Whereas Taichung is a big city in Taiwan, Taipei is…a big city in Taiwan. I’ve told a couple friends from home that it reminds me of Coruscant; the planet from the Star Wars prequels which is one giant metropolis.
I have been told that it is more ‘Chinese’ than the rest of the island, and that the farther South you go, the more ‘Taiwanese’ the culture. Taipei is where Chiang Kai-Shek and the Kuomintang established themselves for their preparations to retake mainland China from Mao, which as we all know did not succeed. The Taiwanese call him “our country’s father,” though I’m told that in truth, he merely brought half a million mainlanders to the island which had already prospered from the infrastructure set up by Japan. The arrival of the anti-communists of course brought the support of the US, and now Westernization runs amok. (Side note: I had a conversation with another American recently who said that Taiwan’s lowest-in-the-world birth rate is good because it’s a sign of a developed nation…sometimes I have to wrap my mind around the fact that the pool of people who think a people and culture’s will to live is less important than the relative quality of its means of survival is small, and getting smaller. “The definition of a lunatic is those surrounded by them” indeed). To quote the infamous song by Rammstein; “We’re all living in Amerika. Coca-Cola, sometimes war.”
The buildings in Taipei are taller ((than Taichung I mean) though not as tall as in Boston), the intersections are larger and more obnoxious, and there are more people who speak English (and probably fewer who speak Taiwanese as their mother tongue, though I’m not sure of this at the moment). My attempt to order a cheese and beef croissant at Starbucks in Mandarin was impeded when the guy behind the counter walked around to look where I was pointing (Chee-zuh-nyoo-row-kra-san, or something like that).
I was in Taipei for my week of training, alongside other native English speakers, mostly from the US and England. It’s a marker of how much my thought processes have changed from childhood that I now think in words instead of images (which I think is slower and less efficient now that the internal monologue has taken over, though it has the benefit of being able to articulate certain things better), and so after a few days I began to ‘think’ in a British accent.
On Sunday my boss brought me there, showing me where the necessary stops were on the MRT (the subway), though I would eventually become well acquainted with it. We had Thai food (I was the classic foreigner trying to eat rice with chopsticks) and I got some bubble tea milk, which is popular in Taipei. I don’t like milk, but I thought this was alright.
On Monday, I and a few other soon-to-be teachers took the MRT all along the red line to Tamsui (pronounced ‘Tan-Sway’) where we walked for a bit and got dinner. I think it may have been the first time I’d eaten squid. It was crunchy. There was also some ‘beer’ which tasted like juice at about 2.8% alcohol. Chopsticks were still a challenge for me at this point. Taiwan uses both silverware and chopsticks, depending on the situation, though still usually chopsticks. I say ‘still’ the way a lot of people use it, as though to imply that they will someday abandon their traditions (if the age of heroes is over, one can be sure that the age of traditional cutlery can’t be too far behind, but then again, chopsticks are cheap). The MRT has people who blow a whistle if anyone steps on the yellow line near the edge of the walkway, for those stops which don’t have a glass barrier to the rail below. I’ve heard good things about the MBTA in Boston from some who visit from other countries, particularly Ireland, but the MRT is superior in every way. There are lines where people wait to enter after the doors open. The trains are fast, don’t squeak, run on time (Mussolini lives on), are spotlessly clean.
Tuesday I went with some different people to the Chiang Kai-Shek memorial. It was of course a beautiful building, but as nice was the hallway-like structure around the edge, along which some people go jogging. Through the windows on the outer side you see the bustling street, and on the other side is a big park with palm (and other) trees, pathways, and a playground. The sun set, rapidly as usual, at around 6:30 leaving me and two other soon-to-be teachers to walk toward Taipei 101 in nightfall. The lights shone brightly in contrast to the sky, though of course the sky is so full of light that even in darkness it still merely has a kind of dark gray hue, maybe a tint of orange. I won’t forget what one of the professors from Aix, a Frenchman, telling us that “you don’t know a city until you have stepped in dog poop from spending so much time looking up at the architecture.”
No, there isn’t a lot of dog feces littering the streets of Taiwan, though there are dogs (for whom a current fashion is to shave all their hair except on their heads, almost like a mane). Taiwan is very orderly, and as I’ve said, safe. I’m starting to realize how the inherent set of qualities which are tied to intelligence (for example: being less masculine) are even more important than general intelligence itself in keeping a civilization stable. When you decrease the average IQ of a given population even a little, all problems one can think of (and probably many more that one couldn’t) increase exponentially. Taiwan, for all its problems (poor treatment of employees being one example) functions well. It’s biggest problems in my opinion are functions of globalization (if I were Taiwanese rather than a foreigner, that would be a fact for which I would shed invisible tears of unironic despair, and I have yet to find out how many, if any, do so). So supposing this correlation between a particular ethnic group’s average intelligence and a less violent characteristic, I think the lack of violence is even more relevant than the cognitive capacity, something I overlook sometimes. If courage becomes necessary and virtuous through the presence of fear, then passivity becomes necessary and virtuous because of the influence of the atavistic urge which we don’t find in many men who keep civilization running. “Asian people are more shy” is something I have been told by multiple Taiwanese themselves.
Walking in Taipei, we refrained from using the MRT because we thought walking would be easier, with a better view, opportunities to grab food along the way, and not too much of a time-suck. We we wrong. The tower kept getting bigger and bigger but we never really felt like we were getting closer. But it was good because we got to look around on the way. A perfect example of a situation where saving time is not what you want to do. Like most Americans I don’t often immediately appreciate the value of taking what the Germans call a Spaziergang; taking a walk without trying to get somewhere. We did of course eventually get to the tower, but by the time we got there they had stopped selling tickets to the top. I didn’t think it looked big enough to have been the world’s tallest building as recently as 2010, but I couldn’t tell from below just how much it dwarfs every building around it. I got a drink and some bread which had some scallions, cheese, and bits of bacon. We decided we had earned a beer. We walked to the MRT where we rode to the stop near our hotel, Guting, and went to a nearby bar called Pub 45, which is pretty much Western. The whole place had a kind of dark green glow to it. Along with my Taiwan beers I had pastrami and fries. It was there that I met some Swiss guys and they introduced me to their friends who are all there for the sole purpose of studying Chinese. There was a peculiar add on the wall looking for an actor and actress to star in a commercial, who “must not be Asian” and be about age 30 and 25 respectively. Next to it was a poster for a club or something with a drawing of a woman partaking in a particular stereotypical dance which I somehow find doubtful was meant in a flattering light. At one point police officers came in to check people’s ID’s. I’ve never seen this in the US (and it would be ludicrous in France to even try). They didn’t come up to us, which was good since even though I had my driver’s license (which is a valid form of ID here) I didn’t have my passport with me, and technically I’m supposed to have it with me at all times.
Wednesday was the day we went up to the top of the tower. You buy your ticket, you get your picture taken, you go through a metal detector, and then you get in the elevator. It may not be a Wonkavator, but it is the world’s fastest elevator. With pressure in my ears building, we went up the 1,670 ft in less than a minute, and then exited to look out to the West. They handed out listening devices which I bothered to try for two spots out of the fourteen. Then we went to the outdoor area, where we could look down without having to look through a window. We did have to look through bars though, because as with the MRT, they don’t want anyone jumping to their oblivion. Inside the building was the motion damper, which permits the building to sway and avoid being destroyed by an Earthquake. Soon enough we went down and went to a night market. I could smell the famous stinky tofu. It’s a digusting smell. I went with an assortment of meats from a guy who has you pick what you want and then he cooks it. Among my 7 selections were chicken hearts, which to my knowledge I had never tried.
On Thursday we hiked up Elephant hill, which begins right where the buildings end. It’s an expanse of green that feels strange next to all the buildings. We walked up and looked out over the city as the sunset began. There is no sight like it that I’ve ever seen, and the mammoth Taipei 101 from this angle looks almost majestic.
We went back to Taipei 101, but this time just to find some food. Right now in Taiwan McDonald’s (Amerika, Amerika, Amerika is wunderbar…) is selling burgers which have slices of pineapple. The commercial shows young attractive people (who are Asian, though a lot of billboards, adds, and so forth show Europeans rather than locals, a stark contrast to places like Harlem which often uses black mannequins, or the Paris metro, where they often use animals on the pictures because it’s a multicultural city) playing with giant pinneapple slices, and the tagline is “Pinneapple! Summer Bite!” It sounds more like “Pie-appow” when they say it. I opted for a different place, which honestly probably was not much more of a healthy option. I got fried squid, chicken nuggets (half of which have bones), fries, and in fact, pinneapple juice, which is not my favorite but it’s ok. Then it was back to Pub 45, and on Friday it was back to Taichung for this overworked man in sore need of a weekend. But alas! Saturday morning brought my first lesson, and the start of my day job.