Disclaimer: what you are about to read may make you extremely hungry and/or send you on an impulse buy for a plane ticket to Taiwan. I recently came back from a 5 day trip to Taipei and all I can say is I’m already missing it. I was born in Taiwan, but I grew up in a small town in Oregon, and yet for some reason Taiwan has always felt like a second home to me and there’s a familiarity about it as though I’ve lived there my whole life. This blog post is about capturing a sample of key things that stand out to me as being characteristic of Taiwan with some travel tips along the way!
Characteristic #1: “Stinky-ness”
Taiwan is a city that will challenge your sense of smell. What you once thought was smelly will suddenly start to actually smell good, and you in fact hunt for those smells! The most well-known smell of course comes from our infamous stinky tofu dish. You can get this in fried form, steamed or mixed with noodles/internal organs at any night market. I recommend the fried type with pickled veggies if you’re a first-timer.
Other common smells include: the jasmine flower that often is strung up in a bunch and is sold streetside or you’ll see them hung up on the rear-view mirror of a taxi; the whiffs of baked goods like 肉鬆 (pork floss) buns; and the smell of 7-11 with the permeating 茶葉蛋 (tea egg) fragrance overpowering the AC. Speaking of 7-11, it is hands-down the best of any country I’ve been to. The food is super cheap and really good. If you can’t find a 永和豆漿 to grab delicious breakfast food for supper, 7-11 will do just fine!
Characteristic #2: Scooters, Taxis, People – Oh My!
With a population of over 2.5M people in Taipei, it’s no wonder everything feels crowded and you’re forced to take the next train on the MRT (Taiwan’s subway) if you get there just a couple minutes after rush hour. I will always remember my first taxi ride in Taipei from TPE airport – I thought I was going to die. Since then I’ve adjusted to the crazy drivers and how they have to maneuver around hundreds of scooters and pedestrians, but really I recommend you just take the MRT. Get an EasyCard and reload money when you need to; it’s super simple. Transferring to different lines is not as complex as in NY, and they’ve updated all the announcements and signs to be clearly understandable for us Americans.
Perhaps surprising to some who go back to Taiwan often, my first time riding a scooter occurred on this trip. I was just riding with a friend, but the hopeless romantic side of me came out as I started to imagine I was in a Taiwanese drama, holding onto a guy on the back of a scooter….and I digress.
Characteristic #3: 歡迎光臨 (Welcome)
My friend who was visiting with me in Taiwan this trip pointed out something that I realized is so true in Taiwan — everyone is extremely polite! You walk into any store and are immediately greeted by “welcomes” and not in a pushy salesperson way, but rather you know they will provide you with the best service possible. On this trip, we were shopping in 東區 (east district; highly recommended for guys/girls who want to find unique clothes at boutiques) and nearly bought out an entire store because the sales gal made us feel good about everything we tried on! That’s good salesmanship if she didn’t even have to offer anything more in our direction but we WANTED to keep looking and try on more items.
All “service” folks I encountered actually were the same way — taxi drivers, restaurant staff, store clerks — there was always a concerted effort to make sure you were doing OK and your needs were being met in a genuine way.
And…this type of courtesy and “down-to-earth” feel definitely bled through to all the people (friends of friends) I met as well.
Characteristic #4: Food-gasm
I’ve heard people say that it’s best to only eat up to 七分飽 (70% full) to avoid getting a belly, but I don’t know how that’s possible when in Taiwan. Street food vendors, mom n’ pop noodle shops, bakeries, 7-11s and sit-down restaurants are everywhere! If you haven’t seen the CNNGo list, I recommend you check it out to plan your meals accordingly. I highly suggest doing 6 small meals vs. 3 big ones so you can maximize your culinary experience.
Characteristic #5: The Cute Factor
Perhaps on par with Japan, Taiwan never stops to astound me with its ability to make me say “that’s so cute!” wherever I go. All the souvenir shops in the slightly more rural towns, window settings of department stores, TV commercials, even the fonts and animations used for marketing in general scream “cuteness”. By the way, if you are looking for some Taiwanese products/souvenirs to take back home and are short on time – I recommend going to the 2nd floor of Taipei Main Station or the East Underground Mall to buy stuff.
Some people say Asians tend to look younger than their true age; well, I think part of it can be attributed to the attire. It’s common and acceptable for someone in their 20s and 30s to be wearing a huge bow on their head and frilly skirts in Taiwan, but I’m not sure I would get the same “cute” reaction from people in the US if I wore that outfit outside of a Halloween party.
Don’t forget to practice your 六臉拍 (six-face photo shoot where you do six types of facial expressions consecutively) or at minimum your peace-sign pose so that you can look “cute” in your photos too!
Characteristic #6: Music to My Ears
My dad’s side of the family is 客家人 (Hakka), so I could speak the Hakka dialect when I was really young. Unfortunately I lost it growing up in the states but it is always nice to hear my grandparents and relatives speak it when I’m in Taiwan. I am thankful that I at least kept up my Mandarin skills (speaking/reading/writing) because I think language is so key to staying connected with one’s heritage and culture. Whenever I hear Taiwanese and Mandarin and, I can’t think of an English way to describe it, but also being able to converse with someone in local language gives me a “清切感”. It’s like I’ve known them for a while even though I may have met them only five minutes ago.
This list could go on for much longer, but why read about it when you can experience it yourself? Flights from SFO>TPE can run anywhere from $800-1300 depending on the season (peak typically is around Lunar New Year). Go to EVA Air or your favorite flight booking site (I personally like Kayak) to make your Taiwan travel plans today!