Wednesday, October 9, 2013

First thoughts on Taiwan

After a month in Taiwan, here are some of my initial thoughts. Although it would probably be better to appreciate the country on its own, I find myself evaluating my experience here mostly in comparison with my time in China. So here are some of the pluses and minuses of life in Taipei, as compared to Beijing.

Plus: Environment. The first time I had a real "I'm not in China anymore" moment was going biking at Taipei's riverside bike trail, which snakes throughout the city.

Whether it's due to the population pressure or to a lack of funding, this kind of extensive preserved natural space is something I never came across in China's big cities, even in beautiful Kunming. Of course both of those cities have parks, but when you're in a park you don't feel like you're outside of the city. Parks are like playgrounds for adults - they only approximate nature.

And of course, Taipei's pollution is nothing like Beijing's.

Beijing (for reference)
Minus: Trash disposal. As an exception to the above, Taipei is sorely lacking in what seems like an obvious staple of a modern city - trash cans! Apparently there's no public trash collection, and I guess the authorities are worried that people will throw their household trash in public trash cans, which signs at many such cans forbid doing. I also heard a theory that by accustoming people to not having trash cans outside, the rate of littering is reduced. Certainly there's virtually no litter compared to Beijing, so I'll admit the efficacy in that regard, but carrying an empty soda bottle around with you gets really annoying.

A Taipei trash can

Neutral: Urban design. Architecturally, Taipei has a really cool feature of having bus stops in the middle of the street. This sounds dangerous and confusing, but it's actually very convenient since busses don't have to keep switching lanes. However, on the minus side, Taipei's streets don't have the wide bike lanes built into all of Beijing's roads. When biking (see next paragraph) through the city, most people stay on the sidewalks, which are crowded and make for slow going.
Mid-street bus stop
Plus: Convenience. That Taipei has 7-11's on every corner is well known. An even bigger plus for me is the public YouBike bike rental system. You rent a bike by swiping your subway card. The first half hour is free (so far). The best part of it is that you can rent at one station and return at another! This makes one-way commutes and half-bike half-public transit journeys possible and easy.

Neutral: Politeness. On the whole Taiwanese people are politer than Chinese people. On the other hand, politeness can sometimes manifest as a way of avoiding responsibility. Here's a video I took at the YouBike station in front of NTNU (師大), where you can see how awkwardly the issue of who will get this YouBike is resolved:

By the time I took the video I had already been cut off twice and was pretty annoyed. I feel like if people were compelled to acknowledge each other's existence this would be less likely to happen. It's true that Chinese people everywhere don't believe in lines, but I feel like they might let someone who had been waiting for a while get the next bike that came. Similarly, the fact that people here don't spontaneously ask me where I'm going when I'm obviously lost because they're too polite, actually feels less polite to me. Still, I've heard a lot of people say they find Taiwanese people politer and more welcoming, so I expect this one is down to personal preference.

Minus: Learning Chinese. Sorry to all of my fellow students, but Taipei is just not as good of a place as Beijing for learning Chinese. (Nowhere else is, really.) First, the discrepancy between the standard Mandarin accent taught in classrooms and the lispier Taiwanese spoken in the streets is bound to produce some confusion. I even notice some students at NTNU doing a strange form of code-switching between when they're talking to the teacher and talking to me. Second, by comparison with Beijing it seems like everyone speaks English here! The only people whose English is halfway decent in Beijing is college students; everyone else will speak to you in Mandarin. Here, everyone from storekeepers to the guy sitting next to you at the restaurant knows English, and when they see a white face they will start speaking it. This might seem like a small thing, but language learning is about conditioning, and people speaking English to you snaps you out of thinking in Chinese to whatever degree you might have been doing so.

There's very little funny Chinglish in Taipei - though their street signs can still be a bit strange
Neutral: Food. Sorry, but I'm not going to come down one way or another on which country has better food. Taipei's desserts are fantastic, while Beijing's street food is incredibly cheap and tasty. It would be hard to come down on one side or the other.
Overall: Beijing is an incredibly exciting city in the midst of a country's transformation. It's a great place to go when you're young and to learn a language. Taipei is a comfortable and modern city largely on par with those of the West. It would be a great place to raise a family.

One more Taipei sunset

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