“Everyone in Taiwan came here because they wanted to forget something from home,” muttered Ilana, as we conversed over cold beer at an artsy bar next to Liberty Square. Our conversation subject had somehow drifted to expat life in Asia; and though her remark might have merely been a tipsy tantrum on her complicated love life, it somehow tallied with how I found myself in this subtropical island, scheduled to get drafted by the Korean military in less than a month. Like a sweet and toxic, but ephemeral midsummer ㅡor Fallㅡ night’s dream, my short visit to Taiwan ripened along the sound of palm leaves wavering under the ocean breeze, mixed with distant car honks and scooters, cheerful laughter of friends, and a hint of alcohol. This pretty much sums up my overall experience of Taipei.
Arrival to Taiwan was not particularly dramatic. Like I would have done at any other well-serviced airport in developed Asia, I claimed my luggage and hopped on a limousine bus which took me to the city’s central area. (Tao Yuan airport was not directly connected to the city by subway) The imagery of Taipei was similar to those of many Korean cities: buildings, narrow streets, busy people and lots of vendors, but only with more green. Lots of green. Probably due to warm weather and high humidity level, I noticed that buildings were thicketed and rich with southern flora. This vibrant urban vegetation made the cityscape seem a bit antiquated, which I loved nonetheless. It filled the scenery with more life and positive vibe ㅡ something dry ultramodern streets of Seoul or Tokyo really lack.
What excited me the most was that this was my first trial of couchsurfing: basically a prearranged online mooch-up agreement at a stranger’s place. I found my way through the MRT(the Taiwanese metro) and got off at Dongmen station, where my first ever couchsurf host Felipe greeted me. His apartment was a perfect outpost to discover the major attractions of the city such as the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall, which was only 5 minutes away on foot. Daytime adventure & nightlife with people became the general pattern of my Taiwan trip, since Felipe and friends were mostly students who had classes to attend during the day. We would form a loud bunch and hang out later, while I enjoyed lone backpacking to the museums, markets, and exotic temples while the sun was still out.
Having neither a tour guide nor a well-planned out schedule to follow, I freely roamed around Taipei as fancy took me and went on discovering the unique aspects of Taiwanese society. For instance, religious practices were everywhere. One could easily see that from people making offerings and praying at large sectarian Buddhist temples such as Longshan as well as numerous smaller shrines hidden in every cornerㅡan anthropological feature traceable to the maritime folk culture of Asia. The Japanese closely share this, while the Koreans retain the traditions of relatively more continental origins. Black wooden figures of unknown indigenous gods were ornamented and clothed in one of those shrines I stumbled upon. My curiosity about these hidden deities was high, but I could only lament on my complete lack of language skills.
The same was true when I ran into an anti-nuclear energy rally before Liberty Square, whose purpose I could grasp only thanks to the Chinese texts written on the placards, whereas I could not fathom a single word the orator was shouting. It appeared the Fukushima nuclear meltdown of 2011 was deepening the public distrust of nuclear energy in Taiwan as well. Hundreds of related questions slipped through my head: How come the Koreans seem less sensitive toward nuclear safety issues than Taiwanese? How much does Taiwan depend on nuclear facilities for power supply, and what are its best proposed alternatives? Sadly, they were left unanswered because I was mute in Mandarin.
Communications got easier after sunset with my Chinese-fluent host and friends around. Felipe’s flatmates, Ilana and Pablo, did not hesitate to take me out to a hip lounge the very first day I landed in Taiwan, which coincided with Pablo’s birthday. I mingled with another strange group of cheerful people who found themselves in Taipei with varying lengths of stay and purposes. There were foreign students who came to study Chinese; PhD candidate and undergrads; English instructors from Britain; and another couchsurfer from Japan. It was a night of expats, all of whom shared nothing in common other than that we were English speakers.
As soon as the ice broke, everything from the Cross-Straits tensionsㅡthere was a news that mainland tourists ganged up on a local man at Alishan national parkㅡ to personal castaway testimonies ㅡ”I came to Taiwan because I f****** hate Britain!” one rambled, ㅡ was laid on the table full of snacks. The first night surely treated me well, except that we had a small quarrel at 7-Eleven with a young Taiwanese couple on our way back. Expats just can never escape the misunderstandings of the locals but in the bigger scheme of things, it added more fun to my travel.
The birthday boy gave me a quick tour of his school the following day. National Taiwan University is the country’s top university and also one of the prestigious educational institutions of East Asia. NTU has its origin in the imperial Japanese university during the colonial period, the same manner by which Seoul National University was established. It was a bit odd to think that I had actually never been to SNU campus as a Korean person.
The famed palm boulevard and the central library set off its beauty. The most blissful of all, however, was NTU’s dining hall, which further hardened my belief that the American universities should seriously study how the Asian college dining systems operate. Although it was so short of a time to learn anything substantially about the programs and faculties of the school, I definitely had an impression that NTU was making lots of efforts to place more diverse and international student body to its campus, which Korea’s top university SNU appears to not excel at. NTU students were friendly anywhere on the campus I stepped into,which really left me with good memories.
Adventure continued as I decided to take a tour to the National Palace
Museum of Taiwan, which required a bit of mobilization when solely dependent on public transportation. Despite the fame of having 696,000 permanent collections of Chinese artworks and relics, I thought the museum was not as impressive as they say. Of course, I did not expect nor want to browse all 6 million collections. However, the interior of the museum and how its exhibits were set seemed a little out-of-date and not in its most effective way for the 21st century visitors. In a room on the 3rd floor, the Jadeite Cabbage, apparently the museum’s most treasured piece every web page and leaflet talked about, was rather poorly displayed in a simple box of glass in an unimpressive fashion. A group of grandma tourists from mainland China suddenly flooded in, shoving me off and flocked around the artifact to take a look, and I was instantly petrified by picturing that lousy group knocking off the scanty glass box and destroying the treasure in fray. Thankfully, the 125-year-old Cabbage stood strong, and the group moved on to the next exhibit. Leaving disappointments and shenanigans behind, I walked out of the building to its upper terrace, where I found the better feature of the museum: its breathtakingly beautiful location. It was truly a magnificent view to see the rows of tall green hills of Shilin, one of which the emerald-tiled Palace Museum was standing on. As the evening fell upon, I called out Ilana to bustling Shilin night market, where we spend the rest of the day savoring shaved mango ice, seasoned conch, and the infamous chou doufu(臭豆腐)ㅡ she never dared to eat it
I was to leave Taipei for Singapore the next morning, so Felipe and all gave me a small farewell celebration at home that night. The next day, I found them gone for school when I got up on the couch. I packed everything up in my suitcase and headed out into the flaming weather to enjoy the last-minute discoveries. I paid a quick visit to Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall, for I thought it was worthy to take some time learning about the historical figure so important to modern China. From its tidy surrounding garden, I could definitely sense that the city government was managing the Memorial well.
The hall itself, however, looked pretty shabby; supported by rough concrete columns and gray cement tiles that emanate typical ugly 1980s’ architecture-feel one would expect from the outskirts of former Soviet states or from some
unimpressive government complexes in Washington DC. There, a statue of Sun Yat-Sen, the Father of Modern China, was towering over his visitors, much like the way president Lincoln was sitting inside his own in DC. Exhibition rooms were filled with maps, scripts, and other visual helps which enlightened me further into the life of doctor Sun, turmoiled modern history of China, and his relation to the island of Taiwanㅡ which, unfortunately, was the only weak link of the chain in the contemporary context: I was left with an impression that Sun Yen did not envision anything close to two Chinas,as controversial as it sounds, nor acknowledge any special status to the community of Formosa in his time.
Then, how significant is the symbol called Sun Yat-Sen to specifically to contemporary Taiwan, which confronts a very difficult situation challenging its national identity in relation to the People’s Republic of China? What would Sun Yen think of this situation? I would never know. With ever more unanswered questions, I hurriedly got on a limousine bus at nearby Hyatt hotel to catch my plane heading further south. continues on page 2