother, I get the benefits of not being stereotyped right away based on what I look like, but also the benefits of having an easy way out.

I can't remember if I mentioned it before, but since the last time I was in Taipei (back in 2000), there is considerably more English in road signs, store signs and in popular culture. I think the Taiwanese do try to emulate the American way in some things they do ... for example, they drive on the left side of the road, on the left side in the car. They've adopted the American spelling for most, if not all, English words, and those who do speak English here will most likely take on the American pronunciation of words.

On any given day at Dante Coffee, where I spend a couple hours each weekday, I will overhear a conversation about the United States and family over there. Just last week, I actually overheard a woman talking about her kids in New York City, in a neighborhood adjacent to mine back home. So being a "foreigner" here, for me, is pretty much a matter of perspective.

I will say, though, not being able to fully express what I want to say here has been an interesting -- and enlightening -- experience. I can usually get my point across, but not in the minute detail I like to do so in English. I took a class in college called "Psychology of Language," where we learned about how some languages had 40 different words for a word that the English language only has one or two for, and how that expands or diminishes your capacity to perceive (a.k.a. if you don't have the vocabulary, you might not even realize such a thing exists). Well, not being able to fully express myself has felt somewhat oppressive to me in a lot of ways. It wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the fact that I do live with family here, and they are constantly telling me I'm too quiet. While I can be pretty quiet in English, I think there are many things I would say in protest to them in Mandarin if I only knew how.

I'm grateful to have experienced this, though, because as an English speaker in the world, I've had it easy. I can pretty much go on vacation to any country and get by because I was lucky enough to have been born and raised in an English-speaking environment.

Specific things I'm going to miss
- Hogan Bakery
- Supermarket meals
- Dante Coffee shop

Last, but not least, my trip to Taipei to learn Mandarin has been a vacation, really. And, whether I like Taipei or not, leaving it means I have to return to reality and deal with most of the problems I avoided dealing with by leaving New York City.

When night falls in Taipei, it's hard not to at least like the city. This is probably true of every place, but the darkness makes Taipei seem more bearable, more romantic, cleaner, sleeker. The air cools, the crowds thin out, the buildings light up and the dirty, somewhat time-warped exteriors of young Taipei look positively cosmopolitan ... like it should, like it deserves to.

And ... how to unwrap one of my favorite snacks/meals in Taiwan (the tuna rice triangle ... I remember this coming in a spicy wasabi flavor in 2000):

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  1. I have been anticipating this post. I think the experience of being somewhere else, somewhere other than home, forces one to digest things about their life and what they have been running away from. I did...sort of.
    You might not feel it atm but once you are home, the lightbulb just goes on. Baby steps. You might fall but if you don't, you can't move forward.
    Looking forward to your next journey back in NY.



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